The Guard at Austerlitz by Georges Rohner. Napoleon’s 1805 victory was followed by military disaster. Image: Bridgeman Art Library.
Show Hide image

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

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars