Peninsular and Waterloo General. Sir Denis Pack and the war against Napoleon

(12 customer reviews)


Denis Pack was one of a phalanx of senior Anglo-Irish officers who served with great distinction in the British army in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, earning a reputation as one of the Duke of Wellington’s most able brigade commanders.



Denis Pack was one of a phalanx of senior Anglo-Irish officers who served with great distinction in the British army in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, earning a reputation as one of the Duke of Wellington’s most able brigade commanders. Despite his remarkable and varied military career, he hasn’t received the individual attention he deserves, but this omission has now been remedied by Marcus de la Poer Beresford’s full biography.

Pack, who was born in 1774, served extensively in Europe as well as in Africa and South America. He was one of the few brigade commanders to serve first with the Portuguese army, and then with Wellington, in the Peninsula, at Quatre Bras, Waterloo and afterwards in the occupation of France. His life was cut short by an early death in 1823, which may have been the result of the many wounds he received in his thirty years as a soldier.

This perceptive and meticulously researched study draws on previously unpublished material from archives in the United Kingdom, Portugal and Ireland. It complements other works on notable officers of the period, as Pack served with Cornwallis, Baird, Beresford, Whitelocke, Chatham, Picton, Henry Clinton, and others as well as Wellington. In addition it offers an absorbing portrait of Pack himself and gives the reader a fascinating insight into the many campaigns he took part in and the military life of his day.

12 reviews for Peninsular and Waterloo General. Sir Denis Pack and the war against Napoleon


    A Soldier’s Life

    THE CAREER OF Major-General Sir Denis Pack, spanning some three decades from the 1790s to early 1820s, seems to strain plausibility. Even before his participation at Quatre Bras and Waterloo, he was honored for his bravery and leadership at Roliça/Vimiero, la Coruna, Bussaco, Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrénées, Nivelle, Nive, Orthez and Toulouse. With the exception of Talavera, he fought in every significant battle of the age, and was second only to Wellington in terms of battle honors be- stowed. He also experienced the tribulations of a soldier’s life, being captured twice, wounded approximately eight times, and recovered from Walcheren fever, no mean feat in the context of Georgian medical knowledge. In addition to participating in some of Britain’s most celebrated military victories, he also witnessed some of their failures, particularly those at Walcheren. Furthermore, he was present at many of the most significant social events of the early nineteenth century, including the Duchess of Richmond’s eve of Waterloo ball and the coronation of George IV in 1821. After a long and distinguished legal career, the author Marcus de la Poer Beresford has turned his attention to Napoleonic history, particularly the contribution made by Irish soldiers to the series of conflicts that constituted the war against Napoleon. In addition to numerous scholarly articles, his 2019 monograph on the life of Marshal William Carr Beresford—an ancestor—was well-received for the quality of research it demonstrated, suggesting that de la Poer Beresford’s legal training has been well- employed in his forensic investigations into the past.

    It is therefore unsurprising that the work is logically laid out, with Pack’s career ex- plored systematically and comprehensively. Illustrated lavishly with twenty-nine plates, primarily in color, the work is further en- hanced by eighteen battlefield maps, which substitute ably for extensive narratives of the battles they represent. A short opening paragraph in each chapter deftly situates the reader into the action to follow, and while the author indulges in some general dis- cussion of the context of each phase of Pack’s career, Pack is kept firmly in sight. Furthermore, while the overall tone of the text is that of relatively conventional mili- tary history writing, it makes a slight nod to the current trend for “a flight to the sub- urbs,” which sees military historians focus on the impact of war on society and its effects on non-combatants. This is evident in a description of Pack’s servant giving birth to a child on campaign, segueing into a moving description of the hardships upon women and children caught up in the conflict.

