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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Contre Guérilla en Espagne (1808-1814), Suchet Pacifie l’Aragon

Reynaud, Jean-Louis. Contre Guérilla en Espagne (1808-1814), Suchet Pacifie l’Aragon. Paris: Economica, 1992. ISBN# 9782717822861 Hardcover. €20.

This very useful book describes the activities of Marshal Suchet, commander of III Corps and the only French general to be appointed Marshal of France in Spain.  Suchet was successful in securing the cooperation (and, in some cases, collaboration) of the Aragonese population.  He was informed by the French chief of staff that he would find his Marshal’s baton in Tarragona and, after securing this fortified city, he went on to conquer Valencia and was duly awarded his prize.  His military record was relatively unblemished for a peninsular Marshal, suffering no major setbacks after losing his initial battle against the Spanish at Maria (1809) until, compelled by the reverses at Vitoria and the battles of the Pyrenees, he was forced to undertake a phased withdrawal into Catalonia and ultimately France.

The author, Jean-Louis Reynaud, a French army officer and specialist historian of revolutionary war, theory and practice, provides a review of both military events and the wide range of counter-insurgency activities waged by Suchet.  Given this focus, perhaps, the work has less emphasis on Suchet’s activities and abilities in relation to French ambitions to conquer and pacify Spain overall and the relationships and interconnections with other French commanders in the Iberian theatre. 

The initial chapter provides a brief overview of the context for events in Spain overall, including the national political situation and a useful summary of French operations leading up to his appointment as commander of III Corps.  There is a brief review of his pre military career, in the silk industry of Lyons, and his apprenticeship in logistics and counter-guerrilla tactics in the Alps under Joubert and Massena. Subsequent chapters describe Suchet’s reforms to improve the morale and performance of the soldiers under his command.  His efforts to transform second rate, poorly equipped troops, weakened by disease, desertion, into a highly effective fighting Corps were swiftly rewarded as they quickly gained the ascendancy over their opponents and, ultimately, were able to go onto the offensive conquering the easternmost region of patriot Spain.

The first stage of these military reforms included some reorganisation of the individual components of the III Corps, making good deficiencies in pay, instilling discipline, a regime of intensive training, and efficient logistics, and by the repression of unlicensed marauding, thereby reducing desertion and attrition due to disease and sickness.  Reynaud argues the French forces, therefore, were successful in being accepted as an army of occupation, providing strong government and even-handed governance, incorporating key local elites  in administration, revenue collection and justice, extracting regular contributions by way of taxes, and requisitioning  a substantial proportion of agricultural and industrial production thereby mitigating demands on the region’s population

At one and the same time, Suchet introduced two complementary innovations to pacify the population. Firstly, he established effective control of the region by installing garrisons in key strongholds to connect and secure his lines of communications, sending out punitive mobile columns to destroy the base of operations of the guerrillas and forcing them to scatter and seek refuge in remote mountainous areas in neighbouring provinces thereby becoming a burden on the population of those areas. Secondly, with his disposable field force, he waged an interminable and destructive offensive against regular troops in a series of battles and undertaking regular siege work to take the numerous fortresses and major cities in the region. His army not only profited from the positive improvements to the regional economy given the quiescence of the population, but also by fostering information and intelligence thereby improving the operation and effectiveness of the mobile columns. 

To support these innovative and highly effective approaches, he then recruited and trained local officers and other ranks in militias for policing and customs duties, serving to help control the guerrillas and deny them recruits and refuge.  In addition, the effective marginalization of the guerrillas was accomplished by these tactics of constant repression, and by making effective use of local disunities, for example by pitting Aragonese and Castilian police and militia against Catalan patriots. 

As Suchet became progressively more successful he had to allocate more of disposable force for garrison work and to maintain the counter-insurgency mobile columns, becoming increasingly more complex, for example, when he departed Aragon to undertake operations in Catalonia and Valencia.  Ultimately, he was forced to allocate one half of the original force assigned to each province, between 8 and 10,000 men, to ensure the pacification of the population within each region.

As the allied forces arrayed against French armies and troops of occupation in Iberia became more effective, from 1812, the combination of formal Spanish armies and juntas established by local elites, provided a renewed impetus and credibility to the guerrillas who were able to form and act in increasingly large bands, requiring additional troops and resources to be allocated by the French armies of occupation to prevent or mitigate their incursions against conveys, patrols and strongholds. But Suchet overall, unlike his colleagues, never lost control of the political, economic and military situation, and was able to continue to extend the area under his control, despite the allied offensive in Spain in general, and expeditionary forces acting along the Mediterranean coast in particular, from 1812 and throughout 1813. Indeed, he managed to collect together and re-equip some of Joseph’s forces driven from Madrid by the defeat of the army of Portugal at the battle of Salamanca and which could then be used in later counter-offensives against Wellington.

Ultimately then, Reynaud’s work provides us with some very important insights into Suchet’s capacities as a commander, his achievements in Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia, and his contribution to French efforts to conquer Iberia in the Spanish theatre – the Guerre d’Espagne.  The book is underpinned by a very strong methodical structure and benefits from a lively prose.  However, it does have some deficiencies; due, in part, to the need for compatibility with other works in the Economica “Campaign and Strategy” series. Whilst the author makes extensive use of French memoirs, and correspondence preserved in the archives of the French Army (SHAT), the book is written entirely from a French point of view ("our army").  It therefore lacks the Spanish perspective on Suchet’s activities and their impacts upon the local population and, more importantly, patriot Spain and the guerrilla. Moreover, the lack of a proper scholarly apparatus denies the reader the opportunity to seek further clarification: for example in relation to the extent of taxation, the severity of punitive expeditions and reprisals.  Finally, there would appear to be no distinction made between primary and secondary source material presented and its interpretation – for example between extracts from Suchet’s memoirs and Victoires, Conquêtes, Revers et Guerres Civiles Des Français.

The real importance of this book is the narrative it presents for French operations in eastern Spain, and its clear description of individual and collective components of an effective pacification policy for the population overall and, most especially, for pre-emptive and counter insurgency operations against the guerrilla.  The forms of counter-insurgency operations implemented by Suchet have since come to be known as “taiche d'huile” (oil stain), combining tough government, governance and administration, alongside fortified strong points and mobile combat columns.  This strategy and tactic have subsequently become custom and practice in the French army being used, for example, in the conquest of Senegal by Faidherbe, Madagascar by Gallieni, Morocco by Liautey or in the "Plan Challes" during the last phase of the war in Algeria.  For these reasons, Reynaud’s work is one of the most frequently cited studies in counterinsurgency tactics and guerrilla warfare in books on the subject in French, English and many other languages.

Reviewed by Jean Giscand and Anthony Gray
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2013


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