Wellington’s Peninsular campaign was waged amid a war that remains totally dominated by naval strategy within the British historical memory.
Where glory was available at sea, land operations were relegated to colonial operations or, by borrowing enough cash – at more favourable terms than could the French – to paying other European powers to keep their armies in the field. Unlike the War of the Spanish Succession a century before, British boots did not hit continental soil until some years after the outbreak of hostilities.
It is a tribute to Peter Snow’s book that he dwells far more on the nuts and bolts of military campaigning than on strategic or economic contexts. His is a series of carefully assembled snapshots of war, honouring the habit of diary keeping, which was a developing craft. The exhilarating narrative (for some purists perhaps too exhilarating) reminds us that, crucially, Snow is a distinguished television journalist, and writes like one. Blow by blow, he leads us, marching, fighting, stabbing, thrusting, gouging, eating, plundering, and dying with the best of the British army across the Iberian peninsular, and into southern France with a pace of which novelist Bernard Cornwell could be proud. But lovers of his novels, beware: the deeply Tory Wellington desperately loathed ‘rankers’ and would not have favoured the fictional Sharpe.
Snow does not protect us from the cruelties – particularly those perpetrated by the French on the Spanish/Portuguese and vice versa. British troops’ savagery at Badajoz, Ciudad Rodrigo, and elsewhere is not overlooked, nor are the atrocities and extensive plunder (Wellington was the happy recipient of 165 Old Masters) following Vitoria, one of the last major set battles of the campaign.
What the narrative does bring to life brilliantly are the minutiae of warfare generated by an army on the move. They are as lovingly recreated as the agonies, absurdities, follies, and despair of the warfare itself. The reader is carried along with the Duke and his staff group (an ever-present clash of personalities he was forced to rise above) from Portugal through
Spain, chasing the quarrelsome Generals Masséna, Ney, and Soult across the Pyrenees all the way to the bloody and wasteful Battle of Toulouse.
Soon afterwards, news comes of the collapse of the Grande Armée in Russia; its reduction from a force of 425,000 to one of 25,000 fighting men, and Napoleon’s exile to Elba. Snow goes on to retell the story of Waterloo in the same breathless style – you almost see in his prose his arms whirring round as he describes the battle. Memories of its violence, noise, destruction, and death dominated the 19th_century as much as the Somme and Verdun did of the 20th.
Was the campaign worth it? Could the defence of Spain have cost Napoleon troops which otherwise might have made his central European and Russian campaigns more successful? Maybe.
From his final exile in St Helena, Napoleon wrote that it ‘divided my forces, multiplied my obligations, undermined my morale. All the circumstances of my disasters are bound up in that fatal knot.’ Snow is more cautious. The campaign had not brought down Napoleon directly, he writes, ‘Britain’s allies in central and eastern Europe had done that’. But it did produce an army which, man for man, was up to fighting the French as strongly as any other in Europe, and to defeating them. The five years’ hard struggle might not have pivotally affected the outcome up until Waterloo, but it might well have been crucial in the battle itself.
Just before Waterloo, Wellington told Thomas Creevey, a visiting MP, what he thought his chances of winning the coming battle were. Pointing at a nearby British infantryman he said ‘There, Creevey: it all depends upon that article whether we do the business or not.’
Plus ça change…
Reviewed by Drew Clode for Military Times