Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Wellington's Army - Sir Charles Oman

Sir Charles Oman is a figure who dominates the world of the English speaking Napoleonic wargamer interested in the Peninsular War. I have the seven volume "History of the Peninsular War" that he published at the turn of the last century and the research and accounts of the campaigns he wrote about have stood the test of time and serve as the foundation for the more modern accounts of the war available today.

I often find myself leafing through a volume and picking chapters at random, promising to read the whole collection from cover to cover one day. The seven books were written in very different times when people had the luxury to sit and do just that, so I plan to accomplish it when I have similar time on my hands.

In addition to the History, he also wrote "Wellington's Army" a single volume that pulled together all the aspects peculiar to that force that Sir Charles had amassed during his research.

I hadn't read this or even had a copy until recently, having always felt I was well served with more modern studies from the likes of Micheal Glover and Colonel HCB Rogers.

However I picked up a copy of "Inside Wellington's Peninsular Army 1808-14" by Rory Muir, Robert Burnham, Howie Muir and Ron McGuigan, published by Pen & Sword. These guys are renowned contributors to modern research with some great information available to wargamers on the Napoleon Series site - see the link below.

In his introduction, Robert Burnham highlighted the link between this new work on Wellington's army being a continuation on from Oman's original, seeking to add to and fill in aspects not covered previously, very often due to new sources of information not available to Oman.

So rather than dive in with the new research, I decided to read Oman's work first. As you will see from the link above you can read this freely on line but I always prefer a book where possible and so got myself a 1968 edition hardback copy for £4 from Amazon.

Wellington's Army - Sir Charles Oman First Published 1912

The first two chapters describes the wealth of material the author had access to during his research and the different characters who wrote down their experiences and explains why we can have an understanding of this army like no other of the period or of British armies prior to it. The second chapter is particularly useful in analysing the wealth of personal accounts in terms of reliability and detail which helps identify the must read from the others.

The next chapter looks at Wellington himself, in terms of his strengths and weaknesses, and how he was seen by his own men and the French. It seems clear that right from the start people who met the so called "Sepoy General" appreciated the intelligence and potential of the young officer. His planning and assessment capabilities were recognised early and his Memorandum on the Defence of Portugal, rejecting the pronouncements by Sir John Moore, laid before the British government in March 1809, that so clearly predicted the progress of the war to come is referred to as "a marvel of prophetic genius".

The strength in his planning and foresight enabled him to predict the shift in initiative to the French following the likely defeat of Austria in 1809. This enabled him to start work on the lines of Torres Vedras a full year before they were needed to fend off the massive French invasion of Portugal he had predicted, although he was expecting that force to have been lead by Napoleon himself.

To quote Oman
"Careful long sighted calculation was perhaps the Duke's strongest point. He had an immense grasp of detail, kept intelligence officers of picked ability out on every front and had compiled an almost exactly correct master roll of the forces opposed to him".

Wellington's insights of his enemy also included the characters of the French Marshals sent to oppose him, enabling him to, in time, predict their likely responses to his moves. The Battle of Sorauren in the Pyrenees is given as an example, where the Duke hastily assembling his troops to oppose the sudden French advance, spies Marshal Soult on the opposite peak observing him. With cheers ringing out from allied soldiers, the Duke, judging Soult to be cautious in his presence, observed the Marshal scribble a note to an aide and surmised that Soult would check his attack and thus allow the allies to get more men forward. 

"The 6th Division will have time to come up and we shall beat him" is the comment he made when he saw Soult scribble the message.

Oman covers the fact that the French saw Wellington very much as a defensive commander principally because the strategic situation forced him to be so. However once the initiative passed to his allied army, the French were treated to a commander able to administer the boldest of blows. 

General Foy
General Foy, commanding a division at Salamanca is quoted from a diary entry, six days after the battle.
"This battle is the most cleverly fought, the largest in scale, the most important in results of any that the English have won in recent times. It brings up Lord Wellington's reputation almost to the level of that of Marlborough. Up to this day we knew his prudence, his eye for choosing good positions, and the skill with which he used them. But at Salamanca he has shown himself a great and able master of manoeuvring. He kept his dispositions hidden nearly the whole day: he allowed us to develop our movement before he pronounced his own: he played a close game; he utilized the "oblique order" in the style of Fredrick the Great..... The catastrophe of the Spanish War has come - for six months we ought to have seen that it was quite probable".

Yet for all his obvious abilities Oman catches the frailties as well by describing the Duke's aloofness towards his subordinates, referring by example to his treatment of Sir Thomas Picton whom he had requested to join the army in Belgium in 1815, not at all surprising given Picton's formidable record of command in the Peninsular War. Having arrived in Brussels, he sought out the Duke in the Grand Park, approaching him in a familiar "careless way, just as he might have greeted an equal". The Duke "bowed coldly to him" saying he was glad he had come and that he should lose no time in getting on his horse and taking command of his division. Picton was quite put out and let those nearby know about it.

