Monday, 26 January 2015

Inside Wellington's Peninsular Army 1808-14, Rory Muir et al

On the 13th of this month I reviewed Sir Charles Oman's old tome, Wellington's Army as part of a reading plan to continue on and read a more contemporary offering, "Inside Wellington's Peninsular Army 1808-14", from Rory Muir, Robert Burnham, Howie Muir and Ron McGuigan; which as Robert Burnham points out, in his introduction to the book, was compiled very much as a continuation and expansion of Oman's original work.

So I thought I would share my thoughts about it by covering the contents and highlighting the areas that I found particularly interesting.

I should say that all four of the contributors to the book regular share their knowledge and insights on the Napoleon Series web site

which for anyone interested in the period is a fantastic resource and forum for academics and enthusiasts alike and one that I regularly use to check out peculiar bits of information that a Napoleonic nerd like me would find fascinating.

The book is a compilation of essays by all four contributors allowing them to bring to bear their particular expertise in a given area of Wellington's army and I apologise for making this a long post but I want to do this book the justice it deserves and if as I hope you are interested in the subject you might find this helpful.

Chapter One  "Wellington and the Peninsular War - The Ingredients of Victory" by Rory Muir

This chapter carries on from Oman's original by looking at the key events that shaped British and Wellesley's involvement in the Peninsular War and the progress of it through to its conclusion. It really captures the understanding, that looked at from our modern perspective, the war seems an obvious campaign for Britain to have been involved in with the logical progression of the wearing down of Napoleon's Empire.

However, as with more recent conflicts, the decisions to get involved, just as the likely outcomes, are not as clear cut when viewed from a contemporary stand point, when all the pressures not to get involved seem to clamour for priority. To quote Muir following news in early August 1808 of the French defeat by Spanish forces at Bailen, " The salvation of Spain seemed assured, and Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, even dreamt of cutting off the French retreat at the foot of the Pyrenees and forcing their whole army to surrender. In the heady days of the summer of 1808 nothing seemed impossible."

Dupont's French army surrenders to the Spanish at Bailen - July 19th 1808
The enthusiasm for supporting the Spanish uprising in 1808 versus the voices warning against getting involved, reminded me of the so called "Arab Spring" and the clamour to support the various national uprisings of recent times. The mantra seemed to be first Libya, then Egypt and on to Syria. However as we know support for and an understanding of where these national uprisings will go is never clear and easily predictable.

Muir points out that the Spanish deputies did not ask for British military assistance. They were more than confident that the Spanish Army and people could deal with the French. The last thing that they wanted were more foreign troops in their country. On the other hand, the British Government wanted more involvement than simply supplying large amounts of cash and arms and so a preliminary operation to liberate Portugal seemed to be the most appropriate way to activate British military involvement.

Muir points out that the British army in 1808 was not small, having over 200,000 regulars plus a further 90,000 well trained, full time militia for home defence. However the requirement to provide garrisons at the many strategic points in the Mediterranean and through the growing British Empire, reduced the forces available for other operations to fewer than 40,000 men. This number rose slowly throughout the war, but never got above 70,000; this compared to French forces in the Peninsula at a peak of 350,000 and above 300,000 men for several years. Thus we have Wellesley's proposal to supplement British forces with a new British trained Portuguese army in a combined force under British command.

The trials and tribulations of British involvement are covered in some detail and we are taken on a year by year, battle by battle account of the war, looking at the political constraints that seemed to plague the military requirements, with the Regency crisis over the ill health of King George III and the comings and goings of the administrations of Perceval and the opposition Whig party and the support they had from the Prince Regent. All this whilst Wellington is having to deal with the Portuguese Regency and the massive strains of Massena's invasion and rape of the Portuguese country. However, as Muir points out, there is no doubt that the commitment to the war by the various Pittite administrations of Portland, Perceval and Liverpool deserves great credit for providing and maintaining Wellington's forces throughout, and is often overlooked.

Wellington's generalship is assessed versus the various French commanders he faced, fighting a dozen full scale actions plus many lesser ones between 1808-14, with an unbroken record of success, demonstrating equal ability on the defence and offence. Muir highlights the crossing of the Douro at Oporto as probably the most remarkable of his operations in terms of daring and professional skill and the Battle of Salamanca as perhaps the finest of his victories. I must say that I totally agreed with those two choices.

However, like Napoleon, Wellington was not a military innovator and the British army he led cannot have all its success laid at his command. The principal tactics of two deep line, disciplined volley fire and bayonet charge were already in place since the far off days of General Abercrombie's expedition to Egypt in 1801. The combination of these strengths together  with Wellington's command abilities and his reorganisation of the army into divisions acted as multipliers to the overall effectiveness.

