The original guerillas of Spain

Wordsworth on Guerilla Warfare

By Gwydion M. Williams

The 18th century British genty had been Deist, Voltarian. The French Revolution persuaded this skeptical gentry to act as if they were devout Anglican Christians. For most it was an act, a performance that they adopted in public and dropped in private. But Coleridge and Wordsworth were thinkers as well as poets. Former radicals appalled by what the French Revolution had turned into. Their Christian belief was a much more substantial matter.

I’ve explained elsewhere how Coleridge had a good understanding of what was going on in the Industrial Revolution. Writing in 1817, he already understood the disruption that was later called the ‘trade cycle’. And he asked the ruling class to act as if it was serious about its public Christianity. But of course it never had been, and never was. The ‘top people’ wanted a religion that would make few demands on them: No one would be so crude as to say ask not what we can do for God, ask what God may do for us. But this was the underlying sentiment, and it has a lot to do with why that class fell from power, and why Anglicanism today is not the popular creed it once wa

William Wordsworth’s pamphlet on the early stages of Napoleon’s war in Spain and Portugal was also far-sighted, noting that something new had begun. Previously the French army had been fighting other armies, and won easy victories. Now they were fighting a whole people, and such a war was almost impossible to win.

A British army under Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) had won a victory against the French invaders of Portugal. But then Wellesley’s superiors had refused to let him follow up his victory and instead allowed the French an easy withdrawal under the terms of an agreement called the Convention of Cintra. Meantime the Spaniards were still resisting the French invasion, and edging towards their later alliance with Britain.

Wordsworth was one of many who condemned the Convention of Cintra. But also he saw it in a wider context:

“Bitter and earnest writing must not hastily be condemned; for men cannot contend coldly, and without affection, about things which they hold dear and precious. A politic man may write from his brain, without touch and sense of his heart; as in a speculation that appertaineth not unto him—but a feeling Christian will express, in his words, a character of hate or love.” (The Convention of Cintra, in William Wordsworth Selected Prose, page 167)

“If in the sensations with which the Spaniards prostrated themselves before the religion of their country we did not keep pace with… taught by the reverses of the French revolution, we looked upon these dispositions as more human—more social—and therefore as wiser, and of better omen, than if they had stood forth the zealots of abstract principles, drawn out of the laboratory of unfeeling philosophists. Finally, in this reverence for the past and present, we found an earnest that they were prepared to contend to the death for as much liberty as their habits and their knowledge enabled them to receive. To assist them and their neighbours the Portuguese in the attainment of this end, we sent to them in love and in friendship a powerful army.” (Ibid., page 175)

“It is manifest that, though a great army may easily defeat or disperse another army, less or greater, yet it is not in a like degree formidable to a determined people, nor efficient in a like degree to subdue them, or to keep them in subjugation–much less if this people, like those of Spain in the present instance, be numerous, and, like them, inhabit a territory extensive and strong by nature. For a great army, and even several great armies, cannot accomplish this by marching about the country, unbroken, but each must split itself into many portions, and the several detachments become weak accordingly, not merely as they are small in size, but because the soldiery, acting thus, necessarily relinquish much of that part of their superiority, which lies in what may be called the enginery of war; and far more, because they lose, in proportion as they are broken, the power of profiting by the military skill of the Commanders, or by their own military habits. The experienced soldier is thus brought down nearer to the plain ground of the inexperienced, man to the level of man: and it is then, that the truly brave man rises, the man of good hopes and purposes; and superiority in moral brings with it superiority in physical power.” (Ibid., page 177-8, emphasis added.)

Wordsworth did not use the term guerrilla—a word meaning ‘little war’ in Spanish, and traced by the Oxford English Dictionary to a dispatch by Wellington for the following year. Nor does Wordsworth anticipate the remarkable later career of Wellesley / Wellington. But he grasped the essence of guerrilla fighting in a way that eluded many subsequent observers. (The Americans in Vietnam, for instance.)

