Thursday, 26 February 2015

Royal Albert Museum and Art Gallery - Exeter

The Gothic marvel that is the Royal Albert Museum, Exeter

Last weekend we caught the train into Exeter to visit our local main museum, the Royal Albert Museum. It was first opened in 1868 and after receiving a major £24 million "face-lift" lasting four years was re-opened in 2011. This was the first time that we had had a chance to look around since that work was done.

This museum holds childhood memories of school trips not only for Carolyn and me, but both our boys. When they were young, we attended their school trips and helped in the project work about the Romans in Exeter and the fantastic displays of artifacts that the staff displayed for the children, with the opportunity to try out Roman military equipment and armour.

There is more to see than just the ancient artifacts, with extensive world ethnic, zoological and other historical artifacts from other eras that feature in the long history of the city. The museum holds an amazing collection for a provincial museum and the new look to the building which has kept the beauty of the Victorian Gothic architecture but added to it with modern display areas and a modern clean restaurant makes it a major attraction to visitors.

As in previous museum visits I have captured some pictures that I think will appeal to the wargaming/history enthusiast, and because we got so involved in the world and ancient displays, we had to leave at closing time with other galleries, including the English Civil War not looked at. So I intend to add to this post with a second visit in time.

Zulu shield and weapons
The first gallery we looked at was the World ethnic collection looking at artifacts collected over the years from around the globe. Needless to say, the Zulu artifacts caught my eye with weapons and Zulu artifacts collected at the time of the war.

Exeter and the South West region has links to this period of history with a statue in the city erected in the memory of a controversial general officer of the period, Sir Redvers Buller VC

Who was born in the nearby town of Crediton and won his VC during the campaign. His later career during the Boer War was not as illustrious and he left the army under a bit of a cloud.

Zulu thrusting spear - Assegai or Iklwa
As well as Buller, we have Colonel John Chard VC who led the famous defence of Rorkes Drift and is buried at St John's Church in Hatch Beauchamp near Taunton in Somerset, about forty minutes up the road from Exeter.

The museum has the assegai shown with its Zulu name, the iklwa, which if I remember is a name given by the Zulus to describe the noise the blade made when pulled from the body. Either way, its a truly formidable weapon when seen close up.

Zulu throwing spear

The beautifully coloured Zulu embroidery 
Another piece that caught my eye was this full set of Samurai armour which is amazing to see how intricate and practical the construction is. This period is not one that has grabbed me, but I can see the attraction when you can see something like this and imagine these warrior going into battle looking like something out of star wars.

I love all things Greco-Roman when looking at the ancient period, so to see this typical Greek bronze helmet and imagine what the wearer must have seen from behind that nose guard was a thrill. When you look at it front on and carefully examine the craft work involved in its construction, you notice the delicate pattern work around the nose guard and edging.

Exeter is a Roman garrison town, and I remember we were taught at school to recognise Roman towns in England with names ending in "ter", Exeter, Colchester, Dorchester etc.

To the Romans, Exeter was known as Isca Dumnoniorum, or simply Isca. The name came from the Ancient Briton name for water pronounced "eshk", hence the local River Exe. The Irish and Welsh Celtic languages have a similar word with the Irish using it to describe whisky as the "water of life". It was also the tribal capital of the native Britons in the area, the Dumnonians.

Roman pottery discovered in the city
Exeter was established as a fort and garrisoned by the Legio II Augusta in about 55AD, the same chaps that Vespasian led in 43AD during their successful invasion of Britain, taking out Maiden Castle on route to the South West.
They stayed in the city for the next twenty years before relocating to Caerleon in Wales, naming that new base Isca Augusta.

Needless to say the museum has an extensive collection of artifacts discovered in the city that cover the Roman occupation, and the building is right next door to a major part of the Roman city wall that has survived to this day, all be it with a few modifications over the years.

The remains of the Roman wall at the back of the museum

Roman soldiers cooking pan, and examples of glass ware

I've painted a few of these in recent months

The business end of sharp pointy sticks

Legionary armour fittings - it's incredible to see these small artifacts that show Exeter's long history
As you can see I was engrossed with the Roman collection when we had to leave to allow the museum to close. So before catching our train home we stopped for dinner, and I grabbed a few shots of the Guild Hall Shopping Centre and the restored facade.

