Bri­tain’s to­tal war against Napoleon

Bri­tain Against Napoleon: The Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Vic­tory, 1793-1815 Welling­ton: The Path to Vic­tory, 1769-1814

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Crane

By Roger Knight Allen Lane, 720pp, $49.99 (HB) By Rory Muir Yale Univer­sity Press, 672pp, $54.95 (HB)

IT feels the height of in­grat­i­tude to blame Jane Austen for any­thing, but it prob­a­bly is her fault that most peo­ple seem to think the only im­pact the Napoleonic Wars had on British life was to bring Mr Wick­ham and the mili­tia into the lives of the Ben­net girls.

It is cer­tainly true that the out­come of Per­sua­sion re­volves around the huge amount of prize­money that a frigate cap­tain could make out of the war, but with the ex­cep­tion of a few teas­ing re­marks from Henry Tilney at Cather­ine Mor­land’s ex­pense in Northanger Abbey you could read all Austen’s works and not know she had spent al­most the whole of her adult life in a coun­try locked in a war that was ‘‘ to­tal’’ in the sense that the two world wars of the 20th cen­tury were to­tal wars.

It did not mat­ter whether you were rich and sub­ject to new taxes or poor and sub­ject to the press gangs, whether you were waist-deep in the cold waters off the He­brides farm­ing kelp or shop­ping for rib­bons in Mery­ton, whether you had been driven off the land to make way for sheep or bankrupted by a govern­ment con­tract, war and the eco­nomic con­se­quences of war touched ev­ery life. ‘‘ The whole air was filled with war,’’ James Nas­myth, the great Vic­to­rian en­gi­neer, would re­call of his child­hood in Ed­in­burgh more than 60 years later: Troops and bands pa­raded the streets. Re­cruits were sent away as fast as they could be drilled. Ev­ery­body was full of ex­cite­ment. When the great guns boomed forth from the cas­tle, the peo­ple were first star­tled. Then they were sur­prised and anx­ious. There had been bat­tle and vic­tory! Who had fallen? was the first thought in many minds. Where had the bat­tle been, and what was the vic­tory? Busi­ness was sus­pended. Peo­ple rushed around the streets to as­cer­tain the facts. It might have been at Sala­manca, Talavera or Vit­to­ria. But a long time elapsed be­fore the de­tails could be re­ceived; and dur­ing that time sad sus­pense and anx­i­ety pre­vailed in al­most ev­ery household.

In their very dif­fer­ent ways Roger Knight’s Bri­tain Against Napoleon and Rory Muir’s Welling­ton: The Path to Vic­tory, two su­perb books, ad­dress the ways in which Bri­tain first sur­vived and then de­feated the men­ace of rev­o­lu­tion­ary and Napoleonic France.

Knight be­gins the story with Wil­liam Pitt the Younger and the re­forms of the 1780s, then in a se­ries of richly de­tailed chap­ters looks at the man­ner in which Bri­tain rein­vented it­self to face the chal­lenge, break­ing through the old cara­pace of en­trenched in­ter­ests, priv­i­lege, in­sti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion and sys­temic in­com­pe­tence to har­ness the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors into an ad­min­is­tra­tive ma­chine ca­pa­ble of sus­tain­ing a con­flict that would last four times as long as ei­ther world war.

This is a book about the vict­ualling depart­ment and the navy board, about the Ad­mi­ralty and Horse Guards, about govern­ment con­tracts and pro­cure­ment, about the me­chan­ics of trade and fi­nance, about foundries and dock­yards and man­power, and for any­one used to think­ing of the pe­riod in any more glam­orous terms, it will be a won­der­fully dis­ori­ent­ing read. Knight is just about pre­pared to give the great names in the drama their small walk-on parts, but for him the real he­roes of the strug­gle against Napoleon are not Welling­ton or Nel­son or Colling­wood or Cochrane but the clerks and ad­min­is­tra­tors and ‘‘ silent men of busi­ness’’ who put Bri­tain’s armies in the field and kept the coun­try’s ships at sea and its al­lies in funds and ul­ti­mately won the war.

It is a rare gift to make the in­trin­si­cally dull in­ter­est­ing, to tell you things you thought you didn’t want to know in a com­pelling man­ner — imag­ine a bi­og­ra­phy of Charles Lamb, say, that dealt ex­clu­sively with his nine-to-five at the East In­dia Of­fice and you have the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent — and Knight has that gift in spades. The struc­ture of the book very oc­ca­sion­ally creaks un­der a life­time’s weight of in­for­ma­tion, but there is scarcely a wasted sen­tence here, not a duff page, not a chap­ter, how­ever un­promis­ing the ti­tle — White­hall at War, Feed­ing the Armed Forces, Trans­port­ing the Army by Sea, Block­ade, Taxes, and the City of Lon­don — that does not bring you very close to the re­al­i­ties of a to­tal war and the jus­tice of Knight’s claims for a suc­ces­sion of Tory gov­ern­ments pre­pared to mus­cle it out.

It goes against the grain to for­give Pitt the re­pres­sive mea­sures of the 1790s, or to think any­thing good of the wretched Liver­pool govern­ment or men such as John Wil­son Cro­ker; but if you ac­cept Knight’s premise that the only thing that mat­tered was the de­feat of Napoleon, then there is no deny­ing their achieve­ments.

At the out­break of war Pitt had nei­ther the army nor the ad­min­is­tra­tive per­son­nel to take ad­van­tage of a tem­po­rary su­pe­ri­or­ity over rev­o­lu­tion­ary France, but as the con­flict went on, the old guard was re­placed by young blood and a pol­i­tics of sinecures and self-in­ter­est gave way to a cul­ture of dis­in­ter­ested pub­lic ser­vice, hard work, ac­count­abil­ity and grow­ing trans­parency that was ar­guably Pitt’s great­est legacy to the coun­try.

Knight is good on the army, good on the home front, good with his char­ac­ter sketches and vi­gnettes, but he is first and fore­most a naval his­to­rian, though it is not just a nat­u­ral bias that puts the navy and its or­gan­i­sa­tion at the heart of Bri­tain against Napoleon. For the great part of the war — pos­si­bly for far longer than was in fact nec­es­sary — the fear of in­va­sion was a con­stant of govern­ment think­ing.

Even when that had passed, the de­mands of eco­nomic war­fare, con­voy work and years of block­ade duty — the search for new sources of hemp or wood, for in­stance, for more re­li­able can­non, for tech­no­log­i­cal an­swers to rust­ing bolts, for skilled man­power, for dock­yard re­sources — made the navy si­mul­ta­ne­ously the great­est stim­u­lant and con­sumer of the coun­try’s in­no­va­tive en­er­gies and re­sources.

It is a truth uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged, how­ever, that a mar­itime power in pos­ses­sion of a navy is never go­ing to de­feat a con­ti­nen­tal power in con­trol of Europe, so it is per­haps right that the last word here should rest with Welling­ton and the army. For the first 15 years of the war against France the only thing that stood be­tween Bri­tain and dis­as­ter were Bri­tain’s fleets; but from the ugly fall-out of the Basque Roads in 1809 on­wards the pres­tige of the navy de­clined at the same time that Welling­ton’s Penin­su­lar vic­to­ries were not only drain­ing French man­power at a cru­cial stage of the war but erod­ing that his­tor­i­cal British distrust of a stand­ing army.

It is too much to ex­pect that with the bi­cen­te­nary of Water­loo only 18 months away this will be the last book on Welling­ton, but I doubt that there will be a bet­ter. It will be a

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