Notes From the Margins…

In praise of Ronald Fraser

  • April 21, 2012
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I’m currently reading Napoleon’s Cursed War (2008)  by the incomparable British historian Ronald Fraser, who died this February at the age of 81.  I previously knew Fraser’s work from Blood of Spain, his peerless oral history of the Spanish Civil War, which I read many years ago.

This is a very different, but no less compelling book.   As the title suggests, it’s a history of the savage war and occupation of Spain that followed Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to foist his brother-in-law onto the Spanish throne in 1808, against the wishes of the vast majority of the Spanish population.

Over the next six years, some 300,000 French troops and their allies engaged in what proved to be an impossible task of suppressing a massive popular resistance movement that was no sooner extinguished in one part of the country than it erupted in another.

Though Spain received some help from Britain, and both Spanish as well as British troops fought conventional military battles with the Napoleonic armies,  resistance to the French occupation largely took the form of guerrilla warfare waged by irregular forces and ordinary people, mostly drawn from the lower strata of Spanish society, who engaged French troops in their own localities.

The result was a terrible – and from the French point of view, debilitating – war of sieges, skirmishes, and reprisals that to some extent anticipated the 20th century concept of  ‘people’s war’, and whose horrors were mostly famously depicted in Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra print cycle.

Napoleon’s reasons for invading a country that had until then been a French ally were entirely geostrategic and mostly related to his determination to enforce the Continental Blockade and ensure the economic isolation of Britain.   In a narrative that will not sound entirely unfamiliar to 21st century ears, the Emperor presented the French occupation as a progressive development that would ‘regenerate’ Spain and modernise its reactionary political and social structures.

To this end, Napoleon gave Spain a liberal constitution, abolished the Inquisition and introduced the Code Napoleon and a host of other measures that Spanish liberal reformers heartily improved of in principle – were it not for the fact that these reforms came on the point of French bayonets.

The overwhelming majority of the population similarly rejected the Napoleonic ‘regeneration’  and saw the invasion as an expression of foreign domination and a violation of their king, their religion and their country.  Though some fought for the liberation of their country as a whole,  many, as Fraser brilliantly shows, fought for the lands, homes, towns and villages that made up la patria chica – the ‘little fatherland’, against the depredations of an occupying army that lived off the population and also oppressed them.

They fought with a ferocity and courage that shocked and staggered the French, sometimes with muskets, shotguns and cannons, but often with no more than scythes, knives and other bladed instruments.   Apart from the technology the fighting that took place during the two sieges of Zaragoza was startlingly similar to some of the urban battlegrounds of the last decade, with troops fighting civilians street-by-street and house-by-house, blowing holes in walls or digging tunnels to get from one street to another.

Fraser tells this story with a particular focus on  Spanish popular resistance to the  occupation.  He spent  years in Spanish state and local archives, painstakingly assembling obscure details and histories of the farmers, artisans, urban  chisperos  or wideboys, and women whose sacrifices led the defeated Napoleon years later to look back on the ‘cursed war’ in Spain as the beginning of his downfall.

Fraser is in total command of the vast array of material he has assembled, effortlessly narrating this complex and often horrendous conflict with real brilliance and verve.  He is  as comfortable dealing with the broader political and military developments as he is with delving into the impact of the war on remote villages and urban neighbourhoods.

He teases out the political complexities of a popular resistance whose leaders were drawn from the middle and upper classes and who needed and celebrated the participation of the lower orders in the struggle against Napoleon, but who also feared its potentially revolutionary implications for themselves.

The result is a triumph of grassroots history, by a man who truly deserves the mantle of ‘people’s historian’, and which has real resonance for the occupations of our own era.


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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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