Help support TMP

"Spanish Guerrillas and Wargaming" Topic

13 Posts

All members in good standing are free to post here. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the posters, and have not been cleared with nor are they endorsed by The Miniatures Page.

For more information, see the TMP FAQ.

Back to the Napoleonic Discussion Message Board

525 hits since 5 Sep 2017
©1994-2017 Bill Armintrout
Comments or corrections?

basileus6605 Sep 2017 8:35 a.m. PST

A recent thread in TMP got me thinking how to represent Spanish guerrillas in a tabletop. I don't intend to address the historical debate. My purpose is to share with my fellow gamers what I know about partisan warfare in Napoleonic Spain, and to provide some hints to use them in games. In order to achieve those goals, I have divided this post in two parts. The first part will address the types of partisan bands/forces that were more common in Spain in the 1808-1814 period, whereas the second part will be focused on how they fought, what they could do and what they couldn't, from a tactical and operational point of view. Hopefully, at the end, readers will be able to get a feeling of how Spanish guerrillas can be represented in a gaming table.

Types of guerrillas

There is no such thing as an archetypal guerrilla. Despite orders, laws, norms, etc, published by the Patriot authorities trying to "regulate" the limits of irregular warfare, the actual guerrillas experienced organic developments in a very competitive environment. Think of them as organisms subjected to the same evolutionary pressure as any living being in Nature. Some of them developed adaptive traits that allow them to survive and thrive; others wouldn't or couldn't adapt, and disbanded, were destroyed by the French or were absorbed by bigger partisan bands. In some cases, they could also simply integrate into regular units. The classification that follows is a work in progress; I won't presume it to be exhaustive, nor perfect. As new information is unearthed in archives and documents, the information will be updated. One should keep in mind that the classification will be quite formal, as in reality, partisan bands didn't carry a label that described what type of band they were. It should be understood as a framework rather than a corset. Furthermore, one should also always remember that several types of bands could –and did- co-exist in a given region at the same time, or evolved (or even devolved!) from one type to other, in time.

A)Accidental guerrillas: I've taken this concept from David Killcullen to describe those partisans that joined a band on a temporary basis, usually for a single, limited action. Thereafter, they would go back to their homes and continue their usual lives. In modern times they could be considered the archetypal guerrilla; the peasant that has his gun at home and uses it when needed, and then goes back to his ploughshare for the season. In wargaming terms, they are best represented as armed civilians, with obsolete weapons –fowling guns, pistols and tools that could be doubled as weapons were the most common. In formal combat, they weren't very effective or reliable, but that didn't mean they were useless.
Tactically, they could be used to act as a nuisance that wasn't particularly dangerous for trained troops, but that could be used to delay an advance or bolster a defense by throwing warm bodies into the fight. As common traits they would be characterized by possessing a non-existent chain of command, that they operated outside any already established chain of command, were spontaneous, and usually involved just a few dozen combatants, commonly all of them related by kinship or who came from the same settlement or area. It was uncommon for them to go any further from their village than a few hour walk.

It should be kept in mind that peasants were usually wary of making themselves known for taking anti-French stands. After all, they were most vulnerable to retaliation by french troops and, if worst came to worst, any guerrilla could run away, whereas they couldn't. Each time they supported Patriot units, they risked themselves, their families, and their property. Retaliation could amount from heavy fines to the execution of the town Mayor or the burning of homes of sympathizers –one of the favorite anti-partisan tactics used by the French.

B) Local defense forces: The origin of these "partidas" is, probably, the Somaten, a traditional Catalonian self-defence force, that could be used for disaster relief or as first responders when protecting their village from foreign invaders or bandits. Other regions, like Galicia, had their own local militias –alarmas-. At least in two regions, Valencia and Eastern Andalucía, the model of guerrillas acting as local militias was how local authorities tried to organized the partisan warfare. They were akin to American "minutemen". Weaponry was scarce and improvised, typically fowling pieces and peasant tools. They couldn't stop a French column from operating or crossing a given region, but they could be effective at harassing foraging parties, intercepting communications, disturbing the sleep patterns of the French by making sudden attacks during the night, and more generally, but not less importantly, to deny the French control of the operational theater. In the Instrucción de Guerrilla del Reino de Valencia (March 2nd, 1809) although the groups were called "guerrillas", they were actually intended as local militias, with all the functions mentioned above.