What does Exeter have in common with the US Marine Corps?
Exeter - The beautifully restored Guild Hall shopping centre
Above the entrance is the City Arms which bear the motto "Semper Fidelis", carried also by the US Marine Corps, although Exeter has had it since 1660 when it was proposed by Queen Elizabeth I, to recognise the city's loyalty to the crown, the US Marines borrowing it in 1883.

The arms of the City of Exeter, with the the motto Semper Fidelis, "Always Faithful" granted to the city by Elizabeth I

Sunday, 22 February 2015

2nd Battalion, Badajoz Regiment - Volunteer Line Infantry

Work continues to build General Portago's 3rd Spanish Division with the completion of the 2nd Battalion, Badajoz Infantry Regiment. The regiment commanded by Colonel Ramon Garcia Linares formed a key component of the division and despite it's shaky start at the beginning of the Battle of Talavera stood it's ground in the subsequent fighting.

Spanish Army of Estremadura
3rd Division: Major-General Marquis de Portago
1st Battalion Badajoz Infantry Regiment - Volunteer Line Infantry
2nd Battalion Badajoz Infantry Regiment  - Volunteer Line Infantry
2nd Antequera Infantry Regiment  - Volunteer Light Infantry in Shakos
Imperial de Toledo - Volunteer Line Infantry in Shako
Provincial de Badajoz  - Militia Infantry
Provincial de Guadix - Militia Infantry

Rey Cavalry Regiment - Regular Line

Having covered the activities of the Badajoz Regiment leading up to Talavera in my post about the first battalion, I thought, with the completion of the second battalion, it would be interesting to look at the fighting during the battle and one of the actions that occurred in the area around the Pajar de Vegara.

As before much of the information quoted, comes from Andrew W Field's book about the battle, "Talavera - Wellington's First Victory in Spain".

Field states, at about 2.00pm the French artillery opened a tremendous barrage across the whole British front with virtually all their guns.......As Joseph's troops were concentrated almost exclusively against the British part of the allied line, he was aware that those on the left of his assault would have their flank somewhat in the air and be vulnerable to a Spanish counterattack if they were to venture from their strong defensive positions. His plan, therefore, was for Leval's attack to be held back somewhat in echelon from Sebastiani's division in order to "refuse its left" to protect against that possibility. As it turned out, Leval's division was the first to come into contact with the allied line.

Laval's German Division at Talaveral

General Leval had several problems to overcome with the ground he had to cross to reach the allied positions. Between him and the enemy line were olive groves, vines, patches of undergrowth and stone walls. These meant that he could not get a clear idea of his enemy's locations and strengths and his movement would be difficult to maintain strict control, forcing his division to advance in a much looser order and make his evolutions less precise.

The map shows the relative positions of the divisions involved in the afternoon main attack
With these problems in mind, Leval ordered his men to advance en colonne serree, columns with the companies closed up on the ones in front, making them easier to control and keep order but more difficult to deploy if the need arose. Strangely, he also decided to adopt an unusual assault formation, having all his columns advance in a single line, thus blundering forward with all his "goods in the shop window" giving him little opportunity to re-deploy units in reaction to the unexpected, which given the limited visibility, the unexpected should have been expected.

The olive groves also made it impossible for Leval to deploy his artillery into a position to be able to fire on the allied line prior to his attack and thus the Anglo-Spanish troops would not be discomforted by a preliminary bombardment as normal doctrine dictated.

Leval had two battalions of Poles in support of his line (see the map above) but again, strangely, didn't bring these units up in support of his attack, but instead left them on his start line as a rallying point if the need arose. Both these decisions would have serious consequences.

With no preliminary bombardment, and with the closeness of the country blocking his view of the rest of the battlefield, Leval's division, struggling to maintain its orientation and order, launched its attack prematurely.

As the British skirmish line was pushed back, with some reports of some British groups being surprised and captured, the disrupted columns emerged in front of the allied line. With two hundred yards of open ground and no time to reform and redress the ranks, the Nassau troops called out "Espanholas" trying to fool the allied line to hold its fire. The ruse enabled the green clad Nassau troops and the white clad Dutch to get close enough to get in a half decent volley and push the British line back. Several times the Nassau and Dutch troops advanced a short way towards the British line loading as they went and then delivering a volley, with the situation hanging in the balance for some while.

