Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book review - Galloping at Everything

I've just finished reading this book which I started when I was deciding what unit to paint my British light dragoons as.

The author's contention is that the cavalry has had a bum rap over the years due, in the main part, to the towering reputation of Oman's histories of the Peninsular War. He examines the main battles fought by Wellington's troops in the Peninsula, as well as the battle of Waterloo, but also looks at a lot of less well known engagements that took place without the Great Man looking on. Despite the reputation that has followed the British cavalry since Waterloo, Fletcher contends that they were very professional and did sterling work, especially on piquet and patrol, and that besides a few glaringly obvious occasions, performed very well in battle and had thoroughly cowed the French cavalry they came up against in Spain.

The shadow cast by Oman's work has influenced all subsequent historians who have not investigated the primary sources nearly closely enough, according to Fletcher. The well known complaint uttered by the Duke, which indeed the book's title is taken from, has become the end point of historical research, not the start. Like his often quoted damnation of his infantry after the retreat from Burgos as the 'scum of the earth', it did not reflect his overall opinion of his troops, just an expression of frustration related to a particular incident. However, historians have picked these quotes as indicative of his overall opinion.

The most famous incidents of his cavalry 'galloping at everything' were at Vimeiro, Talavera and, of course, Waterloo, but in most histories these disasters are never qualified by the fact that the regiments involved were usually raw and inexperienced. Fletcher even makes the point that even though the cavalry, especially at Talavera and Waterloo, were effectively destroyed in these disastrous charges, the threats they were sent against were neutralised.

The 2 most controversial, but less well known actions, that supposedly illustrate the Duke's criticism are examined closely by the author who then goes on to explain why they are actually individual exceptions to the generally excellent track record the British cavalry gave during the Peninsula and Waterloo campaigns. Campo Mayor and Maguilla being the 2 cases in question, Fletcher examines the background the the battles, the personalities involved, the unit morale and gives very reasonable explanations as to why things went wrong. He also compares them to successful actions and explains why they went well.

I found it a fascinating and well argued account of a particular branch of the Duke of Wellington's force that I previously had not taken much notice of and an excellent warning as to why we should reexamine histories, especially secondary sources, that use all the same primary sources at face value.

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