The recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan forced most modern and technologically advanced armies to revise their strategies by adapting to the new contingencies of asymmetric warfare. The U.S. military occupation of Iraq was an excellent example of how a top-level military force could crumble in the face of an uncontrollable popular uprising. After a triumphant march to Baghdad, the U.S. military’s total lack of a strategic plan quickly embroiled it in a long and stressful confrontation against small groups of insurgents whose actions made Iraq ungovernable.

Yet Pentagon analysts had countless examples of how to avoid such a situation and above all, they knew the importance of correctly handling the population. Contemporary military historiography identified some key events useful for understanding what an insurgency is — also suggesting models on which to work and organize a winning strategy.

A careful analysis emerges as to how the British and the French armies — given their colonial experiences — are the most accustomed to dealing with this type of emergency. In fact, many tend to forget what the European continent was like after the French Revolution when the republican armies wore the liberators’ uniforms. The Revolution of 1789 and its repercussions on the pre-ordered equilibrium by the main monarchies originated many episodes of insurgencies that found their maximum expression in Vendée (1793), Italy (1799), and then in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, from 1808 to 1814.

The Dos de Mayo in Madrid

Most Napoleonic historians recognize in the Spanish campaign the real cause of Napoleon’s defeat. From 1805 to 1808, the French Emperor dethroned the noblest European sovereigns defeating Austria and Russia in Austerlitz (1805), and Prussia in the battle of Jena in 1806. Due to a series of treaties and opportune alliances, the “Little Corsican” tried to bend to his will the English Empire which, thanks to the Royal Navy seapower, had control of the trade routes, but gradually lost landfalls on the Continent.

However, the Continental System imposed by Napoleon had several flaws that still allowed England a little breathing room: Portugal, more than others, guaranteed secure access to its ports and the delivery of British food. Among the anti-Bonapartists was the Bourbons’ Spain, which had a tough time, caused by malevolent “court games” aimed at destabilizing King Charles IV. The Spaniards’ characters differed from the rest of western Europe because their culture was influenced by various rulers over centuries. Superstitions and fear of God dominated rural populations: outside the city walls, the clergy exercised absolute domination. Keep in mind that the Inquisition still played a key role in Spaniards’ lives during the Middle Ages.

The French aggression on the Iberian Peninsula began at the end of 1807 when, as a result of the signed Fontainebleau treaty, 25,000 troops of the Army of Gironde — under the command of General Jean-Andoche Junot — transited to Spain to invade Portugal guilty of not respecting the naval blockade to England. The rivalry between Charles IV and his son, the crown prince of Asturias Ferdinand VII, opened the way for the French occupation and the subsequent ascent to the Spanish throne of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte.

Spain 1808: The birth of guerrilla warfare
Goya – Dos de Mayo in Madrid. French insurgents kill Mameluks of Imperial Guard.

The curtain on the Peninsular War — or the locals call it La Guerra de la Indipendencia opened May 2, 1808. This date is immortalized by the famous painter Goya, who portrayed to the world the dramatic violence of those days.

According to Napoleon’s plans,  King Charles IV, his son, Ferdinand, and the rest of the Spanish court were to be exiled to Bayonne. The commander-in-chief of Imperial forces, the Great Duke of Berg Joachim Murat, stayed in Madrid waiting for orders: he had to get the rest of the family, including Ferdinand’s brother Don Francisco and his sister, along with his sons–and to escort them up to Bayonne. As soon as the carriage that led the little Don Francisco was stopped by a French officer, the crowd began to shout “Que nos lo llevan!” (“They take him away!”), throwing stones at the French soldiers. What seemed initially a confined riot spread like wildfire. Madrilenians swarmed into the streets armed with what they had, attacking the isolated French troops. In particular, the Spaniards’ anger was aroused by the presence of the Mameluks regiment of the Imperial Guard.