Historical analysis can learn incomparably more from individual experiences than was ever conceded by Hegel, leave alone, Marx.Ronald Fraser understood this a long time ago with his path-breaking oral history on the Spanish civil war. This account of the resistance to Napoleon during the Peninsular War depicts the richness, differentiation and vigour of ordinary Spaniards as they confronted the conqueror of Europe and moreover one who conquered in the name of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, i.e., civilization. In Fraser's history, the result of over a decade of intensive research, the individual's experience of himself and what he encounters contributes, as in Goya's paintings, to enriching the canvas as a whole. This history will soon become the major work on the period, the distilled thoughts of a mature and questioning mind.
A. Mailer's comments on Esdaile's "The Peninsular War" encouraged me to read "Napoleon's Cursed War" & "Liberty or Death!" & I too would recommend both of these books to anyone with a serious interest in the Peninsular War. "Napoleon's Cursed War" is unlike any other book on the Peninsular War that I have read. Fraser deals with the war solely from the Spanish view point & there are hardly any references at all to the British campaigns. He begins with attacks on the French by Spanish civilians even before the famous Dos de Mayo & continues with the uprisings in different regions of Spain, the setting up of regional Juntas, recruitment for the regular army & the forming of groups of guerrilleros - accounts of fierce resistance to the French & of incredible bravery. His book is based entirely on contemporary accounts of events, many of them by eye-witnesses. There are also scenes of vengeance, cruelty & suffering. As the war progressed poor young working class men became less willing to fight in the regular army & many deserted, some of them continued to fight against the French as guerrilleros & others became bandits, this caused conflict with their fellow countrymen from whom they stole. The guerrillas were more successful in their attacks than the regular army as they had no pitched battles. Their aim was to make a sudden attack with a quick victory & few losses & then disappear. Fraser has chapters on the Guerrilla & on the Constitution of 1812 (which was the year of the great hunger when thousands starved to death). Historians who disparage the part played by Spaniards in the Peninsular War & authors of historical novels who accuse the Spaniards of cowardice should read "Napoleon's Cursed War" but I cannot see it appealing to anyone who is only interested in the battles. "Liberty or Death!" is the biography of the guerrillero Friar Asensio Nebot & the first half of the book covers his attacks on the French in Valencia & Castellón. Wilson gives a good summary of the events leading up to the Peninsular War. His description of the uprising in Valencia at the end of May & how the Valencians defended their city against Moncey's attack in June 1808 is more detailed & vivid than Fraser's. Wilson's book is less academic than those of Fraser & Esdaile as it is a fictionalised biography; it does not have an index or footnotes & his sources are not indicated but there is a selected bibliography. However, in my opinion, it has the feel of the period, is very informative & is a good read. I found the account of what happened after the war particularly interesting. The situation was far worse under the Desired One than before Napoleon invaded, so much so that some Liberals (not Nebot) went to America to ask Joseph Bonaparte to come back as King of Spain. He refused. Nebot was involved in most of the plots & revolts against Fernando VII.
Mr. Fraser has produced a comprehensive, well-researched and eminently readable book of a war previously known mainly from the viewpoints of the main protagonists. To have such a detailed account in English seen from perspective of the Spanish population is a unique achievement. The writer's extensive knowledge of Spanish history makes this book a pleasure to read for anyone interested in the history of the country, with several themes being relevant to more recent times and events.
I will say upfront that this is not a book to pick up and read cover to cover, and I didn't do that. I have not read every page, but I've read a great deal of it, and I'll be going back to it time and again.
I bought this for research purposes, knowing almost nothing about the Spanish side of the Peninsular wars and being about to write a heroine who was a partisan. This first of all gave me an excellent background into the state of Spain, politically, economically and socially, before Napoleon invade, which was valuable context not only for the effect of the wars on the country, but for understanding why, post-1814, Spain entered a long and drawn out and very complex period of social change and upheaval that really only ended with Franco's death in the 1970s.
It's really well-written and painstakingly researched. It is a scholarly tome, no getting away from that, but it is filled with fascinating little counterpoints to the narrative historical flow - excerpts from diaries, personal stories etc. I had no idea that guerrilla warfare originated in Spain at this time, and absolutely no idea that the Spanish guerrillas/partisans played such a vital role in 'winning' the war against Napoleon and ousting his army from their country. And here's the key point that Fraser makes over and over: the Spanish wanted the French occupation over, that's what they were fighting for and why thy saw it as a revolutionary war; while Wellington and the British army were interested in the 'big picture' - getting rid of Napoleon. Fraser argues, to a degree, that this difference in objectives meant that Wellington used and abused the Spanish armies in their various forms, and that the various governments in the Congress of Vienna afterwards sidelined Spain and its contribution. He is very critical of Wellington at various points, and I don't know enough to argue with him, though he argued very persuasively as far as I'm concerned.
This is a fascinating book. It's dense, it's long, and as I said, far from an easy read, but in terms of the subject matter, it's brilliant, and as far as I'm concerned, it's not only given me everything I needed for my own research, it's thrown open the door to a whole new arena of history that I'm definitely going to be pursuing. (