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Britain and Napoleon’s Downfall

ISSUE:  Spring 1997
Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon: 1807—1815. By Rory Muir. Yale. $45. 00

Britain’s efforts to beat off the challenge of Napoleon in the wars of post-revolutionary France occurred in two phases. The first ended at Trafalgar, which ensured no French troops would set foot in the British Isles. The epitaph on this phase was provided by the First Sea Lord, Earl St. Vincent, who reportedly said, “I do not say the Frenchman will not come, I only say he will not come by sea.”

But much remained to be done. In the second phase, Napoleon sought to defeat Britain through indirect means. Instead of direct invasion, he adopted economic blockade. The flaw in his thinking, though, was that the Berlin Decrees that codified his attempt to put an economic grip on the entire continent in order to destroy the British economy, upped the ante for all the states of the continent, as they came more directly under the thumb of France. In Clausewitz’ analysis, Napoleon’s widening of the war to the entire continent, including the Berlin Decrees, the occupation of Spain, and eventually the march to Russia, helped provoke the nationalist response that ultimately led to his downfall. It provided the necessary wedge to drive between France and her allies. Britain’s role became one of trying to peel disgruntled continental states from the French alliance system, the stakes being her economic survival.

It was a daunting task. England remained the only European country not to forge an alliance with Napoleon or strike an armistice. This she could afford to do because she did not face the ravages of invasion that had so demoralized France’s continental enemies. Following the twin disasters of Jena-Auerstadt and Freidland, England’s most stalwart European allies, Prussia and Russia, were driven from the field, the Prussians joining Napoleon’s Grande Armee, the Russian threat at least temporarily muted by the Treaty of Tilsit. Meanwhile, turmoil in London led to the formation of a new government, and King George III was (incorrectly) believed mad.

The finest historian of England’s war with the French empirium, Piers Mackesy, has in a series of books highlighted the many diverse elements that go into making grand strategy, yet even his work is not comprehensive. His histories end with 1810, with Napoleon still strong. Strangely, the need to document British grand strategy during this last crucial phase of the Napoleonic wars has to date been unfulfilled.

Rory Muir has attempted to plug this gap with Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807—1815, and does an admirable job. Despite some flaws that mar his effort, his is history in the Mackesy tradition. Hence we see the influence of personalities, economic strength and weakness, political party bickering, diplomatic bungles and successes, even the jeering press, as well as military events in Europe and as far off as India, America, and the Caribbean, on policy made in London. We are made aware of the logistical and communications obstacles that dogged everyone in that period, but particularly Britain because of her dependence on sea-borne communication, subject to Neptune’s varied whims.

Britain went to war against France not, as Edmund Burke had urged, against the French Revolution, but for the same reason she had so often in the past and would again in the future, to preserve the liberty of the Low Countries. The cardinal rule of British security was that no rival could dominate those countries and thus threaten Britain’s freedom on the seas, the ultimate key to her security. Yet at this early date we can see the emergence of another shibboleth of British security strategy, the reluctance to commit large British land forces to the continent, a reluctance slammed home by the realities of the meatgrinder war in Belgium and France a century later. Against Napoleon the reluctance was more financial than humane, as Muir makes clear. Governmental penury before 1807 was such that there were far too few troop transports to ship an army to the continent, something Britain’s potential allies wanted. At Vitoria in 1813 Wellington led perhaps the largest army he had ever led on the Iberian peninsula, some 50,000 British troops to go with his motley Spanish contingents and more dependable Portuguese troops. The year before Napoleon had led more than a half-million into Russia; even at Leipzig only months after the devastating Russian campaign he commanded more than 200,000, totals Britain could never match. There would have to be another way.

As so often happens, the warlord so adept on the battlefield committed the political blunder that opened the door to British intervention on the continent. British attacks on Spain’s American colonies had helped drive a wedge between the Spanish Bourbon dynasty and Napoleon, their wavering finally driving Bonaparte to install his brother Joseph as his proxy king. The ensuing guerrilla uprisings led to an invitation to Britain to provide troops and a military leader, and London chose Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.

