Reviews: Military Books

Wellington’s Worst Scrape: the Burgos Campaign 1812

Divall, Carole. Wellington’s Worst Scrape: the Burgos Campaign 1812.  Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 2012. 259 pages. ISBN: 9781848429. Hardcover. $40

Wellington’s Worst Scrape: the Burgos Campaign 1812

By August 1812, the Anglo-Portuguese Army, under the command of the Duke of Wellington, appeared to be invincible.  It had captured the border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, destroyed the main French bridge across the Tagus at Almaraz, decimated the French Army of Portugal at Salamanca, and liberated Madrid. Wellington then split his army.  Half of his force was deployed in the vicinity of Madrid and along the Tagus River screening the army from the French forces to the east and south.  Wellington took the rest of his force to besiege Burgos, a major French supply depot, that sat along the along the main lines of communication for the French Army back to France. Wellington hoped to avoid a protracted siege– for he had few siege guns –and the longer the siege took, the more opportunity the French forces in Spain would have to unite and attack him. Unfortunately for the British and their Allies, Wellington did not get his wishes.

The siege of Burgos dragged on for a month and Wellington was forced to abandon it because for the first time since Napoleon left the Peninsula in 1809, the French were acting under a unified command with the goal of evicting the British and Portuguese from Spain. The combined French armies badly out-numbered Wellington, whose army was worn out from ten months of campaigning.   He ordered a withdrawal back to Portugal and what began as an orderly retreat turned into a near disaster as the army began to disintegrate due to many factors, including a supply system that collapsed due to mismanagement by the commissary, a terrible weather, and a vigorous French pursuit.  The retreat was similar to the retreat to Corunna in early 1809, with thousands of men, horses, and baggage animals lost.  Among those captured was the British Army’s second-in-command, Lieutenant General Edward Paget.

Ms. Divall divides Wellington’s Worst Scrape into four parts.  The first part examines the events of August 1812 and the liberation of Madrid.  The author uses this section to set the strategic stage for the rest of the book.  The main portion of the book is in Parts Two and Three.  There she focuses on the siege of Burgos and the retreat to the Portuguese border.  She does a good job of providing an overview of the events that led to up the siege and the subsequent retreat, but that was not her goal.  In the Preface she writes “Military historians inevitably focus on strategy and tactics, on the objectives and achievements of a campaign and the objectives and achievements of a campaign and the mistakes made.  They create what might be termed the big military picture.  However, there are other stories to be told: the stories of the thousands of men who marched and fought and died in the autumn of 1812.”[1]

She has written an excellent history of the campaign, as seen not by the commanders, but by the junior officers and men who fought there.  She quotes extensively from almost 50 sets of memoirs, letters, and diaries to bring to life the experiences of the soldiers who fought on both sides.  Many sources were written shortly after the events and there is a sense of immediacy that draws the reader into the action. Ms. Divall does not just use British sources, but also French ones.  Among them are numerous quotes from Captain Hippolyte d’Espinchal of the 2nd French Hussars, who was actively involved in many of the key events of the pursuit of the British. As would be expected, the description of the events as seen by a French writer who witnessed it was often different than by a British soldier who was there. The author tries to stay neutral and gives both sides’ perspective when describing the events.  If there was a contradiction, she makes an effort to reconcile the differences.

The fourth part of the book is titled “Aftermath”.  In it, Ms. Divall explores who won, not just the siege and the subsequent retreat, but all of the British campaigns of 1812 in Spain. She looks at the question of even though the British were forced back to the Portuguese border, how did it affect the overall strategic picture in the Iberian Peninsula?  She also tells of the political cost to Wellington personally for not being able to hold the all the ground he had liberated.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is her examination of a memorandum Wellington wrote to the “Officers Commanding Divisions and Brigades”, where he castigates them and the regimental officers for failing to keep their troops disciplined during the retreat.  In it he conveniently forgets the incompetence and failure of the Army level staff that caused so many of the problems. Instead he says that the problems were caused by the failure of the junior officers to do their duty.   When this memorandum was circulated among the regimental officers, there was much outrage among them due to the unfairness of him placing the sole blame on them.  The memorandum is reproduced verbatim and makes fascinating reading!

Wellington’s Worst Scrape closes with three appendices that cover the technical aspects of the siege, including the list of engineers and equipment used in it; Wellington’s plans for the siege; and a list of casualties, by week, during the siege and retreat.

On a final note, this is the third book I have read in the last three months on the Napoleonic Wars about the minor campaigns of the British Army that have been long overlooked. (The others being Andrew Bamford’s A Bold and Ambitious Enterprise: the British Army in the Low Countries, 1813-1814 and John Gregan and Martin Mace’s The Battle of Barrosa 1811: Forgotten Battle of the Peninsular War.)  I would like to commend Pen and Sword Books and Frontline Books for publishing them, rather than another account of a major battle.

Notes:

[1] Page IX. 

 

Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2013

 

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