Monday, June 13, 2011

Book review - Fighting Napoleon

Returning to my preferred theatre of the Iberian Peninsula, I've just finished  Charles Esdaile's well researched and argued investigation into the reality of  Spanish guerrilla warfare during the French occupation.

He sets out to strip away the political layers that have buried the reality of the conflict, laid down by the right and left over the 19th and early 20th centuries in support of their own agendas and comes up with an unedifying, but much more realistic view of the history of the guerrilla war.

Far from being a peoples' war for Dios, Rey y Patria or even a war to protect hearth and home from the rapacious invaders, the author concludes that most of the civilian violence of the period was opportunistic banditry that was directed as much against the Spanish population as against the French. Those bands that were more militarily organised and directed their focus mainly on the invaders were usually led by men who spotted an opportunity to further their own power and were not averse to switching sides if they ran afoul of the Spanish authorities. The most effective guerrilla bands were in fact usually units of the army that had taken to the hills to continue the fight, as Julian Sanchez did with his cavalry troop, starting the war as a lowly sergeant but ending as a brigadier general.

For the typical guerrilla, the motivations for heading to the hills were usually desertion from the army, total desperation at the inability to feed and support oneself and one's family in a time of extreme upheaval, and sheer unbridled opportunism for rape and pillage. Total breakdown of authority during this period was accompanied by crop failure and what little was harvested was requisitioned by all the competing armies, so the only way to feed oneself and one's family in particular areas was to resort to the banditry that a lot of these groups indulged in. If the French offered the easiest target with their supply convoys and foraging parties, they were the attacked. However, if Spanish villages offered the easiest opportunities for pillage, they were targeted, often under the pretext of forced requisitioning for the brave and noble anti-French fighters. More often than not this pretense was not even indulged in.

As service with the regular army was viewed as little better than a death sentence from inadequate diet and clothing and the conscription burden unfairly being carried by the poorest, avoidance of the call-up and desertion from the army were endemic causing the guerrilla bands to fill with a surge of desrters heading for the hills. This drain on manpower was potentially crippling to the regular army, not to mention the drain on resources that the guerrilla bands caused in food, revenue and other resources, as well as the discontent they provoked in the population at large. The impact of the guerrillas  on the Spanish war effort did not justify the drain on limited resources, for despite the glowing reputation of these bands, they didn't stop the French from conquering territory or prevent them from concentrating their armies against Wellington.

The author's contention is that far from the heroic image, the guerrillas were a reaction to an anarchic period in Spanish history. Part survival mechanism based on banditry, part opportunism of chancers, part reaction by the peasantry to being let loose from the ancien regime strictures, the phenomenon of the guerrillas was more negative than positive.


  1. How did you do that? I've had this book sitting on the shelf for 3 years, and I finally started reading it last week.

    Good review, by the way - nice job. I find it strangely satisfying to read someone of Esdaile's credentials reinforcing my own, long-held view that Wm Napier was a stirring writer but, at heart, a small-minded bigot.

    It is always tempting to read parallels into other periods of history, especially for people like me who don't have an awful lot of actual knowledge to base views on, but, as for Esdaile's conclusion that the guerillas were fundamentally motivated by self-interest, and the war merely provided a context, I can see some of this mirrored in Northern Ireland at the moment.

    An ex-policeman friend of mine in Newry is of the opinion that, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there were individuals running black markets, protection rackets and rent-an-assassin schemes who made considerable local reputation and personal wealth out of the situation. He reckons that the recent, rather sputtering attempts to re-ignite sectarian tensions is mainly down to the fact that a few local gangsters miss the days when they had power and influence.

    I have neither experience or first-hand knowledge of this, for sure, but it does seem similar to the motivation of some of the leaders of the Spanish partidas in 1809.

  2. Oh my God!! Another broken dream, that of the guerrilla hero!! ;-)

    You probably don't have access to them but you'd die of laughter watching the films made here in Spain in the 40s-50s (and even a very popular TV series about a famous bandit called "Curro Jiménez" in the early 70s) dealing with Peninsular War (or as we called it, the "Indepedence War").

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    MSFoy, like you I couldn't help comparing history to contemporary events while reading this book; specifically Iraq in the first couple of years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, where the 'resistance' overlapped with criminality that affected the local population. Kidnapping for ransom, murder, robbery and extortion filled the void left by the absence of any credible law enforcement.

    Anibal, I'd love to see those movies and TV series (even if only to get a chuckle!). They sound like a lot of fun. They might provide an antidote from the evil guerrilla character in the Sharpe series, anyway ;-)


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