    In the work’s foreword, Rory Muir notes that Pack’s early death in 1823 may be one of the reasons why, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he did not produce any memoirs. Furthermore, Pack’s footprint in the historiographical record may be light simply because for much of his career in the Peninsular War he commanded Portuguese troops, the records of which are often under-utilized by English-speaking military historians. The author points to a 1945 article in Blackwood’s Magazine, which was apparently based upon a journal belonging to Denis Pack which has not survived to the present day. This misfortune has its compensations, causing the author to consult not only obvious sources such as the correspondence of Wellington, but more obscure archival records such as those of the Portuguese military. He also exploits to the fullest degree contemporaneous accounts of the Peninsular War written by six men from Pack’s regiment, which greatly augments our depth of knowledge. Four of these accounts were written by enlisted men, allowing the author to consider Pack’s career from an often-absent viewpoint. Fur- thermore, such accounts are supplemented by similar memoirs written from other participating regiments, particularly those of the 42nd regiment (the Black Watch). From such sources, the author recon- structs an impressive career that emerged from an unimpressive start. Born in Ireland to a family descended from seventeenth- century Northamptonshire settlers, Pack enjoyed social respectability as the only son of the dean of Ossary, attending Kilkenny College and for a time, Trinity College. At sixteen he was commissioned as a cornet in the 14th Light Dragoons, but was court- martialed for striking another officer. While his precise punishment for this offence is unclear, he reappeared two years later as a “gentlemen volunteer,” serving in Flanders as part of a disastrous wintertime campaign commanded by the Earl of Moira. In 1795 he became a lieutenant by purchase, formally beginning a career dominated by his exploits in the 71st regiment as well as a stint commanding Portuguese troops allied to Britain against Napoleon. The work depicts a brave yet humane individual, who demonstrated a high degree of concern for the men under his command, despite his reputation for occasional irritability. The key strength of this work lies not only in the excellence of its research into the life of Denis Pack, but its ability to utilize Pack as a prism through which to understand the lived reality of army life in the early nineteenth century. This is particularly true of its exploration of military officers’ personal finances, careers and the complexities of the purchase system, which saw appointments and promotions achieved through a mixture of merit, purchase and canvassing. Although considered a gentle- man, Pack enjoyed neither powerful familial connections nor a large private income.

    This consideration, the author argues, might explain why he transferred from a cavalry to an infantry regiment, allowing him to pur- chase a cheaper commission and also ensuring that he was placed to distinguish himself. Financial considerations also caused Pack to turn down at least two appointments, including a prestigious post- ing to the West Indies and the position of Quartermaster-General to the cavalry. This work also serves to explore what life was like for officers on campaign, dis- cussing quotidian aspects of military service such as discipline, provisioning, living standards and leave patterns. Readers whose understanding of this period comes from historical fiction may be surprised to learn that officers in the field were often obliged to accept the same privations as enlisted men, with food shortages and poor-quality accommodation a frequent occurrence for officers and men alike. There is also a fascinating discussion of Wellington’s dis- approval of officers taking leave to attend to business which in many cases, consisted of going to London to lobby for promotion which, Wellington argued, ought to be earned by service in the field. Although not extensively discussed, the work also alludes to the cultural, logistical and operational difficulties of the British Army’s military collaboration with the Port- uguese, a reality of multinational war that remains unchanged to the present day. This is reflected in Pack’s dismissal of Port- uguese troops’ courage, which he claimed “is of a vastly changeable nature,” suggesting a level of distrust and disdain which was not borne out by their performance in the battlefield, nor by Pack’s own official re- ports. It is to be hoped that an increased engagement of Anglophone historians with Portuguese—and Spanish—archival sources will allow for greater understanding of these tensions. Moreover, in addition to reminding us that Britain was far from the only nation that stood against Napoleon, it also presents the resulting conflict as a global war, which engulfed Europe and parts of Africa and South America, as evidenced by Britain’s 1805 attempt to retake the Cape Colony from the Batavian Republic, a vassal state to Napoleonic France. Furthermore, it illustrates that alongside the glorious victories of the Peninsular campaign and Waterloo there were disasters, particularly in the Low Countries. This serves to remind us that the wars against Napoleon were piecemeal, complex and varied in nature and character, with a battle space that presented new and ever-changing challenges to military com- manders like Pack.

