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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge