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Book Review: The Peninsular War

Peninsular War, The: Aspects of the Struggle for the Iberian Peninsula,
Edited by Ian Fletcher
1998, Spellmount Limited

Oddly enough, this title simply showed up one day on the shelves of my local Borders book shop. The military history section there is weak on Napoleonics (no surprise) but, having a gift certificate in hand, this title was purchased with only the slightest pre-purchase perusal. The articles it provides are all interesting reading - whether they belong together in a single volume is another matter (the contents are listed at the bottom of this page).

The authors are all big guns in the field - Chandler, Esdaile, Haythornthwaite, Griffith to name a few - and the standard of scholarship is high. Here is my main issue: given the price tag and narrow focus of this book, it is relatively unlikely that “casual” history readers will form any significant part of its readers. It will, I think, attract just those readers like myself who, professionally or personally, have a deep interest in the Peninsular War. Thus the first chapter, a very sound summary of the struggle, while convenient, seems a bit superfluous. Likewise, David Chandler’s article on siege warfare was primarily review for me (and I am by no means an expert). On the other hand, Charles Esdaile’s article on the guerillas, John. G. Gill’s article on the Rheinbund troops, and Griffith’s discussion of the value of drill were all highlights. Of the eleven chapters, I would have liked to see four replaced.

In sum, while I would strongly recommend certain of the articles, on the whole I would suggest tracking this book down at a library rather than adding it to a personal collection.

(Those annotated * I found especially enlightening).

  1. The Peninsular War, by Ian Fletcher. A brief overview of the entire Peninsular War.
  2. ‘That Unlucky War’: Some aspects of the French experience in the Peninsula. By Philip J. Haythornthwaite. Haythornthwaite discusses some of the factors that led to the French difficulties in Spain. Besides the guerillas, he touches on the command structure (or lack thereof) on the French side, the lack of intelligence, and the horrors the adversaries inflicted on each other.
  3. Siege warfare in the Peninsula, by David Chandler. Chandler provides a nice introduction to siege warfare, and highlights how much more important (and prevalent) sieges were in the Peninsular War. If you are new to the field, a nice review, otherwise this is probably just worth a quick skim.
  4. * Vermin, Scorpions and Mosquitoes: The Rheinbund in the Peninsula, by John H. Gill. More than 35,000 men from the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund) served Napoleon’s cause in the Peninsula, but they are seldom mentioned in most of the histories. This lively article serves to introduce the service of these troops. They served across the entire peninsula but were primarily active in Catalonia and central Spain. Gill provides a very useful chart (p. 66) which shows Rheinbund deployments over time.
  5. * ‘Heroes or Villains’ revisited: fresh thoughts on la guerilla by Charles Esdaile. Esdaile probably came to the attention of most Napoleonic buffs with the publication of his outstanding general history of the Peninsular War (reviewed here). This article is part of a continuing debate started with another article of his in 1988. Specifically, he identified the need for a serious reappraisal of the role and value of the guerilla in this titanic war. In essence, Esdaile is calling for a breaking down of the myth that the guerillas were simply patriots who found another way to serve. In fact, many were basically bandits plundering friend and foe alike. Most were of dubious military value. Brief as this article is, it packs a punch and is worth reading. (Note: Esdaile has just published Fighting Napoleon: Guerillas, Bandits and Adventurers in Spain 1808-14 - look for a review in these pages soon.)
  6. ‘Carrying on the war as it should be’: Fraternisation by Philip J Haythornthwaite. Working from primarily English firsthand accounts and memoirs, this recounts the numerous examples of fraternisation between the French and British armies of the war. The barbarity with which the Spanish and French treated each other was less often seen. Haythornthwaite postulates that the French and British had more in common with each other than either did with the Spanish. Both were accomplished armies with a similar (low) opinion of the Spanish.
  7. * Prisoners of War in the Peninsula, 1808-14 by Paul Chamberlain. This was the one article that really stuck out for me. I confess, it never really occurred to me where prisoners in the wars went. While cartels and exchanges were known to me, I just never thought of where un-exchanged prisoners wound up.
  8. Wellington: Architect of Victory by Ian Fletcher. This is a short recap of Wellington’s career, and an analysis of what made him successful. As Fletcher notes, the French were themselves aware of the advantage of line over column. Fletcher calls out his use of skirmishers, selection of ground and use of artillery as critical. This is a good article, but perhaps a bit basic for the likely reader of this volume.
  9. * ‘Keep step and they cannot hurt us’: The value of drill in the Peninsular War, by Paddy Griffith. This article should be a must read for all would-be game designers. Bluntly, “drill” was a nice parade ground ideal, but in the field it was only of minor importance. Leadership, trust between soldiers and officers, were far more important.
  10. Wellington’s Fighting Cocks: The Portuguese Army in the Peninsula, by John Grehan. This traces the history of the Portuguese army from total defeat in 1807 to being regarded as equal to any troops in the army in 1814. Much of this will be well known to most students of the Peninsular War, but is a good overview for those whose interests have not included Iberia.
  11. Wellington’s Army: a bibliographical essay, by Ian Fletcher. Assuming you have five or six years to kill, this would be an excellent reading list. So many books so little time.


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