Book Review: Far In Advance, The Peninsular War Paintings of Christa Hook.


Hardcover: 154 pages
Publisher: Peninsula Place LLP (Nov. 2015)
ISBN-10: 0993444709
ISBN-13: 978-0993444708

“Thus the war terminated, and with it all remembrance of the veteran’s services”. Those were the words written by W.F.P Napier to describe the end of the Peninsular War. The great chronicler of this defining conflict perhaps never wrote a more timeless phrase. Thanked in typically Spartan fashion, though with genuine feeling by the Duke of Wellington the Peninsular Army faded into obscurity barely months after the peace of 1814 was declared, and much to the chagrin of the old sweats who toiled for six years through Spain and Portugal, it was almost obliterated from national consciousness by the Battle of Waterloo. In his memoirs Sir Harry Smith identified the great curtain call of 1815 as the reason why the “Spanish Army” was so neglected in memory.

Luckily 200 years later there are still those who strive to redress this. Authors like Phillip Haythornthwaite, Charles Esdaile, Peter Snow and artists like Christa Hook. Christa has been painting the soldiers of Wellington’s Peninsular Army for 10 years, which has given her a feeling and insight unmatched for her subject in the field of British military art. Only in America does one find a parallel to artists who devote substantial bodies of time to specific periods like this. It brings to mind a quote by Meissonier about Lady Butler, “England really has only one military painter- a woman”. Of course neither Butler, nor Christa is alone, the Master had exaggerated for there was Beadle and Wollen, and today a host more who recreate battles of times gone by, yet to my knowledge she is the only military artist today that has put so much work into depicting the British soldier in Portugal, France and Spain.

Those of us who enjoy Osprey Publishing titles will be no stranger to the name Hook, I quite vividly remember a few years after its release, buying Haythornthwaite’s Campaign book on Corunna and marvelling at the artwork inside, and then looking at Mark Urban’s book “Rifles” and saying “Oh he got Christa Hook to do the cover”. Still less hard would be to have any interest in military art and not know the name of her father, Richard, whose work I remember adorning not a few childhood illustrated encyclopaedias and regiments of Osprey titles.

Accompanied by an accomplished text from Nick Haynes, a Foreword by Peter Snow and an introduction by Haithornthwaite, this slim, high quality coffee table book is filled with over 20 paintings by the artist and a number of smaller studies, at the end is a very interesting part describing the process that went into creating them. It has a tasteful cover design featuring artwork shown in the book and is a gem for all history lovers, especially if they have a soft spot for this campaign. Opening it is a visual feast of rich colour, exiting movement and action and many thoughtful compositions that illustrate perfectly why for some of us Waterloo is just a full stop to a much longer sentence.

I never thought a book like this would be published about the Peninsular War. I have seen quite a few done by American artists about the Civil, Revolutionary and yes Napoleonic wars as a whole. These from artists like Rocco, Kunstler and Troiani, even going back in time Detaille’s L’Armee Francaise is just as much an art book as it is a record of the French army, but I doubted anyone was painting the peninsular war to the degree necessary to compile a book, unless of course it featured Sean Bean. Rarely do I get to review a book principally on its visuals, and I could simply just say that it is a thing of beauty, but I will not be doing Far In Advance justice if I did. For here is the images of our minds eye right before us, the images we wanted to see in history books but never did.

There is the 97th advancing at Vimiero, the guns roaring above them and the French column below them. They are two ranks deep but look at the line of supernumaries, sergeants corporal’s and junior officers almost forming a third, with the drummers marching in sections and the Field Officers riding behind to oversee the advance. Just as it would have been. The bigger picture is even included as the left flank of the 52nd marches past their rear at the double, obliquely, so as to wheel onto the flank of the unsuspecting French.

There is the charge of the 15th Hussars at Sahagun, that was the centrepiece of the Osprey Campaign Book, the wave of British cavalry breaking on the wavering ranks of dragoons, swords at the guard and yelling like furies. But then look a lesser known moment, the crossing of the Douro at Oporto, a scene never before painted in modern times, soldiers clamber into the local barges, making sure to carry extra ammunition boxes along with them and accept a bit of Portuguese hospitality before embarking. Then all of a sudden you are soaring above the Seminar as the garrison holds off the French counterattack from the windows and rooftops. One can almost here the tumult of voices and gunfire in the painting of the action at Barba del Puerco, and the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro is almost perfect in terms of it’s wide scale, so detailed as to be almost cinematic.

