Notes From the Margins…

Spain and the Origins of ‘People’s War’

  • August 19, 2021
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Watching the collapse of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, I’ve been rereading Albert Jean Michel de Rocca’s powerful memoir of the Peninsular War In the Peninsula with a French Hussar.  This might seem a little tangential, but bear with me.  Sous-Lieutenant de Rocca was a Swiss soldier who enlisted in Napoleon’s army, whose regiment the 2nd Hussars was deployed to Spain in 1808, and his memoir is a keen-eyed account of what was then the historical novelty of ‘people’s war’ or ‘patriotic war’ that emerged in response to Napoleon’s victories in Europe.

This phenomenon wasn’t as novel as it sometimes seemed.  Irregular warfare has a long history that reaches all the back to classical times.  But it shocked nineteenth century armies steeped in the notion that countries whose armies had been defeated on the battlefield had no right to continue fighting afterwards – let alone fight without uniforms.

On the one hand such warfare was depicted as cruel, barbaric, and dishonourable, in comparison with cavalry charges and the organised mass slaughter of clashes between uniformed armies.   At the same time it was increasingly impossible to ignore the fact that these wars were waged in defense of the nation against foreign occupation – a motive that was generally considered to be honourable and admirable.

Nowhere was this apparent contradiction more glaring than in Napoleon’s ‘Spanish ulcer.’

In The Art of War (1838), the great French military strategist Baron Antoine de Jomini looked back nostalgically to the lost era of eighteenth-century warfare in which ‘the French and English guards courteously invited each other to fire first’, which had been displaced by ‘the frightful epoch when priests, women,, and children throughout Spain plotted the murder of isolated soldiers.’

This is the war that de Rocca describes, in which Spaniards would get French soldiers drunk and then massacre them, and guerrilla ambushes were so common that French soldiers could only travel on the roads in force to keep their supply lines and lines of communication open, and where Spanish peasants, ‘ Like avenging vultures eager for prey, …followed the French columns at a distance to murder such of the soldiers as, fatigued or wounded, remained behind on a march.’



French reprisals were equally cruel and savage, as Goya makes clear in the sombre iconography of Los desastres de la guerra:



Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, like all his conquests, was motivated primarily by geopolitical considerations.   But it was presented to the Spanish people and to the French army as a generous act, that would liberate Spain from backwardness, religious ‘superstition’, and a reactionary Bourbon dynasty,  and expose the Spanish to an enlightened and superior French culture.

Faced with ferocious resistance from a people that remained faithful to its religion and also to its hateful autocratic monarch Ferdinand VII, the French army responded with stunning savagery.  In Ronda, de Rocca describes how ‘The mountaineers hung their French prisoners or burned them alive; and in return, our soldiers rarely gave quarter to a Spaniard found under arms.’

De Rocca describes his own relief on being wounded and sent back to France, at being able to ‘quit and unjust and inglorious war, where the sentiments of my heart continually disavowed the evil my arm was condemned to do.’

Like many French soldiers, de Rocca saw Spain through an Orientalist lens, which attributed Spanish guerrilla warfare to its Moorish past, but he was also intelligent and clear-eyed enough to recognise that Napoleon’s attempt to foist his brother onto the Spanish throne occupation was unjust in principle, and was bound to be opposed by a Spanish people ‘ animated solely by religious patriotism…but they had but one interest, but one sentiment – to revenge, by every possible means, the wrongs that the French had done their country.’

De Rocca also recognised the moral degradation of the French army, as it attempted to impose its will by force on a hostile population:

The French could only maintain themselves in Spain by terror; they were constantly under the necessity of punishing the innocent with the guilty, and of taking revenge on the weak for the offences of the powerful.  Plunder had become necessary for existence, and such atrocities as were occasioned by the enmity of the people, and the injustice of the cause for which the French were fighting, injured the moral feeling of the army, and sapped the very foundations of military discipline, without which regular troops have neither strength nor power.

Looking back on the war, de Rocca recalls how

The Spanish, as a nation, were animated by one and the same feeling, love of independence, and abhorrence of strangers who would have humbled their national pride by imposing a government upon them.  It was neither armies nor fortresses that were to be conquered in Spain, but that one, yet multiplied sentiment which filled the whole people.  It was the inmost soul of each and every one that resisted the blow – that entrenchment which neither ball nor bayonet could reach.

De Rocca concluded with this remarkable tribute to the enemy that had killed so many of his comrades:

These events have changed the face of Europe; they demonstrate as fully as the long and noble resistance of the Spanish people, the real strength of states does not consist so much in the number and strength of their regular armies, as in that religious, patriotic, or political feeling which is alone powerful enough to interest every individual of a nation in the public cause as if it were his own.

Years later French résistants motivated by very similar motivations would use methods that the Nazi occupiers regarded as ‘terrorism’.  And within a decade of World War 2 French armies would fight anti-colonial resistance movements with their own investment in the ‘public cause.’

Today the same dynamic can be seen across the world, in the wars on terror, in the Somali resistance to the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of 2006.   And the scenes that Goya once depicted have often been repeated, whenever foreign armies seek to impose their will be force on a population that is prepared to resist them.

Such resistance may not be virtuous or admirable.

It may not meet with conventional standards of ‘civilised warfare’, but it is to some extent inevitable, and therefore it behoves any government considering such occupations to think through all the implications and possibilities beforehand, otherwise they will create their own ‘ulcers’, that they may be obliged to retreat from, leaving a trail of death and devastation behind them.



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1 Comment

  1. Mike

    19th Aug 2021 - 8:24 pm

    Wow Matt, I checked Goya’s works again and felt the pain of the artist drawing and painting war. The third of May 1808 is such a terrible scene… Thanks for picking up the theme of people fighting foreign intervention, with stories of the Napoleonic forces in Spain. The other story to tell is the costs of war:

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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