    By its very nature, this work is not an exhaustive account of the wars against Napoleon, and the author has quite correctly decided against extensive analysis of the singular political and cultural conditions that created Napoleon, Wellington, Pack and the host of other colorful characters which inhabit his research. This decision is sensible, allowing for focus on Pack at all times. What is less successful is the lack of detail regarding Pack’s relationship with Ireland. In the absence of a personal memoir this is probably unavoidable, as Pack becomes difficult to trace via other people’s correspondence when he is not on active service or in London. Occasional traces of his life in Ireland are evident; he participated in the court martial of Mathew Tone after the 1798 rebellion and was awarded the freedoms of Kilkenny, Cork and Waterford during his lifetime. More- over, the installation of a memorial bust of Pack at Kilkenny Cathedral in 1829 was a significant event, with a procession of Waterloo veterans through the city. This suggests that Pack’s relationship with his Irish origins, and of the legacy he left behind was a complex one. Marcus de la Poer Beresford’s work constitutes an ex- cellent first step in assessing such a legacy, and in bringing to life a world that is both modern and remote, where merit and accidents of birth determined in equal measure a person’s worth and impact upon the wider world.

    —Centre for Military History and. Strategic Studies. Maynooth University

  2. Michael McCarthy

    A very readable biography that certainly adds value to the team of Generals with whom Wellington surrounded himself. Pack had considerable experience in the almost continuous warfare of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and his character shines through. You find yourself wanting to be under the command of this man. Whilst Waterloo is the key battle, the author takes time to fully explain the experience of Pack’s brigade at Quatre Bras, which raises further the esteem for its performance at Waterloo two days later. The biography is well supported with maps and images.

    Michael McCarthy. Battlefield Guide

  3. Evan Ladouceur

    This is exactly the kind of military history that entices me to read military history. Beresford explores an interesting and relatively minor figure of the Napoleonic period, Major General Sir Denis Pack, using a lot of period primary and secondary sources, and gives insight into the broader military history of the era. This book is interesting because Pack fought everywhere – from Ireland to South America to The Peninsula to Waterloo – won decorations and acclaim, but was a junior general. So the reader gets to see the scope of war at a more tactical level. I thought Beresford has a clean and easily comprehensible style, writes frankly about gaps in the historical record, and grabs the reader and holds him-or-her throughout. Well done.

    NetGalley, Evan Ladouceur


    Mr. Beresford reintroduces us to the Anglo-Irish Major General who helped fight Napolean and France in Spain as well as on the field at Waterloo in Belgium. Quite often the sole British General known is The Duke of Wellington. General Pack led just a colorful a life in the Peninsula Campaign, invasion of Argentina as well as the French Revolutionary Wars.


  5. Sebastian Palmer

    This is a concise and well written book, on a Napoleonic commander whose name ought to be familiar to any regular reader of the British aspects of Napoleonic history.

    Most likely one will have heard his name, along with Kempt, because of the Waterloo campaign. Pack’s troops fought with distinction at both, being severely mauled at Quatre Bras, but thereby making the Allied cause at Waterloo itself more likely to succeed.

    But his career took in the highs and lows of two decades of war on multiple continents; he served in the Low Countries, South Africa, South America, and through the whole Portuguese and Spanish Peninsular Wars. Over the Pyrenees and into France, eventually culminating in the Waterloo Campaign, ending his active campaigning career with the post-war occupation of France.

    Despite a career whose laurels rank him second only to Wellington himself and Beresford (about whom the author, a descendent of the latter, has also written a book), Pack, who died aged just 48, has not been widely studied individually.

    This is an interesting work, filling in a bit of a gap. Rather specialist perhaps, but broad ranging, due to its subjects long globe-trotting career. One for the buffs, admittedly. But certainly well worth reading.

    Sebastian Palmer

  6. Kilkenny People

    As featured in:

    Article: ‘Story of Waterloo general, Kilkennyman Sir Dennis Pack’

    Kilkenny People

  7. Clash of Steel

    Here we have a life story which would stretch credulity as a novel but this is no imaginary creation. Denis Pack not only attended many battles but got into the thick of most of them. Multiple times he left the battlefield wounded and as many times he stayed on the battlefield wounded. He lead men in battles in South Africa, South America, the Peninsular and at Waterloo. He knew both defeat and victory and as well as wounds he also suffered imprisonment. He died in London of a ruptured blood vessel aged only 46 years old. His character both as a man and as a commander of men is beautifully drawn out in this book.

