Military history

15.

WAR TO THE KNIFE

The Peninsular War, 1808–1814

THE AGE OF ideological struggles ushered in by the American Revolution would cast aside the limitations on warfare created in the century after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Few counterinsurgents would display the kind of restraint shown by the British in North America. Even the British themselves would show less restraint in repressing uprisings in Ireland in 1798 and India in 1857. But then the Irish and Indians were not “Englishmen.”

A more savage approach to counterinsurgency was displayed by the French revolutionary regime that took power in a popular revolt and that by 1793–94 was under the control of the radical Jacobins of the Committee of Public Safety, led by the pitiless Maximilien de Robespierre. Their growing tyranny sparked uprisings in Bordeaux, Brittany, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulon, and other areas. The republican regime responded with the kind of scorched-earth tactics practiced in ancient times by Akkad and Assyria and in the modern day by Nazi Germany, Baathist Iraq, and the Soviet Union. Such policies can succeed but only if the insurgents are devoid of outside support and if the counterinsurgents have some degree of popular legitimacy, if they can muster overwhelming force, and if they are willing to engage in mass murder on a scale that would be intolerable to a more liberal regime. The Jacobins succeeded in establishing their control because revolutionary France met all these conditions.

More than 16,000 “enemies of the revolution” were formally executed during the Reign of Terror in 1793–94; many more perished without any judicial proceeding at all. The repression of the Vendée in western France, where the makeshift Catholic and Royal Army arose to challenge the revolution, was particularly brutal. A republican general reported in 1793, “I crushed the children beneath the horses’ hooves, massacred the women who . . . will bear no more brigands. I have not a single prisoner to reproach myself with. I exterminated them all.” Almost 250,000 people, more than a third of the Vendéans, were killed before the revolution’s “infernal columns” were finally disbanded in May 1794. The Catholic and Royal Army might have had more success in fighting back if it had received arms and other supplies from Britain or other powers, but no such support was forthcoming.60

There were also uprisings in parts of Europe conquered by the French, including Calabria, the southernmost portion of Italy,61 and the Tyrol, an Alpine region that had been under Austrian control.62 The rebels in all these cases were not radicals like the American or French revolutionaries. They were conservative peasants like the Vendéans who wanted nothing to do with Napoleon’s social engineering. In putting down these revolts, the French army was helped by the fact that they were much more confined, geographically and demographically, and much closer to home than the uprising the British had faced in North America. Moreover, like the Vendéans but unlike the Americans, none of these rebel groups received any meaningful external aid.

Although willing to be just as brutal in Spain, the French would find that they simply lacked the resources to be equally successful when faced with an uprising that was much larger and that received much more external aid. Scale matters in guerrilla warfare: what works in a single isolated region may not work across an entire country.

EMBLEMATIC OF THE relentlessly conventional and bloody-minded French approach to counterinsurgency was the assault on Zaragoza, known to the English-speaking world as Saragossa, in northern Spain. The bombardment began on the night of July 31–August 1, 1808, and grew worse by the day. Sixty French guns belched shot night and day. “The firing was infernal,” wrote an early Spanish historian, “no idea can be formed of it.” Among the structures severely damaged was the hospital that housed the mentally as well as the physically ill. Many were still confined in their cells as masonry and splinters began to fly. Their voices “raving or singing in paroxysms of wilder madness, or crying in vain to be set free, were heard amid the confusion of dreadful sounds.” Some lunatics escaped and capered past burning buildings, singing and laughing, even dancing on corpses. Other patients who tried to get away were literally blown to bits. Their body parts littered the streets along with reddened bandages and crutches. “Hell opened its gates that day,” said a witness.

By the afternoon of August 4, the artillery had blasted a hole nearly three hundred yards wide in the city wall, and thousands of infantrymen in their blue coats, white breeches, and black shako hats prepared to pour through the breach. Surely now, the French commanders must have reasoned, they would finally eliminate this troublesome obstacle and its fanatical defenders.

