It is no secret that the Iberian Peninsula has, within its borders, played host to many of the most dramatic martial and moral clashes in the entirety of Western history. One can find no less than three major wars fought on the Iberian Peninsula in its long history that apply to such a category of military and spiritual conflict: the Reconquista, the Peninsular War, and the Spanish Civil War. However, in the eyes of Catholics it can be a safe assertion to say that the Reconquista and Spanish Civil War are the two which often come to mind when considering the story of Spain and her Most Catholic Majesties. The Peninsular War, on the other hand, falls by the wayside, especially among American audiences. Unfortunately, with the fall of the Peninsular War’s memory also falls the memory of one of its most intriguing figures, a man by the name of Louis-Gabriel Suchet, Marshal of France, and Duke of Albufera. His conduct during the Peninsular War, in contrast to his fellow Marshals and generals, would earn him a place of respect among the Spanish people even into the modern day.
Often, the Napoleonic Wars can be cast as a conflict between the Old Order of the Christian monarchies of Europe against the rising, secular tide of the French Empire. However, the truth is far more complex than that. This is especially true in the case of the Peninsular War, which was framed by the Spanish defenders as a war of resistance against the godless hordes of France, who were in the process of fighting a war of annihilation against Spanish culture. Now, the Empire of France most certainly employed men who engaged in horrific atrocities in Spain. Some examples include Marshal Joachim Murat, the butcher of Madrid, Marshal Jean-de-Diu Soult, the “Duke of Damnation” and “the Greatest Pillager of them All,” and Marshal André Masséna, the “Spoiled Child of Victory.” However, there is one man who stands out among the French Empire’s forces. He, unlike his fellow Marshals, earned such respect from the Spanish populace, that he would even be given the loving dignity of having a multitude of Catholic Masses said in his memory after his death.
Marshal Suchet’s career began in Northern Italy, in 1791. He fought in several of Napoleon’s brilliant victories in this campaign and fought successfully against Royalist counterrevolutionaries in the Vendee as well. He spent an extraordinary amount of time as a talented divisional commander under Marshal Soult, a commander he would serve alongside in Spain, and a commander whose style of governance Suchet would directly contrast. After several eventful combat actions with the Grande Armée, he would find himself sent to the Iberian Peninsula to assist in Napoleon’s overthrow of the Bourbon monarchs, who were regarded as untrustworthy allies. He would drive out the Spanish armies from Aragon in brilliant independent campaigns, and from there be made governor of Aragon.
Suchet’s concern for the people and clergy of Aragon was something established from the very beginning of his governance in the region. This kind of concern is most notable in one incident in Saragossa, where:
Symbolically, Suchet’s first action as an administrator was to prevent the displacement to Madrid of the silver objects of worship from the Church of Notre Dame du Pilar in Saragossa. By doing so, he showed his perfect awareness of two distinctive characteristics of the Aragonese: their profound sense of religious feeling and respect for the Catholic Church, and their aversion for the central power in Madrid.1
This kind of seemingly insignificant action, along with many others, would help Suchet gain the respect and admiration of the peoples of Aragon. During his time as governor, Suchet was forced to rebuild the province of Aragon almost entirely on his own. This was because:
“On 9 February 1810, he received a letter from France, informing him that he would not receive any more subsidies from France, and had to sustain entirely his army from the occupied Aragon province. […] This order then signified that he had to dress, pay, feed, equip, and generally support his soldiers without any help from France.”2
Suchet’s primary concern was to rebuild Aragon’s local economy to the best of his abilities, and this would be made manifest through a variety of means. One of his most effective methods was to reach out to the local Aragonese and appeal to their culture, rather than attempt to impose France’s radical, revolutionary spirit upon them. In Suchet’s own memoirs, he wrote that:
The Arragonese are proud, obstinate, jealous of their liberty, and take it for granted that their country surpasses every other in the world …The rivalries between one province and another subsist, perhaps, in a greater degree in Spain than in any other country. The Arragonese fancy that they possess more physical strength, and spring from nobler blood, than the Castillians, because they are less inclined to bend to their superiors.3
This appeal to local culture is something which can often be overlooked by casual observers. It must be noted that Spain possesses a dizzying diversity of differing cultures and traditions. Although Castilian culture is dominant in part due to Francisco Franco’s repression of Basque and Catalan cultures in the 1940s, this struggle for uniformity was a major sore point in Spanish domestic politics from the very moment the crowns of Aragon and Castille were united by marriage along with the crown of Navarre by conquest. Major Rollet writes,
“Once appointed the Governor of Aragon, Suchet refused to nominate any civil officer who did not originate from Aragon. In so doing, he showed more tact than the former Spanish government itself, and thereby let the Aragonese know that he intended to preserve both their interests and those of the French.”4
This, of course, does not say that he had a personal motivation of charity or virtue driving his actions, but it does show what effective governance ought to be in a time of strife.
Suchet’s conduct towards the Catholic Church is something to be noted as well. Looking at the previous points, it cannot be definitively stated that Suchet had a personal reason for advocating the protection of the Catholic Church in Aragon outside of maintaining order. However, his acts regardless bore good fruits, as the Catholic faith and clergy were respected in a way not seen anywhere else in Spain during France’s invasion. The attitudes of the French Revolution towards the Catholic Church were almost entirely hostile, with many clergymen meeting their end by means of vicious reprisals by revolutionaries. French beliefs on the Spanish Church especially were motivated by an idea that “The Spanish have cruel instincts, which have not been tamed by customs and civilization. The priests Merino and Ballesteros are sequels to Torquemada, Pizarro, and Cortés.”5 Abuses were widespread as a result, especially against clergy. This was most evident in the actions of Marshal Soult in Andalusia, where he notoriously looted churches at a scale that beggars belief. His acts were of such shocking avarice, that they would almost completely overshadow any of his achievements in the province as a result.6
By engaging in a campaign of respect and reconstruction of Saragossa and Barcelona’s churches, as well as ensuring the safety of Spanish clergy at all levels, Suchet was able to win over the province of Aragon and face minimal opposition at all from the guerillas, who were seen less and less as liberators, and more as common bandits and thieves marauding the countryside. His work had results, becoming a cornerstone of modern counter-insurgency theories, and turning Aragon into a safer province than most others in Spain. His actions would also earn him a rare respect from the people there, with priests saying Mass for his soul upon learning of his passing. This kind of honor and charity was not extended to the likes of Marshal Soult, who would be remembered bitterly by the people of Andalusia long after he had left with wagons upon wagons of loot from Spanish churches.
Spain has often been the stage upon which the most dramatic contests between Catholicism and the rest of the world have been fought. Perhaps the Peninsular War does not rank as highly as the fight against Communism in the 1930s, or the stand against Islamic expansion for the vast majority of the Middle Ages. However, the Peninsular War represents Christendom’s first major contact with a government of the Enlightenment. Amidst the evils of Soult’s pillaging of Andalusia, or Marshal Murat’s brutal repression of the Spanish in Madrid, Marshal Suchet stands as one final example of gentlemanly conduct in governance. My intent is, hopefully, to pique the interests of the audience to search into this fascinating era of history which so often goes forgotten, especially among American audiences.
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1. Rollet, Conquerer and Administrator, 12.
2. Jean-Philippe Rollet, “Conquerer and Administrator: Civil and Military Actions of Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet in the Spanish Province of Aragon, 1808-1813” (Master’s Thesis, Marine Corps University, 2008), 7, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA491525.pdf.
3. Louis-Gabriel Suchet. 1828, “Mémoires du Maréchal Suchet, Duc d’Albufera sur ses campagnes en Espagne, de 1808 à 1814, vol 1”: Quoted in Jean-Philippe Rollet, Conquerer and Administrator:, Civil and Military Actions of Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet in the Spanish Province of Aragon, 1808-1813 (Master’s Thesis, Marine Corps University, 2008), 9.
4. Rollet, Conquerer and Administrator, 13.
5. Antoine Laurent Fee. 1861, “Souvenirs de la Guerre d’Espagne, 1809-1813”, 26: Quoted in Philippe Gennequin, The Centurions vs the Hydra: French Counterinsurgency in the Peninsular War (1808-1812), (Master’s Thesis, Army Command and General Staff College, 2011), 32-33.
6. Gennequin, The Centurions vs the Hydra, Chapter 4, 48-58.