    This is a large well-researched book which contains material not previously published presented in an easy readable style. Also there are a number of sketch maps and a good set of relevant photographs.

    A jolly good read which we highly recommend.

    Clash of Steel

  8. Arthur Harman

    Denis Pack, the son of an Irish clergyman and the daughter of Denis Sullivan, who had been a captain in the 28th Foot, was commissioned a cornet in the 14th Light Dragoons, aged sixteen, in 1791. He was court martialled less than two years later for striking another officer; it is not clear whether he was cashiered or merely suspended. He was, however, able to serve in the 14th LD again in 1794 as a gentleman volunteer and was promoted to lieutenant by purchase in 1795.

    His subsequent thirty-year military career during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars saw him campaign in Flanders, Ireland, Cape Colony in south Africa, the Rio de la Plata in South America, Portugal, Spain, Walcheren, southern France and Belgium. He was wounded at least six and possibly nine times; suffered the Walcheren fever and was captured twice at Buenos Aires. He served throughout the Peninsular War and was present at all the major battles except Talavera, when he was at Walcheren, and in the Waterloo campaign.

    In 1819 Pack was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Plymouth and general officer commanding the Western District but died after suffering a ruptured blood vessel on 23rd July 1823. His early death at the age of forty-eight may have prevented him writing his memoirs, and the author has been unable to locate his journal, referred to in a short account of his life by Peter Carew in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1946, so has had to rely upon the papers of others for details of Pack’s life and service.

    An Irishman by birth, Pack made his name commanding the 71st Foot, a Scottish light infantry regiment, then entered the Portuguese service to gain command of a brigade in 1810. He commanded Portuguese troops for much of the Peninsular War before being given command of the Highland Brigade in 1813 and commanded a mixed Scottish and English brigade at Quatre Bras and Waterloo.

    Sixteen colour plates, bound into the centre of the book, include several portraits of Pack at different stages of his career, photographs of his octagonal pistol, sword, travelling basin, Portuguese Peninsular War medal, his Peninsular and Waterloo medals and his monument in St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. There are also portraits of Lady Elizabeth Pack, Marshal Beresford, the Duke of Wellington and Lieutenant Colonel Noel Hill, together with five contemporary prints, and plans of the battles of Salamanca, Orthez and Quatre Bras.

    Eighteen maps of varying sizes, accompanying the appropriate parts of the text, show the campaigns, battles and sieges in which Pack participated.

    Two appendices contain Wellington’s memorandum to Pack of 20th October 1812 and the inscription on his memorial.

    Thirty-eight pages of endnotes, a seven-page bibliography and an index conclude the book.

    A carefully researched and very readable biography of one of Wellington’s most able brigade commanders, of whom the Duke said, “no officer in the Service has been more zealous or more distinguished.” Sir Denis Pack deserves to be remembered and better known today. Wargamers who like to learn about the characters of the generals portrayed by the command figures in their tabletop battles will enjoy this book – and, having read it, will doubtless insist upon bonuses being awarded to any troops commanded by Pack in their recreations of battles!

    Arthur Harman

  9. ARRSE (Army Rumour Service)

    After completing a Masters Degree in history at Trinity College, Dublin: Marcus De La Poer Beresford qualified as a lawyer and practised with a leading Dublin firm. Post-retirement, he has returned to his first love-history, researching, writing and lecturing on aspects of the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to producing a number of academic articles on the subject, he has recently published Marshall William Carr Beresford: ‘The ablest man I have yet seen in the army’.

    Denis Pack was one of a group of senior Anglo-Irish officers who worked with and for Wellington, and served with great distinction in the British Army during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Pack quickly earned himself a reputation as one of the Duke of Wellington’s most capable brigade commanders. Despite his varied and remarkable military career, Pack has not received the individual attention he deserves, being at times, overshadowed by Wellington. This biography puts right that omission.

