Wellington and the Vitoria Campaign 1813: ‘Never a Finer Army’
Pen and Sword Military (2021)
Hardback, 256 pages
Illustrations: 30 black and white
Five years ago, I was asked by the Society for Army Historical Research to contribute to their annual list of book recommendations, which required me to pick my five favourite books on the British Army and to suggest one idea for a title that needed to be written. If anyone is interested, my full list can be found here – https://www.sahr.org.uk/view-book-list-contributor.php?sid=ccc34140d7a93d88773b526731456d29&entryid=1000001&titleid=1001 – but for the purposes of this review the pertinent point is that my suggestion for a needed title was a definitive study of the Battle of Vitoria to rank alongside Rory Muir’s account of Salamanca (which was one of my five picks) or Guy Dempsey’s study of Albuera. I am pleased to say that the title that is the subject of this review goes some way towards filling that niche, and it is particularly pleasing that the author is someone who also made my top five with her earlier book Inside the Regiment.
I say ‘goes some way towards filling’ because this is not a battle study quite in the mode of Muir’s and Dempsey’s works. As the title suggests, this is a study of the campaign as a whole (the battle narrative occupies 74 out of 236 pages), and its focus lies more heavily with the allies than with the French (although by no means exclusively so). Nor is this a book that goes into Nafzigeresque minutiae of deployments and movements of battalions and companies, rarely descending below the brigade level in its narrative. Rather, what this work is – and this is something that will come as no surprise to readers of Divall’s earlier titles; in particular her study of the Burgos campaign to which this is to some extent a sequel – is a story of the human experience of the campaign, told with heavy use of well-chosen eyewitness accounts, that places the reader both in the centre of the high-level decision-making of the opposing commanders and in the thick of the action.
After an introduction that picks up the situation of the opposing forces in the Peninsula during the winter of 1812-1813, Divall begins with an examination of the rebuilding of the allied forces after the nadir of the Burgos campaign so that, after six months with no major operations, it indeed could be said that Wellington had ‘never a finer army’. How he might use that army, however, was another matter and in no small part depended on the deployments of the French. These were notionally under King Joseph, with Jourdan as his chief of staff, but in practice the Bonapartist monarch was simultaneously undermined by his independently minded army commanders and by his Imperial brother trying to run the war by remote control from beyond the Pyrenees. Using Jourdan’s own accounts to illustrate the problems in the French camp, Divall demonstrates how Napoleon’s preoccupation with keeping open communications with France drew thousands of French troops off into the Biscay provinces. Wellington in turn added to the confusion by feinting with his right while advancing the bulk of his forces through the mountains of northern Portugal.
This strategic background sets the scene for a running campaign in which the French were never able, even after trading space for time, to regain the initiative from the allies whose prodigious marching kept them constantly threatening the French flank and lines of communications. Divall handles this vital portion of the campaign deftly, and gives it the credit that it deserves, but it would have been helpful if the maps illustrating it had been placed alongside the text rather than at the front of the book. Similarly, although there is an order of battle in the appendices this indicates the organisation of forces at the outset of the campaign. Although the composition of the divisions remained largely unchanged the divisions themselves – on both sides – were not infrequently switched from one command to another and although this is noted in the text it would have been helpful if this information could have been tabulated or in some other way made easier to refer back to while following the narrative.
We then come, after the preliminary actions of Osma and San Milan, to the set piece of the book, ‘The Waterloo of the Peninsula’, the battle itself. Again, this is a story clearly told and with a useful blend of narrative, eyewitness coverage, and analysis. On the allied side, the vital role of Hill’s multi-national corps on the far-right is noted and there is an excellent account of the fierce fighting on the Heights of Puebla, followed by the travails of the various divisions in the allied centre as they sought to secure and exploit the crossings over the Zadora. A good account is also provided of Graham’s command on the allied left. Divall is clearly unconvinced by critics who blame the Scots general for preventing a more complete victory, noting the limits imposed by Wellington’s own orders and also emphasising the difficulties in debouching from Gamara Mayor under French fire even after the Fifth Division had seized the village at a heavy cost. It must nevertheless be noted, as Divall does, that Longa’s Spanish brigade achieved rather more success further to the north; indeed, for all that the book may fairly be said to focus on the allies at the expense of the French it certainly does not focus on the British at the expense of the Spanish and Portuguese.
Divall’s analysis of the action may best be summed up as a battle that was as much lost by the French as it was won by the allies. It is clear too, that much hinged on the morale of the two armies and that the French broke when under other circumstances, and other commanders, they might have put up a much more creditable resistance and, at the least, got off the field in good order. If there is a fault to the battle narrative it is the same as that noted for the previous section: there are only two maps, both in the front matter rather than alongside the text, and only one of these indicates troop dispositions but does not indicate the time of day that is shown. With a battle that involved a great deal of manoeuvre, additional maps, presented alongside the text, would have greatly facilitated the following of the various stages of the action and changes of position.
The book concludes with an account of the looting that followed the battle and limited the opportunities for an immediate tactical pursuit, and a brief summary of the extended operational pursuit that took the victors to the French border. Appendices detail the orders of battle of the various armies, with strengths at brigade level for the Anglo-Portuguese and for the French, and divisional level for the Spanish. It is unfortunate, however, that the units in the various Spanish divisions are not identified, and that for the French we are shown which regiments were present but not the number of battalions that each fielded. Further appendices detail that casualties suffered by both sides, remarkably light in both cases for an action of this size, which underscores the author’s point about the nature of the French collapse and, as a bonus, Wellington’s own account of his victory is reproduced in full. There is a select bibliography, and a central plates section contains 18 black and white images including a number of battlefield photographs.
In conclusion, this is by far the best account of Vitoria currently available and, judged by its own standards, it does everything that the author sets out to do. If it can be faulted, over and above the comments made above with respect to the maps and orders of battle, it is only in that Divall at times assumes a certain amount of background knowledge of the Peninsular armies that a beginner to the period might not necessarily possess. Undoubtedly there will be those who finish it wishing that it had contained more detail, and certainly there is room in the market for another author to give us a more focussed tactical analysis of the battle itself, but that is not what Divall has set out to provide. Rather, as she says in the book’s introduction, her merging of multiple eyewitness accounts enables us ‘to judge the Vitoria campaign as both a historical event and as a deeply felt personal experience, with all the idiosyncrasies that implies’. That she delivers on this promise, as well as providing well-considered and though-provoking analysis, means that this is a book that should form part of any Peninsular library.