Leadership was, commonly, exercised by some local character, usually someone that had a certain prestige as a local Big Man –priests, landlords, or retired military- from before the war. The command chain was somewhat lax, with militiamen obeying either out of persuasion, interest and/or the charisma of the leader, rather than because there was a clear chain of command.

On occasion, they could be more than a simple nuisance to the occupying forces, though. In Galicia, during the French occupation in early 1809, local alarmas created a logistical nightmare for the French, even to the point of successfully co-operating with the regular army during the siege of the French garrison in Vigo, and in actual combat at Puente Sampayo (June, 7-9th 1809), when forces of alarmas and regulars successfully defended the crossing over the Verdugo River against the French under Marshal Ney. Also, in Valencia, during the siege of the city by Suchet, the local guerrillas were used to cover sections of the lines of defence.

In the Serranía de Ronda (Eastern Andalucía), the local militias under the overall command of Serrano Valdenebro, who had been commissioned by the Regency to organize the resistance in the area, cooperated from time to time to form operations on a larger scale. In June 10th, 1810, the guerrillas –militias- from Benaoján, Aguilar and Cortes (small villages in the region) cooperated at forcing the retreat of a French column that was sacking Ubrique. And just a couple of weeks earlier, on May 29th, several hundred local guerrillas, together with a small core of regular troops, managed to severely maul a French column that was sacking the villages on the road from Malaga to Ronda. I will elaborate further on this action in the second post.

C) Partisan/guerrilla bands: these would be the guerrillas proper. We can further differentiate between those guerrillas that were officially authorized by Patriot authorities, and those that never received any formal recognition. In wargaming terms, the former would be, usually, slightly better armed than the latter, and would also have cooperated somewhat more fluently with regular troops. However, keep in mind that all guerrillas wanted to achieve legal recognition. Those that didn't achieve being legitimized by Patriot authorities were, commonly, those that were destroyed by French action before they could be recognized as legitimate, or which were absorbed by stronger bands.

Contrary to the local militias or accidental guerrillas, formal guerrillas had a chain of command, which was enshrined in the Reglamentos (Bills) approved by different Patriot governments throughout the war. Originally, the chief had the rank of alferez (ensign) but his men weren't considered soldiers yet. It was only in later bills, and particularly, the 1812 Reglamento de Guerrillas that both soldiers and officers in a partida were considered as part of the Army.

The size of these bands was variable. Some of them were formed by just over a dozen individuals; others were bigger, in the low hundreds. Contrary to the categories mentioned before, formal guerrillas were permanent outfits (at least, as long as the French didn't catch them!) with an authorized strength of 100 men (mounted, on foot, or half and half, although originally they were half mounted, half on foot). They were not linked to any particular supply area, instead relying on mobility and operational flexibility, although they commonly avoided operating in an area superior to three to five days travel (which usually meant covering terrain in a 200 kilometer radius, maximum).

It was relatively common for several guerrillas to join together for an attack. Such reunions were temporary, but sometimes became more permanent until coalesced into a freikorps, the bigger partida absorbed the smaller ones or, given how conspicuous they became, became vulnerable to French action and destroyed. Even when maintaining their individuality, it was typical for the same partidas to cooperate with each other on a regular basis. In at least one occasion, we know that several guerrillas signed a formal agreement of collaboration between them, although we don't know if they abided by the terms in the end, or not. Also, Patriot authorities sent commissioners to the regions where guerrillas were operating in order to organize the activities of the bands, though it seems that their actual influence was limited, with counted exceptions.

This guerrillas, according to archival evidence I have found in the Archivo Histórico Nacional, were formed by a core of peasants and soldiers that had deserted or became isolated from their units, with"pure" partidas, formed exclusively by peasants or soldiers being somewhat less common. The partida organized by Palarea, aka El Médico (the Doctor, because he was a doctor in Villaluenga de la Sagra, Toledo, at the beginning of the war) was fairly typical. It started out as what I called an "accidental guerrilla", that is, a non permanent band, formed by locals under the leadership of Palarea. They were opportunistic, rather than responding to any planning. Starting July 1809, however, he and six other men started going up country to attack the French on a more regular basis, and in a few days he commanded 11 men, all on horse, armed with weapons taken from the French they had killed. Later, they formed a formal guerrilla, under the proviso of the Instrucción del Corso Terrestre (Instruction for Land Privateers, April 1809), authorized by the Junta Central in April 1810, titled 7ª Partida de Patriotas de Castilla. At that time, the band was integrated by locals and soldiers dispersed after the defeat at the battle of Ocaña.

