Three Stories of the Peninsular War:
"The Snare" by Rafael Sabatini,
"Death to the French" by C. S. Forester and
"The Brigadier Gerard Stories"
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
by James H. Mackenzie
Wellington is remembered for Waterloo, and quite rightly so.
It was a crucial point in European history. Yet it was the
victories won on the Iberian peninsula that turned the tide
of the war against Napoleon's armies and first sent him
captive to Elba. For Arthur Wellesley, "Old Nosey", "Conky"
and "the long-nosed bugger that beats the French",
Waterloo was just the copingstone on the solid wall of
victories that had gone before.
Wellington is also recalled as the Iron Duke, and one is
compelled to wonder at how infrequently writers of fiction
have explored the ways in which he came to earn this title.
Sabatini, Forester and Conan Doyle each give us an insight
into the character of the man who became one of Great
Britain's immortal heroes. They also tell us more of the men
of the four countries most closely involved in the epic
combat: Britain and France, Portugal and Spain. Each writer
has his own style; each writer has his own tone and each
writer complements the knowledge the reader gains from
the others. And, looming over each story like the monumental
edifice that it was, stands the most forgotten strategical
achievement of British military historythe lines of
Torres Vedras. It deserves to be compared with the wooden
wall of ships in 1588, the unbroken squares of Waterloo and
the achievement of the "few" over the skies of Britain
Etienne Gerard of the Hussars of
Conflans is a picaresque hero whose wartime career is
chronicled in "The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard" and
"The Adventures of Gerard". As an officer in the French
Imperial army Gerard sees service on every front from
Russia to Venice and he even endures a period of captivity
in the infamous Dartmoor prison in England. The books
area series of short stories, crammed full of adventures
and with many glimpses of the character of the evil genius
Napoleon and minor sketches of the personalities of his
famous Marshals. They are narrated in the first person,
entirely from Etienne Gerard's point of view, and herein
lies their major attraction. The running joke is that the
French hero is a man with a large heart, great courage
and gallantry and a correspondingly small brain. Time
and again he "gets hold of the wrong end of the stick".
A typical example is when Emperor Napoleon sends him
with secret dispatches on an impossible route through enemy
territory. The documents are false and clearly they are
meant to fall into enemy hands. A fellow messenger realises
this, but not Gerard. He fights off impossible odds,
escapes from nail-biting ambushes and succeeds in getting
through. His only reward is a rebuke from his beloved leader.
In the same way, whilst on a secret reconnaissance mission
near the lines of Torres Vedras, he blunders into an
English army foxhunt. Filled with the spirit of the chase,
Gerard outdistances the other hunters and slices the fox
in two. He interprets the howls of anger as cries of "bravo"
and, to his dying day, believes that the English love him
for his superb understanding of sport.
However,it would be wrong to form the impression that Conan
Doyle is intent only upon amusement. There are darker Gerard
stories and several of them concern the behaviour of the
Spanish and Portuguese irregulars towards the invading
French. There are examples of savagery and butchery. There
are also stories which tell of the pains of hunger that are
the result of Wellington's cleverly contrived "scorched
earth" policy as the French are lured towards Lisbon, only to
have their way blocked by Torres Vedras.
"What could we do, then, but sit down in front of these lines
and blockade them to the best of our power? There we remained
for sixth months, amid such anxieties that Massena said
afterwards that he had not one hair which was not white
upon his body."
Later,in another story, Gerard comments,
"With the end of the winter we had swept the whole country
bare, and nothing remained for us to eat, although we sent
our forage parties far and wide."
The effect on the French army is clearly seen, and even
Gerard has to concede that it was an ignominious retreat that
had to follow. One meeting with Wellington and the
recognition that he was "one in a million" was all that was
afforded. To learn more we have to turn to C. S. Forester and
"Death to the French".
Rifleman Matthew Dodd is cut off from his regiment as they
retreat towards the lines of Torres Vedras. From then on his
one desire is to get through the French army and back to his
comrades. Though he has little imagination, Dodd knows how to
fight and to kill. On his own, and with small bands of
Portuguese guerillas, he strikes back at the enemy as they
come with impotent fury to the walls and rivers that bar
their way to Lisbon. There follows a tale of horror and
atrocity that is unrelieved by any lighter moments. Strangely
Forester manages to contrive to make the reader sympathetic
to all three parties trapped in the war-ravaged countryside.
