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Book Review: The Duke of Wellington
And the Command of the Spanish Army

The Duke of Wellington and the Command of the Spanish Army 1812-14,
by Charles J. Esdaile
1990, Macmillan Press Ltd.

As a child my family and I spent several summer vacations in Madrid. The family spent the pre-Millennium New Year’s there, and it was also in Spain that my wife and I honeymooned. This may, in part, explain my soft spot for the Spanish army in the Napoleonic Wars. Most of my reading on the Peninsular War focused, as I’m certain most do, on the campaigns of the Anglo-Portuguese Army under Wellington. For the past year, however, I have sought out information on the Spanish forces themselves (regular and guerilla). Most of the recent attention has been on the guerillas. So I was very pleased to find a copy of this now out-of-print book. Ordered from England at great cost both to my wallet and my patience, I found myself amply rewarded.

Aside from the victory at Bailen, the Spanish armies from 1808 to 1812 had very little to celebrate. Time and again they took the field only to be utterly routed by forces half their size. And while the Spanish army will not excite anyone’s admiration for battlefield glory, for sheer tenacity Napoleon never faced a more determined foe. Such was the state of the armies that even a xenophobic country like Spain felt compelled to give the supreme command to a foreigner (and a Protestant no less!). Even under Wellington the Spanish armies never equaled their continental peers, and as a result Wellington’s time as supreme commander is usually glossed over in the histories.

This is a relatively short book at 181 pages (not counting the appendices, index, etc.), but dense. Esdaile provides a cogent precis of the events from 1808 to 1812 culminating in Wellington’s appointment. Fear of a dictatorship, the frailty of the revolution against the Bourbons, regional and even personal rivalries all combined to make the appointment all the more remarkable. Even if it is true that there really was no Spanish general qualified for the task of leading and reforming the Spanish armies, the appointment is no less wonderful.

Wellington had seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome in making the Spanish army a field force capable of fighting the French on equal terms. There was no tradition of discipline in the ranks. The government was incapable or unwilling to provide pay, supplies, training, and equipment to the field forces. The leadership of the armies was populated with a group of personalities worthy of Henry James. To read of some of the schemes of the Spanish generals amid the rout that was the 1809 campaign, is to truly pity anyone charged with commanding them.

If you are a student of the Peninsular War, it is worth the effort to track this one down. Highly recommended.

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