Book Review: To War with Wellington

Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo
Peter Snow
John Murray   384pp   £25
ISBN 978 1848541030

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Conquer or Die!
Wellington’s Veterans and the Liberation of the New World

Ben Hughes
Osprey   376pp   £20
ISBN 978 1849081832

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In late March 1815 William Hay and his fellow 12th Light Dragoons were in a public house, resting from some crowd control work in London, when a man burst through the door. ‘Old Boney has broken out again and got to Paris’, he cried. For the commanders, such as Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba put an end to his efforts in diplomacy at the Congress of Vienna. Humble soldiers, like Hay, anticipated a return to the dangers and privations of the battlefield. Nevertheless, he was eager, declaring ‘no liking for the life of a soldier in idleness’.

In this fine book Peter Snow explores the Peninsular Wars and the Battle of Waterloo by paying particular attention to the men who served under Wellington. He has scoured the many accounts by soldiers and weaves them impeccably into a wider narrative.  We read about actors, shepherds and ploughboys as well as the sons of landowners and earls, stumbling and fighting their way through Portugal, Spain and France. Snow is particularly good on the preparations for battle and the marches through unforgiving terrain and he gives space to the accompanying women who had to prove themselves as resilient as the men.

Snow keeps his quotations short and produces a splendidly concise and fast-paced narrative. To War With Wellington is also an excellent, clear account of the conflicts themselves, with confident handling of both individual skirmishes and the wider battle plans. Rich with colour and pathos, written with wit and grace, this is marvellous history.

Many veterans of Wellington’s campaigns returned to their previous lives in Britain. Others sought further adventure. Ben Hughes, in this, his first book, tells the fascinating story of how nearly 7,000 British volunteers set off in the years after 1815 to support Simón Bolívar in his quest to liberate Gran Colombia from the Spanish.

The mission seemed doomed from the beginning. Two hundred men drowned off the coast of Britain, many fled on arrival in Trinidad, while others fell victim to disease, attacks by alligators and raids by locals. Those who survived to fight in the Venezuelan interior found themselves in frequently horrifying battles in which the code of honour that had generally prevailed in Wellington’s campaigns no longer existed. Bolívar had vowed ‘War to the Death’ in 1813 and captured men were often brutally slaughtered.

There were conmen and cheats in the ranks, but most of the men were brave soldiers, keen to help the cause. Their contribution was crucial, most notably at the Battle of Carabobo in June 1821, after which Spanish control of Colombia and Venezuela collapsed. Bolívar himself congratulated those British who fought with him as Salvadores di mi Patria.

Hughes has a great passion for South America and deep sympathy for the men who fought. His attention to detail yields rich rewards and the battle descriptions are at once lucid and vivid. Conquer or Die is a meticulously researched and fluently written account of an often forgotten British contribution to Bolívar’s great campaign.

‘I should have given more praise’, said Wellington at the end of his life. His men went largely unrewarded. Pensions remained low and there was no Peninsular War medal until 1847, by which time many of those who had fought were dead. Of Bolívar’s British soldiers, only about 1,000 returned home. Around 300 settled in South America, but the rest are buried in unmarked or neglected graves. As both of these books about the glories and horrors of war show so well, great victories are built on the sacrifices of the ordinary soldier.

Kate Williams is the author of Becoming Queen (Arrow, 2009). She is currently writing a biography of Josephine Bonaparte.

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