Lieutenant Colonel Sir George Ridout Bingham of the 2/53rd admitted that the 2/7th were driven back by an attack on their flank and some Nassauers "penetrated nearly to the work (the Pajar) in front", The 2/24th of Mackenzie's brigade that was standing in reserve was ordered forward to support the front line in this area. Advancing into the gap between Campbell's and Sherbrooke's brigades it was able to get on the flank of the Nassauers and with its volley fire cause them to flinch away.

Further south the Spanish infantry was locked in an indecisive engagement with the Hessian and Frankfurt troops. Here the Spanish volleys were not so effective and the Germans were able to hold their own. However the outcome of this attack was decided in the centre where the unfortunate Baden battalions found themselves looking down the barrels of ten artillery pieces at very short range. With six British three pounders and four Spanish twelve pounders, the effect of the grapeshot fired from behind the protection of the earthwork was terrible. The brave Badeners were mown down, and when Colonel Porbeck fell, it proved to be the last straw and the Badeners melted away.

Judging the moment perfectly, Brigadier General Campbell ordered the first line to charge, with Colonel Myers of the 2/7th Fusiliers, having just rallied his men and seeing the hesitation in his inexperienced battalion, grabbing the King's Colour and calling out, "Come on the Fusiliers" as he led his men forward.

The sudden charge caused the Nassau and Dutch to fall back with the Badeners to the cover of the olive groves, which broke the momentum of the British charge, but led to them coming up to a French battery of six guns abandoned by their crews. The guns were spiked and dragged to the edge of the clearing.

The German troops facing the Spanish and seeing their flanks turned by the British had no choice but withdraw also.

The men of Laval's German Division had given a good account of themselves in this attack and had pressed the allied line bravely. Falling back on the two Polish battalions they were soon rallied and ready to attack again later that afternoon. However in this first attack, lasting about 45 minutes, the division had suffered between 600-700 casualties with over half of them from the Baden Regiment.

There are no detailed breakdowns of the casualties suffered by specific Spanish units in the battle. In one of his dispatches Cuesta states that the total Spanish casualties were 1,021, but given the low level of Spanish involvement in the fighting, most modern estimates suggest that casualties probably didn't exceed 400-500 men and that this number would also include the men that fled on the evening of the 27th July.

Whatever the scale of losses suffered, it might be a safe bet that many of the casualties suffered by the Spanish probably fell on the units involved in or near the British and General Portago's division and the Badajoz regiment certainly fulfilled that criteria.

My "Badajoz Boys", and I suspect quite a few of them were boys, are composed of figures from AB with the Colours fom GMB Flags. My second battalion is carrying the regiment's "Ordenanza" or Regimental Colour with the Cross of Bourbon emblazoned across its centre. You may have noticed that neither regiment has skirmish elements. This is representative, in that, the Spanish line troops of this period would have relied on their massed volley fire to keep enemy skirmishers at bay.

Sources used in this post:
Talavera - Wellington's First Victory in Spain, Andrew W Field.

Next up, the boys from Toledo and some veteran Roman legionaries painted by Tom.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War - David Gates

The Spanish Ulcer, although an old publication in terms of more recent history's of the Peninsular War, is still an important tome in the canon of books on the subject.

Until now, it was still on my "must read before I die pile", and now I can relax having ticked that off my list. So I thought I would share my thoughts about it, in case you are, like me, back in late January, considering launching into reading the 469 pages, not including the time line, very useful order of battles, list of sources and index at the back, 557 pages in all.

This book was first published back in 1986, and I am old enough to remember the first hard back editions arriving on the shelves of certain well known book retailers. My edition is a 2001 paperback publication from De Capo Press.

Sir William Napier
In his preface to the book, David Gates makes the point that at the time of writing it, there were very few, if any, books covering the whole of the Peninsular War in as he says "reasonable dimensions which provides an in depth description of events throughout the Peninsula, without being two exhaustive".

