Resorting to ruses, these troops peacefully occupied important Spanish fortresses.
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Marshal Joachim Murat made a flamboyant entrance into Madrid on horseback, accompanied by trumpeters, drummers, lavishly uniformed cavalry and 97 turbaned Egyptian Mamelukes, a living relic of the Egyptian expedition. Your Majesty, he wrote Napoleon at one point, is awaited here like the Messiah. A slight exaggeration, to say the least.
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But initially, few Spaniards saw the French as invaders. In the meantime, the Spanish population had finally grown anxious about the swelling French presence, and when rumors spread that Murat had abducted a Bourbon prince, an uprising took place in Madrid. The French suppressed it amid gory street fighting, and the next day firing squads summarily executed hundreds of prisoners. The painter Francisco de Goya later devoted two of his most brilliant works to these two days in May. Another offered a phantasmagorical tableau of implacable soldiers taking cold aim at an illuminated, Christlike victim.
Meanwhile in Bayonne, just over the French border, Napoleon insisted that both Carlos and his son abdicate in his favor, alternately cajoling, threatening and bursting into fits of sheer rage. Napoleon had utter contempt for Fernando in particular. He is so stupid I have not been able to get a word out of him, he wrote to his counselor Talleyrand.
Whether you scold him or praise him, his face remains blank. In the short term, the threats worked. Father and son both surrendered their rights and departed for exile in France. The emperor then played a game of musical thrones, ordering his brother Joseph to trade Naples for Madrid and giving Murat, a former grocer and army private, the lesser but nonetheless royal reward of southern Italy. Surely, they believed, this corrupt and somnolent country could pose no serious resistance to the greatest empire since Rome. To judge from their letters and memoirs, imperial soldiers and administrators mostly seemed to have the same impressions: the dirty, poor and old-fashioned appearance of Spanish houses, the profusion of monastic robes in the streets, the dark and wild look of the men, who all seemed lice-ridden.
What the French did not expect was the following: O happy gothic, barbarian and fanatical Spaniards! Happy with our monks and with our Inquisition, which, according to the ideas of the French Enlightenment, has kept us a century behind other nations. Oh, if we could only go back two centuries more! Some adopted a language of national hatred, depicting the French as barbaric, even inhuman: What sort of thing is a Frenchman?
A being monstrous and indefinable, a being half-created. There is nobody who does not have the right to kill these ferocious animals. This was rebellion on a massive scale. The so-called Peninsular War would follow a twisting and complex course for more than five years. At times the French faced little opposition from regular armies, but the guerrillas were a different matter, and the number of troops Napoleon had to maintain in the peninsula testify eloquently to their importance: from , in June to more than , in October and to well over , in July Only when the Russian campaign greedily sucked men away did the number shrink, falling below , by July , with catastrophic consequences.
Estimates of total French military deaths in Spain vary widely, but they may have amounted to as many as , The excesses and atrocities of the Peninsular War took many different murderous forms. There were the Madrid executions of , scorched into European memory by Goya as deeply as Picasso would later scorch the name of Guernica.
There were the ferocious initial reactions to the French — for instance, the massacre of as many as French citizens by a mob in Valencia on June 5, In fact, we witnessed all the horrors of an assault, although the town had made no defense! We may date from this period the manifest change which took place in the French army…. The most concentrated horror of the war, meanwhile, did not involve the guerrillas at all but uniformed troops involved in that classic form of Old Regime warfare, a siege.
In the spring of , Saragossa, a city on the banks of the Ebro River whose people had particular devotion to a basilica where the Virgin Mary had allegedly appeared on a pillar of marble, declared itself in revolt against the intruder king el rey intruso. Saragossa was poorly fortified, with only 1, regular Spanish troops available to protect it, and on June 15 French General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes attempted to storm it.
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But the population of Saragossa offered unexpectedly fierce resistance, spurred on by the supposed miraculous appearance of a palm tree topped by a crown in the sky above the basilica. Thousands of men and women rushed to the walls, eager to serve the virgin of the pillar. The French retreated in disorder. On June 28, they tried again, this time under Jean-Antoine Verdier, the same man who had helped carry out the scourging of southern Italy.
Once again, Saragossa beat the French back. According to legend, a Catalan girl, Augustina Zaragoza Domenech, managed to take over a cannon from her dying lover and fire it point-blank at the advancing French, saving a key strongpoint. Verdier pulled back and began a ferocious bombardment. On June 30 alone, his men fired 1, explosive shells into the city.
