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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

Eyewitness to the Peninsular War and the Battle of Waterloo

Stanhope, James Hamilton. Eyewitness to the Peninsular War and the Battle of Waterloo: the Letters and Journals of Lieutenant Colonel the Honourable James Hamilton Stanhope, 1803 to 1825. Gareth Glover (ed.). Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2010. 272 pages. £20. ISBN# 9781848843929

Eyewitness to the Peninsular War is a compilation of the letters and journals of James Stanhope, a young aristocrat who served either as an aide-de-camp or on the staff of Generals Thomas Graham and Edward Paget during much of the Peninsular War and the 1814 Expedition to Holland.  His journals, which were generally written daily, provide rare insight into the workings of the British Army Headquarters, both at the division and army level. What makes his journals unique is because of his position as an aide, he witnessed several battles from the commander’s perspective and saw the things that affected the commander’s decisions.  James Stanhope was at many meetings with senior officers and would record the conversations and discussions shortly afterwards. 

James Stanhope was the third son of the 3rd Earl Stanhope, but became estranged from his father at an early age and was “adopted” by William Pitt, the Prime Minister of Great Britain.  At age 15, James joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, but within a year left the navy and was commissioned as an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards in December 1803.  He initially served as an aide-de-camp to Sir David Dundas, the commander-in-chief of the British Army, but received permission to go on a tour of the Mediterranean in 1810.  It was at Cadiz in April 1810 that General Thomas Graham offered to take James Stanhope on as extra aide-de-camp.  He accepted the offer and he would serve closely with General Graham for much of the next four years.  Captain Stanhope would fight at Barossa, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, and during the opening stages of the Salamanca Campaign.

In early July 1812, General Graham returned to Great Britain due to poor health, and Captain Stanhope went with him.  Upon arrival in England, he learned that he had just missed the great British victory at Salamanca and requested permission to return to the Peninsula.  He accompanied Sir Edward Paget, who was going to Spain to be Wellington’s second-in-command, but Captain Stanhope had no official position.  Upon their arrival at army headquarters near Burgos, he was appointed as a deputy assistant quartermaster general in the 1st Division, but was kept on as an unofficial aide-de-camp to General Paget.  He would serve with the general through the dark days of the autumn, when the British Army was forced to retreat back to the Portuguese border.  On 17 November, Captain Stanhope fell ill and General Paget ordered him to make his way to Ciudad Rodrigo. That afternoon, General Paget was captured by French hussars.  By May 1813, General Graham had returned to the Peninsula, and Captain Stanhope rejoined his staff.  He would fight at Vitoria and was seriously wounded during the siege of San Sebastian.  He returned to England in August to recover.

In December 1813, James Stanhope joined General Graham’s staff and was part of the British expedition to Holland.  In February 1814, he went to Cologne where he met with Bernadotte, the former French marshal, who had become the Crown Prince of Sweden.  He had several long conversations with the Prince, which he recorded in his journal.  In early March, Major Stanhope helped organize the assault on Bergen-op-Zoom, and after the disaster that saw the capture of a large portion of the British force, was one of the negotiators responsible for the release of the British soldiers being held by the French.

Major Stanhope fought in the Waterloo Campaign, but not on the staff.  Instead he commanded his company in the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Foot Guards. He was plagued by poor health caused by his 1813 wound, but led his company at both Quatre Bras and Waterloo. After the battle, he was appointed the Quartermaster General of the 1st Corps and would serve in the position through

Most memoirs of the period are filled with anecdotes of everyday life, but unlike James Stanhope, few of the writers had the access to the senior officers of the army.  James Stanhope was a talented writer with a knack for recording things that would be of great interest to future historians.  As an aide-de-camp, he attended many meetings and in his journal he recorded the conversations he heard, especially those between senior officers.  For example, he was present when General Paget linked up with the Duke of Wellington at Burgos in 1812.  Wellington asked General Paget

“. . . what they said in England, he replied ‘Your lordship has no idea how you are abused for exposing yourself so much.’ Lord Wellington said ‘I assure you, it is not the case; but there are situations you know, and Salamanca is one where a commander in chief must show himself and act in person.’ Lord Wellington then asked Sir Edward if he would accompany him to see the works, I went too and without any reason we got as well peppered with shot & shell for two hours as anybody could wish.  On returning Sir Edward smiled & said ‘I thank your lordship for the proof of what you told me before we went out.’”[1]

Another example occurred few days after Waterloo, when Colonel Stanhope received confirmation that he would remain the quartermaster general of the 1st Corps, from the Duke of Wellington himself.  He congratulated the Duke on his victory, to which Wellington replied “Indeed it was wonderful, the finger of God was certainly on me on that day.”[2]

Eyewitness to the Peninsular War also contains numerous sketches and maps drawn by James Stanhope.  These are very rough and were made in the field, so they reflect what he saw at the time, rather than being more polished pieces done years after the event. 

Mr. Glover included three related appendices that will be of great interest to the reader.  The first is extracts from the journal and letters of Major Charles Stanhope, James’ older brother, who was killed at Corunna.  The second is a letter from Staff Surgeon John Hulme to General Graham, discussing the wound General Alava received in the groin and whether it would affect his sex life.  A third is an account of the death of William Pitt written by James Stanhope.

Once again, Gareth Glover has done a superb job as an editor. There are 19 pages of notes that provide additional information on the many people, places, and events that are mentioned in the letters and journals.  They are a great help in making Colonel Stanhope’s writings more understandable to the modern scholar. That being said, I have my usual complaint about Mr. Glover’s work. . . I spent considerable time jumping back and forth reading the notes.  This greatly distracts from the text. Hopefully in future volumes he will use footnotes instead of endnotes. 

I strongly recommend this book for those interested in the Peninsular War, the 1814 Campaigns in northern Europe, and Waterloo.  It will be money well spent!

Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2011


[1] Page 90

[2] Page 185


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