Officers and men had the utmost trust in their commander's abilities, but could by no means say that that translated into affection, although the Light Division may have been the exception to that rule.

The next two chapters cover the tactics employed by Wellington's troops and their enemy the French. This makes for interesting reading although there are more insightful modern accounts that have taken Oman's analysis further and more comprehensively.

I reviewed "Galloping at Everything" by Ian Fletcher back in November where Oman's critiquing of British cavalry effectiveness was criticised for compounding the belief in their inability to conduct combat without becoming uncontrolled and having a suitable reserve, and Oman is found guilty as charged in his account of the 13th Light Dragoons at Campo Mayor.

However, to be fair to Oman, he states that the Duke was overly hard in his judgement of his cavalry and it's combat effectiveness and  goes on to say that"on the whole the outpost and reconnaissance work of the Peninsular Army seem to have been well done".

The chapters covering Wellington's lieutenants, Hill, Beresford, Graham, Picton and Craufurd show the heritage of most of the more modern accounts I have read of these men and covered off most of the information I was familiar with. 

Likewise the organisational chapters covering the structure of the army from Division down to the Regiment and battalion are quite comprehensive, but the reader would benefit from having Stuart Reid's excellent Osprey Battle Orders edition on Wellington's Army to hand to better illustrate the gradual changes to the structure over time. 

Of the latter chapters covering Discipline and Court Martials, The Army on the March, Impedimenta, Baggage and Ladies at the Front, Sieges, The Commissariat and Spritual Life, perhaps the disciplinary examples, the daily routine of marching and the trials and tribulations of the commissariat were the most interesting, with references made to accounts from veterans whose descriptions really bring the period into vivid imagination. 

In particular, the role of the Commissariat in helping Wellington become the envy of every French commander by enabling him to be able to keep his army together as a force rather than broken up into foraging formations and then having to disperse or starve. This advantage allowed him to set the agenda whenever he was confronted by the enemy, knowing that they would have to break off contact. Oman highlights the fact that Wellington paid for all his local supplies either in cash or promissory notes, and that troops threatening civilians with violence or of looting their property were punishable by death. To hold his troops to these high standards for the time, he demanded performance from his Commissariat who day after day would lead large teams of mules and screeching Portuguese Ox Wagons that enabled him to to pursue his war.

Oman describes the problems encountered with civilian muleteers who despite having large amounts of back pay owed to them continued to supply the troops, probably through a determination to help rid the country of the invader as much as about getting the pay they were owed. The ox wagons though used less, often due to the very poor roads, were more of a problem, with civilian drivers very unwilling to risk their animals to loss and quite prepared to desert in the night leaving the easily replaced wagon with its load, whilst getting away with the family ox. In time wary Commissariat officers learned to post sentries from the escort of replacement troops that were often sent up to the front with the convoys.

As well as troublesome muleteers and ox wagon drivers, troop columns and convoys often had to negotiate formidable regiments of army wives who mounted on donkeys would often try to get on the road before the troops in an effort to get to the next camp site ahead to be able to prepare for the arrival of their men folk. Their slow progress would often impede the troops, with one quartermaster taking things into hand by stopping the women and having to shoot one of their donkeys to prevent them proceeding further, causing much commotion in the process.

The time that's passed since Oman wrote this book doesn't detract from the quality of the writing and information it contains. I enjoyed the read and have a useful little addition to my library. If you are a student of this period I would recommend taking the time to read it and then take a look at more recent works that take our understanding further.


  1. Great post jonathan, really interesting. I dis once plan a 28mm british peninsular army but with a change to 18mm I traded the troops over time. Still great to read about the units and their commanders.

    1. Thanks Paul, well I'll do my best to get you thinking about putting a Peninsular collection together as I know it would very good to see.

  2. Great summary of some seminal works JJ. I do like Napier as well.

    1. Hi Carlo, thank you. Yes I like Napier and have his history on the shelf as well, plus two original copies of his Battles and Sieges. I just need more time to sit and study them in more detail. Roll on retirement!

  3. This was a very informative post and really shows your own knowledge of the period. I think sometimes there is a rush to discard old school historiography but you make a good case for why the old masters like Oman and Napier are worth keeping. Which isn't to say that some of the new stuff isn't worthwhile - I'm reading Charles Esdaile's 2003 book on the Peninsular War and it's a must have in my humble opinion. Thanks again for this fine post.

    1. Hi Michael, I agree entirely and I too have Esdaile and Gates to do, cover to cover, along with about nine other books on the period. I have started a New Years resolution which is to leave the IPad downstairs when I want to read and I am getting back to my old standard of a book a month, new and old.
      Thanks for you comment