Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2012-045
14 August 2012
Review by Matt J. Schumann, Eastern Michigan University
Wellington's Two-Front War: The Peninsular Campaigns, at Home and Abroad, 1808–1814
By Joshua Moon
Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 285. ISBN 978–0–8061–4157–2.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 19th Century, Napoleonic Wars, Biography Print Version

Somewhere between the pageantry and violence of the actual Peninsular War and the peculiarly British politics that shaped the memory of Waterloo, we see the emergence of a political personality in Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Those familiar with Wellington's career, not least in the Peninsula, know that it is a study in delicate balances between political and family ties, British and Spanish/Portuguese war aims, British Army and Royal Navy, tradition and modernization, practical measures for the field and popular measures at home. With great eloquence, Joshua Moon captures most if not all of these balances in his book on Wellington's two-front war.[1]

As a serving officer and an instructor at the US Military Academy at West Point, Moon personifies the civil-military dilemma addressed in his book. On one side, the professional officer must confront the reality of his battlefield, in Clausewitz's words, "compel[ling] the enemy to do his will." On the other, he must contend with the Byzantine institutional structures and plethora of personalities typical of any large organization. Moon's experience of the contemporary American military system mirrors salient aspects of Wellington's frustrations in the Peninsula. This shows in the quality of his writing and in the issues he chooses to explore.

Like David Gates and Charles Esdaile (see note 1), Moon opens in 1808, but, unlike them, he concentrates on Britain and military institutions rather than military actions. We learn of not only the diplomatic and strategic circumstances that brought British forces to the Peninsula, but also the arcane method of military promotion that left Wellesley—the future Wellington—in command of only a small independent force. His undoubted talents and later achievements mark Wellington as one of the great commanders of the age, but Moon underscores the importance of the man's political connections in a system that rewarded age and time-in-service much more than merit.

Wellington's political ties recur in later chapters, as he appeals for logistical help and soldiers' pay, naval action and diplomatic assistance, vital supplies and operational independence. He received critical support from close allies in the British government—George Canning at first, and later the Earl of Liverpool and Viscount Castlereagh—who not only arranged his promotion to command in the Peninsula, but also fended off attacks from Horse Guards bureaucrats, opposition Whigs, and the unruly British press. He also had well-placed brothers, William and Richard, speaking for the Tories in Parliament, and Henry, representing British interests in Cadiz. Finally, he received help from the Navy's choice of admirals for Iberia—Sir Charles Cotton and George Cranfield Berkeley.

As one might expect, Wellington's fortunes at home reflected those in the field. After his victory at the Battle of Talavera in July 1809, his reputation rose in the popular mind and he accepted the peerage that gave him the name Wellington (47–50). Failing at Burgos in November 1812, however, he damaged the case for the entire Peninsular campaign in Parliament (chap. 7). Wellington's victories in later years made the war more popular and supportable on a larger scale for both the British and the Spanish governments, but the poor timing of reinforcements from home hampered his performance in the field (143–46). And, too, increasing power and responsibility in commanding both British and Spanish forces led to troublesome diplomatic entanglements (e.g. 141–42).

The picture of Wellington that emerges here differs somewhat from the carefully crafted image of the hero of Waterloo. We see not only a hard-fighting general going toe-to-toe with France's best marshals, but also a man constantly bedeviled by political, economic, and logistical issues off the battlefields. Napoleon famously quipped that an army fights on its stomach: so too, Moon reminds us that Wellington's finest victories were the product not just of battlefield skill, but of astute and sometimes fortuitous management of many vital resources.

Moon initially tracks events in a relatively chronological way and his table of contents seems to promise a good deal of continuity. But, by the middle chapters, the campaigns start to overlap somewhat and we do not get the sort of proper campaign history of the Peninsular War to be found in the work of Gates and Esdaile. Instead, Moon passes easily from theme to theme, offering a quite comprehensive picture of Western (particularly British) warfare in the early nineteenth century.

Readers will appreciate the book's three appendices, on positions of strategic responsibility in the British cabinet, French marshals in the Peninsula, and general events of the war. Occasional references to the Anglo-American War of 1812 (e.g. 148) contextualize Wellington's achievement more fully than do narrower histories of the Peninsular campaign. In sum, we have in Wellington's Two-Front War a most valuable wide-angle history of British involvement in the Peninsular War and beyond, featuring traditional battle narratives to be sure, but also critical matters of logistics, officer appointments, cabinet politics, international relations, army-navy relations, and finance on several levels.

[1] The book is situated neatly between more strictly military studies of the subject, like David Gates, The Napoleonic Wars, 1803–1815 (NY: Arnold, 1997) and Charles J. Esdaile, The Duke of Wellington and the Command of the Spanish Army, 1812–14 (NY: St. Martin's, 1990), on the one hand, and works more closely focused on the politics of memory, like Peter Hofschröer, Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker, and the Secret of Waterloo (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), on the other.

Purchase Wellington's Two-Front War
Site News
Books Available for Review
For an updated list of books available for review, see Submissions.
Contact Us
Around the Web
Michigan War Studies Review
© 2005-2017 Michigan War Studies Review