In truth, Zaragoza should have fallen much sooner. This city of 60,000 people was garrisoned by just 1,500 Spanish troops. Its adobe walls were old and decrepit. Under the rules of “civilized warfare,” it should have surrendered with no more than a perfunctory resistance. But on June 15, 1808, the initial French assault had been bloodily repulsed—not by the Spanish troops but by the Spanish people. “Foaming with rage,” the people grabbed knives, sticks, hatchets, scissors, old blunderbusses, whatever was at hand, and rushed to the barricades. A squadron of Polish lancers, pennants flying, advanced into the city only to be picked off by concealed sniper fire and pelted by stones tossed from rooftops and balconies. They were finished off by the assaults of ordinary residents who pulled the riders off their horses and bludgeoned them to death.

Nominally the defenders were under the command of José de Palafox, an aristocratic army officer. He was “a perfectly well-bred man,” but he had an unfortunate habit of leaving the city on one pretext or another when the fighting was at its heaviest. No matter. The workers, peasants, craftsmen, and priests carried on by themselves under their own elected leaders.

Even the women joined in, rushing supplies to the fighters and succoring the wounded. On July 2 a dark-haired young woman with a “mild and feminine countenance” witnessed French fire kill all of the gunners manning a battery of antiquated cannons at one of the city gates. French troops with fixed bayonets were only moments away from streaming into the city. Before that could happen, Agustina Zaragoza rushed through the smoke and scorching heat, grabbed a still-smoldering linstock from one of the dead gunners (said to be her lover), and fired the cannon at point-blank range. The densely packed assault force crumpled before her grapeshot. “The Maid of Zaragoza” became an army lieutenant and a legend celebrated by Lord Byron, among others. Her example inspired Zaragoza’s residents to fight with what a French officer described as “incredible fury.” So incredible that, as the attackers discovered, resistance would not crumble even after an unrelenting, three-day artillery barrage.

On August 4, after an all-out offensive had begun, the French commander, General Jean-Antoine Verdier, who had already been wounded by a musket ball, sent a message under a flag of truce demanding “peace and capitulation.” A pointed answer came back: “War even to the knife.”

One of Napoleon’s Polish officers who took part in a subsequent assault on Zaragoza left a vivid description of what “war to the knife” looked like in the narrow, winding lanes of the city. He could just as easily have been describing the experiences of Romans in first-century Jerusalem, Germans in twentieth-century Warsaw, or Americans in twenty-first-century Fallujah:

The more we advanced the more dogged resistance became. We knew that in order not to be killed . . . we would have to take each and every one of these houses converted into redoubts and where death lurked in the cellars, behind doors and shutters—in fact, everywhere. . . . Often as we were securing one floor we would be shot at from point blank range from the floor above through loopholes in the floorboards. All the nooks and crannies of these old-fashioned houses aided such deadly ambushes. We also had to maintain a good watch on the rooftops. With their light sandals, the Aragonese could move with the ease of and as silently as a cat and were thus able to make surprise incursions well behind the front line. It was indeed aerial combat. We would be sitting peacefully around a fire, in a house occupied for some days, when suddenly shots would come through some window just as though they had come from the sky itself. . . .

Sometimes we would burst into a house . . . [t]hen suddenly there would be an explosion and the whole obstacle would tumble down like a pack of cards. . . . Even when they were at last forced to abandon a building, they would scatter resin soaked faggots everywhere and set them alight. The ensuing fires would not destroy the stone buildings but served to give the besieged time to prepare their defenses in neighboring houses.

Suddenly on the morning of August 14, 1808, all was quiet—as quiet as a cemetery. The French troops had disappeared after having lost 3,500 killed and wounded out of a total force of 15,000 men. They had no choice but to withdraw because of the devastating defeat a French corps had suffered in the province of Andalusia: 17,000 troops had been captured and 2,000 killed or wounded in a battle with Spanish regulars at Bailén on July 19. Almost all the French troops in Spain, including those besieging Zaragoza, were removed to defensive positions in the northernmost part of the country.63

