Garry David Wills, Wellington at Bay (Helion, 2020)
The popular perception of Wellington’s Peninsular campaigns is one of strategic manoeuvre interspersed with great battles won by arguably Britain’s greatest general. But Garry Wills’ work on the Battle of Villamuriel on 25 October 1812 highlights something rather different: a stirring rearguard action fought as part of a long, miserable retreat.
Wills begins his narrative at the failed siege of Burgos and Wellington’s retreat back to Portugal. The French maintained a close pursuit of the Anglo-Portuguese army. Protecting river crossings was of prime importance, which was the case for Wellington’s 5th Division at Villamuriel on the River Carrion. Wills sets up the action to come with a detailed overview of the forces involved, including the quality of troops and their commanders, the battlefield, and deployment. The blowing of the bridge over the Carrion heralded the beginning of the combat, but that did not prevent the French cavalry from crossing at a nearby ford. The British withdrew to the high ground, ceding the riverbank and adjacent village to the French, then counter-attacked, driving the French back across the river. The action finished with nightfall, providing cover for Wellington to continue his retreat the next morning. Wills concludes his narrative with calculations of casualties and prisoners, a tricky task but authoritatively handled, and the continued retreat. In his analysis, Wills highlights the complexity of Division level Napoleonic combat, which was far more nuanced than the stereotypical column v line affair. He adds a chapter on wargaming the action, which is very useful, and appendices on French and Allied commanders and officers at the engagement, the story of Ensign George Young, the identity of ‘McK’ – a key source for the battle – and an honour roll of the British and French dead. Wills closes with a comprehensive bibliography that will keep Peninsular War enthusiasts in reading material for a long time.
Wellington at Bay follows the standard structure for a battle narrative, which makes for comfortable if unremarkable reading. That is no bad thing and Wills rises above the commonplace with the quality of his research and rich array of embedded quotes from contemporary sources that illuminate the text. It is also refreshing to read an account of a medium sized Napoleonic battle with its more ground level approach. That will also be very appealing to wargamers who will appreciate Wills’ diligence in digging out the details. Wills’ engagement with other historians that have studied this battle adds a sense of authority to his book, which must surely be considered definitive for the Battle of Villamuriel.