on 14 April 2001
It is said that the Napoleonic Wars are the most intensively analysed conflicts of all, save only the two World Wars. Dating from Napoleon's invasion of Portugal and breath-taking (but entirely characteristic) betrayal of his Spanish allies to his abdication, the Peninsular War has probably been more closely studied than most other areas of the conflict. Incredibly, though, this is the first major study in English of the Lines of Torres Vedras. Now that this volume exists, however, anyone else covering the same subject will have to come up with an absolute masterpiece to displace this book. It is certainly aimed at the specialist military historian.
Grehan's style is far from forbidding, but the subject matter is necessarily dry on occasion. Newcomers to the Peninsular War should turn to a less specific treatment of the war to start with. This work covers the period of the construction of the Lines of Torres Vedras and of the abortive French invasion which the Lines helped to defeat. The Lines were a series of redoubts which were designed to render the already difficult landscape north of Lisbon utterly impregnable. In his first campaign in Portugal, the Duke of Wellington had driven the French out of the country, but two subsequent British-led invasions of Spain had been forced to retreat. Combined with a scorched-earth policy outside the fortified area, the Lines were intended to ensure that any French attempt to re-invade Portugal would be disastrous. When the expected French invasion came, commanded by Marshal Massena, it met with disaster earlier than Wellington had dared to hope, when his British and Portuguese troops inflicted a spectacular defeat on the French at Busaco, near Coimbra. Massena continued his advance, nevertheless, and Wellington fell back to his Lines.
Grehan criticizes Wellington on two grounds: firstly, his failure to attack Massena when the latter came up against the Lines and self-evidently did not know how to react; secondly, Wellington's decision to retreat from Busaco, despite having defeated Massena in a full-scale battle. I believe Grehan's book is weakest on the second point and that is the only reason I award his book four, rather than five, stars. He argues that Wellington was desperate to justify the enormous expenditure on the Lines and so, on this Machiavellian logic, allowed Massena to march deeper into Portugal. I believe that Wellington would not consider Massena truly defeated until Massena himself behaved as though he were, which he did when he finally led the shattered remnant of his army out of Portugal after a winter spent in front of the Lines. After Busaco, the French Marshal commanded a powerful force, but, after his encounter with the Lines, that army was fatally weakened. The French never threatened Lisbon again, while Massena himself was recalled from the Peninsula altogether.
Grehan is careful to give due credit to the Portuguese role in the proceedings. Portuguese labour, ruthlessly pressed into service, built the Lines, while Portuguese politicians alternately supported Wellington, or sniped at him. Portuguese soldiers performed valiantly at Busaco, as they did at numerous subsequent battles. Tens of thousands of Portuguese civilians tragically fell victim to starvation and disease, after fleeing from the advancing French and taking refuge in the cramped quarters behind the Lines. As with some other books from this source, rather more careful editing would not go amiss. In any military history, maps are essential. Those provided here are not exactly lavish, but they are probably sufficient. All in all, this is a very well researched and presented book.
on 10 October 2004
This is the type of book that is all too rare about the Peninsular War - detailed, well-reserached and well-written. Aside from being by far the best book about the Lines, and their remarkable construction and success, this book's secret is that it also happens to cantain the best accounts available of both the sige and destruction of Almeida and the battle of Busaco. So if you are looking for a very easy to read yet authoritative analysis of the campaign that was arguably the turning point of the war, this is it. I only wish there were treatments of similar qualtity on other aspects - with the exception of a noble few like Rory Muir's "Salamanca", such books are few and far between
on 1 October 2010
This is a good book on an under-researched subject, though admittedly for the pundits of the era and not the casual reader. It sets the scene well in the widest context and delves into detail at just the right points. The flow of the text is good, the pace a little dry in places and the sources many. My main criticisms would be that there are not enough maps (e.g. a map of the routes the French followed entering and leaving Portugal), the chapter titles do not indicate the content of each chapter, and there are too many important and analytical conclusions made (usually with good reason but) without sources given.