Book review: Wellington’s Worst Scrape: The Burgos Campaign 1812 by Carole Divall

Just over 200 years ago, as the long-running Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe, the British Army under the great Duke of Wellington suffered one of the most disastrous periods in its history.

The catastrophic failure of the siege of Burgos in northern Spain in 1812 has been overshadowed in the history books by the series of victories that eventually drove Napoleon and his French army from the Iberian Peninsula two years later.

In the early years of the 1808-1814 Peninsular War, the British and their allies had suffered a series of defeats and retreats, including the infamous near disintegration of Sir John Moore’s army on the road to Corunna in 1809, but none of these setbacks was as grave or ignominious as the events at Burgos which the Duke of Wellington himself described as his ‘worst scrape.’

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And it is this complex, gripping, but less than glorious, phase of the peninsular campaign that is brought back to life in Carole Divall’s latest study of the British Army of the Napoleonic Wars.

An English teacher with a special interest in military history, particularly that of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars, Divall has become an expert on regimental history, the workings of Wellington’s army and aspects of the key campaigns.

In Wellington’s Worst Scrape, she reconstructs the series of extraordinary events in close detail and brings together many primary sources, creating a vivid and enthralling account of what happened and why.

The year 1812 had begun well for Wellington... he had conquered of the border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz and won a crushing victory in the Battle of Salamanca at the beginning of August.

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But just three months later, his army had dragged themselves back through torrential rain and ankle-deep mud to the Portuguese border where their campaign had started eleven months earlier.

Between the August triumph and what in November looked like defeat lay the fortress of Burgos, the only one that had successfully resisted Wellington’s attempt to take it.

Both the failed siege and the retreat that followed involved stories of endeavour which embrace all that is best and worst in human nature.

Deeds of great courage and humanity were juxtaposed with cruelty, despair and the terrible excesses of indiscipline. And for the nations involved – Britain, France, Spain and Portugal – there was a great deal to admire... and much to deplore.

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Wellington was all too well aware of the mistakes and miscalculations that led to the potentially catastrophic situation in which he placed his men, openly referring to it as his ‘worst scrape’ and yet most of the letters, journals and memoirs that have survived from the time only praise the skill with which he saved Britain’s army from disaster.

Divall weaves together Wellington’s despatches with the eyewitness testimonies of British and Portuguese officers and men, civilians and the French.

The result is a fascinating, multi-layered impression of the siege of Burgos itself and the sequence of manoeuvres that preceded it.

Using authentic detail, she describes the tense decision-making, the allied misjudgements and the headlong retreat that followed as the British fled from two French armies which threatened to trap and destroy them.

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Wellington’s Worst Scrape provides an illuminating and exciting in-depth study of a pivotal and neglected episode in the tough Peninsular War as well an immaculately researched insight into the character of the fighting at every level, and into the strengths and weaknesses of Wellington’s command.

A welcome and erudite addition to the forgotten pages of British military history.

(Pen & Sword, hardback, £25)

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