The Spanish Military Renaissance 1717-27

French map of the siege shows British naval bombardments on each side of the peninsula, aimed at Spanish land positions.

The French had battled for more than a decade to place a Bourbon dynasty on the throne of Spain, but harsh Realpolitik asserted itself as soon as they had made Philip V undisputed master of that kingdom. As early as 1712 Louis XIV had declared his intention to demolish Gerona, and so deprive Spain of a frontier fortress against France: the scheme was not carried out, owing to the silent opposition of the Duke of Berwick. The Spanish, for their part, were encouraged by Queen Elizabeth Farnese and the mighty minister, Cardinal Alberoni, to behave as if Charles V still ruled southern Europe from Toledo. They laid claim to Sicily, which was now in the possession of Piedmont, and to the succession to Tuscany, Parma and Piacenza, on the southern and eastern flanks of the Milanese territory which Austria had gained at the peace.

For a time it seemed as if Spain actually had the means of putting these aggressive schemes into effect. The army became leaner and more efficient, and the rebuilt dockyards turned out a large number of excellent warships. This general renewal of the military spirit was provoked, in part, by sheer frustration at the way the French boasted about their leadership in the arts of war. The engineer officer Juan Martin Cermefio insisted that the first announcement of Vauban’s ‘first system’ for fortification was its orillons and curved flanks (in a pirated edition at Amsterdam in 1689) had been anticipated by two years by Sebastian Fernandez de Medrano, the director of the Royal Military Academy of the Spanish Netherlands (El Ingeniero Practico, Brussels, 1687). According to Cermefio, Vauban had improved upon an original suggestion of Marchi:

Don Sebastian de Medrano did no less, and his trace (apart from being a little laborious to carry out) owned all the advantages you could desire. But this general had the misfortune to be a Spaniard, and to work in an unfortunate century, when the military art in our monarchy did not attain the same height as in other times. (Quoted in La Mina, 1898, I, 14)

A sense of inferiority, or rather, as the Marques de la Mina said, an all-pervading laziness, prevented all but a few Spanish authors from following Medrano’s footsteps. The sole Spanish military writer of the period to gain a European reputation was Don Alvaro de Navia Ossorio, Marques de Santa Cruz, the author of Reflexiones Militares (twenty books in nine vols, Turin, 1724). Even this work was old-fashioned in tone, enumerating every possible eventuality in war, and delighting in ruses, spies, signals and secret messages.

A useful, if modest contribution was made to Spanish engineering by the Jesuit Joseph Cassini, who was mathematics master at the Imperial College of Madrid, and taught a number of the abler officers who were to serve in the Italian campaigns of the 1730S and 1740s. His literary monument was the Escuela Militar de Fortificaci6n Ofensiva y Defensiva, which was published at Madrid in 1705. One of Cassini’s pupils was the Marques de la Mina, who felt strongly that Spanish military men must redeem their reputation as much with the intellect as with the sword, and drew up a practical dictionary to help young officers to find their way about the terminology of fortification. Eighteenth-century Spain being the place that it was, de la Mina’s dictionary never appeared in print.

The Flemish born engineer Marquis de Verboom

It was some consolation that Spanish military engineering was at last given a solid institutional basis. The founder of the engineer corps was the Fleming Jorge Prospero Verboom (1665-1744), ‘the outstanding member of his profession, the Euclid of his age, the best-read among our officers, and a man who was respected by foreigners’ (ibid., I, 377). Verboom was made Engineer-General on 13 January 1710, but was wounded and captured in the bloody defeat of the Bourbon forces at Almenara on 27 July. While still a prisoner at Barcelona he conceived a plan to organise the engineer officers into a unified corps, which would attract high prestige, high pay and well-qualified recruits. He sent the programme to Philip V, who received it with enthusiasm and founded a proper hierarchy of engineering ranks on II April 1712. Verboom was released in the same year, and at once set about transforming the new corps into a passable imitation of the French model.

Such were the difficulties of transporting and maintaining forces in the remoter Mediterranean theatres that in the new war of 1717-20 it was almost unknown for two well-found armies to confront each other at the same time. The first-comer therefore had a great advantage, and was free to devote all his attention to taking the enemy fortresses.

In the late summer of 1717 an expeditionary force of 8,000 Spanish descended on the Austrian island of Sardinia and cracked open the strong points of Cagliari, Alghero and Aragonese before the Vienna government could send any help.

The Spaniards came out of Barcelona in 1718, this time in a strength of 3°,000, and landed in Sicily to reclaim it from the Piedmontese, who had entered into possession five years before. The expedition was accompanied by Verboom, who contrived to produce sixty engineers and fifty miners for the occasion. Undeterred by the cutting of his sea communications by the British, through the naval battle of Passaro on II August, the diminutive Spanish commander de Lede bottled up the Piedmontese and 2,234 Austrians in the citadel of Messina, an impressive-looking work which the Spaniards had built in 1685. The Piedmontese governor capitulated on 29 September, after a bloody siege which cost the Spanish the lives of nineteen of their engineers. Verboom was furious with de Lede, and a few months later the commander told him to leave the army and go back to Sardinia. Seventeen thousand Austrians spent sixty-four days to get the place back again in the following year.

Western Europe was quick to show its indignation at Alberoni’s adventures. The French joined with the British, Dutch and A4strians in a highly unnatural league called the Quadruple Alliance, and the Duke of Berwick was sent with 4,000 men to the western Pyrenees to invade the Biscayan provinces of Spain. The coastal gateway of Fuenterrabia fell on 17 June 1719, and Berwick went on to attack the peninsula-fortress of San Sebastian. He planted some heavy guns on the far bank of the Urumea, so as to open up the river fronts of the place, and then drove his trenches along the beach on the near bank. The fortress capitulated on 19 August. Wellington adopted exactly the same procedure when he besieged San Sebastian ninety-four years later. Perhaps he had read his history.

These manifold disasters brought about the fall of Alberoni, and in February 1720 King Philip V made peace. By a reshuffling of the terms of the Peace of Utrecht the Spanish evacuated Sicily in favour of the Austrians, and the dispossessed Piedmontese received Sardinia in return. Philip had not given up his ambitions in Italy, but he appreciated how dangerous it was to try to put them into effect without foreign friends.

Gibraltar seemed to be the one objective which could be attained without the help of allies, and early in 1727 the Conde de las Torres and an army of 20,000 men began the siege of the offending garrison of one thousand British. Verboom was in charge of the technical side of the operation, and suggested that Gibraltar should be attacked from the sea. The commander-in-chief disagreed, and Verboom argued so violently that for the second time in his career he was dismissed from a campaign and sent home. The affair was symptomatic of the growing discord between field commanders and their technicians, of which the century furnished so many examples.

After long and useless artillery duels the Spanish concluded a truce on 23 June, ‘and thus ended a siege of five months, in which we had about two thousand men killed or wounded, and in which all we gained was the knowledge that the place was impregnable by land’ (Keith, 1843, 75).

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