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Wellington’s Favourite Engineer John Fox Burgoyne

Wellington’s Favourite Engineer John Fox Burgoyne

Wellington’s Favourite Engineer John Fox Burgoyne: Operations, Engineering, and the Making of a Field Marshal

Mark S. Thompson

Helion and Company (2020)

(No. 56 in the From Reason to Revolution 1721-1815 Series)

ISBN 9781913118938

Pages: 336

Images: 14 b/w illustrations, 50 b/w maps, 7 b/w diagrams

Mark Thompson is a renowned expert on the Engineers during the Peninsular War and has already written several books on various aspects of engineers during the period, therefore I expected a very thorough appraisal of John Burgoyne, his life and career and I certainly was not disappointed.

Burgoyne was involved with great number of operations during the Napoleonic wars, serving in Sicily and Egypt in 1807, before he went to the Peninsula in 1808 with Sir John Moore. He then served throughout virtually the entire war including being involved in the Lines of Torres Vedras and the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, and San Sebastian. Other activities included bridge building, surveying, reconnaissance, and bridge destruction. All these activities were written up by Burgoyne in detail and successfully portray the varied life of an Engineer officer. However, Burgoyne’s writings go far beyond this, professionally analysing every operation he was involved in and even some that he did not have much to do with at all, in detail. His studies of operations are far ranging and in depth, with few of his peers or even seniors escaping his criticisms including the Duke of Wellington himself. Some of his commentaries are fair while others are very harsh.

Thompson has carefully sifted through all the evidence to establish the facts amongst all the various claims and is not afraid to disagree or indeed criticise Burgoyne’s or other’s claims in his quest for the truth. Burgoyne rose to become the senior officer on certain operations, although never the senior engineer in the Peninsula, and as such came within the view of Wellington who recognised his abilities. Wellington had a difficult relationship with all his senior engineers at times and was not above openly criticising them and blaming them for failures in his despatches to government ministers, thereby absolving himself. Burgoyne also suffered at his hands at times.

Burgoyne is a complicated character, apparently having an excellent relationship with many of his juniors, who regularly corresponded with him. However, he was often extremely critical of the operations commanded by his fellow senior engineers although, as Mark Thompson fully admits, he was not above conspiring with them to doctor official reports to avoid criticism of the engineering department. Indeed, Thompson throughout the book is far from blind to these issues and rightly takes them to task for these evident attempts to absolve themselves of blame for some failures and is also willing to criticise the Duke of Wellington, but at no time does this become overcritical, and he provides much mitigation as to their thoughts and decision making. In this regard, Mark’s views on why Wellington failed to take a siege train to Burgos are both revealing and very cogent. He also checked Burgoyne’s original letters and clearly identifies a number of passages published in the previous biography of Burgoyne by Wrottesley where his criticisms of the Duke had been either toned down or even eradicated completely.

The title is provocative, claiming that Burgoyne was Wellington’s favourite engineer, although their relationship is only lightly covered and indeed little evidence is produced to establish this claim, with many other engineers having equal if not better claims to the title. Indeed, Wellington was almost certainly not Burgoyne’s favourite general, and I am not convinced that Wellington ever had a favourite engineer as his relationship with them was always at arm’s length and the engineers he appeared to prefer altered continually. In reality Burgoyne and Wellington had a particularly good professional relationship but nothing more and every senior engineer faced the ire of the Duke at some stage, Burgoyne included. The claim is unnecessary and slightly detracts from the excellent content.

The book is also well provided with many maps and diagrams to help explain the text and several relevant pictures of surviving structures. If I have one criticism of the book, it is that it deserves a hardback cover rather than a flimsy softback at such a price. Come on Helion, this seriously detracts from this book.

Overall, this is an excellent book which provides new perspectives on the roles of the engineers and contains a detailed and convincing re-appraisal of the operations and abilities of the engineers during the Peninsular War. It is highly recommended.

Gareth Glover

March 2021