Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War - David Gates

The Spanish Ulcer, although an old publication in terms of more recent history's of the Peninsular War, is still an important tome in the canon of books on the subject.

Until now, it was still on my "must read before I die pile", and now I can relax having ticked that off my list. So I thought I would share my thoughts about it, in case you are, like me, back in late January, considering launching into reading the 469 pages, not including the time line, very useful order of battles, list of sources and index at the back, 557 pages in all.

This book was first published back in 1986, and I am old enough to remember the first hard back editions arriving on the shelves of certain well known book retailers. My edition is a 2001 paperback publication from De Capo Press.

Sir William Napier
In his preface to the book, David Gates makes the point that at the time of writing it, there were very few, if any, books covering the whole of the Peninsular War in as he says "reasonable dimensions which provides an in depth description of events throughout the Peninsula, without being two exhaustive".

He goes on to contrast the typical choices then available of books that were too superficial with a jingoistic attitude to the subject matter often just concentrating on Wellington and his immediate opponents, with a failure to really grasp the military and political problems facing the French.

General Maximilien Foy
Then at the other end of the scale were to be found the often multi-volume histories from Oman, Napier, Foy and Gomez de Arteche, which though masterpieces in bringing together a wealth of historical research often carried the baggage of having authors who, having taken part in the war, brought their own bias into the writing; and, considering when these books were written during and at the turn of the 19th century, the styles can often seem heavy and long winded to the modern reader. These factors added to the presentation in several long volumes make these works a marathon in engaging with. I look forward to having the time to wrestle with my Oman collection, which up to now is dipped into for reference.

He goes on to then outline his own book, in terms of being a happy medium between the two extremes outlined, with a reasonably detailed and balanced study, in one volume, with maps and statistical data, being concise but an enjoyable read. The book is intended as primarily a military history but reference is made to the political/social and economic factors that influenced the conduct of the war.

My notes above come, deliberately, from Gates' own preface, because, after reading his work, I feel he has captured the essence of it precisely in his own description. Being a typical English reading enthusiast for the history of the war, my reading list has followed that outlined by Gates and I felt his frustration at the lack of an easily accessible but balanced overview of such an important, perhaps the most important theatre of the Napoleonic wars.

What I find interesting is that since he wrote this history back in the 80's there seems to be a more modern trend circulating in pseudo-historical circles that are now pushing in another direction; that suggests that Napoleon was a misunderstood hero of free thinking republican ideals and that his wars were forced on him by deceitful European monarchies determined to maintain the status quo. This view point is just as fallacious as its predecessors and shows an equal determination to avoid facts that don't fit into the narrative.

I felt that Gates gives a fair view of the performance and effectiveness of all the forces involved in the war and my clarity, particularly about what and where the Spanish forces were up to at given times during it, is much clearer. Likewise his covering of the 1813/14 campaigns by Wellington on the Franco/Spanish border has given me a better understanding of why the armies were where they fought, which to anyone trying to use some of the more recent analyses of these campaigns often leaves one struggling to interpret poorly constructed maps.

One of the battle maps from the book
On the subject of maps, I know this book came in for a lot of "flak" when it was first published with regard to the very poor battle maps in particular. I have to say that who ever advised David Gates that these maps were good enough to accompany his great writing, should have found another career in publishing. To say they are atrocious is to undermine the emphasis that that word carries.

That being said, the problem can be overcome with a copy of Colonel Nick Liscombe's Peninsular War Atlas, to help decipher the scrawled attempts at maps in Gates' book. However the strategic situation maps and the campaign area maps are not as bad and provide useful guidance as the text rolls along, and it does roll along. I found myself, one evening,reading about Fuentes d'Onoro and Albuera in one session and feeling that I had got the key points from both actions, which gave me confidence when covering actions I was less familiar with.

One aspect of the book that might be particularly useful from a wargamers perspective are the handy army battle orders contained at the back. These orbats summaries the state of the armies in the peninsula throughout the war and at specific battles, given in numbers of men by brigade/division and the number of battalions, plus guns and cavalry squadrons, Very useful data for pulling campaign orbats together.

I am very pleased to have this book in the reference library and equally pleased to have spent the time reading it. If you want to get an easily digestible book on the whole Peninsular War the "The Spanish Ulcer" is a must read.

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