Peninsular War 200
1808-1814 - 2008-2014
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The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars occupy a unique place in British history. Fundamental to the history of the British Empire, they have also been shown by scholars such as Linda Colley to have played a leading role in the emergence of national consciousness in the British Isles themselves, and remain - as witness the debate on Britainís relationship with the EU - an important point of cultural and political reference. Beyond that, meanwhile, prior to the world conflicts of the twentieth century, they represented the greatest moment of military effort in British military history: by 1809 786,000 men - one sixth of the adult population - were under arms. Casualties, meanwhile, were commensurate. Royal Naval deaths amounted to 90,000, while the army lost 225,000 men. Combat deaths, of course, were only a small percentage of the whole - perhaps 20,000 men in all - and, as always prior to 1914, the worst killer was disease, but even so the losses were proportionately just as bad as those suffered in the First World War and in some respects even worse.
Within this general spectrum the Peninsular War occupies a very significant place. In the first place, with the exception of the fever-stricken West Indies, where the number of dead reached 75,000, it was Spain and Portugal that cost the largest number of British deaths: some 10,000 - half Britainís total number of combat deaths - fell in the battles of 1810-13 (the invasion of France in 1814 is regarded by the author as a separate campaign but, if it is desired to include such battles as Orthez and Toulouse as well, this figure should be increased by another 1,500), while total losses for the war have been estimated at a minimum of 40,000; by comparison, Waterloo cost the lives of something over 2,000 men. But it is not just a matter of casualties. As witness the fact that the vast majority of the battle honours won by the British army in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were acquired in Spain and Portugal, the Peninsular War was also the theatre in which British troops most regularly engaged the enemy, and, by extension, the theatre which played the greatest role in helping Britain to secure her political and diplomatic objectives (without such victories as Salamanca and Vitoria, there is no doubt that Britainís statesmen would have faced a far harder task than they did).
In terms of remembrance, then, the soldiers of the Peninsular War are as much deserving of our respect as any other group of British servicemen. Indeed, in some respects their experiences were uniquely demanding: their campaigning was particularly prolonged; the support available to them in terms of food and medical care was particularly deficient; the climatic conditions they were forced to operate in were particularly extreme; and the rewards that they received when they returned home particularly meagre. Yet, despite great public interest in their story - as witness, for example, the extraordinary success of the Sharpe novels - they have received little in the way of official recognition. Aside from a few individual memorial plaques, I know of no public monument to the dead of the Peninsular War, while at the current moment remembering the campaigns of 1808-1814 has seemingly taken second place to Waterloo. In Spain and Portugal, meanwhile, the situation is even more bleak: there are a few memorials that do in one way or another commemorate the armies of Moore and Wellington (e.g. at Albuera, Talavera, Vitoria and La CoruŮa), but, in so far as Spain is concerned, many sites of memory make no mention of the British in any way, while their contribution is regularly overlooked or played down in academic discussions of the war. Indeed, in so far as the general public is concerned, it may fairly be stated that they literally know nothing of the achievements of Britainís soldiers, nor still less the contribution that they made to Spainís eventual liberation. And, finally, with the exception of Elvas, where a small graveyard was opened specifically for the British, there are no war cemeteries: the vast majority of victims were tipped into mass graves, burned or simply left to rot. To quote a ballad that commemorates a soldier of the Black Watch who was killed at the siege of Burgos in 1812:
Far distant, far distant, lies Scotia the brave,
No tomb or memorial shall hallow his grave,
His bones they lie scattered on the rude soil of Spain,
For poor Jamie Foyers in battle was slain.
Poppies, however, grow on the meseta as much as they do in Flanders fields, and it is important that the bi-centennial of the conflict should not be allowed to pass by without some effort being made to recognise that this is so. I therefore hope that you will join us in this endeavour, and that, in addition, you will find this website useful and informative.
Charles Esdaile, University of Liverpool, 11 November 2008.
The Peninsular War 200 Years On
Please click on the atlas image for more information
Daily Telegraph History Book of the Year 2010