However, not all guerrillas were as formal as Palarea's. Life expectancy was short and brutal, desertion was rampant, and they were vulnerable to search and destroy operations organized by French columns, particularly if those included Spanish collaborators, former guerrillas being the most dangerous.

The main troubles of the guerrillas were weapons, ammunition and food. Although food could be foraged, willingly or by force, from local communities, weapons and ammunition could be obtained only from two sources: French convoys or garrisons, or supplies from the Allied armies, especially from the British. The scarcity of ammunition means, in wargaming terms, that guerrillas should be vulnerable to prolonged firefights. They simply couldn't afford long exchanges of shots with French forces, unless they had just managed to get their hands on a cache of powder and ball. The French knew this, of course, but their doctrine was aggressive and they didn't hesitate to attack the guerrillas, knowing also that defensive fire wouldn't to be too harsh or organized, and that the partisans would seldom have bayonets for their weapons to defend against determined assaults or cavalry charges. As such, the French cavalry was justly feared by the guerrillas, being the most efficient weapon in open country. And yet in some occasions the French found the partisans a tougher nut to crack than they thought. More of this to be explained below.

A) Cuerpos Francos (freikorps): To become a Cuerpo Franco, a free corps, was the "natural" evolution for a formal guerrilla. Once it reached a critical mass of men, guerrillas needed to evolve… or risk destruction. A Cuerpo Franco, as its name indicates, was a volunteer outfit whose members were officially a part of the Army. Therefore, they were entitled to receive supplies from official magazines –not that this was of great help, given the ruinous state of the supply condition of the Spanish Army until 1811- or, if they couldn't, to pay for their supplies of food using official letters of payment to be redeemed by the Government (not that they were honored by Fernando VII's Crown, either); their ranks were recognized, theoretically, by the authorities; they were entitled to be treated as prisoners of war, if captured, although that depended on if the French felt like abiding by the rules of war or if, considering them rebels or brigands, they decided to simply hang them.

The Cuerpos Francos had a formal chain of command, and their TOEs corresponded to those of equivalent-sized forces in a regular outfit. Thus, for instance, when Palarea's guerrilla was transformed into a squadron-sized unit called Húsares Francos Numantinos, and joined by a second squadron –under Gregorio Gómez- in April 1811, Palarea was ascended to comandante (Major). Later, in September, a third squadron was raised and together with the other two, formed a regiment of volunteer light cavalry, with Palarea as Colonel, Gómez as Major and José Rivero –who also commanded the third squadron- as Sargent Major.

Cuerpos Francos were, tactically speaking, more efficient than mere guerrillas. They couldn't compare with the professionalism of regular troops, though. This doesn't mean that in every action they would be mauled by the Regulars. If the circumstances were favourable –and the best commanders knew how to create those favourable conditions- the French did find themselves in tough spots. As before, I will elaborate on this point in the next post.

Of course, a Cuerpo Franco could, and did, act together with guerrillas, local militias and/or local peasantry –accidental guerrillas- willing to take a shot at the French. The Corps would act as the core of the force, while the rest could be considered opportunistic predators.

The Cuerpos Francos were highly mobile, flexible and probably the most dangerous type of partisan unit that the French would face during the war.

B) Divisiones auxiliares o volantes (Auxiliary or Flying Divisions): technically, this units weren't guerrillas, but organizations formed by volunteer regiments recruited for the duration and regular army units, and which used to operate in areas under French occupation. However, some of them had their origin in partisan units, their commanders being former guerrilla warlords, and although theoretically these forces were considered to be part of the Spanish Army TOE and their officers were included in the Army list, they weren't as formal as a regular division. In February, 1812, for instance, General O'Donnell warned the Government that they shouldn't use Duran's and Empecinado's divisions for re-forming the 2º and 3rd Armies –most regiments of those armies had been captured when Valencia surrendered to Suchet-, as they "were taught to make war very differently than the Army is" and it was preferable to leave them where they were so they would continue to harass the French forces left in Aragón and Suchet's LOC.

Auxiliary Divisions were formal units, with a formal TOE, ranks and were organized in regiments and squadrons, like a sort of mini-corps. Some, like Villacampa's and Díaz Porlier's, were organized around a core of regular regiments; on the other hand, most of them were formed around locally raised volunteer corps and former guerrilla and/or Free Corps. Numbers were variable, from as few as the 800 men that formed the Iberia's Brigade –under Longa- in late 1811, up to the 3,200 men under the command of Espoz y Mina. In February 20th 1811, the Auxiliary Divisions, brigades and all guerrillas and free-corps operating in Northern Spain were organically integrated in the so-called 7º Ejército (7th Army) under General Mendizábal's command. In practice they continued to be autonomous from each other.

