Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Review - Napoleon's Cursed War

The latest book to come off the Rosbif bedside table is Napoleon's Cursed War: Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War, 1808-1814 by Ronald Fraser.

It's a sweeping social and political history of the conflict with particular attention to the early years of the conflict in the vein of Charles Esdaile's works on the subject. What the author brings that is different to previous authors' coverage of the same topic is some detailed demographic statistics. He has constructed his own demographic database from information gleaned from pre and post war censuses, birth, death and marriage registries and other contemporary official statistics. All this goes to illustrating in stark clarity the devastating effect the war and its associated byproducts had on the country. It is clear from this book that the turbulent history of Spain from 1808 to 1975 can be traced back to Napoleon's decision to meddle in Spanish internal affairs. True, the initial political chaos caused by the Aranjuez affair was a purely Spanish coup, but it was brought to a head by Napoleon's ruthlessly sending French troops to take over Spanish cities and the fear and panic this caused in the court, which exacerbated the existing tensions between the anti-Godoy forces, with Fernando as their figure-head, and the King and Queen and their favourite, the Prince of Peace, Godoy.
The author doesn't examine the guerrilla phenomenon in as much detail as others and relies overly on the example of Espoz y Mina and El Empicinado, both of whom were the exceptions to the rule in that they were the most successful and eventually commanded large forces that were organised into 'divisions'. He doesn't delve into the military side of things beyond illustrating the failings of the juntas or the organisation of the population in the vacuum left by the implosion of the central state. The main military episodes covered are the Battle of the Bruch Pass and the sieges of Zaragossa and Gerona.

He describes the initial uprisings very well and how, once released, the population's will was impossible to ignore. The fact that those who rode to power on this popular expression of political will  eventually betrayed that political will is just one of many tragic outcomes of the war. The liberal Cortes which ruled from 1811 to 1814 governed as if in a vacuum, replacing absolutist feudalism with abstract market forces, leaving the majority of the population no better off. Their feudal dues and tithes were replaced by rents, while the people they paid stayed the same. The fact that the liberals were so easily toppled by Fernando and the absolutists is an indictment on the liberals, as they failed to get popular support on their side against the re-imposition of absolutism.

The author breaks up the narrative with anecdotes taken form personal recollections to illustrate the story. This is an effective way of placing a context to the narrative and offers a more personal view of how historical forces affected the individual.

It's a very dense read and took me a while to finish as my reading time is limited, but was very rewarding and well worth the time investment. Highly recommended! 


  1. Worth a look as its a subject I enjoy

  2. Thanks for the review Rosbif. I will watch out for it.

  3. Hi
    I own it in the Spanish translation version. A new (an arguable)view on the Spanish guerrilla

  4. Hi Rafa. I read that the Spanish version is more detailed and has more in depth studies on certain aspects that the English version lacks. It would be interesting to know what I missed out on!


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