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