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Why has the Peninsular War been so readily forgotten?

In Footprints in Spain, Simon Courtauld tackles this and many other absorbing subjects concerning Anglo-Spanish relations from the 12th century onwards

12 November 2016

9:00 AM

12 November 2016

9:00 AM

Footprints in Spain: British Lives in a Foreign Land Simon Courtauld

Quartet, pp.223, £20

You learn startling things about the long entanglement of the British with Spain on every page of Simon Courtauld’s absorbing and enjoyable new book, which is not a travelogue but a collection of historical vignettes arranged geographically. Did you know, for instance, that the first Spanish football team was founded by two Scottish doctors working for Rio Tinto in Huelva, and that in 1907 a team of seminarians from the English College in Valladolid defeated one representing Real Madrid? Or that the first visit by a reigning British monarch to Spain occurred when Queen Victoria went to have lunch with Queen Maria Cristina at the Aiete Palace in San Sebastián, travelling by train from Biarritz and returning the same afternoon? The English, Scottish, Castilian and Aragonese royal families had of course been intermarrying with abandon since the 12th century.

As well as forging alliances, these nations have also spent quite a bit of time fighting each other, or even in one case liberating one another from foreign invasion. That case is the Peninsular War, in which British armies under Wellington and Sir John Moore joined with Spanish armies to repel the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and Portugal. This is one of the unifying threads in the book — an epically sanguinary conflict which is surprisingly little remembered either in Spain or Britain.

Maybe not so surprising, when you recall (as Courtauld does, with some relish) the appalling bloodshed and mayhem which followed the sieges of Badajoz and San Sebastián. If you thought Brits in Spain behaved badly mainly on the beaches of Benidorm, think again. British troops, described by Wellington himself as ‘the scum of the earth’, massacred and raped the inhabitants of Badajoz and set fire to San Sebastián, destroying most of the old city. You don’t find many memorials to Wellington in Spain, though he is arguably one of the country’s greatest benefactors. And he behaved with exemplary honour — a story surprisingly left out by Courtauld — when he offered to return the paintings, including four by Velázquez, pillaged from the Royal Palace in Madrid by Joseph Bonaparte, which he captured after the battle of Vitoria. His offer was refused, with grateful thanks, and the paintings now hang in Apsley House.


The one British general who is remembered fondly in Spain is Sir John Moore, who led the long retreat to La Coruña in 1809 and was mortally wounded while presiding over a Dunkirk-style evacuation. Maybe the Spanish share our own taste for gallant losers (though Napoleon himself acknowledged that Moore’s skilful retreat had played a key part in the eventual French defeat). Moore is celebrated in a remarkable elegy by the Galician poet Rosalía de Castro. One of the most touching moments in the whole book is the description of the beautiful garden — the Jardín de San Carlos — devoted to Moore’s memory in La Coruña.

I would have liked rather less gore, and certainly less on bull-fighting, but that is a personal preference. Courtauld writes well on tauromachy, and certainly more soberly than the English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, whose book Bull Fever, dyed purple rather than blood-red, is too liberally quoted. Courtauld’s own prose is not at all purple but, to change metaphors, more on the dry side. If he were a sherry, he would be a manzanilla pasada, not an oloroso dulce or a treacly Pedro Ximénez.

This writerly self-effacement is admirable but also leads to a rather spare treatment of the succession of British writers, from Richard Ford and George Borrow through Laurie Lee and George Orwell to Gerald Brenan, who made Spain their theme. All of these make fleeting appearances, but in the chapter on Málaga Courtauld devotes far less space to Brenan than to the eccentric Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, founder of Whipsnade Zoo. Unlike nearly all the other Brits, Chalmers Mitchell remained in Málaga for the duration of the war, during which it was blown to bits by repeated Nationalist bombardments, while the Anarchists carried out savage reprisals. ‘It was my home; I had come to love and respect the people who possibly were going to face more terrible things, and I was unhappy about my garden and flowers.’

Let us hope love and respect between the British and Spanish prevail over darker emotions in the difficult times which lie ahead following the Brexit vote. Two particular crunches look like being the long-disputed status of Gibraltar and the future of the hundreds of thousands of Britons resident in Spain. One small cavil: the editors at Quartet have been maddeningly slapdash with Spanish accents. You mess with these at your peril, as I know from a piece I wrote in which an affectionate comment about a new bridge in Seville — ‘it’s just two years old (tiene dos añitos)’ — came out as ‘it’s got two little arseholes (tiene dos anitos)’.


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