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WHILE WORKING FOR THE LAST nine years at the History of the Peninsular War, I have (as was inevitable) been compelled to accumulate many notes, and much miscellaneous information which does not bear upon the actual chronicle of events in the various campaigns that lie between 1808 and 1814, but yet possesses high interest in itself, and throws many a side-light on the general course of the war. Roughly speaking, these notes relate either to the personal characteristics of that famous old army of Wellington, which, as he himself said, “could go anywhere and do anything,” or to its inner mechanism the details of its management. I purpose to speak in these pages of the leaders and the led; of the daily life, manners, and customs of the Peninsular Army, as much as of its composition and its organization. I shall be dealing with the rank and file no less than with the officers, and must even find space for a few pages on that curious and polyglot horde of camp followers which trailed at the heels of the army, and frequently raised problems which worried not only colonels’ and adjutants, but even the Great Duke himself...
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Copyright © 2015 by Charles Oman
Published by Perennial Press
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THE OLD PENINSULAR ARMY
SOURCES OF INFORMATION – THE LITERATURE OF THE PENINSULAR WAR
THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON – THE MAND AND THE STATEMENT
WELLINGTON’S INFANTRY TACTICS – LINE VERSUS COLUMN
WELLINGTON’S TACTICS – THE CAVALRY AND ARTILLERY
WELLINGTON’S LIEUTENANTS – HILL, BERESFORD, GRAHAM
WELLINGTON’S LIEUTENANTS – PICTON, CRAUFURD AND OTHERS
THE ORGANIZATION OF THE ARMY: HEADQUARTERS
THE ORGANIZATION OF THE ARMY: BRIGADES AND DIVSIONS
THE ORGANIZATION OF THE ARMY: THE REGIMENTS
INTERNAL ORGANIZATION OF THE REGIMENT: THE OFFICERS
INTERNAL ORGANIZATION OF THE REGIMENT: THE RANK AND FILE
THE AUXILIARIES: THE GERMANS AND THE PORTUGUESE
DISCIPLINE AND COURT-MARTIALS
THE ARMY ON THE MARCH
IMPEDIMENTA: THE BAGGAGE – LADIES AT THE FRONT
A NOTE ON SIEGES
UNIFORMS AND WEAPONS
A NOTE ON THINGS SPIRITUAL
WHILE WORKING FOR THE LAST nine years at the History of the Peninsular War, I have (as was inevitable) been compelled to accumulate many notes, and much miscellaneous information which does not bear upon the actual chronicle of events in the various campaigns that lie between 1808 and 1814, but yet possesses high interest in itself, and throws many a side-light on the general course of the war. Roughly speaking, these notes relate either to the personal characteristics of that famous old army of Wellington, which, as he himself said, “could go anywhere and do anything,” or to its inner mechanism the details of its management. I purpose to speak in these pages of the leaders and the led; of the daily life, manners, and customs of the Peninsular Army, as much as of its composition and its organization. I shall be dealing with the rank and file no less than with the officers, and must even find space for a few pages on that curious and polyglot horde of camp followers which trailed at the heels of the army, and frequently raised problems which worried not only colonels’ and adjutants, but even the Great Duke himself.
There is an immense amount of interesting material to be collected, concerning the inner life of the Peninsular Army, from public documents, such as dispatches, general orders, and regimental reports, and records of courts martial. But I shall be utilizing to a much greater extent non-official information, collected from the countless diaries, memoirs, and series of contemporary letters, which have come down to us from the men who took part in the great war.
Nor are the controversial pamphlets to be neglected, which kept appearing for many a year, when one survivor of the old army found, in the writings of another, statements which he considered injurious to himself, his friends, his regiment, or his division. The best known and most copious of these discussions is that which centers round the publication of Napier’s Peninsular War; the successive appearance of its volumes led to the printing of many protests, in which some of the most prominent officers of Wellington’s army took part not only Lord Beresford, who was Napier’s especial butt and bete noir, and replied to the historian in terms sometimes not too dignified but Cole, Hardinge, D’Urban, and many more. This set of “strictures”, as they were called, mainly relate to the Albuera campaign. But there are smaller, but not less interesting, series of controversial pamphlets relating to the Convention of Cintra, to Moore’s retreat, to the campaign of 1810 (Bussaco), the storm of Badajoz, and other topics.
