Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Battle of Corunna

The Battle of Corunna
Command & Colours: Napoleonics style

Much like the Battle of Maida, I've always had a soft spot for the Battle of Corunna. It formed the climax of my Napoleonic roleplaying campaign, called "The Halberdiers".

The players were all subalterns in the 46th Regiment of Foot, "The Kings Royal Corps of Halberdiers" who arrived with their regiment in the aftermath of the Treaty of Cintra and formed part of the advance into Spain. There was much skullduggery, intrigue, heroism and climbing of the greasy pole - and great fun it was too. I look forward to returning to it once we've moved house.

The Strategic Picture

The French had been beaten hollow at Rolica and Vimeiro in the previous year, but had been allowed to evacuate Portugal under the shameful terms of the treaty of Cintra. The British army kicked its heel in Portugal for quite some time, while the Spaniards set about the French in a jovial throat cutting sort of manner. The Spaniards had a notable victory at Bailen and London was all afire to help the gallant Dons kick the French in the seat of the pants.

Sir John Moore was dispatched to effect this seat kicking at the head of the British army. After advancing into Spain to support the Spaniards, he discovered that the first thing the Spaniards had organised after victory at Bailen was "the split"*. The Spanish command was hopelessly fragmented, mutually antagonistic and vastly overconfident - meanwhile Napoleon, who despite his many faults could never be accused of taking things lying down was about to cross the Pyrenees at the head of 200,000 men.

You will notice that at the beginning of the previous paragraph, I said, "the British army". While this is perhaps not strictly true, Britain had other troops mostly engaged in colonial security operations and home defence, what was certain was that Moore commanded the only field army Britain could deploy at the time. This inescapable fact informed his every decision. He could not afford to spend men with the prodigality of his opponent.

Moore advanced into Spain and had reached Salamanca before discovering that his new Spanish chums had been thoroughly whipped. He advanced further in the hope of distracting Napoleon's forces and giving the Spanish some time to regroup, eventually turning tail and making for the sea when the French began to pursue in earnest.

Moore's army marched through freezing conditions to the sea port of Corunna, losing nearly two thousand effectives to hunger, straggling and hypothermia. It was during this retreat that he lost the services of one Richard Sharpe...

When called upon to fight, the army did well, but with the exception of the rear-guard who were constantly harrassed by the French van, discipline was not good and collapsed completely on several occasions. Once Napoleon realised that he would not be able to cut Moore off, he withdrew, leaving matters in the hands of General Soult, known amongst my circle as "The Duck of Damnation".

Moore and the army made it to Corunna, but the transport ships had yet to arrive. When the French arrived a day later, Moore turned at bay and began preparations both to evacuate and to fight. Steps were taken to blow up the powder magazines and slaughter the army's horses. This episode forms part of Allan Mallinson's excellent Rumours of War.

The Tactical Picture

The two armies were posted on heights facing each other. Running in the valley between the two armies were streams which flowed to the sea. The heights of San Christobal anchored the British right, with the village of Elvina in the centre and Piedralonga on the left. When the French did not attack immediately, Moore thought that they might not attack at all and began the embarkation. However, French piquets drove in their British counterparts and an attempt was made to outflank the British leftl.

Meanwhile Soult established his batteries (he enjoyed a superiority in guns of two to one) on the heights overlooking Elvina. What followed was a prolonged shin kicking contest as the French drove out the British and were then driven out in turn, who were then counterattacked and so on. I imagine the impetus provided by charging downhill into the village helped feed this particular fight. Moore was attempting to rally the survivors of one of these counter-attacks when he was hit by a cannon ball. This hampered the defence, but the brigade commanders managed to fend off of the further French attacks, including an attack by the French horse on San Christobal, until Soult gave it up as a bad job.

By night fall, both armies were in much the same position as before, with losses of 1,500 men on the French side and 900 on the British. The British slipped away in the night, embarking on their transports while Spanish troops held the citadel to cover their escape.

*I imagine this taking place, Brendan Behan like, in a shadowy bodega where the wine and hot words were flowing.


  1. Your photograph reveals another major failing of CnC napoleonic - both sides seem to be provioded with vin rouge, while surely the British player should have rum at (for) his disposal?

  2. Your criticism is a valid one - however we had to ban anything stronger than port from our games (at least until after play) after an occurence known only as "the incident".

  3. Having suffered more than one such 'incident', I now ban any form of drinks from the gaming table itself. The game looks pretty good with the blocks.

  4. I'm still not a fan of the blocks, but the ban has nothing to do with spillages and the like and rather more to do with one member of the party taking another roughly by the lapels of his blazer during a conversation unrelated to the game.

    Irish politics can become a little hands on.