BY THEN IT was hard to believe how smoothly the initial French invasion had gone—as smoothly in its own way as the future German occupation of Yugoslavia, the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and the American occupation of Iraq, all of which were destined to become notable guerrilla battlegrounds. French armies had first entered Spain the preceding autumn, on October 18, 1807, following a deal between Napoleon and the Spanish prime minister to allow French troops free passage to attack Portugal. Napoleon’s secretary called it “an armed promenade and not a war.”64Things began to go awry after Napoleon deposed the ruling Bourbon royal family and installed his older brother, Joseph, on the throne. On May 2, 1808, a spontaneous rebellion broke out in Madrid. Shouting, “Death to the French,” residents armed with clubs and scissors and blunderbusses attacked the army of occupation. The uprising was quelled within hours by 30,000 French troops who wheeled cannons into the streets and killed perhaps 400 Spaniards. But tales of the Dos de Mayo, immortalized by court painter Francisco de Goya, resonated across the Peninsula and sparked a more general uprising that included the successful defense of Zaragoza.65

Having almost been pushed off the Peninsula, Napoleon set out to retrieve his fortunes with a series of lightning thrusts employing 250,000 veterans from his grande armée hastily redeployed from central Europe. Leading his soldiers in person, the emperor routed all opposition in just four weeks and entered Madrid on December 4, 1808. Even Zaragoza, that heroic citadel, finally fell on February 20, 1809, after a second siege involving 45,000 soldiers. Portugal still held out with British help, but most of Iberia appeared to be firmly in the emperor’s grasp. His success seemed to vindicate his boast to Joseph: “I shall find in Spain the Pillars of Hercules, but not the limits of my power.”66 (The Pillars of Hercules is the ancient name for the promontories on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar.)

Those limits, however, became apparent when the Spanish did not stop fighting. With their regular army defeated, the Spanish turned to a people’s resistance that would give rise to the word “guerrilla.” The first recorded use of the term (also spelled “guerilla”) dates to 1611, when it referred to “a quarrel between private citizens . . . that causes them to split into rival bands.” Its use to refer to a form of warfare dates from the eighteenth century. Originally “guerrilla” referred to the war as a whole (“They are taking part in a guerrilla . . .”). Its practitioners were known as guerrilleros orpartidas de guerrilla (guerrilla bands), and they would come to the forefront in Spain in 1809.67

Although some Spaniards, primarily from the upper classes, were willing to collaborate with Joseph’s regime (they were known derisively as the afrancesados, “the Frenchified”), the majority were not. A revolutionary government called the Central Junta, or council, took refuge in the southwestern city of Seville while local juntas arose in the provinces. In 1810, following the French capture of Seville, the junta was replaced by a parliament, or Cortes, in the peninsular stronghold of Cadiz. This regime, ruling in the name of King Ferdinand VII (who was in captivity in France), issued decrees calling for popular resistance against “these ferocious animals . . . this damnable race of monsters.”68 Spanish clerics did their best to transform the insurgency into a holy war against the French, whom they accused “of being Jews, heretics, sorcerers.” In their eyes, Napoleon was the Antichrist, his generals were “Satan’s emissaries,” and heaven was to be attained by killing their minions.69 Popular legitimacy, so important in any revolutionary struggle, lay on the side of the insurgents.

The British helped by sending everything from cash to shirts, shoes, and camp kettles. In the uprising’s first six months alone, they provided 160,000 muskets, with more to come.70 Their bases in Portugal and Gibraltar gave the British beachheads from which they could resupply Spanish forces and conduct amphibious raids against the French.

As in the wars waged by Viriathus and Sertorius against the Romans almost two millennia before, the difficult topography of the Iberian Peninsula, with its many mountains and ravines, also aided the revolt. “No country in the world is more favorable to partisan warfare than Spain,” wrote a French officer.71

THE GUERRILLA BANDS operated with little if any central direction under the leadership of charismatic captains who became known by such evocative aliases as El Empecinado (the Rustic), El Mozo (the Lad), and El Caracol (the Snail). The most successful of all was Francisco Espoz y Mina, who would come to dominate the Basque-speaking province of Navarre, adjacent to France.

He initially joined the uprising in 1809 as part of a small band organized by his nephew, Martin Javier Mina y Larrea, an eighteen-year-old seminary student. In 1810 the French captured Javier Mina. His command dispersed, but its banner was picked up by Francisco Espoz Illundain, the twenty-nine-year-old son of a wealthy peasant who renamed himself Francisco Espoz y Mina to establish his legitimacy to succeed his captured nephew. Because initially he had just six followers, his immediate goal was to take over larger partidas that had broken away. Within a few months he commanded more men than his nephew ever had.

