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BOOK REVIEW / Close to the bayonet charge: 'History of the War in the Peninsular Vols I & II' - W F P Napier: Constable, 18.95 each pounds

VIMIEIRO, Talavera, Fuentes d'Onoro, Salamanca and Vittoria: who remembers those names now? They linger only in the battle honours of county regiments, barely legible on tattered standards hanging in the dusty side- chapels of English cathedrals. Yet those names are a roll of honour, and the Peninsular War has claims to be remembered as our great national epic.

The defeat of the Armada was over in a week, and more than half due to supernatural causes; God blew, and our enemies were scattered. The stately campaigns of the 18th century, from Blenheim to Minden, do not capture our imagination, and we are heartily ashamed of what look, in retrospect, like the easy victories of empire in India and Africa.

But the Victorians looked back on the Peninsular War with understandable pride. In 1807 Britain intervened in the Iberian Peninsular out of truly enlightened self-interest: to strike at Napoleon's weak underbelly, but also to try to protect its inhabitants from a foreign conqueror. We asked and got little - little, the Victorians would have said, except honour - from a struggle in which a small British army, led by underrated generals, gloriously defeated the overwhelmingly superior forces of the greatest military power of the age, led by the supposedly invincible Napoleon.

Even after the war was over, it took time to realize that Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, had repeatedly thrashed Napoleon and the best of his household of marshals. We owed little, as we saw it, to anyone except gallant aristocratic officers and indomitable private soldiers, the latter more or less affectionately seen by the former as 'the scum of the earth'.

This recollection of the Peninsular War, the British equivalent of the boldly-coloured images d'Epinal that celebrated Napoleon and his moustachioed veterans in 19th-century France, owed something to popular engravings and patriotic poems: 'Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note.' But its most important source was General Napier's remarkable narrative.

Constable are now republishing this classic of military history in a handsome edition, of which the first two volumes have now appeared. It is certainly an absorbing read for those, like me, who like to put their feet up and work their way in imagination into a great story of terrifying obstacles heroically overcome. But it is also a story which raises issues about the moral justification of force, among others, which are as relevant today as ever.

Napier provided vital material for a national myth of military prowess which has sustained us to the Falklands and the Gulf. The attack in column might succeed against Austrians, Russians and Prussians, he says, 'but against the British it must always fail, because the English infantry is sufficiently firm, intelligent and self-disciplined to wait calmly in lines for the adverse masses, and sufficiently bold to close upon them with the bayonet'. There is, however, more to his appeal than chauvinism.

General Napier was commissioned into the 52nd Foot at the age of 16. He fought in the rearguard during Sir John Moore's famous retreat to Corunna, the Peninsular equivalent of Dunkirk, and then fought all the way from Lisbon to the Pyrenees and only retired, as commander of the 53rd, because of the pain from a musket ball lodged in his spine several years earlier.

Although he had no academic training, he attempted, using French as well as British official sources, memoirs and diaries, to establish what had happened as a scientific historian. It would be an exaggeration to call him impartial. But unlike Gibbon or Macaulay, he was there.

He lit up his narrative with vivid touches, like the shooting of the horses before Moore's army embarked at Corunna, or the single combat of Private John Walton of the 43rd, who in the same retreat 'with equal resolution, stood his ground, and wounded several of the assailants, who then retired, leaving him unhurt, but his cap, knapsack, belts and musket were cut in above twenty places, his bayonet was bent double, and notched like a saw'.

With only a few exceptions, the war that Napier describes was honourably fought. Both British and French did what they could to treat each other's prisoners humanely, which is more than could be said for the Spaniards. Napier's own brother was taken prisoner, and treated by Marshal Ney 'rather with the kindness of a friend than with the civility of an enemy'. The reader of Napier's History would find it hard to believe that this was the war recorded by Goya in the Desastres, with its hangings and impalings and mutilations.

Yet Napier could take a stern enough line. He rejected charges of barbarity made against the French for shooting Spanish and Portuguese peasants. 'An insurrection of armed peasants is a military anarchy,' he writes, 'and men in such circumstances cannot be restrained within the bounds of civilised warfare . . . Men dressed in peasants' clothes are observed firing and moving about without order from place to place - When do they cease to be enemies? They are more dangerous when single than together.' The argument echoes down the years, as far as Vietnam.

Napier's view deserves understanding, if not respect, because from him it is the argument of a man who has felt the fear of an unexpected shot between the shoulder blades. Napoleon, incidentally, knew where he stood. Napier quotes a paper in which he ordered his armies to shoot any Spaniard caught with a weapon in his hand.

The savagery of this, the eponymous guerrilla war, edges even closer to the topical. In our lifetime the United States faced those issues in south-east Asia, as did Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Malaya, and today in Northern Ireland. The United Nations may face them in Bosnia tomorrow, and perhaps in Macedonia or the Caucasus the day after.

Soldiers of Napier's generation were hard, to say the least. 'The usage of refusing quarter to an armed peasantry, and burning their villages,' he writes, 'however unjust and barbarous it may appear at first view, is founded upon a principle of necessity'. But something that is, perhaps, best called chivalry tempered that hardness. 'However justifiable it may be in theory, no wise man will hastily resort to it, and no good man will carry it to any extent'.

The debate over the moral justification and proper limitations of force in the settlement of political issues torments us more than ever in the age of napalm, nuclear weapons and destruction on an industrial scale. But we can still learn something from those who confronted the same questions in scarlet tunics, with muskets on their shoulders.