Monday, 10 June 2019

The Key to Lisbon - Kenton White

As part of my pre-reading before setting of on my three week road trip across Spain and Portugal looking at some of the most important battle sites of the Peninsular War, I have just finished reading 'The Key to Lisbon' by Kenton White and published by Helion & Company.

Helion are fast becoming a prolific publisher in the world of military history books and a company, it seems to me, that are producing titles designed to fill a lot of the gaps many of the other leading publishers in the field seem prone to miss.

Not only that, but the titles I have purchased from them in recent times are impressive in the detail and focus they bring to a given subject and definitely do not fall into what I would call 'coffee table' books with lots of illustrations but light on substance.

With several days put aside to base myself in Cuidad Rodrigo, Fort Concepcion, Lousa and Trujillo to allow a good exploration of the Portuguese/Spanish border and the routes into and out of Portugal from the frontier, the publication of this title was most opportune and coincided with another fortunate piece of work just published and reviewed here on JJ's (see link below), namely Tim Saunders new book looking at the two sieges of Cuidad Rodrigo and the Anglo-French confrontation covered here in Kenton White's book.

The two books are well worth reading together and compliment each other very well in looking at different aspects, in detail of the third French invasion of Portugal in 1810/11.

As the summary on the back of The Key To Lisbon highlights, the campaign of the third French invasion of Portugal marks a crucial turning point in the Peninsular War and I would go further and add that it also marks a similar turning point in the whole war waged against Napoleon.

The success of Wellington's strategy to defeat the anticipated invasion by a French army, expected to number 100,000 men and to be led by the Emperor himself, marked the high water mark of French aspirations in the Peninsula and established the first significant check on Napoleon's grand ambition to become the dictator of mainland Europe as a whole and the establishment of his Continental blockade of British trade.

Wellington and Massena, two commanders both under pressure to not lose, but Wellington with the overall control to decide his own strategy for the campaign, with the freedom to adapt his plans according to circumstance.

The allied handling of the campaign and more particularly the command exercised by Wellington in the face of political criticism from home and in Portugal fed by the freely expressed opinions of the 'croakers' or officers within allied ranks, contrasted sharply with that of the French and Massena, struggling to put into operation a plan devised by an Emperor decidedly out of touch with the realities on the ground and seemingly unable to direct the forces required to support the grand plan of invasion envisioned in the orders delivered to Massena himself.

The campaign would be studied in the years following, most particularly by Russian general officers, and the lessons learned in how to neutralise one of the key concepts of French Napoleonic warfare, namely 'scorched earth tactics' preventing the French from supplementing their supplies with the produce of the invaded territory, coupled with an aggressive partisan war in the French rear area, would be noted.

Those lessons would come home to haunt the Emperor himself as he lead an even greater army into the depths of mother Russia in 1812 and learn for himself some of the lessons that frustrated Massena's army stranded before the Lines of Torres Vedras, cut off from supplies and with lines so insecure that he could not be certain of any of his communications reaching their intended recipient most of the time.

As the summary points out, surprisingly, this important campaign has attracted little attention from historians and I would concur as someone who has been in search of a detailed focused analysis of it for a number of years.

As well as looking at the preparation, planning and execution of the campaign by both sides, we get a very good coverage of the key engagements that characterised it, with key commanders such as Ney and Craufurd and their  command decisions, thoughtfully assessed. 

This book sets out to examine the background leading up to the decision by Napoleon to launch this third French attempt to subdue the Portuguese and finally expel the British from the European continent and the preparation, planning and execution from a strategic, operational and tactical perspective that both sides adopted in anticipation and the implementation of those plans.

Throughout the reader is given the opportunity to assess how the two commands performed given the assumptions made and the plans established on the base of those key assumptions; and there in lies the keys to success and failure.

The book clearly shows that both sides made mistakes in the campaign throughout, from its start point and the assumptions made to the reactions caused by events during it, but that Wellington made fewer mistakes than Napoleon and Massena and that more of his key assumptions proved to be accurate than those of the French, a fact that massively undermined French objectives and ensured to a large extent the end result.

 General Robert Craufurd features large in the first half of the invasion and Wellington was right to
value his leadership qualities despite his somewhat headstrong and rash tendencies. His Leadership of the
Light Division would be sorely missed in the pursuit of the French in 1811

A large portion of the book assesses the intelligence gathering of the contending armies leading up to and during the campaign comparing the difficulties both armies faced in its gathering and the steps taken to prevent it reaching the enemy.

In many regards Wellington had a distinct advantage with, in the main, a supportive local population, better access to the theatre of operations enabling a very good understanding of the country and landscape together with a detailed knowledge of French forces, their command structure and position at any given time.

The French struggled in nearly all these aspects of intelligence gathering, able to offset some of the gaps in their knowledge with a surprising network of local spies within the allied territory and the very helpful British press; who only to eagerly gathered up the gossip from the 'croakers' within the allied army and fed off the official reports obtained from within the government at home who would today put a whole different conception on the term 'leak'.

These reports littered the British free press with very accurate and highly sensitive reports on British plans and troop numbers that Napoleon placed much reliance on, controlling a state, as he did, where the national press only printed what it was told to.

