Wellington’s Favourite Engineer: John Fox Burgoyne: Operations, Engineering and the Making of a Field Marshal, by Mark S. Thompson, Helion & Co., 2020, $44.95
To the extent John Fox Burgoyne is remembered at all, it is as the illegitimate son of the general who surrendered a British army at Saratoga, or as chief engineer of the British army ignominiously defeated at New Orleans—in short, as a man fit for backwater campaigns or armies content to rely for experienced leadership on officers past their prime.
Wellington’s Favourite Engineer reveals the reality behind the appearance. Even those well read in the history of the Peninsular War may be only casually familiar with the details Mark Thompson provides in this study, in which Burgoyne emerges as an important architect of Britain’s victory over Napoléonic France.
If such a claim seems bold, blame the lopsided focus of much of military history, particularly of the Napoléonic wars. Combat attracts the lion’s share of attention, the heat of action having a dramatic quality absent from the methodical construction of siege works. As a leading engineer under the Iron Duke, Burgoyne played a prominent role in this somewhat neglected aspect of the Peninsular War. After doing much of the engineering legwork at the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, Burgoyne was put in charge at Burgos. He was also one of Wellington’s top battlefield advisers (on building and taking field fortifications), created many of the obstructions that slowed the French advance on the Lines of Torres Vedras, and contributed to such crucial if unglamorous aspects of military operations as transportation infrastructure. Happily for the reader, Burgoyne also recorded more dramatic moments, such as his command of a storming party at Badajoz.
Now largely forgotten, Burgoyne’s contributions were fully recognized in his day, capped off toward the end of his distinguished career when he became the first officer of the Royal Engineers to reach the rank of field marshal.
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