Reviews: Military Books



Wellington Invades France: the Final Phase of the Peninsular War

Robertson, Ian C. Wellington Invades France: The Final Phase of the Peninsular War 1813 – 1814 London: Greenhill Books, 2003. 304 pages. ISBN# 1853675342. $35.  Hardcover.

Other than an occasional incursion across the Pyrenees by Spanish guerrillas, France was generally untouched by the Napoleonic Wars since Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804.  For almost ten years, Napoleon brought war to his enemies or was able to defeat them without France being invaded. Even after the disaster at Leipzig in October 1813, the anti-Napoleon Coalition did not threaten France until early 1814.  The sole exception was in southern France – where by August of 1813, the French had been pushed out of Spain and a large Anglo, Portuguese, and Spanish army was poised to invade. 

Things did not go well for the French in Spain in 1813.  Large portions of their army had been transferred to Central Germany to help re-build the Grande Armée after its destruction in Russia the previous year.  The French armies in the Iberian Peninsula had pulled back from throughout Spain and consolidated as a united front against the Anglo-Allied army under Wellington.  On June 22, the main French army in Spain was decisively beaten at Vitoria, losing all its artillery, and for all practical purposes destroyed as an effective combat force.  The detritus of this once proud army poured across the passes in the Pyrenees into France itself.  Yet the French would rise again.  Marshal Soult was appointed commander of these shattered and demoralized units and in less than six weeks had rebuilt them into an army.  He then began a series of attacks that would be known as the battle of the Pyrenees.  Defeated once again, the French retreated back to France and over the next nine months fought a defensive war against an overwhelming Anglo-Allied force under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Despite winning every battle and capturing numerous cities in southern France, their Russian, Austrian, and Prussian allies to the north eclipsed the Anglo-Allied army’s efforts. Although Wellington’s Army was the first enemy force in France, it advanced slowly, and the honor of capturing Paris and forcing Napoleon to surrender however went to the combined Russian, Austrian, and Prussian Armies who attacked from the north.

Modern history seems to have forgotten the British and their allies after they forced the French out of Spain.  Their subsequent campaigns in the Pyrenees and in France have not been covered in detail since Charles Oman finished his monumental History of the Peninsular War in the late 1920s.  Wellington Invades France is an important new study that focuses on the pivotal battles of the final months of the Peninsular War.  Mr. Robertson covers each of the dozen battles, two sieges, and many small actions in detail, drawing heavily on primary sources and official reports to bring them to life. In addition to a tightly written narrative, Wellington Invades France is heavily illustrated with both contemporary prints of the various commanders and the battles, and photographs of how the battlefields appear today.  Mr. Robertson also includes a glossary, orders-of-battles of the various forces at the different stages of the nine-month campaign, and a comprehensive bibliography.

Although Mr. Robertson writes with a pro-British perspective, he still provides a balanced picture of the campaign.  The real strength of the book is his ability to present clear, concise accounts of the numerous skirmishes and battles. The reader will be able to follow the ebb and flow of these battles and track their progress on the maps that are appropriately placed throughout the book.  The book contains a mix of thirteen contemporary and modern maps.  The contemporary maps are generally of the strategic situation and are at times difficult to read.  However the tactical maps are superb! They show far greater topographical and troop deployment detail than the maps in Oman, Napier, or even Fortescue.  Mr. Robertson has lived in the area for many years and greatly enhances his narrative with first hand observations and photographs of the terrain being discussed.

Wellington Invades France is very good study of a little known phase of the Napoleonic Wars.  Although it is considerably shorter than Oman’s two volumes that cover the same campaigns, Mr. Robertson has incorporated many new primary sources that have come to light since Oman wrote his History seventy-five years ago.  Wellington Invades France is well written and is general enough to appeal to those whose interests are in other areas of Napoleonic studies. Mr. Robertson's detailed descriptions of the battles and his personal observations of the terrain will make this a valuable addition to the libraries of those who specialize in the Peninsular War.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003

 

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