Volume II

Chapter 43


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“Nothing is worse in a political crisis than
honest people when their conscience
is influenced
by false ideas.”

Napoleon

 

We ended our last chapter by writing that it was Napoleon's error of judgement of the Spanish people whom he judged by the sovereigns who were degenerates that led him to make his initial mistake with regards to Spain.

Let us now take a look at the country which was about to become the stage of the long tragedy that would take place over the next five years - a look through the eyes of the men who were going to gradually consume their forces and wear themselves out in the Peninsular Campaign.

 

A RUGGED LAND FULL OF CONTASTS

Although French troops were hardened to fatigue and used to enduring tough conditions in foreign countries, when they crossed the invisible ribbon of the Spanish frontier the soldiers immediately felt completely out of their usual element. By the scenery first of all.

It was in this rugged and inhospitable scenery where danger lurked behind every tree, every bush, every rock that the tragic events of the Peninsular War would unfold. Atrocities which are beyond words would be committed and Napoleon's best troops would gradually consume their forces here.

Spain, the land into which French troops entered at the beginning of the 19th was far from being as pleasant as Italy with its charming countryside and inhabitants – especially the Italian women whose charm the soldiers still remembered with a great deal of emotion - whereas here they found a hostile land full of contrasts with its rugged scenery and the chains of mountains which were grey, black or reddish brown crossed by narrow valleys and high plateaux that were austere and constantly swept by violent wind. Yet some of the men, those who were well-read and more refined than the others were able to discern the beauty of scenery which most of the others who were immerged in violence and bloodshed were unable to perceive.

At that time the inadequacy of the roads isolated each Spanish province from the other and this enhanced the peculiarities and individual characteristics of the inhabitants who were cut off and hardly knew anything about their neighbours in the next province. And yet later when the time had come this did not prevent them from conspiring together against the heretic French.

This general impression of strangeness which was not only due to a foreign land fell like a lead weight upon the intruder as soon as he crossed the border:

“We were already struck by the different customs and costumes of the inhabitants, by the gloomy and savage look of the men, by the filth and poverty of the houses”, wrote one soldier, who explained that he lodged at Jartzun (most probably Gartzain), barely thirty kilometres from France.

The same unfavourable opinion was expressed about the town of Hernani which was no further away from France by a young officer in the Light Cavalry, Maurice de Tascher, a distant cousin of Empress Josephine, who was of the opinion that it was “dirty and badly built” with inhabitants who were so dirty that they were judged “revolting”.

“In this country which seems, in this respect, to be two centuries behind the times compared to ours, the comforts of modern life are unknown ”.

Obviously the French soldiers who left memoires sometimes lacked objectivity when they related their views on Spain and the Spaniards, and yet the facts they reported so often coincided, that on the whole we may accept their reports as reliable sources.

 

SNEERS AND REPULSION

The worst for these French soldiers who were inveterate republicans and most of whom had become atheist, were the absolutely astounding and ridiculous religious customs which literally left them flabbergasted.

Some of the scenes they looked upon with incredulous eyes made them sneer, while some disgusted them and yet others revolted them.

For how could these soldiers who had the most modern head of state in the world not have laughed when they saw the strange silhouettes which haunted the countryside with their heads covered in a huge felt hat which measured over two feet with huge brims, their bodies bundled up in a sort of over garment which must once have been black before becoming green with filth and sweat walking around looking ferocious as if they were about to deliver an evil presage?

Unfortunately, in this country which was totally behind the times and where a schoolteacher was paid less than a day-labourer and was considered as being of much less value, people listened to these priests who looked like scarecrows with the utmost credulity. And it was important to keep the Spanish people under the influence of religion as knowledge inevitably puts an end to obscurantism.

This complete submission of the masses to a fanatical clergy which was as depraved as it was evil – Spanish monks of the time have gone down in history as prototypes of what an obtuse religion can exude – would soon become an extremely dangerous and explosive combination! And the danger can be measured by the following figure: at the end of the 19th century the population lived under the iron rule of 63,000 monks.

The less cowardly among them later became guerrilla leaders, instigators of slaughters or mad slaughterers themselves whereas the more cowardly and the older preferred simply to preach violence and to call to “holy war”. The arrival of Napoleonic France with its Human Rights in the land they dominated could have one consequence only for them: the end of their preponderance over simple-minded souls reduced to slavery and by consequence the end of all the shocking advantages that they derived from the situation.

