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Wellington’s Light Division in the Peninsular War: The formation, campaigns & battles of Wellington’s famous fighting force 1810

Wellington’s Light Division in the Peninsular War: The formation, campaigns & battles of Wellington’s famous fighting force 1810

Wellington’s Light Division in the Peninsular War: The formation, campaigns & battles of Wellington’s famous fighting force 1810

Robert Burnham

Frontline Books (2020)


ISBN 9781526758903

429 Printed pages with 15 original maps and 32 illustrations, half in colour

Following rapidly on the heels of Rob Yuill and Tim Saunder’s two volume history of the Light Division in the Peninsular war, this new history needed to bring something new to the table and it certainly does this in spades. Robert Burnham is well known to many already as a very thorough historian and it is no surprise that this volume, which is hopefully the first in a series of four or five volumes (I understand volume 2 has already been commissioned by the publisher) only covers the year 1810, when the Light Brigade expanded into the Light Division. This means that the establishment of the light troops and their involvement in the campaigns of 1808 and 1809 are covered only in a cursory fashion in Chapter 1. However, once we get into the varied operations of 1810 the book really gets going, dealing with every conceivable aspect of the Light Division in very detail, using official returns, numerous unpublished accounts from men of the Light Division (this author is currently in the process of publishing them all), including both cavalry and artillery attached. It even covers the Portuguese units attached using previously unpublished Portuguese battle reports, which I understand forms the basis of another book Robert Burnham will publish this year, in conjunction with Moises Gaudencio.

Given the limited scope of the book, covering only one year of the Peninsular campaign, the depth of the study is truly remarkable, 24 pages being allocated to the action at Barba del Puerco, while the Action on the Coa and its consequences is covered in no less than three chapters totalling 64 pages. Perhaps a better indication of the depth of this book can be seen in the description of the ‘petty war’ waged along the Portuguese border between late March and late July 1810, covered in lo less than four chapters and amounting to 126 pages! The Battle of Busaco and the retreat to the lines of Torres Vedras are also well covered and the book ends with the advance to Santarem. All of this is dealt with only regarding the Light Division and is therefore not a comprehensive account of the battles, but they have been written about in detail in numerous books previously. This does mean that a prior knowledge of the overall campaign surrounding their operations would be useful but is far from obligatory to understand what they were doing and why and how it fitted into the overall campaign.

The book is also very illustrated with 16 colour and 16 black and white photographs of the various locations today and supported by fifteen noticeably clear and precise maps produced by Mark S. Thompson. It also contains five appendices, covering losses of the division in total and several reports made by General Craufurd to Wellington.

With such an in-depth study, it is not surprising to find that Burnham has uncovered some less savoury aspects, which do not reflect so well on the Light Division. He is not afraid to investigate these aspects and honestly appraises how much of the fault lies with the Light Division. One incident investigated in detail, is the utter destruction of the village of Arruda, just outside the lines of Torres Vedras by the Light Division troops, who hoped that the French would subsequently occupy it so that they could pass the blame!

One aspect where Robert Burnham may possibly have held his punches a little (or it may well be intended to cover it in greater detail in later volumes?) is the performance of Robert Craufurd. His failure at the Coa is well known, but in this book, it becomes clear that the Coa was simply only one of several occasions where Craufurd’s handling of the division was not good, the incident at Alemquer on the retreat to the lines standing out as a near disaster which was totally unnecessary. It is also clear that Craufurd had many critics within his own officer corps and that his much vaunted ‘Instructions’ were seen by many of his own men to be totally impracticable and unworkable. This theme may develop in later volumes, but some Light Division fans may find this hard to stomach, although the evidence is clear and damning.

The book is thoroughly researched, successfully brings masses of new evidence forward and shows the Light Division to be a superb fighting force with very experienced troops, but not always commanded by the most competent. An excellent history of the Light Division ‘Warts and All’. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Gareth Glover

January 2021