Muir concludes his review with a quote from Wellington on the day after the battle of Waterloo when he told a friend "By God, I don't think it would have done if I had not been there!" pointing out that this remark holds true for the Peninsular War as well. Wellington was the indispensable ingredient of victory.

Chapter Two "The Origin of Wellington's Peninsular Army, June 1808 - April 1809" by Ron McGuigan

This chapter covers the British forces that served in the early days of British involvement in the Peninsular War and is a positive "gold mine" of information that is, as far as I know, not readily available elsewhere. I speak as someone who spent some time in the last two years searching for details of the various organisations of British troops, that sprung up and were made available for the liberation of Portugal in 1808 and I would have killed for this chapter alone during the construction of my orbats for my Vimeiro series of games. I still have a campaign in mind when the new C&G campaign system becomes available and now I have all the information I need to construct the forces that were involved alongside the potential additions all covered in this excellent chapter. If you want to know about the British army in the Peninsular during these early years this chapter makes this book worth having on its own - enough said.

Chapter Three "British Observing Officers of the Peninsular War" by Robert Burnham.

If you ever watched the Sharpe TV series you might remember the character played by that great actor, Brian Cox, namely Major Michael Hogan. This fictional character created by Bernard Cornwell captured the spirit of this unique group of exceptionally talented officers who formed an elite corps of intelligence gatherers for Wellington and his army. The first thing to mention is that they were not all British officers, having four Spanish and two Portuguese among their ranks. They were tasked with roaming specific parts of the Iberian country, of interest to Wellington, monitoring and reporting back on the activities of the French forces, liaising with allied Spanish and Portuguese forces, especially the various guerrilla groups and feeding back information about the land and the environment any British force may be tasked with entering.

Brian Cox as Major Hogan
The pre-requisites of these kind of men was a high level of personal intelligence, self reliance, observational skills and an ability with languages, especially French, Spanish and Portuguese. Sadly much of the activities of these very brave men is not recorded, as much of their reporting, hurriedly  scribbled down on scraps of paper to be entrusted to various couriers and taken back to Wellington's HQ have been lost. However one particularly diligent officer, Captain Charles Cocks of the 16th Light Dragoons made copies of his reports in his journal, a copy of which I got for Xmas and am looking forward to reading.

The chapter covers off  where these men operated, their organisation, the numbers of officers involved, the way they operated and how they obtained their information, the types of missions they carried out, the reports they made and how they passed on  their information, their accomplishments and casualties. Again I think this is the first time this subject matter has been covered this comprehensively.

Two "gems" from this chapter cover the exploits of Captain John Waters, 1st (Royal Scots) who as an ADC for the cavalry was, in 1808, scouting far ahead of Sir John Moore's army. In the village of Valdestillos near Sahagun he intercepted a French dispatch of the utmost urgency from Marshal Berthier, Napoleon's Chief of Staff, to Marshal Soult. It announced that the Spanish armies, Sir John Moore was marching to support, had been defeated and scattered and that Madrid had surrendered. Napoleon was rapidly moving his vastly superior numbers towards the British force and that the other French armies in the North were to close around the British to hold them fast, with Soult pushing across to cut off Moore's retreat. How this dispatch fell into Waters hands is another fascinating story,  covered in detail, but suffice to say that this information was instrumental in saving Sir John Moore's army from complete destruction.

The other more widely covered account is the later exploit of, the now, Colonel Waters discovering the barber at Oporto who had access to four wine barges, unguarded on the French northern bank. Waters led the mission to seize them and bring them over to Wellesley's force thus enabling the first British troops to cross the Douro and seize the Seminary.

Chapter Four "Order of Battle: Customary Battle-Array in Wellington's Peninsular Army" by Howie Muir.

This chapter could obviously have been a book in its own right and for me was an education into the thinking of the military system that Wellington and his men inhabited. As the chapter points out, it is difficult for the modern reader to understand how important battle array was to armies of this period relying on order, with everyone knowing their place within the system to allow that order to function smoothly. This order in Wellington's Peninsular Army with the addition of the divisional structure would reach levels of unconscious competence as units would arrive on the battlefield and take their positions as if controlled by an unseen hand, like that of a wargamer.

Battle Array illustrated in this map of the Battle of Corunna
With the development of more effective weaponry and killing power, the battlefield became empty and armies now spreading out into more dispersed formations forgot all the unnecessary skills and thinking that went with the close packed formations of the horse and musket era.

