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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

O Exército Português na Guerra Peninsular: Volume 1 -  Do Rossilhão ao Fim da Segunda Invasão Francesa 1807-1810

Centeno, João Torres.  O Exército Português na Guerra Peninsular: Volume 1 -  Do Rossilhão ao Fim da Segunda Invasão Francesa 1807-1810.  Lisbon: Prefácio, Ano de Edição: 2008. 316 p. 12 pages of color plates. ISBN-13# 9789898022186.

João Torres Centeno is a Portuguese lawyer with a very strong and passionate affinity for the history of Portugal and, most especially, the Portuguese military.  For Centeno, the Peninsular War, 1808-1814, represents a definitive period of Portuguese history, comprising on the one hand a popular uprising against Napoleon, "a nacão em armas", and on the other a 'coming of age' for the Portuguese military. 

However, as this study shows, in order to understand correctly the Portuguese army's renaissance in this period, it is important to review its evolution in the longer term.  Centeno, therefore, commences the study in the period immediately after Portugal's restoration of independence from Spain in the 1640s.  The main focus of the study, though, is Portuguese military development during the two decades spanning the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century.  That being said, O Exército Português will be a very useful addition to the libraries of serious students of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, and taking into account that it is written in Portuguese, Centeno has delved deeply into primary sources for the entire period covered and the existing historiography.  A significant number of books in English have appeared on the subject, most notably those of Chartrand, with a particular focus on the Peninsular War.  However, the majority of material incorporated and reviewed in the current work is drawn from a very substantial Portuguese historiography covering the late 18th as well as early 19th century - some of which will be unfamiliar, even to specialist historians.  The study therefore presents a number of advantages for non-Portuguese historians. 

The volume and scope of Portuguese works utilised in this study is exceptionally broad for what is ostensibly a tightly focused subject.  They include the monumental, multi-volume studies of the era undertaken by Soriano and Chaby and the classic study of the Portuguese army undertaken at the turn of the 20th century, in two volumes, by Ferreira Gil.  Centeno has also referred to the work of more modern historians to illustrate, for example, the Portuguese contribution to the war effort; Portuguese general officers; and organisation and uniforms of the Portuguese army covered, respectively, in works by Soares, Ribeiro and Rodrigues.  If not inaccessible, these works present many difficulties both in terms of location and comprehension, to the non-Portuguese historian. 

Secondly, the work benefits from a comprehensive table of contents, a chronological ordering of the evolution of the Portuguese military, copious footnotes supporting the main text and an excellent bibliography.  Centeno has developed each of these features with meticulous care: so there is seldom any doubt as to the specific source for assertions made in the book or the range of contributors consulted in support of arguments presented.  There is also a helpful, recurring structure for the detailed analysis presented within each sub-section of the book - covering the main protagonists and the various component parts of the military under review.  Finally, a series of tables provide more detail to support the text; for example, a breakdown of the localities in which regiments recruited, or were based, or the full complement of officers and rank and file at battalion (or squadron) and regimental level.

For those historians less well-versed in the history of Portugal, and its language, the form and content of the work represent major advantages: enabling the easy identification of issues, for example actual decrees and events relating to specific periods of Portuguese military development, and the location of further reading.  Not only is the book written in Portuguese, the majority of information it contains is presented almost entirely in that language; the exceptions being one or two quotations from English and Spanish sources.  It has to be said, therefore, that the book's structure will probably work best for those non-specialist readers, or those with a relatively limited understanding of Portuguese, who are researching specific actors or events, or particular aspects of Portuguese military evolution – about which they already have a general idea. 

Typical examples of the former would be the contributions to military reform of the "marquês de Pombal" or Beresford, as they are relatively well-known figures operating in a specific, well-defined period.  However, the reader may have a bit more difficulty locating the contributions of the "duque de Lafões" or Skellater, given their relatively lesser notoriety in relation to Portuguese military development.  Examples of the latter would be the development of the relatively small but effective 'light brigade', combining infantry, cavalry and artillery, towards the end of the 18th century, or the ongoing evolution of the "caçadores" (light infantry) during the period.   Taking these points into account, for readers less familiar with the subject matter, or for those using the book as a general reference, an index would be an invaluable additional aid.

The truly distinguishing features of O Exército Português are actually threefold: the comprehensive nature of its scope; the range and detailed nature of the facts and figures included within its 277 pages; and the meticulous care with which Centeno puts together and deploys particulars relating to military evolution, organisation and administration, and the army's component parts within the five main sections of the study – to which we now turn. 

