Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Assembly of facts, raw and untainted

Book review: British Battles of the Napoleonic Wars 1793–1815: Despatches from the Front, compiled by John Grehan & Martin Mace

(Book cover art kindly provided by the publishers. Please do not reproduce without obtaining permission)

These two books present a collection of despatches written by British commanders (generals, admirals and captains) following selected battles that involved British land and/or naval forces during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

This is not a complete list of actions involving British forces during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Grehan and Mace limit themselves to “reports of large-scale engagements from senior officers exercising independent commands” (p. viii), with ‘large-scale’ being in the context of the commitment of British forces over the 22 years covered by the books.

The 89 battles selected (53 in the first book and 36 in the second) include the well-known such as Glorious First of June, Cape St Vincent, The Nile, Alexandria, Trafalgar, Coruña, Talavera, Salamanca, Vitoria, Toulouse and, of course, Waterloo. However, less well-known actions are also included, with some relating to defeats for British arms, such as the battles of Bergen, Alkmaar and Castricum (1799) and Battle of Grand Port 1810—Walcheren (July-September 1809) is a notable omission, although the capture of Flushing is included.

The format of the two books is the same, with despatches from the selected battles presented in chronological order. Each simply comprises a heading with the name of the battle or action, followed by the note of the receipt of the original despatch and then despatch itself reproduced in full.

The book does not include a map of each battle, however a world map and a more detailed map of Europe indicate the locations of each. This is useful to help the reader to find a particular battle of interest, or to check the geographic location of a battle. It is also quite impressive and demonstrates the geographic reach and impact of the wars.

Included in the centre pages of each book are plates, most of them in colour, of paintings of some of the commanding officers who were the authors of despatches and of selected battles. Each plate has two images, either a commander and painting of a battle scene, two commanders or two battle scenes. While these images are now in the public domain, thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I found it helpful to have such plates included and they also add to the aesthetic value of the books.
"Battle of Cape Finisterre" by William Anderson, Collections of the National Maritime Museum (Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons).
Siege of Badajoz, Devil's Own 88th Regiment by Woodville (Wikimedia Commons)

These are the type of books that one is unlikely to read from cover to cover, but rather to ‘dip’ into when a need or interest arises. I have read about a quarter of the presented despatches, choosing those related to the battles that we have done as wargames, others that we may look to do in the near future or just to get some understanding of a previously unknown (to me) action.

One such case was following our game of San Domingo. It was edifying to read Admiral Duckworth’s despatch, having completed a re-fight of the battle on the tabletop. Our game largely followed the history, ‘though with some notable divergences. These became more obvious upon reading Duckworth’s descriptive account of the action and his despatch took on greater significance and had more clarity having recently ‘been there’ on the wargames table.

Another example is the Battle of Grand Port (August 1810). This has greater significance to me following a visit to Mauritius a few years ago. Reading the despatch spurred me to seek more information about the action. Who knows, we may even make it the subject of our next Napoleonic naval game?
Battle of Grand Port by Gilbert (Wikimedia Commons)

[Interestingly, despatches following the landing at Grand Baie in November 1810 and subsequent skirmishes that resulted in the capture of Ile de France on 3rd December 1810 are not presented.]

Lastly, as we approach the bicentennial of Waterloo, it was interesting and edifying to read the Duke of Wellington’s despatch in full and unedited. This is the last despatch presented in the second book.

The presentation of despatches, transcribed from the originals, provides a bonus for students of language. The despatches are replete with variations in spelling and the nuances of English writing of the time, all of which varied between the corresponding generals (or the staff officers who wrote the despatches). These include the copious use of capital letters, erratic hyphenation (such as Major-General) and the inclusion or exclusion of ‘u’ in words ending in ‘our’ (or). Grehan and Mace discuss this facet at some length in the introduction to each book, particularly since it is an aspect that has been maintained as the despatches presented are unedited transcriptions of the originals.
“It is the job of the historian not only to assemble facts and present them to their public but also to interpret those facts. Much is lost and gained in such interpretations. […] Where then lies the truth? […] But only one account will be authentic—that delivered by the man who witnessed the events in person. […] Only the most senior officers can have a holistic view of the unfolding events and their possible short-term consequences. It is to those persons that we must turn’ (p. vii).
This statement in the introduction to the first book, whilst of noble intent, must be tempered with the knowledge that the despatches were written with a particular audience(s) in mind. “To lie like a bulletin” may well be an accusation that was laid at the feet of Napoleon by his enemies, but the reality is that commanders from all of the nations, including Britain, were fluid with the truth.

A well known example is Beresford’s report of the Battle of Albuera (16th May 1811). Recalling his meeting Beresford’s aide de camp, Major Arbuthnot, and reading the marshal’s original despatch Wellington said,
“I remember he wrote me word that he was delighted I was coming, that he could not stand the slaughter about him and the vast responsibility. His letter was quite in a desponding tone. It was brought to me next day, I think, by General Arbuthnot when I was at dinner at Elvas, and I said directly, this won’t do, write me down a victory. The despatch was altered accordingly. Afterwards they grew very proud of the battle, and with full reason. There is no doubt they had completely got the better of Soult”*.
*Stanhope, Philip Henry, 5th Earl (1888) Notes of conversations with the Duke of Wellington : 1831-1851. John Murray, London. 341 pp.

The expurgated version of the despatch that was reported to the government at home is the one included here.

By way of clarification (and rebuttal) the last word on this should go to Grehan and Mace.
“This then is our assembly of facts, raw and untainted. Their interpretation is yours alone” (p. ix).
A ‘student' of history cannot ask for much more.



  1. Excellent review. All reviews should be as clear as this thus making the choices easier. More so, as the period has such a plethora of works to choose from.

    1. Gosh, that is such a supportive comment, thanks.
      I do spend a lot of time compiling them, so am pleased that it is of some worth.

  2. Interesting titles. The evolution of the English language in just 200 years highlights the difficulties inherent in reading historical sources, which applies still more to languages other than our own, and using a technical and specialized irrevocably.

    1. Languages, the development of languages, nuances in expression are topics that I enjoy greatly. I always find it edifying to listen to how a non-native English speaker structures sentences in English as it says a lot about correct construction in their own language. Most useful if one is trying to learn the latter!

  3. A fine and informative review. There seems to be a fashion for publishing unadorned primary historical material, and not a bad idea, too. The reader does, of course, have to bring to the reading a healthy critical faculty, being prepared to read between the lines. I have a copy of a collection of Napoleon's bulletins, which also includes the articles of Treaties drawn at the end of the various campaigns. They make fascinating reading, bring to light perhaps more about Napoleon's thinking than usually gets shed (for whatever that is worth), and we get to look more into what is going on in the theatres peripheral to the main campaign.

    At the same time I got hold of a paperback copy of 'The Memoirs of an Officer in Nelson's Navy', that officer being one Lt Samuel Walters RN. He served in the Mauritius campaign, but left that theatre in 'Raisonable' in about March 1810. I was never sure about the account of the Battle of Isle de la Passe (Grand Port, as narrated in Patrick O'Brien's 'The Mauritius Command') until today, whether it had indeed happened at all, or was a recount of Algeciras in a different setting, and with frigates instead of line-of-battle ships. I'm glad to have had that cleared up!

    1. It is so much easier to source such information now isn't it, thanks to relatively cheap books and fabulous resources sites such as