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Response to Review no. 727

I am grateful to Dr Mark Lawrence for his thought-provoking review of my Napoleon’s Cursed War, in which, apart from its general perspicacity, he makes a couple of points I would like to comment on. The first, and undoubtedly the most important, concerns the guerrilla, about which he finds my view both historically ‘orthodox’ and its analysis not particularly ‘impressive’. Indeed, no one more than I would wish it to be the ‘last word’ on this thorny matter; but as there is no such thing, I view my book as raising more questions for future historians than providing ultimate answers for the present.

That said I believe that in a couple of aspects, my social analysis of the guerrilla is innovative. To the best of my knowledge, no other historian has demonstrated that small peasant farmers, whether owners or long term lessees of their land, formed the guerrilla’s largest single social base and provided some of its best known and most effective leaders (among them, El Empecinado, Espoz y Mina, Julián Sánchez, ‘El Charo’, of whom Wellington thought highly enough to incorporate into his army, and many lesser knowns). Moreover, this finding correlates with another geo-social fact: broadly speaking, the highest concentration of such farmers was to be found in northern Spain which explains why the guerrilla bands there grew exponentially into large forces of 1, 000 men or more. By 1811, my statistics show that the majority of the then 16 large guerrilla groups existed north of a line drawn roughly along the river Duero and Pamplona in Navarra. It also helps explain why landless day labourers, whose proportion of the rural population was lower in the north than in the south, formed only an infinitesimal number of the guerrilla, despite their grinding poverty: they had no land and crops to defend from enemy razzias.

It is my finding also that the elite formed a majority of guerrilla leaders – but not ‘the most part’, as following Prof. Esdaile, the reviewer maintains, unless we are talking in crude figures. My guerrilla database of 751 members, duly weighted for reasons I explain in the book’s Appendix 4, shows 28.5% of elite leaders to 20.7% of the labouring classes, of whom farmers provided 9.1%; and agrarian workers overall 11.6%, the latter figure virtually on a par with that of clerics who were by far and away the single largest number of elite leaders (11.9%). If we add the mainly rural artisans to the agrarian world’s total, we find the latter increased to 14.1%.

Of all guerrilleros, however, the elite non-elite percentages were almost reversed, 20.9% for the former to 26.3% for the latter, of whom farmers made up 11.3% and land workers in general 15.5%. Even the much bruited clerical presence – 8.2% of the total guerrilla – was three percentage points lower than that of farmers, as can be seen from the above. Again, if we add rural artisans to the agrarian world, the latter’s total rises to 19.7%, only 1.2% less than the elite’s total guerrilla membership.(Due to the weighting used, the totals do not add up to 100).

While the elite’s leadership role is not contentious, Dr. Lawrence’s assertion that I am keen to imbue the popular resistance with ‘a social-revolutionary spirit’ is – apart from Catalonia – very much so. In raising the question of why the agrarian labouring class guerrilla leaders did not enforce a ‘social dimension’ to the August 1811 Cortes decree, which incidentally did not ‘abolish feudalism in Patriot Spain’ as the reviewer asserts, only señorial jurisdictions, I advance several probable social answers to explain why such a revolutionary response was not on the cards, adding for good measure El Empecinado’s subjective assessment of his own – and by extension – other rural labouring class leaders’ intellectual and political limitations at the time. (Under-standably, I see now on re-reading what I wrote, why Dr Lawrence has misread my ‘surprise’ that the guerrilla did not set about deciphering French-coded intercepts, a laborious task which a British intelligence captain with Wellington’s army finally cracked, but hardly within the capabilities of a combative guerrilla on the move; my comment was intended to express surprise at the Archivo Histórico Nacional’s not having on file intercepted French military orders, coded or not, instead of only civilian originated intercepts).

Certainly, the guerrilla suffered from many defects, including the terror employed against its own population – see, for example, the description of El Charo’s brutal treatment of village authorities (p. 402) and the equally ferocious reprisals of Navarra’s local authorities by Espoz y Mina’s men (p. 411). However, as I explain, the guerrilla considered such tactics necessary to keep these better-off villagers in line as many were benefiting from the sale of religious and other lands expropriated by the new regime.

To sum up: my three main arguments about the guerrilla are very different to those the reviewer attributes to me. First, it is often conveniently overlooked by British historians that for two-and-a-half years, from December, 1809, to May, 1812, Wellington did not venture into the Spanish interior. This I state simply as a matter of fact; the allied army’s intervening battles along the Portuguese-Spanish border, and especially Wellington’s foresight in building the Torres Vedras lines, were no doubt more important to the war’s future outcome than leaving Spain to its own devices, without an effective patriot army for the better part of that time, during which the guerrilla was the only armed force available to keep alive the population’s spirit of resistance that was certainly flagging in 1810. Without the guerrilla continuing to fight, the rearguard’s resistance might well have crumbled into acceptance of the French occupation, making later military victory more problematic.

Secondly, the guerrilla’s ‘battle for food’ was instrumental in reducing French soldiers’ rations and increasing their sickness rate, which in Spain was the highest of all the imperial armies in Europe, as well, of course, as adding to their general demoralisation at their frequently futile pursuit of an ‘invisible army’. That, and tying down thousands of imperial troops which otherwise could have been used elsewhere, not least against Wellington, were in my view the guerrilla’s most important achievements. And lastly, I maintain, the guerrilla did not so much fight from ‘patriotism’ as to protect their own and villagers’ lives, and those of their families, property, homes, churches etc. Their more perspicacious peasant leaders – Espoz y Mina is a case in point – were well aware that on their own they could not expel the French from Spain. Subjective reasons thus obviously played a role – in what praxis don’t they? I have tried – because of insufficient data not very satisfactorily, I admit – to list these subjective reasons in a table of the guerrilla appendix. If all this is ‘nailing my colours to the orthodox view’ of the guerrilla, so be it.

Finally, to the question of why I don’t take issue with Esdaile’s revisionist deconstruction of the guerrilla, the answer is straightforward. Because of the need to explain the many complexities of the war to a non-specialist readership for whom the book is written as much as for the specialist, I believed that to add the further complexity of academic dispute was not likely to make things easier for the former, while the specialist would recognize that on many accounts – though not all – I disagree with the revisionist thesis. By raising the question, Dr Lawrence, inadvertently perhaps, has proven my point.