Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review - Corunna

I've just finished Corunna by Christopher Hibbert and while nowhere near as in depth a study of a campaign as Muir's Salamanca (see earlier entry), it still is a good read that quotes heavily from primary sources.

I knew Moore's little army had a hellish retreat from Salamanca to Corunna in the depths of winter, but I never realised the scale of the misery and how near to total breakdown the army was. Reading the narrative of the retreat left me reminded of the French retreat from Russia in 1812, but on a smaller scale: a large percentage of the army disintegrating into a starving, frozen rabble protected by a determined and disciplined rearguard; desperate soldiers looting the towns on the way of any form of sustenance and degenerating further into drunken mobs; the horrific plight of the women camp-followers.

The book also puts the campaign into the political context of the day which underscores how much war is a political activity and how generals need to be politicians, as well as military leaders. Unfortunately, because of his radical leanings, his humble background and his contempt for those who did not live up to his own high standards, he had a fair share of enemies at home who were quite ready to lay the blame for the failure of the campaign.

General Moore was roundly pilloried at the time by his officers and by the public at home for not doing more to help the Spanish. As this book shows, he was in put in an impossible position from the start. To begin with, it was made perfectly clear that he was not just in charge of a British army of 35,000 men, but THE British Army; there wasn't another force available if this one was destroyed. His orders were only to support the Spanish, not to engage the French on his own, but as the Spanish strategy was almost non-existent with no cooperation between jealous regional juntas, the Spanish armies were defeated one by one in piecemeal fashion: Moore had no-one to support. Extravagant promises of cooperation and forthcoming victories were just not realised, so Moore was left in an intolerable position.

However, he still did his best to assist Spain by drawing the French, who had been massively reinforced after Bailen and were led by Napoleon himself, away from the Spanish south by cutting across the French lines of communication. Moore was extremely lucky in that the French intelligence was surprisingly poor; Napoleon assumed that the British were on their way back to Portugal and had actually ordered his troops west rather than north-west before he realised his mistake. If the French had been less clueless, they could have caught the tiny British army and squashed it like a bug.

As it was, it turned out to be a race for the sea in the most appalling winter weather. The British were the harder marchers and also outfought the French every time the French vanguard caught the British rearguard. By the time the British turned at bay at Corunna, they had rekindled some self-pride by the constant black-eyes they'd handed out to the French, while the French were wary of their enemies, who, although resembling armed scarecrows, came at them furiously.

The 50th foot, which I have painted up in my collection, played a crucial part in the final battle. Led by Major Charles Napier, brother of the writer of the Peninsula War history, they charged the French at Elvina without orders and saved the 42nd foot who were at the point of being overwhelmed. Shortly after this, Moore was mortally wounded, and died later, knowing that his army had defeated the French and could safely embark on the transports for England.

Heroic stuff!

In a post-script, I'll mention a podcast I've discovered called Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. American readers will probably have heard of this already, but I've only just found it. He's not a trained historian, but he's definitely a history enthusiast (his breathy delivery can get a bit tiresome). His interest seems to lie in the ancient world and WW2 (so not a great deal to do with Napoleonics) but he also has a lot of interesting general historical themes to discuss. What I've listened to so far , I don't always agree with , but I like the way he makes me think about his arguments. He's not just plucking stuff out of the air; as you'll see, each episode has a bibliography of the books he used in researching the topic, so he's no slouch.

If I find any more interesting podcasts, I'll review them and link them to this blog.

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