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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

An Atlas of the Peninsular War

Robertson, Ian. An Atlas of the Peninsular War. Martin Brown (Cartographer). New Haven: Yale, 2010. 144 pages.  ISBN# 9780300148695. $55

An Atlas of the Peninsular War

Although Ian Robertson currently lives in Arles, France, he was based for twenty years in Old Castile, and has spent many of the last fifty years roaming the battlefields of the Peninsular War. He knows well the byways and highways throughout Spain and Portugal, and his knowledge is reflected in the maps, specially of the western Pyrenees and south-west France, where many battles were fought in 1813. An Atlas of the Peninsular War is a rarity in today’s world.  It contains 74 colored maps, which are based on modern topographical survey maps, and corrects many of the errors that can found on the maps of the books by Charles Oman’s and John Fortescue.

An Atlas of the Peninsular War begins with a fascinating history of the cartography of the Peninsular War, from its earliest beginnings to the end of the 19th Century.  This essay covers the initial efforts done by Wellington’s staff in an attempt to provide adequate maps to the army to the post war attempts by various historians, such as William Napier, George Murray, and Thomas Mitchell.  Mr. Robertson also illustrates the book with contemporary images and maps that permits the reader to compare his maps with how the area was portrayed two hundred years ago.  The book also has several 19th Century photographs of some of the battlefields, which helps prove the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Except for the initial maps, the Atlas is organized chronologically and follows the advances and retreats of the Anglo-Allied Armies from 1808 to the end of the war in 1814.  The maps are colorful and the contours are clearly marked and delineated.  The scale of the map depends on the battle, with smaller battles, such as Vimeiro having a scale of 30mm = 1000 meters, while the map scale for the battle of Nivelle is 30mm = 3,000 meters. It was likewise for unit identifications.  At the smaller battles, such as Barrosa and Corunna, Mr. Robertson identified individual battalions, while the larger battles, such as Vitoria, only divisions were identified. A sample chapter can be seen at: The Battle of Sorauren

An Atlas of the Peninsular War has a uniform organization that makes finding information quite easy.  Each battle or major operation has a separate chapter.  Each chapter begins on the left page and there is a generic map of the Iberian Peninsula which shows where the action takes place.  It is then followed by a one-page summary of the major events that are depicted on the map, which is on the right page.  This layout allows the reader to follow the events on the map without flipping back and forth through the book. Major battles have multiple chapters and several maps.  For example, there are two maps for Fuentes de Oñoro, four for Albuera, and eight covering the Salamanca Campaign! A key to the cartographic symbols used on the maps is included.

Although An Atlas of the Peninsular War contains mostly battle maps, Mr. Robertson does not neglect the strategic aspects of the War.  There are maps showing the British Campaign in Portugal in 1808, Moore’s Campaign into Spain in late 1808 and early 1809, the British advance to Talavera in 1809, Massena’s invasion of Portugal in 1810 and subsequent retreat in 1811, etc.

An Atlas of the Peninsular War is a remarkable effort and is well worth the money.  Both the author and the cartographer should be commended -- Ian Robertson for the preciseness and clarity of the text that permits the reader to understand what is being shown on the map; and Martin Brown for the beauty and accuracy of his maps!  My only criticism of the work is that it only covers the part of the Peninsular War that the British fought.  There is no maps of the numerous battles fought by the Spanish against the French.  Hopefully this will be remedied in a future volume. I strongly recommend it for all those interested in the Peninsular War!

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