Monday, February 7, 2011

Book review - The Spanish Army in the Peninsula War

The latest book to be reviewed is one by one of my favourite authors, Charles Esdaile. He is an author who specialises in the Peninsula War in particular and Spanish history in general. His research is invaluable as he is one of the few authors writing in English who does not totally focus on the war as a British-only achievement.

This book is one of his earlier works and is of a fairly narrow focus being mainly about the politics of the Spanish administraition during this time of upheaval and how it impacted on the army. A familiarity with the events of the Peninsula War is essential to being able to follow the events related in this book, as it isn't a general history of battles and campaigns (For a more general history, his book The Peninsula War is essential reading.). The author instead gives an overview of the place the army occupied in Spanish society before the invasion and how it became inextricably linked to Spanish politics starting with the Motin de Aranjuez just prior to Napoleon's invasion, where sections of the army declared for Fernando against the king and his hated favourite, Manuel Godoy, the Prince of Peace. In describing the pre-war situation of the army, the author makes the point that Godoy wasn't the totally evil, debauched, incompetent and corrupt figure that history has painted him out to be; he was corrupt and debauched, as were quite a few others in the higher levels of society at the time, but he genuinely tried hard to reform the army to keep up with developments elsewhere in Europe, despite his limited talents. This is where he came up against the vested interests in the army, especially in the Royal Guard, where entrenched perquisites and privileges were threatened by his reforms. As he had no power base to speak of, he couldn't push back against these vested interests and most of his reforms came to nothing. Once his rule had offended too many of these reactionary vested interests, his days were numbered, culminating in the coup by the paranoid and dull witted Fernando, who became the vehicle for the reactionary forces in the army to preserve their privileges.

All this changed, once Napoleon forced the Spanish royal family off the throne and replaced them with his brother, Joesph. Popular uprising sprang up across the country taking not only the French, but the Spanish ruling classes, including the army, by surprise. The inclinations of most of the Spanish generals was that the people were more of a threat than the French and that the risings should not be encouraged; they should be quashed by force if necessary. This period saw angry mobs murder Spanish generals who they felt weren't patriotic enough! The chaos of this period where provincial juntas competed with each other for power as well as with the military Governors, like Palafox and Cuesta, was incredibly damaging to the conduct of the war. Once the Junta Central was established, it tried to assert itself over these competing centres of power by trying to repeat Castanos' success at Bailen, but every army sent into the field was destroyed to be immediately replaced by another, without letting the surviving professional, experienced cadres time to train the hordes of inexperienced recruits. In turn this new army would be sent out to be destroyed by the French at battles like Ocana and Alba de Tormes. In a way, the fact that armies were so quickly put into the field kept the French occupied so that they couldn't send overwhelming force against the British, but because they were so raw and untrained, they were condemned to defeat time and time again.

Once the Junta Central was replaced by the Cortes and removed to Cadiz, the political flavour of government had changed with the Liberales in control. While this government was the most socially progressive Spain had ever had, their focus was on entrenching their control over the 'serviles', or the reactionary followers of Fernando, rather than fighting the war against the French. Their ideological attacks on the army as a tool of reaction were breath-takingly short-sighted; their preference being a 'nation in arms' of peoples' militia fighting the French in the style of the partidas fighting the guerilla war against the French. The fact that the only military success against the French was gained by the old army of Bailen was conveniently ignored. This period of neglect, and even denigration, of the army saw the British and Portuguese take the major role in fighting the French. As a result, the Spanish army became more and more alienated from the Cortes, so when Fernando returned in 1813 and repudiated the Constitution of 1812, the majority of the army supported him. This did not necessarily mean that they were all serviles, but that they identified him as better for the army and therefore better for Spain. This in turn allowed the army to consider itself as the arbiter of power in Spain, and led to the slippery slope of civil war which Spain found itself sliding down throughout the 19th century.

The author sets out his interpretation of the events clearly and fairly, with no particular side coming off better than another. In fact, reading this book makes you wonder how Spain conducted a war against the French at all. The mind boggles at the incompetence, pig-headedness and sheer bloody mindedness of those in power all compounded by the dire financial straits of all the systems of government in power during the war. Only the military and financial aid paid by the British government allowed the Spanish to continue some kind of organised resistance throughout this period, however feeble.

An astonishing read!


  1. Hi
    A good analysis of the book!. I did known Charles Esdaile in October 2010 in Ciudad Rodrigo (Spain) during a Congress about the Peninsular War in the Douro Valley. He is a very friendly guy!
    Best regards

  2. Sounds wonderful. I'm going to be purchasing this book as this is a favored subject for me and this book appears to cover a lot of facts rarely discussed by the biased British authors. Thank you for doing this review.


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