This was a stunning testament to the leadership qualities of this country bumpkin—described as “a man of average, slightly blond looks, well-built, about five foot one inch in height, and of few but direct words”—who could neither read nor write Spanish and barely learned to spell his own name. He made up for this deficiency with a surplus of cunning, bravery, and bluff. On one occasion he was surprised alone by a French cavalry detachment. As the French were breaking through the door of his lodgings, he boldly shouted, “Lancers, to the rear! Cavalry sergeant, take the first squadron to the left!” Thinking that Espoz y Mina had a substantial force, the French backed off just long enough for him to escape.

By 1812, having survived numerous setbacks, Espoz y Mina commanded thirteen thousand men in the Division of Navarre. He took over the customs posts in Navarre, making his division largely self-financing; created covert factories to manufacture uniforms and weapons; and ran his own hospitals and even his own court system. Thus Espoz y Mina became the “little king” of Navarre as well as part of neighboring Aragon.

The French were driven out of Navarre’s countryside and blockaded for twenty-two months inside Pamplona, the provincial capital, where they slowly starved under the watchful eyes of Mina’s pickets. To enforce the blockade, the guerrilleros did not hesitate to hang a lemon seller who sought to do business with the occupiers. French attempts to venture out in search of provisions resulted in heavy losses. In 1812 alone the Division of Navarre killed 5,500 French troops. By the following year Espoz y Mina was stronger still, using artillery landed by the British to take the remaining French strongholds.72

THE NECESSITY OF dealing with such “invisible armies,” which by 1811 numbered more than 50,000 men across the entire country, siphoned off valuable French forces that could have been used to crush 80,000 British and Portuguese regulars. The French kept more than 350,000 men in Iberia between 1810 and 1812. Most were detailed for antiguerrilla duty. Seventy thousand troops alone were required to maintain communications between Madrid and the French border. Thus the French were never able to assemble more than 60,000 men for a single battle, allowing the allied commander, the duke of Wellington, to fight on roughly equal terms.73

Unable to post troops everywhere, the occupiers fanned out from a few large garrisons in futile forays that could seldom pin down the elusive insurgents. Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet complained, “On the approach of our troops, these bands withdrew without fighting, so that they made their appearance at every spot we did not occupy, and offered no opportunity for making a serious attack upon them in any position.”74 The result, as a lower-ranking French officer confessed, was that “we always managed to harass the enemy but never to destroy him completely.”75

The inherent difficulties of conducting counterinsurgency in a nation of eleven million people were compounded by the inefficient French command structure and a muddled strategy reminiscent of British difficulties in the American Revolution. Although Joseph Bonaparte was nominally king of Spain, real authority rested with various marshals who oversaw military governments in the provinces and reported directly to Napoleon. The northern Spanish provinces were even annexed to France, leaving Joseph with no real responsibility beyond Madrid and its environs. His younger brother, the emperor, did not appoint any other official to oversee a countrywide pacification campaign. As a result there was little practical coordination between different French armies. The situation grew so bad that rebels could often escape pursuit by heading into a neighboring province.76

To compound his woes, Napoleon made scant attempt to win over the population. He never provided an incentive for Spaniards to side with France, consistently undercutting Joseph’s attempts to conciliate the population by the promulgation of a liberal constitution and the construction of schools and hospitals. The habitual murder of civilians and prisoners by the imperial forces, and their widespread looting and raping, cost them many potential friends. A French cavalryman, in a plaint echoed by counterinsurgents ranging from the Assyrians to the Nazis, lamented that “violent measures, far from keeping down the inhabitants, only sharpened their hatred of the French, and, what always happens in a country where there is patriotism, violent measures led to reprisals still more violent. Squadrons, entire battalions, were annihilated by the peasants in the course of a night.”77

The French lost further ground in 1812 when troop levels in Spain fell to 250,000 as Napoleon siphoned off men for his ill-fated invasion of Russia. In Russia, too, he encountered partisans operating in conjunction with regular forces, but they never attained the same size or importance.78

