Marching, Fighting and Dying: Experiences of Soldiers in the Peninsular War
Pen & Sword Military, 2021
Hardback, 299 pages, 16 illustrations
Gareth Glover knows his way around the memoirs of British soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. Many were written long after the event and often embellished for their potential audience, and often have been accepted by historians ever since as being true accounts of the life of soldiers during the war. As Gareth states in his preface:
…these memoirs are not firm material on which to base the true understanding of the soldier’s lot serving with Wellington’s army in the Iberian Peninsula. The dreaded ‘hindsight’, over-embellishment, exaggeration, and the overt influence of William Napier’s…extremely biased History of the Peninsula War make their accounts far too suspect to be of real use in gauging what it was really like to be there.
This book examines the experience of soldiers in the Peninsular War not by using the well-known and frequently referenced memoirs of the likes of James Anton, Henry Browne, Edward Costello, and John Kincaid, to name but a few, but rather the original letters sent from individual soldiers to their family and the replies they received (mainly officers but also some lower ranks). So, we have been presented with a refreshingly new selection of correspondence that is unfamiliar to the reader, resulting in a unique account of this subject.
The correspondence is presented in such a way that they take us through the entire campaign, beginning with the journey of the soldier sailing to the Iberian theatre, and their experience of going to sea for the first time, sea sickness, the provisions the officers took with them, and letters from such men as Private John Morris Jones who related how his bout of seasickness was instantly cured when it became known the ship he was on had sprung a serious leak! After the voyage many described their first impressions of Portugal and Spain; followed by tales of long marches in the rain and cold to join the main army. Many of the officers were writing home asking for money with which to purchase mules to carry their baggage, and there is some interesting correspondence detailing what items were in such baggage. In the chapter entitled Sun and Sickness the letters describe the constant marching in the excessive heat and the resulting sickness that prevailed in the army. Some soldiers have left us with interesting accounts of what they had to eat, if anything, and the problems in finding forage for their baggage animals.
The selection of letters describing soldier’s view of their Portuguese and Spanish allies makes for interesting reading, especially the accounts of the Spanish forces fighting in the theatre. The early encounters with their allies resulted in some soldiers harshly judging their allies although as the war progressed these views did change. Captain Henry Mellish wrote home that he liked ‘…the Spaniards very much, there is ten times more military spirit in them than in the Portuguese’, although he later wrote that Cuesta’s army ‘…may one day be 35,000 and the next 5,000 as every man goes home as best suits his pleasure or convenience’. These letters were not intended for publication, and were not written years after the event, but were contemporary and often very candid views of the country and people the writer experienced. The bibliography lists the memoirs used; being those that have not been published extensively before, and those the author has verified were compiled with correspondence written at the time. The author has located many unpublished letters and memoirs in archives and museums in the UK and abroad and their contents have been used to illustrate the different chapters in the book. These take the reader on a journey through the Peninsula campaign.
Aside from the subjects already mentioned, the correspondence covers billets and cantonment, discipline and punishment, the enemy, girls, women and nuns, the experience of battle, sieges (the most hated part of campaigning that comes out of these letters), wounds and hospital, and the ultimate sacrifice (death).
Marching, Fighting, Dying is a unique examination of the soldier’s life, from the viewpoint of officers those lower ranks who could write and afford to send letters home. It covers every aspect of life on campaign in the Peninsula, providing the reader with a refreshingly new examination of the story, using material that has not (or very rarely) been published before. The author has carefully chosen correspondence to examine each stage of a soldier’s life, from the journey to the theatre to those who remain in the region to this day. The correspondence has been utilized in seventeen chapters to vividly describe the varied experiences of the soldier on campaign. It is a book I found hard to put down. Highly recommended.