Kieran draws a piquant, thorough picture of the woeful but gallant retreat of the British army under the command of Sir John Moore before superior numbers of French soldiers.
In 1808, the British army ventured into Spain in an attempt to thwart Napoleon’s designs upon the peninsula. It was a disastrous military foray, one in which politicians had too big an influence. The British army, one-tenth the size of the French force, had expected assistance from the Spanish army, but that was wishful political thinking. Moore, the British officer who had made his name revolutionizing light infantry tactics, “wrote...of the weakness of the Spanish Army, the defenceless state of the country, the apathy of the people and the utter unreliability of the government.” He soon discovered that the operation was a logistical mess—no boots, no transport, no food—with the weather beyond abysmal: sleet, snow, freezing mud, etc. His “objective of saving the British Army” was reduced to disembarkation at Corunna. As the politicians bickered back home, Moore led an increasingly “turbulent and depraved” army through the dark, wintry Galicia Mountains, his men failing in discipline: “Moore tried to send the 95th forward but gave up in the end as they were so drunk.” However, with the gumption that came from knowing the French forces weren’t far behind, and were happy to carve you to pieces, they made it to port, engaged in an epic battle—during which Moore was fatally wounded—and made their escape. Kieran is a crisp, concise writer who tames the maddeningly complex operation: “Sir John Cradock was apprehensive when the French reached Badajos. Stewart was recalled in view of the danger from the French Forces at Badajos. Shortly thereafter the French were recalled to Madrid and crossed the River Tagus to join Napoleon.” There is a pleasing dash in Kieran’s writing—“Peril was about”—and by including photographs of medals won during the encounter, he brings a human touch to a battle now 200 years old.
Short, dense history that adds to the critical mass of understanding and remembering the past.