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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

The Fatal Knot

John Lawrence Tone

Tone, John Lawrence. The Fatal Knot: The Guerrilla War in Navarre and the Defeat of Napoleon in Spain. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. 239 pages. ISBN# 0807821691. $39.95. Hardcover.

It is one thing to eulogise John Tone's, The Fatal Knot as one of the most important works of Napoleonic scholarship ever written, but it is quite another thing to defend such a position against cherished favourites and so-called 'definitive' surveys. The fact of the matter is this work deals with a very narrow subject matter in a very specialised and increasingly unfashionable field; that is to say, the Peninsular War and the guerrilla war as part of it, and more specifically only the guerrilla war in the province of Navarre. At 183 pages this isn't even a very big book and therefore some might be inclined to say, "So what?"

What is so special about The Fatal Knot is that Tone is doing something very rare in Napoleonic, or indeed any military history, and that is to contribute something entirely new to the field. Historians generally tend to sneer at military history. As one of my undergraduate tutors once admitted, historians traditionally tend to start and finish eras with wars, leaving out the war itself ('Europe from 1815 to 1914,' for example). Frankly, one unfortunate reason for this is that military history often doesn't measure up to professional scrutiny. History is fundamentally about why something happened, as it is already given that it 'has' happened. Therefore countless re-constructions of events don't cut much ice in the field. This is not to say that the retelling of events is not worthwhile in the form of a survey. After all, Oman's History of the Peninsular War is often ranked second only in importance to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as an historical work in the English language.

In my mind, far too much of what purports to be serious historical reference material is nothing more than collections of anecdotes. Not that there is anything wrong with this kind of research for certain specific purposes. Rory Muir's, Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon, where the whole purpose is to interpret the human experience, would be one example. However anecdotal writing does not really serve to write a full history. The main archival research seems all too often to be on 'orders of battle' (OBs). Unfortunately, while research is restricted to OBs and general surveys to anecdotes, then military history will deserve its lowly place. Of course I am generalising in my criticism, there is a need for a range of approaches and there have been many excellent books in recent years.

However, in military history, unlike traditional history, it is rare that something really new is turned up. One work that springs to mind when it comes to original thought is Major-General B. P. Hughs' Firepower, in which he has analysed casualty rates, ammunition expenditure, available time and rates of fire to determine the effectiveness of 'firepower'. That is to say research is undertaken in causality, whereby information acquired in one area gives understanding in some quite different area.

In The Fatal Knot, John Tone has undertaken a detailed analysis of the demographic data of Navarre (Navarre is basically the province of Spain nearest to France on the Bay of Biscay) to give us a profound understanding of the character and nature of the Navarre guerrilla forces led by the two Minas. Because Tone is only writing about the guerrilla war in Navarre, his conclusions aren't necessarily to be taken for the whole of Spain. Nevertheless, he makes some very insightful observations. For example, even in a guerrilla stronghold like Navarre there was quite a variation in support for the guerrillas. In the mountain country where there was a homogeneous population of homesteaders the guerrillas of Mina received strong support (i.e., the people personally had a lot to lose and thus were personally involved in the power structures). However in the low country, where there were urban centres, large land holdings and a more stratified society, the poor didn't actively support Mina and the rich were more self-interested in supporting the government of Joseph Bonaparte. That is, social forces had a lot to do with patriotism.

The Peninsular war to Spain is the 'War of Independence' because it is a foundational event in the moulding of Spain into a modern state. But another point Tone makes about Navarre is that it was less the matter of nationalism than a matter of regionalism that motivated the guerrillas. I don't know Spanish history but is seems that a strong tradition of regional privileges and rights had always existed. Paradoxically the regions were likely to support Ferdinand, as the king governing over themselves, because he was more likely to confirm their traditional independence compared to the French style centralised state.

The first half of the book consists of the statistical/demographic analysis. The other half presents a narrative on the history of the guerrilla war of the two Mina's. The Minas were no angels — they were cruel and ruthless with the French, as well as their own people. In many ways it is an example of classic guerrilla warfare — Mao in China, Vietnam, Tito and the like. The Fatal Knot is practically a textbook on the subject and it does read a bit that way too, discussing the whys, whens and wherefores needed for a successful guerrilla war. Or, indeed, how to defeat one!

The main criticism I would levy is that The Fatal Knot is disappointingly dry reading. The statistical analysis is fascinating stuff but bound to be a little tedious. However, surely there could hardly be more opportunity for tension, colour and flair then in the retelling of daring ambushes, harrowing flights and the ruthless climb to power of the Mina tyranny (if we can call it that) which makes up the second half. However Tone writes very matter of fact and the book suffers from it. Still, The Fatal Knot is short enough not to tire the reader given the quality of the material. I can't but regret that another dozen pages of colour (perhaps some of those memoirs and anecdotes) would have made the brevity irrelevant.

was also saddened to see Tone on occasion taking quite unnecessary digs at Wellington and the British part in the Peninsular War, thereby undermining his own integrity and portraying his American origin. John Tone is an associate professor of history at Georgia Institute of Technology (surely an unlikely place to find a Napoleonic scholar!) and it is a shame he couldn't resist that temptation to polarise in what is otherwise a vitally important piece of work. For this book is a must-read and a significant contribution to the art of military history in general.

Reviewed by Robert Markley
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2000