Thursday, 16 July 2020

Britain's Wars against Napoleon: Two Reviews

I have recently read two books with very different perspectives on the British Government's wars against Napoleon. David Andress intertwines diplomacy, war and the domestic challenges often brutally faced down by Britain's rulers. He approaches the wars from the viewpoint taken by most British historians: Napoleon wasn't serious about peace, and presented a challenge which had to be defeated.

I do not like the Emperor Napoleon but am prepared to forgive the Duke of Wellington for his outrageous snobbery in the light of his many other virtues.(1)

So Napoleon is never given the benefit of any doubt. He is described in language that makes it clear that he was a thoroughly bad lot. We find him therefore revealing "the depths of his dictatorial nature" having " a growing sense of absolute and monarchical power " and "snuffing out the last lingering elements of the Dutch Republic ." (2)

Despite this declared bias Andress paints a bleak picture of Britain during the wars against France. It was a time of low wages, high living costs and sometimes famine, mass revolt in Ireland, mutiny in the fleet, fear of the press gang, and a time of great corruption. The elite he admits cared nothing about the costs of war, had contempt for the rights of ordinary people, pursued a witch hunt against radicals, and used a vast network of spies and informers against its internal enemies.

He describes in detail the concentration of large numbers of troops in Manchester, Lancashire, the Midlands and Yorkshire that were used to suppress the Luddites, but is still convinced that despite the "brutal suppression" of popular protest, which he describes as "shocking and tragic", the elite received "stout patriotic support from the mass of the population." Less controversially he concludes that the net result was the revival of

"aristocratic sense of imperial mission, the revival of hierarchy, a monarchical, paternalistic social order. It was a mark of the resilience of the British elite that it faced all those challenges and prospered. (3)

Tim Clayton, as his book's title suggests, takes a rather darker view. Whilst making it clear that the book is not a defence of Napoleon, he suggests that while there may have been a germ of truth in British propaganda about Napoleon, the "monster" created was a gross exaggeration and Britain's enduring enmity pushed him to extremes that he probably would not otherwise have entertained and ultimately led to his downfall. It was Britain, not Napoleon that wouldn't make peace.

In his view what kept the long wars against France going was the determination of many in its ruling circles to stamp out the last vestiges of the French Revolution at home as well as overseas. So the final wars in the century long struggle for supremacy between Britain and France were in short more about ideology than realpolitik. It was not so much Britain as the British oligarchic system that was under threat, until the "usurper" was safely on St Helena and "legitimacy" restored to the throne of France

Attentat de la rue Saint-Nicaise à Paris contre le 1er consul, le 3 nivôse au 9 (24 décembre 1800)

Clayton's focus is on the British state's undercover struggle against Napoleon. This included incitements to civil war, the distribution of fake currency in France and the most mendacious propaganda campaign the world had yet seen. The propaganda was not only designed to destroy Napoleon's reputation and to undermine support for him and the ideas of the French Revolution at home as well as in France, but also to make the assassination attempts which the British Government sponsored seem acceptable. (4)

On December 24th 1800, very early in Napoleon's period of power, royalist insurgents detonated a bomb, the machine infernale, intended to kill Napoleon as he left for the theatre. On arrival at the theatre Napoleon remarked, "Those bastards tried to blow me up. Have someone bring me the libretto of Haydn's oratorio." This attempt, the first ever use of a bomb in an assassination attempt killed and wounded many and destroyed a number of buildings. It was financed by the British Government, and most of the conspirators had been transported from Britain to France in British naval ships. (5)

1801 Watercolour by Thomas Girton showing bomb damage

In 1804 a more elaborate plan was plotted by Royalists in London whose agents, Jean-Charles Pichegru and Georges Cadoudal were secretly landed in France on a British ship captained by John Wesley Wright.(6) The plot was uncovered and the agents hunted down. It initiated a chain of events which led to the death of the duc d'Enghien and the decision to make Napoleon an hereditary monarch, an attempt to provide stability and to make assassination less attractive.

The British Government went to extreme lengths to hide its involvement in this plot. Lord Hawkesbury, soon to inherit the title Lord Liverpool and to become a long serving Prime Minister (1812-27), had all the incriminating letters removed from the Foreign Office. He also bought similarly incriminating papers from the children of Francis Drake, Ambassador to Bavaria, one of the most senior British officials involved in undercover plots against Napoleon. (7)

Clayton concludes that Napoleon was no more tyrannical than any ancien regime monarch and less than most of the regimes set up after his downfall, but Britain's rulers were confident of their ability ultimately to beat the French:

Britain was superior to France at sea and financially, and a lot of people appreciated it. It bred an unattractive sense of national superiority and self-satisfaction that survives today even though the underlying conditions have changed totally. (8)

1.David Andress Beating Napoleon, How Britain faced down her greatest challenge (London 2012) p XIV
2. Andress pp 136-7.
3. Andress p 381
4. The 1657 pamphlet Killing No Murderreappared in the 1790's to justify the execution of Louis XVI. It was subseqyuently used to justify the assassination of Napoleon.
5. Tim Clayton This Dark Business, The secret war against Napoleon (London 2018) pp.7,9. The watercolour by Thomas Girtin was described by him as showing, "Part of the Tuileries the palace where Buonaparte resides .. and the ruins of the houses blown up by the infernal machine." Clayton opp p. 135.
6. Wright was subsequently captured and died in prison in 1805. Clayton accepts the French Government view that he committed suicide. Clayton p. 354.
7. He also paid them an annuity on condition that publication was suppressed. Clayton p 356.
8. Clayton pp 347-349

Friday, 22 May 2020

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: St Helena, March 1820

Front cover, "The political house that Jack built", 1819

In March 1820 a naval surgeon named McKenzie arrived on St Helena with a copy of the The political house that Jack built. (1) This pamphlet which was published by William Hone in the wake of the August 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, was to run to several editions and sell 100,000 or so copies.

McKenzie had, so he claimed, intended to show the pamphlet to Sir Thomas Reade, before giving it to an English resident on the island. Unfortunately he left it in a shop, and two British army officers found it and reported him to Sir Hudson Lowe.

Lowe immediately sent McKenzie aboard his ship and held him prisoner for 7 days, threatening to send him back to England and force him out of the Navy. Luckily for him there was no ship leaving for England, and so at the end of his confinement he was able to beg Lowe for forgiveness and secure his release. (2)

Hone was a fierce defender of the freedom of the press who had faced three separate trials on three days in December 1817, one of which was for libelling the Prince Regent.(3) He was acquitted in each trial, to great popular acclaim. Henceforth he was regarded as almost immune from prosecution whilst other radical journalists frequently found themselves in prison, and William Cobbett exiled himself in North America to avoid the same treatment.

Ruffians are abroad

William Hone was a friend of Hazlitt, and like him and many others did not subscribe to the Loyalist narrative about Napoleon. One of his earlier pamphlets had been Buonaparte-phobia (1815), which satirized the exaggerated anti-Napoleonic language of The Times , whose editor was henceforth referred to as Dr Slop.

The frontispiece of The "Political House that Jack Built" (top) carried a cartoon of Wellington, putting his sword on the scales of justice. The Waterloo man, as Hone described him, had been recruited into the Cabinet in late 1818, and his appointment was seen as a sign that the Government was prepared to use military force to put down those calling for reform. The Manchester massacre seemed to confirm this, and it almost immediately became known as "Peterloo".

These are THE PEOPLE all tatter'd and torn,
Who curse the day wherein they were born,
On account of Taxation too great to be borne,
And pray for relief, from night to morn;
Who, in vain, Petition in every form,
Who, peacably Meeting to ask for Reform,
Were sabred by Yeomanry Cavalry, who,
Were thank'd by THE MAN, all shaven and shorn,
All cover'd with Orders--and all forlorn;
The Man of course was the Prince Regent, a Whig in his youth, who had turned against his former political friends and had publicly thanked the troops who broke up the reform meeting in Manchester.

George Cruikshank's caricature of the Prince Regent

THE DANDY OF SIXTY, who bows with a grace,
And has taste in wigs, collars, cuirasses and lace;
Who, to tricksters, and fools, leaves the State 
and its treasure,
And, when Britain's in tears, sails about 
at his pleasure:
Who spurn'd from his presence the Friends of his youth,
And now has not one who will tell him the truth;
Who took to his counsels, in evil hour,
The Friends of the Reasons of lawless Power; 

In the poem Hone looked to leading Whigs to save Reform from Wellington and the repressive Tory Government:

This WORD is the Watchword--the talisman word,
That the WATERLOO-MAN's to crush with his sword;
But, if shielded by NORFOLK and BEDFORD's alliance,
It will set both his sword, and him, at defiance;
And assist its best Champions, who then dare invade it?

It is no wonder that a pamphlet such as this was not welcomed on St Helena at this time. Lowe and Reade were fierce Loyalists, determined to keep opposition newspapers off the island and especially from Longwood House, and naturally suspected anyone who showed any Whig or worse still Radical sympathies. On St Helena where the Governor's word was supreme, there was no recourse to the law to protect press freedom or individual liberties.
1. Jack was a synonym for John Bull. "This is the house that Jack Built" is a traditional English nursery rhyme.
2. The Morning Chronicle, May 20, 1820.
3. See also this post on Hone.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Napoleon's Tomb St Helena, May 5th 2020.