They were less mobile than Free Corps, but still could evade French pursuits with relative ease. In September 1810, for instance, the Navarrese troops were being pressured by several French columns. Espoz, to avoid the pursuit, separated his infantry from his cavalry, taking command of the latter while his trusted subordinate Gregorio Cruchaga commanded the former. He then tried to lure the French columns after the cavalry, trying to buy time for the infantry to escape. The French didn't take the bait and went after the infantry. Cruchaga was up to the task, though. Taking advantage of the light equipment of his men, and using mountainous paths, he and his men traversed 186 kilometers in 48 hours (115 miles). That was a rhythm that the heavily laden French soldiers couldn't sustain, allowing the Navarrese to evade the pursuit.

Operations areas were, commonly, regional. Durán's, for example, acted in Soria, Zaragoza and Teruel, mostly; Empecinado's in Guadalajara, Segovia, Cuenca and Madrid, with occasional forays in Durán's area of operations, either to cooperate in some joint operation –as with the attack on Calatayud- or to evade French columns; Espoz's usually operated in Navarre, but also attacked the area of the Cinco Villas (in Aragón) or moved into the Basque Country or northern Burgos; Villacampa's operated in the region of Zaragoza, Teruel, Albacete and Señorío de Molina, with his basis of operations being Valencia.

Tactically, Auxiliary Divisions were trained, in theory, to offer battle. However, that wasn't always advisable, as Empecinado learnt at the Action of El Rebollar (February, 7th 1812), where he lost 1,000 men, many of them prisoners, for just a few dozen French; or Espoz y Mina at the Disaster of Belorado (November, 12th 1810), with the loss of 500 infantry against negligible French losses. Still, they weren't always on the receiving end, as happened at Osunilla (November 30th, 1811) when 2,500 guerrillas under Durán destroyed a French column of 1,000 men; or in the action at Rocaforte (January 11th 1812), when the Navarrese Division, with the support of two squadrons from the cavalry of Longa, who were acting as escorts for General Mendizábal, who was inspecting the Navarrese, defeated a strong French force in open battle, capturing or killing 700 men. Finally, we can also consider the Action of Villadiego (April, 1812), when the Division commanded by Merino forced the surrender of most of the troops from the 1st Battalion 1st Legion of the Vistula.

Here ends the first part of the article. I've tried to keep it to the basics, but this is a very complex topic. I know I am giving a feeling of formality about the Spanish insurgent forces operating in the strategic rear of the French armies, but in truth, they were far more flexible. Free Corps and guerrillas were, in many cases, undistinguishable; it was a formality, that only in time –with any luck and if the band survived long enough- would become a distinct reality. An Auxiliary Division could suffer so many losses in one action, or through desertion, or simply because it was ordered to disperse in order to ease the supply difficulties that its component parts reverted to act as the former guerrillas they were, and so on.

In the second part, I will explain how these units operated tactically. I will explain which was the theory and then how they actually fought. Most examples are extracted from my PhD.

I hope you find at least some parts of this information useful.


T Andrews05 Sep 2017 9:04 a.m. PST

Thank you Antonio. This information is very useful. I especially like the categorization of guerrilla bands. Looking forward to the second part!

attilathepun4705 Sep 2017 10:20 a.m. PST

Very interesting; thanks for sharing your information.

Skeptic05 Sep 2017 10:45 a.m. PST

Thank you, Antonio! Where might we find your Ph.D. thesis…?

138SquadronRAF Supporting Member of TMP05 Sep 2017 10:55 a.m. PST

Another heartfelt thank you for clarifying this.

basileus6605 Sep 2017 11:10 a.m. PST

Thanks for the kind words. I`ll try to provide examples of actual actions in a later message. Hopefully, you will find ideas to adapt guerrillas to your own games.

