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Fraternization in the Peninsular War

“How different were our feelings” wrote a Scottish sergeant, “from many of our countrymen at home, whose ideas of the French character were drawn from servile newspapers and caricatures in print shops.”

Perhaps the best known instance of wartime fraternization in our history is Christmas Day, 1914, when on one sector of the Western Front British and German soldiers ceased fire for the day. Besides burying their dead, they exchanged souvenirs and cigarettes, showed family photographs, and then sang carols, all joining in Auld Lang Syne. The occasion stands out as a rarity in a war of exceptional bitterness and slaughter.

A century before, the soldiers of Wellington’s army, fighting to and fro across Portugal and Spain for six years on end, would have been far less surprised by such an event than were the First Hundred Thousand, because in their war, fraternization took place with comparative frequency.

The opponents whom they knew as “the Parlez Vous” or “Johnny Crappo” or “Johnny” or even “the crappos” (crapauds), after their liking for frogs, were regarded mostly with good-humoured respect. At times they called the French a brave and generous enemy, at others they became “a set of impudent rascals,” and on the few occasions when the British were roused to great anger, as during the French retreat across Portugal early in 1801 when some five hundred asses were left hamstrung and starving, when villages and convents were burnt, peasants plundered and massacred, women violated, they were abused as “barbarians,” as “these European savages,” and as “the greatest curse the Almighty ever sent into the world.”

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