Wordsworth did not ask whether it was wise for Britain as a conservative and imperial power, to endorse and support a method of warfare that could as easily be used against itself as against the French. He was bound up with the immediate issues, in which Britain’s position was by no means entirely reactionary. Britain under Pitt’s tax-and-spend government had a basic form of Welfare State. Moral principles cost money, and to express the wish for them while withholding the cash was empty and immoral. Wordsworth anticipated the hostile arguments about ‘welfare cheats’, and also understood ‘compassion fatigue’:

“In our criminal jurisprudence there is a maxim, deservedly eulogised, that it is better that ten guilty persons should escape, than that one innocent man should suffer; so, also, might it be maintained, with regard to the Poor Laws, that it is better for the interests of humanity among the people at large, that ten undeserving should partake of the funds provided, than that one morally good man, through want of relief, should either have his principles corrupted, or his energies destroyed; than that such a one should either be driven to do wrong, or be cast to the earth in utter hopelessness…

“In France, there is no universal provision for the poor; and we may judge of the small value set upon human life in the metropolis of that country, by merely noticing the disrespect with which, after death, the body is treated, not by the thoughtless vulgar, but in schools of anatomy, presided over by men allowed to be, in their own art and in physical science, among the most enlightened in the world. In the East, where countries are overrun with population as with a weed, infinitely more respect is shown to the remains of the deceased; and what a bitter mockery is it, that this insensibility should be found where civil polity is so busy in minor regulations, and ostentatiously careful to gratify the luxurious propensities, whether social or intellectual, of the multitude! Irreligion is, no doubt, much concerned with this offensive disrespect, shown to the bodies of the dead in France; but it is mainly attributable to the state in which so many of the living are left by the absence of compulsory provision for the indigent so humanely established by the law of England.

“Sights of abject misery, perpetually recurring, harden the heart of the community. In the perusal of history, and of works of fiction, we are not, indeed, unwilling to have our commiseration excited by such objects of distress as they present to us; but, in the concerns of real life, men know that such emotions are not given to be indulged for their own sakes: there, the conscience declares to them that sympathy must be followed by action…

“Let these considerations be duly weighed by those who trust to the hope that an increase of private charity, with all its advantages of superior discrimination, would more than compensate for the abandonment of those principles, the wisdom of which has been here insisted upon. How discouraging, also, would be the sense of injustice, which could not fail to arise in the minds of the well-disposed, if the burden of supporting the poor, a burden of which the selfish have hitherto by compulsion borne a share, should now, or hereafter, be thrown exclusively upon the benevolent.” (Ibid., page 258-9)

Sadly, the self-righteous and mean solution that Wordsworth had warned against was introduced as a ‘radical reform’ in the 19th century. Liberals ‘reformed’ a decent system of poor relief into the horrors of the Workhouse. 19th century Toryism resisted this, but only vaguely and with many partisan and reactionary sentiments mixed in with their opposition. The possibility of a British Christian-Democracy was never actualised.

It is better to be wise after the event, than never to be wise at all. The USA was supposed to have learned a lot of lessons in Vietnam. Britain had won a guerrilla war in Malaya by setting Malays against Chinese, won militarily against the Mau-Mau in Kenya, succeeded in cutting its losses when its political allies collapsed in South Yemen. But somehow both Britain and the USA went pitching into Iraq without worrying about what this could lead to. And I’m sure that no one was reading Wordsworth, at least not as a guide to action.

The experienced soldier is thus brought down nearer to the plain ground of the inexperienced, man to the level of man: and it is then, that the truly brave man rises”. That was the core of Napoleon’s problem in Spain, where his brilliant victories against regular armies were made useless by his failure to win over Spanish ‘hearts and minds’. And it has proved just as true in Iraq, where the USA insulted everybody and now is puzzled as to why its pet Iraqi politicians are unable to keep order.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2004

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