The wretched Portuguese peasants have their crops stolen,
their animals slaughtered and their women raped. By the end
of the sixth months all men who are not French are summarily
executed unless they are first tortured to reveal the hiding
place of any miserable scrap of food. Wellington's line at
Torres Vedras slowly destroys the French army's will and
capacity to fight. It turns them from proud conquerors to
mutinous, starving refugees. One patrol, led by Sergeant
Godinot, is presented as a group of decent men and boys who
have come to the war as a great adventure. Forester paints a
clear picture of their very ordinariness. Then the reader is
forced to watch them meet a series of sickening deaths,
culminating in the burning alive of Godinot himself. It is
almost the last image of the book. Not quite, though, for
Dodd himself rejoins the regiment and "munched and munched
and munched" on the food which the English have in plenty and
which is a symbol of the victory achieved by Wellington's
This is the story of a common soldier and Forester makes it
clear that Dodd has no understanding of the over all military
situation. Wellington appears only on the first page, where
we see him giving the order that leads to Dodd being cut off.
Nevertheless we are given some information of the context of
the Peninsular campaign.
"He did not know anything about high politics, and so could
not appreciate the fact that England was going through a
Cabinet crisis which might quite possibly result in the
assumption of power by the Opposition and a prompt withdrawal
of Wellington from his impregnable position."
view of the bigger picture,
we must turn to Sabatini. The title of the book is "The
Snare", and it is the French who are led into the trap and so
decisively destroyed, as described by Forester. Of course,
the snare is an image that applies to more than the French
army; it has resonances for each of the major characters in
the book. Terence O'Moy is trapped first of all by his
overwhelming jealousy and later by the fabric of lies that he
weaves around the man he believes guilty of his wife's
seduction. Captain Ned Tremayne is trapped by the knowledge
that to tell the truth would betray a boyhood friend to death
by the firing squad. Wellington himself for a while appears
trapped by the need to enforce justice and discipline on his
adjutant general at the moment when he needs him the most.
Even Una O'Moy is trapped in her self-indulgent lifestyle,
for her every whim has been catered for since she was a
Tremayne loves Sylvia, the book's heroine, but feels obliged
to avoid the subject of matrimony for he has to choose
between being trapped in poverty or in the snare of having
the reputation of a man who married for money. Successful
people break free of traps; it is a measure of their
strength. Ironically Tremayne'sf reedom is obtained by Sylvia
sacrificing her honour and declaring that the man she loves
had been in her room during the vital moments when Count
Samoval was killed. She ensnares herself that he might go
free and then, by a move that that takes everyone by
surprise, achieves their freedom by proposing their
To move from the personal to the national, Wellington has to
deal with the fact that the very man who was supposed to
enforce his rule about duelling is the first man to break it.
In another double irony O'Moy's fortuitous killing of Samoval
is a tremendous stroke of luck for the Duke. The documents
that are found on the Portuguese traitor's body prove to be
the lever that he needs to force the Portuguese government to
be more ruthless in their destruction of houses, crops and
shelter along the line of the Torres Vedras. Thus Sabatini
cunningly compares the private torment of the O'Moy family
with the state of the Portuguese nation. Both are riven by
petty jealousies; both are subject to foolish selfishness;
both find themselves unwillingly ensnared in events beyond
their control, and ultimately both are set on the right path
by the genius and pragmatism of the hero Wellington.
The war cry of the irregular fighters in Forester's story is
"Death to the French". For Sabatini's Duke, too, nothing
matters as much as the victory. The "urgency of
circumstances" demands that no change is made in the army
administration in Lisbon and O'Moy is saved.
The Post-Scriptum of "The Snare" reinforces once again the
reasons why Wellington deserves the name "The Iron Duke" and
why Waterloo is but an extra badge on the cap of
battle-honours he had already won. Wellington stands out in
the face of uncooperative allies, formidable opponents led by
the French Marshals who taste their first defeat, British
journalists who demanded a quick and easy victory, and a
feeling of mistrustful doom that pervaded both parties in the
English parliament. His military genius, his capacity to
inspire both officers and men, his eye for the terrain and
his knowledge of supply and demand are all brought out in the
works of the three authors mentioned here. The building of
the lines of Torres Vedras is a significant episode in world
military history. These three books do justice to this
largely forgotten but extraordinary endeavour. If Napoleon
first said, "An army marches on its stomach, " then it was
clearly Wellington and Torres Vedras that proved it to
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Last updated 29 March 2008. Copyright 2002 by James H.
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