Reviews: Military Books

Napoleon’s German Division in Spain

Smith, Digby. Napoleon’s German Division in Spain, Volume I: Nassau, Baden, Frankfurt, Dutch& Hessen-Darmstadt Troops, their Regimental History, Uniforms & Organization.  Godmanchester, UK: Ken Trotman: 2012.  262 pages. 17 color uniform plates. 11 color maps. 11 black and white maps.  ISBN# 9781907417313. Hardcover. £40 ($65).

When I heard Digby was writing a book on the Germans who fought in the Peninsular War, I was quite happy.   I have over 300 books that cover some aspect of the Peninsular War, but very few on the Germans who fought alongside the French.  Furthermore, I was able to uncover only a handful of books on the topic.  They include one written by Captain E. Costa de Serda in 1874: Operations des Troupes Allemandes en Espagne de 1808 à 1813.  There is also the multi-volume Les Allemands sous les Aigles Françaises written in the early 1900s by Captain Jean Sauzey.[1]  These books however, cover all of the Napoleonic Wars, not just the Peninsular War.  In German there is Erich Blankenhorn’s 1808 -1814 Badische Truppen in Spanien which was first published in 1939.  In English, John Gill wrote the essay “Vermin, Scorpions, and Mosquitoes: the Rheinbund in the Peninsula”, which was published in Ian Fletcher’s The Peninsular War: Aspects of the Struggle for the Iberian Peninsula, published by Spellmount in 1998. But other than that there is very little and most of the above titles were written over 100 years ago.

Mr. Smith took an unusual approach to writing Napoleon’s German Division in Spain.  He went to the regimental histories of the German units that served in Spain and used these as the basis of the book.  These histories were written 100 to 175 years ago and have long been unattainable. Instead of re-writing these histories, Mr. Smith translated them into English, melded them together, and expanded them where necessary with passages from Sir Charles Oman’s History of the Peninsular War.  What the reader gets is a picture of the Peninsular War that is quite different than Oman’s History of the Peninsular War or Sir William Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula. Although the German Division fought in many battles against the Spanish, they only met the British at Talavera in 1809 and Vitoria in 1813. Most of the time, the regiments were serving in isolated outposts trying to keep lines-of-communications safe from a pervasive guerrilla presence. Their war was a war of ambushes, assassinations, assaults, massacres, and reprisals. There were no rear areas where the troops could relax.  The enemy was everywhere and could strike at anytime or any place. It was a tough job, with little glory to win.   Napoleon’s German Division in Spain is their story. 

The book is divided into four separate sections.  The first looks at the different contingents that formed the Division.  There is a short overview of each unit’s history in Spain, its organization, and the uniforms that were worn.  The meat of the book however is the next three sections.  Mr. Smith first examines the 2nd Nassau Infantry Regiment and Nassau Chasseurs- à-Cheval, the 4th Baden Regiment and its supporting artillery battery, the Frankfurt Battalion, and the various Dutch units.  The next section looks at the Hessian Erb und Grossherzog Regiment.  The final section looks at the 1st Nassau Infantry Regiment, which was not a part of the German Division, but served in eastern Spain, mostly as part of the garrison of Barcelona.

Although the various contingents did fight at battalion and regimental levels, much of the war was fought at the company level or lower.  Napoleon’s German Division does a good job at describing the many battles, but where it excels is telling the story of the hundreds of small unit actions that were fought over the years.  Most of the time the Germans were outnumbered, but they were usually able to beat off the attacks.  These skirmishes and ambushes are described in detail. The defeats, because of the nature of the war, few soldiers survived to tell the story.  So the regimental histories acknowledged this with a few lines, stating that a detachment under the command of Sergeant X or Lieutenant Y, was destroyed on a given date.  Interspersed throughout the narrative are official after-action-reports and casualty figures for the various actions.  Except for the pitch battles, most of the casualties were light – maybe one or two killed, and several wounded.  Over the years, these numbers added up into hundreds killed and thousands wounded.

One of the more difficult things when reading these kinds of histories is identifying the locations where the actions took place.  Most people will recognize the major battles, but Napoleon’s German Division has many actions in small villages and towns.  Mr. Smith has done a superb job identifying 95% of locations mentioned in text, usually providing the major road it is on or the distance and direction from the closest city.

The publisher did not spare any expense in producing this volume.  In addition to 11 full page color maps and 11 full page black and white maps, there are 17 color uniform plates by Bob Marrion. They are superbly done and the majority show the various soldiers in campaign dress.  The plates alone are worth the price of the book!

The reader should be aware that at times the text does not flow smoothly.   This can be attributed to the combining of the various histories and different writing styles. Despite this minor flaw, the reader will be left with several impressions.  The first is how dedicated and professional the Germans were.  The second is the futility of the war that the Germans fought against an implacable, fanatical enemy.   This book is a must read for anyone interested in the Peninsular War, for it tells the other side of the story of the Peninsular War.

Mr. Smith has told me that a second volume is in the works.  It will cover Berg, Westphalia and the Ducal States

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2012

Notes:

[1] The six volumes were:  Volume I: Frankfurt; Volume II: Baden; Volume III: Saxony; Volume IV: Saxon Duchies; Volume V: Bavaria; Volume VI: Hesse-Darmstadt and Nassau

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2010

 

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