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.

Murat’s reaction was brutal and violent. In a few hours, the French infantry regiments stationed outside the city dispatched to reinforce the few soldiers in Madrid. The arrival of new troops convinced the insurgents to return home. Murat published an unpopular ordinance in which he condemned to death all the people who were found in possession of any weapon. At the Moncloa, more than 400 people were shot, and all the monks of Santa Maria di Atocha were barbarously beheaded by French soldiers.

Napoleon firmly condemned Murat’s behavior. However, the emperor’s judgment was farsighted because what happened in the capital was only the beginning of an, even more, vast and lethal phenomenon: the birth of the guerilla.


The French army occupying Spanish soil in 1808 was one of the best in Europe. Napoleon’s infantry routed main opponents by combining resourcefulness, courage, and tactical acumen. In addition, the units weren’t homogeneous. Among its ranks were militated soldiers from Germany, Poland, Italy, Croatia, Holland, and all those nations that randomly embraced the Napoleonic system.

For proper functioning, the French armies needed considerable logistics. According to general principle and, more importantly, Napoleon’s mandate, French soldiers acquired daily needs directly from the occupied country. The Army’s commissioners usually issued contracts with some local suppliers, which were regularly paid. Nevertheless, outside the urban centers, looting and thefts were common. The guilty ones were soldiers who, with officers’ collusion, vented against the unarmed peasants, fueling a feeling of hatred toward the occupiers.

Spain 1808: The birth of guerrilla warfare
Guerrilla de la banda de l’Empecinado

The insurrection of Madrid gave rise to other popular uprisings in all the Iberian provinces: the guerrillas began to organize, obtaining in some cases the support of the Spanish regular army and local gentry, too.

A good example of this association is found in the Principality of Asturias, one of the first provinces to rebel after Madrid’s riots. The capital, Oviedo, included both eminent personalities and ordinary citizens who formed a junta central as a unified front against French invaders. After ten days of secret preparation, the Council of Oviedo, followed by members of the surrounding villages, formally declared war on Napoleon by ordering a military enlisted of 18,000 men.

What happened in Asturias inspired others who took the initiative by establishing a semi-regular government. December 28, 1808, Madrid’s junta central issued a decree aimed at ensuring the coordination of all gangs of guerrilleros, submitting them to the local military authorities. The junta’s edict didn’t achieve any results because the resistance groups were based on small family groups that weren’t inclined to follow discipline or hierarchies. Among the bands of guerrilleros or partidas guerrilleras  emerged some prominent figures whose heroic deeds against the French became legendary.

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The Spanish resistance fighters were absolute masters of the territory. Spain’s geographic conformation, especially in the mountainous regions, was ideal terrain for ambushing and assaulting isolated or numerically inferior French columns. For Napoleon, who confided to solve the Spanish campaign in a few months, the raids of the guerrillas were a serious problem because they endangered lines of communication and distracted men from fighting the main enemy: the Duke of Wellington.

The French Strategy

The partidas’ capillary action made the Spanish peninsula an ungovernable place. To combat the guerrilla, there were no effective tactics other than repression, occupation of strategic points on the road system, and the preparation of “flying columns” ready to intervene.

The main control instrument put in place by Napoleon — perhaps the most trusted — was the Gendarmerie Impériale, a specialized police force. On November 24th, 1809 the Emperor established the formation of 20 additional squadrons of Gendarmerie mounted and infantry units destined for the Iberian front. In 1811, the gendarmes were divided into six legions who became the Gendarmerie de l’Armée d’Espagne and dispatched throughout the territory with the task of overseeing the main communication routes that connected the cities.

The choice to supervise rather than actively fight the guerrilla proved unsuccessful because it deprived the gendarmes of overall control in the territory. It also prevented them from gathering information. “When the Gendarmerie moved to occupy a country it frequently fell into ambushes, and the real difficulty,” wrote Commander Honoré Reille, “it was not colliding with the guerrillas, but finding them.”

Spain 1808: The birth of guerrilla warfare
Lucien Rousselot – Napoleon’s Gendarmerie

The clash between the two contenders reached a level of unprecedented brutality, with several episodes of summary shooting and terrible mutilations and bodies exposed to the public. It was a warning both for people who followed the guerrillas and for collaborators with the French. An all-out war that, once finished in 1814, marked the destiny of a country to oppose, even for several years, entire rebel provinces. The historian Michael Broers compares Spain to a “reign of the guerrilla war” replaced by a quick restoration of the state authority. The bands of Francesco Espoz y Mina, for example, continued guerrilla warfare activity beyond 1814, opposing the Bourbons’ monarchical restoration.

A Reflection

What happened in Spain between 1808 and 1814 helps to historicize insurgencies and guerrilla phenomenon, and pose questions regarding the Spanish peninsula conflict as a litmus test to better understand what happened in Iraq with the liberation war wanted by the Americans.

Perhaps a comparison is risky. Nevertheless, there are similar and divergent points which concern the invaders or liberators. In Spain, as in Iraq, two deeply differing cultures clashed. On the Iberian Peninsula, the main actors were imperial France: endowed with a modern army and an evolved government that presented itself as an example of social justice; and Spain: defended by a mismanaged armed force, and governed by an unstable monarchy that reigned over a retrograde society shaped by superstition and bigotry.

It’s not difficult to play with words, replacing protagonists’ names to realize how both France and America have similarities of political value on the international scene. Just as within Spain and Iraq a legitimate spirit of rebellion against undue and unwanted interference coexists with the government. There’s not ideological contiguity between Navarre’s guerrillero and Mosul’s rebel. However, if we exclude the infamous jihadi ideology, the case fits perfectly into the eternal debate that separates terrorists from guerrillas or freedom fighters.

The factor by which French and Americans diverge is the consequences arising from their conquests. When the Imperial Army crossed the Pyrenees and Murat massacred defenseless civilians in Madrid, the Spanish people made a common front, a single liberation movement, composed of multiple bands of rebels, but all pursuing the same purpose. The Iberian outbreak created a myth of invincibility that enveloped Napoleon’s troops. Between 1808 and 1814, the Spanish front involved  300,000 soldiers — and approximately 250,000, not counting the thousands of victims among the locals. In addition to an exorbitant cost in terms of human lives, the imperial funds suffered terrible bleeding with an outlay of about 800 million francs, an incredible figure for the time.

In 2002, the American presence in Iraq not only aggravated a situation already compromised by corrupt politicians and puppets swept by Washington but also caused a terrible civil war with no way out.

This article was originally published in January 2019. It has been edited for republication.

Some good books on Guerrilla Warfare:
Guerilla 1808-1814: Napoleon’s Spanish Nightmare
U.S. Army Guerrilla Warfare Handbook
U.S. Army Improvised Munitions Handbook