Small Wars Journal

Napoleon´s Nightmare: Guerrilla Warfare in Spain (1808-1814)

Wed, 10/05/2011 - 10:04am

Download the Full Article

In 1807, Napoleon was at the apex of his power and influence. Needing a fleet to blockade England, he conquered Portugal, with help from a small Spanish Army. He then betrayed the Spanish monarch and invaded Spain. Madrid and other cities throughout the Peninsula rose up against the French; in response, Napoleon sent troops to rapidly subdue them. Unexpectedly, the French Army was defeated at Baylen. Napoleon responded by personally leading some 300,000 troops; the Spanish Army’s defeat was accomplished quickly, and Spain seemed to be his. Yet four years later, the great French Army left Spain, exhausted, totally demoralized, and without food, basic clothing or supplies: a totally defeated force.

This paper maintains that this occurred because of the insurrection of the entire nation, and in particular the formation of a fierce and indomitable unconventional army: the Guerrilla. Encouraged and supported by the people, the Guerrilla gave the struggle the character of People in Arms: “Guerrilla” came to represent the spirit of rebellion that undermined the foundations of the Napoleonic Empire.

The guerrillas forced the French troops on the Peninsula into a dilemma that they never resolved: How to fight against regular armies, while simultaneously fighting against guerrilla operations that constantly threatened their rear, and the lines of communication and supply, thus forcing the deployment of more troops throughout the conquered territories. Napoleon never seemed able to grasp the danger of the insurrection and the guerrilla.  This miscalculation was the leading cause of the downfall of his Empire.

Download the Full Article

About the Author(s)

José de la Pisa is Major of the Spanish Marine corps. He graduated from Spanish Naval Academy in 1997, and joined the special forces in 2000.  During his career has been deployed in Lebanon and Somalia. In 2006 attended the Spanish Marine Amphibious Expeditionary Warfare School, and in 2011 graduated from Command Staff Course in the US Marines Corps University. He also graduated in Master in Military Studies in the same university in 2011. He is currently post in the Spanish Navy Head Quarters.



Wed, 11/06/2013 - 10:17am

In reply to by Gabriel

My Spanish is rusty, does anyone know where to get a copy of this in English? Thank you.

José, FELICIDADES por la publicación de tu artículo en este tan importante foro. Congratulations for your article.

As a result of the experience in guerrilla warfare, the Spanish government published on 1812, ¿the first? field manual about guerrilla warfare.

Bill C.

Fri, 10/07/2011 - 3:50pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Re: human nature: That "natural/normal" condition of the people which might be characterized as a deeply engrained conservatism re: one's way-of-life and way-of-governance (one's political, economic and social norms) and near-zero tolerance for foreign interference regarding same?

Re: responsibility to protect: Simply another excuse -- and/or method -- to breach sovereignty so as to go in and (a) do away with various states and societies' current political, economic and social norms (which we contend are the "root causes" of such things as genocide, terrorism, insurgency, etc.) and to (b) install our distinctly different political, economic and social norms in their place?

Napoleon, it would seem, felt he had an emerging "New World Order" that he needed to protect and provide for. Same-same re: the United States today. The problem being that the various "Old World Orders" (the sworn enemy of "New World Orders"); these had -- and still seem to have -- something of a say.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 10/07/2011 - 8:27am

I think the US can learn a great deal from the experience of the French in the Napoleonic era. The French saw themselves as the deliverer of oppressed populaces, bringing new concepts of liberty and democracy, and defeating the despotic reign of leaders across Europe and the Med.

Yet France was hammered by strong popular resistance insurgency in Egypt. They were hammered by strong popular resistance insurgency in Spain. They were hammered by strong popular resistance insurgency in Russia. For some reason the people were ungrateful for the uninvited French assistance.

It seems that no matter how grand you think your principles and values are; or how grand in fact they might be; or how oppressive the existing regime that you seek to replace might be; one will still be met with resistance by the populace one sets out to "liberate" and "enlighten."

This is human nature. My demon is preferable to the angel you force upon me. Every cop knows this when they go into a home on a domestic violence call where someone outside the home deemed that intervention was necessary. Some things people need to either sort out for themselves; or if unable to sort out for their selves to bring in the assistance they require on their own initiative.

Many of the nations France invaded benefited over the long run due to the concepts and changes that the French brought with them. I don't think, however, that any have ever felt compelled to write a thank you card for that.

Concepts that suggest that we have duty or responsibility to protect those who have not called for our protection, or to liberate those who have not called for liberation are in fact very Napoleonic in nature, and require a Napoleonic ego to buy into and implement as well.

The US, like France, has some great things to offer the world. We just need to focus on living up to our own ideals and letting our influence come from our example rather than from our military might.