Paperback: 96 pages Publisher: Osprey Publishing (20 Mar. 2013)
“I have lost the Battle of Talavera”. Napoleon wrote to Marshal Clarke, as he realised that his generals and his brother Joseph had been lying to him. That the Emperor took it personally would then seem to be an understatement, despite not being even within 100 miles of Talavera de la Reyna when Marshal Jourdan and Victor engaged Sir Arthur Wellesley and General Cuesta’s Anglo Spanish army, Napoleon felt that he, not them, had lost the battle. He had expected his commanders to tell him the truth about what was going on in Spain, but had been given fantasies and childish fibs.
They never would be able to give him the whole truth. For Napoleon trying to command the war in the Iberian Peninsula from distant countries would be impossible, not only because his orders were outdated by the time they arrived but because he rarely got the truth from his generals until much later. The Battle of Talavera was the largest General Action a British army had participated in for decades, with over 100,000 men involved all told. It was the battle that won Wellesley the title Wellington, and was the start of the six year allied campaign to drive the French from the coast of Portugal to the foothills of the Pyrenees.
It is a battle that has been much mentioned in books about the war, and the Duke of Wellington and indeed the British army. Rarely however has it gotten star billing. As the first battles of the Peninsular War were fought at Rolica and Vimiero in 1808, Talavera is deceptively easy to describe. At first glance it appears like all the other battles fought by Wellington. The French attack, they get beaten back by Wellington’s masterly defensive tactics. But that is actually a much too simplistic appreciation.
Rene Chartrand, a veteran Osprey author of many of their best books, has written a highly detailed account of the campaign, which focuses not just on the British but their allies and enemies too. In terms of narrative it feels a little heavy now and again yet this book actually opens up many closed doors. The battle was fought over 2 days in searing Spanish summer heat as the Anglo Spanish attempted to converge on Madrid.
Of particular note is the description of the little known charge of the Spanish cavalry that essentially brought and end to the main part of the battle. Quite apart from the disastrous charge by the British cavalry which in one regiment incurred losses almost equal to that suffered by the entire Light Brigade at Balaclava.
Also we get to see another side to Wellington. Most people think he stepped ashore in Portugal in 1808 fully formed as the master tactician, however he hadn’t fought the French for many years. At Rolica a much smaller force kept him at bay, Vimiero was a stunning victory, as was the smaller Rolica sized action at Oporto. Talavera sees Wellington still finding his feet against the French, though famed for his lone command style in this battle he relies much more on subordinates and as a result got into a few perilous situations.
Chartrand illustrates Wellington as struggling to keep control over the enemy, his officers and at the same time cooperate with his allies. That he was able to win the battle shows his great skill, but in this battle, his recipe for success was still forming. From offensive campaigning to defensive, thus far it will be noted that two of his 4 Iberian battles saw him attacking, rather than defending. And if anything the experience of the subsequent abortive campaign taught him lessons that would influence the next two years of slow, methodical campaigning.
The rest of the book briefly examines the Battle of Los Baños were Ney beat up a detached Portuguese raiding force under Sir Robert Wilson, and Wellington’s retreat from Spain in the face of large French forces. A move that showed his lack of faith in the Spanish, and by return lost him the faith of many of Spanish General’s who saw his withdrawal as a betrayal and, remembered Moore had similarly ran away too. The British it seemed had no dedication to the Spanish cause, and would cut and run to save themselves at the expense of Spain.
It is a little sparce on the opposing forces, perhaps assuming readers will be more than familair with the makeup of the armies, dwelling somewhat on the poor opinion the French and British had of the Spanish, and therefore gives just the usual bare bones. However there is an excellent order of battle list, complete with the strenght of the individual divisions.
Illustrated by Graham Turner’s highly plausible and realistic full spread paintings it is also very well endowed with images and detailed 3D maps. All the images are actually photographed by the author, which must be a canny way of getting around licensing fees, but very time consuming to collect. Graham’s rendering of Wellington’s famous beak is curious, and the British and French in the Medellin painting appear to be from rival families, but he has properly depicted Wellington dressed for a field day, in his uniform, rather than his frock coat. They compliment the text excellently and the painting of the Regimento El Rey particularly gripping.
This is therefore an excellent addition to the Osprey Peninsular Catalogue, one I’ve been waiting to see for a long time, showing how Napoleon could have learned, early on, the difficulties of commanding at a distance, while also highlighting a more strategically vulnerable Wellington at a turning point in his career.