The Spanish Guerrillas in the Peninsular War

Proud patriots perhaps, but were the irregular forces in Spain's war against Napoleon a help or a hindrance? Charles Esdaile investigates.

For most readers, two images will be conjured up by mention of the Peninsular War of 1808-14. On the one hand, there is the invincible 'thin red line' of Wellington's infantry, and on the other the cruel and sinister figure of the Spanish guerrilla. Furthermore, it has now become a historical commonplace to explain the defeat of the French in Spain through the juxtaposition of these two images. It is argued that, thanks to the guerrillas, the French armies were forced to remain spread out over the entire face of the Peninsula so that the numerically inferior Anglo-Portuguese forces were enabled to defeat them in detail. At the same time, the presence of Wellington's army in Portugal prevented the French from concentrating all their forces upon the guerrillas, and thus saved the Spaniards from annihilation. Caught between the 'thin red line' in their front and popular hatred in their rear, the invaders found themselves enmeshed in a trap from which escape was almost impossible.

The undoubted importance of the guerrilla struggle to the operations of the Duke of Wellington has led many British historians to emphasise this aspect of the Spanish war against the French at the expense of other forms of resistance. Yet the guerrillas were not the only Spaniards who fought the French, whilst contemporary opinion was sharply divided as to the value of their contribution. The partisans always received their strongest support from the liberals. As the radical journalist, Alvaro Florez Estrada, wrote in El Tribuno del Pueblo Espanol on March 23rd, 1813:

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