Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Peninsular War, A New History - Charles Esdaile

Having just finished reading Charles Esdaile's book on the Peninsular War, I thought I would share my thoughts.

This book was first published back in 2002 and my copy is a first edition hard back that I picked up as a second hand copy for a very reasonable price. I certainly got more than my moneys worth.

This excellent book is probably the first of the more modern treatments of the subject to focus more on the socio-political aspects of this war with more of an overview of the battles which have been well covered and detailed in other histories such as Oman and Gates. That is to say that the major battles, important as they are, are not overlooked but very carefully placed in the context of the political situation at that time.

One thing that clearly differentiates this Napoleonic theatre from the others of this period is that we are dealing with a war within a war, with multiple campaigns and shifting alliances throughout the period of 1808-14 and Esdaille is able to capture the tumultuous changes that affected both Portugal and Spain; both absolutist monarchies with a strong influence from the church and an almost serf like relationship between peasants and the ruling elite. The war was to cause a dramatic shift of power in both countries and lead to a popular movement to more liberal inclusive regimes that would sow the seeds for further strife and internal conflict in both countries but particularly Spain, as the army developed a taste for intervening in civil conflict. In addition both countries would lose the control and wealth they originally had coming in from their extensive American colonies, and see the reducing of Spain to a minor power in European affairs.

Into this pot of fermenting conflict the armies of the two most consistent of enemies, Great Britain and France, jousted with each other seeking to take advantage of the shifting initiative as the wider war within Europe allowed for one side or the other to attempt to gain a knock out position.

Esdaile seamlessly develops the narrative of the tension between the allies Britain, Portugal and Spain who fought hard to suppress their dislikes of each other by focusing on their common hatred of Napoleonic France and he describes this tension ebbing and flowing with military success and failure; with the final perverse situation of seeing Wellington grab the ascendancy over French arms with his dramatic victory at Salamanca in 1812 and to see the liberation of vast areas of Spain only to drive an even deeper rift between the British and the Junta in Cadiz as the Spanish government felt more able to focus on the liberal constitutional changes it wished to pursue instead of pursuing the British desire to see them focus on rebuilding a more potent and disciplined Spanish military able to support further military operations.

Wellington began to become more suspicious of Spanish motives as the liberals within the government tried to control his moves by offering him the command of Spanish forces but have his operations subject to their approval. This was resisted but the eventual promoting of Wellington to Generalissimo only caused deep resentment with certain senior general officers in the Spanish army and created more trouble than the benefits such a move would have seemed to have had the potential to offer. This mutual mistrust and dysfunction would see Wellington dispense with the services of his best Spanish troops at the border with France as he decided that the poorly supplied and supported Spanish troops could not be relied upon not to go on the rampage in France, "bringing ruin on us all" as he described.

Esdaile also gives plenty of detail and evidence to reveal the truth behind the two edged sword that was the guerrilla war. There is no doubt that the war of the knife caused much loss and strife to French forces in areas such as the Basque region and in Catalonia where when coordinated with allied action was most advantageous to the common cause. However many of the roving groups turned out to be no more than gangs of ruffians free to commit crimes and atrocities on friend and foe alike for their own personal gain. In addition such irregular forces proved a drain on Spanish manpower for the regular army as soldiers preferred the free and more liberal ways of the partisan and were thus very happy to avoid conscription or simply desert at the first opportunity.

The Spanish authority sought to curb the excesses of the best groups and rid themselves of the worst by carefully issuing army commissions to guerrilla leaders thus bringing them in under regular command, giving them access to supplies, but controlling their numbers and activities in accordance to the national benefit.

Juan Martin Diez - El Empecinado, one of the more successful
and regular guerrilla leaders of the Peninsular War

The book is a long read covering the whole war in 509 pages, but I found the different perspective it offered the English reader on the war a refreshing insightful experience and would highly recommend it to the serious student of this period. Charles Esdaile even takes a moment at the end to outline other areas not covered in the English studies that warrant further research and although I did not entirely buy in to his analysis and conclusion on the relationship of the Peninsular War to the final outcome of the Napoleonic war as a whole, I would have no hesitation in recommending this history as a thoroughly well researched and presented read.


  1. Thanks for the review Jonathan I will look this one up I sounds a good read .
    Regards Furphy .

  2. Sounds like a good read. I'm presently very much enjoying Oman's old school work on the peninsular. I have a beautiful new addition to my peninsular project to reveal next week... Jeremy

  3. It's a refreshing approach and not a bad read at all - I've been lucky hitting 'good' books over the past few years. It's a worthy inclusion in a library and it shouldn't be too taxing a read for just about any Napoleonic buff.