The Guard at Austerlitz by Georges Rohner. Napoleon’s 1805 victory was followed by military disaster. Image: Bridgeman Art Library.
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How Britain won Waterloo with biscuits, spies and the City

Banking on victory: Simon Heffer reviews three tomes on Britain’s war with Napoleon.

Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799-1815
Philip Dwyer
Bloomsbury, 800pp, £30

Wellington: the Path to Victory, 1769-1814
Rory Muir
Yale University Press, 728pp, £30

Britain Against Napoleon: the Organization of Victory, 1793-1815
Roger Knight
Allen Lane, 720pp, £30

As we endure the torrent of books of varying quality recalling the events in Europe of a century ago, we are blessed with others of exceptional quality that examine the peril that Britain was in two centuries ago. This year may be about the memories of Sarajevo in 1914 and the cataclysm that followed, but in 1814 Europe was already wearied by war, its dynamics were changing and a century of relative calm in Britain was about to be ushered in by the British triumph at Waterloo in June 1815 and the final defeat of Napoleon.

These three works of exemplary scholarship tell different aspects of the story. Citizen Emperor is the second volume of Philip Dwyer’s biography of the Corsican general and deals with his years of power between 1799 and the defeat at Waterloo. Rory Muir’s life of Wellington is the first of two volumes, finishing on the eve of Waterloo – the ultimate cliffhanger – and will be followed by a second volume to mark the bicentenary of the battle and also covering the remainder of Wellington’s life as a politician and statesman. Roger Knight’s work is of less conventional form but is perhaps the most intriguing of the three: he examines not the military heroics that brought Napoleon to his knees but the way in which Britain prepared for the final onslaught against him. Although both the biographies clarify men whose realities have been deeply obscured by myths and legends, Knight’s work is truly ground-breaking in showing how Britain, a country that had prided itself on the encouragement of individualism, made a collective effort for victory that was not seen again in such intensity until 1940.

Knight was deputy director of the National Maritime Museum and wrote a magisterial life of Nelson for his bicen­tenary in 2005. In Britain Against Napoleon he describes the tension between a France that had the strongest army in Europe and a Britain with the strongest navy. So long as the English Channel belonged to the Royal Navy there was nothing to fear; but an invas­ion would leave the country at the mercy of the French, a land where revolution was still smouldering.

The threat lasted from 1793 until 1815, with only brief interruptions. The society that sought to resist it was no tyranny and was therefore subject to changes of government. England was outnumbered and, it feared, could be outgunned. The principal commodity needed to counter the threat was not so much manpower as money, raised by the City of London and used to stoke the fires of the Industrial Revolution to make weaponry and ships. Knight argues that several times between 1796 and 1798, and again in the years after 1807, Britain came close to being unable to afford to fight the war because of financial exhaustion and sometimes lacked the focus to fight it because of political upheaval – not least in 1812 when the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, Spencer Perceval, lost his life for reasons unconnected with the international emergency.

Britain was fortunate that in the late 1780s Pitt the Younger had made it his business to renew and refresh an army diminished by defeat in the war against America. By the time war broke out, the navy was at the peak of its power, contrasting with a French fleet in poor repair, riddled with mutinies and largely in port. By 1793 he had also sought to improve domestic and international communications for the purpose of economic efficiency, but this infrastructure would also help mobilise the war effort as part of this improvement was focused on the Post Office. All this meant that when war came, actions in the Baltic and the Iberian peninsula could be conducted smoothly because of Britain’s command of the ocean and well-organised supply lines.

There were two means of dealing with manpower shortages. Men were impressed (or press-ganged) for the navy, which caused particular bouts of civil unrest in the mid-1790s; and large numbers of foreign mercenaries were signed up to the army – “Russians, Poles, Germans, Italians . . . we had one Cinghalese,” an officer of the 60th Regiment noted in 1799. There were also French who changed sides, loyalties being fluid in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. The militia was beefed up but at times it was hard to provision it; and when shortages caused the price of food to rise in the mid-1790s, the soldiery took part enthusiastically in the food riots that followed.

The organisation of war rested first and foremost with a civil service that Knight describes as “patchwork” in the 1790s: some of it efficient, other parts “useless”. As the war went on, however, the offices of transport, customs and excise and agriculture sharpened up their acts, ensuring revenue was raised, people were fed and supplies and men moved to where they needed to be. To suppress restiveness at home, the government also ensured the populace had food; and to assist the war effort, British intelligence operations were developed and expanded.

