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Charging Against Wellington: The French Cavalry in the Peninsular War, 1807–1814

Burnham, Robert.  Charging Against Wellington: The French Cavalry in the Peninsular War, 1807–1814. Barnsley, UK: Frontline / Pen and Sword Books, 2011.  240 pages.  ISBN 9781848325913.  Hardcover. £30.00.

The organisation of the French cavalry divisional-level and, especially, brigade-level commands and the history of individual regiments, have long been subjects only accessible to specialist historians and most particularly to those with a good command of French. The exacting standards of this book, its clear presentation, together with supporting indices and lists of tables, and a very readable prose make this book a must for students of the Peninsular War whether for general perusal or as a definitive reference source. The index is comprehensive and bibliography extensive. It includes an excellent set of tables providing a comprehensive review of the location and strength of French cavalry units in the Iberian peninsula theatre.   Within these, and the supporting text, the reader will find locations of the various regiments at almost any given point in the six year long conflict, regiments of march, provisional regiments and their brigading, the despatch of cadres back to France and the requisitioning of troopers to supplement depleted regiments.

The book is organised in three main sections: the organisation of the French cavalry in the peninsula, peninsula cavalry generals and, lastly, details of the various regiments of French cavalry and that of their allies, with a brief but informative résumé of their service history in the theatre. The first section covers the organisation and deployment of French cavalry.  Two chapters focus on the build up of French forces in the Iberian Peninsula during 1807-1808.  Together these highlight, amongst other things, the relative inexperience of French cavalry commanders, the invasion and conquest of Spain 1808 to mid 1810, and cover the transfer of hardened veterans of the 1806 and 1807 campaigns in Germany and Poland to the Spanish front, which resulted in a substantial expansion of the mounted arm from 10,000 to 40,000 sabres.  A further pair of chapters covers the occupation and subjugation of Spain from spring 1810 to summer 1812 and the eventual withdrawal or retreat from Spanish soil between 1812 and 1814.  Burnham points out that by the time news of Napoleon’s abdication reached Soult his disposable force of cavalry had shrunk to around one tenth of its former size at 4,000 sabres.

The middle section provides a wealth of information on individual cavalry commanders.  Despite having studied French campaigns in Portugal and Spain in some depth, particularly the invasions of Portugal 1807 to 1811 and those involving the Anglo-Portuguese army in Spain, at this point I have to confess a limited knowledge of the intricate protocols underpinning French army promotion and criteria for cavalry command at brigade and divisional level. However, neither of these limitations proved to be problematic due to the level of detail provided. 

To substantiate the veracity of the text, I selected every eleventh entry starting with “Boussart, André Joseph (Binche)” and compared with the only text readily available to me.[1]   In each case, the brief biography with supporting text provided not only demonstrable authority of the subject matter but also, in many cases, additional information such as variant spellings of the surname and noms de guerre.  Fortuitously, the second selection “Curto, Jean-Baptiste-Théodore” was known to me as an avid reader of works on the third French invasion and the subsequent travails of the army of Portugal.  The supporting information not only reveals the individual brigade commanders of Curto’s divisional command but also some useful, very informative and impartial analyses of Curto’s performance as a cavalry commander in general and at Salamanca in particular. 

There are plenty of welcome surprises.  For example, the third selection, “Gardanne” was also known to me prior to reading given his supporting role with the IX corps yet provided some very interesting supplementary information.  Inadvertently reading the subsequent entry, on the following page, for Grouchy the information supplied was a complete surprise to me as I was completely unaware of his Spanish service record. 

The information provided for the service record of “Lasalle, Antoine-Charles-Louis” also provided some useful insights into the service record of this much celebrated general.  A glance at the preceding entry for “Lamotte, Auguste-Etienne-Marie Gourlez” suggests one possible and very insignificant omission, the “de” between Gourlez and Lamotte.  But slight omissions and errors, in a work as comprehensive as this, are to be expected – but are few and far between.

Finally, the book is very usefully illustrated.  There are 12 cavalry generals depicted and 8 plates of French cavalry regiments including two by Knötel commemorating individuals such as the maréchal de logis of the 14th Dragoons. Given the continued absence of a history of this war from a French perspective the book provides an invaluable research resource.  Its importance to students of French army organisation and operations is such that is comparable to standards such as Martinien’s Tables.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Anthony Gray

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2012


[1].  Alexandre Gourdon and Alain Guittard, Les autographes des généraux et amiraux de la Révolution et de l'Empire 1792-1814, Editions Alain Piazzola, 2002


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