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The Men of Wellington’s Light Division

The Men of Wellington’s Light Division

The Men of Wellington’s Light Division

Gareth Glover and Robert Burnham

Pen & Sword Books (2022)
ISBN: 9781399099080
Pages: 240
Illustrations: 8 colour pages

I once questioned, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘how the Light Division ever managed to find time to fight the French, when so many of its members were apparently engaged in note-taking for a future military career’.[1] That comment was based on the plethora of well-known book-length accounts from that famous formation, but this compendium volume – the first in a series – adds yet more to the written record by bringing together fourteen shorter, previously unpublished, accounts from men who served in the 43rd Light Infantry.

Some of these accounts are mere fragments of a page or two, others make for substantial chapters. Some are entirely original – letters and diaries – others are composed after the fact either as memoirs or memorials of service. Three are from field officers, ten from company officers, and one from a private soldier. Each of the chapters is prefaced with an introduction to the writer and his service, and the book as a whole is set in context by an opening chapter that outlines the history and campaigns of the 43rd during this period.

Because of its fragmented nature, this is a book to be dipped in to rather than read from cover to cover, and for this reason I must apologise to the editors for the fact that it has taken me rather longer to prepare this review than might ordinarily have been the case. The various individual accounts, however, certainly grab the reader’s attention and the letters in particular strike a strong personal note when one is reminded that in several cases that either the writer or those close to him did not survive the war. Family ties, both within the Division and the wider Peninsular army, come strongly through in many of the accounts but concern for relations is matched with the financial concerns of impecunious subalterns hoping for extra support from home. The sole rank and file account, meanwhile, adds little to our knowledge of the Peninsular War as a campaign but in its phonetic renderings of the local placenames almost allows us to hear the writer’s Somerset burr down through the centuries.

As might be expected, particularly from those accounts written after the fact when the glory of the regiment and Division were to be upheld, there is great deal of focus on the great days of the Light Division – The Coa, Sabugal, Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz in particular – but the unfortunate lack of an index does hinder the reader wishing to cross-reference the multiple accounts of these and the various other actions covered. In these days of rising costs, it is inevitable that sacrifices have to be made to keep the RRP of a title at a sensible level, but in this particular instance it might have been of greater utility to retain an index at the expense of the plates section, which offers little beyond some nice portraits.

All the accounts are accompanied with footnoted annotations to clarify details of people and places; however, the level of detail within these is patchy and not without error: most obviously, Jean Louis Reynier was never a Marshal (p.69), while the ‘unsubstantiated’ story of the 3rd Division of Moore’s army (in which the 2/43rd was serving) being misdirected through the neglect of a drunken dragoon (p.57) is detailed in Oman’s treatment of the campaign and cited there to multiple contemporary sources:[2] at the very least, this was certainly the narrative that the army understood at the time. Ultimately, however, this is a work that stands and falls not on the work of its editors but on the quality of the material that they have uncovered and made available, and on those grounds it is unquestionably worthy of recommendation.

Andrew Bamford

March 2023


[1] Andrew Bamford (ed.), Life in the Red Coat: The British Soldier 1721-1815 (Warwick: Helion, 2020), p.xvi.

[2] Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War (London: Greenhill, 2004), Vol.I, p.573.