Soldiers and sailors were efficiently fed, even if not very well. Knight quotes a sailor in 1812 telling his wife that the beef that came in their rations had been in salt for seven years. Knight also gives some astonishing facts about the provis­ioning of the services during expedition to fight the French in the West Indies in 1801. This required 83,428 tons of biscuits, and it was quite usual for 30 head of live cattle to be carried on the main gundeck of a ship as it sailed across the Atlantic.

The effort not just of organisation but of keeping the country together in the face of mortal peril, was too much for Pitt. His surgeon wrote that Pitt “died of old age at forty-six, as much as if he had been ninety”. Although his death ushered in a period of instability, the Duke of Portland’s admin­istration was confident enough to commit itself to helping drive the French out of the Iberian peninsula in 1808, which required vast expense and another enormous logistical effort. The threat of invasion at home had not diminished either: Martello towers were put up around the coast, dockyards built and modernised, volunteer battalions formed. There was a huge – but temporary – expansion in the civil service to keep on top of so many demands.

In the private sector, the industries supplying the army and navy made what Knight calls “spectacular advances” during the war. The warship-building business went into overdrive, so much so that supplies of timber became short; between 1803 and 1815, 84 per cent of ships were built in private as opposed to royal dockyards. This caused towns such as Great Yarmouth to become rich out of the war. Although taxation rose to pay for all this, so too, thanks to the good office of the City, did borrowing. High import duties on goods from the East Indies also helped. In 1811 total government expenditure was £85m, just over half of it (£43m) going on army, navy and ordnance. Luckily for the British, Napoleon’s decision to overstretch himself in Russia was the beginning of the end for him, and Britain’s resources lasted until total victory – with the country’s economy and mercantile life modernised as a by-product.

Looking at all this from the defeated emperor’s perspective, Philip Dwyer, in a book of meticulous research and beautifully detailed descriptions of Napoleon’s military adventures, brings home the full horrific cost of the march on Russia. With 300,000 Russians dead defending their homeland, he reckons a million died between June 1812 and February 1813, with “the remnants of the army continuing to die from wounds, disease, malnutrition and exhaustion”. It was the near-culmination of a glorious career that had begun with a coup d’etat in 1799, the end of the French Revolution, the coronation of an emperor and the formation of a dynasty – placed on what was modestly called “the first throne of the universe” – and the triumph of Austerlitz. Dwyer points out that this battle, six weeks after Trafalgar, helped “obliterate” the memory of that defeat, not least because news of Nelson’s victory was not released until after Napoleon’s.

Yet it was a short passage from the disaster in Russia seven years later to Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 and his confinement on Elba, whence he escaped under the noses of the Royal Navy in February 1815, believing France wanted him back. Dwyer depicts his subject as a gambler: Napoleon is said to have pronounced “the die is cast” as his ship sailed off to the mainland.

His book ends with a suitably poetic account of the defeated emperor, a month after Waterloo, turning up at HMS Bellerophon and putting himself under the protection of the British; as the ship departs from the Brittany coast, it is his last sight of France, with St Helena and the arsenic-laden wallpaper awaiting him.

Although Rory Muir’s first volume on Wellington ends before the great battle, it is, like Dwyer’s biography, extensively researched and anchored in fact, and gives an invaluable picture of the duke in his early years that will be unfamiliar to many who know only of his military exploits. Muir has researched his subject for 30 years and it shows. He goes into great detail about the peninsular war, which was fought over control of the Iberian peninsula, but is also revelatory about his subject’s career in India between 1796 and 1805.

Wellington returned from India, aged just 35 and already a major-general and a knight. In dealing with His Majesty’s enemies on the subcontinent, he had shown himself cool-headed, intelligent and a good tactician who was developing into a decent strategist. One senses from Muir’s account that what Arthur Wellesley – as he then was – learned out there were the skills that would lead him to be recognised within a few years as the finest soldier in the army. As Muir makes clear, he was helped in his rise by the appointment of his brother Richard, the Earl of Mornington, as governor-general soon after his arrival there. Once Wellesley moved centre-stage, he never left it.

To Muir, whose second volume – to judge by his first – cannot come soon enough, we are especially indebted for one useful bit of myth-busting. Wellington never said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton: the words were put into his mouth by a French journalist, Charles de Montalembert, after the duke’s death. Wellington hated Eton and lasted only three years there before his mother was advised that the boy would come to very little and he should be educated elsewhere. It sounds all too similar to Winston Churchill at Harrow a century later and provokes further thoughts on the real seeds of, and the best training for, greatness.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail and his books include “High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain” (Random House, £30)

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain