Galloping at Everything; The British Cavalry in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, 1808-15
Fletcher, Ian. Galloping at Everything; The British Cavalry in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, 1808-15: A Reappraisal. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 1999. 301 pages. ISBN# 1862270163. Hardcover. £20.
In the "Introduction" to his book, Galloping at Everything, Ian Fletcher describes how he intends to reassess the reputation acquired by the British cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. They have acquired a reputation for being 'mere brainless gallopers' that is first evidenced by the actions of the 20th Light Dragoons at the battle of Vimeiro on 21st August 1808.
Fletcher writes, "... is this the true picture, and should we not search for the reasons that this reputation, undeserved in my opinion, was acquired? I certainly don't think so, for I believe that the poor reputation of the British cavalry in the Peninsula is a false one, based upon a handful of very high-profile misadventures, such as Vimeiro, Talavera and Maguilla, for each of which there [are] at least twice the number of shining successes, some major and some minor - which often get overlooked."
For many readers of Galloping at Everything, perhaps, both the general thrust of argument and many of the details will be familiar territory. Fletcher's prime target for criticism is Sir Charles Oman, and his hero is Sir John Fortescue, whose writings, Fletcher argues, on the British army during the Peninsular War have been too often overlooked in favour of the more obvious choice of Oman's. Ian Fletcher sees a shadow cast by Sir Charles as still falling upon modern authors, such as Rory Muir. In Muir's book, Tactics and Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon, the description of Campo Mayor, writes Fletcher, "was a famous defeat for the British cavalry, which is a quite incredible statement but is typical of historians who fail to see beyond the Oman view."
Criticism of Sir Charles Oman is undoubtedly to be encouraged, where the critics are at least as well informed as Oman himself was. The recent so-called "Volume IX", edited by Paddy Griffith, of Oman's great History will have been welcomed by anyone familiar with Oman. It has provided students of Napoleonic warfare with a much more balanced approach to criticism of Sir Charles Oman than students of Medieval warfare have seen in several fairly recent sweeping judgments made about Oman's admittedly inferior History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages. Thus one hopes that Fletcher's valid criticisms of Oman will not be seen as a signal for uninformed and lazy "Oman-bashing" to become the norm in future studies about the Peninsular War.
Galloping at Everything is divided into two sections, the second of which is about three times the length of the first. In the six chapters of the first section, "The British Cavalry," Fletcher describes the personnel, the horses and foraging, the organisation, tactics and training, picquets and patrols, and the problems affecting horses and cavalry warfare in Wellington's theatre of operations in the Iberian Peninsula. The most interesting chapter in this first section is "Horses and Forage," which includes the calculations for the total daily ration allowance of a cavalry regiment, as recorded by Sir John Bisset, one time Commissary-General in the Peninsula. Also particularly useful, expanding as it does upon John Pimlott's little guide (British Light Cavalry, Almark, 1977), is the chapter "Picquet and Patrol Work". Here, Fletcher can even bring himself to agree with Oman to some extent, despite the latter being "a source of much myth and flawed research...when it came to his appreciation of the cavalry's outpost and picquet work, even he recognised their achievements". The larger of the two sections is devoted to examining the operations of the British cavalry, with chapters on the "Early Years"; Campo Mayor; operations under Hill and Beresford; Maguilla; Salamanca to Burgos; the Vittoria Campaign; Bidassoa to Toulouse; and three chapters on the 1815 campaign.
At the heart of the book is Fletcher's treatment of the cavalry action at Campo Mayor 25th May 1811. The treatment is well argued and concise, with Fletcher aligning himself with Long, Napier and Fortescue, and in opposition to Beresford, Oman, and other more recent accounts, such as those of Michael Glover, Jac Weller, Julian Rathbone and Rory Muir.
Again, Fletcher sees the dead hand of Oman upon such more recent and popular accounts of the action, and one is led to believe that they really have not paid sufficient attention to the details of contemporary and eyewitness accounts, but have rather let themselves be unthinkingly guided by Sir Charles Oman. The censure of 13th Light Dragoons by Wellington is one of his most well-known condemnations of the "rashness" of the British cavalry, although Fletcher fails to point out that the Duke in fact later withdrew his intemperate and ill-informed judgment (see Griffith, A History of the Peninsular War, Volume IX, p 35). Nevertheless, one is still left with a nasty taste in ones mouth; Wellington's loyalty to Beresford meant that the capable General Robert Long was left out to dry.
Anyone looking for a direct comparison between the virtues and faults of the British cavalry and the faults and virtues of their contemporary friends and foes will be disappointed. Indeed, Fletcher does not concern himself with "Wellington's" cavalry per se, but rather the British cavalry in particular. Thus no attempt is made at a similar close analysis of the performance of the King's German Legion, or Portuguese or Spanish cavalry under Wellington's direct command. The K.G.L. of course gets honourable mentions, but by and large the tone of the book is such that it seeks to minimise the apparent differences in quality between the British and their German comrades-in-arms.
Reviewed by David Read