Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Sir Robert Wilson and Napoleon - the man who changed his mind

Sir Robert Wilson was one of the most extraordinary men of his times or any times. A tall striking looking man, very well connected, a distinguished soldier and diplomat, he was on friendly terms with the rulers of Russia, Austria and Prussia, and was present in a semi-official capacity at a number of their most important battles against Napoleon.

A man of liberal sensibilities, and a Whig in politics, Wilson was opposed to the slave trade, slavery and the impressment of sailors. (1) In 1804 he published a pamphlet critical of the public flogging that was customary in the British army in the nineteenth century and sometimes even led to the death of soldiers. His cause was supported in susequent years by leading reformers Francis Burdett, William Cobbett and Lord Cochrane. (2) Wilson's pamphlet was not appreciated by the authorities, and he was ordered to India, but he somehow got the King to intercede and he did not go.(3)

Wilson's view of Napoleon was far more satisfactory to the Tory Government, and on this he was out of step with his Foxite Whig associates. (4) In 1802 he published The History of the British expedition to Egypt which accused Napoleon of the mass execution of Turkish prisoners and of the murder of sick French soldiers. Wilson sent copies to the King of England, the Emperors of Austria and Russia, the Queen of Prussia and Nelson. It earned Wilson the nickname "Jaffa". The book was also translated into French. Napoleon was outraged and made representations to the British Government about what he regarded as a calumny. He still remembered the accusations on St. Helena. (5)

Wilson at this time regarded Napoleon as "a usurper" and a "demi-barbarian". (6) Observing him with the leaders of Prussia and Russia in 1807, Wilson described him as "grossly corpulent" and "his countenance presented no commanding talent". He had a "discontented mien" and "his face was very pale and unhealthily full." By contrast,the "Emperor of Russia was majesty itself". (7) At Tilsit he "looked as usual: hard, blank and designing: in short, like himself." (8) After talking to the King and Queen of Prussia Wilson spoke in even more derogatory terms: "the tyrannic insolence of the usurper", "his ungovernable temper", "expressing benignity in his countenance when he chose." (9)

At this time then there was no doubt where Wilson's sympathies lay, and he even sought out the exiled King of France in Sweden, and dined with him and the Duc de Berry and the Duc d'Angoulême. That arch-Loyalist Hudson Lowe clearly counted Wilson among his own. "I know Wilson well, and he has proved a strong friend of the Bourbons" Lowe told Las Cases on St Helena.(10)

But after the first resignation of Napoleon in 1814 Wilson began to change his mind. Along with many Whigs and Radicals he opposed the resumption of war in 1815, and was speaking at Brooks alongside Earl Grey, about the inevitability of Napoleon's victory when news of Waterloo arrived in London!

In the post war years he was to beome perhaps the leading Bonapartist in England and one of Napoleon's strongest supporters in the House of Commons.

Like a number of other prominent opposition figures in the hostile political climate after Waterloo, Wilson for a time lived abroad. In his case he chose Paris, where his sister, an enthusiastic supporter of Napoleon was living. (11) He campaigned with Earl Grey and Lord Holland against the execution of Marshall Ney in December 1815, and in January 1816 he became involved in the escape of the comte de Lavalette, Napoleon's Postmaster, whose wife, Emilie de Beauharnais, was the niece of the Empress Josephine. (12)

The Escape of Lavalette

Lavalette was sentenced to death in December 1815 for his role in Napoleon's return to France in 1815. On the eve of his execution he was visited in prison by his wife, his daughter and her governess. His wife who was apparently ill, was wrapped in several layers of clothes, and was permitted to visit prison in a sedan chair which was taken into the room next to her husband's. In an unlikely plot the couple then exchanged clothes and the comte left prison in the sedan chair, with his young daughter and the governess walking alongside. His escape was soon discovered, and amidst wide publicity and a thorough search by the authorities it became virtually impossible for him to get out of Paris.

Wilson and two other Britons, Michael Bruce and Captain John Hely Hutchinson then came to his aid. (13) Lavalette was dressed in an English officer's uniform, and Wilson, making use of his diplomatic and military connections, obtained a false passport for him and accompanied him out of Paris and then out of France. He wrote a letter to Earl Grey detailing his part in the scheme which much to Grey's embarrassment was intercepted. Wilson, Hutchinson and Bruce, were arrested, tried and sentenced to three months in prison in Paris.

Hutchinson, Wilson and Bruce

On St Helena one of Napoleon's associates could not believe that this was the same Wilson who had written the account of the Egyptian campaign. According to Las Cases Napoleon was not at all surprised:

You know but little of men and the passions that actuate them. What leads you to suppose that Sir Robert Wilson is not a man of enthusiasm and violent passions who wrote what he then believed to be true? And while we were enemies we contended with each other; but in our present adversity he knows better: he may have been abused, and deceived, and may be sorry for it; and he is perhaps as sincere in wishing us well, as he formerly was in seeking to injure us. (14)

The Radical Years

After his return from France Wilson represented Southwark in the House of Commons as a Whig. Although a friend of the moderate Whig leader Earl Grey, he moved closer to the Radicals. He was suspected of being involved in a plot with Lord Cochrane to rescue Napoleon from St Helena. He helped Santini draft his pamphlet "An Appeal to the English Nation", and he later met O'Meara and Gourgaud. O'Meara attended a dinner to celebrate the first year of Wilson's time in Parliament, and a band played La Marseillaise! (15) Wilson's sailor son who had been on the Northumberland when it transported Napoleon to St Helena in 1815, returned on the "Conqueror" in 1817 with Admiral Plampin. Apparently Napoleon was prepared to meet him but the young Wilson failed to get permission but did meet Mme. Bertrand.(16)

Wilson also became identified with the cause of domestic reform. He was very critical of the action of the authorities over the Peterloo massacre and the treatment of the radical leader Henry Hunt. In 1821 he lost his military commission because of his too public support for the cause of George IV's estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick.

