Saturday, 21 September 2013

Charging against Wellington- Book Review

I finished reading this book a few weeks ago and thought I would share my thoughts about it.
I have to say, congratulations to Robert Burnham, I'm really pleased I bought this book and added it to my library. The information contained within is priceless for the Peninsular War enthusiast keen to understand the organisation and command of French cavalry units during this long campaign, during which the French army went through different phases. The war started with the French very much on the offensive and, with the arrival of Napoleon himself, a rapid increase in the number of cavalry units and effective commanders. As the war continued and the Emperor left for other campaigns, never to return, the cavalry was gradually denuded of units and, just as importantly, able commanders. This at a time when the French strategy was changing to one of pacification and policing where cavalry had a vital role to play, particularly in a land mass as large as the Iberian Peninsula. Then as the war turned against the French on all fronts the decline in cavalry numbers increased with the withdrawal of French armies back to France.
Thus the information about the units available to commanders in the theatre are described against this backcloth of events. The description of Provisional Cavalry Regiments was very instructive, particularly for me as I am constructing orders of battle for the Vimiero campaign and deciding on how to grade the morale and efficiency of these kind of units. The book clearly describes how these units were put together with men and NCO's the Regimental commander chose to leave back in the depot. They were designed to be able to take on much inferior opponents and could perform adequately against their Spanish and Portuguese opponents, but would be found out when up against the British, Sahagun in 1808 during the Corunna campaign a classic example.
This book is not a rollicking read of stories and anecdotes about the exploits of the French cavalry. If you are looking for that I would suggest there are plenty of other books out there that will fulfil that role. What this book is, is a gold mine of statistics and facts about the commanders and units together with an overview of the role and deployment of these men during the war.
The back cover gives some excellent examples of the information contained within.
  • "Of the 80 generals who commanded cavalry between 1808 and 1813, 34 of them were killed, wounded or taken prisoner - a casualty rate of 43%".
  • "Nine cavalry generals were relieved for incompetence, insubordination, corruption or for other reasons while they were in the Peninsula. Two of them were among the best known generals - Louis Montbrun and Francois Kellermann".
  • "After retreating from Portugal in the spring of 1811, the cavalry of the French Army of Portugal could muster close to 5,300 men and 4,700 horses on 1 April. The number of horses fit for campaigning was significantly less. A month later it could only field 2,200 mounted troops at the battle of Fuentes de Onoro".
  • "Casualties among the regiments varied. Between 1st May 1811 and 10th July 1813 the 13th Chasseurs lost in Spain 201 men either killed, died from disease, made prisoner, or deserted. The regiment also had 982 horses die. The 9th Dragoons had 52 men die in combat between 1808-1811".
If you are interested in the French Army in the Peninsula and want to build war gaming units with a basis in the history of the campaign then I would say this book is invaluable and well worth picking up. Needless to say, I am now re-evaluating the stats I have previously given my French cavalry units, in scenarios I have constructed, based on the information in this book.
Recommended reading.


  1. Kellermann was hated and feared by the British and rightly so. He was perhaps the best cavalryman of the era with stunning performances at Marengo, Austerlitz, Alba de Tormes and Quatre Bras to mention a few, and a very good diplomat, having served in the French embassy in the US where he perfected his English. After Vimeiro he got the English to let the French return to France on British ships with the Treaty of Cintra.

    The British have a nasty habit of lying about opponents they fear and dislike in order to belittle them in the eyes of the world. That said, as many officers, he was also a first class liberator of the better things in life. His one transgression was he wasn't afraid to tell Napoleon what he thought. He was recalled to France not for corruption as the British claim but to take command of a corps in the Russian campaign. In the event an illness put him on the shelf in 1812. I don't know the circumstances but I would not be surprised were Montbrun also recalled for the same reason. Indeed he was killed at Borodino leading a cavalry corps.

    I will nevertheless read the book though with a jaundiced eye.

    Robert Coggins

  2. Very interesting Robert, thanks for your thoughts.

    I would just add that it wasn't just the British who manipulated opinion about their opponents, their French counterparts also had form in that area, made more acute given the restrictions on the press in France. Their is no doubt that Kellermann was a slick operator, given the coup he pulled off with the Convention of Cintra, although he may have had less success negotiating with Wellesley.

    The charge against Kellerman was actually levelled by Napoleon, not the British, in a letter quoted in the book that he wrote to Marshal Berthier on 17th September 1810, after it came to light that he was letting Spanish officers buy their release at "a going rate of 3 - 4,000 gold reals". Marshal Ney reporting that 40 prisoners in Cuidad Rodrigo had paid 24,000 reals, each, for their freedom.

    To qoute from Napoleon's letter "in his government, at Valladolid, for instance, even the liberation of prisoners of war is sold. Tell him that I consider him responsible for abuses which are so opposed to the well being and the interests of the army".

    Burnham's account, with referenced sources, goes on to state that in April 1811 a Council of State investigated General Kellermann's conduct. He was relieved of command and recalled to France in May, not being given another command until 1813, probably because by then Napoleon was in desperate need of experienced commanders.

    Burnham does make reference to Kellermann's illness in 1812, but seems to suggest that it was rather a convenient time to fall ill given the cloud he was under. Perhaps we will never know the validity of that situation.

    You will find the book has a lot of information with an extensive list of references at the back. I hope you find it gives you some new insights.

  3. Sounds very interesting Jonathan