There are many paintings full of noise and action, but confusion is a part of war and there is a real sense of this in “A deadly duel of Musketry”, “Retaking the Knoll” and “Stern valour” no crisp thin red lines here instead the ranks are disordered by enemy fire, casualties cover the ground, the troops themselves are moving about as they discharge and load their muskets. As a surprise I got to see the scene from Hayer’s “The Spanish Bride” when Captain Daniel Cadoux’s position was overrun at the Bridge of Vera is suddenly brought into full focus.

But war is not just volley fire, Sabres and bayonets. It is marching, it is outpost work, sleeping rough or in camp, and often allot of waiting. These quieter moments are here as well. Men huddled around a fire listening to a story, a Hussar picquet testing the depth of a ford, a vidette reporting to the officer on duty, the funeral of a general under the crooked spire of a cathedral scarred by gunfire, the shadows of a gatehouse at the end of a winters day as an artillery troop rides in with the sunset at their back, a lone rifleman with set features that telltale gait of an aching back and sore feet, far in advance.

The influence of her father, to whom the book is dedicated is now and again glimpsed, in the uniforms of the heavy dragoons charging the French at Fuentes. General Cruafurd’s uniform, and the central group of “Picton’s Orders”. Sir Thomas having neglected to remove his nightcap decided to leave it on directs Lt Colonel Douglas of the 8th Portuguese Line, a scene her father painted for the Osprey book Wellington’s Generals. I identify most with the picture of General Craufurd entitled “Revenge Sir John Moore”. It is one of those paintings that captures a moment that thought well known, would not normally be painted. At the Battle of Buçaco in 1810 Craufurd personally ordered his light infantry to repulse the French attack with the words or those to the effect of “Now! Avenge the death of Sir John Moore”. He turned to them and waved his cocked hat in the air and motioned them forward to victory. Most artists would have had him waving them on, but instead Christa chose something much better.

There is Craufurd, “Black Bob”, the draconian taskmaster of the Light Division, one foot on his rock. He stands near a small windmill, two riflemen run past him, away from the enemy that cannot be seen except through Craufurd’s stern gaze which is directed downward with a stiffening sense of resolution. He has just decided that the time is right, and knows what he is going to do. Having planted his right foot behind him so his hips will turn he grasps his sabre and removes his hat. Snap! The picture is taken, just before he turns his body to the waiting ranks of the 52nd, one of whom has sensed the General is about to speak. His hat held soon to be flung out and raised skywards, his mouth curving to form the words that would make him a legend. This is surely how it must have looked. It is the very essence of military art, allowing the viewer to see, feel and think about what is happening, what has happened and what is going to happen. And it is one of the reasons you will never be disappointed with this book.

Accompanying the art are detailed descriptions by Nick Haynes, a former member of the Rifles and a recognised authority on the war. Many of the paintings depict members of the light Division therefore he is well placed in his role. These are not intended to provide any coherent analysis of the war, but rather to put the paintings in perspective and give an explanatory narrative to the pictures. It’s well written, he takes care to defend the composition of some of the originally commissioned Christmas cards a little needlessly, for me he had no need to mount this defence, though given the picky nature of some Military History Buff’s this is understandable. He also spends a fair part of one description examining the character of General Craufurd, ultimately leaving it up to the reader to decide, though a larger book would be needed if you actually wished to answer that question. At the beginning and end of the book he draws attention to the legacy of rifles as the forbears of the modern infantryman.

Peter Snow, broadcaster and author of two Napoleonic Books thus far, adds a stirring and heartfelt forward, and the admirable Haythornthwaite miraculously fits a detailed and readable description of the Peninsular War into his introduction. For every sale a donation is made to the Rifles Charities Care for Casualties campaign. Over 200 years ago the thousands of soldiers of the Peninsular Army were forgotten, not just in memory but in terms of care. It is a sad fact that Britain has never taken proper care of her soldiers. In two ways this book addresses these issues. Firstly by providing an ode to Wellington’s soldiers, and second by providing a means to support the soldiers of today.

Book Review: Talavera 1809 by Rene Chartrand.


Paperback: 96 pages Publisher: Osprey Publishing (20 Mar. 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1780961804
ISBN-13: 978-1780961804

“I have lost the Battle of Talavera”. Napoleon wrote to Marshal Clarke, as he realised that his generals and his brother Joseph had been lying to him. That the Emperor took it personally would then seem to be an understatement, despite not being even within 100 miles of Talavera de la Reyna when Marshal Jourdan and Victor engaged Sir Arthur Wellesley and General Cuesta’s Anglo Spanish army, Napoleon felt that he, not them, had lost the battle. He had expected his commanders to tell him the truth about what was going on in Spain, but had been given fantasies and childish fibs.