This print shows an ideal vision of the departure of recruits for the Peninsular Campaign. Without any experience of warfare they were easy prey for the merciless guerrillas.

The French were also disgusted by the churches where the dead were buried beneath the high altar as the cemeteries were only considered good enough for the infidels.

When this extraordinary burial-place was full, in order to make room again the grave-diggers evacuated the occupants and exhumed their bones which they then hung from the arches of the church.

Hence, the pestilential odours and the epidemics the last of which only dated back to 1781, at Pasajes, in the Spanish Basque country.

 

“WE HAD THE IMPRESSION WE HAD SUDDENLY
GONE BACK IN TIME TO THE 12th CENTURY”

French soldiers were literally dumbfounded at the sight of a man who was – admittedly - a brigand, who was naked to the waist sitting astride a donkey with his feet tied to a plank which was tied beneath the animal. At each halt, the hangman who accompanied him flogged him with a whip with three leather lashes which tore his skin and the number of blows was proportional to the gravity of his offence. This terrible ordeal was a real Way of the Cross for the poor devil. A French military apothecary, who witnessed the scene, left us the following report:

“It was disgusting to see the hangman, his hands covered in blood seize his flask to pour drink down his throat without the bottle touching his lips. One had to hear the crude insults, the insolent bursts of laughter of the populace as they threw mud at the patient [!] thus participating in the vengeance of society. We had the feeling we had suddenly gone back in time to the 12th century.”

An allegorical picture of a trial during the Inquisition. The next stage for the victim was the stake.

We must also bear in mind that Spain was moreover the country of the terrible Inquisition (although it is only fair to mention that this loathsome tribunal also known as the Congregation of the Holy Office which was created by the Pope in 1233 to suppress heresy also existed in other countries, notably in Italy).

The Spanish Inquisition which deserves its terrible reputation for cruelty and injustice especially during the period when the Dominican friar, Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498) was Inquisitor-general was often used to State purposes. Torquemada was so fanatical and cruel that he alone sent 8,000 victims to be burned at the stake and the Pope, Alexander VI, had to appoint four assistant Inquisitors to help him!


And yet people say, write and repeat that Napoleon was a barbarian!

As we made his portrait - which was not always very flattering - in Chapter 41, we must pay tribute here to Joseph Bonaparte, who during his reign in 1808 abolished what can only be described as a disgrace to humanity.

Apart from the sovereigns - who were unworthy of their position - the only real power in Spain at the time was in the hands of the Church and it was very much a secular power as it possessed more than a quarter of all the arable land in the country.

The Dominican friar, Torquemada (1420-1498) who was Inquisitor General, was a genuine criminal. He incarnates the terrible Spanish Inquisition perfectly.

 

“I STILL SHUDDER WHEN I RECALL
THE ATROCITIES I SAW”

In his Souvenirs, a Swiss officer in the service of France, Captain Gaspard Schumacher, evoked the hundred and seventeen “poor wretches” who the French found imprisoned in the goals of Toledo. It was not so much their number which was shocking as the motif of their incarceration. They were rotting in filthy dungeons for having refused to “surrender their young wives or daughters to the lecherous monks who ruled as masters over the country and claimed their rights over the young women and beautiful girls.”

It is not surprising therefore to read the following extract written another French memorialist, who was much better-known than the latter: the famous (future) Captain Coignet, who was a simple man with sound judgement and who was totally lacking in imagination which makes him a reliable witness. He never forgot the disgust he felt upon discovering what he described in this passage on Spain, in his famous memoirs, “Les Cahiers du Capitaine Coignet”:

“The convents were deserted and we were not short of lodgings. Most of us were lodged in beautiful monasteries which were opposite the women's convents in which young girls aged between twelve and eighteen were kept in confinement until they were old enough to be married. Our soldiers searched the gardens with their ram-rods to find the monks' hiding place – they were most surprised to find new-born children at every step buried two or three feet deep in the garden itself. I still shudder with horror when I recall seeing such terrible atrocities – it gives an idea of what went on in that country.”

One only has to read the memoirs and souvenirs left by the soldiers and officers of the Grande Armée to understand the repulsion that these monks “who were so filthy that they made you feel sick” - remarked the surgeon general of the Grande Armée, Percy, - inspired men who were hardened to almost everything.

Those who are inclined to question the value of these descriptions and reports only have to look at the drawings, prints and engravings by Goya, whose work exudes this climate of morbid folly.

