Greenhill Books: Napoleonic Library

Oman VIII: The Biographical Dictionary Of British Officers Killed And Wounded, 1808-1814

By Dr. John A. Hall

Oman VIII cover

A major new reference work is to be published next month (May 1998) to complement Sir Charles Oman's monumental, seven-volume A History Of The Peninsular War.

The book is The Biographical Dictionary Of British Officers Killed And Wounded, 1808-1814 by Dr John A. Hall and will be in the same format as the volumes by Sir Charles Oman, with a similar style jacket but with a dark green background replacing the maroon of Greenhill's A History Of The Peninsular War.

The new volume is a comprehensive biographical dictionary of more than 3,000 officers in British, Portuguese and Spanish service killed or wounded in the seven years of the Peninsular War. Not a reprint, but based on new and exhaustive research of primary records and archives, this superbly detailed reference book draws on data from service records, official despatches, casualty rolls, medal lists, pension lists, the London Gazette and additional original sources to provide an astonishing insight into the history of the British Army from the point of view of the individual.

Serving as a who's who for British officers, and French and German officers in British pay, this is an essential addition to Peninsular War scholarship.

Entries on this casualty roll include the service histories of individual officers, medals or awards received, the place, date and cause of death or nature of wound, subsequent career details and additional campaign material. Many entries include accounts about the particular officer, taken from memoirs, diaries and despatches of the period, making this not only a vital source of information but also a very readable and human study.

Greenhill are proud to publish this fine reference work by Dr John Hall to complement Sir Charles' magnum opus. We asked Dr Hall to describe something of his research (a fuller and more detailed account appears in the Introduction to the book) and he writes:

'The Peninsular War was a pivotal event not only in the history of Europe and the development of the British Army, but also in terms of the impact on the lives of those who participated. In the memorable phrase of Napier, the veterans of the Peninsular War: "had won nineteen pitched battles and innumerable combats; had made or sustained ten sieges, and taken four great fortresses; had twice expelled the French from Portugal, and once from Spain; had penetrated France, and killed, wounded, or captured two hundred thousand enemies, leaving of their own number forty thousand, whose bones whiten the plains and mountains of the Peninsula."

Hundreds of books have been written about the Peninsular War. It is a period that continues to fascinate, and grips the popular imagination. Yet, ironically, the individuals who participated in those extraordinary events are largely forgotten. It is probably true to say that fictional characters, like Bernard Cornwell's heroic Sharpe, are now better known than the real men who fought the war. This is particularly sad as in many cases the true stories of the Peninsular War are even more extraordinary than the fiction.

This national amnesia is not new and indeed was recognised by Peninsula veterans almost as soon as the war was over. William Napier, for example, who was himself a veteran of the campaigns in Portugal and Spain, chose to end his great history of the Peninsular War with the biting comment:

"Thus terminated the war, and with it all remembrances of the veteran's service."

Peninsula veterans received no campaign medal for over thirty years, nor were they granted the two years' service bonus that was automatically awarded survivors of Waterloo. That more British soldiers had died in the Peninsula than were even present on the field at Waterloo was, it seems, not relevant. This comparative obscurity was foreseen by Jonathan Leach, a veteran of both the Peninsula and Waterloo:

"Ere many years lapse, if the names of Vimeira, Talavera, Salamanca, Vittoria, etc. etc. should be particularly remembered, the actors in these scenes (with a very few exceptions) will be entirely forgotten."

I first became interested in this project when attempting to research a British officer about whom I was hoping to publish an article. I soon came to realise that there was a significant gap in the available literature.

I became aware of the work of Lionel Challis as a result of the 1949 one-volume typescript index to his card index, a copy of which is in the PRO, and the article he published in that same year in the Journal of the Society of Army Historical Research. Challis devoted almost forty years of his life, from the beginning of the First World War to after the Second, to an undertaking of almost incomprehensible scope.

I have been writing this book for over seven years - somewhat longer than the Peninsular War itself actually lasted. The Peninsular War spread over many years and involved at one time or another virtually every regiment and corps in the British Army. As many as ten thousand officers served at one point or another in Portugal, Spain or the south of France, and providing a biographical sketch of each of them was simply not practical. The question became, therefore, how to more narrowly define the project in order for it to offer new information not readily available elsewhere, while at the same time being both logically defined and achievable? A biographical dictionary of British officers killed and wounded in action, 1808-1814, seemed to meet these criteria, and it is for that reason that this book came into being.

'This volume is, then, an attempt to establish a list of those officers who were recorded as having been killed or wounded in action with the enemy in Portugal, Spain, and the south of France. What actually constituted a wound is not necessarily clear, and was somewhat ambiguous even at the time. The casualty returns published in the London Gazette, which provided the majority of names appearing in this book, usually distinguished between 'severe' and 'slight' wounds, though there appears to have been considerable discretion available to regiments in the field as to what exactly these terms meant in practice. Some colonels were apparently reluctant to have returned as 'serious' anything short of amputation or wounds likely to prove fatal, while others were more liberal in their interpretation. The officers themselves, it seems, were often able to influence how a wound was recorded. For some it became a point of honour not to return their wounds.

The casualty returns published in the London Gazette were occasionally inaccurate. In some instances officers were actually recorded as having been killed when in fact they had been wounded or captured. Such errors are understandable when one considers the frequently chaotic circumstances surrounding attempts to ascertain casualties. All too often wounded men could not be removed during the heat of the battle, nor could they easily be checked on, but lay where they fell.

In other instances the published returns are ambiguous or even identify the wrong officer. Early in the war the casualty returns rarely gave Christian names, which inevitably caused confusion in regiments which contained, for example, more than one man with the same surname. Many errors of transcription resulted, presumably from attempts to read poorly written returns submitted by the regiments in the field, something with which I have infinite patience after years spent deciphering the frequently illegible attempts at penmanship displayed by some officers.

Identifying the correct individual from ambiguous or outright inaccurate references proved to be one of the most testing, and rewarding, aspects of research for this book. Common surnames (the Campbells in the Scottish regiments, for example) posed a particular problem. Nevertheless, in the overwhelming majority of cases I have been able to substantiate the correct (or most likely) identities of specific casualties.

Names of foreign officers serving in the British Army were prone to being butchered in both casualty returns and Army lists, correct spellings being ignored in favour of anglicised or phonetic approximations, and first and family names confused.

Aside from using the published casualty returns, I have incorporated those officers who record wounds in their 1829 Statement of Service, the manuscripts for which are held in massive bound volumes in the Public Record Office. These Statements offer invaluable biographical and service information.

Various other published and manuscript sources were also of use in assembling and cross-referencing the individual offices, ranging from published memoirs and autobiographies, to obituaries, regimental musters, registers of deceased officers, regimental monthly returns, musters, and pension records.

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