The Peninsular War
|MAIL on Sunday, 8 sept. 2002|
The Peninsular War. A New History
by Charles Esdaile
Allen Lane #Libras 25# Tef. (0870 165 0870)
According to 1066 And All That, the Peninsular War is seen in Britain as A Good Thing. A small British army, led by Sir Arthur Wellesley, lands on the coast of Portugal to inflict unexpected defeat on the French. The small army grows, not least because of enthusiastic Portuguese support, and marches into Spain, where the perfidious dons prove unreliable allies, but Sir Arthur, soon to be the Duke of Wellington, overcomes their obstinacy and, as generalissimo of the Spanish, Portuguese and British, leads his forces to outright victory. The French are expelled from Spain and Wellington leads his army to triumph at Toulouse.
It is a great story punctuated by astonishing battles. The horror of Badajoz, the unbearable heroism at Albuera or the grand opening flourish at Salamanca which 'destroyed 40,000 Frenchmen in 40 minutes' are all inspiring episodes, and with the help of my fictional character, Richard Sharpe I have made a living off them for two decades.
Yet the tale is anglocentric and partial to a fault. It is undeniable that the British army's successes were magnificent, but as Charles Esdaile shows in this sweeping new history of the Peninsular War, those successes were peripheral to the tangled chaos and horror of the Spanish experience.
This was not A Good Thing it was brutal, bloody and vicious. It is Goya's etchings, The Disasters Of War, it is untrammeled rape, plundering, murder, disease, starvation and disaster.
The Spanish, and to a lesser extent the Portuguese, were not only fighting an invader, but also their own rulers, so the cruelties of civil war were added to the cauldron.
In this grimmer version, the Peninsular War flickers and smoulders all across the peninsula, marked by extreme viciousness, and into that darkness comes a small British army that takes advantage of the chaos to inflict a series of defeats on the French before crossing the Pyrenees and vanishing from Spanish history.
Most histories of the war have continued the tale to Wellington's victory at Toulouse, but Professor Esdaile ends at the frontier. The redcoats march out of his history, leaving Spain to its troubles which would explode, disastrously, into another cruel war in the Thirties.
So this history is emphatically not, as the author himself tells us, 'a mere list of battles'. It does give full credit to Wellington, but reminds us that far more Frenchmen were killed by the Spaniards than by the redcoats.
By 1814, Napoleon's only hope, like Hitler's in 1945, was that the allies would fall out among themselves yet, as Esdaile writes, `though the British, Spaniards and Portuguese hated one another, in, the end they hated Napoleon still more'. That greater hatred won the war but it left Spain exhausted, fatally weakened and riven by political dissent. Many countries suffered because of Napoleon, but none so much as Spain.
The, Peninsular War has long enjoyed a special place in British history. After the military disappointments of the late 18th Century, Wellington's campaign restored the reputation of the redcoats, but that campaign was an opportunistic involvement in a war that was already white hot.
Britain did not give a fig for Spain's future, it only wanted to embarrass the French and persuade its other allies to keep fighting, and Esdaile's achievement is to refocus the war on the larger horror, the disasters of Spain. In the end, he doubts that the Spanish war affected Napoleon's destiny, an opinion that is arguable and at odds with the Emperor’s own verdict, but that is a small objection. He is surely right in his view that the war was of crucial importance to the histories of Portugal and Spain.
There have been many histories of the Peninsular War and almost all the British versions have concentrated on Wellington's successes (Jan Road's The War In The Peninsula is an honourable exception) until the Sharpe like view prevails that We Did It (almost) Alone.
It is a beguiling version and good for novelists but Sharpe exists to tell stories not to teach history. For the real history go to a real historian, and Charles Esdaile Is very much the real thing.
The Peninsular War is a splendid book; in short A Very Good Thing.
Plunder, murder, rape and starvation
In short, this book is A Very Good Thing
• Bernard Cornwell's next novel of the Peninsular War, Sharpe's Havoc, will be published in April by HarperCollins.