Heretical Gaming is my blog about my gaming life; currently concentrating on a re-fight of the entire Peninsular War, but with the odd foray into ancient, medieval and WW2 battles.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Spanish Army in the Peninsular War - Book Review

This a re-worked version of a book first released 25 years ago. The original book has been out-of-print for some time and obtaining a copy had become quite difficult and expensive. Detailed treatments of the Spanish Army during this period in English have been rare, although Osprey have updated their original rather sketchy volume with an excellent 3-volume work which has brought much more detail to light on the uniforms and tactical organisation of the Army from 1793-1815. These Ospreys complement rather than provide an alternative to Esdaile's work however, as Esdaile focuses on answering wider questions about the Spanish Army, but contains little about the campaigns themselves, the uniforms, lower-level organisation or the tactics employed by Spanish troops except in relatively general terms.

This book has a slightly unusual structure. The original edition is re-printed in its entirety rather than being re-written to incorporate the author's (extensive) research over the intervening period. Instead, this material is all together as an update at the beginning of the book. This method (apparently chosen for technical reasons) has the virtue of showing how the author's opinions and research have developed since the book was first published, but it does make the book less coherent and readable.

The first chapter explains the workings of the Spanish Army pre-1792. It details exactly why the Army was organised and recruited the way it was, and how there was no easy remedy for its systemic flaws, those flaws in many ways being a reflection of the society from which it was drawn. It goes into some detail on the human material that composed the Spanish Army – from which quarters of society it was recruited, and which ranks the various social orders occupied, the author going in to some detail on issues of recruitment and promotion. It also attempts to explain the efforts made to keep pace with military developments across Europe and the brittle logistical underpinning and cumbersome administration which was to be so exposed in 1808. The author adds little in his update to this section.

The second chapter concerns the period of Godoy's reign in power in Spain, and in particular his attempts to reform the army and the military institutions. In essence, the author shows that Godoy deserves more personal credit than he is sometimes given for his attempts to create a workable foreign policy and a reformed army to back it up, and these attempted reforms are described in some detail. However, the story the author tells is ultimately one of failure, as the opposition towards the reforms from key social groups was too entrenched to be overcome, and led to Godoy's temporary fall from power. In the author's update, there is some explanation of the events of the Spanish Army's invasion of France in the Revolutionary Wars, and its subsequent failure with some attempts to quantify how popular the resistance to the French counter-invasion was.

The third chapter deals with the Army's response to and participation in the revolutionary and resistance events of May 1808 – September 1808. It is a complicated picture, as it is full of tensions between legitimist, collaborationist and revolutionary tendencies. It is however a much fuller picture of how political events influenced the first campaigns than one finds in the more military-orientated histories of the Peninsular War in English, like Oman's History of the Peninsular War or Gates' The Spanish Ulcer . It also shows how political control of the Spanish Army was obtained and that military considerations and opinions were subordinated to political goals. In the updated section, the author is keen to emphasize that popular resistance was reasonably marginal and how instead we should focus on revolutionary intrigue as the source of the Spanish uprising against the French. This would seem to have consequences for subsequent criticism of Napoleon's response to these events.

The next chapter deals with the period of the struggle when the Spanish armies were controlled by the Central Junta. The author explains how political pressures simultaneously demanded unrealistic military objectives whilst rendering impossible the measures necessary to improve and enlarge the Spanish Army so it would be capable of attaining them. There are hard words about the Spanish officer corps and the cavalry arm in particular, as well as some debunking of myths regarding the effectiveness of both the guerillas and popular resistance overall. Again, this would seem to have implications for how the Napoleonic effort in Spain as a whole should be judged.

The author then tackles the period 1810-1814 where Spain was controlled by a Liberal government, who, although stout in their opposition to the French, were at least as exercised by the danger of militaristic and reactionary despotism, so as they attempted to increase Spanish efforts against the French, the ideological and economic circumstances ruled it out. Esdaile does point out that Spanish troops could be reasonably efficient at this stage – pointing to Albuera and some of the units with Wellington's forces that had reasonable rest and logistical support, but overall the clash between the Liberals and the higher echelons of the Spanish Army prevented the Spanish from successful reforming their Army into a truly effective force, with the effect that the major role in liberating Spain was played by the Anglo-Portuguese armies. The updated section contains a major critique of the impact of the guerrillas upon the war, as well as additional information on the experience of the Spanish Army at war in this period.

The book ends with a short epilogue on the shape of the Army from 1814 and the effect of its politicization during the preceding six years.

I found the book well-written and well-referenced. Citations for sources are given at the end of each chapter.

Overall, this book is highly recommended for people interested in the Spanish Army of this period or the Peninsular War, as it explains trends and attitudes which would otherwise leave certain events and phenomena inexplicable. In my opinion, it shades my understanding of the whole war, especially from the French side: it makes it much more clear why Napoleon remained hopeful for a comprehensive victory as long as he did, as well as indicating why Napoleon thought he might get away with the machinations of Bayonne.

Many of the arguments and conclusions in this book can be found in abbreviated form in the author's contribution to the  "Armies of the Napoleonic Wars"

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