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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

A Commanding Presence - Wellington in the Peninsula 1808 – 1814: Logistics, Strategy, Survival

Robertson, Ian. A Commanding Presence - Wellington in the Peninsula 1808 – 1814: Logistics, Strategy, Survival. Chalford: Spellmount, 2008.  448 pages. 29 black and white and 15 color illustrations.  8 color maps.  ISBN: 9781862273740.  $55

“Tactics are for amateurs.  Logistics are for professionals.”

When I received a copy of Ian Robertson’s A Commanding Presence, my first thought was that I really did not want to read another general history of the British Army in the Peninsula.  But then the subtitle caught my eye: “Logistics, Strategy, Survival”.  This book was about logistics!  I was definitely intrigued.  There is an adage about military operations in Spain that states: “Small armies are defeated; large armies starve.” 

Although A Commanding Presence is a study of the British Army’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula from 1808 to 1814, it focuses more on the problems Wellington faced, keeping his multi-national army fed and supplied than on campaigns and battles.  That is not to say the author ignores the maneuvering or battles, but they are covered more from the aspect of what it took logistically for the British Army to be able to fight a particular battle or campaign.  Mr. Robertson also describes in great detail what happens when the logistics failed to support the army.   

A Commanding Presence is not a dry study of numbers and figures.  Instead, it draws heavily on the memoirs of commissary officers, such as August Schaumann, a German who served through most of the Peninsula War with the King’s German Legion and light cavalry regiments; and John Daniel who was with on the staff of the 3rd Division, to portray the Herculean labors they endured to ensure that soldiers had the food, forage, and ammunition they needed to defeat the French.  It is not just about beans and bullets.   Mr. Robertson also uses the diaries and memoirs of different medical officers to explore the problems of keeping the soldiers healthy and tending to their wounds after a battle. 

The book looks not only the logistical successes of the British Army, but also where logistics failed miserably, especially during the retreats to Corunna in early 1809, from Talavera in the summer of 1809, and from central Spain in the autumn of 1812.  The author does a superb job of showing both sides of the issue.  There extensive quotes from the diaries and memoirs of enlisted soldiers and junior officers on and what they thought about their commissaries and their occasional failures at to keeping them fed.

Mr. Robertson believes that Wellington’s successes in the Peninsula were based on his detailed attention to logistics.  The Duke learned early that he could not rely on his Spanish Allies.  If his army needed something, they it had best be able to provide it them itselves.  He tells how it took the British several years to develop, evolve, and manage the logistics system under control, and so that by in 1813, Wellington was able to keep 100,000 men in the field for months.  By the end of that year his supply lines would run from the French border hundreds of miles back to Portugal.

The book has many contemporary illustrations, both black and white and color.  Mr. Robertson also provides photographs taken many decades ago during his travels in Portugal and Spain.  A particular favorite of mine is the one of two ox carts – likely of the same design of the ox carts that formed the supply train for Wellington’s army!

A Commanding Presence goes a long way to answering the key question about the Peninsular War:  Why were the British were able to maintain a fairly large army for an extensive period, while the French could not?  Overall, it is an enjoyable read that provides fresh insight into the often overlooked field of logistics.  I recommend it to all who are interested in the Peninsula War or logistics in general.


Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2009