By Ralph Weaver
During the Napoleonic wars a French army had been tied down on the Iberian Peninsula, costing the French Imperial treasury vast amounts in money and also men and a loss of
prestige. And to little avail, Spanish armies and guerrilla bands had roamed the country chased by the French, who generally defeated the armies, lost sight of the guerrillas, but without actually became masters of the kingdom. With the active assistance of British and Portuguese regular forces the French were eventually pushed back over the Pyrenees.
By 1823 the political situation had changed completely. France was now ruled again by the Bourbon dynasty, the king a brother of the ill-fated monarch who had lost his head on the guillotine during the Revolution. Spain, long an absolute monarchy,
had its own revolution in 1820 which reduced the king to a figure-head and established the Spanish parliament, the Cortes, as the real ruler. The guiding hand of the Austrian chancellor, Prince Metternich, who pulled the strings behind most of Europe’s monarchies, decided that this state of affairs could not continue and France undertook to re-instate the Spanish king to his ancient privileges.
Whilst studying post Napoleonic conflicts in Europe, as editor of the Foreign Correspondent, the journal of the Continental Wars Society for the past 29 years, I stumbled across references to the French campaign in 1823 and was intrigued by the little that had been published since. This was no minor expedition; almost 100,000 French troops took part, against a greater number of Spaniards.
History we know is written by the victors, so the obvious place to start was the French National Library. This resource, containing over four million documents, is available to researchers through its digital library. To my delight a search revealed a considerable number of works describing the campaign. However, it soon became apparent that many of them were based on a single source, phrases, misspelt names and battle descriptions were duplicated almost word for word. Apart from a single book, translated into English, all the others were in French. A word of warning, always check the title page of your sources. If it states that it was written by a ‘royalist officer’, or is dedicated to the king, or glorifies the feats of the French army, it will not be a balanced
Searching further, the internet will give you a vast number of ‘hits’, the disadvantage being that you have to check them all, there may be a gem among the false leads. The French army marched through the Spanish Basque region and one reference led to the Basque digital library which contains a contemporary book set out as a diary of the campaign detailing people, places and engagements and as a bonus an order of battle of the French navy.
In my book accounts of battles, sieges and manoeuvres are readily found, set out in easy to understand sections, but for students of tactics more can be discerned behind the text. A contemporary account of a French attack on a Spanish strongpoint, intended no doubt to glorify the deeds of the soldiers of French, lists the troops engaged, platoons of grenadiers, voltigeurs and Light Infantry, maybe numbering no more than a couple of hundred, attacking the face and flanks of enemy troops. Clearly the ‘elite’ companies did most of the work, the ‘centre companies’ of fusiliers were used to follow up a successful attack or act as supports if needed.
I was advised many years ago that the ability to wage war depends on money. Not just to buy the hardware, but to put into the pockets of the rank and file. I found out that one French column had to hold up its advance in central Spain as the division’s paymaster with his treasure chest had been held up due to the appalling condition of the road. This confirmed the French commander’s strict instructions that everything his troops needed or took from the population had to be paid for – in cash.
The French army, under Napoleon, wore a distinctive and recognisable uniform. With the return of the Bourbons the army was comprehensibly re-organised, personnel, structure, and style of dress. French aristocrats, some of whom had actually fought against the Imperial regime, now became generals with authority over experienced officers. Everything authorised by Napoleon became politically tainted, even new models of artillery material were cancelled and older varieties re-introduced. New uniforms were designed, firstly a basic white coatee for the departmental legions, which replaced Napoleonic regiments and then a blue single breasted coat for the newly raised royal regiments. I was surprised by the large amount of textural and illustrative material available depicting the new French army but not so by the small numbers of sources for the Spanish.
‘The Hundred Thousand Sons of St Louis. The French Campaign in Spain April to October 1823’ is now available to order here.