"Bleeding ulcer": the commencement and long-term consequences of guerilla warfare in Iberia

Author(s) : BARRY Don
Share it

The month of May, 1808 marked the commencement of a terrible tragedy for the peoples and nations of Spain, Portugal, and France. Six months earlier French armies of the Napoleonic Empire had begun their invasion and occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. But the conservative, proud, religious, and xenophobic native populations had reacted initially to these foreign forces with a fear and loathing that exploded eventually into fury and violent opposition in the form of a spontaneous, general, leaderless, and massive insurrection. This uprising quickly coalesced into an armed popular movement that the French were never able to suppress over a period of nearly six years. Furthermore, these Peninsular Wars (1808-14), known also to the Spanish and Portuguese as the “War of National Independence”, would become one of the two most important military causes for the rapid demise of Napoleon and the First Empire.
Several factors had motivated Napoleon in his ambitions to dominate and rule Spain and Portugal. To strike an indirect, economic blow against Britain, his most implacable enemy, the Emperor had embarked in 1807 on his campaign known as the Continental System to close all European ports to British trade. Also, he exceedingly overestimated the potential assets and wealth of Spanish material and natural resources, the possession of which could be valuable in his struggle against Britain. Moreover, his contacts with the Bourbon royal family of Spain inspired total contempt for their incompetence, corruption, and decadence. Thus Napoleon resolved cleverly to exploit a breach between the unpopular King Charles IV., stupid and sluttish Queen Maria Luisa, and detested chief minister Manuel Godoy on the one hand and the heir-to-the-throne Ferdinand on the other hand, to coerce the abdication of both. In their place, his elder brother Joseph Bonaparte was proclaimed as the next monarch of Spain.
These events were interpreted by the popular masses, however, as an intolerable attack on their traditional institutions and a national humiliation. Thereafter, a confrontation between French troops and Spanish civilians in Madrid on May 2, 1808 (Dos de Mayo) sparked rebellious conflagrations that spread like wildfire throughout the entire Peninsula. In almost every region and locality of Spain and Portugal, anti-French juntas asserted political control and organized formal militias to fight the enemy. Others on their own initiative recruited bands of partisans or insurgents also to oppose the foreigners by any means.
It is tragically ironic that both Napoleon and Joseph Bonaparte concurred in introducing many progressive, humane, and modernizing reforms to Spain, but the native population would overwhelmingly reject them as diabolical intrusions on their country and affronts to the Spanish character. Lesser noblemen and regular clergymen were very conspicuous in leadership positions during the early phase of the insurrections because of fears that the new French regime would abolish feudal privileges and monastic orders, and yet the movements ultimately attracted persons from all classes and occupations representing a broad spectrum of Iberian society. Thus many scholars have remarked that Spanish and Portuguese resistance to Napoleonic France was, to a very great extent, a democratic movement for an undemocratic and even reactionary cause.
Warfare in the Iberian Peninsula was waged simultaneously in two different forms. In the first instance, regular armies utilizing conventional tactics and strategy while recognizing certain international rules of engagement maneuvered incessantly, fought battles, and besieged fortresses and cities. Spanish forces fought alone or in conjunction with British armies and, although suffering a multitude of defeats, they still contributed to the long-term attrition of French fortunes. Furthermore, Portuguese contingents campaigned courageously and effectively with British armies under the command of Arthur Wellesley, who achieved the title of Duke of Wellington in 1809 and who quickly emerged as the most brilliant and gifted general of this era after Napoleon. Wellington vanquished every French army and every marshal that Napoleon dispatched to drive his Redcoats into the sea, but he could not have prevailed without the military contributions, provision of supplies, and popular support of the Spanish and Portuguese people.
The second form of warfare featured irregular, often informally organized, relatively small bodies of fighters, usually clothed in civilian attire, resorting to unconventional tactics and respecting no rules of combat whatsoever. The Spanish term “guerrilla”, meaning “little war”, soon gained acceptance as a description of their means and methods.
The Portuguese and Spanish fought their war of resistance with incredible ferocity and savagery. On a daily basis, French detachments experienced ambushes, ammunition dumps were blown up, supply trains suffered from raids, efforts to collect food and taxes endured harassment, water and victuals were poisoned, and solitary soldiers succumbed to sniper fire or knife attacks. Iberian women of seemingly easy virtue might welcome their French partners with a dagger in the back. Especially harmful to French operations was the interception of couriers by insurgents who frequently tortured, mutilated, and murdered their victims. There were times when as many as twenty messengers had to be sent before one reached his destination. Reconnaissance missions were also disrupted or harried constantly. As a result, these difficulties often left French armies ignorant of and vulnerable to enemy plans and movements.
