Friday, 8 May 2015

Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula, Letters & Diaries of Major the Hon Edward Charles Cocks 1786-1812 - Julia Page

Back in January I reviewed "Inside Wellington's Peninsular Army 1808-14" by Rory Muir et al.

One chapter in the book that really fired my interest to read more about was Robert Burnham's, covering British Observing Officers; that intrepid group of young men who provided Wellington with a British military input to the intelligence gathering network he established. These men were often to be found operating close to the enemy, very often behind their lines, liaising with Spanish and Portuguese guerrilla fighters and locals, reconnoitring the ground and the state of enemy forces, assessing their intentions and providing a continuous flow of information back to the British HQ.

The very nature of their role meant that they had to write their observations down to send them back, but unfortunately not many of these reports have survived the passage of time. The one major exception being the journal of Major Edward Charles Cocks who kept copies of his reports and letters that provide an amazing insight into the role of these men and the often hazardous nature of their work. Julia Page wrote this book back in 1986 and produced a painstakingly chronologically chaptered record of Cocks' service up until his untimely death in 1812 at the siege of Burgos.

A Glimpse of the Enemy 1808 - William Barns Wollen
(Officer and trooper of the 16th Queen's Light Dragoons, Cocks' own regiment).

The book starts with a Foreword from the late great gentleman, Dr David Chandler, who highlights the importance of this book in shedding light on an often neglected aspect of intelligence gathering in the Peninsular War, I would also add "The Man who Broke Napoleon's Codes, the story of George Scovell" by Mark Urban would also fall into this category. I did a brief summary about the latter back in December 2012.

He remarks on Cocks' prosaic style of writing rather than, as he puts it, the colourful narrative (however exaggerated) of Marbot or Harry Smith. I really liked this more matter of fact reporting style and found his series of letters to family and journal records, to the point and factual, as he saw things, with a helping of notes added to his writing explaining his thoughts on a particular matter.

Chandler also highlights the great esteem and affection Wellington had for this highly gifted and educated subordinate officer, and notes the grief Wellington revealed on his death when, at the graveside, he turned to General d'Urban and remarked that 

"..... had Cocks outlived the campaigns, which from the way he exposed himself was morally impossible, he would have become one of the first Generals in England."

and, as he points out, the future Great Duke was not a man who made such comments lightly.

The book then starts with an Introduction by Page setting the family background, leading up to him joining the army, despite his being born with and having to manage clubfeet, having to wear splints up until three years of age to overcome the worst of the condition.  

Cocks took soldiering seriously and was a conscientious student of his profession, always reading and looking to learn. He writes home during his service asking for various books to be sent out and provided a stark contrast to the stereotypical British officer as the gentleman gifted amateur. His library is listed in Appendix B and includes Jomini "Traite de la Grand Tactique", de Saxe "Reveries", "Histoire de Cartes dernier compagnie de M. de Turenne, published 1782" plus Walton's "History of English Poetry" and Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" amongst others. 

After the war Cocks and his work risked fading from the living memory as the veterans of the conflict, who knew him passed, leaving tantalising references to his daring career. Men such as Stapleton Cotton, his direct commander and supporter in the higher command echelons and William Tomkinson, a brother officer, who served with him in the 16th Light Dragoons and whose own diary (The Diary of a Cavalry Officer, 1809-15) later appeared in print mentioning their joint exploits and a moving tribute when his comrade was killed. 

In an effort to secure his place in the history of the conflict, the family passed his eleven volume diary and 138 Peninsula letters to Napier in the hope that he might use them for his history, only to have them referenced in the index to it.

Page then summarises the importance of his journals being, as she says, an extraordinary record of daily occurrences, topographical detail and a continuous discussion on the war, in which Cocks debates tactics, comparisons with previous ancient and modern campaigns, questioning the decisions of the various commanders.

The book then presents a sequence of journal inputs in date order together with letters home covering in, twenty four separate chapters, the dates 18th September 1808 to 8th October 1812. This period captures the British involvement in the Peninsular War right up to its turning point in favour of the Allied cause. These notes cover the important campaigns of Oporto, Talavera, Andalusia and Cadiz, Operations on the Coa, Busaco, Torres Vedras, Fuentes d'Onoro, Badajoz, Cuidad Rodrigo and the Salamanca campaign which ended with Cocks' death at Burgos. These chapters are interpersed with a summary of the events being described together with Cocks' own descriptive diagrams, plus period drawings and simple maps illustrating where the key towns and villages were in relation to one another as mentioned in the text.

