Reviews: Military Books

Wellington against Junot & Wellington against Massena

Buttery, David. Wellington against Junot: The First Invasion of Portugal 1807-1808. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2011.  238 pages. 35 illustrations, 8 maps. ISBN# 9781848841420. £20/$39.95. Hardcover.

Buttery, David. Wellington against Massena: The Third Invasion of Portugal 1810-1811. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2007.  240 pages. 29 illustrations, 10 maps. ISBN# 9781844155545. £20/39.95. Hardcover

David Buttery has made an important contribution to our understanding of two campaigns of the Peninsular War which, without doubt, have required a modern study for some time.  The 1810-11 invasion has been dominated by the prolific research of Donald Horward, an acknowledged authority on the campaign, Wellington’s strategy for Portugal’s defence, and his nemesis Massena – but, for the most part, given the date of publication, available only to a specialist audience.  Glover’s critical study of the British army’s first campaign of the Peninsular War Britannia Sickens, published in 1970, despite specific insights into Wellesley’s appointment and the unravelling of developments underlying the ultimate destination of the expeditionary force, now looks somewhat dated.   The appearance of these two books during the bicentenary years of this important theatre in the struggle for Europe is therefore timely and appropriate.

The strongest aspect of Buttery’s work is the provision of a balanced view of the campaigns and major protagonists.  He provides the reader with useful, if somewhat overlong, introductory chapters, detailed biographies of Wellington and his respective adversaries in these two campaigns - Massena and Junot, reviewing their respective careers and, in the case of the two French commanders, some useful conclusions about their performance in Portugal and glimpses into their ultimate and rather ignominious exits from centre stage.  In addition, he sketches out the contributions of Ney and, to a more limited extent, Reynier to the third invasion, and that of Delaborde and Thiébault to the first invasion; while Loison was a central character in both campaigns. 

Wellington against Massena is an ambitious attempt to cover, in a short book, a very long year of campaigning between spring 1810 and the summer of 1811: synthesising, in 200 pages, the invasion of Portugal, its subsequent repulse by Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, two significant combats and two major battles.  Unfortunately, there are no Portuguese or Spanish sources to inform the discussion of political and military considerations underlying the defences of Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida or Wellington’s strategy for the defence of Portugal (including his decision not to attempt to relieve the siege of either city).  However, the author should be commended for personally visiting the Iberian Peninsula and for presenting specific aspects of the invasion from a French perspective, particularly the difficult choices Massena had to make preparing for the advance into Portugal and taking the route via the Serra de Alcoba rather than risking Wellington’s heavily entrenched defensive works on the ridge above the River Alva in the Serra da Atalhada. 

The author also includes useful discussions of the various travails of Gardanne and Claparède of D’Erlon’s IX Corps and the difficulties encountered in supporting and reinforcing Massena, maintaining French lines of communication, driving away threatening regular Spanish forces and undertaking counter insurgency activities.  But the reader is left requiring more in the way of explanation of the underlying reasons for the problems and obstacles faced, the decisions taken by Massena and the implications for the army of Portugal.  Furthermore, a map detailing the major topographical features the author describes, with their contemporary Portuguese names, would have been useful to understand the routes taken and the complex obstacles and issues faced by the invader in these relatively sparsely populated frontier regions.   

The book’s major weaknesses only really begin to develop fully in chapter 4, ‘The key to Portugal’.  Massena’s arrival and the discussion of the initial and subsequent relationships with his less than acquiescent corps commanders, are described with referral to the mémoires of Madame Junot, Duchess of Abrantes: an inauspicious start for both Massena and the chapter perhaps?  Despite claiming to have recourse to “a variety of sources, in particular eyewitness accounts from both sides”, the book is based upon a relatively modest number of sources, the majority of which provide an allied perspective.  With a couple of exceptions, sources presenting French perspectives are filtered through a translator: in the cases of Marbot and Thiébault, Buttery relies on abridged versions of their mémoires translated by Butler and, the views of Eblé, Fririon and Pelet via Horward. 

A review of sources supporting chapter 3 reveals the following data: Marshall-Cornwall’s biography of Massena (cited 10 times); Butler - Marbot (6); Butler - Thiébault (4); while Koch’s Mémoires de Massena is referred to just once.  In fact, Buttery makes reference to General Koch’s biographical work just three times in total throughout.  It would have been preferable to have seen more productive use made of sources such as Foy, Fririon, Hulot and Lemonnier Delafosse, all of whom provided firsthand accounts (albeit being published retrospectively and, in the case of Foy edited by Girod de l’Ain).  A further frustration is that the secondary sources listed within the bibliography inexplicably end abruptly with Marshall-Cornwall’s biography of Massena.  While this last work would generally appear to have stood the test of time, it is quite likely that a fresh look at some of the above-mentioned primary sources would have provided useful insights into the character of Massena, his relationships with subordinate commanders and subsequent problems in maintaining order and discipline within the army.  Although the insights offered by the books chosen by Buttery have been diligently built into the narrative, they render the book more of a tertiary source than a work of original research. 

