Friday, 27 May 2016

The Peninsular War: A New History by Charles Esdaile

As many other wargamers, history is an integral part of my hobby activities. Believe or not, I have neglected the Napoleonic period for a long time and even more the so called (more on this later)  “Peninsular Wars” in the English speaking world, about which I’m a total ignorant despite being Spanish.
The recent publication of Sharp Practice by TooFatLardies is marking an end to this period of ignorance, as my gaming mates have embraced the rules with our renowned Spanish passion… and of course with a view to fight games against the invader of our sacred soil.
The fact is that part of my lack of interest in the Napoleonic period in Spain is the result of my school education. Being a child of the 60s, with Franco still alive and kicking, history was taught always in the key of the Spanish Civil War.
I’ll try to clarify. Script:
·      Spain had always been Spain since the prehistoric ages.
·      The Romans were invaders, The Visigoths, the Moors… all were invaders alien to our immortal soul and culture and all were defeated in due time.
·      The French of course were also invaders and actually a bunch of pre-communist revolutioners and atheists that wanted to destroy our culture.
·      The last attempt to destroy our Spanish soul was the unholy alliance of Marxist-Leninists, Jews and Masons in 1936… thank God, Franco was there and we were free to live as true Spanish since then.
 Sorry for the rant, but this is just to explain the background of what I did learn about the Napoleonic period in Spain: the French tried to impose by force their laws and culture, destroy the monarchy, the Church and the traditional Spanish institutions and put as king Joseph, the drunken brother of the Emperor (“Pepe Botella”).
The people raised in arms and sometimes with their bare hands fought the invader and after a first collapse, the Spanish army basically fought 5 years alone (supported by the guerrilla) until the last French crossed the Pyrenees.
National heroine, Agustina de Aragón in a 50s film
 The British and Wellington? Well they happened to be there but of course their only aim was to control our colonies in America. Incidentally, the Portuguese were never mentioned as if the war was not with them.
I made a comment before to the “Peninsular War”. As in the Soviet Union (#ironic) there was no Second World War taught but “The Great Patriotic War”, in Spain we don’t learn Napoleonic Wars or Peninsular Campaign/War but “The War of Independence”, when we recovered our Spanish being.
 Faced with the daunting task of having to go through the literature of the glorious battles and feat of arms of the Spanish army, Agustina de Aragón, Daoiz y Velarde or El Empecinado  again, I decided to look in the hopefully more neutral anglo-saxon historical research body.
To be frank and honest, I fear that it was not to be the solution, as the general view in those latitudes is that basically Wellington and the British Army (OK, and with the help of the Portuguese).
Palafox, defender of Zaragoza by Goya
After much search I bumped with a title that attracted my attention “The Peninsular War: A New History” by Charles Esdaile, a Professor of History in the University of Liverpool and a specialist in the Napoleonic era. Bang on target!
This is a fairly long book (over 700 pages) and is not just a military history of the conflict. For these reasons, it does not make a light reading at all, not  the one you want to take to bed to relax before falling slept; on the contrary, you need to pay attention and focused to go through it.
The book covers the military, the social, the economic and the political aspects fo the conflict. And it is very well balanced in the sense that all these topics are described from the point of view of all the involved stakeholders: Spanish, French British and Portuguese.
The book is founded on solid research undertaken by the author in the different countries, as illustrated by the over 100 pages of notes and bibliographic references. A masterpiece, connecting the historical events happening at the same time on the various sides involved with the social and political situation at each moment. And more important, the author taking balanced and objective views, detailing the pros and cons at each moment
Esdaile takes time in dismounting some popular myths about the conflict like: the role and effectiveness of the guerrilla (tactically important but strategically were not a game changer); the significant contribution of the Spanish army in the later phase of the war; or the real level of engagement of the common people in the fight against the invader, as far from being motivated to defend the Fatherland (Patria), made everything possible to avoid being conscripted in the regular army, opting for joining the guerrilla which usually offer them opportunities from plundering and to stay close to their homes.
Curro Jimenez, the romantic view of the guerrilla
I was also surprised about his deep knowledge of the political situation, not just in England, but also in the rest of the contenders and it that sense I have learned a lot about a period that sparked the confrontation between the liberal and the conservative parties in Spain, marking most of our modern history until the end of the Spanish Civil War.
There is no doubt that the British Army and Wellington’s military skills were paramount in the final French defeat. But Esdaile adopts a very critical view about the commitment of Great Britain to the war effort, never putting enough “boots of the ground” to achieve a decisive victory.
Only the gradual erosion of the French effectives together with the interference of Napoleon (imposing impossible objectives for political reasons) and  the petty conflicts between the French generals, finally crumbled the moral and the effectiveness of the army only in 1814 when the country was assailed on all fronts. 
Finally the book makes a clear case that the common people were the victims of the war. Not just the French, but the British, the Spanish Army, the guerrilas... all abused,  vandalised, raped... suffering the abobinable behaviour of all parts involved.  
This is an outstanding history work on the Peninsular War, clearly worth reading. But clearly not to cater to all tastes. If you are looking for military oriented work, don’t look here (although good details of the main campaigns are provided).


  1. Fascinating! Both your review of the book, and your glimse into the Spanish classroom of the 1960s.

    Unfortunately, wargaming being a mostly British hobby in origin, the peninsular War gets far more attention that it might otherwise. However, looks like that will work out nicely for you!

  2. Thank you for an interesting perspective. I read the book back in 2015 as part of my gaming studies and equally found it a very different perspective on the war as a whole, with some great insights.

    I think often. Napoleonic wargamers interested in the campaigns of Napoleon in wider Europe forget that the Peninsular War, as we Brits would call it, was a six year long affair rather than the comparatively short campaigns else where and that aspect had a huge impact on the way the war was waged in terms of the politics and commitment needed by all sides involved to keep going.

    My thoughts on the book can be found here


  3. The History by Sir Charles Oman is a good source. He used reference material from Spanish, French, Portuguese as well as British archives. He's quite fair to all sides, and says when he believes a source was biased for whatever reason.