Aujourd’hui, en hommage à l’Empereur… à Sainte Hélène.

Posted by Domaines nationaux français à l'île de Sainte Hélène, Atlantique Sud on Monday, May 4, 2020
Napoelon's Tomb, St Helena, May 5th 2020

St Helena has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. So far no cases have been detected on the island, but there are no longer regular flights bringing in the tourists on which all the island's hopes had been pinned.

Normally a large crowd gathers in the Valley of the Tomb on May 5th to commemorate the death of the Emperor Napoleon, but this year because of social distancing no such event could be held. The Rev Graeme Beckett, St Helena's Baptist Minister wanted to play his bugle, and so he stood alone beside the tomb. Brightly edging the tomb were hundreds of Everlastings, the Australian daisies that now cover the island, and were originally sent to Longwood by a friend of Lady Holland, Napoleon's most prominent supporter in England.

View of the Ceremony from above

The rather moving ceremony was videoed on a mobile phone by Michel Dancoisne Martineau and posted on Facebook on the same day. Remember how many weeks it took for news of Napoleon's death to arrive in Europe!

On reflection the presence of a nonconformist Minister at this ceremony seems very appropriate. Two hundred years ago, and much later, Anglicanism was emblematic of Loyalism, whereas radicals and Liberals, who were always much more sympathetic to Napoleon, were drawn from the ranks of nonconformity.

Next year elaborate plans are being made for a huge ceremony to commemorate the bicentenary of Napoleon's death. It will be very important for the tourist industry on the island. Let us hope that we are back to some semblance of normality before then.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Lady Lever Art Gallery Revisited

Napoleon I by René Théodore Berthon, 1809

I recently returned to the Lady Lever Art Gallery. This was my first visit since the Napoleon room was moved and reconfigured.

I was very taken with the Berthon picture, painted from nature according to the inscription on the surround. It is much easier to see than previously. It is now hung between portraits of Wellington and Nelson, which previously were hung either side of the famous William Quiller Orchardson painting of Napoleon dictating to Count Las Cases on St Helena in 2016.

Portraits of Wellington, Napoleon and Nelson, the Napoleon Room, Lady Lever Art Gallery

All these paintings were transferred from Lord Lever's private collection in 1922, but it is slightly odd to see Wellington and Nelson in a room named after Napoleon!

Lord Lever's Collection of Miniatures of Napoleon and his family - now missing

No longer on display is Lord Lever's collection of miniatures which I photographed on my visit in 2011. Some time ago I seem to remember having a communication from Liverpool Art Galleries telling me that when they reassembled the room they could not find it. My photo may be the only record of it in existence. I fear the worst.

Still there but not in the Napoleon room, is Oliver Cromwell.

Bust of Oliver Cromwell

The museum's notes now recognise that images of Cromwell were displayed as a political statement by many Whigs. This tradition was maintained by Lord Lever and a number of Liberals in the C19, notably in Manchester Town Hall, the very heart of nineteenth century Liberalism.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been to the Lady Lever Gallery. I never tire of it, always finding something I have missed on previous visits, and I always marvel at the beautiful village that Lord Lever created for his employees at Port Sunlight over a century ago. He was truly a remarkable man.

Friday, 24 January 2020

December 1940: Return of L'Aiglon Part II

Adolf Hitler at Les Invalides, June 1940

Following the surrender of France, Adolf Hitler made two visits to Paris in June 1940. On the second visit he went to Les Invalides and whilst looking at Napoleon's tomb declared that he would return the remains of Napoleon II.

Origins of the Idea The idea of returning the remains had first been broached by Napoleon III some 90 years earlier. The Emperor Franz-Joseph had refused, saying that the Prince was and should remain a Hapsburg. (1) The idea was revived after the 1st World War, and in 1930 under the leadership of the historian Édouard Driault, President of the Napoleon Institute, a movement was formed to bring it about.

Coffin of Napoleon II, France December 1940

German Troops transporting Coffin of Napoleon II in Paris at night, December 1940

The Hapsburg family, now exiled in Belgium, said they were prepared to agree provided an official request came from the French Government. The Foreign Minister, Édouard Herriot supported the plan. The proposal was that the coffin would be returned on 15 December 1940, the anniversary of the return of Napoleon I's remains from St. Helena. Then the Government fell, and the plan lapsed.

