Magazine article The Spectator

Mastery of Time and Space

Magazine article The Spectator

Mastery of Time and Space

Article excerpt

THE PENINSULAR WAR by Charles Esdaile Penguin/Allen Lane, L25, pp. 600, ISBN 0713992395

Even Churchill might have been discouraged had he, instead of Lord Portland, been prime minister and surveying the scene in 1807. Bonaparte had crushed the Prussians, knocked out the Austrians, and forced Russia to sue for peace. He had organised an almost total blockade of the continent against British trade, was redrawing the map of central and eastern Europe to consolidate his position, and had placed his family on thrones from the Mediterranean to the Baltic.

Britain's only allies were Sweden and Naples, and even Naples was in French hands except for Sicily, whence the king had fled. But while Sweden and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were strategically well-placed, both were probably net liabilities since they lacked the means to defend themselves unaided, let alone to put armies into the field for a continental campaign.

The saving card was the Royal Navy. At Trafalgar, two years before, Bonaparte's invasion plans were dashed for good, and French, Spanish and Dutch colonies in both the East and West Indies were Britain's for the taking. However, while a policy of colonial aggrandisement could raise the revenue to continue the war, it was not without its costs. The Indies were unhealthy places for redcoats. Britain was losing men in their tens of thousands to disease and the climate, men sorely needed for a continental campaign. While, too, Austria, Prussia and Russia would be glad of the subsidies when the time came for another coalition against France, they would remain suspicious of Britain's commitment to a continental solution. And, just as Churchill found after Dunkirk, there had to be some grappling with the enemy on land else he be given an entirely free hand to strengthen his defences - and also for the sake of both military and public morale.

The opportunity came when in July 1807 Bonaparte instructed Portugal to close her ports to British merchantmen and in effect to declare war, subsequently enforcing the demands by invading through his ally Spain. Thus erupted `the Spanish ulcer', the six-year campaign which opened the backdoor to metropolitan France and as much as anything else made the British army what it is today.

Charles Esdaile's fine study of the Peninsular War is the first in nearly a century to tell the story as a whole. He is so thoroughly steeped in the period and the languages that he is able to dissect and describe this complex and intriguing war with great clarity and an easy style. …

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