Saturday, 22 April 2017

Wellington's Eastern Front - Colonel Nick Lipscombe


My recent reading over the last six weeks or so has been a gradual thumbing my way through a recent publication from Pen & Sword books which suddenly moved from a slow jog to a full on sprint with a business trip to London this week and the prospect of a two and half hour train journey there and back to fill.

The reason for my choice of Nick Lipscombe's book is that I am off to this part of Spain soon where I have a holiday home of my own and knowing the expertise the author brings to the Peninsular War I was keen to do a bit of pre-reading in preparation for some exploring I plan to do going forward over the next few years using my home as a base.

I, probably like many enthusiasts for this particular part of the Napoleonic Wars, had a passing knowledge of the events and key battles on the east coast of Spain, with a much better understanding of Wellington's main theatre covering Portugal, Central and Northern Spain and the French and Allied operations there and down into Andalusia and Granada.

The East Coast Theatre of Operations, 1810 - 1813 (Based on Lipscombe's map)
As you can see from the map above, based on Nick Lipscombe's map in the book, his writing focuses specifically on the operations of the French and Allied forces within the provinces of Catalonia and Valencia. 

As the title of the book implies, the theme of the narrative recounts the action very much from the perspective of the Duke of Wellington as his mission to initially set up and defend his base of operations in Portugal shifted focus, on achievement of that first objective, to his next objective to support the Spanish forces in the wider war with the aim of driving the Imperial French Army out of Spain.

The book could be seen to follow the Duke's shift in emphasis as the text follows the drive along the eastern coast by General, later Marshall Suchet in the first part of the struggle 1810 - 1812 as the French siege craft and the crushing victory at Saguntum with the destruction of General Blake and his army outside Valencia leading to the eventual capture of that city would mark the high-water mark of French fortunes as the tide of war would turn irrevocably in 1812 with Wellington's crushing victory at Salamanca.


Battle of Castalla 21st July 1812 - Jean-Charles Langlois

With Spanish forces very much on the defensive following Suchet's brilliant campaigns through Catalonia and Valencia, Wellington was very conscious of the need to prevent the stamping out of Spanish resistance; and to have an Allied force in being, to tie down French garrisons in this area of Spain, just as along the sensitive north east coast route guarding the French line of communication from Bayonne. Thus we see entering from stage right the British and Sicilian forces under Lord William Bentinck.

One interesting aspect for me that I had never fully understood before, was the virtual or total independence that both the French and British commands operated under in this theatre; although with the appointment of Wellington, post Salamanca, as Generalissimo of Spanish forces, Bentinck, pushing for clarity as to his position in relation to the Duke in the command chain, soon had his position clarified by the British Government that he should report to and cooperate with Wellington and his overall strategy with the orders that followed from that.

However Suchet reported directly to Napoleon in Paris and later in Russia and Eastern Prussia, and could resist pressure from King Joseph and the other Marshals for him to release his forces for use elsewhere. Likewise Wellington recognised Bentink's wider responsibility to hold Sicily as a British base of operations and to support the allied supporting faction within its Kingdom which required the ability to take British and Allied troops from Eastern Spain to the island as required on occasion and thus he retained that discretion throughout the period of his forces deployment to Spain. 

Battle of Castalla 13th April 1813

The real stand-out for me whilst reading this account were three key aspects of this theatre. The two giants of the war in Spain whose reputations grew from their abilities to master the art of the possible within the confines of the unique difficulties presented to the armies operating in the Peninsular War, namely Marshal Suchet and General Wellington who both shine through as great commanders, both having to manage similar and very different issues superbly well.

The other remarkable highlight for me was the chance to see how the British operations in the Peninsular War might have been managed if it had not been for the presence of the Duke. The contrast between his forces and the commanders he had working under him to those that led the British Sicilian Army on the east coast are noteworthy. The lack of vision and leadership from the top down seemed to permeate throughout that army with a few exceptions at lower command and of course the exceptional valour and ability of the common British redcoat that formed the backbone of the force as a whole.

This total lack of command ability was not lost on the Duke following the first appearance of the East Coast expeditionary force in 1812 during Wellington's Salamanca campaign. I found myself thinking how much better things could have been managed had Wellington been able to send General Sir Rowland Hill to take command, a proven independent commander who could be relied on to work within the constraints of the bigger picture.

