Reviews: Military Books

Inside Wellington's Peninsular Army, 1808-1814

Muir, Rory, Robert Burnham, Howie Muir and Ron McGuigan. Inside Wellington's Peninsular Army, 1808-1814. Barnsley, UK : Pen & Sword, 2006. 325 pages. ISBN#-13: 9781844154845. Hardcover. $50/£25.

Inside Wellington's Peninsular Army

This fine collaborative effort is the work of four historians -- Robert Burnham, Ron McGuigan, Howie Muir and Rory Muir -- well known to the readership of the Napoleon Series. As Bob Burnham explains in his brief introduction, all four had been working on different aspects of the Peninsular army and decided to combine their separate efforts into a joint publication. Their objective was to explain "what was so special about Wellington and his army" and why it was consistently victorious during the five years the Peninsular campaign lasted. The result is an excellent book that should be in the libraries of all serious students of the Peninsular War.

The context for Inside Wellington's Army is set out clearly in Rory Muir's excellent introductory essay, " Wellington and the Peninsular War: The Ingredients of Victory." In thirty-eight pages, including notes, Muir distils Oman , Esdaile, Fortescue, Gates and Napier, the work of too often neglected French, Portuguese and Spanish historians, as well as much new research, into a concise but complete and lucid summary of the war in the Peninsula and Wellington's role in its successful outcome. Muir pays due credit to the efforts of the Portuguese and Spanish people, the suitability of the Peninsula as a theatre of operations for a naval power, the importance of the Royal Navy, and the commitment of the British government to the campaign, but concludes that these individual components would not have produced success without Wellington's leadership. I was pleased to see that Muir credits much of the quality of the British army to the work done over the decade previous to 1808 by leaders such as Abercrombie, Moore, York and others, but, as he is at pains to note, even "a fine blade can quickly lose its edge in clumsy hands" and Wellington's "attention to detail and wide-ranging expertise" contributed greatly to the Allied victory in the peninsula.

Muir having provided the general background, and provided it well, the other three authors are able to safely approach their particular interests. Ron McGuigan contributes a study on the nuts and bolts of the Peninsular army -- its origins in terms of units -- and follows that with an overview of its senior officers. Both these studies are important as they reflect that Wellington took over command of an army composed of very diverse units in terms of their quality and experience whose senior officers were almost as varied in terms of their backgrounds and competence. These two studies are the result of a lot more labour than is at first apparent as the information which McGuigan presents in a well-organized format had to be pulled, bit by bit, chunk by chunk, out of Wellington's dispatches and general orders, there being few reliable secondary sources available for his work. Not the least of the McGuigan's attributes is the fact that he cuts through the often confusing subject of British officer ranks and straightens it out for the benefit of the reader.

Robert Burnham contributes no less than three studies on the subjects of Wellington's "observing officers," British bridging operations in the Peninsula, and how units were kept up to strength. The "observing officers," -- those "near mythical adventurers" as Burnham terms them -- are well known to readers of Napoleonic fiction but very little is actually known about their origins, organization, methods of operation, communication and reporting. Burnham provides that information and many a fascinating anecdote as well.

I have to confess that his essay on British bridging operations in the Peninsula is my personal favourite because, being a mechanical inept, I was struck by the sheer ingenuity of the engineers' work, which Burnham has thankfully illustrated with fine drawings. I would also struck by the fact that the engineers built bridges with whatever came to hand or was readily available and that no two bridges were alike, each presenting a different set of challenges which had to be overcome.

Finally, Burnham provides an excellent study on the subject of how the British units in the Peninsula were kept up to strength and the short answer is that it was a matter of considerable difficulty. In turn, Burnham examines the provisional battalions, the battalions of detachments, the recruiting of Spanish nationals and from the militia. He also adds a fascinating sidebar on the offer of the Czar to provide up to 15,000 Russian troops to fight in Spain , an offer that came to nought because of a changing political situation. Perhaps that was just as well, as possibly the only soldiers of the time more addicted to alcohol than the British were the Russians -- in 1799 the good citizens of Yarmouth were astounded to see Russian troops, who had been evacuated to that port from Holland, drinking the oil out of the streetlamps!

Howie Muir provides the longest study in the book, an examination of how Wellington arrayed his troops for battle, which is almost a small book in itself. (I would have been more comfortable with "deploy" as opposed to "array" but that word "deploy" had certain definite tactical connotation in 1808-1814 which is why Muir used "array"). Muir's examination of his topic can only be termed "exhaustive", but it is most certainly not exhausting, in fact it is fascinating and informative. He discusses how such factors as tradition, custom, rank, seniority, and precedence affected the positioning of the army in battle before tracing Wellington's positioning of his troops in almost every major engagement from 1808 to 1814. Muir's examination, although he provided the theory behind it, is always grounded firmly on a bedrock reality of official manual and actual situation. Having in my own work tried several times to answer what seemed like rather simple questions on British tactical methods of the time only to fall into a sinkhole of mystery, muddle and myth, I only wish that this important piece of research had been published decades earlier.

As I said above, this is an excellent book that should be in the library of any serious student of the Peninsular War. One of the problems, however, in reviewing a collection of this nature is that the reviewer ultimately wants to know why certain subjects were chosen while other were not -- why is there nothing on the important matters of military medicine, logistics, discipline or women in the army? The best answer I think is that a work of this quality deserve a sequel and I hope we see one. Recommended.

Reviewed by D.E. Graves

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2007


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