Once the forces opposing him had been depleted, Wellington was able to surge out of his stronghold in Portugal and win a series of victories culminating in the capture of Madrid on August 12, 1812. His offensive stalled out in the fall of 1812, forcing the British to retreat temporarily, but Wellington marched deep into Spain again in 1813—this time to stay. Thanks in part to the aid he received from the Spanish irregulars, whose “boldness and activity are increasing [he wrote] and [whose] operations against the enemy are becoming daily more important,”79 he inflicted a final crushing defeat on the French at Vitoria on June 21, 1813. Espoz y Mina alone claimed to have diverted 28,000 French troops who might otherwise have faced Wellington.80 That fall the British crossed France’s southern frontier while Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies marched from the east. Napoleon abdicated on April 12, 1814, thereby ending, at least for the time being, the greatest war the world had yet known.

ON A FAR bigger scale than the American Revolution, the Peninsular War showed how regular and irregular forces could work together, making it impossible for a powerful army of occupation to focus on either threat. In North America the regulars did the bulk of the fighting. In Spain it was the irregulars. Their activities accounted for the majority of the casualties suffered by the French during six years of war. (As many as 180,000 French soldiers perished.)81 Few would dispute the conclusion of Suchet, one of Napoleon’s best field marshals, that the guerrilleros “defended the country in a far more effectual manner than the regular war carried on by disciplined armies.”82

While Spaniards could take pride in their contribution to Napoleon’s downfall, the cost was considerable. “All authority has been annihilated in Spain,” Wellington wrote at the end of 1813.83 Many of the men who had spent years fighting the French would not go back voluntarily to being poor and powerless once the war was over. Some continued to prey on the population as outlaws. Others, including Espoz y Mina, fought against the restoration of Bourbon absolutism. The well-known guerrilla leader El Empecinado (Juan Martin Díaz) would be hanged by King Ferdinand VII, while Espoz y Mina would seek refuge in, of all places, France.

With central authority virtually nonexistent, Spain was plagued by decades of banditry and political turmoil. From the 1820s to the 1870s, the country was torn apart by civil wars pitting urban liberals against rural conservatives. Since the liberals ruled in Madrid, the conservatives, or Carlists, resorted to guerrilla warfare. This struggle culminated well over a century later in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39. Such rending of the social fabric occurs in most prolonged insurgencies, and it was precisely why a landed gentleman such as George Washington had recoiled from employing this method of resistance on his native soil. Robert E. Lee, another southern aristocrat, would refuse for similar reasons to wage guerrilla resistance in 1865 after the surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox.

“THE PENINSULAR WAR should be carefully studied, to learn all the obstacles which a general and his brave troops may encounter in the occupation or conquest of a country whose people are all in arms.” So wrote the Swiss soldier Antoine-Henri de Jomini in his classic text, Summary of the Art of War (1838). He knew whereof he spoke. Having served with the French army in Spain and Russia, he wrote with great feeling about the difficulties of an invader who “holds scarcely any ground but that upon which he encamps; outside the limits of his camp every thing is hostile and multiplies a thousandfold the difficulties he meets at every step.” But while convinced of the efficacy of people’s war, he was aghast at its “terrible” consequences. “As a soldier,” he preferred “loyal and chivalrous warfare to organized assassination.”84

The only military theorist whose fame outstripped Jomini’s also described the consequences of “arming the nation” in a small section of a larger work devoted to conventional conflict. In On War (1832), the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz wrote of popular resistance: “Like a slow, gradual fire, it destroys the foundation of the enemy’s army.” Like Jomini, Clausewitz thought that “people’s war” was more novel than it actually was because it represented a departure from the “artificial” warfare of the eighteenth century. But, unlike Jomini, Clausewitz did not shy away from embracing what he erroneously labeled “a phenomenon of the nineteenth century.” “However small and weak a state may be in comparison with its enemy,” he wrote, “if it forgoes a last supreme effort, we must say that there is no longer any soul left in it.”85

During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Vendée, Calabria, Tyrol, and Spain, among others, all revealed no shortage of “soul.” But no nation made a more “supreme effort” to resist French rule than its prize overseas colony. The insurgency in Haiti was the very embodiment of the sort of conflict that Jomini deplored: “wars of extermination.”86 Hard as it may be to believe, on this Caribbean island the French matched and possibly exceeded the savagery they had displayed in the Vendée—but without attaining similar success.

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