@Skeptic. If you want, I can send you my digital copy… it is in Spanish, though. And it is a very dry read! Send me an email to xixoctubre at gmail dot com


79thPA Supporting Member of TMP05 Sep 2017 4:14 p.m. PST

Interesting. basileus66, did you find any information on what the government thought about deserters who joined guerilla bands? Was the desertion forgiven, or were they still wanted for desertion?

grecian195905 Sep 2017 10:52 p.m. PST

Excellent article

basileus6606 Sep 2017 4:40 a.m. PST


Desertion, back in the Napoleonic era, hadn't the same legal treatment than later. You didn't want deserters to be punished, but forced back into the ranks. Military workforce was a scarce resource. In Spain there was another problem: many of the volunteers that joined newly formed regiments in 1808, when the rebellion started, didn't consider themselves as real soldiers. They thought of them as entitled to fight nearby their homes, to protect their families and to go back to their lands to work in them when needed, especially during harvest.

Then you have the case of those soldiers that got separated from their parent regiments after a defeat. Some were actual deserters, but others formed small groups, banding together people from different units, commonly under the leadership of an officer or a senior NCO; they had their weapons with them and were willing to continue in the fight… but the nearest Spanish Army was miles away. Many of them formed the core of later guerrilla bands, together with locals that were willing to join them. Both the government and the Army wanted to discourage this practice, as it hurt the regular regiments where the soldiers came from. However, it was difficult to force them back into the regular army, and guerrilla leaders usually protect them from the recruiting parties, as they were their best men and wouldn't like to lose them.

On the other hand, actual deserters were hunted down by the guerrillas. They received economic compensation for each deserter they turned back to the Army. It was not the same as in the case above -those were called "dispersos", insted "deserters"-. Recividist deserters were sent to penal battalions in Northern Africa. That was the extent of their punishment, except if other circumstances concurred -being caught fighting together with French units, for instance, in which case they were shot without trial; but it was the fact that they were traitors, not deserters, what made their former comrades to kill them out of hand.

Guerrillas were accused of being havens of deserters. And they were, but it is also more complicated. Spanish soldiers voted with their feet when either of the following circumstances applied: they didn't trust their commanding officer, supplies were irregularly provided, they went hungry -very usual- or received bad news from their families. Guerrilla bands were a refuge, and as they fought, commonly, in the same approximate region for the duration, deserters found them attractive as then they could continue to be in the fight but near their families. However, guerrillas were also victims of desertion. In the course of my research I have found numerous complains from guerrilla officers against other bands for accepting deserters from his own party. Also, it is frequent to found in letters to HQs complains from the commanding officer of a regular regiment against other commanding officers in different regiments -or even at Army level!- that had been accepting deserters from other regiments without asking questions!

As you see, there is not a simple answer, but in very general terms the answer to your question would be: yes, deserters were wanted back and that issue was a major bone of contention between the Army and the guerrillas.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP06 Sep 2017 5:48 a.m. PST

Thank you for your reply.

summerfield06 Sep 2017 8:04 a.m. PST

A very interest, enlightening and readable explanation in English. Certainly better than Prof Esdaile's rambling attempt.

We have written two books on the Spanish Army up to 1808. I could not contemplate beyond that due to the confusion and changes in the army.

Thank you
Stephen Summerfield

basileus6607 Sep 2017 11:15 p.m. PST

Thanks Stephen. I agree that the Spanish Army of the Napoleonic War is exceedingly complex subject of study. One of the reasons is that there wasn't a single Army, but almost from the start of the war there were different armies, each with their own quirks and idiosincracies. Then they were dispersed by the French and reformed, using whatever uniforms and weapons they had at hand. And on top of that suffering such supply shortages that it was almost impossible to find a unit that was uniformly dressed! For instance, the remnants of a battalion of Spanish Guards that took refuge in the Serranía de Ronda, after the French invasion of Andalucía, were described -May 1810- as dressed in a mix of rags, civilian accoutrements, French uniforms, and a few British-made uniforms that had reached them from Gibraltar… but whose original color had faded to a pinkish-grey shade after a few weeks of use!

Teodoro de Reding08 Sep 2017 2:29 p.m. PST

Really great post Basileus. I would be very interested in you PhD (read Spanish).
In wargaming I've specialised on Spanish v French. (The Guards you describe are typical of Ballaesteros Division operating in the Serrania; they do not seem to have been reclothed between 1809 and 1813. Incredible.
So, talking of different armies, at Albuhera there must have been (a) smart troops fresh from Cadiz (Zayas & Lardizabal); (b) very scruffy but tough veterans with Ballateros, (c) d'Espana's demoralised brigade. People forget that 1,200 Spanish Guards held up in front of 8,500 French veterans for two hours until relieved.
Thanks again.
I'll send you a mail.

Sorry - only verified members can post on the forums.