The Battle of Talavera, July 1809

The Battle of Talavera, July 1809


This weekend Adrian, Nick and I hosted a 2-day Battle of Talavera wargame down in Brockham, Surrey, at the same school hall we used for Waterloo in 2022 and 2021. We had 9 players and I umpired.

The original Battle of Talavera took place on 28-29 July 1809 when Wellesley’s British and Cuesta’s Spanish marched on Madrid. Wellesley was wary of supply lines and being cut off by Soult, and Cuesta waivered between being over-cautious and over-enthusiastic. Having met up just before Talavera, Cuesta raced on ahead and bumped into King Joseph Bonaparte’s two Corps army. Cuesta pulled back, and was eventually persuaded by Wellesley to join him in a stand at Talavera. The Allies mustered around 56,000 troops, and the French around 56,000 (with more cavalry and artillery).

Terrain and Tables

The Halford rubber 2′ x 2′ mats had worked well for Waterloo so I bought 18 more boxes of the (6 tiles per box) and spent December and January painting, cutting and flocking them. We were keen that this looked like a Peninsular battle and Adrian had spent a lot of time in his parched lawn back in the summer getting the correct flock mix for dry grass! Half the table is dead flat, and the other half is dominated by the Cerro de Medellin/Cascajal ridge line, and then at the very top (North) the heights of the Sierra de Segurilla (8 tiles deep!). I used the excellent Spanish Ordnance Survey equivalent to get the basic terrain shape (not helped by the Spanish building a motorway and flooding the upper valley!), and then adjusted according to accounts. A lot easier terrain to build than Waterloo, and no need to use felt for a „level 0“. The only other real terrain features were 8 tiles worth (so about 6′ x 6′) of olive groves and vines. Nick roped his wife in to help build the vines from twisted strings, whilst I stuck foilage clumps onto suitably mossy sticks. We were pretty happy with the result, and even happier when I scattered sage and oregano from Marie’s stock cupboard to give the ground a nice natural fallen-leaves look.

Spanish advancing through the vines/groves – the Medellin in the distance

The playing area was the same 20′ x 12′ as Waterloo (at 1mm = 1 yd). The problem with big battles is always how to do then arrange the tables so you can a) reach and b) don’t fight every engagement between two table edges. We did think about having the Portina (the dry brook that runs N-S and served as the main point of contact) on its own table, 2 tiles wide (‚6) and 20′ long, and then having thinner tables behind each side (and in retrospect that may have been better) but in the end we went for four 12′ tables orientated EW, the southern 4′ x 12′ table having Talavera, the second 6′ x 12′ table with the Pajar de Vergara hillock, the third 6′ x 12′ table with the Cerro de Medellin, and the fourth 4′ x 12‘ table having the Sierra de Segurilla. That layout worked fine, it didn’t seem too broken up, there were few cross-table engagements, and at the end we could push all the tables together for the photos.

Pink lines show table boundaries.

The Rules

We used Steady Lads Steady, my „house“ rules, designed to work on grids. We used these for both Waterloos (as well as lots of our own games) and most players had used them at the last Waterloo, so by the end of the 1st day I wasn’t being called upon too much for basic calculations. They are probably a bit more complex than Shako/GdB. Rules reflections at the end. The whole terrain is marked with dots every 10cm/100yds to delineate the square grid. Damage is in Strength points at the battalion level (no figure removal) with 18-20 figure battalions (20mm figures, mix of plastic and metal – Newline). Figures are on 2-4 figure bases, but held in Bn sabots to make movement easier. Each Bn has a (removable) small ID strip with unit name, movement, strength and quality values, first fire indicator, and tally boxes for damage – you can just see them as a pale strip at the back of the base in the pictures above. The sabots were all custom made for us by Jim Moore at Products for Wargamers and have a double depth back strip to make mounting of the ID strip easier – he does a cracking service! 
BTW Adrian painted up the whole of the Cuesta’s Spanish Army between us deciding to go ahead with the game in September and the game itself! In comparison I only managed Leval’s German Division and the Polish troops – the Westphalian Chevaux-Legere being completed the day before the laydown!


At the actual battle there was a night attack by Victor to try and seize the Medellin. We gave the French the option of that but they declined (mainly I expect as it didn’t really help the game VPs as we didn’t want it to upset all our careful terrain and deployment planning!) We might run it as a separate game later – our plan was to do it double-blind with some randomisation of movement to reflect the problems of a night assault on very rough ground.
The Allies were allowed 600m of movement on historic deployments, the French 1200m but both had to keep within their historic limits. Brigades from both sides started on blinds unless within 600m. There were also a number of false blinds they could deploy for deception. This was very much a battle were each side wanted to get the better of the other, but not losing too many of their own troops in the process, for VPs were purely around the delta in Brigade kills. Turn 1 was 0500 (there was the option to start later in the day but both sides wanted to get cracking) and turns were very roughly 45 min (and about 45 min in real life!)
On the map above the Allies were arrayed the W (left) edge of the Portina, with the Spanish to the S and in Talavera, whilst the French were arrayed long the E edge of the Portina. Neither side was allowed N of the Medellin/Cascajal.
End Turn 2 – almost everyone still on blinds (White for Spanish)