They never would be able to give him the whole truth. For Napoleon trying to command the war in the Iberian Peninsula from distant countries would be impossible, not only because his orders were outdated by the time they arrived but because he rarely got the truth from his generals until much later. The Battle of Talavera was the largest General Action a British army had participated in for decades, with over 100,000 men involved all told. It was the battle that won Wellesley the title Wellington, and was the start of the six year allied campaign to drive the French from the coast of Portugal to the foothills of the Pyrenees.

It is a battle that has been much mentioned in books about the war, and the Duke of Wellington and indeed the British army. Rarely however has it gotten star billing. As the first battles of the Peninsular War were fought at Rolica and Vimiero in 1808, Talavera is deceptively easy to describe. At first glance it appears like all the other battles fought by Wellington. The French attack, they get beaten back by Wellington’s masterly defensive tactics. But that is actually a much too simplistic appreciation.

Rene Chartrand, a veteran Osprey author of many of their best books, has written a highly detailed account of the campaign, which focuses not just on the British but their allies and enemies too. In terms of narrative it feels a little heavy now and again yet this book actually opens up many closed doors. The battle was fought over 2 days in searing Spanish summer heat as the Anglo Spanish attempted to converge on Madrid.

Of particular note is the description of the little known charge of the Spanish cavalry that essentially brought and end to the main part of the battle. Quite apart from the disastrous charge by the British cavalry which in one regiment incurred losses almost equal to that suffered by the entire Light Brigade at Balaclava.
Also we get to see another side to Wellington. Most people think he stepped ashore in Portugal in 1808 fully formed as the master tactician, however he hadn’t fought the French for many years. At Rolica a much smaller force kept him at bay, Vimiero was a stunning victory, as was the smaller Rolica sized action at Oporto. Talavera sees Wellington still finding his feet against the French, though famed for his lone command style in this battle he relies much more on subordinates and as a result got into a few perilous situations.

Chartrand illustrates Wellington as struggling to keep control over the enemy, his officers and at the same time cooperate with his allies. That he was able to win the battle shows his great skill, but in this battle, his recipe for success was still forming. From offensive campaigning to defensive, thus far it will be noted that two of his 4 Iberian battles saw him attacking, rather than defending. And if anything the experience of the subsequent abortive campaign taught him lessons that would influence the next two years of slow, methodical campaigning.

The rest of the book briefly examines the Battle of Los Baños were Ney beat up a detached Portuguese raiding force under Sir Robert Wilson, and Wellington’s retreat from Spain in the face of large French forces. A move that showed his lack of faith in the Spanish, and by return lost him the faith of many of Spanish General’s who saw his withdrawal as a betrayal and, remembered Moore had similarly ran away too. The British it seemed had no dedication to the Spanish cause, and would cut and run to save themselves at the expense of Spain.

It is a little sparce on the opposing forces, perhaps assuming readers will be more than familair with the makeup of the armies, dwelling somewhat on the poor opinion the French and British had of the Spanish, and therefore gives just the usual bare bones. However there is an excellent order of battle list, complete with the strenght of the individual divisions.

Illustrated by Graham Turner’s highly plausible and realistic full spread paintings it is also very well endowed with images and detailed 3D maps. All the images are actually photographed by the author, which must be a canny way of getting around licensing fees, but very time consuming to collect. Graham’s rendering of Wellington’s famous beak is curious, and the British and French in the Medellin painting appear to be from rival families, but he has properly depicted Wellington dressed for a field day, in his uniform, rather than his frock coat. They compliment the text excellently and the painting of the Regimento El Rey particularly gripping.

This is therefore an excellent addition to the Osprey Peninsular Catalogue, one I’ve been waiting to see for a long time, showing how Napoleon could have learned, early on, the difficulties of commanding at a distance, while also highlighting a more strategically vulnerable Wellington at a turning point in his career.

Sir John Moore & the King of Sweden for Britannia Magazine.

This is a post I have written for the new Facebook Page, Britannia Magazine, so far; I, Amarpal Sidhu, Mark Simner, Nick Britten, Manimugdha Sharma and Andrea Zuvich besides others will be contributing original material to bring you the history of the British Empire from 1600 to the end of the Cold War.

