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Book Review: Rod of Iron

Rod of Iron: French Counterinsurgency Policy in Aragon during the Peninsular War,
by Don W. Alexander.
1985, Scholarly Resources Inc.

The guerilla war in Spain generally receives credit for acting as one of the strategic lynch pins that made the Allied victory in the Peninsula possible. So the cliché goes, in Spain small armies are defeated, and large armies starve. The guerilla bands operating against the French attacked and, often, destroyed small armies - convoys, garrisons, columns and the like. Whereas messengers in many parts of Europe could travel unescorted, in Spain they required a large enough column to withstand these kinds of attacks. The resulting drain on manpower, and the sapping of French morale, were both contributors to the Allied victory. Yet most books that cover the Peninsular War only briefly touch on what the guerilla war actually looked like.

Alexander’s enlightening book covers the war in Aragon from 1808 until the retreat from Spain in 1813. Alexander discusses in detail the situation in Aragon in 1809 and how French policy made Aragon the most pacified of Spanish provinces, at least for a few years. He also provides an insightful analysis of how that pacification was undermined. In broad strokes the measures taken by both sides will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the conflict. It is written in a fairly academic style as one would imagine, given the subject.

The real value of this book, in my opinion, is in providing an in-depth accounting for what the French commanders in Aragon had to face. Reading the accounts of the campaigns, the units are companies, and tiny garrisons. Encounters result in casualties measured in dozens, not thousands. Eventually you come to understand the French frustration. Reading about the troop movements becomes dizzying as columns constantly move through the same areas and back; start in one direction and are recalled; return time and again to previously pacified villages. At one point I was tempted to make a copy of the map with counters to track all the movements. But the reader quickly realizes this is not the campaign of 1809. In short the guerillas and the French meander across the entire province in a bloody game of hide and seek.

The maps, in fact, are one weakness of the book. They are hard to read (forces are squares, triangles and circles; towns are circles; armies are squares). At times locations mentioned repeatedly are not on the map so you have no idea where the event takes place unless you have another reference handy. They also show guerillas as icons but armies as zones - which I think should be reversed. Finally, they show no topography. Only rivers and towns are marked - some way of showing the mountains (other than labels) would have been helpful as well.

Alexander clearly believes Suchet - while he commanded in Aragon - probably did as well as anyone could have, given the situation he faced, and the resources he had. He points out, however, that Suchet never acknowledged changes in the guerillas over time. Alexander is critical of Reille who succeeded Suchet (Suchet was sent to conquer Catalonia while Reille commanded in Aragon).

It should also be noted that the book focuses almost exclusively on the French side - the guerillas and Spanish take second stage. We are not privy to their strategies, internal politics, etc. Nonetheless this is a fascinating look at the nightmare that command in Spain must have been.

The book is out of print, and may take some searching to find. I tracked mine down at - and paid $60 for it. Unless you have a die-hard interest in the guerilla war, track it down through a library.

Review Posted April, 2004

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