Wellington is the central figure here, as he is in much of the book, and Muir’s depiction is less than hagiographic. For his part, Wellington eventually tied down nearly a quarter-million French troops that would otherwise have made the journey to Russia. Muir carefully charts Wellington’s progress from Portugal, across Spain, and eventually through the Pyrenees and into France. Following Napoleon’s first ouster he became London’s ambassador to France, a post for which he was probably ill suited, and from which he retreated to Belgium to command another army at Waterloo. Muir is perhaps a bit too hard on the Duke, who like every other commander in history barraged his government with requests for more troops; the difference between the mediocre leader and the great ones, such as Wellington, is that the latter ultimately make do with what they have. Likewise, the talents that made Wellington such an astoundingly successful general probably translated poorly into diplomacy. Despite the fact that uncertain communications with London had forced him into a diplomat’s role from the time he took over in Iberia, his relations with the provisional Spanish government had always been fragile.

The war continued in other theaters as well. A vital link in Britain’s control of the Mediterranean was the pro-British government on Sicily, which was for much of this period embroiled in its own domestic turmoil. Similarly, Britain became involved in an unnecessary war with the United States that did nothing to hurt Napoleon, but much to draw British attention from the most important task: defeating France. Muir provides these subsidiary theaters with at least as much attention as they deserve.

Britain, as Muir notes, lacked the strategic assets to attack France on the continent without powerful friends, and the effort to lure France’s erstwhile allies into an alliance with Britain dominate the book. Like Mackesy before him, Muir concentrates on the financial and diplomatic attempts to pry open the Continental System. Prussia, Russia, and Scandinavia (Mackesy makes clear in one of his books that Austria was viewed with jaundiced eye as a potential ally) became targets for British largesse. London’s success is tangible. One of the main factors driving Napoleon on his fateful advance into Russia was the latter’s ill-concealed lack of enthusiasm for enforcing the Berlin Decrees. With Britain playing little direct part, the epochal march into and retreat from Russia receive only a barebones narration, which given the book’s scope is completely justified. However, given that focus on Britain, a valuable adjunct to Wellington’s role would have been more on the efforts of Admiral Sir James Saumarez, whose secret meetings aboard his flagship drew Sweden and Russia into a more confrontational stance against Napoleon and helped protect absolutely critical supplies of Scandinavian timber for the British navy, and who helped provision Prussia by sea. While these meetings at the time were secret, there is no reason they should remain so today.

Reservations about his judgment of Wellington and his omission of Saumarez aside, Muir should receive the benefit of the doubt in his other interpretations. His sources are the letters of Wellington, some of which have never been published, official dispatches, parliamentary debates, and comments and cartoons from the British press of the, period, the standards of which have changed little in the ensuing two centuries. These primary documents are supplemented by, of course, Mackesy, and the indispensible works on the Peninsular war by Major Gen. Sir William Napier, and particularly the monumental work by Sir Charles Oman. The result is the most comprehensive single-volume survey of the entire last decade of Britain’s struggle against Napoleon.

In the end, Castlereagh, Liverpool, Canning, Wellington, and a select few others were able to bring together the bitterly opposed parties in Parliament, the financial resources, the manpower, the ships, and the weapons to help bring down a powerful foe. Their main accomplishment, after securing Britain from direct invasion, bringing together two alliances to defeat Napoleon in France, send him into exile, defeat him a second time at Waterloo, and securing a lasting peace, was probably the creation of Belgium. In contrast to many treaties today that pass for a peace “process,” their concrete achievement provided the linchpin of British security for a century until its security was once again encroached upon by a willful continental enemy. Muir’s book therefore is informative for not only the historian, but it is an interesting study in the perennial questions of war and diplomacy as well.

*The two-phase insight I owe to Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793—1812 (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co., n.d.;, Vol. II, pp.196—8.

*Especially given the attention given Saumarez by Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie, USN, in his valuable book Military Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967, 1989).


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