An Atlas of the Peninsular War

Jeremy Black praises a valuable new survey of the Peninsular War

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Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Ian Robertson
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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Handsomely produced and an excellent present for any Napoleonic War buff, this scholarly work indicates how far we have come since James Wyld’s 1840 work Maps and Plans, Showing the Principal Movements, Battles and Sieges, in Which the British Army Was Engaged During the War From 1808 to 1814 in the Spanish Peninsula.

By fixing the details of both campaigns and battles, Ian Robertson, a Peninsular War specialist, offers crucial detail for the operational and the tactical level of war. In doing so he matches the careful probing of the sources and reconciliation of different accounts already seen in Rory Muir’s Salamanca 1812 (2001).

As Robertson notes, earlier maps and plans are generally unsatisfactory, and he emphasises the extent to which, in many cases, accounts of moves are approximate or conjectural. Particular problems attach to the precise course and condition of roads and tracks, and also the amount, quantity and density of ground cover in the way of thickets and woods. As Robertson points out, the cover may well have obscured the position of enemy units or delayed the rapid movement of troops.

In many cases, issues of timing are vexed and this is significant if the map aims to show simultaneous or consecutive moves. It is also uncertain at what precise time an engagement began. To deal with this issue, Robertson provides more than one plan for particular battles, with six alone for Salamanca.

The maps are supported by a clear and pertinent text, and the two combine well. Thus, the map for the battle of Vitoria ably shows the way in which the French were outflanked.

The campaign maps similarly are well co-ordinated with the text. These maps help set battles in context, as with sections 34 and 35 – “Winter Cantonments, and Preparing for the Spring, 1812–1813” and “The Advance on Vitoria”, which provide the appropriate background for the section on Vitoria.

The map and text on the advance on Vitoria are further clarified by a table giving the daily position of the headquarters of each of the Allied columns during the advance.

It is instructive to note the appearance of another work at the same time, Nick Lipscombe’s The Peninsular War Atlas (Osprey). Its maps give precedence to the military detail and keep the topographical detail to a minimum, but there is sufficient of the latter to understand the battles, sieges and campaigns.

In both atlases, logistics are underplayed as are the wider strategic issue confronting both sides, but the two atlases represent a major move forward for our understanding of the war.

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Jeremy Black is author of War in the Nineteenth Century (Polity, 2009)