Military History |
First Carlist War
Oriamendi Matrix: An Engle Matrix Game set in the First Carlist War
Posted 02 Jul 2006
The 1st company of the 8th was detached under Captain Coyle, to command a narrow pass at the bottom of a ravine. In this position he was with his company completely detached from the regiment; the fire between us and the enemy being over their heads; but yet, though firing over them the depth of the ravine precluded their having any easy or immediate communication with the regiment. Captain Coyle's orders were to oppose the enemy should they attempt to pass down the ravine, through which they might come in our rear. ... Captain Coyle's company had fired up the ravine to where a party of the enemy were stationing themselves for nearly three hours until they had expended all their ammunition, and the combat being at its height at that time in other parts attention was not paid to their want of ammunition. The Carlists seeing the fire cease at the bottom of the ravine made an effort to pass down, and for any thing we could have done on the banks they might have done down, and had they been sufficiently numerous would have baffled us in the rear. Coyle, seeing the impossibility of holding his position when he could not meet them by a fire, and seeing the utter ruin to the advantages already gained by the main forces on the heights should the enemy displace him, ordered his men to fix bayonets and ... exclaimed 'Charge, you Glasgow Keelies," and running in front with his drawn sword, continued "give them through the wood, laddie!" ... The effect of Coyle's appeal, an effect quickened by his personal example of resolute gallantry, was to turn a battalion of the enemy ... amounting to 12 times their number and ... clear the whole ravine.
Sommerville, 1995, 419-420
This is merely one incident from the Oriamendi Campaign of March 1837 - recorded by a Sergeant serving in the 8th Highlanders of the British Auxiliary Legion.
Overview of scenario
It is now early March 1837. A bloody civil war has waged in Spain for four years - since King Ferdinand died and left the crown to his daughter, Isabella, and the power to his wife Cristina. The war has many facets; on the surface it is a conflict between the Queen-Regent Cristina, fighting to defend the rights of her daughter Isabella, and her brother-in-law Carlos, who claims the crown under the Salic law under which a daughter can not inherit the crown. But the conflict goes deeper, it is also a fight between those who support modern liberal and/or republican ideals against those who support the traditional Spanish values of God, King and Country. The third leg of the conflict resolves around the recognition of local rights; the liberals in Madrid have been gradually encroaching on the rights of the provinces and the Basques and Catalans are willing to fight back.
The main drama to date has unfolded in the north, in the Basque provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and Alava, plus the adjoining province of Navarra. The Carlist cause was greatly enhanced by the stunning victories gained by General Zumalacárregui in 1833-35. Zumalacárregui created a victorious army where ill armed peasants had been before. Very quickly a situation developed where the Carlists controlled the countryside, and the Cristinos controlled the major cities (Bilbao, Vitoria, San Sebastian, Pamplona). However, a strategic deadlock has been in force since Zumalacárregui's death (15 Jun 1835) at the first failed siege of Bilbao . Many battles have been fought since then, but with little change in the overall situation.
Being aware that they won't win the war whilst stuck in the Basque provinces, the Carlists have periodically mounted expeditions into the rest of Spain. Sometimes they are to inspire rebellion in other regions of Spain or to rally recruits to the cause, but as often they are merely looting expeditions for hungry soldiers. Expeditions were led by Merino (1833), Guergué (Aug 1835), Batanero (early 1836), Garcia (Jun 1836), Gómez (Jun to Dec 1836). Gómez's was the most glorious expedition - he marched twice across Spain, fought many battles, captured the city of Córdoba (1 Oct 1836) and returned to his starting point with more men than he started.
Twice the Carlists have tried to break the deadlock by besieging Bilbao (Jun - Sep 1835; Oct – Dec 1836) and twice they have failed. Both times the attack was made upon Don Carlos' initiative and against the advice of his Commander-in-Chief (Zumalacárregui and Villareal respectively).
The Spanish liberal government is supported by the governments of Britain, France and Portugal. Each adopted a different approach to their support. Britain allowed the Queen Regent to recruit within its borders, and sent a Naval force to the area. Portugal allowed Madrid to recruit directly from its regular forces. As a consequence British and Portuguese Volunteer legions were formed and are now fighting in Spain. France merely handed over ownership of its Foreign Legion to Cristina - they arrived in Spain directly from Algeria.
But not even the appearance of Volunteer Legions have managed to ease the stalemate. The British Auxiliary Legion has largely been tied up garrisoning San Sebastian, whilst the French Foreign Legion has been dwindling through neglect at Pamplona, and similarly for the Portuguese near Vitoria. All have suffered more from disease, bad food, irregular pay, and poor accommodation, than from the enemy. The British Legion has also had a crisis when many soldiers believed their term of service was up after 1 year and requested to go home (Aug 1836); few succeeded in their hopes despite a mutiny by some of the regiments.
The opposing forces have been hardened by combat. Forged by Zumalacárregui's genius the Carlist battalions manage to combine their natural fast moving guerrilla tactics with a solid battlefield performance. This means they can stand up to the Cristinos in the fight, but are also more agile than their opponents when fighting in the their native mountains. In fact the troops involved in the war can be spread along a spectrum of agility: from the Carlists and their bitter foes the Chapelgorris at the agile end, through the regular Spanish forces of the Queen Regent who have had some success in meeting the Carlists on their own terms, then the British, French and Portuguese volunteer legions who are more cumbersome but not the worst, and finally the British Royal Marines who are slow moving but powerful in an open fire fight. In terms of quality the forces are fairly evenly matched, however, the morale of the Spanish regulars is suspect, and lately Cristino generals have taken to having steady forces stationed behind to force the regulars to fight; however, once they fight, the conscripts fight well enough. The Cristinos have more artillery and cavalry, but this doesn't really help them when chasing Basques in the mountains. They also have more men but this often doesn't help them either as many men are tied up in garrisoning large and small posts scattered across the country. Both sides have supply problems, but the Carlists have more problems; small factories in the mountains, goods smuggled across the French border, and equipment captured from the Cristinos still leave them a ragged, ill equipped crew. The Carlists have good fire discipline as they have few rounds to waste; with as few as 4 rounds per man they forsake fire power and rely on the bayonet.
The war has been brutal. A lucky prisoner is recruited into the ranks of his captors, however, more typically prisoners - particularly officers - are shot or knifed as a matter of course. This brutality was partially alleviated when the British brokered the Eliot Convention (27-28 Apr 1835) in which the belligerents in the north (but not elsewhere) agreed to stop executing prisoners. Shortly after, however, Don Carlos issued the Durango Decree (20 June 1835) stating that foreign prisoners would still be shot, although he later softened this (July 1836) so that only foreign volunteers (i.e. the Volunteer legions of Britain, France and Portugal) would be shot, but not regulars (e.g. Royal Marines and Artillery). Not that is really matters as it is now two years after the Eliot Convention was signed and few remember its restrictions.
Both Cristinos and Carlists have their own political factions. For example, in Aug/Sep last year (1836) the National Militia rose in revolt and overthrew the moderate government. Cristina was forced to accept a progressive (i.e. extreme liberal verging on republican) government in their place. Many moderate generals and ministers were force into exile, and one, General Quesada, was murdered by the progressives for the effrontery of disarming the Madrid militia in the early phases of the revolt.
Don Carlos faces a different set of internal divisions. He must manage the split between his aristocratic courtiers and his army; many of his best officers have risen from relatively humble backgrounds and his court resent their success. Carlists are also increasingly split between the peace party and the war party. Don Carlos and his court are hard liners and will broke no peace without victory, but many Basques are starting to wonder if their interests are really in line with the interests of their King.
These divisions mean that a Carlist General who loses a battle is liable to imprisonment and on rare occasions a bullet - the political machine always needs a scapegoat. An unsuccessful Cristino General is unlikely to be shot, but chance are he will lose his command.
The Cristinos took the upper hand in the war in the north when General Esparetero relieved Bilbao on Christmas Day 1836. So in yet another bid to to crush the rebels, the three government generals (Esparetero, De Lacy Evans) in the Basque provinces are preparing a simultaneous advance on the Carlist heartland. They believe victory is assured as Don Carlos doesn't have enough men to face all three threats simultaneously.
(I also have a more full Timeline of the war.)