Napoleon’s Peninsular War:
The French Experience of the War in Spain from Vimeiro to Corunna 1808-1809
Paul L. Dawson
Frontline Books (2020)
Illustrations: 32 black and white
In his latest book historian Paul L. Dawson offers us an insight into the French experience of the first year of the Peninsular War (1808-09). A year of mixed fortunes, where despite the French soldiers’ domination over the armies of Spain and success forcing the British army to evacuate Iberia from the port of Corunna, the aura of Napoleonic invincibility had been shaken by defeats in 1808 at Bailén and Vimeiro at the hands of the Spanish and British armies, respectively.
Drawing on primary material from France’s national archives, including the Service Historique de la Défense, and some first-hand accounts, not previously published in English, Dawson provides some interesting material for future research. The archival material includes letters between Napoleon’s Marshals with orders from the emperor himself, which give interesting insights into decision-making in the French Army. Dawson also includes two appendices with full translations of accounts from the battles of Somosierra (1808) and Corunna (1809), which range from battle reports from Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult to the personal recollections of officers and soldiers from amongst the haze of the musket smoke.
While this work makes a positive contribution and marks an important step towards making the French archives accessible to an English-speaking audience, it is unfortunate that in Chapter 1, where Dawson presents his thesis for the causes of the Peninsular War, he has not included citations for this chapter. This lack of notes and sources to support his opening salvo, makes several of the claims within this chapter impossible to cross-reference, which is a frustrating start to his work, as the reader is left without the means to ruminate on Dawson’s conclusions in this chapter.
Fortunately, the subsequent chapters do have endnotes with some details on sources, but a recurring theme is the sparsity of biographical details in either the endnotes or the body of the text. Indeed, in many cases only the barest details are provided, such as the rank and regiment of the author of the selected accounts with no explanations as to when the accounts were written. When biographical details are provided, they are placed in the endnotes, and many of these biographical notes focus on the Generals and Marshals mentioned by the authors of the accounts rather than giving the reader the biography of the memoirists themselves. As an example, Dawson includes a description of the Battle of Medina de Rioseco (14th July 1808), by General Maximilien Sébastien Foy. However, Dawson does not include any record of Foy’s service or mention that he was not present at the battle, and it is only by looking at Dawson’s bibliography that it becomes apparent that this account is from Foy’s history of the Peninsular War. For a reader unfamiliar with Foy’s unfinished history of the Iberian conflict this could be confusing and lead them to the conclusion that he was an eyewitness. This lack of biographical detail is also missing in the introductions for several memoirists including Lieutenant Begos and Louis de Ségur, which feels at odds with Dawson’s own statement in the introduction that, ‘…the historian’s primary aim is […] to understand the ideological intentions of the author and to locate it within the general cultural context to which the source material belongs.’[i] Dawson’s intention is a most laudable goal, but unfortunately finding the ‘ideological intentions’ of his sources from these rich texts, has been made harder by the occasional sparsity of biographical details on the background of the memoirists included in this book.
While this wealth of verbatim translations includes entire letters from commanders, with occasional first-hand memoirs, the structure of this book leads the reader to expect that this will be a text through which the sources almost ‘speak for themselves’, a common feature in many compilations of first-hand accounts. In contrast Dawson, has included several conclusions within his book, with some of the leading figures of 1808-09 facing his examination including Marshal Michel Ney, Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan and King Joseph. These men are charged with a range of condemnations ranging from incompetence to cowardice. It is unfortunate that many of the arguments that Dawson’s fields feel sandwiched between vast slabs of primary material. This leaves many discussions on the short side, with little opportunity for the author to draw on sources from outside of the narrow 1808-09 timeframe. This is most prevalent when Dawson comes to looking at the Spanish and British forces in these campaigns, the exclusivity of French accounts and lack of details from the opposition is disappointing, as it would have been interesting to make the comparison between French perceptions of events with that of their enemies.
Ultimately this text is good for shedding fresh light on previously untranslated archival material from the French Empire, however some more details of the service history and biases of the French officers who took part in these campaigns, would be helpful to place these French texts within the context of the time.
[i] Paul L. Dawson, Napoleon’s Peninsular War: The French Experiences of the War in Spain from Vimeiro to Corunna 1808-1809 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military Ltd., 2020), ix-x.