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Book Review: 
Fighting Napoleon

Fighting Napoleon: Guerillas, Bandits and Adventurers in Spain 1808-1814,
by Charles J. Esdaile
2004, Yale University Press.

“If emphasising the importance of the guerillas fitted in with a variety of national needs and preoccupations, it was also convenient in another sense, for it dovetailed all too neatly with the laziness and incapacity that have often characterized the historiography of the Peninsular War.” [p. 1]

I’m no academic, but to my ears them’s fightin’ words. Indeed, the tone of much of this excellent book is combative and brash. In part this is because Esdaile is taking on a deeply entrenched tradition. Namely, that the guerillas in Spain represented the “nation-in arms” and that these spontaneous risings were one of, if not the, major cause of the French defeat in Iberia.

This is a challenging book, because many of the documents, events, and analyses will be familiar to students of the Peninsular War. The challenge arises from the new interpretation given to all of this data. Of course, Esdaile brings substantial new information to the table. Yet overall, this book offers a new way of reading the evidence. What emerges is a highly complex picture of what we now call the guerilla war.

The most challenging theme of the book is that the patriotic motive supposed to fuel the guerilla war has been so grossly overstated. The May rising and the defense of Zaragossa are the highly touted examples of Spanish patriotism. Yet, as Esdaile points out, after these two well known events, other evidence of Spanish patriotism of this kind is hard to find. Enlistment was always slow and desertion rampant. Despite a lot of posturing, the citizens of Madrid surrendered very quickly. Most local populations simply wanted to be left alone. There are even numerous examples of Spaniards asking for aid from the French in putting down local guerillas.

Even our image of the guerilla is a romantic creation, Esdaile argues. As they gained experience true guerilla bands adopted drill, uniforms, and linear tactics. Many so-called guerilla bands were, in fact, regular troops created when their parent armies or organizations were smashed. The image of the exotically dressed band firing from behind rocks and trees is more propaganda than portrait.

And, as Esdaile notes, further confusion may be a result of the ambiguous use of the word guerilla. First, the French used the same word for guerillas as well as bandits, making it hard to sort out one from the other in their documents. Second, the word describes both a kind of irregular force, as well as a kind of tactic. Thus even reading reports requires very careful thought and analysis. A guerilla campaign may have been carried out by regular troops using specific tactics – attacking couriers and outposts, and so on. A more regular assault may have been carried out by irregular guerilla troops. Indeed, the guerillas even carried out several “sieges” (lacking artillery they were mostly unsuccessful – not having time to wait on starvation).

There is a great deal more to the book, and I heartily recommend it. It will certainly not be the last word on the subject. Indeed, it is barely the first. But then, many wars have begun with a smaller opening salvo than Esdaile provides here. But if you have an interest in the subject, and will read with an open mind, you will be amply rewarded.

Review Posted August, 2004

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