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The British Army and the Peninsular War: Volume 1—Tilsit, Roliça, Vimeiro, Coruña:1807-1809

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The British Army and the Peninsular War: Volume 1—Tilsit, Roliça, Vimeiro, Coruña:1807-1809
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Author(s): J. W. Fortescue
Date Published: 2016/10
Page Count: 244
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-568-5
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-567-8

Volume 1 of the 6 volume history of the Peninsular War


Fortescue is rightly renowned for his multi-volume magnum opus, ‘The History of the British Army’, which, since it was written in the early decades of the twentieth century, feature the struggles with Napoleonic France, as a substantial part of the whole. These campaigns took place across the world but, for the British, most notably in Spain, Portugal and the South of France following the French invasion of Iberia. The numerous disconnected sections, within Fortescue’s larger work, concerning the Peninsular War, have been extracted for the first time and carefully edited to create this six volume history. There can be no doubt that in Fortescue the British Army found one of its finest historians. His scholarship is superb, but is balanced by outstanding and fearless academic analysis. What makes this history incomparable and essential is that Fortescue was a contemporary of the other great British military historian of the modern age, Charles Oman, who wrote his own history of the Peninsular War. Fortescue conferred and collaborated with Oman to produce this work and within these pages the reader will discover both confirmations and qualified corrections to some of Oman’s assertions on points of detail. Fortescue was extraordinarily thorough in his use of primary source material (which is annotated) and he additionally walked the ground of the campaign himself. The magnitude of the joint scholarship which brought this history into being cannot be overstated. This analysis of the Peninsular War differs significantly from Fortescue’s other writings on the British Army, in that in embraces the activities of the French and the Spanish in some depth, thus creating a total view. This is a serious, academic, and thoroughly readable, history and no library of the subject can be truly said to be complete without it. The text has been complemented in this Leonaur edition by battlefield maps not present in the original publication.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

