Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book review : Napoleon's Other War

Napoleon's Other War by Michael Broers (Oxford : Peter Lang, 2010), is the latest book to get the Rosbif treatment. Again, I've found a book that departs from the well-worn paths trod by other historians that focuses on an important, but usually peripheral, aspect of the Napoleonic wars. The author inverts the usual treatment and gives the insurgencies that sprang up all over Europe (and Latin America) centre stage, relegating the main campaigns to the periphery of this account.

In just about every account of the guerrilla war, no attempt has been made to put the insurgency into the pre-war context of banditry and smuggling, and how these activities related to peasant culture. The ease with which these extra-legal activities morphed into resistance to the invader has never been spelled out in other books that touch on the subject. The author describes how contrary to popular belief, there was a quite large market for migrant workers in Europe, and goes on to describe the route from south-western France to Catalonia as a favoured one at harvest time for migrant labour. The route itself became the haunt of bandits preying on these migrants, and even the migrants could resort to banditry if the hoped for work didn't materialise. Therefore, the lines between the prey and the hunters could blur quite easily. Other mobile populations, like shepherds in Spain, were known for their penchant for preying on settled societies. Smuggling across borders was against the state's interest as it deprived the state of import duties, but local populations thrived on the business provided by the smugglers, so had a vested interest in protecting them. As it could be a dangerous business, the availability of and preparedness to use arms was a re-requisite for the smuggling lifestyle, which inured these populations to violence. Marginal land and borderlands encouraged extra-legal activities like banditry and smuggling as the weak central state could not enforce its laws or protect its citizens. In areas like southern Italy and the Balkans, not to mention Corsica, the client-patron system also encouraged the formation of bands that owed allegiance, not to the state, but to the local landowner as a form of contracted out security. These bands became laws unto themselves, allowed to carry out all sorts of pillage and plunder, as long as it didn't affect the local powerful man's interests, in return for a cut in the proceeds.

These existing patterns of violence and outlaw behaviour were readily adaptable to resistance, and in fact there was a long history of insurgencies against invaders throughout Europe. The difference here was the length of time and the widespread nature of the resistance as a response to the French hegemony over most of western Europe, beginning in France itself and culminating in the famed Spanish guerrilla, or little war. The knock on effects spread beyond the theatres of French control to Spain's American empire as well as to the Balkans.

The author goes on to describe the various rebellions throughout theRevolutionary and Napoleonic periods starting in France with the Vendee and Chouan rebellions, through Italy, the Tyrol, the Rhineland, Spain and her American empire and lastly, the Balkans. Issues that sparked the revolts were legion, from changes to religious laws, increased taxation, resistance to conscription and foreign domination.

Even though the reasons for rebellion were many, the patterns were usually the same; a group would coalesce around a leadership group usually consisting of a small number of related individuals and their close friends. The author uses Hobsbawm's rule of  6; One leader, his brothers and 2 or 3 close friends. These individuals are the nucleus of the group, usually with a background in banditry or smuggling which afforded an intimate knowledge of the local area and people. This group was highly effective in its local area, but once out of it was easy pickings as the advantage of local knowledge was lost. The bands were ill disciplined and mainly controlled by fear, examples of courageous leadership, and promises of loot. Any time these bands fought convential troops in conditions that suited conventional warfare, they were usually decimated, but if they stuck to night attacks, ambushes and raids they could tie down a disproprtionate number of troops as the Spanish guerrilleros did.

While these bands led by peasants, inn-keepers, clergymen, bandits and smugglers, broke the mould of national forces fighting under the control of the state being led by officers of the aristocracy, they were usually very conservative in outlook. Most rebellions started as a reaction against revolutionary or Napoleonic intrusions into local societies. Rebel groups that might be expected to help one another were completely unineterested in coming to the aid of the other as there was nothing to be gained for the local community; it was outside their patch, so therefore was not their concern. While fighting for the old order, once the war was over, the reactionary monarchies viewed these ex-guerrillas with suspicion and the creation of Napoleonic-style gendarmeries was the result of the suspicions of aristocratic governments. As Spain found to its cost, the price of guerrilla warfare was a chaotic post war political scene.

While reading this book it struck me that Australia's own bandit anti-hero, Ned Kelly, could well have been one of these bandit-kings around whom forces of resistance could have coalesced. In a counter-factual 19th century Australia where the colonies went to war with each other, or the Russian invasion scare was realised, Kelly's group would have been the classic seed from which guerrilla group could have grown. He came from marginal farming country in the north-east of Victoria in the foothills of the Australian Alps; he came from marginilised Irish convict stock who were used to being on the wrong side of the law; he was a consummate horse thief and cattle rustler from an early age; he had intimate knowledge of the bushland and the hills learned from Harry Powers, a bushranger of the previous generation; he had the gift of the gab and a finely tuned sense of self-publicity; and had a devoted band of brothers and close friends, conforming to Hobsbawm's rule of 6. His historical career as a bushranger had the Colony of Victoria's police force employing vast amounts of manpower to track him down, a local community that was sympathetic to him and his grievances, a ruthless streak and a reputation that survives to this day. In my opinion a perfect candidate for a guerrilla leader!

A really interesting read that puts meat on the bones of  the story as told in most conventional histories.

1 comment:

  1. A very thorough review about an intriguing subject - definately food for thought foe the Napoleonic skirmish gamer there.


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