Napoleonic Wars Refought In Spain

Spain, Napoleonic Wars
The second of May is a date that every Spaniard knows. In 1808 on that date, the Spanish people rose up against Napoleon and started a long struggle to kick his troops out of the country. They’d been occupied the year before when Spain’s weak king had foolishly allowed French troops march through his territory to invade Portugal. Napoleon, being Napoleon, decided to keep both countries.

The Peninsular War, as it was called, was long and bloody. At first the Spaniards were outmatched, but they developed an effective guerrilla war that stymied the invaders. In fact the term guerrilla (“little war”) originated in this conflict. The English moved in to help and in 1814 their combined forces kicked Napoleon’s troops back into France.

All across Spain in the first week of May, communities hold festivals to commemorate battles and celebrate local heroes. Here in Cantabria in northern Spain, the municipality of Camargo holds a reenactment in honor of Pedro Velarde y Santillán, an artillery captain who was born in the town and died heroically on the first day of the uprising.

Camargo is a small place that most foreigners and even locals miss. We’ve lived ten minutes away from it for a year and we had to look up how to get there. Despite this obscurity, they put on a good show. A big street fair sold food and local crafts. Strangely there was French cheese and wine for sale, a rarity in a country with enough excellent cheese and wine that there’s no need for imports. I suppose it was in the spirit of the occasion.

%Gallery-187602%Modern and traditional stalls sat side by side. Kids took burro rides while their parents looked through traditional clothing or modern trinkets made by local craftsmen. A local Moroccan restaurant had even set up a tea stall and hookah stand. Why not? Some Moroccans ended up in both armies. I wasn’t too happy to see a mother let her 10-year-old boy take a toke from a hooka, though. You should keep dangerous, addictive drugs like tobacco away from children.

In a nearby park reenactors portraying Spanish and French troops drilled and answered questions from curious onlookers, while a fencing master gave sword-fighting tips to the kids. Soon the reenactors marched into town, firing off their flintlock muskets with an ear-splitting roar. French cavalrymen rode around the crowd shouting to the Spaniards that they were going to occupy the country forever and sleep with all the women. The Spaniards called them “sons of whores.” All in good fun.

So if you’re passing through Spain in early May, keep an eye out for one of these festivals. There’s an especially big one in Madrid, which was the flashpoint of the uprising, but you can find them in most regions, even in little towns like Camargo that you’ve never heard of.

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Remnants Of World War II In The UK Countryside

World War Two, pillbox
During World War II, the British were sure they were about to be invaded. The English Channel seemed like nothing more than a narrow creek against the might of Nazi Germany. As the British army fought in North Africa and Southeast Asia, the Home Guard and teams of civilians prepared for the worst.

One elderly English woman told me that when she was a teenager she helped lay electric wire below the water line of the southern beaches. The idea was that if the Germans launched an amphibious invasion, sort of a D-Day in reverse, they could flip a switch and electrocute the Germans. While the idea disturbed her at the time, the thought of an occupied England disturbed her even more.

Another defensive measure was the construction of more than 18,000 small bunkers called “pillboxes” at strategic sites. Thousands still stand along the rivers, estuaries, ports and main roads. If you hike for any length of time in England, Scotland or Wales you’re bound to come across some. The one shown above guards the road leading into Faringdon, Oxfordshire. Jump the cut to see another view of the same installation.

%Gallery-166587%World War Two, pillbox
As you can see it’s not very big, barely room enough for a couple of men and a machine gun. Still, it would have slowed down the enemy and given the British time to organize a counterattack. Many installations were strung out in long lines called “stop-lines” across the countryside with the idea that the German invasion could be halted along those lines.

Pillboxes came in numerous types. They were built of concrete, stone or brick reinforced with concrete and had various shapes. The Pillbox Study Group is dedicated to the study and preservation of these defenses. Anyone who knows the British will not be the least bit surprised that such a group exists. They’re big on all sorts of societies and associations. These groups allow a rather introverted people an excuse to gather without (or sometimes with) the social lubricant of alcohol. Sometimes this is rewarded with a major discovery. The Richard III Society must be having their best year ever.

I’ve clambered over plenty of these little forts and each one is a little different. In Orkney, I even came across one built atop a prehistoric Pictish broch. Some have been incorporated into later buildings and one has even been used to create a habitat for bats. Most, however, are quietly decaying, visited only by local teens as a private place to drink and screw. Only a few are preserved as historic buildings. The Pillbox Study Group is trying to change that.

If you come across a pillbox while hiking, be careful. Despite once being bullet proof many are now in rather poor shape. Watch your step and admire these remnants of the nation’s Proudest Hour.