SPANISH CAVALRY OF THE EARLY PENINSULAR WAR: UNIFORMS, ORGANISATION AND EQUIPMENT OF THE LINE CAVALRY, GUARD AND ARTILLERY

CRONIN (G.) & S.SUMMERFIELD

KT021

£35.00

212pp., illustrated throughout in colour, please note new format of printed boards. 2016.

After the great success of Gerard & Stephen’s study of the Spanish Infantry we are delighted to be able to announce the companion volume for the Spanish Cavalry. It includes over 300 colour drawings including 150 from contemporary sources, 27 flags are depicted plus 23 orders of battle.

The following is a review by Professor Charles Esdaile:

Cronin and S. Summerfield, Spanish Infantry of the Early Peninsular War: Uniforms, Organization and Equipment of the Line Infantry and Militia (Ken Trotman Publishing: Godmanchester, 2014), 175, ISBN: 978-1-907417-42-9.

Cronin and S. Summerfield, Cavalry of the Early Peninsular War: uniforms, Organization and Equipment of the Line Cavalry, Guard and Artillery (Ken Trotman Publishing: Godmanchester, 2016), 192, ISBN: 978-1-907417-74-0.

 

Let us begin with an interesting statistic. Thanks to close analysis of the highly detailed casualty lists drawn up some 100 years ago by the French historian, Martinien (casualty lists, be it said, that are generally agreed to be extremely reliable), it has been shown that 34,000 French soldiers were killed in action in the Peninsular War. If asked who was responsible for these deaths, most British observers would probably come down without hesitation on the side of either the Anglo-Portuguese army of the Duke of Wellington or the famous Spanish guerrillas. Yet the reality is very different. Thus, actions in which British and/or Portuguese troops participated accounted for just thirty-one per cent of the total, and actions involving irregular forces alone an even more surprising nineteen per cent. In short, a minimum of fifty per cent of French losses were caused by  representatives of the Spanish regular army, whilst inclusion of French soldiers killed by Spaniards in such actions as Talavera, Albuera and Vitoria would probably raise this total by one or two percentage points. Is this somewhat uncomfortable fact reflected in the English-language bibliography of the Peninsular War, however? Absolutely not: setting aside the various books and articles by the current author, all that is available on the Spanish army are two or three titles in the well-known Osprey series, and even these leave much to be desired.

All this being the case, the publication of virtually any work on the Spanish army of the Napoleonic Wars is a thing of some note, whilst in this case the welcome is all the warmer on account of the fascinating visual material contained in the two books considered here. So important is this material, indeed, that it will form the chief focus of this review: essentially, whilst for the most part careful enough, the text, a species of manual that examines the Spanish army’s order of battle, uniforms and armament, for the most part does not offer anything that is not already available elsewhere,

Why, though, are the many plates contained in the book so special? For answer, we must turn to an episode of Spain’s experience of the Napoleonic Wars that is probably even less well-known to anglophone readers than the campaigns of the Spanish army in the Peninsular War. In brief, Napoleon being determined to extract everything he could from his increasingly reluctant Spanish allies, in 1807 he caused an entire division of Spanish troops to be dispatched to Denmark to help ward off British incursions and overawe a recalcitrant Sweden. Commanded by the Marqués de la Romana, the men concerned were drawn partly from troops who had been dispatched to the newly-created Italian mini-state of Etruria to provide a bodyguard for its queen, the eldest daughter of King Charles IV, and partly from metropolitan Spain, and made their way to their new posting via Hamburg, but that city happened to be the home of an artist named Christoph Suhr. Born in 1772, Suhr had received a professional education in Braunschweig and, though resident in Hamburg, was currently a professor of the Berlin Academy. Conscious, perhaps, that he was living a moment of history, Suhr responded to the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars with a resolution to record the uniforms of all the regiments of whatever army that passed through his home city, and by the fall of Napoleon he had accordingly amassed an extraordinary portfolio of drawings that were published in 1820 under the somewhat enigmatic title of Le manuscrit du bourgeois du Hamburg. Amongst the hundreds of figures this contains are dozens of depictions of La Romana’s soldiers and these have ever since been a staple source for authors producing works on the Spanish army of the Napoleonic Wars.

Yet there is a problem here. Under the influence of the notorious royal favourite, Manuel de Godoy, in 1807 the Spanish army was undergoing a period of considerable turmoil, of which not the least part was frequent changes of uniform. Thus, officially at least, the line infantry received new uniforms in 1797, 1802 and 1807, in the process switching from white to mid-blue and then back to white again, whilst the dragoons started in yellow tail-coats in 1796, switched to green ones in 1800, converted in part to hussars and in part to light horse in 1802 (thereby wearing two entirely different uniforms at the same time!), and finally went back into their traditional yellow coats in 1805. As for the light infantry, prior to 1800 dressed in green tail-coats, in that year they went into blue, only to go into a green hussar-style costume in 1802 before finally going back into blue tail-coats in 1805. The result was chaos with some regiments somehow managing to keep up-to-date with the latest orders from Madrid whilst others languished for years in uniforms that were increasingly behind the times. If British observers later complained that the Spanish troops who served alongside them in the Peninsular War had a somewhat harlequinesque appearance, it was hardly surprising: as Cronin and Summerfield tell us, when Spain went to war with Napoleon in 1808, twelve of the thirty-five line infantry regiments were still wearing the 1802 uniforms and two others the even older 1797 patterns.

What, though, is the issue in respect of Suhr? In brief, the Spanish troops he saw arrived in Hamburg in whatever uniforms they had happened to be wearing when they left Spain, and, with the exception with one or two units whose commanders managed to re-equip them from local sources, not one of them ever acquired the 1805/1807 pattern uniforms. To make use of them, as many artists have done, as models for the Spanish army of 1808 is therefore misleading, and it is only by reference to the many details contained in the two books reviewed here that the resulting muddles can finally be sorted out.

If this was all Summerfield and Cronin achieved, there would still be cause to be praise them, but what we should really be grateful for is the fact that they have reproduced each and every one of the Suhr figures in full colour. What makes this fascinating is that said figures provide us with a clear insight into what Spanish soldiers looked like on campaign. Many of the infantrymen are wearing striped or chequered linen trousers instead of the regulation breeches; helmets and bicornes are as often as not replaced by forage caps; locally purchased greatcoats of various patterns protect their wearers from the Baltic rains … Nor is it simply just a matter of the uniforms: many of the soldiers are portrayed smoking cigars or cigarettes (one of Spain’s more unfortunate contributions to  global culture); officers and men alike stroll around under umbrellas; a happy group squat on the ground intent on a game of hombre (a game which is apparently still played in parts of Denmark); and, finally, women abound, though we do not know whether they are soldiers’ wives who had travelled with them from Spain or German girls picked up as the Spanish troops made their way to the shores of the Baltic.

All in all, then, Cronin and Summerfield are to be congratulated. Whilst scarcely a major work of interpretation, their two books nonetheless recreate the army of one of the lesser known players in the Napoleonic Wars in extraordinary detail. Highly recommended, and not just for beautiful illustrations!

Charles j. Esdaile, University of Liverpool.