Muir explains the definition of array as the order in which an army is drawn up and called a line of battle. The order or pattern was based on ancient traditions of the right of the battle line having precedence and thus a position of seniority, whilst the left was the next position of seniority and the centre the most junior position. This pattern had a fairly common heritage across all the European armies and was very familiar to British armies throughout the 18th century.

The map above illustrates the principle, with Sir John Moore's army set up on the Elvina ridge at the Battle of Corunna in 1809. You can see the array in effect with the 1st Foot to the right of the 81st Foot in Manningham's brigade. Likewise Bentick's brigade has the order 4th Foot on the right, 42nd Foot on the left and the junior battalion in the brigade, the 50th occupying the centre.

The order of array went another level with the formalised divisions as they in tern were subdivided into brigades. On the battlefield one could expect the 1st brigade on the right, the 2nd brigade on the left and the third in the middle of the line. This concept even extended to allied forces operating in the allies country having the position of honour. At Albuera we see the Spanish forces taking position on the right of the Allied line, which was also expected to be the quiet end, and we all know how that turned out!

The Guards had a seniority above the line and were naturally assigned to the 1st Division along with the foreign corps, the Kings German Legion. Tradition had it that the 1st Division should also be the strongest and this would have several thousand more men than a typical line division.

The order of array would also determine the order of march on any given day to allow for the anticipated arrival before the enemy with the march set up to form on the head, to the left or to the right. If you imagine units in column of march planning to meet an enemy to the right then having the senior unit at the rear facilitates that manoeuvre maintaining array.

British units manoeuvre to cut off Salamanca in 1812 illustrating the order of march under array
What follows the explanation of the principles governing array are a series of battlefield examples illustrating the practise. Perhaps the most fascinating for me was the analysis of Talavera where the divisional commanders are getting used to their new set up for the first time, and with any first go it doesn't work exactly as planned. It appears that, with the Spanish occupying the first position of honour on the right, Wellesley intended the next position, the left, to be held by the Guards and 1st Division with Hill's 2nd Division  behind it on the left. Hill obviously wasn't working to this plan, finding himself  and his division on the right of the allied line behind the Spanish positions. This nearly caused a major problem when the French launched their surprise night attack on the Cerro de Medellin, on the British left flank, only to find Hill swiftly moving to his planned position and able to retake the Cerro once he had worked out where his force should have been.

After reading this brilliant chapter I found myself digging out maps of various actions to see the array in effect. I even recall my review of the Battle of Barossa describing the argument between Guards officers and officers of the 87th Foot as to their relative positions in the line before commencing their attack. This rather heated discussion under fire from French artillery illustrates how importantly seniority and array was held at that time and can seem quite incongruous to modern readers.

Chapter Five "Wellington's Generals in Portugal, Spain and France 1809-14" by Ron McGuigan.

When I first took an interest in Wellington and his Peninsular army I remember reading accounts of incompetent senior commanders like Major General John Slade and Major General Sir William Erskine with consternation and thinking why would an intelligent commander like Wellington suffer such fools in his army.

The facts of course were that, unlike Napoleon, Wellington never had the total control over who Horse Guards in London appointed to his expedition and he also had to work within the constraints of the seniority system the British army operated at this time; that seemed almost designed to frustrate a commander like Wellington getting the command he deserved and to stop him having the junior commanders he needed. As this chapter points out, he could when required request for an officer to be recalled home, but he very rarely used this sanction as he took the view that all officers were doing their best and deserved his support.

Muir explains the determination of an officers rank within the army as having two definitions. The Substantive rank in the officers regiment was the rank for which he was payed that could not be reduced to a lower rank except by court martial. This Substantive rank was usually the same as the Army rank e,g a captain promoted on the 1st April 1810 in the regiment would be a captain in the army from that date. However where things start getting interesting is that seniority in the regiment was based on his commission date or when the officer exchanged into that regiment. Thus you could have a captain senior to all others in the army and yet be the most junior in his regiment having transferred into it and becoming junior to all the other captains that were there before him.

We are then taken through the variations to the system such as brevet rank (the officer is awarded a higher Army rank to allow a position of command, thus a Substantive captain might be a Brevet lieutenant colonel commanding others of that Substantive rank in his brigade. Then there was "local rank" giving an officer a temporary higher rank whilst serving in a particular location. He would revert back to his Substantive rank when he left. The local rank ensured that the officer concerned had the pay and privileges that went with his command. Officers from foreign regiments in British service (KGL, Brunswick Oels Jagers) were often granted Temporary rank which gave them seniority over officers of lower rank or appointed to the same rank after their commission date. The officer would lose his rank on leaving the army. The Guards had their own arrangements, Dual rank, with their officers having a higher Army rank to their regimental Substantive rank, Thus a Guards captain transferring to a line regiment would become a lieutenant colonel in that regiment.