One French witness reported that the city was like a volcano as explosion ceaselessly followed explosion…. The streets were strewn with corpses. Bombs and grenades knocked whole pieces of buildings into the streets, while cannonballs smashed openings in the walls for French troops. A lack of troops kept Verdier from mounting a successful assault, and he finally withdrew. Several months later, the French returned to a more heavily fortified Saragossa with a much larger force commanded by the hardened Marshal Jean Lannes. Once again the French launched a storm of fire, lobbing as many as 42, explosive shells into the city during December.
With Saragossa overcrowded by soldiers, civilian defenders and refugees from the countryside, a typhus epidemic began, killing more than people a day. There then began some of the worst urban combat ever seen in Europe before the 20th century. The French advanced literally house by house. According to one French account, it was necessary to mine them and blow them up one after the other, break down the partition walls and advance over the rubble.
Sometimes the battle even proceeded room by room, with both sides gouging loopholes in the walls, sticking their muskets through and blazing away point-blank at each other. A third of the town became a virtually impassable maze of broken rock through which the French could navigate only by following paths cleared by their engineers and marked with stakes.
Finally, in mid-February, Saragossa surrendered. But even as the French prevailed in Saragossa, the rural guerrillas gnawed at the strength and morale of their forces and radically disrupted the administration of the country. An uncannily similar situation unfolded in Iraq after the American victory in American and allied forces engaged in a protracted, frustrating attempt to move Iraq toward peace and stability, and a part of the Iraqi population, led by the titular government, sided with them.
Another part, probably larger, remained aloof, focusing principally on its own safety and well-being. A third part viewed the foreign forces with open hostility, while a fourth part, probably quite small, engaged in active resistance. Since these insurgents had no chance of successfully confronting the American army in pitched battles, they instead engaged in sneak attacks on small detachments or civilians, after which they immediately melted back into the population at large. Their actions made it nearly impossible for Americans to leave heavily fortified bases except in heavily fortified convoys.
American soldiers complained in private about being unable to secure any territory other than that within immediate range of their guns, with the result that they needed, in the words of one Marine, repeatedly to sweep the same insurgents, or other insurgents, out of these same towns without being able to hold them. In Spain, the equivalent of the new Iraqi government was the fragile regime of Joseph Bonaparte, supported by the self-proclaimed enlightened Spaniards known as the afrancesados literally, the Frenchified.
A large segment of the population remained aloof from the conflict entirely. Another large segment greeted the French with hostility. The guerrillas themselves probably never numbered more than 40, Their effect, however, was far out of proportion to this figure. Their preferred method of attack lacking car bombs and plastic explosives was to descend without warning, in bands of hundreds, on small, isolated detachments of French troops — stragglers, sentries, scouts and messengers.
They relied on surprise and shock, and generally retreated on meeting any serious resistance. On a single day, November 20, , 80 of the French soldiers crossing the Sierra de Gata en route to Portugal simply disappeared. As Miot de Melito put it melodramatically, An invisible army spread itself over nearly the whole of Spain, like a net from whose meshes there was no escape.
Rather than tracking the small, mobile guerrilla forces, the French concentrated mostly in relatively few strongpoints, leaving the rest of the country thinly occupied and therefore effectively out of their control. An entire army corps spent its time simply safeguarding the crucial road from Madrid north to France.
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The Spanish say quite rightly that our troops are plowing furrows in the water. The guerrillas had a complex profile. The social composition of the forces varied widely. Often, as historian Charles Esdaile has stressed, bands preyed as much or more on their fellow countrymen as on the French. By , some had set up regular systems of tolls and taxations, through which even French merchants could pass unmolested as long as they paid.
And as time went on, others effectively transformed themselves into new units, complete with standard ranks, regimental organization, uniforms and even artillery mostly seized from the French. By , Francisco Espoz y Mina Uncle Francisco, or The King of Navarre , the Basque commander of the single most successful band, had over 6, soldiers organized in 10 regiments, dressed in blue uniforms with breeches and jackets, armed with muskets and bayonets, and trained to fight in line and column.
Yet he also continued to use established guerrilla tactics and managed to pin down as many as 38, French soldiers in What confirmed the guerrillas in their stance of absolute enmity toward the French was religion. The massive presence of the clergy on Spanish soil noticed by French observers had a very real effect. In a full quarter of Spanish land revenue went to the Church. The population of 10 million included 30, parish priests and another , monks, nuns and other clergy.
These men and women preached against the invaders without respite and even promised remission from divine punishment for those who fought against them. A much-used Spanish Catechism of called the French former Christians and modern heretics and insisted that it was no more a sin to kill them than it would be to kill a wild animal. A large proportion of the French officers posted in Spain had previously confronted partisans in the Tyrol and Italy.
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