Heinrich Otto Abetz (26 March 1903 – 5 May 1958), founder member of Comité France-Allemagne and later German Ambassador to Vichy

Nazis and Collaborationists The rise of Hitler and the Anschluss with Austria created a totally new political climate in France as well as in Germany and Austria. In 1938 the Comité France-Allemagne , a right wing appeasement supporting group, took up the idea again. Historian Jacques Benoist-Méchin, a member of the fascist Parti Populaire Français, raised it with von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister.

Jacques Benoist-Méchin (1901-1983)

Ribbentrop dismissed the idea, but Otto Abetz a fellow member of Comité France-Allemagne was enthusiastic and claimed to have got the support of Adolf Hitler. Abetz who had a French wife and presented himself as a francophile had attended the Munich conference in 1938, and after the surrender of France he returned to Paris from which he had been expelled in 1939 and subsequently became the German Ambassador to Vichy. (3)

Pierre Laval with Adolf Hitler

After Hitler's visit to Les Invalides in June 1940, Abetz, with the concurrence of Pierre Laval, Deputy Prime Minister of the Vichy Government, made elaborate plans for a ceremony to mark the handing over of the remains.

The crisis in Vichy and a botched plan

Abetz's plans seem to have involved a grand ceremony at which Hitler, Goering and Marshal Pétain, Head of the Vichy Government, would all be present. It was also apparently part of a plan to get Pétain to move to Paris, where he would be isolated from those who were trying to distance the Vichy regime from the German Government.
Laval was told of the decision to return the remains four days before Pétain. As soon as they found out, Pierre Laval's opponents in the Vichy Government were determined to prevent what they saw would, like the meeting with Hitler at Montoire in October, be another humiliation for Pétain and the Vichy Government.

Marshall Pétain with Adolf Hitler, Montoire Railway Station, October 1940

Despite a personal letter from Hitler, Pétain took notice of the anti-collaborationists. He declined to go to Paris and he removed Laval from office and placed him under house arrest. So on the night of 14th/15th December the Vichy Government was represented at a very low key handing over ceremony by Admiral Darlan and General Laurencie. (4)

Ambassador Abetz was furious. The great public relations event he had planned had failed, and he informed the Vichy Government that it was not to say anything about the ceremony at Les Invalides. To the press he made it clear that Pierre Laval had been one of those who had made the hand over possible. It was Laval he said, who had "created the atmosphere of collaboration" and who was "the only guarantor of that policy." Then with some totally fraudulent history, Abetz claimed Napoleon as a forerunner of Nazism and its associated movements:

He has never been closer to us, not just from a national point of view of his struggle against the reactionaries who had victimised the King of Rome, but from the European point of view since Napoleon was the one who revived the great popular movements whose modern equivalents are Italian fascism, German national socialism, Spanish nationalism that are now also influencing France.(5)

Napoleon II/Roi de Rome's Coffin, Les Invalides

Adolf Hitler sent a large wreath to Les Invalides, "From Chancellor Hitler to the Duke of Reichstadt", but nobody could find it. It had been seized and destroyed by the wife of an employee of an ex-servicemen's organisation who lived at Les Invalides.(6) This somehow symbolised the total failure of what was intended to be a propaganda coup

The coffin was placed in the Chapelle Saint-Jérôme, where Napoleon's coffin had originally been placed. 29 years later after much deliberation it was put under the ground, where it has remained so that nobody can see it. All that is now visible is a slab with the inscription "Napoleon II Roi de Rome 1811 1832"

Postscript: Hitler's Motives It is usually said that Hitler was trying to win over the French people. Georges Poisson, whose account I have followed, discredits this idea. Clearly there is no hard evidence, but Hitler had nothing but contempt for France and the French people, whom he believed to be irreparably tainted by Jews, blacks and inferior races. He was perhaps trying to associate himself with Napoleon, or maybe he was trying to rekindle French hatred of England, which may have seemed not too difficult in 1940 after the British attack on the French fleet which led to the death of 1200 French sailors.

It is unlikely though that he gave it much thought. He had in 1940 a great many other more important things on his mind: the idea had been planted in his head; it had been opposed by von Ribbentrop who was probably concerned not to upset Spain and Italy; it may just have been a spur of the moment decision, inspired by the majesty of Les Invalides. (7)
1. Georges Poisson, Hitler's Gift to France, The Return of the Remains of Napoleon II Crisis at Vichy Enigma Books, New York 2008, p. 8.
2. Poisson pp 11-12.
3. Poisson pp 12-18
4. Poisson pp 50, 52, 58-59, 90.
5. Poisson pp 91-92. Apparently the Governments of the US and UK were at this point quite pleased with what was seen as Pthe Vichy Government's stand against Hitler.
6. Poisson p 93.
7. Poisson pp 48, 121-123