Saturday 23 November 2019

The Last Ironsides

Imagine the scenario: you are a new, young king just arrived in your kingdom courtesy of a sort of revolution against the former republic. You have been invited back by senior officers in the army, but are painfully aware that many of the rank and file and junior officers are republicans and, worse, religious radicals. The country as a whole is deeply unsettled economically, religiously, in terms of taxation and governance, and you are not sure whom you can trust. The army is owed large quantities of back pay and the government is nearly bankrupt. Your overriding problem is which of your mistresses you are going to sleep with tonight and which of the available women in your new court (which is most of them) you are going to bed tomorrow. You need to disband, or at least stop not paying, most of the army. Plus you need to reward or find employment for loyal officers and men who stuck by you in the dark years.  What do you do?

In case you have not already twigged (and I am sure my loyal reader has) these were the problems facing one Charles Stuart upon arrival in England in 1660. The army, at that time, was, of course, intensely political and a religious force, in an era when the two could hardly be separated. It was also very good, alarmingly so for a peaceable soul whose overriding interests seemed to be keeping his throne and having a good time.

Charles II’s solution was varied. Some of the army was maintained and transferred into a sort of standing army, although he could not use those terms. Some of it was straightaway (or nearly so, Stuart government was never that quick) disbanded. He married a Portuguese princess and some of it was sent off to Bombay and some to Tangiers to take possession of dowry acquisitions. And some, around three thousand, were sent to fight in the Portuguese war against Spain.

As you might have guessed by now, I have been reading about fairly obscure campaigns again:

Riley, J., The Last Ironsides: The English Expedition to Portugal 1662 - 1668 (Solihull: Helion, 2014).

The author of this one comes with decent credentials, both military (as a senior officer in the British army) and as a military historian (the foreword is by John Childs), and it is a decent, although not a flawless book.

Let me get the quibbles out of the way first. I do not believe that the Spanish tercio company after 1636 ‘consisted of 200 men with eleven officers and staff, thirty musketeers, sixty arquebusiers – mounted infantry or dragoons armed with a lighter weapon than the musketeers – sixty-five armoured pikemen and thirty-four unarmoured pikemen’ (p. 25). That is, I do not think that the arquebusiers were mounted, and I suspect that the pike to shot ratio was not as high as the numbers suggest, even though the reference given is to Parker’s The Spanish Road. It hardly matters; as I said, it is a bit of a quibble, but, as with a PhD thesis, an early mistake like that makes the reader a little more sceptical of the rest of the text and read a bit more critically. There are a few other repetitions and similar mistakes that a thorough proof-reading or copy edit could have removed.

Still, I shall stop grumbling and concentrate on the book’s strengths. It does a good job, as an old-style ‘drums and trumpets’ military history, of telling the story of the British brigade sent to Portugal in 1662, and what happened to it when Spain recognised Portuguese independence in 1668. While wargamers might be aware of the existence of the war (as I was) by reading DBR army lists, there has been, up until this book, nothing at all available on the subject.

Not only has there been nothing to read, the book also does a good job explaining the battles (two of them: Ameixial, 1663 and Montes Claros 1665) campaigns and sieges of the war, at least as far as the British brigade was concerned. Other activities are mentioned, one of which involved the Spanish mistaking red-coated Portuguese troops for English and panicking because they had a fearsome reputation.

Given that the book is written by a professional military commander, it is hardly a surprise that quite a lot of attention is given to logistics. One of the reasons that the war dragged on so long (it started in 1640, after all) was that the terrain and weather were terrible. Spain is full of hills and steep valleys. The weather is wet in winter, making the streams and rivers torrents, and hot in summer, drying up the watercourses and rendering the terrain parched with no fodder for horses. Campaigning was limited to spring and autumn, therefore, and there was not much time to achieve anything.

The other problem, of course, was that Portugal was poor and Spain was distracted by other rebellions and the war against France. Indeed, the French also supplied a brigade for the Portuguese army, and the Dutch provided (along with the Royal Navy) seaborne support. This became a bit complex towards the end of the war when Louis XIV invaded the Netherlands and, of course, the UK went to war with the Dutch in the mid-1660s.

The war did come to an end, more through exhaustion of the principle parties, Anglo-French mediation and the growing realisation that a decisive end to the conflict was not going to happen. Both Portugal and Spain still had global commitments, and nearly thirty years of warfare, no matter how desultory, is plenty for any country. Some of the British troops were shipped back to England and disbanded or absorbed into other formations. Some were sent to Tangiers which, the author states, amounted to a death sentence. Of the three thousand or so sent, only about five hundred made it back to England.

A very interesting book, but it is clearly not the whole story of even the latter part of the war. The book is good, has good maps and illustrations (although the author does note that contemporary battle plans are almost useless), and even maps of deployments and movements in the field actions. Now Baccus have put out a ‘Wars of the Sun King’ range I am rather tempted….


  1. I didn’t know about the English expedition to Portugal. Or Bombay come to that. Tangier seems to get all the attention.
    The English army after the Civil War had many varied opponents so would be worth the investment in wargaming terms. Assuming there wasn’t that much change in hats - hats being my main criterion for deciding whether something looks right for the period.

    1. I suspect Tangier gets the attention because Pepys wrote a diary about it, and it was a glorious failure....

      I can't find out at present what the uniforms looked like. Most sources say 'look at the picture of the Tangier garrison', but that was from 1680 or so. A lot of hat design can happen in 15 years....