"Parte I"  provides an introduction to, and review of, specific aspects of Portuguese military evolution, royal intervention and the contribution of foreign influences on the army's development (notably Schomberg in the 17th and conde de Lippe in the 18th century).  Centeno also charts the Pombaline reforms and the impact of continuity and change in Portuguese foreign policy and diplomacy on the army.  This first section ends with a review of the benefits and setbacks to Portugal's military due to its, ultimately disastrous, involvement along with Spanish forces in the invasion of French Roussillon.  Centeno argues that some specific improvements were made during the period in which Luís Pinto de Sousa Coutinho was "Secretário de Estado da Guerra" between 1788 and 1801.  It could be argued that, in the last quarter of the 18th century, Sousa Coutinho's experience in both domestic politics and diplomacy, coupled with a royal family that appeared to be increasingly distanced from matters military, helped ensure that Portugal made its first steps away from the "antigo regime" towards development into a modern European state.

"Parte II" starts by taking up those less advantageous aspects of the army's development, hi-lighted in the previous period, in more detail.  Continued neglect, driven in part by purported savings on military expenditure, poor leadership and the deplorable state of Portugal's military forces combine to result in their humiliating defeat at the hands of Franco-Spanish alliance in the War of the Oranges in 1801.  Centeno points out that, despite these two disastrous setbacks, in less than a decade spanning the turn of the 19th century, three major innovations in Portuguese military policy had already taken shape.  Firstly, the basic organisation of the army on three levels: 1) the line army (infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineer corps), 2) the "milícias" and 3) the "ordenanças" was strongly reaffirmed.  Secondly, there was a more concerted effort to mobilise these three component parts of the Portuguese military at a regional level (in this initial stage in just five grand military regions, but ultimately in seven "regiões militares".  Thirdly, as alluded to above, the period saw the emergence of specific, new capabilities – a light infantry arm.

Continuing the study from 1801, Centeno charts a series of significant, and re-invigorated, reforms that build on the previously mentioned improvements to further re-define the army.  These reforms specifically related to the evolution of the line infantry at both a strategic and tactical level.  Most importantly, it is in this period that the development of the infantry brigade starts to take a more permanent shape - two regiments, each of two battalions, operating and deploying within a fixed divisional structure.  Moreover, the territorial division of the country into "regiões militares", not only provided permanency and coherency for military organisation, for example facilitating practice in undertaking manoeuvres, but also provided a sound basis for administration and recruitment for each region's constituent regiments.  In time of war, or peace, these new structures should have enabled a potential 'standing army' of up to 75,000 of all arms. 

Centeno concludes this second section with a review of potentially the most significant changes which, if implemented correctly and determinedly, could have dramatically altered Portuguese military operation and deployment.  However, he argues, the proposed changes never really materialised in substantive reform.  In fact, the succession of reorganisations that took place in the first few years of the 19th century, culminating in "a grande reforma" of 1806 / 07 just prior to the first French invasion, did nothing to help ensure national security.  As Centeno has shown, in 1807 the Portuguese army comprised first line troops, infantry cavalry and artillery, an engineer corps and 'reserve' light brigade of all arms, substantially remodeled "milícias" and significantly increased "ordenanças".  However, there were fewer tangible outcomes from these reforms than might have been the case: the actual state of the armed forces remained deplorable.  The net result of this 'unforgivable state of affairs' was a poorly led, thoroughly demoralised and undisciplined army that, even with a unified political and military will, was unable to oppose the Junot's first French invasion in late 1807.

"Parte III" comprises a short but necessary review, over ten pages, of the demobilisation of the Portuguese army and the creation and embarkation of the "Legião Portuguesa.  The Portuguese Legion was taken from its component parts in the former Portuguese army into French service under formerly innovative but, unfortunately, relatively junior and un-influential Portuguese officers, such as Alorna ("marquês de Alorna") and Pamplona ("conde de Subserra"): both of whom were to return to Portugal on the staff of general Massena's forces during the third French invasion of 1810-11.

"Parte IV" provides a very comprehensive review of the re-mobilisation of the Portuguese army, the emergence of a revitalised, if not entirely 'new', general officer class and its cooperation with the British in an Anglo-Portuguese army, defeating Junot in 1808.  Centeno again presents a comprehensive, and highly detailed appraisal, of each component of the Portuguese army: infantry of the line, light infantry or "caçadores", the "milícias" and "ordenanças", cavalry, artillery and corps of engineers.  In addition, to reviewing the army's organisation, and the complement of officers and other ranks in each arm, the study also presents details for the relatively recently integrated "estado-maior" (general staff). 

