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Essay: The extent to which the Spanish Ulcer contributed to Napoleon’s downfall

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  • The extent to which the Spanish Ulcer contributed to Napoleon’s downfall
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Personal leadership/political

It is evident that the ‘Spanish Ulcer,’ as it was referred to by Napoleon, had the greatest impact on his downfall due to his underestimation of opposition throughout the Napoleonic wars, Historian David Chandler agrees when he writes that “Napoleon’s policy in Spain proved one of his greatest blunders” and that “Nothing turned out as intended. From the beginning, he entirely misjudged the problem with which he had to deal. He never appreciated how independent the Spanish people were of their government; he misjudged the extent of their pride, of the tenacity of their religious faith, of their loyalty to Ferdinand. He anticipated that they would accept the change of regime without demur; instead he soon found himself with a war of truly national proportions on his hands.” This argument has much validity to it as Napoleon later revealed whilst in exile; “The unfortunate war in Spain ruined me. All my reverses originated there. The Spanish war destroyed my reputation throughout Europe, increased my difficulties and provided the best possible training ground for English troops. I trained the English army myself, in the Peninsula.” In this source Napoleon has the luxury of hindsight and an abundance of time to consider his mistakes as he was in exile in St. Helena, this could suggest that now more than ever Napoleon has a clearer understanding of the mistakes he made and so his argument is likely to be more accurate and therefore more valid. Previously he had hoped that by abolishing the old regime whilst “bearing the words ‘Liberty and Emancipation from Superstition’” he would be “regarded as the liberator of Spain” which helps to illustrate the arrogance that he was famous for, at the time the French empire was nearing its peak and Napoleon was famed across Europe as the greatest military tactician of all time. By showcasing his arrogance it could help to illustrate how easy it would be for him to misunderstand the Spanish, their culture and their loyalties. Subsequently the Spaniards and the Portuguese would resist French occupation and according to Gates “The imperial forces in the Peninsular totalled a massive 325,000 men but only about one quarter of these could be spared for the offensive – the rest were required to contain Spanish insurgents.” He later describes this effort as “the greatest single contribution that the Spaniards were to make…” The ‘Guerrilla’ or ‘little war’ tactics proved a nightmare to navigate for the French military as General Thiebault later acknowledged when he rendered the scattered situation of the French army desperate. In occupying the vast majority of French forces the Spaniards helped the British to win decisive victories at Talavera in 1809, Fuentes D’onoro in 1811 and Salamanca in 1812 and this contributed greatly to the Peninsula’s liberation and Wellington’s move into southern France. In addition to this there was tremendous variety in the quality of soldiers that Napoleon committed to the Peninsular at various stages of War according to Gates, Baron de Marbot commented that “The moral effect was wholly to our disadvantage ,and as I compared the broad chests and powerful limbs of the Spaniards with those of our weak and weedy privates, my national pride was humbled.” This was in light of the French army’s composition of inexperienced military conscripts, a stark contrast to the composition of the army commanded by Napoleon in the East or at the Battles of Austerlitz and Ulm. The guerrilla nature of war in Spain meant that by the time the war was in full swing Napoleon’s troops who had conquered Austerlitz and Jena previously were now dead. Furthermore “simultaneously, troop quality declined further as veterans suffered some of the nearly 100,000 casualties sustained in the peninsular” (James Arnold) Despite this “No matter how grave affairs became in Spain Napoleon considered them of secondary importance” according to Lachoque. This was illustrated by a letter from Napoleon to his brother Joseph on the 15th of January where he stated “If nothing prevents it, I shall return towards the end of February… The court of Vienna is behaving badly. They shall live to regret it. Don’t worry about anything.” Napoleon’s letter clearly shows how the war in the Peninsular was not of primary importance to him, so much so that he left his brother, an inexperienced military leader in charge which further illustrates how easy the war should have been to win. This gives more validity to Lachoque’s argument. Also this meant that Napoleon once again began to reduce the number of veterans in the Peninsula in order to face the “Principal danger” which “lay in the east” and this identifies Napoleon’s dismissal of the threat from both the Guerrillas and Wellington. Soon “…the empire was obliged to recruit less skilled men, so that infantry tactics were at once less sophisticated and more wasteful in terms of lives. In battle troops were used increasingly to batter a way through the enemy lines, whilst artillery were used in greater quantities” according to Goodlad. This meant that the French in the Peninsular would experience a constant lack of resources, constant uncertainty and constant threat. Consequently the British would see Spain liberated by 1814 and Napoleon defeated finally in 1815.
Per contra, Napoleon’s underestimation of opposition became far more harmful and therefore responsible for his downfall after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. One example of this poor judgement that would go on to become symptomatic of Napoleon’s late career was his defeat at Aspern-Essling. Loraine Petre explains that “For the defeat of Essling the Emperor had himself to blame. He had certainly been careless in his preparations for the crossing [of the Danube river], once more as a result of his unbounded pride and his contempt of his enemy…” Aspern-Essling was the first of Napoleon’s major defeats, and it came as a direct result of his arrogance and short-sightedness as Napoleon knew the crossing was a risk and yet took the decision without sufficient preparation, this as the Emperor’s first defeat helped the allies of the coalition “to present his best victories as lucky accidents” according to Colonel John Elting. This could illustrate that his soldiers followed him blindly into battle which worked effectively until the Russia campaign. Previously, like at the battle of Austerlitz for example, “column commanders had only learned of the details after midnight. Under such circumstances, confusion was inevitable” according to Goetz. This confusion in combination with Napoleon’s inability “to grasp the fact that Alexander would not, could not negociate” (Clausewitz) helps to illustrate Napoleon’s unreliability as a leader and also his underestimation of opposition as he had assumed that by invading Russia they would be foolish enough to confront him on open ground and fight one or two “good battles.” Consequently Napoleon had not prepared to play cat and mouse with the Cossack and Le Grande Armée was decimated by starvation and the early winter. The Emperor may not have been able to see the early winter coming however, it was this “unbounded pride” that Petre refers to that prevented Napoleon from withdrawing from Moscow earlier. Napoleon had failed to grasp that “The tsar knew well that he would be deposed and assassinated if he tried to do so[negociate].”(Clausewitz) There is much validity to this argument as we know that Napoleon remained in Moscow for a period of eight weeks as he waited for a Russian emissary to arrive and discuss peace terms, this failure to recognise the need to leave cost the once ruthlessly pragmatic Napoleon his army. The Tsar later remarked from St.Petersberg “My campaign led by General winter, is just beginning.” Subsequently Napoleon’s underestimation of Russia’s resistance would result in the loss of an estimated half a million men and a thousand cannons, a disaster from which he would never regain his greatness. Francois Dumocreau, a Belgian soldier recalls leading his horse over “a veritable mountain , more than two metres deep, of dead and dying…” According to Britten-Austin “The biggest, most spectacular army Europe had ever raised” was decimated in a matter of months through an unwillingness to abandon all Napoleon had conquered in Russia without concessions from the Tsar. Although Napoleon was defeated for good at Waterloo in 1815, “He and his supporters do not want to admit that huge mistakes, sheer recklessness, and, above all, overreaching ambition that exceeded all realistic possibilities, were the true causes” of his downfall. This helps to identify Napoleon’s arrogance, underestimation of opposition and unyielding ambition as three key causes in his downfall, it highlights that Napoleon’s downfall was in fact his own fault as by wanting to extend his empire into eastern Europe and Russia his fall was made inevitable.