    Pack was born in 1774 at Ballinakill, County Laois and joined the army at sixteen after a year at Trinity College, Dublin. Some two years later, he was almost cashiered after striking a superior officer! Happily, that came to nothing and Pack spent the next thirty or so years on active service in Europe, Africa and South America. He was an Irishman who commanded a Scottish Regiment (71st) and later commanded a Portuguese brigade for much of the Peninsular war before being given command of the Highland Brigade in 1813, and leading a mixed English/Scottish Brigade at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. He was awarded the Army Gold Cross with seven clasps, a feat only equalled by Wellington and Beresford. Pack was taken prisoner on three occasions, each time making his own escape! He was wounded nine times and laid low with fever. His own physical toughness endeared him to his men and ensured he recovered quickly from his wounds. The fact that Pack spent a good part of his career commanding Portuguese troops may give us a clue to his anonymity. He died of his wounds at the relatively young age of 48.

    An excellent biography of a truly brave soldier, describing Pack’s role in campaigns in Ireland, France, The Low Countries,Portugal, Spain, The Cape Colony and The Viceroyalty of The Rio De La Plata. It also gives a detailed account of the part Pack played in the Peninsular War and the battles at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. He his book is a compelling story of the life of a senior officer during a period marked by almost continuous warfare.

    Recommended reading for any student of the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo and indeed for anyone I interested in military history. At the risk of repetition, an excellent book, worthy of full marks

    Arrse rating, 5/5

    Smeggers out.

  10. Heather Moll

    A well-researched and readable look at someone I had never heard of. Those with a casual interest in the Napoleonic wars, like me, might think Wellington single-handed won the day, and this is an interesting look at one of the many other generals who fought and led with distinction.

    NetGalley, Heather Moll

  11. Gareth Glover

    Sir Denis Pack is perhaps most famous for being the most decorated officer in the Peninsular War apart from the Duke of Wellington himself, but there has only ever been one biography of him published in 1908. A new biography of Sir Denis Pack has therefore been long overdue and this was something I was contemplating tackling in the future, but now have no need to do. Marcus Beresford is ideally placed to take on this role, being not only a renowned historian, but also with direct links to the family and therefore having unique access to family archives.

    Pack began his army career, joining the 14th Light Dragoons in 1791, seeing service in Holland in 1794, Quiberon in 1795 and in Ireland in 1796-8, but it was whilst in charge of the 71st Foot that he really came to the fore, serving at the Cape of Good Hope and at Buenos Aires, where he became a prisoner and then escaped in questionable circumstances. He then served in almost all of the peninsular campaigns, much of it with the Portuguese army, commanding the 1st Portuguese Brigade. He eventually gained the rank of Major General in the British army in 1813 and commanded the Highland Brigade in the latter campaign in southern France. He then served as a brigade commander at Waterloo and served in France with the subsequent army of Occupation. Pack unfortunately died suddenly in 1823, so his active career ended with the Napoleonic wars.

    Pack’s story flows nicely through the book, sometimes delving deeply into controversial moments in his career with some snippets of insight, but at other times the narrative strangely passes rapidly over other periods of action, the performance of his brigade at Waterloo for example, sweeping past with barely a comment. This leads me into my only reservation with this book, I simply wanted more. I am fully aware that despite his renown, there is strangely little of Pack’s correspondence known to still exist and therefore he can sometimes frustratingly appear as a mere shadow in the description of various parts of his life. What correspondence that does exist has been largely published in 1908, but the modern reader may not have ready access to this material. It is quoted as a source regularly in this text, but merely utilises the shortest snippets possible, if at all. The failure to republish some larger chunks, if not all of this correspondence was in this humble reviewer’s view a mistake, as Pack the person, rather than the military leader, rarely comes through. The book cries out for another hundred pages.

    The numerous maps are adequate in indicating the movements of his troops and the colour plate section, including a number of images of Pack I have never seen before is excellent. The bibliography is unfortunately incomplete, a number of works referenced in the voluminous end notes (a pet hate of this reviewer) are not included in it.

    This is a very good overview of the military career of Denis Pack and is recommended.

    Gareth Glover, May 2022, The Napoleon Series

  12. The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland

    Marcus Beresford’s biography is a meticulous study of such a junior general, and appears in a well-produced and handsome volume, illustrated with maps and colour images that include portraits, battle scenes, and displays of Pack’s sword and medals.

    The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland – Summer 2022, No. 133

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