In retaliation to these threats and atrocities, the French reciprocated with an equal cruelty and vengefulness that would have been expected of any regular army during this epoch. There were mass executions of civilians captured with arms in hand, entire villages torched, random confiscations of animals and supplies, sadistic tortures and mutilations, rape of countless women, and desecration of religious sites. Reacting to the possibility that any indigenous person could be an enemy as well as the omnipresence of danger and death, French soldiers and officers suffered understandably from emotional exhaustion and psychotic behavior.
One of the reasons why the Peninsular Wars attained so much infamy is that the depravities committed by all sides were graphically portrayed by one of the greatest artistic geniuses ever, Francisco Goya (1746-1824), who in 1808 had already held the position of official Spanish court-painter for three decades. His numerous etchings (the series known as “The Disasters of War”), drawings, and paintings not only depicted the horrors of this holocaust but also constituted an unforgettable indictment of all warfare. Among the many scenes pictorially documented by Goya were skeletal children and women desperately begging for food, firing-squad shootings, bare-breasted and terrified women encountering impending rape, impalement of a man on a tree, and disembowelment by sword.
In the assessment of explanations for Allied victory and French defeat and expulsion from Iberia, one must consider a combination of factors. It has often been customary for British, Spanish, and Portuguese historians to concentrate on the efforts and sacrifices of their own armies, governments, and populations to the detriment of the contributions by other nationalities. Yet British armies needed the assistance of Spanish and Portuguese regulars, insurgents, and civilians; conversely, long-term Allied success was not attainable without British battle triumphs. Moreover, historians today are unanimous in their conclusion that the guerrilla operations alone would never have compelled French withdrawal from the Peninsula. In summary, winning the war depended on a collaborative while not always a cooperative endeavor.
In further explanation, Napoleon himself contributed enormously to French failures. The Emperor remained ignorant of the challenges and difficulties of Iberian geographic and climatic conditions such as the extensively mountainous terrain (perfect for guerrilla warfare), extremely hot and dry summers, dearth of water sources in most regions, and generally thin and infertile soil incapable of producing large quantities of food in many areas. These facts were unknown because Napoleon had spent less than three months in Spain in late-1808 and because his increasingly despotic and arbitrary behavior inclined him to issue commands but rarely to request information or advice. Also, Napoleon consistently underestimated the fighting capabilities of British soldiers and officers. Furthermore, the stubborn, tenacious, and obsessive patriotism of the Spanish and Portuguese populations did not receive his serious consideration; how ironic this later seems when one remembers how fervently the youthful Napoleon had promoted Corsican nationalism and freedom from foreign subjugation. And finally, the Emperor overestimated the size, strength, and willingness of the Spanish middle class in providing a strong foundation of support for the progressive reforms of his regimes.
The consequences of the Peninsular Wars exerted an awesome impact on forging the history of our modern world. With regard to guerrilla warfare, the application of its unconventional tactics and strategy would increase significantly in the 20th century after its effectiveness had been so powerfully demonstrated during the Age of Napoleon. In point of fact, however, the methods and means of guerrilla warfare had been utilized in human conflicts since the beginnings of mankind whenever combatants inferior in numbers, weaponry, or training had confronted superior adversaries. Many of its aspects were praised by the renowned 4th century B.C. Chinese scholar Sun Tzu. In his celebrated treatise The Art of War Master Sun frequently underscored in wartime campaigns the significance of surprise, deception, avoidance of set battles, hit-and-run fighting, use of spies, and harassment activities. And especially notable even during this French Revolutionary & Napoleonic Era, there were the examples of the popular movements in the Vendee region (1793-94) of France, in Santo Domingo by leaders such as Toussaint l'Ouverture in the slave revolt, in Switzerland in 1798, and in the Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy (1806-10).
What made the Peninsular Wars so extraordinary and influential, however, is that never before had a guerrilla insurgency fought on such a large scale with such devastating effectiveness while contributing in major ways to the defeat of the most proficient armies the world had ever seen that were commanded nominally by the greatest military genius in history. Almost immediately, the troubles inflicted on Napoleonic armies by Iberian guerrillas attracted the attention of the European enemies of France. In Prussia military reformers such as Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Clausewitz studied the events in Iberia carefully and introduced guerrilla training techniques to the Prussian militia, or Landwehr. Later in his classic work On War (1832) Carl von Clausewitz devoted a chapter entitled “Arming the Nation” to describing the essential principles of guerrilla operations. Some historians, meanwhile, have argued that the “scorched earth policy” employed against the French army under Andre Massena during the third invasion of Portugal in 1810 by Wellington, who ordered the burning or destruction of everything in his wake while retreating toward the Lines of Torres Vedras, encouraged the Russians in 1812 to adopt a similar strategy. The Russians certainly did organize small detachments from its regular army to attack the advancing and retreating French columns with guerrilla tactics. At the same time, numerous partisan contingents of peasants conducted similar activities completely on their own volition without any connection to the Imperial forces.