The memoirs and autobiographies, of course, possess the greatest share of interest. And it may be noted as a remarkable fact that those coming from the rank and file are not very much less numerous than those which come from the commissioned ranks. If there are scores of diaries and reminiscences of colonels, captains, and subalterns, there are at least dozens of little books by sergeants, corporals, and privates. Many of these are very quaint productions indeed, printed at local presses at Perth, Coventry, Cirencester, Louth, Ashford even at Corfu. Very frequently some knot of military or civilian friends induced a much-travelled veteran to commit to paper the tales which had been the delight of the canteen, or of the fireside of some village inn. They are generally very good reading, but often give rather the spirit of the time and the regiment than an accurate record of its long-past exploits. One or two of these veterans’ artless tales show all the characteristics of the memoirs of the prince of their tribe the delightful but auto-latrous Marbot. I have thought it worthwhile to give in an appendix the names and titles of the best of them. One or two, above all the little book of “Rifleman Harris” of the 95th, well deserve to be republished but still await that honor. Perhaps regimental patriotism may someday provide us with a series of reprints of the best Soldiers’ Tales.
It is a very notable fact, which requires (but has never hitherto received) an explanation, that it is precisely with the coming in of the nineteenth century that British soldiers and officers alike began to write diaries and reminiscences on a large scale, and in great numbers. I do not, of course, mean to say that there were none such produced in the eighteenth century. Besides serious military histories like those of Kane, Stedman, or Tarleton, there do exist a certain number of narratives of personal adventure written by officers, such as Major Rogers the Scout, or the garrulous and often amusing diarist (unfortunately anonymous) who made the campaign of Culloden with the Duke of Cumberland not to speak of the semi-apochryphal Captain Carleton. But they are few, and the writings from the ranks are fewer still, though there are certain soldiers’ letters which go back as far as Marlborough’s time, and one or two small books like Bristow’s and Scurry’s Indian reminiscences, and Sergeant Lamb’s Journal in the American War of Independence, which are worth mentioning. But it is quite certain that there was more writing going on in the army during the ten years 1805-1815 than in the whole eighteenth century.
What was the explanation of the phenomenon? There are, I think, two main causes to be borne in mind the first was the glorious and inspiring character of Wellington’s campaigns, which made both officers and men justifiably proud of themselves, and more anxious than any previous generation had been to put on paper the tale of their own exploits. It must have been a man of particularly cheerful disposition who cared to compile the personal narrative of his adventures during the Old American War, which was largely a record of disaster, or even in the ups and downs of the Seven Years’ War, when for every Minden or Quebec there had been an evil memory like Ticonderoga or Kloster-Kampen. It is to this instinctive dislike to open up old memories of misfortune that we may attribute the fact that the first British campaigns of the French Revolutionary War, the unhappy marches and battles of the Duke of York’s army in 1793, 1794, 1795 are recorded in singularly few books of reminiscences there are only (to my knowledge) the doggerel verse of the “Officer of the Guards,” with its valuable foot-notes, and the simple memoirs of Sergeant Stevenson of the Scots Fusilier Guards, and Corporal Brown of the Coldstream. This is an extraordinarily small output for a long series of campaigns, in which some 30,000 British troops were in the field, and where gallant exploits like those of Famars and Villersen-Cauchies took place. But the general tale was not one on which any participant could look back with pleasure. Hence, no doubt, the want of books of reminiscences.
But I fancy that there is another and a quite distinct cause for the extraordinary outburst of interesting military literature with which the nineteenth century begins, and we may note that this outburst certainly commences a little before the Peninsular War. There exist several very good personal narratives both of the Conquest of Egypt in 1801, of the Indian Wars during the Viceroyalty of Lord Wellesley, and of the short campaign of Maida. And this cause I take to be the fact that the generation which grew up under the stress of the long Revolutionary War with France was far more serious and intelligent than that which saw it begin, and realized the supreme importance of the ends for which Great Britain was contending, and the danger which threatened her national existence. The empire had been in danger before, both in the Seven Years’ War, and in the War of American Independence, but the enemy had never been so terrifying and abhorrent as the Jacobins of the Red Republic. The France of Robespierre was loathed and feared as the France of Louis XV or Louis XVI had never been. To the greater part of the British nation the war against the Revolution soon became a kind of Crusade against the “triple-headed monster of Republicanism, Atheism, and Sedition.” The feeling that Great Britain had to fight not so much for empire as for national existence, and for all that made life worth having religion, morality, constitution, laws, liberty made men desperately keen for the fight, as their ancestors had never been.
Among the many aspects which their keenness took, one was most certainly the desire to record their own personal part in the great strife. It is in some such way only that I can explain the fact that the actually contemporary diaries and journals become so good as the war wears on, compared to anything that had gone before. Memoirs and reminiscences written later do not count in the argument, because they were compiled and printed long after the French war was over, and its greatness was understood. But the abundance of good material written down (and often sent to the press) during the continuance of the war is astounding. In some cases we can be sure that we owe the record to the reason that I have just suggested. For example, we certainly owe to it the long and interesting military diaries of Lord Lynedoch (the Sir Thomas Graham of Barrosa), who most decidedly went into the Revolutionary War as a Crusader and nothing less. As I shall explain when dealing with his remarkable career, he started military life at forty-four, mortgaging his estates to raise a battalion, and suddenly from a Whig M.P. of the normal type developed into a persistent and conscientious fighter against France and French ideas whether they were expressed (as when first he drew the sword) in the frenzied antics of the Jacobins, or (as during his latter years) in the grinding despotism of Bonaparte. His diary from first to last is the record of one who feels that he is discharging the elementary duty of a good citizen, by doing his best to beat the French wherever they may be found.
