On the Road with Wellington: The Diary of a War Commissary
By August Ludolf Friedrich Schaumann
London: Greenhill Books. 1999, 416 pages. ISBN 1-85367-353-6. Hardcover.
It has been a long time since I was so captivated by a book that I was unable to put it aside! I started to read August Schaumann's remarkable memoirs in bed around 11 PM and when I finally had to put them aside because my eyes kept closing on me it was 5 AM and I had read over three quarters of the book! Does that say enough about this wonderful book?
August Schaumann was a natural born storyteller. He describes his Peninsular adventures so vividly that you get the feeling that you are there, riding next to him dodging French cavalry patrols and conquering the hearts and bodies of Spanish and Portuguese ladies. But who was August Schaumann? He was born in Hanover in 1778. At the age of 16 he was compelled to join the army against his will, but he eventually rose through the ranks to the rank of junior-subaltern. In 1799 his father, a severe and harsh man, removed his son from the army and procured him a position at the postal service. In 1803 he left his home in Hanover and proceeded to England where he was employed as a clerk at a Newcastle firm. In 1807 he decided to move to Russia. He never made it there because heavy storms forced him to take refuge in Goteborg, Sweden. Here too he found a brief employment as a clerk. When the English fleet sailed back to England after its Swedish expedition in 1808 August boarded one of its ships and was taken to England to start a new career as war commissary in the King's German Legion.
On the 28th August 1808 August Schaumann set foot on the shores of Maceira Bay in Portugal. From here on he tells us in great detail and in a style that captivates the reader about his Peninsular adventures. As a war commissary Schaumann saw, did, and lived it all. Not only does he tell us about his perilous and difficult duties as a commissary, but he also tells us about his numerous romantic adventures and about life in Spanish and Portuguese billets. Because he was a keen observer and a great storyteller he was able to describe some of the great battles of the Peninsular War and the invasion of France in 1814. He also describes the gruesome retreat from Coruna, the endless marches and countermarches, and the hardships that the common soldiers had to endure in a way that puts you, the reader, right in the middle of it. August ended his military career in 1816 and returned to his native town of Hanover where he obtained a post as civil servant. He died in 1840.
I have enjoyed these memoirs very much. Not only because they give a very precise and clear picture of the military operations that Schaumann was involved in, but also --and foremost-- because they give an insight into aspects of the Napoleonic Wars that don't get much attention in other memoirs. I am referring to the logistic problems that all Napoleonic and in particular the British army faced in those days and how the civilian population of Spain and Portugal lived and coped during this dark period of their history.
If I would have to recommend only one book to put on your Christmas list it would be August Schaumann's memoirs!
Reviewed by Fons Libert, FINS