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Book Review: The Peninsular
War: A New history

The Peninsular War: A New History, by Charles Esdaile.
2003, Palgrave Press

As the author himself admits, it might appear that a new history of the Peninsular War is hardly needed. If the reader is not willing to put aside the time to struggle through Oman, Foy, Arteche or Pregio-Lopez, he can tackle a single volume history like Gates’ The Spanish Ulcer. Esdaile makes a good case for a new history, and it is worth quoting at length:

    In fact a fresh work is sorely needed. Part of the problem is that this great weight of historiography now shows its age very badly. As ‘old’ history written very much in terms of battles, campaigns and great men, it is blind to the fresh currents of historical work that for at least the last fifty years have been revolutionising our understanding of the past. At the same time, it is disfigured by a combination of national myth, cultural prejudice and political partisanry....Viewed as a subject in its own right, then, the Peninsular War deserves fresh consideration. But the conflict cannot just be viewed in this fashion. A vital episode in the history of modern Spain and Portugal, it was also a part of the wider Napoleonic Wars. If this aspect of the question is considered, a fresh history of the struggle can be seen to be still more justified. (page ix)

One of the great challenges in writing a history of this sort if the sheer volume of events and personalities to be addressed. As a result, the historian must somehow account for this complexity, yet still make it clear, succinct, and coherent for the reader. This is all the more critical if the intended audience is not limited to other experts, but is to include the general reader as well. For the general reader persons and events need to be fully accounted for - the author cannot rely on his reader having substantial background knowledge of the subject. Whatever its other merits or faults, the balance Esdaile strikes here between the general and the particular is truly outstanding. When one considers how that for several years of the conflict Spanish leaders, both military and civilian, were constantly coming in and out of power at a very rapid pace. Moreover, Esdaile has done a masterful job of making sense of the shifting sands of the political landscape not only in Britain, but Spain and France as well. For these reasons, if for no other, this history should be in the library of any serious student of the Peninsular War.

Even more impressive, the merits of this book do not stop there. Esdaile rises to the challenge he has set himself to write a truly “fresh work.” As such, he must address aspects of the struggle and bring to light new information as well as reevaluating the conclusions to be drawn from all of the information available. This he does unflinchingly. A few prime examples will suffice.

First, one of the most debated aspects of the struggle is the contribution made by the guerilla forces in Spain. Esdaile devotes a separate chapter to the nature of the guerilla war. After careful analysis, Esdaile draws some new conclusions. First, that given enough troops, it was possible for the French to defeat the guerillas (as happened in Aragon in 1809-10). Second, the guerillas were as much bandits as freedom fighters: “Once the twelve men had become several hundred, though, this [living off the land among the populace] clearly became impossible, the guerilla bands tending to assume a semi-permanent status and live off the populace.” Third, that the guerillas were as likely to attack Spanish civilians and allied troops (especially stragglers, the wounded, and small detachments) as they were to fight the French. Indeed, many so-called guerillas rarely, if ever, engaged the French, preferring instead to plunder and loot the local population.

Esdaile does not mean to imply, of course, that the guerillas had no affect on the operations of the French. Their activities, whether victorious or not, did require enormous numbers of troops to simply hold territory, protect messengers and supply trains. Rather Esdaile’s point is that the overall impact of guerilla activity had a serious negative impact on the allied war effort. Besides simple looting, the mere presence of so many bands of guerilla/bandits created a viable, even attractive, alternative to military service. It is, at the very least, quite plausible that the existence of the guerillas made desertion and draft dodging that much easier and, hence, more attractive.

Second, the prevailing wisdom is that the Peninsular War, by draining so many resources from the Empire in a losing effort, was a prime factor in the ultimate collapse of that empire. The argument for this position may be summarized as follows: had Napoleon had access to the 260,000 troops in Spain, as well as the money, munitions, etc. devoted to the struggle, he could have defeated Russia and thus the coalition of 1813 would never have come into being. Esdaile replies: “Yet none of this necessarily follows. The army that fought in Russia in 1812 was not short of numbers. Rather, what was lacking was the ability to make use of numbers, the communications, transport and supply arrangements of the grand armee all proving desperately inadequate for the needs even of the troops that Napoleon did take with him.” (p. 502) Another argument for the role of the Peninsular War in felling Napoleon is the influence the example of Spain had on Russia, Austria and Prussia. By showing France not to be invulnerable, the British and Spanish influenced others that victory was possible. Esdaile rejects this analysis as being backward. “To put it another way, Napoleon fell not because the Peninsular War had any influence on Russian, Prussian or Austrian policy, but because it failed to have any influence on French policy.” (p. 503) Esdaile’s ultimate conclusion is that “the conflict was of far greater significance in the history of Spain and Portugal than it was in the history of the Napoleonic Wars.” (p.499)

Additionally, Professor Esdaile is an accomplished stylist. He seems to have a natural gift for compelling narrative, and the history of this very complex struggle is here eminently lucid and readable. Each chapter opens with a vignette written in a style more often found in a novel than a history. Here, in its entirety, is the opening vignette to “Talavera” (chapter 8):

    The lines of British infantry lay in the blazing summer sun. Smoke from burning grass drifted into their eyes, but did little to shield them from the enemy. Indeed, in the distance eighty pieces of artillery sent cannonballs screaming towards them to obliterate a file of defenders or bounce harmlessly overhead. A handful of defending cannon fired back, but they were too few to make any difference, and all that the troops could do was to hug the ground in the hope that the storm would pass. It was with great relief that they suddenly realised that the enemy batteries had ceased firing, and that the dark masses of troops facing them were on the move. Across the intervening space, indeed, could be heard the rolling drumbeats of the pas de charge. Shots cracked out from the skirmishers that lined the British front, but the men involved were soon falling back, for they were far too few in numbers to make any impression on the array that was bearing down on them. The troops knew exactly what to do, however, a single volley fired at the last moment sweeping away whole ranks of men. Nor were the defenders finished: lowering their bayonets, they sprang forward with a great cheer and sent the surviving enemy scrambling for safety.

In summary, Professor Esdaile has written an exceptional history, and has brought into focus many aspects of this war that had hitherto been subject to far too little critical scrutiny. This book is not, certainly, the last word that will be written on the subject. But it will, I think, act as part of the foundation from which new research and analysis will be built.

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