I take it that the same idea was at the bottom of the heart of many a man of lesser note, who kept his pen busy during those twenty eventful years. Some frankly say that they went into the service, contrary to the original scheme of their life, because they saw the danger to the state, and were ready to take their part in meeting it. “The threat of invasion fired every loyal pair of shoulders for a red coat.”
Of the men whose memoirs and letters I have read, some would have been lawyers (like Sir Hussey Vivian), others politicians, others doctors, others civil servants, others merchants, if the Great War had not broken out. I should imagine that the proportion of officers who had taken their commission for other reasons than that they had an old family connection with the army, or loved adventure, was infinitely higher during this period than it had ever been before. A very appreciable number of them were men with a strong religious turn a thing I imagine to have been most unusual in the army of the eighteenth century (though we must not forget Colonel Gardiner). One young diarist heads the journal of his first campaign with a long prayer. Another starts for the front with a final letter to his relatives to the effect that “while striving to discharge his military duties he will never forget his religious ones he who observes the former and disregards the latter is no better than a civilized brute.”
There were Peninsular officers who led prayer-meetings and founded religious societies not entirely to the delight of the Duke of Wellington, whose own very dry and official view of religion was as intolerant of “enthusiasm” as that of any Whig bishop of Mid-Georgian times. Some of the most interesting diaries of the war are those of men who like Gleig, Dallas, and Boothby, took Holy Orders when the strife came to an end. One or two of the authors from the ranks show the same tendencies. Quartermaster Surtees was undergoing the agonies of a very painful conversion, during the campaign of 1812, and found that the memories of his spiritual experiences had blunted and dulled his recollection of his regimental fortunes during that time. A very curious book by an Irish sergeant of the 43rd devotes many more pages to religious reflections than to marches and bivouacs. J Another writer of the same type describes himself on his title-page as “Twenty-one years in the British Foot Guards, sixteen years a noncommissioned officer, forty years a Wesleyan class leader, once wounded, and two years a Prisoner.”
On the whole I am inclined to attribute the great improvement alike in the quantity and the quality of the information which we possess as to the inner life of the army, during the second half of the great struggle with France, not only to the fact that the danger to the empire and the great interests at stake had fired the imagination of many a participant, but still more to the other fact that the body of officers contained a much larger proportion of thoughtful and serious men than it had ever done before. And the same was the case mutatis mutandis with the rank and file also. Not but what of course some of the most interesting information is supplied to us by cheerful and garrulous rattle pates of a very different type, who had been attracted into the service by the adventure of the soldier’s life, and record mainly its picturesque or its humorous side.
IT WILL BE WELL, PERHAPS, to give a short account of the main sources from which our knowledge of the Peninsular Army is derived. The official ones must be cited first. The most important of all are, naturally enough, the Wellington Dispatches. Of these there are two series; the first, in twelve volumes, was published during the Duke’s lifetime by Colonel Gurwood between 1837 and 1839. The second, or supplementary series, in fifteen volumes, was published with copious notes by the second Duke of Wellington between 1858 and 1872.
The series edited by Gurwood is absolutely necessary to every student of the Peninsular War, but is most tiresome to handle, and is by no means complete. The Duke forbade the publication of a great number of his more confidential letters, and ordered portions of others to be omitted. He had a strong notion that a great deal of historical information could be, and ought to be, suppressed; this fact has caused much trouble to the modern historian, who wishes to obtain not a mere official and expurgated view of the war, but a full and complete survey of it. To show Wellington’s attitude it may be sufficient to quote his answer to William Napier, who asked for leave to utilize all his papers. “He could not tell the whole truth without hurting the feelings of many worthy men, and without doing mischief. Expatiating on the subject, he related many anecdotes illustrating this observation, showing errors committed by generals and others especially at Waterloo errors so materially affecting his operations that he could not do justice to himself if he suppressed them, and yet by giving them publicity he would ungraciously affect the favor of many worthy men, whose only fault was dullness.”