However Wellington had to work with the commanders he was given, this was not the French army under Napoleon, and thus we see recounted in full the twenty-nine point "Memorandum on the Operations to be carried out on the Eastern Coast of the Peninsula" written by the Duke, dated 14th April 1813 and addressed to the then commander Lieutenant General Sir John Murray.

This point by point directive lays out how Sir John should look to conduct his campaign within a range of possibilities to cause as much discomfiture to French occupation forces within the area with the principle aim of detaining Suchet's forces and destroying parts of them in detail should the opportunity arise, but without risking the position of an Allied force being present to fulfil its main task. All this whilst Wellington would look to unhinge the French position in Eastern Spain by bringing on a battle of decision with the stretched forces under King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan in the north which would eventually lead to the decisive Battle of Vitoria in June of that year.

Whilst reading the memorandum and the vision for the campaign year ahead I found myself reminded of the series of notes written by Napoleon to his stepson Prince Eugene commanding the French forces in Northern Italy.  Eugene, a relatively inexperienced general in 1808 was tasked with the defence of Northern Italy against the threatened Austrian War that broke out the following year. As with the Wellington's memorandum the clarity and direction of a senior commander looking to delegate responsibility to his subordinate but in a way that sought to support and guide the choices they should make by reference to the 'end in mind' are classic instruction manuals that give a revealing insight into the way these great captains thought about war and its management.

Sadly for Wellington Sir John Murray was not in the same class of commander as Prince Eugene and Marshal Suchet was certainly a more formidable opponent than Archduke John.

In terms of the General Officers who populate the story of the campaigning in this part of Spain, Lipscombe does a very good analysis of the abilities of the various commanders involved and I think brings not only his own military experience to bear but also offers a very fair and balanced assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, taking into account the constraints that each had to operate under.

The Good, the Not So Good, the Bad and the Ugly as covered in the book.

Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet - Duc de Albufera
To quote Lipscombe "The Soldier who emerges from the war on the east coast with the most credit and greatest list of accomplishments is without doubt, Louis-Gabriel Suchet. He was the only one of Napoleon's generals to earn his marshal's baton and the only subordinate who performed consistently and effectively. Suchet always conducted his campaigns with great skill and was always able to balance his tasks and capabilities with a level of professionalism  which prompted Napoleon to state that 'If I had had two Suchet's, I could have held Spain.'"


General Francisco Copons y Navia
The Spanish general that gains the most credit from a very lack lustre performance overall by Spanish commanders on the east coast is General Copons for his spirited defence of Tarrifa during the siege (December 1811 - January 1812) where, resisting the advice of the attached British brigade commander, Colonel John Skerrett, to evacuate, he and the allied forces held out against Marshal Victor who was forced to break off and retire to Cadiz.

He later took command of Spanish forces in Catalonia in 1812-13, being the eleventh Spanish commander in that theatre and conducted himself well without achieving anything of notable significance.


Lord William Bentinck

The British General Officer commanding on the eastern coast was Lord William Bentinck appointed to command the Anglo Sicilian forces tasked initially to develop the Bourbon monarchy and the country into a reliable ally and supporter of the patriots within French controlled Italy.

Lipscombe describes Bentinck as an interesting if complicated individual, who I was vaguely familiar with for his previous command under Sir John Moore during the Corunna campaign of 1809.

From the description of the way he conducted himself throughout this critical stage of the Peninsular War as Wellington's victories and Napoleon's dramatic defeat in Russia reversed the balance of the initiative in favour of Britain and her allies, he seems to have totally failed to grasp the role of his forces within this bigger picture, with his continual focus on events in what could only have been considered at this stage of the war as a minor theatre in comparison.

This lack of direction from the top was only compounded by the ineffectual leadership from characters like Sir John Murray who were left in command with directions from Wellington but it seems very little from Bentinck. Murray, in his communications with Wellington clearly showed that he was out of his depth when it came to acting independently and this came to the fore at the disastrous siege of Tarragona in 1813 which was followed by Bentinck's appearance only in time to relieve Murray of command before leading the withdrawal of his forces.


Throughout the account we constantly see Bentinck appearing in theatre only to depart yet again because of some perceived trouble brewing in Sicily leaving a subordinate to take the reins.

