Saturday 7 December 2019

Strategic Geography

In Camelot, as like as not,
My story doth begin.
Of castle walls, and marble halls,
And the king that dwelt therein.
His height was high, unto the sky,
Or so the sage did tell.
His sword was long, his arm was strong,
And his name was Eskimo Nell.
                          I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (BBC, sometime in the 1960s, I think).

You may very well be concerned for my mental wellbeing after an outburst like that, and you might have good reason for it. However, the reason for the above fanfare (if such it be) is that I have completed a bit of a project, viz:

Behold, a rather nice (in my opinion) castle. As you may note, the object itself is modular, allowing an assortment of configurations. It will also double as town walls, I think, and the plan is to add a bit more verisimilitude to my Reconquista games. After all, mostly the latter part of the Reconquista was, as I mentioned a while ago, sieges and raids, and I recently bemoaned my lack of decent town walls.

The castle parts are from Leven Miniatures, and very nice they are too, delivered incredibly quickly (I think five days from order to delivery, and that was partly over a weekend) and painted by my own inept hand. Buildings are a lot easier to paint than little men. My usual colour count for a unit of little men is ten different paints applied, excluding basing and undercoat. Above you can see five, including basing and undercoat. It has only taken me a fortnight or so to paint them, as well, which is probably record time for me.

You might be wondering about the title of the post, when all I seem to want to do is show off my new castle (although that is not a phrase many of us can use often). But I do have a reason, and that reason is a paper I have recently read, as a bit of a follow up to the book on the British brigade in the Spanish-Portuguese war of the 1660’s:

White, L., 'Strategic Geography and the Spanish Habsburg Monarchy's Failure to Recover Portugal, 1640-1668', The Journal of Military History 71, no. 2 (2007), 373-409.

The main question White asks is ‘why did Spain, which after all conquered Portugal very easily in 1580, fail to recapture the country between 1640 and 1670?’ This is, after all, a reasonably good question, and the sort of comparative question that historians (and some wargamers, perhaps) like to ask.

There are, of course, a number of differences between Alba’s invasion and the later efforts. The first one is that in the 1640’s Spain was suffering from ‘imperial overstretch’. There were rebellions in Portugal, Catalonia and Naples. Castile was suffering from depopulation and drought. She was at war with France, which had multiple fronts in Catalonia, northern Italy and the Low Countries, and was also involved in the Thirty Years War against Protestants in Germany and against the Dutch with the tail end of the Eighty Years War. This also entailed a world-wide conflict, or at least attempting to defend Spanish (and Portuguese) possessions overseas from the said Dutch and, occasionally, English raiders, corsairs and, in the 1650’s English ships (Jamaica was captured in 1656, remember).

Another difference, however, was the strategic geography. Alba marched with fifteen days supplies and met the fleet off the Tagus, which he then crossed (with nautical assistance) to capture Lisbon, upon which resistance largely ceased. The Spanish fleet in the seventeenth century was not there, and probably was not capable of behaving in this way. Indeed, in the revolt of Portugal it was Dutch and English ships off the Tagus, not Spanish. This had a serious impact on the campaigns.

The point here is that the Spanish, once they had stopped being defensive after 1660 when most of the other wars were over had to go overland. There are three viable invasion routes of Portugal: one from Ciudad Rodrigo; two from Badajoz, one south through Evora (Alba’s route), the other more northerly to the Tagus and then down the river. These routes were determined by water, fodder and availability of roads.

The campaigning seasons were short. Inland, the frontier got very hot during the summer and very wet in the winter. Two brief campaign seasons were all that was available. Offensive operations had to be confined to these windows. A siege of a strategically important fortress, such as Elvas on the southern corridors, had to be accomplished quickly, or it would certainly fail. Furthermore, bridges of stone were few and far between in the rivers which bisect the region (and many of the valleys were steep). The lack of fodder also meant that cavalry, in particular, had to be widely dispersed in the ‘off’ seasons. Gathering the troops for an invasion thus took more of the short time available.

The final, perhaps decisive, difference with the 1580’s was the fact that the Portuguese, early in the war while Spain’s attention was elsewhere, had fortified the main strategic locations. On the southern route, there were Elvas and Estremoz, in the latest (trace italienne) style. Taking these fortresses was vital if the Spanish were to secure their lines of communication along decent roads, and hence remain in supply. Yet the capture of these fortresses would have taken longer than the campaigning season permitted unless some other factor had turned up. Bypassing them and capturing other places (as happened with Evora and Arronches) was not really an option. In the first case, the road was back through the uncaptured Evora and hence the Spanish had to decamp rapidly (and lost the subsequent battle); in the latter case, the only supply road was inadequate.

Hence, the link back to my castle. Strategy is often determined by geography, and that entails a consideration of the art of the possible, given the conditions. A strategically placed fortress can, as in the case of Portugal, tip the balance one way or the other.

But now I ‘need’ some earthworks….

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