A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Peninsular War - Trainspotters' Guides

I have a lot of records - on paper - which I've been collecting and revising since the 1970s, in my efforts to make sense of detailed Orders of Battle for the Peninsular War. In the days before the Nafziger collection was available, all we had was the material in the appendices in the back of Oman's History, plus odd clues in Martinien's casualty tables and various memoirs. Some of my paperwork is so old it is foolscap size (which is old, believe me), and typed with an old sit-up-and-beg typewriter, and then there's all the scrawled annotations - how come the 3rd squadron was at Leipzig, then? - and are these from Franceschi's brigade?

Beyond my interest in the narrative of the campaign and the battles, I have always wanted to understand the composition of the armies - especially the French armies, which traditionally are not covered well in British works - and, in particular, how these things evolved. Who was where, when, and why did things change? I've found this fascinating but - until fairly recently - frustratingly hard to get a handle on. The nuts and bolts stuff, apparently, is not regarded as a big seller!

Nowadays I have an original copy of Martinien (plus a computer database built from the data), and I also have the Nafziger papers, and there are online sources such as Richard Darnault's website which is very good but incomplete. A small but significant step forward for me was Stuart Reid's excellent little Osprey book about Wellington's army, which filled in a lot of gaps, and I hoped that someone would produce something similar for the French in the Peninsula.

Mike Oliver and Richard Partridge covered some of this in their very useful Napoleonic Army Handbook - The French Army and Her Allies [the French army was female?] - but it covers too much ground to allow for great detail. Digby Smith's Napoleon's Regiments is interesting, but it contains a lot of random bits and pieces, much of it anecdotal, rather lacks a systematic approach and it does not cover the foreign regiments.

I've waited some time for the retailers to get some actual stock, but I finally have Robert Burnham's super new Charging Against Wellington, published by Frontline Books (an offshoot of Pen & Sword?) and I am so happy I have had to lie down for a while to get over it. It is your actual full nuts-&-bolts history of the French cavalry in the Peninsula. The campaign narrative is deliberately concise, exactly because there are any number of such narratives out there, and to leave plenty of space for the tables and the regimental details. Some of the material is familiar from the Napoleon Series website (which is entirely understandable, given that Robert is the main man there), but is expanded, and there is a wealth of things I have never seen before.

I am not going to attempt a critical review - not here, anyway. The book contains sections on

* Details of the organisation of the French cavalry from 1807 to 1814, who was where, in which command, and how this developed. This includes units (in part or completely) being withdrawn or transferred, cadres being sent back to raise new squadrons, strengths. It also includes details of the composition of provisional units, escadrons de marche and so on.

* Biographies of all cavalry generals involved. These do not seem to be just the usual translations of Georges Six, and they offer critical assessment where it is considered due. A number of favourites of mine are included, including the bold Vital-Joachim Chamorin, who was killed at Campo Mayor at the head of his 26th Dragoons, never to know that he had been promoted to General de Brigade less than 3 weeks earlier [no Internet in them days...]

* Full details of all the regiments involved - the colonels, the engagements, losses, a record of where they were and who they served under. This includes provisional units and foreign regiments, though not King Joseph's Spanish forces.

If I were to find fault, it is only to comment that it would have been nice if the book could have provided a few more portraits, but that is really getting picky, and is mainly because I would like to know what a few of the middling fellows looked like - Curto, for example. I am so delighted that all I need now is for the guys at Napoleon Series to start work on the infantry volume!

You will gather that I am well pleased with the book, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who is interested; it is not what everyone is looking for, and it will almost certainly get some criticism in Amazon customer reviews because there is too much detail about the units (Stuart Reid's book did), but that is precisely why it exists. This is one for the trainspotters, like me, and not the least of its merits is that it sets a precedent and a standard which, one hopes, will make such works more common in future. Thank you, Robert, ever so much - a little more light is shed.


  1. It is okay for you to write something for Amazon too, letting everyone know that what they think should be cut out is exactly what should be put in, and expanded, and is expected of the authors as well as editors. Demanded, even.

    Your review here is probably above the average there, anyway. You can do it for Reid too.

    Unfortunately that was not possible in the fifties, (no internet then), when

    Winston Churchill's many volumes were abridged to remove exactly those details most important in favor of the complete sentences of intriguing gossip, and the stupid git editor brags about it in the foreword.

    And he is not the only one treated thus, it even happens with the Iliad.

    The l' in l'armee is the feminine definite pronoun abbreviated, so all armies are feminine in French.

  2. Agreed - I recently borrowed a copy of a dusty old history of the Wagram campaign (can't remember title or author as I sit here - I will probably remember at 3am when I'm in bed) in which the editor, in his foreword, explained that he had cut out a lot of repetitive description of campaign movements and details of the army returns to avoid burdening the reader with information which was of limited value.


    Feminine armies - fine in French. "The Armies of France and Her Allies" would be fine in English, too, but "The French Army and Her Allies" seems somehow awkward. No matter - the book is pretty good anyway.

  3. I'm rather more towards the impressionist end of the scale - but I've found Reid very useful. There's also an almanac that I've found reliable, damned if I can remember what it was called though.

  4. Thanks for the review, Foy. Burnham's one I haven't spotted yet, so it might have to go on my Xmas present list.