The Potter, the Priest and the Stick in the Mud

David A. Bell

  • Napoleon’s Cursed War: Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War by Ronald Fraser
    Verso, 587 pp, £29.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 1 84467 082 6

In March 1962, the German far-right intellectual Carl Schmitt visited Spain. It was a homecoming of sorts, for while Germany now shunned this brilliant jurist, who had given enthusiastic support to the Nazis, the land of Franco still revered him (he spoke fluent Spanish, and his daughter was married to a prominent Franquista). Schmitt was there to give lectures at Pamplona and Saragossa in connection with something apparently remote: the 150th anniversary of Spain’s 1808-14 War of Independence against Napoleon. But he insisted on the continuing relevance of this struggle by Spanish and British forces to expel French invaders from Spanish soil: the War of Independence, he declared, marked the beginning of a key form of modern warfare – ‘guerrilla’ or ‘partisan’ war, in which combatants refuse to recognise each other’s legitimacy, fight without restraint, and finally achieve a condition of pure conflict that Schmitt called ‘absolute enmity’. His Theory of the Partisan (the title under which the lectures appeared in print) formed a corollary to his ‘concept of the political’, in which politics itself ultimately reduces to the stark dichotomy of friend and foe. Schmitt traced a line from Spain to later guerrilla movements, including Mao’s peasant insurgency in China and the resistance of France’s right-wing OAS terrorists to Algerian independence.

Schmitt was not alone in seeing Spain’s War of Independence as a turning point in modern history. As historians of the subject rarely fail to point out, the word ‘guerrilla’ first came into common usage during the conflict. The Spanish uprising, they add, became the rallying cry and model for much subsequent resistance to Napoleon, while the emperor himself blamed the ‘Spanish ulcer’ for his defeat. They generally see the intense patriotism of Spanish writers and preachers of the period as a harbinger of contemporary nationalism. And they find ample support for their ideas in Spanish popular culture, which has long treated the war as a quasi-miraculous crusade by the entire nation to drive out corrupt foreign intruders.

Until 1808, Spain had served as Napoleon’s subservient ally, and in 1807 even allowed French troops to cross its territory to conquer (temporarily) the British client state of Portugal. But Napoleon, then at the height of his power, had little but scorn for a country he considered priest-ridden and decadent, and for its spectacularly dysfunctional ruling family (King Carlos IV was mentally unstable; real power lay with the royal favourite Manuel Godoy, Queen Maria Luisa’s lover; the heir to the throne Fernando plotted against them all). In May 1808, Napoleon summoned the king and his rebellious heir to Bayonne, where he forced them both to abdicate in favour of his own brother Joseph. He counted on his troops already in the Peninsula to enforce the transition, but faced insurrections in numerous cities and towns. In Madrid, the French army restored order with the savage repression that Goya captured in his brilliant tableaux of the Dos de Mayo and Tres de Mayo. But the Spanish scored an unexpected victory at Bailén in the summer, pushing the French back towards the Pyrenees.

Napoleon himself then took command of a full-fledged French invasion, which put Joseph Bonaparte back on the throne in Madrid and drove a British expeditionary force to a humiliating seaborne evacuation from Galicia. The ghastly French sieges of Saragossa ended with some of the worst urban combat seen in Europe before the 20th century, and as many as fifty thousand dead. After three more years of fighting, Bonapartist rule extended, in theory, over almost all of Spain. Yet guerrilla bands under chieftains with colourful nicknames like ‘The Potter’, ‘The Priest’ and ‘The Stick in the Mud’ (El Empecinado) made large stretches of the countryside ungovernable, forcing the French to travel in armed convoys and to employ increasingly brutal methods of counterinsurgency. At one point, a French general and the leader of one of the largest guerrilla bands both vowed to execute four of the enemy for each of their own men taken prisoner and shot. Accounts of atrocities on both sides fill many volumes. But despite sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Peninsula, Napoleon never managed entirely to subdue the guerrillas, and British forces under Sir Arthur Wellesley (who became Lord Wellington thanks to his Spanish successes) continued to defy the French from their base in Portugal. Finally, as Napoleon withdrew his troops from the Spanish disaster to feed the even greater disaster in Russia, Joseph Bonaparte’s regime collapsed, and the French fled back across the mountains.

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