The Peninsular War by Charles Esdaile

A throughly comprehensive account of the Iberian struggle between Napoleon and the Anglo-Portugeuse-Spanish alliance during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Esdaile’s opus is the text to read on the conflict, covering every aspect, be it political, military, diplomatic or financial of the famous campaigns across the Spanish heartland.

An expert on the French Revolutionary Wars (see this impressive list of related texts), Esdaile is clearly in command of the subject, and The Peninsular War is no different. The author tracks the conflict from its erstwhile beginnings as the Spainish-Franco alliance fell apart, through the political collapse of the ancien regime, the intervention of Britain, the rise of the guerilla war, France’s push towards Lisbon and the slow gradual repulse of L’Emperur’s armies back across the Pyrenees.

Through the intermingling of eye-witness accounts and his own expert analysis, Esdaile gives us a clear vision of life in nineteenth century Spain at all levels of society, the hopes, dreams and objectives of the poor, the soldiers, the elite. The many varied and pivotal figures are brought to life by his words, from the stern, conservative Wellington, the bumbling Joseph Bonaparte, the quarreling Spanish generals and the people of Spain itself.

The book is particularly useful for its in-depth analysis of Spain changing political system, in both the French and “Patriot” zones, throughout the conflict. You will be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive account of the numerous constitutional and governmental reforms written and brought to bear during the period, how they were created and implemented.

At the same time Esdaile manages to keep a focus on the vital military aspects of the war, focusing each chapter on a critical engagement, from the taking of Madrid, through vital battles like Torres Vedras, Talavera, Salamanca and Vitoria. His narrative of these clashes is succinct and easily followed. With the helpfully provided maps, it is easy for even the layman to understand the vital maneuvers and tactics of these fights, further helped by Esdailes continuing explanation of the strengths and weaknesses of either side and the technology employed during the period.

Esdaile’s two main points are that the two resounding images of the war, the thin red line of Wellington’s army and the Spanish partisan war, have been given an undeserving amount of credit for the eventual result. Esdaile skillfully uses repeated battlefield and army manuever analysis to lay the military victory of Wellington and his erstwhile allies at the hands of French inferiority in numbers and general incompetence. His hypothesis is backed by a scathing attack on the make-up of the Spanish army throughout the war, and the numerous problems within the alliance structure. Furthermore, Esdaile traces an outline of a French military and political system riven with discord, unable to gain a decisive victory in Spain. It is a war that the French lost rather than the Allies won.

On the subject of the guerilla war, Esdaile uses the accounts of French occupational forces and the actual recording of their activities to paint a picture of an ineffective resistance, whose actions were vastly exaggerated by the media of the time. The traditional image of the Spanish bandito bleeding France dry is attacked: the French always had the numbers to deal with the guerilla problem, but had other things on their minds. The guerillas were often little more than lawless bandits, and even the Spanish government began to condemn their activities towards the end of the conflict. From Esdaile’s account, it is clear that we can draw few effective parallels between el guerilla and the modern-day tactics of counter-insurgency.

It’s a refreshing and strongly backed look at a conflict that is such an important part of Spanish, French and British history. There are many stories and aspects of the Peninsula War beyond Wellington and the partisan, and Esdaile  shines a light on nearly all. His account may get bogged down occasionally in the political machine of Spain, but that is a minor complaint. His bibliography and research notes are truly boggling in scope. He knows what he’s talking about.

Fully recommended.

This entry was posted in Books, Counter Insurgency (COIN), History, Reviews, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Peninsular War by Charles Esdaile

  1. Graham Moores says:

    Very good book and extremely interesting. The changing role of the church was of particular interest. But, as I pointed out to Charles at Vittoria, he misses out the Battle of Oporto (Crossing of Douro) which is, in my opinion one of the best stories of this or any part of history. He also has decided that the Peninsular War finishes at the French border – this is plainly ridiculous. The Battle of the Nive and the Battle of St Pierre were clearly part of a one, rolling battle, the Battle of the Pyrenees.

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