In March 1821 Wilson addressed the House of Commons about the detention of Napoleon, to the amusement apparently of some members of the House:

Gentlemen may laugh, but I express the sentiment of every just, humane, and generous man in Europe. In the detention of that illustrious Man, I can see nothing but dishonour - the violation of national faith - and the stain of national character. He threw himself upon the protection of England - his appeal to English generosity was met by placing him on a rock, where he has been subject to cruel insult. Separated from his family, even from his infant child, he has been deprived of every domestic enjoyment. It is ...well documented that Napoleon might have escaped, but he preferred throwing himself upon the generosity of Great Britain. He has had bitter cause to regret that fateful confidence; years of suffering and humiliation have passed over him .." (17)

1. Ian Samuel, AN ASTONISHING FELLOW, The Life of General Sir Robert Wilson K.M.T., M.P. Great Britain, 1985. pp 54-59 He had Murat in his sights in Moscow, but couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. They later met in Italy and seemed to have a high regard for each other. Murat apparently regarded Wilson as one of the greatest cavalry leaders of all time. Emilio O'Campo, The Emperor's Last Campaign , University of Alabama Press, 2009 p 10.
2. Flogging remained an important part of military discipline until well into the second half of the C20. Marx and Engels ascribed its endurance because it was "the instrument by which the aristocratic character of the British army is preserved".
3.Samuel p. 48
4. Samuel p. 118
5. Samuel p 43-47.
6. Life of General Sir Robert Wilson, Vol II, London 1862 p. 285.
7. Life Vol II pp 294-302.
8. Life vol II pp 307
9. Life vol II p. 317
10. Life vol II pp 372-373.Emanuel comte de Las Cases, The Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon Vol I p. 194.
11. Wilson's sister had met Napoleon in 1802 at the Tuileries. She had fallen unconscious after being hit, and Napoleon himself came to check on her condition and express his sorrow. Ocambo p 49.
12. Wilson was a member of the little known Association Fraternelle Europeene, designed to help victims of political persecution, as were Bruce, Lord Kinnaird, (Radical Jack) John Lambton and other Britons living in Paris. Its members believed that Waterloo had dealt a fateful blow to the cause of freedom. Ocampo pp 24-25
13. Bruce was the first approached, and he brought Wilson and Hutchinson into the plot. All three were reform minded Whigs. One Loyalist C19 history of the events said that Bruce's views "chimed in with the most violent of the opposition party in England and .. in common with a good many of his countrymen residing in the same place, had made himself conspicuous by violent censures of the proceedings of the allies and the Bourbon government, and by an exceedingly warm sympathy for the Bonapartists whom they now represented as unfortunate champions for liberty!" The Pictorial History During the Reign of George the Third by G.L. Craig and Charles MacFarlane (1844), Book III p. 654. Bruce was an associate of Byron and John Cam Hobhouse, and like them had seen Waterloo as a defeat for liberty. See The Peter Cochran Files.
14. Las CasesVol I p 194 Apparently Napoleon's party were well aware of the presence of Wilson's son on the Northumberland, and as the sailors warmed to Napoleon and ceased to see him as an ogre, so the young Wilson was taunted for his father's portrayal of Napoleon. Las Cases pp 192-193. In his defense in the Paris trial Wilson being asked about his accusations against Napoleon in Egypt replied "I said that which I believed to be truth". I wonder whether Las Cases read this before writing his account? A Full Report of the Trial of Sir Robert Thomas Wilson, Michael Bruce Esq. and Capt. John Hely Hutchinson, 22nd April 1816 London 1816 p. 36.
15. Ocambo pp 123, 267, 316.
16. Ocampo p. 159. Curiously Wilson wrote to Earl Gray apprising him of his son's trip some timer earlier, "I presume you have no commissions to execute in that part of the world as yet, but I hope and believe before three months that you will." Ocambo p. 103
17. Morning Chronicle, March 30, 1821

Sunday, 19 August 2018

This Dark Business

John Tarttelin, the author of The Real Napoleon, The Untold Story, has drawn my attention to a new book by Tim Clayton which describes the secret attempts of the British Government to remove Napoleon from power by whatever means necessary, including of course assassination.

The publisher's synopsis is worth quoting:

We have been taught to think of Napoleon as the aggressor - a man with an unquenchable thirst for war and glory - but what if this story masked the real truth: that the British refusal to make peace either with revolutionary France or with the man who claimed to personify the revolution was the reason this Great War continued for more than twenty years? At this pivotal moment when it consolidated its place as number one world power Britain was uncompromising. To secure the continuing rule of Church and King, the British invented an evil enemy, the perpetrator of any number of dark deeds; and having blackened Napoleon's name, with the help of networks of French royalist spies and hitmen, they also tried to assassinate him.

None of this comes as a surprise to me, nor would it have surprised the many contemporary opposition figures who refused to accept the Loyalist caricature of Napoleon as the "Corsican Ogre".

John Tarttellin's own book, which was published over 5 years ago but which I only found out about recently, takes a similar view. I picked up the following from its online description:

He was not short, he was often generous and he seldom forgot a friend, particularly those from his early days before he was famous. France was attacked in 1802, 1805, 1806, 1807, 1809 and 1814 - yet it is always Napoleon who is blamed for the so-called Napoleonic Wars, a misnomer if ever there was one.

That is as concise a rebuttal of the conventional UK view of Napoleon as I have seen. Andrew Roberts's Napoleon the Great does a similar job, but in far more words!