Reviewed by: Gary Sheffield Author: Peter Snow Publisher: John Murray Price (RRP): £25
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, would be on any shortlist for the award of the greatest British military commander of all time.
In leading his army to victory in the Peninsular War (1808–14) and then defeating Napoleon at Waterloo (1815) Wellington demonstrated military skills of the very highest order in the realms of strategy, operations, tactics, logistics, politics and coalition warfare. He didn’t get everything right all the time, but he thrived in adversity and learned from his mistakes.
The patrician Wellington was admired rather than loved by his men. Thanks to increasing levels of literacy, we have accounts not only of well-educated officers but also of a number of ordinary soldiers.
The letters penned by Sergeant Wheeler of the 51st Light Infantry from the Peninsula and Waterloo are justly famous. One only has to compare the paucity of voices from the ranks from Marlborough’s wars a century earlier to marvel at the riches available to the student of Wellington’s campaigns.
Wellington and his army is therefore a marvellous subject for a writer, and in his new book Peter Snow gives us a very readable narrative.
Snow’s technique is to follow Wellington’s campaigns from his arrival in Mondego Bay in August 1808, though his Peninsular battles – Vimeiro, Talavera, Salamanca, Vitoria and others – that took him, over the course of six years, from Portugal through Spain and over the Pyrenees to France, where, in April 1814, he fought at Toulouse what he thought was his last battle. Of course, barely a year later, Wellington had to take the field again, commanding an Anglo-Dutch-German army that, in concert with the Prussians, defeated Napoleon once and for all at the battle of Waterloo.
Alongside the view from ‘high command’, Snow paints a fascinating picture of the army from the front line. He is adept at finding an apt quote to illustrate his narrative, drawing on manuscript as well as published sources.
Typical is his skilful use of Captain Leach’s graphic account of conditions on the retreat after Talavera in 1809 for officers of the 95th Rifles. Dinner was served on “the turf at the foot of the tree with a soldier’s knapsack by way of a camp chair”, the meal consisting of “an onion or two, some rice and a mouldy ship’s biscuit”.
Peter Snow of course is a distinguished journalist and television presenter rather than a professional historian, and in places it shows.
To pick a couple of examples, he confuses the musket-armed, red-coated skirmishers of the light companies of the infantry battalions with the dark green-clad men of the 95th Rifles that Wellington used to stiffen the skirmish line. The latter were armed with Baker rifles that had greater range and accuracy than the smoothbore musket but had a lower rate of fire.
Similarly, Snow refers to the 50th Foot as having “black flashes” on their uniform – he means facings (collars and cuffs), ‘flash’ having a completely different meaning in the context of early 19th-century uniform.
Worse than this, Snow has ignored a good deal of recent scholarship on Wellington and his army. Going through his bibliography, I noted the absence of 20 important books before I stopped counting.
To pick one example at random, Snow devotes a chapter to Salamanca (1812), yet omits the most important single book on the battle, Rory Muir’s ground-breaking study. These errors and omissions undermine the usefulness and credibility of an otherwise enjoyable book.
At its best, popular history combines readability with a synthesis of scholarship. To War with Wellington succeeds magnificently on the first count, but falls down on the second.
Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham