The best hardcore history books on the Peninsular War

Who am I?

For thirty-one years a member of the History Department of the University of Liverpool prior to his retirement in 2020, Charles J. Esdaile has written a host of books on the Napoleonic era, but is particularly knowledgeable in respect of the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, a subject to whose historiography he has made an extraordinary contribution. Thus, setting aside a host of articles and conference papers, he has published eight books on the subject. 


I wrote...

Book cover of The Peninsular War: A New History

What is my book about?

I have always been deeply frustrated by the manner in which the anglophone historiography of the Peninsular War had all but universally treated it as a conflict between Britain and France, had seen it, indeed, almost exclusively in terms of the campaigns of the Duke of Wellington and Sir John Moore. This misses the essential point that British intervention in the Peninsula was based on the continued willingness of the leaders of Spain and Portugal to resist Napoleon at all costs.

As if this was not enough, there was also a strong tendency to write in a very derogatory fashion of the Spaniards and Portuguese alike and to ignore the enormous structural problems which dogged their respective war efforts. My book revisits the traditional story and places it in its Iberian context, whilst at the same time recognising that this self-same Iberian context itself needs drastic revision, distorted, as it was, by the incorporation into the historiographical canon of numerous nationalist myths. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Armies of Wellington

Charles J. Esdaile Why did I love this book?

As has already been made clear, the British army did not fight the Peninsular War single-handed. That said, it cannot be ignored, and this book is very much the place to go for anyone looking to improve their knowledge of the subject. Amongst the topics covered are officers and men, recruitment, the different arms of service, tactics, discipline, foreign regiments, and much else besides, while the author writes in a style that is simple and unaffected. Thoroughly recommended!

By Philip J. Haythornthwaite,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Armies of Wellington as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This text provides a study of how Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, structured, equipped, utilized and adapted the forces under his command in his various campaigns. Philip Haythornthwaite has also written "World War I Source Book" and "Napoleonic Source Book".


Book cover of Salamanca, 1812

Charles J. Esdaile Why did I love this book?

Fought on 22 July 1812, the Battle of Salamanca has been described as ‘Wellington’s masterpiece’, and was certainly a dramatic affair, witnessing, as it did, the British commander turn what could have been a dispiriting retreat a devastating counter-attack that left the French army of Marshal Marmont reeling and in tatters. In this work, the foremost expert on Wellington and his campaigns analyses both the struggle and the many personal accounts to which it gave rise stage by stage, the result being quite simply a book which has few equals as an account of a single Peninsular-War battle.

By Rory Muir,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Salamanca, 1812 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

July 22, 1812. Salamanca, Spain. Frustrated at their first advance, British forces under Wellington's command have spent the last four days maneuvering and retreating from the French army. Patient and cautious, Wellington is determined not to make a fatal mistake. He glimpses a moment of opportunity and grasps it, committing all of his troops to a sudden devastating attack. At the end of the day, the French army is broken, panic-stricken, and reeling; Wellington has achieved the finest victory of his brilliant military career.

This book examines in unprecedented detail the battle of Salamanca, a critical British victory that proved…


Book cover of Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814

Charles J. Esdaile Why did I love this book?

If Salamanca was Wellington’s masterpiece, this massive volume is Rory Muir’s. There have been many other biographies of Wellington over the past 200 years, but none of them come remotely close to equalling the analysis, knowledge, and understanding in this work. One’s only complaint is that it does not continue on from the fall of Napoleon in 1814 to cover Waterloo, this instead being looked at in a second volume that covers the second half of Wellington’s life.

By Rory Muir,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Wellington as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A landmark contribution to understanding the real man behind the heroic legend inspired by the triumph at Waterloo

The Duke of Wellington was not just Britain's greatest soldier, although his seismic struggles as leader of the Allied forces against Napoleon in the Peninsular War deservedly became the stuff of British national legend. Wellington was much more: a man of vision beyond purely military matters, a politically astute thinker, and a canny diplomat as well as lover, husband, and friend. Rory Muir's masterful new biography, the first of a two-volume set, is the fruit of a lifetime's research and discovery into…


Book cover of Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon

Charles J. Esdaile Why did I love this book?

A study of the mechanics of combat in the Napoleonic era, this work is billed As covering the whole gamut of the Napoleonic Wars, but the bulk of the material on which it is based is drawn from the Peninsular War, and so it may be viewed as primarily belonging to the historiography of that conflict. As such, it is excellent, however: if anyone is looking for something that will give them an insight into what the officers and men of the British and French armies went through on the battlefields of Spain and Portugal, this is very much the place to go.

By Rory Muir,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What was it like to be a soldier on a Napoleonic battlefield? What happened when cavalry regiments charged directly at one another? What did the generals do during battle? Drawing on memoirs, diaries, and letters of the time, this dramatic book explores what actually happened in battle and how the participants' feelings and reactions influenced the outcome. Rory Muir focuses on the dynamics of combat in the age of Napoleon, enhancing his analysis with vivid accounts of those who were there-the frightened foot soldier, the general in command, the young cavalry officer whose boils made it impossible to ride, and…


Book cover of Albuera 1811: The Bloodiest Battle of the Peninsular War

Charles J. Esdaile Why did I love this book?

One of the very few battles of the Peninsular War in which the British army was involved from which Wellington was absent, Albuera was a desperate affair which saw the Allied commander, Sir William Beresford, completely out-witted by his French counterpart, Marshal Soult, only for the polyglot assembly of British, Portuguese and Spanish troops which he commanded to save the day by means of a display of the most extraordinary gallantry. As the title implies, the casualties on both sides were terrible, but Albuera, 1811 shows beyond all doubt that the carnage should not be allowed to conceal the fact that the various stages of the battle are of enormous interest from the point of view of the military analyst: for example, few other battles offer so detailed a picture of the workings of French infantry tactics, whilst the defeat of a French cavalry charge by Portuguese infantry formed in line forms a useful corrective to many of the assumptions common to discussion of actions between horse and foot. Finally, particularly noteworthy is the author’s determination to do justice to the four Spanish infantry battalions that held off two French divisions all but single-handed for two crucial hours early in the battle, hours that would otherwise have most certainly witnessed a great French victory.      

By Guy Dempsey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Albuera 1811 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 16 May 1811, the small town of Albuera was the setting for one of the Peninsular War's most bloody and desperate battles. A combined Spanish, British and Portuguese force of more than 30,000 men, under the command of Lord Beresford, stubbornly blocked the march of the French field marshal Soult, who was trying to reach the fortress of Badajoz, 12 miles north. Beresford, who defended himself with his bare hands against a Polish lancer, was victorious, but at the cost of 6,000 Allied deaths and 7,000 French in just four hours. The battle is best known for the Fusilier…


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