“When weak, feign strength. When strong, feign weakness”…Sun Tzu, Art of War.
The conquest of Spain was an important one to Napoleon, for it came with the vast Spanish empire in South America. However, it was not without its sorrows and disappointments. Though generally pro-French, the armies led by Simon Bolivar quickly overthrew their complacent Spanish governors and set up free republics in Venezuela (his homeland), Argentina, Columbia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Peru. One of these republics were even named Bolivia in Bolivar’s honor.
The problem was that even with most of Europe at peace and under his influence, Napoleon found it hard to focus France on quelling the South American revolution. Many French still remained republicans at heart and praised Simon Bolivar for being more republican than Napoleon himself. One chap even said, “If they are French, then give them liberty.” Of course, Interior Minister Fouche made short work of such men, but few reinforcements were sent against Bolivar in South America. In Brazil, the Portuguese Crown Prince who proclaimed himself Emperor Pedro continued to defy the will of France. Hence, an area larger than Europe itself was lost to Napoleon without much fight.
If problems were confined to the Spanish empire in the Americas, it would have only been a financial problem for France, but thus was not the case. The hero of Assaye, Sir Arthur Wellesley, was recently dubbed Duke of Wellington, and he had ambitions to stir up trouble against France in the west. If Russia could be induced to fight France in the east and Spain in the west, perhaps Napoleon’s grand strategy of European domination would come to an end, and Wellington could save his beloved Britain, which now seemed isolated in its quest against Napoleonic France.
Using financing of British gold and propaganda, Wellington managed to stir the Spanish and Portuguese rebels against France. The leader of the Spanish was Juan Carlos Jeminez, a former general of Bourbon Spain. The leader of the Portuguese rebels was Joao of Lisbon. Formerly, Joao was Viceroy of Portugal but had fallen from grace when the Braganzas were uprooted by Napoleon’s armies.
Wellington’s armies were not purely British. They also had patriots of Holland and Belgium who had not submitted to France. So the armies of these three men met at Lisbon. The port capital city of Portugal was seized by Joao, allowing easy passage to Wellington. Soon, the Spanish forces led by Jeminez joined them in crushing all French garrisons in Portugal.
Then, they attacked Spain itself. Though Joseph had proved himself to be a mild ruler, his French mannerism provoked the traditionalist Spanish. Soon, Jeminez’s men were burning the countryside of Catalonia, shouting “Death to France! Long live the Bourbons and Braganzas!” Soon, Barcelona fell, and King Joseph of Spain, elder brother of Napoleon, was forced to flee from his palace in Madrid.
Now, Napoleon had no choice but to invade the Iberian peninsula. Otherwise, Spain would be lost to the French empire forever. This was the beginning of a series of disastrous campaign known as the Peninsular War. In the first few battles, the supremely organized and well-supplied French led by Napoleon and Murat easily defeated Jeminez’s men, but there was really no pattern.
It became harder and harder to distinguish whether these men really worked for Jeminez or some other warlord. The only thing that seemed to be uniting them was their mutual hatred of France. As Jeminez retreated, Napoleon captured Madrid and razed it to the ground, but the sight of the burning capital did not break the spirit of Spain. In fact, their passions became even more inflamed, and they took to calling Napoleon, “The French Devil” or the “Corsican Tyrant”.
Under the direction of Wellington and Jeminez, the patchy Spanish would sometimes disappear into the background and attack French soldiers when they were not expecting it. The toll on French soldiers were not that bad in the beginning, but the effect on their morale was noticeable. The Spanish soldiers, who were not as good as the French in direct combat, were not going to engage France in open combat. They continued to harass the French for many months.
As summer drew, the French who were less accustomed to the heat than the native Spanish grew more homesick, and casualties of the Spanish ambush rose. The British who were also not accustomed to the heat hid away in Valencia. The drain on the French treasury in this campaign proved massive indeed. Finance Minister Montague, unable to solve the financial crisis faced by the Peninsular War, resigned in utter disappointment.
Soon, Napoleon would realize that fighting this campaign was clearly a losing battle, and there was of course the risk that strong allies to the east, such as Austria and Russia, would not remain true to the terms of his marriage to Marie Louise and Tilsit. Much as Napoleon missed his only son, Napoleon II, he also felt anger when he thought of the threat that his wife’s father could pose to his Empire in the East. Such was the unpleasant condition Napoleon faced.
The Royal French Army, once decorated in bright blues and shining boots, was now muddy and starved. Often, their uniforms were in tatter for want of replacement. It seemed only time before France would have to withdraw. There was no telling how much of Spain was still truly in French hands, for Jeminez and Joao reappeared from time to time. Nevertheless, the brave French army fought for their favorite Emperor, though they were tired as never before.
That winter, they reached Valencia, where they hoped to dislodge the main British army led by Wellington, but luck was not on their side. The British were well-fed and fresh, while the French were weakened and thoroughly exhausted. Although Napoleon’s men outnumbered Wellington, the Battle of Valencia did not go well for the Emperor of France. For the first time, he lost more men than the British, and he did not quite have men to spare, for Jeminez and Jaoa reappeared with their armies to resupply the British.
Soon, Napoleon realized he could not defeat Wellington. After campaigning for three years, Napoleon retreated. It was a realization that the Bonaparte dynasty that ruled Spain and Portugal would not prevail. Soon, Ferdinand returned to Spain as King, whereupon he appointed Jeminez as Viceroy. Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil, reestablished his rule over Lisbon and restored Jaoa to his former esteemed post. Wellington had defeated Napoleon on land. The fate of France would never seem the same again. Perhaps, Luck and Providence had both left Napoleon, for he was not one to believe in them.
As Napoleon returned to Paris with less than a third of the army he took to Spain, he felt sorrow like never before. His heart was dark with disappointment both for his brother Joseph, who did not develop from a lawyer into a true monarch, but also for himself for failing to defeat the talented commander in Wellington.
Yet, Empress Marie Louise prepared a hot bath for him. He summoned me and Murat to his side and said, “Our sorrows do lie heavy upon us, but at least, it is over now.”
Murat nodded, but I shook my head. The worst was yet to come, for on the eastern borders, our “allies” the Russians had broken the Continental System and started trading arms with Britain again. I realized that Napoleon could not let such transgressions go unpunished. Nevertheless, it was my duty to relay the dispatches of Marshal Ney to Napoleon. And this, I did. No, it t’was only the beginning of the great unraveling of an empire the size of the Romans created in less than twenty years, and for this, my heart sank deeper than Napoleon’s.