For general officers there were only three Substantive ranks, major general, lieutenant general and general, with field marshal tending to be reserved for royalty, Wellington broke that norm by getting the ultimate promotion in 1813 on the express wish of the Prince Regent. The seniority rules governed the commands that general officers would expect, with a senior lieutenant general having command of the army with the next senior being his second in command and general of the 1st Division.

Once you have grasped the rules as laid out in Muir's first few paragraphs you are then led through the process of how the various generals that operated in Wellington's army were appointed and how they fitted into this jealously guarded ranking system. I found this a really informative work that helped clarify why the commands ended up the way they did and the way Wellington had to work to get the men he wanted in the important jobs he selected for them.

As you will see from my opening remarks on this chapter, it didn't always work smoothly, but the brilliance of Wellington is enhanced when you think of the number of appointments he got right.

Chapter Six "Filling the Ranks: How Wellington kept his Units up to Strength" by Robert Burnham

A really informative chapter that covers all the principle methods Wellington was often forced to employ, not only to keep his units up to strength but also of a quality that allowed him to keep an edge to his army over the French.

The chapter highlights the issues facing the British throughout their time in the Peninsular with 39,000 men deployed to Holland in 1809, whilst Wellington had to make do with a lot of the second battalions in his force of 23,000. The years 1810-11 saw an improvement in strengths as the army in Portugal grew to 38,000 by the end of that period. In 1812 a further 20,000 troops were sent out but the war began with America thus putting further strain on the pool of available forces at a time when the Allied army was moving over to the offence. By 1813 the strain on replacements was biting with Wellington reporting that of the sixty four battalions he had available, fourteen had fewer than 450 rank and file, whilst eighteen had fewer than 350.

Wellington was thus forced to take radical steps to maintain the fighting ability of his forces, some of them with much reluctance and against internal opposition.

The principle methods covered are the  battalions of detachments, the Spanish recruits, the Provisional battalions, the offer of Russian troops and the Militia. Some of the material I was already familiar with from my reading of the Napoleon Series site postings about the battalions of detachments and the Provisional battalions, with the information being really useful when I was modelling the units involved. The information about the Russians, Spanish and Militia options was new to me and very interesting.

Chapter Seven "British Bridging Operations in the Peninsula" by Robert Burnham"

The final chapter covering British bridging operations was a whole new area for me to immerse myself in. I was very used to reading accounts of the various campaigns where reference is made to the Allies crossing the River ..... at such and such point enabling them to get wherever, and never really considering much more than the Royal Engineers would have brought up a bridging train and plonked it down and off the army went. In that thinking I was wrong in several points.

The bridge construction responsibility lay with the Royal Staff Corps, a unit I covered in a previous post looking at the construction of the Royal Military Canal in Hythe, last year.

Interestingly, they were not responsible for bridge destruction, that lay with the Royal Engineers. The British army didn't have a bridging train available until June 1811, and so before that period, and even after, the Royal Staff Corps men were forced to improvise in their bridging operations using local materials and making do. Their methodology was recorded each time so that the methods employed could be taught to new officers during their training to help share best practise. This has left an amazing archive of drawings and descriptions of the various new built and repaired bridges that shows off the ingenuity of these men.

River crossings were few and far between in the Iberian Peninsula, a land crossed with several mighty fast flowing rivers, often fed in winter by melt water coming off the many mountain ranges. The ability to control crossing points became an very important feature of all the campaigns and it seems incredible to a modern reader that the British army was so unprepared in this aspect and yet went on to develop a corps whose expertise became second to none and their professional commitment shines through in Robert Burnham's account. A brilliant piece of work.

The final piece to this excellent book is the Appendix, by Robert Burnham, that picks up where Oman left off with a comprehensive listing of personal memoirs and journals written by veterans of the war in regimental listings also covering those serving in Portuguese and Spanish postings. Each item including a summary, the rank of the individual and their role and includes all those published since 1913 thus not in Oman's original work.

If you haven't guessed already, I think this book is a must have if you have a serious interest in the Peninsular War. The writing is informative and straight forward, thus easy reading for the experienced reader of this period or the novice. Both will find something here that they didn't know. I am pleased I had read Oman before starting this book as together they compliment each other and really lay a solid foundation for understanding how Wellington and his army operated and the aspects peculiar to that war that they very successfully overcame.


  1. A very good and thorough review! Definately goes on my list of must reads.

    1. Cheers Samuli, glad you found it useful.