On the other hand, the socio-economic consequences of Napoleon’s rash decision making would become symptomatic of his downfall. Portugal’s role as Britain’s long standing ally had forced Napoleon’s hand as from 1808 to 1809 exports entering Europe through Portugal had doubled to nearly a million pounds and this undermined Napoleon’s continental blockade. The Peninsular war itself also had a huge socio-economic impact on Napoleon’s downfall, the guerrilla style of warfare lead to the destruction of the myth that was Napoleon’s undefeatable, honourable Grande Armée as Esdaile eludes to “the troops were also brutalised, long years of service away from their homes not only habituating them to violence, but making them indifferent and even hostile towards civilians. And, last but not least, with its constant stress upon emulation and competition, the Napoleonic army encouraged bullying, bluster and braggadocio. As a result, the troops were all too often drunken and badly behaved.” It was this poor behaviour that helped resistance to grow in Spain and Connelly suggests that “ a grassroots rebellion blazed up and spread over Spain” which went “Almost unnoticed by the French.” Many Spanish villages “experienced appalling massacres” according to Esdaile which further aided to growth of a popular movement across Spain. An early example of this French hostility to civilians and ‘bad behavoir’ would be Murat’s statement from the earliest resistance to French oppression, he stated “French blood has been spilled, it demands revenge” which in turn lead to the killing of innocent civilians as due to the guerrilla nature of the war the French could not distinguish between guerrillas and civilians. This in turn saw the Peninsular war transformed into a holy war as “the Spanish clergy rallied the people to oppose the ‘Devil’s servants.’ Some friars took up arms and raised bands of guerrillas” according to Conelley. There is much validity to this argument as the contemporary artist Goya records the murder of one revolutionary priest in his painting “The third of May 1808.” This helps to illustrate the independent, zealous spirit of the Spaniards. French officer de Rocca of the French hussars later noted that “It was neither armies nor fortresses that were to be conquered in Spain, but that one, yet multiplied sentiment which filled the whole people. It was the inmost soul of each and every one that resisted the blow – which neither ball nor bayonet could reach.” This is seemingly accurate as we know that it was this spirit of resistance that helped the Spanish to raise a standing army of 300,000 men with relative ease. Moreover, Spanish retaliation in France grew significantly over the period 1808 to 1814 and it was further fuelled by Anglo-Spanish victories. This saw the French morale in Spain plummet, the situation was further accentuated in combination with the constant threat of attack from guerrillas, French ambassador Pradt summed up the situation when he stated that “The lion in the fable tormented to death by a gnat gives a true picture of the French army in Spain.” This illustrates the constant drain on men, time and resources that the French forces experienced whilst in Spain. The French were already suffering from an acute lack of supplies and constant Guerilla ambushes only accentuated the problems further. Hart suggests that “the number of French deaths alone during this period averaged 100 a day” which resulted in “the overwhelming majority of losses which drained the French strength, and their moral still more…” This argument has much validity to it as both Colonel Marbot and the historian Gates provide an identical figure which could suggest that the figure is a valid estimate. Despite this the losses do help to illustrate the loss of morale amongst French soldiers in the peninsula which in turn played a major role in French losses in Spain and therefore Napoleon’s ultimate downfall in 1815.