The Gurwood edition of the dispatches was published some fifteen years after Napier made his application, but numbers of the old Peninsular officers were still alive, and the Duke adhered to his already-expressed opinion that it would not be well to expose old quarrels and old blunders. Paragraphs, accordingly, are often omitted in the reprint, and in a large majority of cases, where blame was imputed or reproofs administered to any individual, the name was left blank. This makes the edition most tiresome to read. It is exasperating to find that e.g. “nothing has given me more concern in the late operations than the conduct of Lieut. Colonel of the Regt.” f or that “no means exists of punishing military disorders and irregularities of the kind committed by Brigadier General and Colonel.” Or again, when Wellington writes to the Patronage Secretary at the Horse Guards that “I am much obliged to you for relieving me from Major-General and Colonel. I have seen General and I think he will do very well, and so will”; or that “appears to be a kind of madman,” and “is not very wise,” the reader is reduced to despair. The only way of discovering the names, which are often those of officers of high rank, who figure repeatedly in any narrative of the Peninsular War, is to go to the original dispatches at the Record Office, or, when the communication is a private and not a public one, to the letters at Apsley House. Meanwhile, few have the leisure or the patience to do this, so that Wellington’s judgments on his lieutenants are still practically inaccessible.
It was, perhaps, still necessary to leave all these blanks in 1837. And Gurwood was no doubt acting in strict obedience to the Duke’s orders. But nothing can excuse his own slack editing of the massive tomes that he published. There are no tables of contents to the volumes, nor does the title page of each indicate the dates between which it runs. To find out which volume will contain a letter of November, 1810, we must take down Vols. VI and VII, and see from the date of the last dispatch in one and the first in the other, when the break comes. Supposing we wish to discover how many communications were sent to Graham or Spencer in 1811, there is no other way of achieving our object than running through every page of the two volumes in which the correspondence of that year is contained! There is a so-called index to the whole series, but it is practically useless, from the small number of headings given. The reader will look in it vainly for obvious places-names such as Chaves, Casal Novo, Castello Branco, Vera, St. Pierre, for personal names such as Lapisse, Latour Maubourg, Bonnet, Montbrun, Abadia, Penne-Villemur, O’Donnell, Del Parque, Erskine, Anson, Victor Alten, Barnard, Beckwith. On the other hand he will find silly headings such as under L, “Lies, encouragement of,” or under I, “Invincibility of British Troops.” Perhaps the most ridiculous entry in this absurd compilation is that of “Light Division,” to which there is annexed just one note, “satisfactory conduct of, on April 6, 1811,” as if that was the sole occasion on which it was necessary to mention that distinguished unit of the British army. There are no headings under regiments at all, so that if one wishes to see what the Duke said about the 52nd or the Black Watch, one simply gets no help.
But there is another trick of Gurwood’s which is even worse than his want of tables of contents or adequate index-entries. He omitted all the elaborate statistics which used to accompany the Duke’s dispatches, without exception. The beautiful tables of casualties which explain the distribution of losses between regiments and divisions, are in every case boiled down into three bald totals of “killed, wounded, and missing.” for the whole army, no indication of units being left. Even Lord Londonderry’s modest two volumes, the first attempt at a general history of the Peninsular War, give far more useful information on the all-important topics of strengths and losses than all Gurwood’s tomes. For that sensible author rightly saw that nothing could be more serviceable to the reader than an occasional table of the organization and numbers of the whole allied army, and that the detailed casualty-list of such a fight as Talavera or Albuera is indispensable. The purblind Gurwood preferred to put in a note, “the detail of divisions, regiments, and battalions has been omitted, being too voluminous,” when he was dealing with an important return. The historian owes him small thanks for his precious opinion.
It is an immense relief to pass from Gurwood’s ill-arranged work to the volumes of the Wellington Supplementary Dispatches, which were published by the second Duke between 1858 and 1872. Though the mass of Peninsular material contained in this series is comparatively small, it comprises a great quantity of familiar and private correspondence, which had been deliberately omitted from the earlier publication. And, moreover, it is admirably edited; the second Duke knew what was important and what required explanation, appended valuable and copious notes, and was able (since the elder generation was now practically extinct) to abandon the exasperating reticence used by Gurwood. Moreover, he added a vast quantity of letters written not by, but to, his father, which serve to explain the old Duke’s sometime cryptic replies to his correspondents. Even a few necessary French documents have been added. Altogether these volumes are excellent, and make one wish that the editing of the whole of the Wellington papers had fallen into the same hands.
There is a third series of Official publications which though not so “generally necessary for salvation” as the Dispatches, for any student of the Peninsular War, is very valuable and needs continually to be worked up. This is the seven volumes of General Orders, from 1809 to 1815, which are strictly contemporary documents, as they were collected and issued while the war was in progress the 1809-10 volumes were printed in 1811, the 1811 volume in 1812, and so on. The last, or Waterloo volume, had the distinction of being issued by the British Military Press in Paris, “by Sergeant Buchan, 3rd Guards,” as printer. The General Orders contain not only all the documents strictly so called, the notices issued by the commander-in-chief for the army, but an invaluable precis of all courts martial other than regimental ones, and a record of promotions, gazettings of officers to regiments, rules as to issue of pay and rations, and directions as to all matters of detail relating to organization, hospitals, depots, stores, routes, etc. If any one wishes to know on what day the 42nd was moved from the first to the second division, when precisely General Craufurd got leave to go home on private business, what was the accepted value of the Spanish dollar or the Portuguese Cruzado Novo at different dates, when expressed in English money, or what was the bounty given when a time-expired man consented to renew his service for a limited period, these are the volumes in which he will find his curiosity satisfied. They cannot be called interesting reading but they contain facts not elsewhere to be found.
