THE PENINSULAR WAR WITH THE COLDSTREAM GUARDS
by John Cowell Stepney
A search on Amazon.co.uk revealed two books about Coldstreamers during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars published by Leonaur, an imprint of Oakpast Ltd which (their website states) ‘specialises in publishing military history and a wide range of fiction in both hardcover and paperback editions. Nearly 800 titles are currently available.’ Leonaur is republishing forgotten works, which is positive for military historians.
A few years ago, ‘print on demand’ publishers discovered Leaves from the Diary of an Officer of the Guards (its original title when published in 1854, shortly after the Coldstream fought at the Battle of the Alma in the Crimea) and renamed the work: several editions are now available.
Stepney was Commissioned in the Coldstream Guards in May 1809, serving as John Stepney Cowell. Arriving in Portugal with reinforcements, he joined 1st Coldstream (in 1st Division) near Coimbra, in September 1810 as Wellington’s forces withdrew to the Lines of Torres Vedras, North of Lisbon. In 1811, Cowell saw action at the Battle of Fuentes d’Onor (3rd-5th May) and in the operations on the Douro as Wellington tried to create conditions whereby he could besiege Ciudad Rodrigo, the fortress-city overlooking the Northern route into Spain. On 4th January 1812, Wellington moved to invest the fortress in freezing weather; 1st Division took their turn in the siege trenches, however, they were not chosen to assault the city on the night of 19th January. The Division then supported the operations before the siege of Badajoz, whereupon Cowell’s book (at least in this edition) ends abruptly. Cowell fought in the Peninsula until October 1813 when he left for England on promotion to Lieutenant. He subsequently served at Quatre Bras in 1815, but dysentery kept him from seeing action at Waterloo.
The interest in Cowell’s account lies in the day-to-day Ensign’s view of life on active service in the Peninsula, with outpost duty, fleas, long marches, spartan billets and uncertain rationing a daily feature. Cowell acted as Adjutant of the Battalion for periods and as a Company Commander: he describes the foibles of his fellow officers, and some miscreant private soldiers too. Writing 40 years after the events (it is unclear how detailed his contemporary diary was) Cowell draws on Sir William Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula (1828-40) and Wellington’s Dispatches. He also quotes Lieutenant John Gurwood (52nd Foot)’s compelling account of storming Ciudad Rodrigo, and adds anecdotes from meetings with Wellington and others. Cowell gained a brevet-Majority in 1820, but his campaign observations have some resonances for soldiers today. His comments on leadership and morale on operations during ‘severe privation’ show that not much has changed in two centuries:
‘Morally and physically to bear and forbear is the lesson to be learned - this is the real morale en action: to tame down the turbulent, and cultivate a good feeling in the well-disposed, are the duties of an officer, amidst want, fatigue, and demoralizing influences. He should have tact and discrimination, and a knowledge of the characters of those under him.’
Limitations in this edition include the lack of editing; errors in transcribing the original text, and absence of any maps. (Those studying the Peninsular War need maps: Colonel Nick Lipscombe’s The Peninsula War Atlas (Osprey, 2014) is excellent.) An hour with Mackinnon’s Origin and Services of the Coldstream Guards enabled your reviewer to identify some characters mentioned with only an initial in the text: a short introductory essay at the outset and notes at the head of some chapters would have enhanced this volume greatly.
The Peninsular War with the Coldstream Guards is unlikely to be the first, or only, book that Guardsmen and military historians read about the Peninsular War, but for detail on the 1811-12 campaigns, and the shaping operations that Wellington undertook to enable success at the point of main effort before exploiting into Spain, this volume offers interesting reading at a reasonable price, subject to the limitations mentioned.
The Peninsular War with the Coldstream Guards, by John Cowell Stepney, 216 pages, is published by Leonaur and available in bookshops and on Amazon, in book format at c.£19.00 (hardback) and c.£10.00 (paperback).