This lack of self censorship within the British government in particular only added to Wellington's problems causing him to limit the information he was prepared to share with his political masters at home and adding to an unnecessary sense of mistrust, something that would gradually diminish with allied success, but a factor that added to the restriction Wellington felt in his handling of the campaign and the risks he was prepared to run.

That said the French seemed unable to use the information that was within their control, with officers within Massena's army, such as Junot seemingly unable or unwilling to share their undoubted knowledge of the terrain that would likely face the French on their approach to Lisbon.

The question of the maps used by the French in their planning and ordered march routes has long been a debated factor in the French invasion, together with their use of unreliable, former Portuguese army officers as local guides.

The French it seems were in possession of accurate maps within the archives in Paris before the invasion and yet we see reports of French general officers attempting to follow march routes on useless maps such as the Lopez map seen below, with many off the villages and even roads not shown or if shown, often very inaccurately, and giving a poor indication of distances and gradient.

The infamous Lopez map, here showing seemingly flat open plains below Torres Vedras on the approaches to Lisbon.
This wouldn't have fooled General Junot but it caught many of the other French generals by surprise, causing Massena to exclaim in annoyance, on seeing the forts constructed on the many steep hill tops in the area for the first time "Wellington didn't build the mountains!"

Alongside the planning, intelligence and logistics involved in this campaign, Kenton White gives a thorough day by day, week by week account of the fighting as the French moved further and further into Portugal after the taking of Cuidad Rodrigo,

The combats are accompanied with excellent maps together with first hand accounts of the fighting by participants and observers and a serious effort is made, based on that detail to give an accurate report on where the various forces involved were at any particular time. So much so that I will definitely have this book to hand when standing on and at the bottom of Bussaco Ridge, trying to work out Ney's VI Corps approach march.

This book together with my copy of 'Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula' documenting the accounts on Major Edward Cocks (see link below to my post looking at this book) who was a first hand witness to many of the rearguard skirmishes fought by the British cavalry with the French will be an invaluable pairing when following the invasion route and the French retreat route in the weeks to come.

Alongside the combat descriptions, we get a very good analysis of the one of the big surprises that greeted the French invasion, together with the creation of the Lines of Torres Vedras, namely the rebuilding of the Portuguese Army and its full inclusion into the allied divisions and its initiation to battle at Bussaco Ridge.

The Portuguese military was totally discounted in French planning for the invasion, and Napoleon continued to base his directions to Massena on the basis that the French commander faced a British army barely in excess of twenty thousand men, whereas the allied army that completed the retreat into the the lines around Lisbon would number some sixty thousand men which would only increase with later reinforcements.

The Battle of Bussaco announced to the French a new potent military force within Europe and together with the militia and partisan groups would allow Wellington take the war into Spain following the expulsion of Massena's army, and the British commanders negative assessment of any future cooperation with Spanish forces after his experiences in the Talavera campaign.

The conclusion to the book sees an assessment of the planning and final execution of the campaign with the British ambition of defending a Portugal free of French troops and Lisbon enabled to supply future allied operations achieved and with the failure to prevent that objective, together with the closure of the last European port to British merchants and trade as part of Napoleons grand commercial war against Britain to coerce negotiations for an end to hostilities failed.

The scapegoat for Imperial failure was of course Massena, who didn't want the job in the first place, was promised the one hundred thousand man army that both Napoleon and Wellington assessed as being the size of army required, only to be given command of sixty thousand instead and instructed by his master to follow the Emperors plan which was and continued to be based on erroneous or badly incomplete assumptions.

Perhaps Massena took comfort in his meeting with Wellington after the war, with the latter generously assessing him as the best of the French commanders he ever faced, and one he never underestimated.

If I were to mention a small criticism, and I would emphasise, small, that I did pick up, was a few slightly irritating spelling errors and missed words within the text that had me occasionally going back over a sentence to clarify my understanding, but I have encountered a lot worse examples and this should not put off anyone interested in understanding the contents of this book from getting a copy.

As you might have guessed, I really enjoyed reading this book and can highly recommend its inclusion on the Peninsular War book shelf, filling as it does a much needed gap in the literature covering this part of the war.

The Key to Lisbon consists of 274 pages, including ten chapters, as follows:

List of Plates
List of Maps

1. Spain will not Delay us Long
2. Hic Sunt Leones
3. Blowing up Bridges
4. I Want to Enter Lisbon as Soon as Possible
5. A Cautious System
6. 1810
7. The Prince Never Had a Single Guide
8. The Portuguese Behaved Most Gallantly
9. The Retreat Was Ill Managed
10. A Liberatacao

I    Dramatis Personae
II   Memorandum for Lieutenant Colonel Fletcher, Commanding Royal Engineers
III  The Allied Army
IV The French Army


At the time of writing I see this title is available through Amazon for £15.51 plus £2.80 P&P which for a hardback book of this size and quality seems to me to be very good value.


  1. Not sure how far southwest you're going but there are nice museums at Sobral de Monte Agraco, Torres Vedras and Vimeiro but they have very limited hours (1000-1300?) and are closed on Mondays. And don't forget the 1 hour time difference between Spain and Portugal - it can be a bugger when you're travelling around the border area.

    1. Thanks Jeremy. We won't be going so far south this time as I explored Vimeiro, Rolica and Torres Vedras back in the mid nineties so am aiming to cover off the other major sites on this visit.