There is an exactly corresponding series of General Orders for the Portuguese Army, in six yearly volumes, called Ordens do Dia: it was issued by Marshal Beresford, and contains all the documents signed by him. Whenever a student is interested in the career of one of the numerous British officers in the Portuguese service, he must seek of the records of his doings in these volumes. They are open to work in, as they have no yearly indices, and much patience is required to discover isolated notices of individuals. These volumes are practically inaccessible in England. It was with the greatest difficulty that a Lisbon friend hunted me up a copy after long search, and I am not aware that there is another on this side of the sea. But by its use only can we trace the service of any Anglo-Portuguese officer. There was supposed to be an “Ordem” every morning, and when nothing was forthcoming in the way of promotions, court-martial reports, or decrees, Beresford’s chief of the staff used to publish a solemn statement that there was no news, as thus
Quartel-General de Chamusca, 7. 1. 1811
Nada de novo
This happened on an average about twice a week.
In addition to these printed series there is an immense amount of unprinted official correspondence in the Record Office which bears on the Peninsular War. It will be found not only in the War Office section, but in those belonging to the Foreign Office and the Admiralty. As an example of the mysteries of official classification, I may mention that all documents relating to French prisoners will have to be looked for among the Admiralty records, under the sub-headings Transport and Medical. If, as occasionally happens, one wishes to find out the names and regiments of French officers captured on some particular occasion, e.g. Soult’s retreat from Oporto, or the storm of Badajoz, it is to the Admiralty records that one must go! Officers
can always be identified, but it is a herculean task to deal with the rank and file, for they used to be shot into one of the great prisons, Norman’s Cross, Porchester, Stapleton, etc., in arbitrary batches, with no regard to their regimental numbers. It would take a week to hunt through the prison records with the object of identifying the number of privates of the 34th Leger captured at Rodrigo, since they may have gone in small parties to any one of a dozen destinations. Many of the prison registers have lost one or other of their outer-boards, and the handling of them is a grimy business for the fingers, since they are practically never consulted.
While nearly the whole of the Wellington dispatches have been printed, it is only a small part of the Duke’s “enclosures”, added to each dispatch, that have had the same good fortune. These always repay a cursory inspection, and are often highly important. The greater part of Sir John Moore’s correspondence with Lord Castlereagh, and many dispatches of Moore’s subordinates Baird, Leith, and Lord W. Bentinck with a number of valuable returns and statistics, are printed in a large volume entitled Papers Relative to Spain and Portugal, Presented to Parliament in 1809.” There are, to the best of my knowledge, no similar volumes relating to Graham’s campaign from Cadiz in 1811, or Maitland’s and Murray’s operations on the east side of Spain in 1813-14. A good deal of information about the latter, however, may be got from the enormous report of the court-martial on Murray, for his wretched fiasco at the siege of Tarragona, which is full of valuable facts. The details of the other minor British enterprises in the Peninsula such as those of Doyle, Skerret, Sir Home Popham, and Lord Blayney, all remain in manuscript, readily accessible to the searcher, but not too often consulted. The Foreign Office section at the Record Office is highly valuable not only to the historian of diplomacy, but to the purely military historian, because Stuart, Vaughan, Henry Wellesley, and the other representatives of the British Government at Madrid, Seville, and Cadiz, used to send home, along with their own dispatches, numberless Spanish documents.
Since we are dealing with the British army, not with the general history of the Peninsular War, I need only mention that unpublished documents by the thousand relating to the French, Spanish, and Portuguese armies, may be found at Paris, Madrid, and Lisbon, and that the researcher is invariably welcomed and courteously treated. It may be worthwhile to make a note, for the benefit of beginners, to the effect that the French military documents are not concentrated in one mass, but are divided between the Archives Nationales, and the Archives de la Guerre at the Ministry of War. If a return or a dispatch is not to be found in one of these repositories, it may yet turn up in the other. The Spanish records are very “patchy,” full on some campaigns, almost non-existent on others. For example, the documents on the luckless Ocana campaign of 1809 are marvelously few; there does not exist a single complete “morning state “, by regiments and divisions, of Areizaga’s unhappy army. I fancy that the whole of the official papers of his staff were captured in the rout, and destroyed by ignorant plunderers they did not get into the French collections. Hence there have only survived the few dispatches which Areizaga and some of his subordinates sent to the Spanish Ministry of War.
