Wellington’s Two-Front War: The Peninsular Campaigns, at Home and Abroad, 1808-1814. By Joshua Moon. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
It is often said that there have been more books written about Napoleon than about anyone else in history. Surely a great many of them have been written about the Peninsular Campaigns waged by the British against the French in Portugal and Spain. That campaign was, of course, ultimately successful and was a major reason–I would argue perhaps the main reason–for Napoleon’s ultimate defeat. Led by Arthur Wellesley, who became the Duke of Wellington, a name by which most people today know him, the French were pushed out of the peninsula and deep into France. Wellington went on to become one of the two major military icons of the period (along with Admiral Lord Nelson).
Much has been written about the military campaign in the peninsula, with its various successes and failures for each side, and much has been written about the politics and infighting on the French side and the role of the Spanish guerillas that were of such importance to the ultimate defeat of the French. But relatively little has been written about Wellington’s other ‘front,’ namely the home front. Wellington had great ability and achieved great success on the field of battle, but it was often in spite of, not because of, his superiors in Britain. The British military system was anything but streamlined and efficient. Its command system was based on privilege far more than on talent, promotions often defied logic, and incompetent generals and nobles often made bone headed decisions. In short, Wellington was often on his own. Of course, once it was clear that he would succeed, home support was much more forthcoming.
In volume 29 of the University of Oklahoma Press’ Campaign and Commanders series, military history scholar, US Army Major and former Assistant Professor of History at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point Joshua Moon gives us a very readable telling of this story.
Politicians in the modern world know all about dealing with a press that is often quite hostile to them or their ideas, and shifting public opinion often best described as fickle. Wars such as Viet Nam and Iraq show the difficulty of maintaining public support for a war, especially if the ultimate goals are either ambiguous or seen as unlikely. And the longer a war continues, the thinner its support becomes. Wars are expensive and the citizenry is cheap. The British media has never been reluctant to speak its mind and then some, and the ongoing war in the peninsula was often quite unpopular.
Part of the reason was, of course, that British public opinion was not uniformly anti-French or anti-Napoleon. During the Peace of Amiens, British citizens flocked to Paris, hoping for a glimpse of Bonaparte. The continuing series of coalitions against Napoleon, generally paid for with British gold, were causing a drain on the economy and many people wanted to simply make peace with Napoleon and go on about their lives. The Whig Party was instrumental in political opposition to the wars, and their politicians in Parliament were a constant threat to Wellington’s domestic support.
The cost of the wars against Napoleon cannot be overstated. It was it a direct drain on the treasury and military, and political events throughout the war often made it difficult for the British to pay their soldiers. Gold and silver were sometimes in short supply and British financial resources were, at least for a time, stretched quite thin. Indeed, British troops did more than the normal amount of looting, a fact that stemmed directly from the lack of or at least slowness of pay forthcoming from London.
Changing geo-political and military conditions elsewhere in Europe also contributed to Wellington’s difficulties on the home front. For example, after Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia, many Germans began to revolt against the French. Secretary of War Lord Bathurst felt that the German Legion serving under Wellington might not be as inspired to fight the French in Spain as they could fight the French on German territory. These were some of Wellington’s finest soldiers and to lose them could change his situation dramatically for the worse. After gaining the support of his top German officer, Wellington pleaded his case to Bathurst, who finally relented. There were other threats to remove some of Wellington’s much-needed troops. Some thought that the focus of a southern campaign should shift to Italy, for example, but Wellington was able to keep them all at bay.
Joshua Moon’s book is an important addition to Napoleonic scholarship. He uses a very impressive array of archival, printed primary and secondary sources, and the book is extensively footnoted. But those scholarly requirements do not interfere with the reader’s ability to read the story for its broader content. His writing style is easy and he inserts interesting and appropriate quotes throughout the book. He also includes very useful appendixes on cabinet positions with strategic responsibility, French army commanders in Spain and a chronology of the Peninsular War.
J. David Markham