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Napier and the Peninsular War

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Napier and the Peninsular War
Leonaur Original
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Author(s): H. A. Bruce
Date Published: 2010/10
Page Count: 376
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-354-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-353-3

Napier-the sword and the pen

The Napier’s were a family whose influence on the history of the British empire in the nineteenth century is significant and well documented. This book concerns one of them, William Napier. In common with some of this siblings William served in the Peninsular War and was an officer under Moore and Wellington. A member of the famous ‘Light Division’ he both served in and commanded HM 43rd Regiment of Foot through many of the notable campaigns and engagements of the conflict. After Waterloo he joined in the pursuit to Paris and the final downfall of Napoleon. William Napier may have aspired to the military life, but although he was a fine soldier he found the reality of the brutality of warfare very difficult to reconcile. So in his writings we find much detail that is often passed over in other memoirs. Whilst Napier’s history, letters and recollections of his time on campaign make fascinating reading, his true fame came as an author. William Napier wrote what is widely regarded as the first notable, authoritative and comprehensive history of the Peninsular War. Much notoriety surrounds the work as aspects of it were challenged by his contemporaries, but this takes nothing away from its significance as a great work. Many of those issues are addressed in this book. The story of how Napier wrote his magnum opus and the reports of the interviews and correspondence he undertook with notable personalities of the time—British and French—make engrossing reading. In Bruce, this book’s author, Napier had a fine biographer who knew him well. Bruce’s work in its original form comprised two substantial volumes of Napier’s entire life, but this single volume Leonaur edition is a specially edited version that enables students and readers of military history to focus purely on military matters. Available in softcover and hardcover with dust jacket.

At the combat of Cazal Noval, during Massena’s retreat, the 52nd regiment had been rashly pushed forward during a fog into the midst of Ney’s corps. The fog suddenly lifting, the 52nd were discovered fighting in a very perilous position, appearing “like a red pimple on the face of the country, which was black with the French masses;” and Captain Napier was detached with six companies 43rd to support the left of the 52nd. The incident is here related in his own words:—<br>
When I arrived at a certain round hill under fire, which I judged a good point of support, I halted four companies to watch our flanks, and with the two others hastily descended a deep ravine on my right to join the left of the 52nd, whose charging shout I had just heard on that side, though an intervening ridge prevented my seeing them. Unfortunately for me, this charge was partial; a momentary effort to extricate the regiment from a dangerous crisis. Thus with two companies I suddenly found myself in the midst of the enemy, but I arrived just in time to save Captain Dobbs, 52nd, and two men who were cut off from their regiment. The French were gathering fast about us, we could scarcely retreat, and Dobbs agreed with me that boldness would be our best chance; so we called upon the men to follow, and, jumping over a wall which had given us cover, charged the enemy with a shout which sent the nearest back. But then occurred the most painful event that ever happened to me.<br>
Only the two men of the 52nd followed us, and we four arrived unsupported at a second wall, close to a considerable body of French, who rallied and began to close upon us. Their fire was very violent, but the wall gave cover. I was, however, stung by the backwardness of my men, and told Dobbs I would save him or lose my life by bringing up the two companies; he entreated me not, saying I could not make two paces from the wall and live. Yet I did go back to the first wall, escaped the fire, and, reproaching the men, gave them the word again, and returned to Dobbs, who was now upon the point of being taken; but again I returned alone! The soldiers had indeed crossed the wall in their front, but kept edging away to the right to avoid the heavy fire.<br>
Being now maddened by this second failure, I made another attempt, but I had not made ten paces when a shot struck my spine, and the enemy very ungenerously continued to fire at me when I was down. I escaped death by dragging myself by my hands—for my lower extremities were paralyzed—towards a small heap of stones which was in the midst of the field, and thus covering my head and shoulders. Not less than twenty shots struck this heap. However, Captain Lloyd and my own company, and some of the 52nd, came up at that moment, and the French were driven away.<br>
The excuses for the soldiers were—1st. That I had not made allowance for their exertions in climbing from the ravine up the hillside with their heavy packs, and they were very much blown. 2nd. Their own captains had not been with them for a long time, and they were commanded by two lieutenants, remarkable for their harsh, vulgar, tyrannical dispositions, and very dull bad officers withal; and one of them exhibited on this occasion such miserable cowardice as would be incredible if I had not witnessed it. I am sure he ordered the men not to advance, and I saw him leading them the second time to the right.<br>
This man was lying down with his face on the ground; I called to him, reproached him, bade him remember his uniform; nothing would stir him; until losing all patience I threw a large stone at his head. This made him get up, but when he got over the wall he was wild, his eyes staring, and his hands spread out He was a duellist, and had wounded one of the officers some time before. I would have broke him, but before I recovered my wound sufficiently to join, he had received a cannon-shot in the leg, and died at the old, desolate, melancholy mill below Sabugal. Everything combined to render death appalling, yet he showed no weakness. Such is human nature, and so hard it is to form correct opinions of character!