My first post deals with how the Peninsular War nearly started in Scandinavia in 1808, but was averted by a clash between Sir John Moore and the Ming of Sweden.


Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.


Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Macmillan; Main Market Ed. edition (29 Oct. 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1447257103

Perhaps one day in the future someone will ask an astronaut what inspired them to want to go to Space, and it isn’t hard to imagine them replying, “I read a book by Chris Hadfield”. In the past allot of people would say I saw the moon landing on TV, it was the iconic moment that had almost every kid saying “When I grow up I wanna be an Astronaut”, and it is where the author started, only this guy meant it.

Hadfield’ guide to life on Earth is three books in one. On one level its a memoir of his career as an Astronaut in the Shuttle age and at the start of the Soyez era. On a second level its a book of answers for every Space fan who ever wanted to ask “How do you do this in Space” but never had time at the book signing or symposium. And third, you realise it’s sort of a motivational self help book.

What do you do if you go blind during a Spacewalk? How do you get a bee out of your helmet when you’re flying a jet? How do you keep fit in Space? How do you make a music video in zero Gravity? What do you pack for a Spaceflight (Spoiler; a Swiss Army knife comes in handy)? What do you do if you find a snake under your chair while on a cross country flight? What does it take mentally and physically to become an Astronaut? What are the costs? All these questions and many more you’ve never even thought to ask are included in this open hearted, humorously anecdotal and touchingly humble walk through the ups and downs of the turbulent, yet sometimes mundane life of a rocket man.

While we travel along, following Hadfield’s course to dream fulfilment, he dispenses the benefit of what he’s learned along the way. How to shoot for your goals, how to excel, how to be a productive member of a team, how to focus on what’s important, how do deal with the ups and downs, the high points and the low. Hadfield uses what he calls “Pre launch” to explain how he became an Astronaut, the subtext of which, while not perhaps going to make you able to fix a robotic arm while clinging to a space station, might just help you to stop at you next hurdle, pause and think about “How I can work this problem?” “What can kill me next?”, and instantly you will have begun thinking like an Astronaut.

The advice is largely counterintuitive, and it won’t be for everyone and will leave some readers puzzled about how a non astronaut, or non highly motivated, goal oriented achiever can apply it, but that’s life, and the book assumes you know what you want and were you’re going. That being said, I’m not a self help expert but I think the little gems that come out of nearly every story will have something in them for allot of people. Even if it’s just how to bring an expeditionary mindset to what you do.

Chris Hadfield writes in an easy, sitting down with an old friend kind of way. His enthusiasm and communication skills translate sometimes complex situations easily into plain terms, while still retaining the technical detail we want to read about. Perhaps predictably he takes his time to answer some of the well worn questions about space. How one keeps clean and especially how one goes to the bathroom is covered in detail. Exciting and fascinating as the launch phase is, I think most people will find the “Coming Down to Earth” 3rd part, the most poignant. Not because Chris is remorseful in any way, far from it, but because he describes the descent of the Soyez, and the effects of recovering from long term life in Space with such impressive detail.

I was never one of those Space kids, sure I had plastic astronauts, an action man with a Space suit, some stickers on the window in front of my homework desk but I never actually had a desire to go to Space (I hated and still fear some types of heights, though comfortingly so does Chris). That impossible dream came about after seeing the Space Live TV show, coupled with a ride on Mission Space, and re watching Apollo 13. However being an Astronaut is probably out of the question for most of us who didn’t decide at the age of 9 they were going to try for it, at this stage my height would preclude me for a start (another thing you’ll learn in this book) though if NASA called me up and said “hey we want a tall writer to go into Space to do etc etc” I’m hardly going to say no.

But if we can’t go to Space, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn to think like those who can. Even in the most basic way. At its core the Space Agencies of all nations exist to further human knowledge and push the bounds of reason. This book mirrors that ideal and encompasses the example of how the exploration of the Galaxy can help us. An experienced Astronaut sharing the knowledge that he has collected over a remarkable career doing the most extreme job in the world, to not just help and inspire future astronauts, but to help people live to their full potential.

In many ways this book isn’t about Chris Hadfield, it’s about everyone else. The book begins with a boy looking at a grainy boot stepping onto a place no one had ever stepped before and ends with hugs for everyone who ever helped him. Undoubtedly this is a book out of this world, a frank, modest and compelling story that is part epic, part, motivation, part Space Oddity that will keep you trapped in its orbit to the last page.