Friday, 8 September 2017

La Guerra

 Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts. It was there that they learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded”.
- Albert Camus
A few of you will connect me with the Spanish Civil War, whether it is from past posts on this blog, or for being half of the team behind Chain of Command: España. With that in mind it may seem a little odd that only now am I getting round to writing an introductory post to the conflict for the blog. I hope nobody thinks I am actually old enough to have experienced it first hand; although in much younger days I did experience Franco's Spain first-hand and I have also lived in the Spain of today. To the Spanish the Civil War was La Guerra - 'The War' to begin with and only in more recent years has it been common to refer to it as 'The Civil War'.

Unpleasant Truths

Some 60-70% of the UK population supported the Republic in various polls conducted. However within the 15% or so that supported the Nationalists lay; the British Government, Big Business and the bulk of the 'establishment'. To quote one diplomat "One should support one's own class". 
If I were a Spaniard I should be fighting for General Franco. As an Englishman I am not in the predicament of choosing between two evils. I am not a Fascist, nor shall I become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism. It is mischievous to suggest that such a choice is imminent”.
- Evelyn Waugh
I have often thought that the Spanish Civil War needs no introduction, yet on forums you will still come across remarks like "It was a proxy war", or as one publication was sub-titled "The Proving Ground for Blitzkrieg"; despite the author actually stating that this was not the case in the text. It has become shorthand to call the Nationalists Fascists and the Republicans Communists, despite neither being true. While the Republicans did become dominated by the Communists by the end of the war, initially the respective sides were coalitions of the 'Left' and 'Right', or much more simply 'Loyalists' and 'Rebels'. The bulk of men conscripted though were simply swept up into whichever army was in control of the area they lived in.  

The Italian commitment of 50,000 men at one point of the war (70,000 in total) is largely ignored, as are the 4,000 or so dead and 12,000 or so injured they suffered. The German Condor Legion was never larger than 12,000 at any point, with a total of 19,000 men rotating through it in total. Only 300 Germans lost their lives and the only ground troops amongst those were 21 anti-aircraft gun crew. Yet quite a few books have been written about the Condor Legion and only one or two about the Italians. Fewer still cover the 80,000 Moroccans serving in the Nationalist Army at any one time (for a total of 136,000), nor the 12,000 or so Portuguese viriatos 'volunteered' to support the Nationalists.

A sort of mythology has also grown up around the importance of the International Brigades. With a total of around 32,000 foreign volunteers having served in Spain, around 5,000 of whom died as a result, there were only some 20,000 in arms at their high point. Some 10,000 foreign volunteers remained at the point the brigades were disbanded, by which time they were a small minority in what were formations of Spanish conscripts in the main. Their value lay in what they represented in terms of propaganda, rather than their negligible military impact.

To read most popular works on the Civil War however, you would think it was entirely fought with foreigners. The Republican Army at its peak was 750,000 strong, while that of the Nationalists was 1,020,000. The Nationalist casualty totals were 90,000 killed, with around 300,000 wounded. Republican actual wartime casualties can only be estimated at 110,000 dead. In simple terms one in ten combatants would die, a similar ratio as for British and Commonwealth troops during the Great War. The foreign European casualties may have been a tenth of that total - 1%.

Total War

I thought, too, of the man who had shot me - wondered what he was like, whether he was a Spaniard or a foreigner, whether he knew he had got me, and so forth. I could not feel any resentment against him. I reflected that as he was a Fascist I would have killed him if I could, but that if he had been taken prisoner and brought before me at this moment I would merely have congratulated him on his good shooting. It may be, though, that if you were really dying your thoughts would be quite different
- George Orwell 
Suggestions to the contrary, the presence of foreign personnel actually had little significant impact on the ground fighting. It is actually open to question if the Italian adoption of the two section rifle platoon in 1938, was not a retrograde step, a result of their experiences with the Spaniards in the Civil War. Both sides used a similar binary platoon structure themselves. Italy went into the Civil War with a three section platoon, similar to that of France at the time and which ultimately Britain was to adopt in 1937.

The Spanish tactical system had been born during the Rif War of 1921 to 1927, where their 1914 model army, having ignored any observations made during the Great War, was severely beaten by a tribal army. While they retained a similar organisation pattern in spite of this, the rifle section was now to be sub-divided into what were essentially fire teams, with fire and movement tactics developed to defeat the tribal tactic of adopting hill and mountain top positions.