This was how French soldiers described – in terms that were often plain but precise – what one light infantry soldier, Billon, described as the “monastic leprosy”, which the Spaniards worshipped stupidly and later followed blindly when in their wild rage the monks incited them to massacre the soldiers of the Grande Armée.

However, it is also fair to say that in a country which was madly superstitious the image of revolutionary France which had supposedly become completely atheist and was ruled by the “antichrist” Napoleon, together with the conduct of some of the French soldiers whose impious behaviour sometimes bordered on provocation added fuel to the fire and these factors would all play a greater or lesser part in provoking a holy war.

And like all religious wars it would lead to the most unspeakable atrocities. And to the inevitable consequences: reprisals.

 

JUNOT'S TROOPS MAKE A DISASTROUS
IMPRESSION IN SPAIN


In our last chapter we mentioned Junot's troops assembled around Bayonne from where they prepared to march to Portugal and head for the capital, Lisbon. We must also recall that for Napoleon the stakes at issue were of the utmost importance as by taking control of Portugal and with his new alliance with Spain which he hoped would prove to be sound he hoped to finally succeed in implementing his Continental Blockade by closing all the ports on the continent to British ships.

So Junot set out on 17 October 1807.

As soon as they crossed the frontier French troops were greeted with a certain amount of sympathy – some even wrote enthusiasm - by the Spanish people.

A portrait of Junot (1771-1813) as a young man. Throughout his career he was protected by Napoleon who never forgot that they had shared hard times together in their youth.

As up to now the masses had not been stirred up against the presence of the French and this enthusiasm which was real, if perhaps sometimes somewhat amplified, gives an idea of the tragedy of the Peninsular War.

Without going into details here we must not forget to mention the presence of British agents whose task would later consist in instigating a rugged and hot-tempered nation against the presence of the French.

Unfortunately, Junot's performance as he passed through Spain with his troops was far from brilliant. The major part of the Grande Armée was still in Germany after the campaigns in Prussia and Poland, and the soldiers under Junot's command were too young, badly equipped and with little or no training and no experience of a military campaign.

Junot arrived before Lisbon with the remnants of an exhausted army, barely more than 5,000 men. If the Portuguese had decided to resist, he would very probably have encountered serious difficulties.

If Junot's drive and courage were above criticism, he was however totally unconcerned with the welfare of his men. He made them march too fast and without seeing to it that they were properly nourished. And it was not long before the inevitable happened: his corps d'armée quickly began to dwindle along the way and he soon found himself with fewer soldiers in the ranks than men who had dropped out of the ranks.

And Spain which was still in theory an ally was treated like a conquered land although no acts of violence were committed. But, unfortunately, their passage left a bad impression of the Emperor's troops.

And was it really this army which had defeated the Russians and the Austrians? This troop of gaunt boys dressed in rags and who marauded?

Although upon their arrival their appearance was far from martial, their systematic pilfering for food which was not even justified by combats, made a disastrous impression upon the Spanish population.

 

THE REGENT OF PORTUGAL
BLACKMAILED BY THE ENGLISH

No one can tell what would have happened if the Portuguese had decided to offer any resistance, because when Junot arrived in front of Lisbon he only had a handful a men – barely more than 5,000 - still with him.

This view shows Lisbon in the 18th century. In 1807 the
town had a population of 360,000 inhabitants

Fortunately for him England had “encouraged” the royal family to flee.


Encouraged in its usual manner. Despite the fact that the Portuguese regent, who later became king as John VI had expressed his desire to await the arrival of the French troops to negotiate with their commander, Admiral Parker who commanded the British fleet informed him that in that case, he had received instructions from his government to sail up the Tagus, seize the Portuguese fleet, and bombard and burn the capital.

A repetition – on a larger scale - of the Royal Navy's disgraceful destruction of Copenhagen in 1801, and again in 1807 (See chapter 39).

To preserve the life of his subjects the hapless prince was forced to obey and on 29 November, the Portuguese fleet set sail with the Royal Family on board. Their destination: Brazil.

One French royalist who had emigrated to Portugal, the Marquis de Toustain, who like most of his peers had remained French in name only, concluded sadly and in a manner which was more expressive than honest:

“… Portugal knew the humiliation of being conquered by a handful of men who were either sick or dying.”

Yet despite the excesses which had been committed by Junot's troops, events up till then were unfolding in a more or less satisfactory manner.

But a family quarrel which had suddenly sprung up between members of the contemptible Spanish royal family was about to ruin everything and we may consider that this incident would be the cause of the calamities which marked the Peninsular War.

 

To be continued…