Contradictory to this, other socio-economic factors played far greater roles in the downfall of Napoleon for example his ‘continental blockade.’ This came after the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet by Nelson at Trafalgar in October 1805, Anglo Naval supremacy had been solidified and in turn any hope Napoleon once had for a French invasion was decimated. The trade embargo on all British goods had negative economic consequences for all of Europe, including France, which saw states like Portugal, Russia and the Netherlands refuse the boycott. According to Smith “The trade war with Britain was one which was outside of Napoleon’s control and one which he was doomed to lose.” This argument has much validity to it as without naval supremacy it would be impossible for Napoleon to prevent the British trading with the whole of mainland Europe moreover, Britain acted as a major trading partner with many European nations and so the trade embargo’s detrimental impact was not only foreseeable but, inevitable. This negative economic impact was illustrated by Tsar Alexander when he was forced to resume trading with Britain as “adherence to the Continental system has brought the economy of Russia to the brink of collapse” according to Smith which in turn lead to the Tsar’s decision to raise tariffs on French goods in favour of British imports on the last day of 1810. Schroeder agrees when he states that “The central fact about the Continental system is it was anti-economic from the ground up, in spirit and essence” hence why it was bound to be unpopular, unfeasable and ultimately unsuccessful. Despite this Napoleon insisted on its implementation even after the defection of Portugal and Russia and the chaos it was causing in France. By implementing the system Napoleon had declared an economic war on Britain and so without naval superiority French merchants were unable to transport goods via the sea which in turn meant that they could only trade with Europe. The insistence from Napoleon on the implementation of his ‘continental system’ helps to illustrate how his obsession with Britain in combination with his inability to take advice mutated into both the Spanish ulcer and the Russia campaign which in turn caused his downfall. This is showcased by Smith as “‘During 1811 the French economy was in poor shape; the ministers of finance pleaded with the emperor to maintain peace so that he might recover. Napoleon’s response was short and sharp ‘Not at all! It is true our finances are disordered, but that is why we need war!’’ This helps to illustrate the view that Napoleon was in fact responsible for his own downfall, he had previously reflected in 1805 that ‘I will be good for six years more; after that even I must cry halt.’ Even before 1811 some contemporaries had observed that his ill health was beginning to impact his decision making negatively which when coupled with the deteriorating state of the French army led to Napoleon’s downfall in Europe. This could help to reinforce Napier’s view that “ her [Spain] efforts were amongst the very smallest causes of his [Napoleon] failure.” However, this view lacks validity as Napier was widely to recognised to be “Extremely anti-Spanish” by historians like Antonio Moliner Prada. On balance, it appears evident that the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ was not the main reason for Napoleon’s downfall but rather Napoleon’s ambition and inability to take advice as a consequence of the success he had experienced before 1808.


Militarily the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ was detrimental to Napoleon as by declaring war on Portugal he had in effect begun the war of the fifth coalition which in turn dragged his old enemy the British into the peninsular. This in turn could help to credit the view that the invasion of Portugal “was an armed parade, not a war” (Noted by an observer) which in turn lulled Napoleon into a false sense of security and “made the “Spanish affair” into the blunder that finished him.” (Connelley.) There is much validity to this argument to this argument as after the dispersion of the Portuguese “A sinister calm fell over Portugal and Napoleon began preparing his next move.” (Gates – “The Spanish ulcer” pp 8-9) Napoleon had left the French army in the peninsular under the command of “General Junot, a young man of a bold, ambitious disposition, but of greater reputation for military talent than he was able to support; and his soldiers, principally conscripts, were ill-fitted to endure the hardships which awaited them.” (Napier – “History of the War in Peninsula 1807-1814” p 25) This further helps to illustrate that the poor state of military affairs that arose in Spain ultimately sprung from Napoleon’s Decision to trust the arrogant Junot, and his inexperienced troops with the capture and occupation of the peninsular. According to MacLachlan another “key factor in the failure was that Napoleon tried in vain to secure the interests of the local Spanish notables. Along with the presence of the Spanish guerrillas, this proved to be positively disabling for the French administrative forces there. (Matthew MacLachlan: Napoleon and Empire – History Review 2007) This credits the argument that Junot was outmanoeuvred by an angry populous and ultimately lacked the necessary means, in terms of well-trained troops, to counter the Guerillas in Spain. General Savary even stated that “if instead of troops consisting of war levies [raw conscripts], we had opposed to them such soldiers as those of the camp of Boulogne [the Grande Armée], which we might easily have moved in any direction and made to deploy under the enemy’s fire without any danger their being thrown into disorder”. (General Anne Savary, French General and Diplomat) This could show Napoleon’s underestimation of the Spanish due to his belief in French “political and cultural superiority” he was “inclined to regard Belgians, Dutchmen, Germans, Italians and Spaniards alike as backward, superstitious, priest-ridden and uncouth” ( Popular Resistance in Napoleonic Europe – By Charles Esdaile) which in turn lead him to undersupply and already weak army in the peninsular. In 1812 Marshall Marmont even complained to the emperor that “we have not 4 day’s food in any of our magazines, we have no transport, we cannot draw requisitions from the most wretched village without sending thither a foraging party of 200 strong; to live from day to day, we have to scatter detachments to vast distances, and always to be on the move … Lord Wellington is quite aware that I have no magazines…” Wellington would later recognise that “It is certainly astonishing that the enemy [French] have been able to remain in this country so long” despite their lack of food, weapons and morale.

Although, the Spanish Ulcer cannot be credited as the sole source of Napoleon’s ultimate downfall in 1815 as Brenden Simms eludes to when he states that “The Grande armee was not bled to death by a thousand cuts, worn down by British sponsored guerrillas (in Spain) or starved into submission by the Royal Navy: it was totally destroyed at great cost in Russia in 1812” – Brendan Simms, Napoleon a political life- This argument has much validity to it as we know that Napoleon lost an estimated half a million men, thousands of horses and one thousand cannons in a single failed campaign. This loss is arguably one of the main reasons for the downfall of Napoleon at Waterloo, Napoleon himself recognised that “In most battles the Guard artillery is the deciding factor…” Previously “… French gunners dominated Europe’s battlefields in the 19th century because of their aggressive tactics, imaginative leaders and their raw courage” and so without their actual cannons any remaining experienced French gunners were rendered almost useless due to a lack of actual cannons in the French army. General Blücher later privately reflected that “against that fellow [Napoleon] you need cannons and lots of them” and so it only seems appropriate that Napoleon felt similarly towards Wellington and Blücher hence why this loss of artillery resulted in his ultimate downfall. Jonathan Riley argues that “It is ironic that, having succeeded in so many campaigns on the basis of just enough, just in time, he failed in Russia after the most extensive preparations undertaken in the history of warfare up to that point.” – How Good Was Napoleon? – By Jonathon Riley Britten-Austin agrees when he writes that “The biggest, most spectacular army Europe had ever raised” was decimated in a matter of months through an unwillingness to abandon all Napoleon had conquered in Russia without concessions from the Tsar. Despite this astounding loss of men, an estimated 20,000 returned from the original 600,000 that left for Russia, it was the loss of horses and cannons that damaged him most. Britten-Austen tells us that “men could be easily replaced, not horses” and that “it was because of his lack of cavalry that Napoleon was eventually defeated by Austria, Prussia, Sweden and Russia, in 1813.” This became evident in the Waterloo campaign of 1815 as after more than twenty years of warfare the number of horses available for military use had been significantly eroded across the continent and this meant that at Waterloo the British had access to the finest contemporary cavalry units which was arguably a deciding factor in the Emperor’s defeat. On balance, it appears clear that it was the Spanish Ulcer in combination with Russian campaign that resulted in the ultimate downfall of Napoleon in 1815 due to their toll on Napoleon’s military resources and reputation.

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