The Light Division in the Peninsular War 1808-1811
Tim Saunders and Rob Yuill
Pen & Sword, 2020
302 pages with over 100 B & W illustrations and maps
This incredibly, is the first of two Histories of the Light Division in the Peninsula due out this year. It is unfortunate that Pen & Sword saw fit to commission two different authors to tackle the same subject, but it will also be very interesting to see how both tackle the subject, as both authors have very different strengths.
However, the first to be published is by two accomplished authors, battlefield guides and ex-military men and the book certainly reflects their expertise in the subject.
Following a chapter on the history of the formation of the Light Brigade and its later expansion into the Light Division, the book takes us through the Peninsular campaigns under Wellington in 1808, Moore in 1808-9 and Wellington again until 1811. The Light Division regularly formed the advance when moving forward and the rear guard in retreat and were therefore rarely out of contact with the French. The narrative confidently leads the reader through the actions of Obidos, Roliça, Vimeiro, Castrogonzalo, Benavente, Cacabelos, Corunna, Talavera (although as we know the Light Brigade were not there, despite a famous march), Almaraz, Barba del Puerco, Vilar de Puerco, Coa, Busaco, the lines of Torres Vedras, Santarem, Pombal, Redinha, Casal Novo, Foz de Arouce, Sabugal and ends with the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro. The general movements of the army are described briefly for context before each action is described in detail, particularly regarding the Light Brigade. The main battles are dealt with well enough, but the book really comes to life when ably describing the smaller, less well known actions, where the knowledge of the terrain – having been there as guides – really comes to the fore.
A wide variety of published personal memoirs have been reproduced to illustrate the action well, but it was a slight disappointment to this reader, that none of the presently unpublished accounts (there are a number) were not utilised and many of those used are unfortunately not referenced. The book is also extremely well illustrated, with over a hundred black & white illustrations, of which only a limited number are the ‘standard’ ones. The illustrations used are more a combination of very effective and evocative images of reenactors to illustrate skirmish lines etc and a large number of photographs of the sites of many of these lesser known actions, which really help to illustrate the terrain. There are also a large number of maps reproduced to help the reader, with a mixture of images from Oman for some of the major battles, but also large numbers of computer generated maps which greatly help to illustrate the progress of the smaller actions.
The actions of the brigade/division are excellently described and the self-assured expertise of the two ex-military authors shines through, they are also not beyond criticising, particularly at the Coa. In several asides, connected, but not directly relevant to the narrative, are placed in boxes interspersed throughout the book, covering subjects such as the Portuguese Cacadores and the Commissariat. There are however also a couple of small constructive criticisms I must make of the book. Whilst the military operations and organisation are described extremely well, I had hoped for a more fuller and rounded view of the division, perhaps using regimental, sick and court martial returns to establish the numbers, health and discipline of the troops at different periods, but that is only a personal preference.
However, overall, this is an excellent book, very well presented by experienced military men, with a clear tactical eye and it is extremely well illustrated. It comes highly recommended.