Monday, June 13, 2011
Book review - Fighting Napoleon
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.