Gareth Glover & Robert Burnham, The Men of Wellington’s Light Division (Frontline, 2022)
The Light Division of the British Army was engaged in almost every encounter with the French in the Peninsular War. Operationally, that tells us something about the calibre of the soldiers who fought, but much of modern military history centres on what was it like to fight in this war; we survey war from the ground up. Fortunately, Glover and Burnham have uncovered multiple previously unpublished accounts from members of the 43rd Regiment of the Light Division and collected them in this volume for our enlightenment and enjoyment.
The authors set the context for their sources with an annual history of the 43rd Regiment from their arrival in the Peninsula in 1808 through to their role in the Waterloo campaign. Fourteen accounts of varying lengths and quality follow, all written by officers with one exception, Private John Timewell who kept a journal of his actions in the Peninsula and the 1814 American campaign. Each chapter begins with a potted biography of the source and a note on any technical problems, mostly related to accuracy. The accounts are also well annotated with background information and clarifications on particular details. The accounts themselves offer valuable insights into military life in Wellington’s army, not just combat operations, although the latter provides the thread linking the accounts. Most of the accounts are letters, adding complexity to the soldier’s lives as domestic affairs rarely stop for wars and battles.
Glover and Burnham have collected a most useful anthology of primary sources, and they handle them with due caution, highlighting discrepancies where they appear as they inevitably do when hindsight is involved. Admittedly, this isn’t quite ‘ground level’ observation from the view of the common soldier – literacy and record-keeping were more within the purview of the officer class – but it is probably as close as we can get for the period. Nevertheless, for careful readers seeking to discover what it was like to be a part of Wellington’s army, this collection will inform and entertain.