So much for Official Records. Passing on to the publications of individual actors in the war, we must draw a sharp line between those which were issued during or immediately after the campaigns with which they deal, and those which were written down, with or without the aid of contemporary notes or journals, many years after. The former, of course, possess a peculiar interest, because the writers’ narrative is not colored by any knowledge of what is yet to come. An officer writing of Corunna or Talavera with the memory of Vittoria and Waterloo upon him, necessarily took up a different view of the war from the man who set down his early campaign without any idea of what was to follow. Early checks and hardships loom larger in the hour of doubt and disappointment, than when the recollection of them has been dimmed by subsequent hours of triumph. The early material, therefore, is very valuable, but it is not so copious as that which was written down later, and it largely exists in the form of letters and diaries, both of which are less readable than formal narratives. As good types of this sort of material we may name Ormsby’s and Ker-Porter’s Journals of the Campaign of 1808-09, Hawkers’ Journal of the Talavera Campaign. Stothert’s Diary of 1809-11, and General MacKinnon’s Journal of the same three years, all of which were published within a few months of the last entry which each contains. Next to these come the books which consist of contemporary material, published without alteration from the original manuscripts, but only many years after they had been written. The best of these for hard facts, often facts not to be found elsewhere, is the diary of Tomkinson of the 16th Light Dragoons with it may be mentioned the Journal of George Simmons of the 95th, published in 1899 with the title, “A British Rifle Man,” the Journals of Sir William Gomm, 1808-15,J Sir George Warre’s Letters of 1808-12, which only saw the light two years ago, and Larpent’s Private Journal, printed in 1852. These volumes all have short notes by the editors, but the text is the writing of the Peninsular time, untampered with and unaltered.
These books and their minor contemporaries stand in a class by themselves, as contemporary material reflecting accurately the spirit of the times. Much more numerous, however, are the books which, though produced by actors in the Great War, appeared at dates more or less remote from the years whose events they narrate. The formal histories are comparatively few, the reason being that Napier’s magnificent (if somewhat prejudiced and biased) volumes completely put off other possible authors, who felt that they lacked his genius and his power of expression, from the idea of writing a long narrative of the war as a whole. This was a misfortune, since the one book which all students of military history are thereby driven to read, was composed by a bitter political partisan, who is set on maligning the Tory government, has an altogether exaggerated admiration for Napoleon, and owned many personal enemies in the British army, who receive scant justice at his hands. At the same time we must be grateful that the work was written by one who was an actual witness of many of the campaigns that he relates, conscientiously strove to get at all other first-hand witnesses, and ransacked the French as well as the British official papers, so far as he could obtain access to them. The merits of his style are all his own, and will cause the History of the Peninsular War to be read as an English classic, as Clarendon’s History of the Great Rebellion is read, even when research has shown (as in Clarendon’s case) that much of the narrative needs reconstruction, and that the general thesis on which it is constructed lacks impartiality.
The only other general histories of the war which appeared were Southey’s (three vols. published 1832) and Lord Londonderry’s. The former was written by a literary man without any military experience, who had seen nothing of the Peninsula during the years of the struggle, and had as almost his only merit, a good knowledge of the Spanish sources, of which he was too uncritical. The book fell dead, being unable to compete with Napier, and lacking all the authority of personal knowledge which was the latter’s strong point. The smaller book of Lord Londonderry (two volumes, published 1829) is by no means without merit, but has many faults, always hovering on the edge between formal history and personal reminiscences. Wherever Charles Stewart had not been present, he passes lightly over the episodes of war, and obviously had taken no very great pains to collect first-hand material. At the same time the book has value, as giving the views of a highly-placed staff officer, who had the opportunity of seeing every episode from the point of view of Head Quarters, and had strong convictions and theories of his own. He had also the saving grace of loving statistics, and printed many valuable appendices of “morning states” and casualty-lists, things of which Napier was far too sparing, and which Gurwood suppressed altogether. As a general record the book could not cope with Napier, and has been forgotten somewhat undeservedly no less than Southey’s vast quartos. There is absolutely no other general history by a contemporary which needs mention. Of course I omit foreign sources, which help us little with regard to the British army, though they are indispensable for a general study of the war. Foy’s unfinished Guerre de la Peninsula, if we may judge from the volumes which appeared before his death, would have been a very prejudiced affair his account of the British troops in Vol. I is a bitter satire, contrasting oddly enough with his confessions concerning their merits in his Journal, of which a large portion was published a few years ago by Girod de Lain under the title Vie Militaire du General Foy. After all the detraction in his formal history, it is interesting to read the frank letter which says, in 1811, that for a set battle on a limited front he acknowledges the superiority of the English infantry to the French, “I keep this opinion to myself,” he adds, “and have never divulged it, for it is necessary that the soldier in the ranks should not only hate his enemy, but also despise him.” Foy kept the opinion so closely to himself, that no one would have suspected it who had read only his formal history of the Peninsular War.