He goes on to contrast the typical choices then available of books that were too superficial with a jingoistic attitude to the subject matter often just concentrating on Wellington and his immediate opponents, with a failure to really grasp the military and political problems facing the French.

General Maximilien Foy
Then at the other end of the scale were to be found the often multi-volume histories from Oman, Napier, Foy and Gomez de Arteche, which though masterpieces in bringing together a wealth of historical research often carried the baggage of having authors who, having taken part in the war, brought their own bias into the writing; and, considering when these books were written during and at the turn of the 19th century, the styles can often seem heavy and long winded to the modern reader. These factors added to the presentation in several long volumes make these works a marathon in engaging with. I look forward to having the time to wrestle with my Oman collection, which up to now is dipped into for reference.

He goes on to then outline his own book, in terms of being a happy medium between the two extremes outlined, with a reasonably detailed and balanced study, in one volume, with maps and statistical data, being concise but an enjoyable read. The book is intended as primarily a military history but reference is made to the political/social and economic factors that influenced the conduct of the war.

My notes above come, deliberately, from Gates' own preface, because, after reading his work, I feel he has captured the essence of it precisely in his own description. Being a typical English reading enthusiast for the history of the war, my reading list has followed that outlined by Gates and I felt his frustration at the lack of an easily accessible but balanced overview of such an important, perhaps the most important theatre of the Napoleonic wars.

What I find interesting is that since he wrote this history back in the 80's there seems to be a more modern trend circulating in pseudo-historical circles that are now pushing in another direction; that suggests that Napoleon was a misunderstood hero of free thinking republican ideals and that his wars were forced on him by deceitful European monarchies determined to maintain the status quo. This view point is just as fallacious as its predecessors and shows an equal determination to avoid facts that don't fit into the narrative.

I felt that Gates gives a fair view of the performance and effectiveness of all the forces involved in the war and my clarity, particularly about what and where the Spanish forces were up to at given times during it, is much clearer. Likewise his covering of the 1813/14 campaigns by Wellington on the Franco/Spanish border has given me a better understanding of why the armies were where they fought, which to anyone trying to use some of the more recent analyses of these campaigns often leaves one struggling to interpret poorly constructed maps.

One of the battle maps from the book
On the subject of maps, I know this book came in for a lot of "flak" when it was first published with regard to the very poor battle maps in particular. I have to say that who ever advised David Gates that these maps were good enough to accompany his great writing, should have found another career in publishing. To say they are atrocious is to undermine the emphasis that that word carries.

That being said, the problem can be overcome with a copy of Colonel Nick Liscombe's Peninsular War Atlas, to help decipher the scrawled attempts at maps in Gates' book. However the strategic situation maps and the campaign area maps are not as bad and provide useful guidance as the text rolls along, and it does roll along. I found myself, one evening,reading about Fuentes d'Onoro and Albuera in one session and feeling that I had got the key points from both actions, which gave me confidence when covering actions I was less familiar with.

One aspect of the book that might be particularly useful from a wargamers perspective are the handy army battle orders contained at the back. These orbats summaries the state of the armies in the peninsula throughout the war and at specific battles, given in numbers of men by brigade/division and the number of battalions, plus guns and cavalry squadrons, Very useful data for pulling campaign orbats together.

I am very pleased to have this book in the reference library and equally pleased to have spent the time reading it. If you want to get an easily digestible book on the whole Peninsular War the "The Spanish Ulcer" is a must read.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Early War German Armour

Back in June last year I showcased the work of fellow DWG member Andy B who has a very nice collection of WWII figures and vehicles.

At this month's club meeting Andy brought along some early war German armour, with some very nice specialist versions of the early model Sdkfz 251, showing the ambulance version with canvas cover, the line laying model and the signals vehicle complete with signalers in head sets.

Sdkfz 251c/8 Ambulance

All these vehicles have lovely attention to detail and look nicely weathered, perfect for Barbarossa 1941 or a quick drive into Greece and the Balkans.

Sdkfz 251c/3 Funkpanzerwagen

Sdkfz 251c/11 Line laying vehicle

In addition Andy had some nice Panzer 1 models from Minairons who have spcialist range of AFV's for the Spanish Civil War era, but also come in handy for early war. The command variant is a metal model but works well with the Minairons plastics.