Reviews: Biographical Books

Wellington’s Peninsular War Generals & Their Battles, a Biographical and Historical Dictionary

Heathcote, T. A. Wellington’s Peninsular War Generals & Their Battles, a Biographical and Historical Dictionary. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2010. 197 p. Maps. ISBN# 978848840614. Hardcover. £19.99

This is a thoroughly researched, well written and neatly presented work, providing a total of 41 valuable biographies.  These are presented as pen portraits for less well-known commanders and fuller profiles for renowned or senior generals serving Wellington in the Peninsular War.  Whether by design or chance, and we do not know from either the synopsis or introduction, the collection benefits from a review of commanding officers representing all the major arms of military service, namely: infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers, commissariat and medical. 

Each portrait or biography typically comprises an introduction, providing some background information, a review of military service, theatres, campaigns and battles, extending to military operations and, in a number of cases, political or diplomatic service, beyond Waterloo.  The scope of the reviews is therefore much more extensive than the book’s title suggests.  The period and theatres covered includes both Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and extends from South America and the Caribbean in the west, across much of the European continent, and onwards and beyond to the Ionian Isles and India in the East. In the main, the resulting sketch of each protagonist is at one and the same time lively yet thorough: the style of writing is figurative and treatment comprehensive in terms of the personal information, military service and time frame covered.  Whilst, the content for more important, renowned and active characters is - quite rightly - more extensive than that for less conspicuous or quieter counterparts, in some cases the scope of subject matter covered is irregular and, in one or two instances, the supplementary information provided is somewhat curious.

The upshot is that quality of information provided ranges from the extremely engaging and interesting to the mundane and irrelevant.  Examples of the former are the identification of two generals who commenced their respective military careers as “gentlemen cadet” or “volunteer interpreter” – not quite the archetypes of an Anglo-Irish, Protestant ascendancy that we may have been led to believe as typical of the British army.  Whilst the latter categories would include one general’s reported “kindlier feelings” for a displaced Andalusian dog as opposed to the singular importance of his victory at Barossa in an independent command over a marshal of France.   The uneven and, in one or two places, inexplicable nature of material included for individual commanders is an unhelpful feature that is compounded by a tendency to include unattributed and often-reported anecdotes about, and sound bites from, them.  Although, these discrepancies are not likely to matter greatly to the majority of the book’s intended audience. 

The portraits and statues of Wellington’s generals promised in the list of illustrations are mystifyingly omitted whilst the maps that are included are amateurish and detract from the otherwise highly professional presentation of the book’s contents.

The book concludes with a useful, if short, review, in chronological order, of expeditions, campaigns and battles where more than five of these generals and senior commanders were present followed by a useful table, over two pages, presenting promotion by rank for each of the protagonists in order of army seniority although, regrettably, column titles are restricted to the first page only.

The major defect of the work, despite a fairly comprehensive bibliography, is the infuriating lack of a scholarly apparatus to support the interested reader in undertaking further research.  However, the book’s utility as a reference work is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of a comprehensive index, although the method of highlighting to aid research is, to some degree, inconsistent. 

Reviewed by Anthony Gray

laced on the Napoleon Series: September 2013

 

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