19 April 2014

Book Review: Wellington’s Peninsula Regiments (2) The Light Infantry

"...is one of Osprey Publishing’s Men-at-Arms series and the second volume describing the history, organization, uniforms, and equipment of British forces that fought in Portugal, Spain, and southern France from 1808-1814, known as the Peninsular War."

Published on 4 MAY 2004 12:00am by Scott Parrino
  1. military leadership, military training, napoleonics

Introduction

Wellington's Peninsula Regiments (2) The Light Infantry (henceforth referred to as The Light Infantry) is one of Osprey Publishing's Men-at-Arms series and the second volume describing the history, organization, uniforms, and equipment of British forces that fought in Portugal, Spain, and southern France from 1808-1814, known as the Peninsular War. Starting with an overview of the evolution of European light forces in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Mike Chappel describes the British reaction to these developments. He then provides a more detailed look at five light infantry regiments (43rd, 51st, 52nd, 68th and 85th) that fought under Lord Wellington during the Peninsular War.

Many of the almost fifty pages in The Light Infantry feature drawings, pictures, and full color plates portraying soldiers, uniforms, weapons, and accoutrements, most of which are provided or produced by the author.

Pictures and drawings.

Historical Background

I found the introductory material on the evolution of light infantry to be fascinating reading, especially the insight into how the character of the British army shaped their light forces. Most European armies embraced the concept of light troops for two reasons: to screen their own massed infantry battalions and to harass enemy units. Using light infantry merely to harass enemy units resulted in it never seeming to find a champion in the British army. This forced the British to rely on foreign contingents and the disbanding of British light troops after each conflict. Hard learned lessons from both the Seven Years War and the American Revolution had thus to be relearned during the Napoleonic Wars. The increase in light infantry usage by the French after the revolution raised concerns, but even then, it probably would have been met by foreign troops if they had been available. The loss of access to light troops from areas such as the German States, combined with the poor performance of regular troops used as light infantry, forced the British to look at building up their own light forces. By 1802 a battalion of Riflemen, to become the famous 95th Rifles, had been raised and a light infantry training camp established at Shorncliffe in Kent. General John Moore is considered to be the father of British light infantry and it was his regiment, the 52nd (Oxfordshire), which became the first line regiment to convert to light infantry, establishing the model for subsequent units. The author notes that General Moore and the British army were unwilling to adopt the French model of using these regiments solely as light infantry, expecting them to fight in line as well as to skirmish. Though it is not discussed, I suspect the small size of the British army relative to the French influenced the decision to maintain the light infantry regiments for dual-purpose use. The late, great Peter Ustinov captured this English ambivalence in Ustinov's Diplomats, where a British diplomat couches an abstention as follows: "I find myself, as it were, of two minds, both more or less in agreement with each other."

Light Infantry in the Peninsula

The Light Infantry provides a brief, but well-written narrative history of the British light infantry regiments that fought during the Peninsular campaign. In keeping with the dual-purpose nature of these units, their participation as assaulting units are featured as much, if not more, than their duties as skirmishers.

The 52nd (Oxfordshire) and 43rd (Monmouthshire) Regiments were the first two units to train for the light infantry role. They were also closely associated with the Duke of Wellington, first at Copenhagen and then throughout the Peninsular campaign in Portugal, Spain, and France. Battalions of the 52nd and 43rd Regiments joined with the 95th Rifles to form a brigade under General Craufurd during General Moore's ill-fated campaign in Spain in 1808, which ended with his death and the return of the British army to England after the successful defense at Corunna.

Light troops returned to Portugal in 1809, with elements of the 52nd, 43rd and 95th Rifles comprising the Light Brigade, once again under General Craufurd. Augmented by two battalions of Portugese Cazadore light infantry, this force became the Light Division. With the exception of Talavera, the Light Division fought in every major engagement during the Peninsular Campaign, the 52nd Regiment going on to fight at Waterloo after the division was disbanded.

The 51st (2nd Yorkshire West Riding), 85th (Bucks Volunteers) and 68th (Durham) Light Infantry Regiments arrived in Portugal in 1811 and joined with the Chasseurs Britanniques and the Brunswick Oels Jagers to form essentially the light brigade of the 7th Infantry Division. All three regiments were decimated by sickness and hard fighting, the 85th at one point being sent back to England due to low numbers. For one reason or another, the reputation of these units at one point suffered, but overall they fought well in some of the major engagements of the campaign.

Colorplates.

Graphics

The cornucopia of excellent colored plates, pictures and drawings in The Light Infantry impressed me. The centerpiece was the eight colored plates illustrated by the author. I especially appreciated the skirmishers from the 43rd realistically depicted with patched and worn uniforms after hard campaigning. All of the graphics were well documented, many with insightful comments.

Summary

The Light Infantry is a short book packed with information. After a good primer on light infantry, the role each specific regiment played in the Peninsular campaign is laid out, highlighting the parts they played in critical battles. The assorted graphics bring the men and uniforms to life and are an integral part of their story. I would recommend this book to any gamer interested in the Napoleonic Wars and specifically the Peninsular Campaign. The Light Infantry would be especially useful for miniature war gamers building a British Army.

Additional Reading

History of the Peninsular War, January to September 1809: From the Battle of Corunna to the End of the Talavera Campaign by Charles Oman

Wellington in the Peninsula by Jac Weller

Wellington: The Years of the Sword by Elizabeth Longford

Sharpe's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell

About the Author

Al Berke is a Naval Officer currently stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. An Air Force brat, he got his start in wargaming in 1968 with Avalon Hill's Gettysburg, which proved to be a complete mystery until Tactics II showed him the light. Al turned to computer wargaming out of necessity after years of being unable to finish a boardgame due to the assaults of the family cats. He is also an avid military history buff, equally enjoying Simpkins on armor, Morrison on Midway and Jablonski on the 8th Air Force.