Napoleon’s Cursed War Ronald Fraser

Verso, pp.587, 29.99

In exile on St Helena, Napoleon brooded on the cause of the failure of his bid for the mastery of Europe. He confessed that ‘accursed Spain was the primary cause of my misfortunes’. Ronald Fraser’s book of over 500 pages may be seen as a commentary on this confession. Fraser made his name as the oral historian of Francoism and its opponents. Without the voices of the living, for his description of Spain from 1808 to 1814 Fraser has ransacked the archival sources and contemporary accounts. It is a fine example of what he calls history as seen from below. Whereas after Austerlitz the Austrian state survived defeat, and resistance in the Tyrol and in Naples were ‘minor surmountable regional affairs’, Spain was an exception. The state of the ancien régime collapsed and the popular resistance to Napoleon, the subject of Fraser’s book, was a formidable force. He rejects the notion of a universal national rising as a liberal myth. It was a much more complicated affair.

How had this come about? In the spring of 1808 Spain was still the ally of Napoleon. The government of Charles IV, his Queen and their favourite Godoy, an obscure hidalgo from Extramadura, allowed a French army to march through Spain to drive the British army out of Portugal. Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law and the most colourful and brutal of his marshals, occupied Madrid. Meanwhile Napoleon forced the royal family to come to Bayonne, where he exploited their ‘dirty intrigues’ to impose his brother Joseph as king of Spain. As the inhabitants of the occupied countries of Western Europe, after the defeats of 1940, had to decide on whether to collaborate with Hitler’s New Order, so Spaniards had to decide whether or not to co-operate with the intruder Joseph. The collaborators in Spain were the afrancesados (Frenchfiers). They argued that to resist the military might of Napoleon’s France would plunge Spain into a war it could not win. Moreover Joseph, unlike his brother, had the interests of his new subjects at heart. He would favour the reforms that enlightened men believed would bring Spain into the modern world.

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If the afrancesados saw themselves as protectors of the long-term interests of Spain, those Spaniards, whom Fraser calls patriots, saw them as traitors to the legitimate king, Ferdinand VII, prisoner of the ‘tyrant Napoleon’ in Talleyrand’s chateau. On 2 May the supporters of Ferdinand, including the labouring classes, rose against Murat. As the news of the rising and its suppression reached the provincial capitals, local notables formed juntas, i.e. provisional governments acting in the name of the absent Ferdinand. These urban revolutions are discussed in great detail by Fraser. He makes clear that the labouring classes accepted the leadership of the local bigwigs with reluctance, even hostility. It represented the ‘egoism’ of the rich, and their fear that plebeians might, out of control, attack property.

The task of the Juntas was to organise the war effort. At first they met with some success. The army of the Junta of Seville defeated and captured the raw conscripts of Dupont’s army at the battle of Bailen (July 1808) giving Spaniards the delusion that they would be able to defeat Napoleon’s Grand Army. The heroic defence of Saragossa, one of Fraser’s vivid set pieces, and Gerona startled Europe. The heroine of Saragossa’s resistance became the subject of a poem by Byron. But by 1810 the Spanish army had gone down in a series of disastrous defeats by Napoleon’s generals. There were no more heroic defences of besieged cities.

In 1810 Soult, Napoleon’s most successful general, after an easy conquest of Andalusia, entered Seville in triumph. Its citizens gave King Joseph an enthusiastic welcome. But he failed to take Cadiz where the Supreme Junta, created in 1808 by the union of the provincial Juntas, summoned a Cortes i.e. a parliament, as representing the sovereign Spanish nation. A minority of radical liberals pushed through the constitution of 1812, which was to become the sacred codex of advanced liberalism from St Petersburg to Naples. It severely limited the power of the king and the influence of the Catholic Church. The Inquisition and episcopal censorship were abolished. These drastic measures were bitterly opposed by conservative defenders of the traditional monarchy and the catholic church. The legacy of the War of Independence, Fraser argues, was the ensuing conflict between urban secularist liberals and rural catholic reactionaries that was to divide Spain for 100 years. When the ‘desired one’ Ferdinand was released from prison to return to Spain, sensing the strength of conservative hostility to liberalism in all its forms, he abolished the constitution of 1812 and re-established the Inquisition.

An equally important legacy of the struggle against Napoleon was the direct intervention of the generals in political life. In all wars generals tend to take over power and determine policy — think of Lloyd George’s struggle against Haig during the 1914-18 war. But with peace the civilians take over, generals may remain influential but the civilians direct policy. This was not the case in Spain after the war of 1808. Generals staged pronunciamientos, political coups d’etat, to hoist themselves into power as party leaders. In 1936, a relatively small group of conspiring generals rose to destroy the civil government of the Second Republic. Without this last pronunciamiento of Spanish history, acute though the tensions in society may have been, the civil war of 1936 would never have taken place as it did. For 50 years I have argued that this direct intervention in political life began with generals restive of civilian control during the War of Independence. The Marqués de Santa Cruz observed, ‘Can one deny that Spain is governed by soldiers? How can I avoid seeing that it is this kind of government that threatens my grandchildren?’ What his great-great-grandchildren got was 30 years of Franco’s dictatorship.

Fraser devotes two chapters to the ‘invisible army’ of the guerrillas. Villagers whose life was disrupted, deserters from the Spanish army, a collection of ‘rogues and trouble-makers and the lawless’ took to the hills. They fell on isolated convoys of Napoleon’s troops. French commanders testified that such mobile actions forced them to disperse their troops in what were essentially police actions. The guerrillas never occupied a major town and like the French Resistance in the second world war, they could not hope to drive the occupying armies out their country. Nor could the Spanish armies. Wellington insisted this must be the task of a large professional army i.e. his own British Army. He proved his point, after the battle of Vitoria in June 1813, by driving Joseph and the afrancesados into France, loaded with some of the finest paintings of Spain as loot. Wellington’s contempt of the Spanish war effort was expressed in his aphorism: ‘I have never known the Spaniards do anything much, less do anything well’. Spanish patriots and historians have felt outraged by such hubris. Fraser redresses the balance by giving due weight to the Spanish popular resistance.

For Fraser the sufferings and sacrifices of Spanish people in the War of Independence brought them what Goya called in one word ‘nothing’. Spain itself, dismissed as a ‘secondary court’, took no part in the deliberations in which the conservative statesmen of the great powers settled the political order of post-Napoleonic Europe. His vivid set pieces, skilfully constructed from a variety of original sources, bring to life the voice of ordinary people It is the work of a professional historian, as opposed to pop history. As such it demands much of the reader. But it is worth the effort to tackle what is a remarkable contribution to Spanis
h history.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated