Charles Esdaile

The Ubiquitous Brigand

Napoleon’s Other War: Bandits, Rebels and Their Pursuers in the Age of Revolutions

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In military terms, the period from 1792 to 1815 is very much remembered as an age of great battles (some of the greatest battles in history, indeed), but in practice, for many soldiers of the French Revolution and Napoleon in particular, it was in reality much more an age of little ones. Thus, in many of the wilder parts of the French imperium – in Brittany, the Auvergne, the Pyrenees, the Ardennes, the Rhineland, Illyria, the Alps, the Apennines, Calabria, Spain and Portugal – the French and their allies found themselves fighting not regular armies, but bands of freebooters composed of no more than a few hundred men. Casualties were usually not that high (in two and a half years of the French occupation of Andalucía, such bands accounted for a mere 800 dead and a further 2,000 wounded), but attempting to bring the regions concerned to order was nonetheless an exhausting business that tied down large numbers of regular troops and brought fire and the sword to hundreds of rural communities; in the process it played a large part in giving rise to the idea that the conflicts associated with the French Revolution and Napoleon were, in the words of David A Bell, the ‘first total war’. 

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