Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review - Conquer or Die!

'Conquer or Die!' is the latest book to get the Rosbif review. As the Boys' Own-style title implies, it's a rip-roaring tale of adventure, danger, betrayal, and triumph in an exotic location. Best of all, it's all true!

This book details the British involvement in the latter part of the revolutionary wars against Spanish rule by forces led by the South American patriot Simon Bolivar. Even though Britain ended the Napoleonic Wars as one of the most powerful nations in the world, that didn't prevent the economy sinking into recession. Many former soldiers found themselves living in poverty, either under- or unemployed. Even junior officers relegated to half-pay, without family wealth to fall back on,  found that it was impossible to make ends meet.

Into this atmosphere, the officially unrecognised representative of Bolivar's 3rd Republic set about recruiting British citizens to serve in the revolutionary armies. Initially aimed at recruiting officers and NCOs to give much needed command experience to the newly raised regiments, the response was overwhelming. Two infantry and one of cavalry were raised even though officially British citizens were not permitted to enlist in foreign armies, especially ones rebelling against a 'legitimate' government. The British government turned a blind eye despite the Prince Regent's vehement opposition to the practice.

Those who raised the regiments on behalf of Bolivar's representative tended to be charlatans and amateurs who spun a good story and filled a hussar's uniform well. This was to be to the detriment of those they led to the tropical war zone. In several waves of enlistment under different leaders, the men were often promised things that could not be delivered. Not surprisingly, a lot of the 'gentlemen' hopped straight back on the next boat back to Europe, while the enlisted men had no such luxury and died by the score from tropical disease and neglect before they even reached a battlefield. Those who survived, however, contributed in a large way to the eventual victory over the Spanish.

Initially, the officers and NCOs commanded new regiments like the Black Rifles, filled with Indians forcibly recruited from missionary stations, but eventually enough volunteers arrived to man completely British units like the Albion Legion and the British Legion. Due to attrition, they were eventually reinforced with Spanish speaking recruits (who took pride learning to swear in English, so as to mark themselves as elite and separate from the average soldier!).

The tenacity these mercenaries displayed for a cause that was not theirs is astounding, especially as the survival rate was less than 30% of the original total due to disease, jungle beasties as well as combat. The author is unabashed at telling the story of Bolivar's war from the British point of view as he is writing for an Anglophone readership who are probably more familiar with the story of the British involvement in the Napoleonic Wars rather than the separate, but related, wars of independence of Latin America. Far from detracting from the story, I found that it put a period that I've struggled to read about in the past into context. It's a launching pad for me now to read a more general history of the theatre.

An added bonus for wargamers is that most of the battles of this period were small, division sized battles, perfect for our weekend club games. This Friday I've organised a game based on the Battle of Bocaya, 1819, although set firmly in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.


  1. How absolutely fascinating, I had no idea as to the ‘British’ involvement in the conflict. One for the wish list me thinks.

  2. I have a copy though I've never read it. So many wars, so little time.

  3. Hope you post the battle you made up with OBS and other tid bits - Cheers VFW


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