Another French general history is Marshal Jourdan’s Guerre d’Espagne, issued only ten years ago by the Vicomte de Grouchy, though large parts of it had been utilized in Ducasse’s Life and Correspondence of King Joseph Bonaparte. This covers the whole war down to Vittoria, and is notable for its acute and often unanswerable criticism of Soult and Massena, Marmont and, not least, of Napoleon himself. It is less satisfactory as a vindication of Jourdan’s own doings. Marmont’s autobiography only covers his fifteen months of command from May 1811, to July, 1812 while St. Cyr’s and Suchet’s very interesting accounts of their own periods of activity relate entirely to Catalonia and the eastern side of the Peninsula. St. Cyr does not touch British affairs at all; Suchet treats his campaigns against Maitland and Murray in a much more cursory style than his previous successes against the Spanish armies. The other French formal narratives by contemporaries and eye-witnesses are for the most part monographs on particular campaigns in which the writers took part such as Thiebault’s work on Junot in Portugal full of deliberate inaccuracies which was published in 1817, and Lapene’s Conquete d’Andalousie, en 1810-12, and Campagnes de 1813-14 (both published in 1823 in volumes of different size) which deal only with the army of Soult. There are, however, two general histories by German officers Schepeler (who served with the Spaniards), and Eiegel (who served with the French) which both require mention. The former is especially valuable.
Having made an end of the formal histories written by contemporaries and eye-witnesses, it remains that we should speak of a class of literature much larger in bulk, and generally much more interesting, considered in the light of reading for the general student the books of autobiographies and personal reminiscences which were written by participants in the war sometime after it had come to an end at any time from ten to forty years after 1814. Their name is legion. I am continually discovering more of them, many of them printed obscurely in small editions and from local presses, so that the very knowledge of their existence has perished. And so many unpublished manuscripts of the sort exist, in France no less than in England, that it is clear that we have not even yet got to the end of the stock of original material bearing on the war. Some of the most interesting, e.g. the lively autobiography of Blakeney of the 28th and that of Ney’s aide-de-camp Sprunglin, have only appeared during the last few years.
These volumes of personal adventures differ greatly in value some were written up conscientiously from contemporary diaries others contain only fragments, the most striking or the most typical incidents of campaigns whose less interesting everyday work had been forgotten, or at least had grown dim. Unfortunately in old age the memory often finds it hard to distinguish between things seen and things heard. It is not uncommon to find a writer who represents himself as having been present at scenes where he cannot have been assisting, and still more frequent to detect him applying to one date perfectly genuine anecdotes which belong to another. One or two of the most readable narratives frankly mix up the sequence of events, with a note that the exact dating cannot be reconstructed. This is notoriously the case with the most vivid of all the books of reminiscences from the ranks the little volume of “Rifleman Harris,” whose tales about General Robert Craufurd and the Light Division flow on in a string, in which chronology has to take its chance, and often fails to find it.
Another source of blurred or falsified reminiscences is that an author, writing many years after the events which he has to record, has generally read printed books about them, and mixes up this secondary knowledge with the first-hand tale of his adventures. Napier’s Peninsular War came out so comparatively early, and was so universally read, that screeds from it have crept into a very great number of the books written after 1830. Indeed, some simple veterans betray the source of their tales, concerning events which they cannot possibly have witnessed themselves, by repeating phrases or epigrams of Napier’s which are unmistakable. Some even fill up a blank patch in their own memory by a precis of a page or a chapter from the great history. It is always necessary to take care that we are not accepting as a corroboration of some tale, that which is really only a repetition of it. The diary of a sergeant of the 43rd mentioned above contains an intolerable amount of boiled-down Napier. It is far more curious to find traces of him in the famous Marbot, who had clearly read Mathieu Dumas’ translation when it came out in French.
The books of personal adventure, as we may call the whole class, may roughly be divided into three sections, of decreasing value in the way of authority. The first and most important consists of works written upon the base of an old diary or journal, where the memory is kept straight as to the sequence of events by the contemporary record, and the author is amplifying and writing up real first-hand material. Favorable examples of this are Leach’s Rough Sketches of the Life of an Old Soldier Leslie of Balquhain’s Military Journal which in spite of its title is not in journal shape, but reads as a continuous narrative, and Sir George Bell’s Rough Notes of Fifty Years’ Service, all of which are definitely stated by the authors to have been founded on their note-books of the war time, and therefore can as a rule be treated as first-hand evidence. They can generally be trusted as authorities against any divergent tales based on the narratives of writers who wrote their reminiscences without any such foundation, and where they get off the lines of contemporary evidence they usually give the reader warning. For example, Leach gives valuable material to show the inaccuracy of Napier’s exaggerated estimate of the length and pace of the Light Division’s march to Talavera, whose erroneous figures have been repeated in so many subsequent books. And yet Leach was not conscious of the fact that the data which he gives were incompatible with Napier’s story, and repeats it in a general way because he published his book several years after the appearance of Napier’s second volume, and had (like many other members of the Light Division) absorbed the legend as a matter of faith on Napier’s authority. It was reserved for Sir John Bell, who had served under Craufurd but joined too late for Talavera, to explode the story. But his demonstration of its inaccuracy has not travelled far, while the original legend has gone all round the world, and is still reproduced, as an example of unparalleled rapidity of movement, in serious military works.