In the aftermath of Napoleonic Europe, the Iberian example would inspire future leaders and movements as diverse and disparate as Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, American abolitionist John Brown, the Boers of South Africa, T.E. Lawrence in the Middle East, Irish Republican Army organizer Michael Collins, Mao Zedong, Josip Broz (nicknamed Tito), Resistance movements in Europe and Asia during World War II., Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, and recently Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In particular, World War II. witnessed a powerful prominence for guerrilla warfare, which gained at that time the description of “underground warfare”.
For Spain and Portugal, their “War of National Independence” yielded primarily catastrophic consequences that crucially shaped their tragic futures. Most estimations of wartime dead in Spain place the number at over one million, which constituted more than 10% of the total population. In Portugal, the losses were recorded at 5-10%. Vast regions in both countries had been repeatedly pillaged, burned, or denuded by marauding soldiers from all of the four armies as well as the partisan bands themselves. Many cities and towns had been reduced to smoldering rubble or experienced sacks on numerous occasions. Pervasive chaos led to social disintegration in many rural areas, in some of which all human habitation ceased. In the realm of economics, industrial production had been devastated while internal commerce suffered complete disruption and vital trade with the American colonies dwindled substantially. The deeply religious Portuguese and Spanish peoples, after being subjected to over five years of brutality, murder, starvation, disease, and privations, had every reason to conclude that they had received a visitation from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Especially important in the long-term economic decline of Spain and Portugal was the loss of most of their American colonial empires. While the independence of the Latin American colonies could be regarded by our modern era as a near inevitability, the events of 1808-14 nonetheless hastened that process in the Spanish dependencies and made the break with the mother country more severe. Several colonies immediately refused to swear allegiance to Joseph Bonaparte and declared independence in 1808. Most of the remainder later followed their lead. Although several years of fighting ensued, the vast majority of Spanish colonies as well as Portuguese Brazil had achieved independence by 1822. The loss of commercial wealth was devastating to the Iberian nations but highly profitable to the British Empire and the United States.
Another adverse outcome of the wars for both Spain and Portugal was the deepening rift, chasm, or division in their societies between those favoring the regressive forces of absolute monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy and those favoring the progressive forces of constitutionalism, bourgeoisie, and secularism. This picture of the “Two Spains” or “Two Portugals” of the Left and Right is overly simplistic because of the existence of many more factions and groups that embraced some values and aspirations from both extremes. However, a more fractured and divided nation definitely emerged from the conflict, which retarded the Iberian march toward modernity by associating its influences in the minds of the popular masses with foreign conquest and disastrous war. And when Napoleon deposed and exiled the very popular royal heir Ferdinand, who became king in 1814, the Emperor elevated to the status of martyr and hero one of the most unheroic, treacherous, vicious, debauched, and calamitous monarchs that the dismal history of European royalty had ever excreted.
Fateful also in a negative way was the politicization of the army. With the royal families being absent during the wars, army generals won recognition as national heroes and saviors who routinely interfered in governmental affairs and dictated policy to weak civilian politicians. Thus a future of civil wars and military dictatorship resulted as one legacy of the Napoleonic Era.
For Napoleon, the Peninsular Wars truly represented a “bleeding ulcer” that could not be stinted, draining his empire of men, money, materiel, and morale. The armed commitment to Iberia tied down hundreds of thousands of French soldiers for nearly six years with the numbers fluctuating between a minimum of 100,000 men and a maximum of 370,000 men in August, 1810. Statistics on casualty figures have varied considerably, but British historian Charles Esdaile in his superb recent work The Peninsular War (2001), which is arguably the finest single-volume book on the subject, projects French deaths at approaching “a quarter of a million” men.
Furthermore, the conflict had quickly degenerated into an unwinnable quagmire that never manifested serious signs of total triumph. More than a century before World War I. popularized the expressions “war of attrition” and “total war”, the Peninsular Wars provided convincing evidence of their relevance to the modern world.
In June, 1807 Napoleon had achieved his zenith in power, prestige, and success after defeating Russia in battle and winning recognition for his hegemony from Tsar Alexander I. The diminutive Corsican artillery officer then loomed over the European Continent like a colossus. Yet in less than six years after the Iberian insurrections of May, 1808 he was traveling toward exile on the tiny island of Elba. The Iberian “ulcer” had contributed mightily toward bleeding his empire of all life.

Share it