Tuesday, 27 March 2012

An engaging book, from cover to cover

Book Review Albuera 1811: The bloodiest battle of the Peninsular War, by Guy Dempsey
(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)

This is a fine example of how military-history books should be written. Guy Dempsey has produced a factual, balanced account of Albuera that is written in engaging and interesting prose.

The introduction not only sets the scene but also the tone of the entire book. Throughout the text Dempsey’s clear, readable and detailed description is interspersed with direct quotes or direct references to eyewitness accounts. These have been crafted perfectly into the text so that they fit with its flow and act to enhance the word picture produced.

The first three chapters of the book cover the background to the battle beginning with the French invasion of Portugal in 1810 stalling at the lines of Torres Vedras and Soult’s decision to launch an attack in Estremadura rather than to support Massena directly (as he considered that he had too few troops). Dempsey goes on to describe the French siege of Badajoz which lead to its unexpected capture following what he calls its “fortunate” surrender. This section concludes with the commencement of the British siege of the town and Beresford’s movement to intercept Soult’s relief, along with the crucial decision that the Spanish and British troops would cooperate.

Plan of the siege of Badajoz, a plate from Albuera 1811

The bulk of the book (chapters 4 to 9) is a detailed description of the battle. Using primary sources equally from both sides, Mr Dempsey describes the battle in great detail, whilst dispelling myths that have arisen as a result of nationalistic and political needs—such as Wellington’s insistence that Beresford re-write his report of the battle as a victory. Through his use of eyewitness accounts and quotes, Dempsey brings to life the personal stories of the battle, the emotion and the tragedy.

Map of Soult's flanking attack, illustrating the clear and detailed maps in the book.

The maps are excellent and support the text perfectly. These range from a map of the overall Peninsular theatre, to smaller scale maps of southern Spain and Portugal, to detailed maps of the overall battlefield and sections of the battle relating to specific actions that are described in the text.
The descriptions of the action also include some rare insights. For example, the fundamental mistakes by both sides, such as problems with formation changes and choice of formation, during Girard’s attack. This hIghlights the difficulties of manoeuvring large bodies of men on a Napoleonic battlefield and how, even after nearly five years of near-continuous campaigning, fundamental and basic mistakes could be made that had tragic and disastrous consequences.
Chapters 10 to 14 cover the aftermath of battle, numbers of dead, dying and wounded, accounts from survivors and eyewitnesses and the fate of these men and of the prisoners. This all makes for harrowing reading, but its impact is decreased somewhat by the fact that Dempsey effectively devotes three of these chapters to the same topic, including one entitled “Second Siege of Badajoz” in which only the last two pages discuss this important aspect of the campaign. The book concludes with the summary of “Controversy and Conclusions”.

The appendices are packed with further interesting, useful and detailed information, beginning with the orders of battle of the French-Allied, Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish armies, detailing units and commanders. These are followed by a listing of unit strengths and casualties for every unit engaged, a brief appendix on uniforms, ‘How the ‘Die Hards’ Got Their Name’, ‘British Colours Captured at Albuera’, ‘After Albuera’—with brief biographies of the officers and men quoted in the chapters, and ‘The Napier-Beresford Pamphlet Wars’ detailing a ‘history war’ of old between the British commander and budding historian, and between British officers arguing over their part in the battle. When reading the book I found the first two of these appendices particularly useful as I used them to revise our orders of battle for our second attempt to re-fight the battle.

Throughout the book there are numerous examples of pieces of information that are not usually included or considered in an account of a battle. The description of the opposing armies includes information on the age demographics of each. There is a table showing the relative effectiveness of the Brown Bess and Charleville musket from tests carried out by Colonel Gerhard von Scharnhorst in 1813. These data contradict statements that are often made regarding the superiority of the former without reference to any evidence. The numbers of troops assigned to protect the baggage and their reported resentment at being assigned to this duty (pp 98-99) is also discussed. The description gives the reader an impression of the ‘organised chaos’ that must have been a Napoleonic battlefield; the intense, life and death struggles at various points, noise, smoke and stray projectiles, soldiers in formation and others wandering about the battlefield.

Of course, no book is perfect. The repetitive nature of chapters 10 to 12, mentioned above, is disappointing after the chapters that precede them. Dempsey’s insistence that the French ‘chose’ to attack in column and then deployed into line when failed rather than realising that this was the standard drill and his conclusion that the battle was a clear Anglo-Allied victory, which seems to contradict much of his preceding discussion.

These though are minor in a book that, from the outset, shows itself to be amongst the best of non-fiction writing.


  1. Thanks for the review.

    This is a book I've wanted to read for a while, and your review makes me doubly interested now! I find it fascinating as one of the few big battles not fought by Wellington, as well as the fact that the Spanish fought well in the crucial early stages.

    Soult's apparent remark that he had won the battle, but the British didn't know it is a classic piece of doublethink!

    1. I am pleased that you found the review useful. You won't regret getting the book, it's a ripper!
      It's a great battle to wargame too. We have done it twice now and will revisit it again later. One of our battle reports is on this blog and I'll try to get the other one done in the not too distant future.
      Regards, James