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Book Review: The Fatal Knot

The Fatal Knot: The Guerrilla War in Navarre and the Defeat of Napoleon in Spain,
by John Lawrence Tone.
1994, The University of North Carolina Press

Any author willing to offer a new book about the Napoleonic wars has quite a task. What can one offer at this point that is truly new and enlightening?  For example, Rory Muir has recently published a book length account of the battle of Salamanca. While it provides a detailed analysis of the battle, and evaluates some of the questions surrounding what exactly happened, the book does not change our understanding of the battle’s place in the Peninsular War. This is the most common failing of much military history - it debates ad nauseum what happened without changing our evaluation of why what happened matters. Mr. Tone has managed, in a slim volume of just 183 pages, to offer an eye-opening analysis of the guerrilla war in Spain that truly adds to our understanding of this critical aspect of the war.

It should be noted that my interest in this period of history - and in the Peninsular War specifically - was rekindled in the summer of 2001. So my understanding of the guerrilla war was largely limited to the “considered wisdom.” What Tone offers is a thorough review not just of the events in Navarre, but a thorough and compelling argument for why the guerrillas in Navarre had as much success as they did.

The opening chapters detail the geographic, social and economic characteristics of Navarre that contributed to the successful guerrilla movement in that province of northwest Spain. First, Navarre is comprised of two distinct geographic areas. The northern half of the province is a mountainous area known as the Montana. In this region land was owned primarily by individual farmers. The southern half of the province was open, and land was concentrated in the hands of a few aristocrats. It was the landowning peasants of the montana that contributed the majority of the resources and support to the guerrillas. Further, Tone explores the unique status that Navarre had within the Kingdom of Spain. Navarre was, in fact, a semiautonomous region with a great deal of local control over taxes, tariffs, and most internal affairs.

Tone then spends the middle third of the book detailing the history of the guerrilla actions, and does a splendid job showing how the unique characteristics of Navarre made the guerrilla war a terror for the French. He carefully sifts the evidence to show that much of the “considered wisdom” about the guerrilla war is over simplified. For example, the guerrillas are considered y some to have been motivated primarily by religion and patriotism. Tone’s analysis shows that religion was a minor factor. While there were certainly influential religious leaders in the guerrilla movement, there were as many who collaborated with the French. Patriotism, in Tone’s view, is important, but it must be understood as a more complex patriotism than just “for God and King.” It is a patriotism in defense not only of a monarchy, but of a specific set of arrangements with and privileges within the government.

Finally, Tone concludes with a detailed analysis of the many reasons Navarre fought, and provides an epilogue that helps place the guerrilla movement in Navarre into a broader context.

What stands out in my mind are the unique characteristics of Navarre that allowed for the creation and ongoing support of a wide ranging guerrilla movement. This leads me to my prime dissatisfaction with the book. Tone writes “there has never been a clear notion of who the guerrillas were or why they fought.” He provides a compelling answer for those in Navarre. But the strength of his argument about Navarre means we are even more in the dark about the guerrillas elsewhere. While the guerrillas in Navarre may have been the most successful in Spain, they were not the only guerrillas. And if the landowning peasants were really unique to just half of Navarre, how then to explain the guerrilla movement elsewhere?

I do not mean to fault Mr. Tone for not providing the same analysis for every region of Spain - clearly the scope of his book was intended to be more limited. However, I think it would have been greatly improved if it had put the movement in Navarre into more context. Who comprised the guerrilla in Castile or Andalucia? What role did the church, the clergy, and land ownership play elsewhere?

In any case, Mr. Tone has set the standard for future studies of the guerrilla aspect of the long and bitter Peninsular War. Even if all of his conclusions are one day overthrown, the care with which he has sifted the evidence, the wide ranging scope of his investigation, and the tight reasoning he has offered, set a very high standard for those to follow.

While this is not a light read - Mr. Tone’s style is typical of academic history - for the amateur interested in the guerrilla aspect of the war, this book should be on your “must-read” list.

Review Posted July 7, 2003

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