Child's History of Spain - John Bonner

The French Spain

A.D. 1808-1813

Joseph was King of Spain in name, if not in fact, from the winter of 18089 to the June of 1813. During this time there never was an hour when he could have trusted himself in the smaller towns of Spain without an escort of armed men. There never was a day when Spanish hatred of the invaders cooled, or when the Spanish peasant did not go to bed with a loaded gun by his side to shoot any passing Frenchman.

From first to last, Napoleon poured into Spain some four hundred thousand men, under the ablest generals of his army. Of these, over three hundred thousand left their bones south of the Pyrenees. They fought bravely, they were well led; but, as they well knew, they were engaged in a wrongful and mean attempt to subvert the liberty of a neighboring race, and their enterprise was stamped with failure from its birth.

The Spaniards had no army, though there were on the national pay-roll five captain-generals, eighty-five lieutenant-generals, one hundred and twenty-seven field-marshals, two hundred and fifty-two brigadiers, and two thousand colonels. All over the country there were small bodies of armed men, burning to fight the French, but led by generals who could not agree with each other, and would not act together against the common enemy. These generals were under the orders of Juntas, which met in the several provinces, and the Juntas could not agree any better than the generals. You will be surprised to hear that no great man arose—as generally happens on such occasions—to take command of the Spanish nation. No Spanish Washington or Bolivar or Cromwell grasped the hour in an iron hand.

But if there was no great Spanish army under a great general, the country swarmed with free-shooters, who murdered Frenchmen, and fought bravely enough when driven to bay. The towns were full of cruel mobs, which sometimes fell upon French prisoners furiously and savagely, and who, when the French got the upper-hand, were themselves furiously and savagely punished. At Valencia, a horrible wretch named Calvo induced a party of poor French prisoners to try to escape, by telling them that a plot had been formed to assassinate them. As soon as they got clear of the prison wall, and were creeping stealthily towards the trees they could just see in the still, dark night, Calvo and his band fell upon them and made an end of them. Calvo was afterwards caught by the authorities, and was sent a prisoner to Minorca. I believe he was forgotten there. At least, nobody seemed to know what had become of him, and I am not surprised at it.

In those days, when King Joseph was sitting on an imaginary throne at Madrid, and French generals were exercising very real authority at Barcelona and Burgos and Cordova and Toledo and Granada and Salamanca and Valladolid, the air was always full of whispers of treason. It was death to be suspected of siding with the French, and many a poor Spaniard lost his head because some enemy accused him of corresponding with the invaders.

That was the charge which was brought against a burgher of Catalonia. The mob insisted on seeing his mail-bag opened, in order to get hold of the letters which they said they knew he was getting from France. His daughter, a straight, black-haired, black-eyed girl, said she would open the bag in their presence. She did so, and when she came to one letter, she hastily tore it up and swallowed the pieces. Some one cried, "The little devil has fooled us."

She pressed her hand to her side, and a scarlet blush spread over her face as she answered:

"Did you think I would let you see a letter from my lover?"

And so her father was saved—for that time.

On April 22d, 1809, Wellington arrived in Portugal with a small army of English soldiers. The English had made up their minds that the fight to a finish between the emperor and themselves might just as well be fought in Spain as elsewhere. They sent their best general there, and bade him try to make an army out of the Spanish and Portuguese peasants who were fighting as guerillas in the mountains. These were not the best possible material; they were not accustomed to obey. It was contrary to their custom to spare a fallen foe. But they were brave as steel, and could march great distances almost without food.

Wellington succeeded in getting them in shape; mixing them with his English troops, he built up a very tolerable army—so good in fact, that, though the French always had more men in Spain than he had, he never fought a battle till he was ready, and never fought a battle which he lost. When he wasn't sure of winning he wouldn't fight, and the French couldn't make him.

It would fatigue you if I described these battles. It will be enough to tell you of the last, the battle of Vittoria, which was the decisive battle of the war.

In May, 1813, King Joseph made up his mind that the time had come for him to run away once more. He levied a tremendous tax on all the towns and villages he could reach, and packed the silver and gold in wagons and country carts. He stripped the churches of their pictures and their gold and silver plate. He took ornaments and jewels and works of art wherever he found them. With this plunder, and his guns and ammunition, and with a large party of gay ladies of his court, he started north at the head of the remnant of his army—about seventy thousand men—and got as far as Vittoria on June 20th.

He had not been gone from Madrid for many hours before Wellington was on the march with about a hundred thousand men to intercept him. He knew exactly where Joseph was going, and what route he would take. On the morning of June 20th the Spanish scouts reported that the French had crossed the mountain, and were spreading over the basin of Vittoria, which is a pretty level plain about ten miles long by eight miles wide, enclosed on three sides by spurs of the Pyrenees and low ranges of hills.

Wellington made his plans that night, and before the French knew that he was near, in the gray dawn of the misty morning of June 21, the English soldiers in their scarlet coats, the Dutch and Spaniards in blue and dark-brown, came climbing up the mountain, scampered down on the other side, and burst their way through copses of chestnut, oak, and cork trees, in which birds were singing merrily, and the little river Zadorra was leaping and bounding from jag to crag on its way to the Ebro. In front of then, through the morning haze, belated wagons of King Joseph's army were seen raising dust-clouds on the road to Vittoria. In the distance were the French tents scattered on both sides of the roads to Bayonne in France, and to Pampeluna in old Navarre, while near the horizon the silver Ebro rolled peacefully to the ocean.

Wellington had circled round the French, and though they fought bravely, as they always do, they were so hampered by the multitude of wagons and useless camp furniture that they could hardly form in line of battle, and the morning was still young when they knew they were beaten. The defeat soon became a retreat, and the retreat a rout. King Joseph gave the word to take the Pampelana road, and it was soon so blocked that the French had to cover their rear with fifty cannon to protect the flying army.

As it was, they lost almost everything. King Joseph lost his carriage, in which there was a picture he had stolen, his clean clothes, and his purse; when he got to Pampeluna he had but one coin in his pocket. Wellington captured a hundred and fifty-one brass cannon, and small-arms and ammunition-chests past counting. In the army-chest were five million and a half dollars in gold and silver. Joseph did not save a dollar. His officers and soldiers seem to have lost their money too, for after the battle the ground was covered with coins, for which the English and Spanish troops soon found use.

I have told you that when Joseph left Madrid a number of fine ladies—and some ladies who were not so fine—went in his company, reckoning on a pleasant jaunt to France. Some of these were left behind when the army fled. They were placed under escort, and in a day or two a few were sent home in their own carriages. Others followed the troops, riding on artillery wagons or behind troopers on their horses. These threw away everything that could impede their flight. Thus, the victors found the battle-field strewn with velvet and silk brocade dresses, gold and silver plate, pictures, jewels, laces, cases of fine wine, poodles, parrots, monkeys, French boots, books of devotion, and novels.

The common soldiers reaped such a harvest of plunder that some eight thousand men were absent from duty for several days after the battle, and were found carousing in the village with the proceeds of the spoil.

This was the end of the attempt of Napoleon to conquer Spain, and it was, I think, the chief cause of his downfall.