Despite this doctrine existing, only the well-trained and experienced troops of the Army of Africa were able to make use of them. The poorly-trained Peninsular Army and the inexperienced militias of both sides, while ultimately adopting the same organisation pattern, were forced to simplify the tactics used and manoeuvred in whole sections, rather than the discreet fire teams envisaged. This made for large units for section leaders, a fact the Germans were to discover themselves in 1939.

At the start of the Civil War, the militias courteously contrived to behave just like the Rif tribes and also adopted hill top positions, or defended their villages, a tactic that Legionarios and Regulares had been dealing with for years. Once the battle lines settled however, for the most part it was a war of non-continuous hill slope shallow trench lines, bisected by emplacements that became the norm. Such positions usually overlooked the local road or rail infrastructure.

For an army to proceed on its way, these positions had to be taken or forced to surrender. Initially this process was completed by costly frontal assaults, or by infiltration by those units that were capable of doing that. As the war progressed, artillery bombardment, combined with air attack. The Italians developed the 'Cadena' (chain) ground-attack tactic of dive-bombing in line astern, which proved very effective and Germany picked that idea up from them. Anti-vehicle minefields and subsequently mixed minefields made their appearance too. Barbed-wire also made a return to the battlefield.

Despite supposed German advances in the field, armour was still deployed in company or platoon strength to support infantry attacks. As the rare massed-tank attacks failed, usually due to poor training and maintenance, the idea of tank battles in the future was dismissed by some observers. 'Mobile' or 'Fast' formations were formed and proved successful however. These were formed from truck-borne infantry and support elements, in combination with fast tanks or armoured cars.

The Italian concept of 'Guerra Celere' (Rapid War) was based on the principles of 'fast' formations, but while they believed it was a valid concept, they did not take into account the enemy they faced at the time. When faced with more well-equipped and trained enemies in WWII, the inadequacies of that concept became apparent.

My Civil War

"In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last".  - George Orwell
"They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason".
-Ernest Hemmingway
Overall the Spanish Civil War combines both the old and the new in terms of warfare and could be seen as adding Early-WWII elements to those of the final years of the Great War. In WWII gaming typically an arms race develops between players and even in 1940, fielding a Matilda or Char B will inevitably result in them being faced by an 88mm Gun, hardly representative of the era. In Spain both sides are evenly matched and no weapon or vehicle dominates the table top.

Ultimately your games will rely on the forces you select to play with. Whatever you opt for, it may be countered by something your opponent can field and vice-versa. While forces can still end up as mismatched by the choices the players make, typically it comes down to the tactics you use and of course whether the dice favour you on the day.  

I am not a wargamer that plays in the 'Grand Manner', I only play platoon or company skirmishes, where small unit tactics have a larger impact on play. Playing with tabletop divisions, brigades and battalions is, I feel, to rob a period of any individuality, apart from the fact that you are using 'Spanish Civil War' figures, rather than Napoleonics or whatever.

Ultimately at that level, there is actually little difference between Spanish Civil War and Napoleonic rule sets, once you see past the terms in use and just examine the rule mechanics. At the small unit level however, a good rule set allows tactics to have their effect. Fixing units with a base of fire and then manoeuvring to allow produce enfilading fire and ultimately an assault on the enemy position is what it is all about.

In an ideal world I would be posting about the Civil War from start to finish in chronological order. Given the state of 'wargaming' knowledge on it when I began, this was probably doable. However interest in the period, as well as my own store of knowledge, has grown immeasurably and I could no more cover even the first six months of the Civil War, than I could the first six months of WWII, such has been its growth.

Instead I will just be concentrating on a series of 'snapshots' of the conflict, i.e. focusing on minute events and actions, as well as providing broader descriptions of the respective armies. Over time it may be the case that these will combine to form a broader and more coherent narrative, but I make no promises. I imagine that these snapshots will focus on particular units as they are added to my collection, the process moving on as each new unit is added.


  1. I am looking forward to this developing.

    1. You were quick off the mark there sir! Thanks for the support.

  2. That's a fine post there Jim, well considered and informative.

  3. Great post, look forward to more.