Book Review: Wellington's Headquarters: The Command and Administration of the British Army during the Peninsular War


by S. G. P. Ward

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen and Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2017. Pp. xvi, 224. Illus., maps, tables, appends., notes, bibio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1473896827

Keeping Wellington’s Army in the Field

Originally published in 1957 and long out of print, former World War II staff officer and historian Stephen George Peregrine Ward’s Wellington’s Headquarters is widely regarded as the standard work on the command, staff, and administrative structures of the British Army in the early nineteenth century. It is an invaluable guide to the remarkable complexities of British military organization in the period.

Ward opens with a chapter examining the administrative “structure” of the British Army in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and follows it with one on how personal interests and ties were critical to the functioning of the “system”.

In effect, the best term for the British military establishment in the period might be “ramshackled”. There was in fact no single administrative agency overseeing all military matters, no “ministry of war” or “department of the army”, and no single person in charge, such as a general-in-chief or chief-of-staff, except the king. Four or five “cabinet level” agencies were responsible for various aspects of military organization. The infantry and cavalry were administered by the War Office in London, or the Irish Establishment in Dublin, while legally the engineers and artillery were not merely a separate branch of the army, but a separate service, controlled by the Board of Ordnance. Clothing, commissary, and transportation were autonomous as well.

Ward makes sense out of the administrative morass, explaining the workings of the various agencies. He follows these two chapters on the functioning of the system, and the surprising efficiency with which it worked; unlike Napoleon’s men, Wellington’s rarely went hungry.

Ward concludes with three chapters on the administrative organization of Wellington’s army in the field, with chapters on intelligence operations, the management of military movements – “logistics” in its original form, and the inner workings of Wellington’s staff.

Despite its age, Wellington’s Headquarters, which is chock full of details on rations, troop movement rates, munitions allowances, and the like, remains an essential work for anyone interested in the British Army during the French wars.

Note: Wellington’s Headquarters is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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