There's also a separate section covering the creation, organisation and deployment of the "Leal Legião Lusitana" – the cadre of which was Portuguese émigrés who had departed for England upon Junot's invasion in 1807.  In each case, Centeno provides definitive data, compiled from a wide range of sources, on the number and organisation of regiments, the correct number of companies and the complement of officers and rank and file in the various arms of the Portuguese army.  Finally, the author concludes this section with a brief consideration of the concept of national mobilisation against Napoleon - "a nacão em armas".

The concluding section ("Parte V") provides a thorough review of two of the most influential figures of Portuguese history in the 19th century, namely, Beresford and Dom Miguel Pereira Forjaz and their respective roles in developing 'the foundations of a new army'.  Centeno sets out the underlying reasons for Beresford's appointment, as opposed to other more senior British officers or the appointment of a Portuguese general in chief, and his motivations for, and considerations before, acceptance. 

This final section of the study benefits substantially from the incorporation of additional insights afforded by British perspectives on the condition of the Portuguese army and perceived improvements in its organisation and operation, during these crucial months in 1809 and the first part of 1810.  In addition to covering the formative nature of the re-mobilised and re-invigorated Portuguese army, including the many difficulties presented in 1809, Centeno sets out a compelling review of the 'Anglicisation', modernisation and standardisation of the Portuguese army.

In addition to funding, a supply of officers (and NCOs), arms, accoutrements and uniforms, the Portuguese army adopted British organisational and disciplinary structure.  Centeno argues that the term 'discipline' needs to be seen not in terms of governing or regulating "o comportamento" (the conduct) of Portuguese troops: the "sistema de disciplina" equates to the tactical regulation of the army "o regulamento táctico".  'Anglicisation', or more correctly standardisation, in this period ensures the army's (early) development into a modern fighting force, makes certain it is capable of taking the field side by side with its British allies and of making a significant contribution to repulsing Soult.  In later years, it is these reforms that contribute most substantially to a Portuguese re-awakening as the "fighting cocks of the army". 

There are a few minor and, I'm sure for the author, annoying problems that could quite easily have been rectified.  Firstly, at least one of the tables is incorrectly labeled and another erroneously referred to within the body of the study.  This is not a major nuisance as the tables are not referred to, generally, throughout the text by number: rather they support the text in which they are immediately located.  Another minor irritation is that one of the sources referred to is incorrectly placed in the bibliography and a couple more appear to have incomplete entries.  However, these are very minor problems with an otherwise excellent study. 

Secondly, some aspects of the management and quality of the artwork let the remainder of the book down a little.  There are a number of new and very interesting prints depicting the uniforms of the main arms in Portuguese service.  However, perhaps these would have better placed in a separate section - ordered either chronologically or by service type.  There are a couple of problems with some of the captions for the various portraits – some of which appear to be incomplete.  In other cases, perhaps, an explanatory note may have helped the non specialist reader understand the importance of persons represented by their portraits to the main text of the study.  Overall, the main problem with the artwork is that some of the colour prints depicted are presented in poor resolution – detracting somewhat from the high quality of the text and better quality monochrome artwork. 

Thirdly, there is a slight problem with repetition that could have easily have been avoided with some further editorial input and proof reading.  None of the above, though, detract significantly from the general high quality of the study.  

The lack of an index, as noted earlier, is the main weakness of the study, preventing easy identification of, and access to, specific points of interest within the text.  The addition of an index together with suggestions for further reading ought to be considered, space permitting, within the second volume of the study.  The major gap is the relative lack of attention afforded to the actual process of recruitment to the armed forces within the "regiões militares".  Some consideration of recruitment of other ranks, and perhaps promotion of NCOs, would have added substantially to our understanding of how the army functioned. 

In conclusion, this first volume of the proposed two studies concentrating on O Exército Português comprises a major contribution to our understanding of the development and organisation of the Portuguese military.  Taken together, the two volumes will fill a large number of quite significant gaps in our understanding of the Portuguese army and, overall, will comprise a very useful addition to the existing literature.

In all, the publishers propose a series of seven volumes of military history, which will eventually comprise: two volumes on the Portuguese army, two on the organisation of the Anglo-Portuguese army, two more covering the specific arms (infantry, cavalry, artillery and ancillary services) in the allied army and a final study presenting biographies for officers who served in the Portuguese armed services during the Peninsular War. 

Reviewed by Anthony Gray
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2008


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