Infinitely less valuable than the books founded on private diaries or letters of contemporary date, are those which were written down long after the war, from unaided memory only. They are, of course, progressively less valuable for evidence according as the date at which they were indited recedes from the period with which they deal. Gleig’s charming The Subaltern, printed as early as 1825, may be better trusted for matters of detail than Blakeney’s equally vivid narrative written in the remote island of Paxos about 1835, and Blakeney is more valuable than Hennegan’s highly romantic Seven Years of Campaigning, published only in 1847, when thirty winters had blurred reminiscence, and allowed of the accretion of much secondhand and doubtful material round the original story. The strength of men’s memories differs, so does their appreciation of the relative value of a dramatic narrative as compared with a photographic record of personal experiences. But in a general way we must allow that every year that elapses between the event and the setting down of its narrative on paper decreases progressively the value of the record. As an example of the way in which the failing powers of old age can confuse even a powerful memory, we may mention the curious fact that Wellington himself, twenty years after his last campaign, seems to have told two auditors that he had visited Blucher’s camp on the very eve of Waterloo, the night between the 17th and 18th of June, 1815, a statement quite incredible. It was apparently a blurred memory of his real visit to the Prussian headquarters on the early afternoon of the 16th of which ample details are known.
Failing memory, the love of a well-rounded tale, a spice of auto-latry, and an appreciation of the picturesque, have impaired the value of many a veteran’s reminiscences. Especially if he is a well-known raconteur, and has repeated his narrative many times before he sets it down on paper, does it tend to assume a romantic form. The classical example, of course, is Marbot, whose memoirs contain many things demonstrably false, e.g. that he brought the news of the Dos Mayo insurrection at Madrid to Napoleon, or that in 1812 he took his regiment from Moscow to the neighborhood of Poltava, and brought it back (400 miles) in less than a fortnight with a convoy of provisions, or that he saw 6000 men drowned on the broken ice of the lake of Satschan at the end of the battle of Austerlitz. Marbot is, of course, an extreme example of amusing egotism, but parallels on a minor scale could be quoted from many of his contemporaries, who wrote their tale too late. We may mention Thiebault’s account of the combat of Aldea da Ponte, when he declares that he fought 17,000 Anglo-Portuguese and produced 500 casualties in their ranks, when he was really opposed by one British brigade and two Portuguese battalions, who lost precisely 100 men between them. Yet the account is so lengthy and detailed, that if we had not the British sources before us, we should be inclined to think that we were reading an accurate narrative of a real fight, instead of a romantic invention reconstructed from a blurred memory. It was the only Peninsular fight in which Thiebault exercised an independent command and every year added to its beauties as the general grew old.
Among all the books of regimental adventure, I should give the first place for interest and good writing to Lieut. Grattan’s With the Connaught Rangers. It is not too much to say that if the author had taken to formal history, his style, which is vivid without exaggeration, and often dignified without pomposity, would have made him a worthy rival of Napier as an English classic. His descriptions of the aspect and psychology of the stormers marching down to the advanced trenches at Ciudad Rodrigo, and of the crisis of the battle of Salamanca, are as good as anything that Napier ever wrote. A reader presented with many of his paragraphs would say without hesitation that they were excerpts from the great historian. Unfortunately Grattan suffered from one of the faults which I have named above he will give untrustworthy information about episodes at which he was not present it is at best superfluous and sometimes misleading. But for what the 88th did at Bussaco and Fuentes, at Badajoz and Salamanca, he is very good authority. And he is always a pleasure to read. Two good books Gleig’s The Subaltern and Moyle Sherer’s Recollections of the Peninsula have a share of the literary merit of Grattan’s work, but lack his power. They give respectively the day-by-day camp life of the 85th in 1813-14, and of the 48th in 1811-13, in a pleasant and life-like fashion, and since both were published within ten years of the end of the war Gleig’s in 1825, Sherer’s in 1824 the writers’ memories were still strong, and their statements of fact may be relied upon. Both have the merit of sticking closely to personal experience, and of avoiding second-hand stories.
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