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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 history—the 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 in 1940.

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 stratagem.

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."

For a 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 child.

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 marriage.

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 him.

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Last updated 29 March 2008. Copyright 2002 by James H. Mackenzie. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.