In addition to a number of typographical errors that should have been addressed in proofreading there are number of assertions within the narrative itself that I would contend with.  For example, “Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida were modelled on eighteenth century lines and fell into the generic term ‘star fortresses’” (p. 65).  While Almeida, and its six formal bastions, had been constructed specifically to counter the Spanish frontier stronghold of Real Fuerte de la Concepción, Ciudad Rodrigo is much older with a mediaeval enceinte covered by later bastioned works.  During the combat of the Côa “the [allied] cavalry vedettes … soon fell back, with fifteen squadrons of French cavalry approaching rapidly.  These were elements of the 15th Chasseurs and 3rd Hussars.” (p. 72): perhaps this should have read including elements of these two regiments, which at full strength would muster just eight squadrons.  “Trench works [during the siege of Almeida] were started on 14 August by 2,500 volunteers of the 6th Léger” (p. 83), surely should have read of the VI Corps.   Describing the topography in the vicinity of Fuentes d’Oñoro (p.146) the author reports “The ridge lay between two rivulets, the Dos Casas and the Turones, and grew progressively steeper towards the north.  The Dos Casas widened ... and was a difficult obstacle, having steeper banks and being strewn with rocks further upstream.”.  Unless he had just retraced his steps, this should have read downstream.

The chapter reviewing the battle of Bussaco is sound enough, apart from the perplexing use of “Busaço” throughout.  Buçaco, Busaco and Bussaco have been used alternately in Portuguese and English histories, but never this spelling.  It is not just the effect it has on reading this particular chapter; it has a significant and highly negative impact on the integrity of the entire book.  Problems with interpretation of the narrative, or errors of fact mentioned above, are compounded by the following.  Buttery asserts that “The [retreating] army of Portugal was now headed for Almeida and Reynier’s II Corps, comprising three divisions, was bringing up the rear.“, whereas there were only two infantry divisions in the II Corps.  During the battle of Fuentes d’Oñoro he reports, “Wellington ordered the 24th regiment and the 6th Caçadores to support them, but General Drouet, now committed ten more battalions to the attack, including grenadiers of the Imperial Guard.” (p. 160).  Although Bessières brought some cavalry and artillery teams to support Massena, from the army of the north, this particular unit did not find its way there – even though some 'eyewitness accounts' suggest it did.  As is often found with Marbot, there is a need to take care when interpreting first hand sources.

The prequel, Wellington against Junot, is an altogether better book.  Buttery, retains the lively and entertaining narrative of his earlier work and has clearly made some considerable effort to incorporate Portuguese viewpoints of the events leading up to the crisis of 1807, the French invasion itself and British intervention in 1808.  However, while he has the solid foundations of Esdaile’s survey “The Peninsular War: a new history” for the Spanish perspectives, his grasp of Portuguese economics, domestic politics, foreign affairs and diplomacy is less comprehensive.  His major source, Wilcken, which deals mainly with the transfer of the Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro, could usefully have been supplemented by Livermore’s insightful annotations in ‘Portugal on the eve of the Peninsular War’.  Moreover, while the inclusion of Valente’s study of the Portuguese insurrection and French reprisals in secondary sources is to be welcomed, recourse to Vicente’s study Um Soldado da Guerra Peninsular - Bernardim Freire de Andrade e Castro would have helped avoid referrals to “Bernadino Freire” (p. 83) and “General Andrada” (p. 88) who we must assume is, quite correctly as it turns out, one and the same person. 

The absence of Muir’s, Britain and the defeat of Napoleon, 1807-1815, and Hall’s, British strategy in the Napoleonic War, 1803-15, and his more recent publication, Wellington’s Navy: Sea Power and the Peninsular War 1807-1814, from the bibliographies of both books is not incidental to their defects.  There is insubstantial coverage of the dominant political economy underpinning British interventions in general, in this period, and major political considerations that constrained Wellington’s strategy in the Iberian Peninsula in particular. 

For example, in Wellington against Junot there are only cursory references to Canning, and no acknowledgment of this statesman’s role in Wellesley’s appointment or in precipitating the transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil.   Muir and Hall concur that Britain was already shifting away from funding continental allies and undertaking opportunistic and isolated military forays into the continent and Mediterranean, or costly and ineffective colonial expeditions, using up finance, naval resources (warships and transports) and manpower.  British strategy was increasingly predicated upon the expansion and diversification of commercial markets and undertaking concerted and combined operations utilising the Royal Navy’s maritime supremacy and littoral-based army operations.  Indeed, one such operation to seize the forts of Lisbon and capture the Portuguese fleet was planned in late 1807, precluded only by the acquiescence of the Portuguese prince regent to Canning’s ultimatum— for which, see Robson, ‘Canning, Portugal and maritime war’ and ‘The Royal Navy in Lisbon, 1807-1808’. 

On a final note, maps 2, 3 and 4 are incorrectly aligned on the latitude: Cabo da Roca, to the west of Sintra, is the most westerly point of mainland Europe.  Whilst this cartographical error does not cause too many problems in describing the locations of major settlements, troop movements and the distances travelled, the maps look incongruous as a result.  In addition, some topographical features other than major rivers on maps 2 and 3, and the main road network on maps 2 to 4, would have been useful in order to understand the military strategy of the French and the allies. 

In conclusion, the subject matter and objectives set for these two studies are entirely relevant.  However, a considerable range of material has become available for this period in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, providing very substantial potential for new insights into specific aspects of the campaigns that would have enhanced their narratives than has actually been included.  Nevertheless, the author has widened the scope of the analysis and interpretation of events considerably beyond recent, Anglo-centric approaches covering, for example, the battle of Talavera de la Reina.  As result, these two books represent useful, well-written, highly readable and enjoyable introductions to the campaigns of 1807-08 and 1810-11.  Questions raised within them will undoubtedly provoke further discussion as to Napoleon’s strategy for the domination of Europe, British interventions in Portugal and Spain, and the outcomes of the war for Iberians, whilst gaps in their coverage of primary sources and their interpretation leave room for further, more comprehensive, consideration by historians more knowledgeable of French, Portuguese and Spanish sources.


Reviewed by Anthony Gray

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2013


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