At last on the 29th of April there arrived at the capital a Spaniard who had contrived to escape from Bayonne, bringing a verbal message from Ferdinand to the Council of Regency, with information of Napoleon’s behaviour and designs. The news in one form or another was soon known all over the city, inflaming the general excitement; and on the 1st of May Murat brought matters to a crisis by ordering the Council of Regency to deliver up to him Ferdinand’s younger brother Don Francisco, and his sister, the widowed Queen of Etruria, with her children. This was going too far. The greater part of the Royal Family was already at Bayonne, and the populace was not disposed to allow the one remaining prince to be carried thither also.
On the morning of the 2nd of May a crowd of angry citizens assembled by the gates of the palace, and, when the carriage of Don Francisco appeared, attacked the officers who were to accompany the young prince, and tore the vehicle to pieces. Murat called out the French battalion on guard at the palace, which speedily dispersed these particular rioters by remorseless firing; but the sound of the volleys called the whole population into the streets armed with every kind of weapon. Furious with rage, some made a hot but fruitless attack upon the battalion at the palace, while the rest fell savagely upon every isolated French soldier in the streets. For an hour they had their way; and had the Spanish regiments joined the populace, as they had every inclination to do, the fight would have been serious indeed.
Two captains of artillery managed to open the gates of the artillery-park to the rioters and enabled them to seize some hundreds of muskets; but the remainder of the officers would not move without orders from the Council of Regency. After a time French troops came pouring in from the camps outside the town, and, in spite of fierce resistance in some quarters, quickly put down the disturbance. The two officers at the artillery-park, after repelling two assaults with heavy loss to the enemy, were killed, and the few hundred insurgents who fought under them shared the same fate. In four hours all was over. Under a drastic decree Murat arrested about one hundred persons and shot them without further ceremony; and, at the cost of about a thousand fallen on both sides, order was restored in Madrid.
Intelligence of this outbreak reached Bayonne on the 4th. Napoleon seized the opportunity to summon Ferdinand before him once more. In the presence of his parents he charged him with having excited the insurrection and called upon him to abdicate before midnight, or take the consequences; and he hinted, if he did not actually state, that the consequences of refusal would be death. A murder or two, more or less, was no great matter to Napoleon; and Ferdinand, realising the fact, yielded at last and signed the act of abdication.
Twenty-four hours earlier the feeble old Charles had likewise surrendered to the emperor by formal treaty his rights to the throne of Spain and of all her possessions; and it remained therefore only to constrain Ferdinand to renounce his ultimate rights as heir to the crown. By the 10th of May this also was accomplished; and the royal family of Spain was then consigned to France, Charles and his queen to Compiègne, Ferdinand and his brother to Valençay, where they were entrusted to the custody of Talleyrand. Then came the task, so often accomplished as well by the Directory as by Napoleon himself in Italy and elsewhere, of manufacturing a popular demand for French rule in Spain.
With considerable difficulty Murat dragooned the Council of Regency into sending a petition to Napoleon for a new king and suggesting his brother Joseph for the honour, (May 13). This done, the emperor nominated a miscellaneous collection of one hundred and fifty Spanish dignitaries, who should attend him in person at Bayonne and there ask of him a sovereign. It is distressing to record that ninety-one of these persons stooped to obey this humiliating order. On the 15th of June they met at Bayonne; on the 8th of July Napoleon sent the new constitution, which they had drawn up, to the Tsar Alexander; and on the 9th Joseph Bonaparte crossed the frontier of France and entered his new kingdom. (Carres, de Napoléon).
Long before that time the whole of Spain had risen in arms to drive him out. The news of the insurrection in Madrid spreading rapidly through the country, with no little exaggeration of the severity with which it had been suppressed, had embittered men’s minds more than ever against France; and when upon this there followed detailed information of the occurrences at Bayonne, the smouldering discontent suddenly leapt into flame. It was one of the most remarkable movements recorded in history, a movement which perhaps was possible only in Spain, where the various provinces, kept asunder by natural obstacles and deep-seated jealousies, were still almost distinct kingdoms.
Such a peculiarity might seem fatal to a general revolt, but it was not so. For this rising was not the work of a leader or leaders, but sprang into life through the spontaneous impulse of millions of proud and sensitive men, who resented the insults offered to their nation by Napoleon as personal to each of themselves. Such a tumultuous outburst might have spent itself in mere impotent fury had it been compelled to seek direction from a single capital city; but here the provincial instinct was invaluable.
The outbreak at Madrid was like a beacon-signal which, being caught up after some hesitation by a single district, was then rapidly repeated by the rest. In each province leaders came forward to organise the rebellion upon a strictly provincial basis; and thus, instead of a single great movement, which at the outset might have failed from sheer unwieldiness, there were a dozen, all working upon different lines yet all animated by the same spirit—intense rage at the idea of turning Spain into a dependency of France, and, as a natural consequence, mad and uncalculating hatred of the French. In the later stages, as shall be seen, the provincial leaven in the national ferment was in danger of reducing the whole to naught; but at the outset its value was incalculable. Moreover, the provincial spirit was itself due in great measure to the conformation of the country, Spain being subdivided by chains of impassable mountains. Hence even the enemy was to some extent compelled to defer to it, because his troops could not often pass easily or rapidly from district to district. Catalonia, to take the extreme case, remained from beginning to end of the struggle practically a distinct seat of war.
Asturias, which had opened the eight centuries of conflict with the Moors, was also the first province to rise against the French. From the 9th of May onward there were disturbances in its capital, Oviedo, where, as it happened, the Provincial Council was in session. This body, a relic of earlier days of autonomy, furnished a centre of direction and organisation which did its work so well that on the 24th the city and the surrounding country rose with one accord, imprisoned the partisans of the French, and on the next day formally declared war against Napoleon Bonaparte.
Nor was this magnificent audacity a mere matter of words, for at the same time the council ordered eighteen thousand men to be raised for the defence of Asturias against invasion, and a few days later, May 30th, despatched two emissaries to London to beg help of the British Government. On the very day when these gentlemen sailed, Galicia likewise rose and secured for the national cause the two great arsenals of Coruña and Ferrol, with their garrisons of some forty thousand men. Leon meanwhile had already proclaimed the sovereignty of King Ferdinand; and the spirit of insurrection passed rapidly through the northern provinces, while Aragon, Valencia, Murcia, and Andalusia caught it up in the east and south, occasionally with outbreaks of bloodthirsty frenzy against real or supposed traitors. In a few weeks the French could hardly be said to hold a foot of Spanish soil outside the range of their cannon. Then, however, the evils of the provincial system began to appear. Committees sprang up in all directions to govern the several provinces, levy troops, and use their resources for the conduct of the war.
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