Tim Saunders, Masséna at Bay 1811 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
You have to feel for French Marshal André Masséna. He did not want to command the invasion of Portugal in 1810, but Napoleon promised him his full support in manpower and logistics. But the Emperor reneged, leaving Masséna high and dry in front of Wellington’s carefully constructed defences. Defeat would follow Masséna’s frustration. In Masséna at Bay 1811, Tim Saunders guides us through the action.
Saunders lays out his table with a discussion on forces and the strategic situation in 1810. For Masséna, the initial campaign went well as his army pushed the Allies back into Portugal, but he underestimated the toughening of the Allied defences along the lines of Torres Vedras. Saunders describes that interconnected parallel construction that Masséna could not penetrate and had to settle for a blockade, but one he could barely sustain. After much shadow boxing and small engagements, the French had to withdraw through Portugal into Spain with Wellington in pursuit. Retreats are never pretty, and Saunders captures this in horrific detail, using contemporary sources to describe the hellish scenes. Rearguard clashes made up the action, as at Redinha in March 1811, while the French command structure fractured through in-fighting – Marshal Ney would be dismissed for his insubordination. Along the way, the French indulged in atrocities on the civilian population, while stragglers endured the pitiless backlash. For his part, Wellington was quite willing to watch the French destroy themselves; why risk a battle with a disintegrating enemy? But he did fight at Sabugal in April 1811, pushing the French over the border. Saunders detours from the sides at a stand-off to briefly discuss some of Wellington’s intelligence officers before resuming his narrative with the blockade of Almeida. The culminating battle of the campaign came at Fuentes de Oñoro on 3-5 May 1811. Saunders handles that engagement as well as he does the campaign. The battle was not decisive, but the French just lost. Masséna, though, was the biggest loser; recalled to Paris and stripped of his command. Saunder’s appendices consist of orders from Wellington and Masséna, a memo from Wellington to one of his commanders, and the order of battle for Fuentes de Oñoro.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book for those who enjoy narrative military history. Saunders builds that narrative from primary source material as much as possible, something that is sadly too rare in military history written for the general public. He also keeps the story moving along tidily with few diversions, and he is supported by a generous allocation of maps, photographs of reenactors and the major sites, paintings, and contemporary illustrations of soldiers and landscapes. There isn’t much analysis, but that wasn’t Saunders’ remit: he tells a story and tells it well. Masséna at Bay 1811 is certainly heading for the Peninsular War shelf in my library.