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Wellington's Wars. The making of a military genius

Huw Davies, Wellington's Wars. The making of a military genius (Yale University Press, 2012) is certainly well worth a look for anyone with an interest in the subject. I enjoyed reading it and found it thought-provoking, although at the same time it is rather frustrating, and could have benefitted from being much longer and broadening the discussion. So when reading about the lessons the young Wellesley learned in India, it would have been nice to compare these campaigns to earlier wars fought by the East India Company's armies. Given that the author argues for similarities between his methods in India and in the Peninsula this would be all the more interesting to see whether his operations in the former conformed to normal practice there. The treatment of the Peninsular War is interesting and offers fresh insights, although the focus is sometimes a little narrow. His tactical ability is largely taken as already well established and so dealt with very briefly indeed. The early campaigns, especially those of 1809 also receive little attention, an appear more as a prelude to the clearly defensive strategy of the next few years. Given how far into Spain Talavera was fought, this seems an over simplification.

It's unfair to criticise a good book for not being even better, but it is a mark of the author's interesting ideas that you are left wanting to consider them in a wider framework, and find that at the moment the discussion stops before it is fully convincing. The preface offers a good example of rather cavalier pronouncements. It tells the story of Wellington sitting for a portrait by Lawrence, and being dismayed to see that the artist depicted him holding a pocket watch in his hand - the idea was to suggest him waiting for the arrival of Blucher's Prussians. Wellington was horrified, and the chastened artist instead changed the watch to a telescope for the finished portrait. This the author says:

' ... speaks volumes not only about the Waterloo Campaign, but also about Wellington's character. ... "That will never do!" the Duke is alleged to have exclaimed. "I was not 'waiting' for the Prussians at Waterloo." ... Clearly Wellington came to believe that the arrival of the Prussians played little part in his victory over Napoleon.'

Yet we are talking about a picture honouring the subject, where a degree of egoism is surely natural. Who would want to be depicted at the moment of a great achievement as entirely dependent on someone else? The story does not in itself tell us much at all about Wellington's view on the overall importance of his own or of Blucher's role in the hundred Days, merely that he understandably wanted a portrait of himself to focus on his own achievement. The Duke's views on Waterloo are another matter altogether, and not adequately explored, especially to justify such sweeping statements. So we come back to the start of this post. Davies' book is well worth reading. It will make you think afresh about some big issues and that is a rare thing in such a well-trodden subject. At times it can also be more than a little frustrating.

Augustus' birthday
I have made it a custom to celebrate Caesar's birthday with a trip to a nice restaurant, and this years decided to add his heir's birthday to the calendar. This time we did lunch, braving the rather miserable weather here in South Wales. The 23rd September was the date chosen for the official celebration of the emperor's birthday during and after his lifetime - and also as an additional commemoration of the Battle of Actium. Some of the sources hint that he may actually have been born on the 24th September 63 BC - the difference perhaps due to the changes made by the introduction of the Julian claendar. As ever with Augustus, nothing is simple.
Highly recommended introduction to Augustus

I have just read Karl Galinsky's Augustus. An introduction to the life of an emperor, released by Cambridge University Press earlier this year. The subject is a vast one - something of which I am constantly reminded as I work on my own biography of Rome's first emperor. Augustus lived so long and did so much that any biographer has to deal with a great many different subjects. For many the evidence is poor, and on top of that the man himself remains a mystery. It always seems appropriate that he chose the enigmatic sphinx as one of his seals - only one though, because Augustus was never easy to pin down in any aspect of life. After all this is a man born in September, who nevertheless chose the Capricorn as his symbol. This is one of many curiosities explored in a text box, Like so many other aspects of Augustus' life, it defies an easy answer. Galinsky reviews the evidence with skill and perception, and most importantly admits that there are many gaps in our sources which makes certainty impossible on many issues, both great and small.

This is a slim volume. I have four or five times the space for my own biography of the first emperor and know that I will have to leave out a huge amount of material. This makes it all the more impressive just how much Galinsky crams into less than two hundred pages. There are plenty of illustrations and maps. Students starting a course on the wider period or Augustus in particular will find this invaluable. Anyone else with an interest in the theme, or who simply wants to gain a glimpse of such a remarkable and important historical figure, can do no better than to start with this short book.

New Novel in hardback - Send Me Safely Back Again
This week sees the UK release of my third novel, Send me safely back again. The formal release date is tomorrow, but by the look of things amazon.co.uk are already shipping copies out, and on Friday I'll be signing some copies for Goldsboro Books and Hatchards in London for those who like to have my scrawl in the front. I have added a new page to the website about the new story third novel which tells you more about the story. There are also some additions to the page listing some of the sources I have used for the story.
Napoleonic Lives

The subtitle of Carole Divall's new book Napoleonic Lives: Researching the British soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars tells you its main purpose. It is a detailed guide of how to find out information from all the different archives and museum collections written by someone who has spent a lot of time delving into these sources. I know a lot of people who are very keen to build up a detailed family trees and this is certainly the book for you. I would also heartily recommend it if you simply have an interest in the army of this period. Chapters cover different individuals from a range of regiments, including a man from the 69th who served on board ship as a marine, to cavalrymen and gunners. There is a also a chapter focusing on two army wives - Biddy Skiddy who is depicted so vividly in George Bell's Memoirs (& in a display in London's National Army Museum, showing her carrying her husband on her back when he was exhausted, and the lesser known Agnes Reston, a sergeant's wife who is described by Donaldson of the 94th in an episode I may one day incorporate into one of the novels.

I have always found the letters and memoirs of this period fascinating, and writing the novels has given me a good excuse to go back to them and look in much greater detail. This meant that reading the book was often a very nice reminder of some of the characters from these, both the authors and the people who figured in their stories. Even more fascinating is the comparison between the stories and the official archives - finding out more for instance about some of the famous writers such as Wheeler of the 51st. Sometimes these hint at fascinating little stories. So Sergeant Nicolson of the 42nd Highlanders, who served in Egypt, was left behind in Portugal when his battalion marched with Sir John Moore into Spain and the next year found himself serving in a Battalion of Detachments at Oporto and Talavera, figures in one of the chapters. Less famous than other memoirs, it is a vivid account, and especially interesting since he describes being left among the wounded when the army retired and his subsequent capture by the French. The introduction to his published memoirs state that he ran away from home and joined the army at the age of 15. However, his discharge papers state that he enlisted at the age of 20. Divall notes that the 1851 census confirms the age claimed in the memoirs, and make it likely that the lad added five years when he joined the army - something so familiar from the First World War.

As a research tool this is a great guide, but it is also a really good read in its own right. Beat the Drums Slowly is dedicated jointly to my editor and to Carole, who has been kind enough to read each manuscript and has stopped me from making mistakes when talking about regimental life. This book, and her others, are marvellous for these human, everyday stories of the period, and are heartily recommended. You can find more detail at her website


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