How It Played

The French went straight into the attack, pinning Wellesley to his front whilst sending much of Victor’s corps into the valley on Wellesley’s flank. This was meant to be just a diversion, whilst the French Reserve pushed through a hopefully weakened Allied centre, right on the Spanish/British boundary N of the Pajar. The French being first across the northern valley meant that it was they that got the disorders as they crossed the gullies hidden in the long grass (and on a hidden map). The French managed to take the Valdefuentes farm, but the British pulled slightly back and established a solid line. Sebastiani tried a frontal assault in column across the Portina ravine but was suitably historically seen off by volleys from the solid British and KGL line. 
British and KGL line the W side of the Portina ravine

However on the southern flank there was a big and early melee between Milhaud’s dragoons and the Spanish heavy cavalry in the vineyards and olive groves, which the Spanish won! (Nick’s dice rolling and coming down with COVID possibly not helping!). This set the tone for an above average by the Spanish – discussed more below. With the vineyards clear of French troops the Spanish army started advancing through them to the N with the aim of rolling up the French flank. 
Spanish cavalry pushes N through the vines
At around this point the French started calling for a truce – as allowed in the scenario rules and has happened for about 7 hours in the real battle! The British opposed it, so it took 2 turns for the French to get the right dice roll, and then could only hold onto it for 2 turns, allowing recovery of order and some recovery of strength.
As the truce faded a steady battle got underway around the Pajar, and Leval’s German, Dutch and Polish troops fought a valiant delay action whilst the French reserves came in to stablise the situation – but now no longer able to commit to a counter-stroke. Victor was pullling back from the N flank but too late to make a difference. In the dying turns of the day and game the dry grass started to catch fire and lots of little plumes of smoke was soon making squares off limit to troops and blocking visibility (as happened in the real battle).
Poles and the French reserve block the Spanish exit from the vineyards – Talavera in the distance.

At turn 18 is was decided to draw stumps and call ENDEX, as no brigades (the currency for victory points) where at immediate risk and both lines were reasonable firm. Totting up the losses showed a marginal Allied victory (so probably close to reality), although the French were adamant that there reserves would make micemeat of the ubermensch Spanish!
ENDEX – the top 3 tables pushed together


In terms of admin and the overall run of the weekend eveyrthing went to plan and I think a good time was had by all. Having Andrew Field (the author of THE book on Talavera) as King Joseph meant that we got lots of insight into the battle, and lots of discussion about military history vs wargaming – particularly where the Spanish and C2 were concerned! 
As a result whilst the rules worked well overall there are a few changes I’ll look at before the next battle:
  • Splitting Troop Quality and Unit Size back out into two values. I’d conflated the two to reduce a step in calculation, but the large Spanish units over-balanced the reduce Spanish TQ too much – so will re-separate them
  • Adding in some form of Brigade Orders and a throw to change orders based on Commander Quality and Commander Boldness. This seems to be working fine in my medieval games – but the trick with lots of players will be balancing player agency with historical friction. I can’t see the Spanish players having such a good game!
  • Slowing down Foot Artillery – despite not being able to move and fire in a turn it was still used a bit like a tank. Just ordered Webber’s Peninsular Journal to see if it gives any more insight. Tempted to go for a full move to unlimber. The new artillery ammo rules (low on double blank, out on 2nd double blank, resupply by ADC card) worked reasonably well.
  • Increasing cannister effect, the +2 just isn’t enough, might make +3 or even +4!
The next big Napoleonic game won’t be for 12 months (and likely to be Fuentes d’Onoro in Spring 2024 – let me know if you’d like an invite) so lots of time to try out some other rules for comparison (particularly General d’Armee 2 when it comes out) and to do some test games of our own rules revisions.
Thanks to all who played and attended and made it a great weekend. It was lovely to play a Peninsular game on something that looked like dried grass rather than a lush European field!
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Finally, some of my other favourite photos from the game.
The Battle for the Vineyard

Just N of the Pajar – note the smouldering grass fires

Looking NE from the Medellin to the Cascajal

Looking SW from the Medellin to Talavera and the vineyards

The fight around the Pajar – note all the empty space here and elsewhere!

Spanish cavalry charging French infantry – the cavalry typically came off worse

The fight around the Pajar again, looking N

Players in full flow

The Spanish caught in early morning sun

The British line awaits

The 4th Baden Regiment attacks, supported by Nassaus

The Westphalian Chevaus-Legere reforms after a successful charge

Spanish Infantry emerging from an olive grove

The Hesse-Darmstadt Gross und Erbprinz Regiment supported by the Frankfurt Battalion

British and French face off across the Portina Gully

Where the dry Portina river becomes a wet gully, full of black snakes!

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Autor: David Burden / Converj – David’s Blog

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