The journal chapters are followed by six Appendices looking at specific aspects of Cocks' work and reporting, covering his descriptions of Gibraltar and its defences, his library, observations on the tactics of piquets and attacking small parties of the enemy, his list of guns used in the siege of Badajoz in 1812, together with his journal records of the siege and his military thoughts section that he started to write in the journal from August 1811.

There is then a full and complete list of sources, references and index.

To give you an idea of the way Cocks writes and discusses his observations I thought I would pull out a few of the entries to give a flavour of the book.

The first quote comes from Cocks' observations of the squadron of KGL Hussars who were working with his own 16th Light Dragoons whilst covering the French along the River Coa as they lay siege to Cuidad Rodrigo.

9th July 1810 - Encampment near Fuente de la Conception
"We are acting here with some German Hussars. Though I have not a very high opinion of the infantry belonging to the German Legion, yet I must bear the most unqualified testimony to the courage, skill, zeal and marked good conduct of the cavalry - the fact is, the first are foreigners of all descriptions and exactly the same species of troops except being finer men, as the French armies - the cavalry are old Hussars, almost all Hannoverians, and many of them men of great respectability. These men are perfectly to be depended on and understand outpost duty better, and take care of their horses than British dragoons."

With Massena, VI and VIII Corps entering Portugal via Almeida and Reynier's II Corps approaching Guarda from the south west, Wellington had to guard against the French army advancing on Lisbon south of the Mondego via Coimbra or, the less likely route because of the poor roads, north via Viseu. 

Eventually Massena would rendezvous with Reynier at Viseu on the 19th of September, north of the Mondego allowing Wellington to bring his army together at Bussaco blocking the road to Lisbon. 

Officers like Cocks were vital in Wellington's plan to keep an up to date picture of where the French spearheads were and where they were heading, so he could preempt their movements with movements of his own army. The following extract is highly illustrative of this process in action and benefits from a detailed record of events made by Cocks.

6th September 1810 - Wellington issues instructions to Cotton;
"I wish you would strengthen the party on Guarda and get Cocks to go out to the front towards Sabugal and discover what they are about; whether they have really moved cannon from Almeida by Sabugal; whether it is cannon of a heavy calibre; whether the troops of Ney's corps have moved that way; and let me know the number of any regiment that has marched and I shall know to what corps it belongs."

Map illustrating Massena's invasion route and showing the map area illustrated below
9th September 1810
"I patrolled by Villa Mendo, Marmeliero to Villa de Toro. My intention was to go on, either in the direction of Alfayates or Sabugal ... but at Villa de Toro I saw 300 infantry and some dragoons entering Pega, about half a mile from me. This was at 1pm. I learnt from the peasants that the enemy entered Alfayates (Alfayates not shown on the map) in force yesterday and marched from thence this morning. As it is three leagues*(12 miles) from Alfayates to Sabugal and four (16 miles) from thence to Guarda, I had no idea the enemy would advance beyond Pega today and had some idea  of waiting at Villa de Toro to see if more came. Thinking it, however, of consequence to give immediate information to Lord Wellington, I returned to Guarda at the trot. As I passed the woods near to Adao I heard a drum, I had not been in Guarda above an hour when, at half past four, the head of the enemy's column appeared in sight, they marched seven leagues (28 miles) without halting. There were 800 infantry and 50 cavalry ... but when my piquet began to skirmish they fell back and the infantry pushed forward."

*1 league is about 3.5 to 4 miles

Map from the book covering the area above showing the villages and towns in the area
Period map showing Alfayates (spelt Alfaiates) in relation to Sabugal
An observation by Cocks of French cavalry in combat whilst covering the retreat to the lines of Torres Vedras.

9th October 1810 - covering the retreat to Torres Vedras
"At nearly 12 o'clock I received a report from Captain Linsengen that the enemy was driving in him and unfortunately , in endeavouring to bring off a man whose horse was killed , he allowed the enemy to press to close to him. 31 French Houssards were sabred but he lost 15 or 16 men and horses besides, some wounded, and driven in on me in great confusion with the enemy close in his rear.

