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The Great Contest: Britain, Wellington & the War with Napoleonic France, 1800-1815

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The Great Contest: Britain, Wellington & the War with Napoleonic France, 1800-1815
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Author(s): Charles Oman, edited by John H Lewis
Date Published: 2018/10
Page Count: 260
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-787-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-786-3

Britain’s war with Napoleon by Oman in a single volume


Those familiar with the outstanding scholarship of the historian Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman (1860-1946) may be confused by the title of this is a book for it is one that that Oman never actually wrote as a single work. Oman’s multi-volume history of the Peninsular War is a highly regarded account of the total conflict and has led to Oman’s work being considered the foremost authority on the subject since the publication of Sir William Napier’s magnum opus which first appeared in 1828. Oman’s single volume on the British Army under Wellington’s command is also regarded as a classic. This present volume has been created by assembling, in chronological order, four outstanding smaller works written by Oman. The text which opens and concludes the book is from his England in the Nineteenth Century (1899). Into this has been inserted Oman’s independently published, superbly concise history of the Peninsular War and his analysis of The Hundred Days Campaign, 1815. Included within the Waterloo Campaign section readers will discover Oman’s also independently published original and in depth research on the casualties sustained by the French army during the 1815 campaign which reveal the degree of engagement of regiments by an analysis of their losses in action. This unique Leonaur edition now enables students to read Oman’s assessment of the entire Napoleonic Age as it impacted upon Britain. These important texts have been enhanced by the inclusion of 92 maps and illustrations which did not accompany any of the original publications.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

On August 12 Wellington entered Madrid in triumph, and next day compelled a garrison of 1200 men, which Joseph had left in the Buen Retiro forts above the city, to lay down their arms. Leon and both the Castiles were thus delivered from the power of the enemy. Nor was this all; Soult in Andalusia now found himself cut off from all the other French armies and saw that he could no longer maintain his position in the far south. Evacuating with bitter regret the splendid provinces where he had reigned as viceroy for three years, he concentrated his whole army, some 55,000 sabres and bayonets, and marched to join Suchet at Valencia. The Spanish troops thereupon emerged from the long-blockaded Cadiz and reoccupied Andalusia; while Hill, left with no enemy before him in Estremadura, moved up the Tagus to Madrid.
The very completeness of Wellington’s success had led to a dangerous concentration of the French armies, which, giving up the attempt to hold down the provinces of the south and centre, had gathered in two threatening masses. Soult, Suchet, and the king had nearly 90,000 men at Valencia; the army of Portugal had fallen back to join the army of the north; and 40,000 men were assembled about Burgos and on the upper Ebro. It was clear that Wellington, with some 60,000 men concentrated at Madrid, could not face these overwhelming numbers if they acted in unison. But he hoped to keep them apart, and he had just received from the Cortes the chief command of all the native forces of Spain, which gave him the power of ordering diversions from many quarters against the enemy.
Unfortunately, the Spanish generals were dilatory and even disobedient; and comparatively little profit accrued to Wellington during the autumn of 1812 from this quarter. Only the Galician Army, some 11,000 men, was at this moment actively engaged in his support. The forces which had come out of Cadiz made little attempt to distract Soult; and the Murcians and Valencians were completely cowed by Suchet. A British force of 6000 men from Sicily landed at Alicante on August 7 but was far too weak to have any effect on the general course of operations on the eastern coast.
Trusting, however, that the great accumulation of French troops at Valencia might not be immediately dangerous, Wellington left Madrid on September 1 with four divisions, and joined the troops whom he had left in the Douro valley, with the intention of pushing back the French force in the north. Hill, with three divisions, remained at Madrid to guard against any movement on the part of Soult and the king. On September 19 the British main army appeared in front of Burgos; and Clausel retired before it to the Ebro, after having thrown a garrison into the forts above the city. Wellington was of opinion that Burgos must be reduced before he could venture to pursue the French into Alava or Navarre; he therefore invested its citadel. The siege lasted just a month (September 19—October 19). It was the most unfortunate operation which he ever conducted. The place, though small; was strong; and the material provided for the attack was lamentably insufficient, only eight heavy guns being available. For want of transport, a sufficient train was never brought to the front; and Wellington was foiled. Though the outer works were captured, four successive attempts to storm the castle failed; and a whole month was wasted.
This respite enabled the French to combine and arrange for a general forward movement against the allied armies. Souham, who had succeeded Clausel in command, led the armies of Portugal and the north to relieve Burgos; while Soult and the king, leaving Suchet to hold down Valencia, marched upon Madrid with 60,000 men. Wellington would probably have fought Souham if he had not been aware that even a victory in this part of the field could not save Hill from being crushed by the superior numbers that were moving up against Madrid. He was compelled to fall back in order to unite the two halves of his army, and, while retiring slowly from Burgos along the valley of the Douro, sent Hill orders to abandon New Castile and join him at Salamanca. The two retreats were carried out with complete success; and the whole allied army was concentrated on the Tormes by November 3.
But the two armies of Soult and Souham had also combined; and nearly 100,000 men were facing Wellington on his old battlefield south of Salamanca; during the whole war the French had never before gathered so large a force upon a single line. The British general had hoped that the dearth of provisions and the miserable autumn weather would arrest the further progress of the enemy. But Soult pressed on, always turning the right of the allied army; and Wellington was forced to fall back for three marches more till he had reached Ciudad Rodrigo (November 18). This last stage of the retreat was made in drenching rain over roads that had become almost impassable and cost the retreating host several thousand men in sick and stragglers, who were left behind to perish or fall into the hands of the enemy. But the French also were in a desperate state of exhaustion, and at last desisted from the pursuit.
In spite of the failure at Burgos and the losses in the subsequent retreat, the net results of the campaign of 1812 had been most satisfactory. Though the French had reoccupied Madrid and Toledo, they had been compelled to evacuate all southern Spain. Estremadura, Andalusia, and La Mancha had been completely freed from the invaders; and the casualties of the Imperial armies had exceeded 40,000 men. They were now thrown upon the defensive and had lost confidence in their ultimate success. But this was not the worst of their misfortunes.
At midwinter arrived the news of the emperor’s awful disasters in the retreat from Moscow; and shortly afterwards he began to requisition troops from Spain to reconstitute the Grand Army. Soult was summoned off to Germany, and with him many other generals, a number of complete regiments, and a still greater proportion of cadres composed of picked officers and non-commissioned officers, who were to train the mass of conscripts which was being levied for the next campaign. Yet so enormous were Napoleon’s resources that, after deducting men in hospital or detached, there were still nearly 200,000 French troops left in the Peninsula in the spring of 1813.
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