Britain’s total war against Napoleon
Britain Against Napoleon: The Organisation of Victory, 1793-1815 Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814
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