Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon - Book Review

The story of Britain's implacable struggle against the odds and eventual triumph over  the Corsican Ogre after the rest of Europe followed her leadership is a familiar, if hackneyed tale. It is even a false one as reading this book has proved.

I'd always assumed that the British were implacably hostile to France and would have fought on no matter what, dispensing their golden guineas on any deserving ally who popped their head above the parapet. Reading this book about the political aspects of the war really puts the lie to this common assumption. The governments of Portland, Percival and Liverpool, but especially the first two, were subject to the same economic, diplomatic and military pressures that the rest of Europe faced, with the one added advantage of the Royal Navy and the English Channel. While the benefits of being an island nation kept Britain safe in the short term, the government were prey to the same pessimism and fear that assailed the major powers of Europe. After Russia sued for peace in 1807 the pressure to make peace was almost overwhelming. The success of the attack on Copenhagen had been soured by the failure of the unauthorised attack on Buenos Aires.

The author really sets the scene for how bleak the future looked for Britain, isolated by the Continental System from the markets of Europe and without a friend on the mainland besides the minor powers of Sweden, Sicily and Portugal. Reading this book, you really get the impression that the government was looking for a way out of endless, fruitless, expensive war. Only Canning's force of personality really held the government on course at this time. Luckily for both him and for Britain, a further planned attack on Spanish America was avoided by Napoleon's fateful interference in Spain

Napoleon's intervention in the Iberian Peninsula reads like a godsend for a government trying its very best to avoid having to make peace with an all powerful Emperor of the French. Even after the stratospheric expectations prompted by the Spanish victory at Bailen had dissolved in the glare of reality, the British government poured hard cash, weapons and uniforms into Spain for the hard pressed juntas. The government's resolve to use the Peninsula as the best way to continue the war was firm from the star. There was plenty of opposition and doubt, even from within the government ranks, especially after the politically damaging Convention of Cintra, whereby the defeated French army were shipped home by the Royal Navy complete with arms and looted booty.

What I had not realised previous to reading this book, was how weak and unstable the British government was for the crucial period of 1809-1812. The government, whoever was leading it and whatever crisis it was facing, was unstinting in its support for Wellington and his army. From the collapse of the Portland administration after Canning resigned, and the financial crisis brought about by the support for both Spain and Austria in 1809, to the Regency crisis brought about by the illness of the King, the government did all in its power to keep the army in the field, no matter how unrealistic Wellington's demands on it and how unjustified his criticisms of it were.

Also, the perception that Britain as the paymaster of Europe held power over the coalition after 1813 is clearly shown to be false. Once the Continental System collapsed and European markets opened to British trade, access to money via taxes and loans became infinitely easier than it had been in the past. This allowed Britain to generously supply the allies with subsidies, although not as generously as some wished! Sweeteners were paid and promises given to persuade Bernadotte's Sweden to join the allies, but even then Britain's power over them was slight. In all the treaties between the powers, the only concession to Britain was that no one country would make a separate peace; nothing was mentioned about policies dear to Britain like the freedom of the Low Countries, the future of colonial possessions or maritime trading concessions. The Armistice of Pleiswitz was agreed to with no reference to Britain which feared that the allies were about to make peace. The British government resigned itself to trusting that nothing would come out of it, but they couldn't be sure. Britain was forced to hang on their coat-tails and hope for the best. Even during the later peace talks at Chatillon when foreign minister Castlereagh was with the royal heads accompanying the armies, the British feared that a treaty would be signed that would leave Napoleon on the throne, or at least a regency for his son with Napoleon the power behind the throne. The Liverpool government was prepared to go along with the majority of the allies if peace were made, but viewed the possibility as merely a pause while Napoleon regrouped. They were not prepared to continue the war alone, especially now that Spain had been freed. Interestingly, the point is made that Wellington's invasion of France progressed so slowly at this point, because Wellington couldn't be sure that the allies were going to make peace which would have left him facing the bulk of the French army that would have been sent south to face him.

The power Britain gained in Europe only came to fruition in Castlereagh's masterful personal diplomacy at the Vienna conference, backed up by Wellington's victory at Waterloo. These two factors immeasurably increased Britain's prestige on the continent and, coupled with her expanded empire, set the scene for Britain's golden 19th century.

Another great read that filled in the gaps in my knowledge. 


  1. Thanks for posting the comment. Looks an interesting reading piece, may be for this summer period

  2. Good review. Sounds like something I could use brushing up on too.

    Rory Muir, the author, has spent many an hour reading wargamer's lit to be fully up on details dear to the wargamers' hearts.

    He has cited Empires, Eagles and Lions specifically. In the days before the internet forum took over the role of discussions, EEL was a 'zine packed with valuable insights and eyewitness reports to try to sort out what happened. It went glossy, later.

    He also has a book on Napoleonic tactics and one on Salamanca, if this does not sound military enough, but this is a good example of something often overlooked by the wargamer as a result of tunnel-visioning just on battles alone without enough context.


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