This total lack of focus by Bentinck is captured succinctly for me when in September 1813 and with Wellington fully occupied with the siege of San Sebastian and the need to protect his front and flanks from a threatened counter-offensive from Marshals Soult and Suchet, Bentick's vanguard division pursuing the latter Marshal in an attempt to prevent any French coordination managed to get itself badly beaten in the Combat at Ordal


Again, soon after, Bentinck departs for Sicily despite the critical situation developing as Anglo-Portuguese forces are fighting to prepare the ground for the invasion of France. Not only that but he decides to hand over command to his senior divisional general, Lieutenant General William Clinton who he reports in his letter to Wellington,

"......begs me to request your Lordship to send a senior officer to him to command the army. This so unusual request proceeds from a diffidence of his own abilities. He thinks that this complicated machine would be better kept in order by an officer having more reputation and weight in Spain than himself." 

As Lipscombe goes on to say, "If Bentinck's decision to return at this critical moment was not enough, what on earth Wellington was to make of Clinton's request, is anyone's guess."

If any situation clearly illustrates the weakness of the British system of purchasing senior commissions and the inability to sack useless and ineffective commanders then this must be one of the most classic examples.

If Lord Bentinck exemplifies everything that was wrong about the command of the Allied east coast forces, then his counterpoint must be Lieutenant Colonel 'Samford' Whittingham a British officer seconded into the Spanish service and who commanded the Majorcan Division, training and bankrolling his soldiers when the Spanish authorities failed to do so.

Majorcan Division
5th Cuesta Grenaderos
2nd Burgos
2nd Cordoba
2nd Murcia
2nd Guadalajara
Cazadores de Mallorca
Olivenza and Almanza Cavalry (4 Squadrons)


I was aware of Whittingham when he and the troops under his command supported General Graham's successful counter-attack against Marshal Victor's troops at the Battle of Barossa in 1811.

Lipscombe points out that based on Spanish and other British primary sources referring to this officer it is clear that he was highly proficient and a thoroughly nice chap.


So looking at the book as a whole we see its structure built around three parts containing fifteen chapters over 187 pages.

Part 1 - The French Invasion
Chapter 1:    Introduction
Chapter 2:    Napoleon's Objectives
Chapter 3:    Suchet's Baton
Chapter 4:    Blake's Collapse
Chapter 5:    O'Donnell's Miscalculation

Part 2 - British Intervention
Chapter 6:   Bentincks Vacillation
Chapter 7:   Murray's Arrival
Chapter 8:   Murray's Victory
Chapter 9:   Wellington's Memorandum
Chapter 10: Murray's Expedition
Chapter 11: Bentinck's Arrival
Chapter 12: Suchet's Dilemma

Part 3 - Observations and Finale
Chapter 13: Murray's Tribunal
Chapter 14: Naval Influence
Chapter 15: Conclusion

Appendix I: Commanders, Troop Organisations and Strengths
Appendix II: Notes on Foreign Units in British Service on the East Coast of Spain

Notes
Glossary
Bibliography
Index

As well as providing an easy to read narrative of the events the book is made even better with seventeen excellent maps, six of which are in glorious colour and something you might expect from the author of the also excellent Peninsular War Atlas. It is so nice to to have to revue a book and not complain about the lack of maps or the lack of good maps.

In addition three colour and twenty three black and white plates accompany the text illustrating the characters discussed together with modern day pictures of battle sites in the area.

There are sixteen orders of battle, six descriptions of the foreign troops in British service that characterised the army on the east coast and an invaluable description of the Spanish troops serving under Whittingham in the Majorcan Division.

As if that wasn't enough there are copious notes and references that accompany each chapter together with an extensive glossary of terms used throughout the text and five pages of references and sources, published and unpublished that are listed in the bibliography section, this completed with a handy four page index at the back.

Nick Lipscombe is to be congratulated on producing a thoroughly well researched and entertaining read that had me engrossed for the best part of my five hour train journey, that ended up with me devouring this book with my attention totally grabbed.

If you are a student of the Peninsular War this is a must read, must have reference, that covers this rather secondary but pivotal theatre of the war that that had such a deciding impact on the overall Napoleonic struggle,

Recommended.

2 comments:

  1. Great review. Sounds like a good read. I'll be sure to order a copy. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Thanks Adam. Just started into Anglo-Saxons at War by Paul Hill. Looks a good read, so will be accompanying me on holiday. Thanks for the recommendation.
    JJ

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