Reviews: Books



At Wellington’s Right Hand: the Letters of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon, 1808 – 1815

Edited by Dr. Rory Muir

Muir, Rory. At Wellington’s Right Hand: the Letters of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon, 1808 – 1815. (Publications of the Army Records Society, v. 21.) Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton, 2003.  ISBN# 0750933801.  458 pages. £52. $92.

At Wellington's Right Hand

It seems like every year, a new set of previously unpublished memoirs or letters written by a British officer are discovered and published.  Some deserve to remain unpublished, while others leave the reader wondering why it took 200 years for them to be put into print.  At Wellington’s Right Hand definitely falls into the latter category.

This book consists of 196 letters between Alexander Gordon— who initially served as the aide-de-camp to General David Baird during the Coruna Campaign and died at Waterloo after serving through much of the Peninsular War as the chief aide-de-camp to Wellington— and Gordon’s brother Lord Aberdeen, who would become the British Secretary in 1820 and eventually the Prime Minister during the Crimean War.  The letters run from October 1808 to December 1813, practically all of the Peninsular War. (There is also one letter written during the Waterloo Campaign.) There are some gaps in the coverage of the events of those years, however with Gordon writing from the field to his brother in the United Kingdom on an average of twice a month, virtually every major action and most of the minor actions, skirmishes, and goings-on at the headquarters are covered.

Although this almost unbroken string of letters is unique, their true value lies in who was writing them and what he was saying.  Most memoirs and letters of the period are long on personal information, but short on the events that they witness.  Gordon provides very little information about his daily life.  Instead his letters are filled with his observations of activities at the headquarters, insights on Wellington’s plans, gossip about the various people he has come into contact with (both British and French), and his own feelings about various events.  The letters were never intended for publication, so Gordon pulled no punches. For example, his letter from Coruna on 14 January 1809:

“We are arrived at Coruna with the loss of about 4,000 men by sickness, taken & missing. The French are about two miles from us not in very great force. The Transports are not yet arrived from Vigo. Sir John Moore ought to be hung his conduct has been infamous.”

In addition to being Wellington’s aide, Gordon served as his emissary to the French Army, often to arrange prisoner exchanges or to bring amenities to captured British officers. These letters provide detail about his stays at the various French headquarters and his friendships with different French generals.  He mourned at the news of the deaths of two of his friends in the French Army --Generals Graindorge (who died of wounds after Busacco) and St. Croix, “. . . a great friend of mine, and an excellent officer.”  When the French governor of Ciudad Rodrigo, General Renaud, was captured in 1811, he asks his brother to help him when he lands in England:

“He is esteemed an excellent officer, and is a very intelligent fellow. He will give you a great deal of information upon our Campaigns here, and of the state of the French Armies in Spain, of the Emperor &c &c. provided you give him enough wine to drink at table. I have made it a point to be very kind to him, as has Lord W.; indeed the civility I have constantly received from the French Army is very great, and the way they all know, and speak of me is something ridiculous.”

The letters of Gordon’s brother, Lord Aberdeen, are of equal value.  The letters are often in response to the letters written by Gordon and provide great detail on the political and popular re-action to the events in the Peninsula.  For example in December 1810, he describes the mood of the public on the French invasion of Portugal:

“A very great change has taken place in the opinions and expectations of people in the country with respect to the campaign. The most sanguine are staggered; and I am almost the only person who continues to talk with any confidence.  The publications in the Moniteur which are in our papers today, and which of course you will see as soon as this letter, are certainly disheartening.  They declare that they have ample provisions for four or five months. If this be true, you cannot remain where you are for that time. It will be utterly impossible to supply you and the population of Lisbon for so long, at any expense that can be compassed. They talk of sending reinforcements; anything is desirable that would enable Lord W. to strike some blow. People begin to murmur and say that charmed with his strong position, he has waited so long inactive, that Masséna has concentrated his strength, received reinforcements, established communications, magazines, and entrenched himself in a position as strong as his own. In short no good is expected. I write all this as of course you like to know the common talk. For myself, I still confidently rely on Lord W.’s genius and spirit, and on the unbroken energy of the troops.”

At Wellington’s Right Hand is a must for the serious student of the Peninsular War.  The letters are lively and easy to read. Dr. Muir does a superb job of editing the volume.   His introduction to the book provides biographies for both Alexander Gordon and Lord Aberdeen and places their roles in the events they discuss in perspective.  In addition to providing many footnotes, that give much background information on the more obscure events and personalities, Dr. Muir closes with  24 pages of additional notes and short biographies of the individuals mentioned in the letters, as well as the most detailed index I have ever seen in a book.  It is 16 pages long and permits the reader to find quickly the pertinent letters on a variety of topics.  For example, under the heading of Almeida – the Portuguese fortress city – there are the following sub-headings:

Almeida
French siege
British blockade of
French garrison intend to blow up and escape
escape of garrison
no outcry over
destroyed by Spencer
Effect of destruction on Wellington’s plans
repairs to

This index is a true work of art and sets the standard for all other works!

My only complaint with the book is that the paper the book is printed on  has a sheen to it that reflects light – thus making it difficult to read with a lamp.

 

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2004

 

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