I formed my squadrons off the road, on the brow of a hill, and threw out some skirmishers. The enemy, however, came on so fast that I found it necessary to charge, and drove them back twice but the Hussars (1st KGL Hussars), whose horses were quite tired were unable to support me and we were ultimately overpowered. Many of the enemy were cut down and two prisoners brought off and three or four horses, but we lost three men and six horses.

Note: When they have the worst of it the French cavalry have a way which must not be allowed. They cry for pardon but still keep galloping to the rear, or perhaps throw themselves on the ground, and it is impossible to get the prisoners off when you are certain of being attacked yourself by a superior force. We are obliged to cut down or shoot several who did this..."

Whilst occupying the lines of Torres Vedras a cavalry officer had time to arrange for new equipment to replace old and ineffective items.

22nd December 1810, Malhaquejo - Letter to Thomas Somers Cocks Esq.
"...would you order me a new hussar saddle with accouterments complete, from Whippy........I wish the pads for the valises to be made very large and fixed to the saddle. The saddle is to be strong, roomy and extremely high in the withers......
Third would you order a new helmet from Hawkes. I wish it to be very light and very low. If he has forgot my measure then there is an old hat of mine at Cavendish Square. 
Fourth a new sabre and belt from Prosser. It should be roomy in the handle and not too heavy at the point. Will you be so good as to have it proved. My present sabre is a very bad one. It should be too broad at the point. I have no particular liking for Prosser and if you know any cutler esteemed better it would perhaps be desirable to employ him. I do not like the handle roughed with fish skin. 
Fifth, four pairs of new hussar boots, not open, from Gilbert, three pairs of laced half boots with spurs to them all.
All these things will make a pretty good package and had better be sent out together. I know I need to apologise to you for the trouble I am giving you. 
The only thing I want more are a few books, would you send me these.......

I hope from these extracts you can see the fascinating detail revealed in Cocks' writing and I came away with a very clear idea about the life of a young cavalry officer working on the front line day to day and the details of his observations as well as the routine issues of command and maintaining oneself on campaign.

I really enjoyed this book written by an obviously intelligent thoughtful young man who took his chosen profession of soldiering seriously and studied and wrote about his and others experiences with a view to capturing the lessons they illustrated. In addition the book revealed a young man interested in the other aspects of life, in his descriptions of the country, the people and the beautiful girls he encountered on his travels.

A very good read - recommended.


  1. You wait until the truth behind Napoleon's victories in Italy is revealed. A lot is about to come to light - and Toli did exist (as shown in Osprey Campaign 70: Marengo)!

    1. Ok Dave you got me! I'm not sure how your comment relates to this book review.

    2. If you think Cocks is interesting, wait until you read about Toli and how Napoleon really won his battles. The story in Gachot that he had the Austrian plans for Rivoli can be proven.

    3. I think it might be difficult to make direct comparisons with intelligence gathering in one theatre to another during the Napoleonic wars given the various factors at play and the forces and their differing capabilities.

      The interesting aspect of Cocks and his writing is its rarity for an officer in his role to have kept a record of his activities and in such detail. The Peninisular War adds another level of uniqueness in that it lasted for so much longer than the European campaigns and thus the abilities of Wellington's intelligence network to develop and become the system that it did is a remarkable aspect of the struggle.

      I think Cocks is a part of that story and, as I mentioned in my post, Urban's book on Scovell adds another intriguing part that shows the ability and work required over time to break the Paris Code and end up able to give the insights Wellington got, for example, of Marmont's position and likely reinforcements during the Salamanca campaign, often before Marmont knew himself.

      This intelligence gathering network was a continuation of his practice from his days in India, but over time became more sophisticated. The French in Spain, given their circumstances, were not able to develop anything near an effective counter to this and thus found their security regularly compromised.

  2. Hi Jonathan thanks for taking the time to post, I wonder if you could tell me if officers like Cocks had an escort when out on a recce . It might make a nice skirmish game .
    Regards Furphy .

    1. Hi Furphy. Yes indeed. In the extracts above Cocks was very often operation with anything from a troop of about 20 Light Dragoons to a squadron from his own regiment working with a squadron from their brigade partners the 1st KGL Hussars.

      If you get the book you may find his notes in the appendix on commanding piquets and outposts together with his comparison between British and French tactics very useful for designing these kind of skirmish actions, not to mention his own accounts of actions he was involved in.

  3. Wow. This is a " must read" for me. Thanks for sharing. Great write up.

    1. Hi Adam, thanks for your comment. I hope you enjoy the read.