Author Article by Ian Robertson: Mapping the Peninsular War

Ian Robertson

Ian Robertson

IAN ROBERTSON, author of An Atlas of the Peninsular War, reveals how he developed a passion for the subject of his book, and explains how he came to embark on the ambitious project of mapping out this series of campaigns fought by Wellington against Napoleonic France…

My interest in the Peninsular War commenced fifty years ago, when I started to collect contemporary memoirs, which could still be acquired inexpensively and with comparative ease, and the subject has engaged my attention ever since. At the time there was very little in print; but circumstances enabled me to commission, and edit Jac Weller’s Wellington in the Peninsula. This was a time-consuming process. Weller would tramp over the battlefields, tape-recorder in hand, later posting completed tapes to his secretary at Princeton, New Jersey. She would post the unedited text to me in London. It was not always too easy to understand, but having  attempted to get it right and in comprehensible English, they were re-typed  and returned to Jac, who would then scrawl all over the revisions, adding new material, and post back the pages for a second or even third re-write. The same process followed with maps, illustrations, and proofs being posted backwards and forwards over the Atlantic over a period of several months. This was hardly conducive to rapid publication, however much the outcome may have been worthwhile; but the experience and participation in the writing gave me a thorough grounding in the subject, for which I am ever grateful.

British troops fording at Mondego

British troops fording the Mondego

Living in Spain during the 1970s and ’80s gave me many opportunities of exploring in person the battlefields of the Peninsula, the main ‘seat of war’ of the armies of Britain and her Spanish and Portuguese allies in the long confrontation  with the forces of Napoleonic France from 1808 to 1814. Having done so, I could appreciate very much better the often rough or mountainous terrain over which the troops manoeuvred, and  the fighting took place; and  also the harsh climatic conditions encountered, whether in retreat to Corunna in a blizzard, or from Talavera to Badajoz under a blistering summer sun.

Later, when writing on the Peninsular War, I became increasingly aware that maps and plans contained in almost all newly published books on those campaigns were grossly inadequate – although admittedly those embellishing both Fortescue’s and Oman’s volumes were better than most, even if not always reliable – but, far too often, mountain ranges were depicted as ‘furry caterpillars’ when not appearing as mere smudges; and many have been perfunctory edited; I remember that in one History of the war, one plan alone contained no less than seven errors in the spellings of name-places!

An Atlas of the Peninsular War

The Advance on Vitoria, much reduced

This was a sorry situation, which – with the necessary collaboration with a professional cartographer – I resolved to remedy as best I could, should the chance to do so occur at some future date. Opportunely, in collaboration with Martin Brown, already experienced as a military cartographer, who has well displayed his technical virtuosity in creating a comprehensive series of maps and plans animating clearly and graphically the course of the war, An Atlas of the Peninsular War deserving the name has been published, despite the distance dividing us geographically. This problem was resolved by the constant shuttle of drafts in colour, and their several revisions, by emails, pdfs, jpgs, and what not, together with occasional telephonic pow-wows over a period of two years, with – to me – miraculous results. As one critical reader has remarked: ‘Yale have produced it superbly and the maps are the best I have seen in a modern Napoleonic book.’

Well aware of the manifold hazards incidental to any compilation of this complexity, I can only hope that this atlas – compiled from an Anglo-centric point of view, admittedly – will neither exasperate the perfectionist or expert, nor lead the unprejudiced Peninsular War buff too far astray from the often devious paths of the Peninsula.

An Atlas of the Peninsular War

An Atlas of the Peninsular War

Ian Robertson is the author of Wellington at War in the Peninsula, Wellington Invades France, and A Commanding Presence: Logistics · Strategy · Survival. His latest book An Atlas of the Peninsular War was released on 28 September 2010.

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment