The Napoleonic Wars dragged on for some 15 years, and although you can draw a neat line between them and the wars with revolutionary France that came before them, it’s not an important line for our purposes. All told, the wars went on for some 23 years.
Which is a long damn time for the people who had to fight them, for the people at home, and for the person who’s trying to winnow it all down to one or two thousand words. What do you say we focus on the wars’ impact on Britain? Even there we can only slide along the surface.
What were the wars about? In part they were about France overthrowing a king, along with the aristocracy that used to flutter around him, setting up a republic in its place. That set the ruling classes in the rest of Europe on edge.
But the wars were also the European powers fighting over who was going to be king of the mountain.
King of the mountain?That’s a kids’ game, or at least it is in the US. It’s simple: Kid A pushes the usually unsuspecting Kid B off of something and pretends it’s a game instead of just Kid A being a jerk. The only rule is that Kid A has to yell, “I’m the king of the mountain.”
Kid B usually retaliates, but Kid A’s expecting it and is harder to push off. Kid A also has a habit of being bigger than Kid B.
Yeah, we knew how to have good, innocent fun when I was young.
The mountain, in the case of both the Napoleonic Wars and the wars with revolutionary France, wasn’t just Europe, though. It included the seas, everybody’s colonies, and international trade. Which is a bigger mountain than we ever fought for when I was a kid.
Before we go on, though, we need to nod a little more deeply to the French Revolution, because it scared the pants off the British ruling class. Remember how I said It had overthrown a king and his fluttering aristocrats? It also killed him. Mind you, England had done the same thing some time before, but it had sewn a new king securely onto its throne and was playing nice again, leaving revolutionary France out there on its own among the European powers.
As Roy Strong puts it in The Story of Britain, “Everywhere the French army went the old order of things crumbled.”
Scary stuff if your income and possibly existence depends on the old order. So the British upper classes looked at Britain’s restless and impoverished industrial and farm workers, as well as at its skilled artisans who had no political representation, and thought, You know, we could have a problem here.
And in fact they did. All three of those groups were demanding change. And once things start to change, you can’t control the direction they go in, can you?
The obvious solution wasn’t to pay them better or expand the right to vote but to keep them in line more effectively. An assortment of repressive laws were passed: Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1794. (If you’re in the mood for a translation, Lord Google has obligingly led me to a dictionary.) The next year, they passed the scary-sounding Treasonous Practices and Seditious Meetings Acts and a few years after that the more gently named but equally extreme Combinations Acts. Associations of workers were now illegal. Criticizing the king was treason.
The acts weren’t enforced often, but they didn’t have to be: They drove the radical movement underground, and there we’ll leave it. It’ll dig their way out later. It’s not up to us.
It’s bad manners to write about war and not talk about blood, gore, strategy, alliances, and fighting, but my manners are pretty awful and we’re going to skip the battles, the shifting alliances, and the peace treaties. They’d only make you dizzy and I’ve already gotten dizzy for you. Why should we both suffer? By way of a summary: Britain’s interests were centered on keeping its power at sea, protecting its colonies (not as in protecting them from harm but as in protecting them from some other power snatching them away), and protecting trade.
The fighting was both land- and sea-based, and it spread across Europe and reached into Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In The Story of Britain, Roy Strong says the nature of warfare changed. Armies became citizen armies, drawing in a huge chunk of the fighting-age male population.
That Britain’s power was mostly at sea didn’t keep it from expanding its own army and fighting on land as well. In the past, its army had been made up of professionals and mercenaries. Now it drew in men from every class, every religion, every region. In 1789, Britain had 40,000 soldiers. In 1814, it had 250,000.
If you add the volunteers training to repel an invasion, you’ll get 500,000 people carrying weapons. (That may or may not include the navy. Toss a coin.) Strong says it was the first time the population of the British Isles had been “forged together in martial unity on such a scale.” Basically, that’s a lot of people swinging their support behind the war.
In the last paragraph, I casually mentioned the possibility of a French invasion. Did you spot that? If you take a quick run through British history, you can hit Control C on “Britain was worried about a [ ] invasion,” then in some random number of places hit Control V and fill in the blank with the appropriate country. Think of the time you’ll save in case of an actual invasion. You’ll be an entire sentence ahead of everyone else.
I can’t swear that the fear of an invasion has always been justified, but it often was, and in 1803 Napoleon had gathered his Army of England in Calais–that’s on the French side of the English Channel–where they dipped their booted toes in the sea and chanted, “I’m the king of the mountain.”
Did any country ever do more to provoke a war?
No, you can’t believe everything I say here. Salt water does terrible things to leather, so that’s a pretty good hint that I’m messing around. But a French army genuinely was sitting on the coast in Calais, eyeing Britain and justifying Britain’s long-standing fears.
Britain responded to its fears by building fortifications along the coasts, organizing militias, and spreading rumors: The French were digging a tunnel under the Channel. The French were coming on a fleet of rafts powered by windmills. The French were coming in balloons.
No, that I didn’t make any of that up. And France really did consider the balloon plan. These were the early days of hot-air ballooning.
The invasions never happened. They were sidelined by other, more important battles, by a peace treaty, by the weather, by a test fleet of barges sinking.
Still, even invasions that don’t happen cost money, and these–at least the ones after 1803–were funded by the Louisiana Purchase. That was when the U.S. bought French land and made it part of the U.S. It was funded with a loan from a British bank, Baring Brothers, which basically means that the British were funding the invasion of Britain.
But hey, that’s capitalism for you. There was money to be made.
I had to go to WikiWhatsia for that, but it’s too good to pass up. It’s decently footnoted and seems to be legit.
The invasion finally foundered on sharp rock of British control of the Channel.
But it’s not only invasions that cost money, so do all the other bits and pieces involved in waging war–food, weapons, ships, those defensive towers along the coast, and anything else you can think of. Britain raised its taxes. Food prices rose drastically. Unemployment went up, which the opposite of what I’d expect during a war, but this one put a crimp in trade and also happened at a time when labor-saving machinery was being introduced on a large scale.
You can multiply all that by some suitable number after Napoleon closed European ports to British trade. Bankruptcies grew, and so did the price of grain. So did industrial unrest and food riots.
Some people joined the army out of sheer desperation. They were cold, they were hungry, and if they joined upnthey could at least get themselves fed.
What happened to the wives and families left behind when married men enlisted? According the British Library, they earned what they could, they turned to the parish for the little help it gave, or they starved. The Duke of Wellington weighed in against recruiting married men because it would “leave their families to starve.”
He lost that battle.
The later years of the Napoleonic Wars were marked by strikes, riots, and attacks on all that lovely labor-saving machinery that put people out of work. In Yorkshire and Lancashire, the militia was called in not to fight Napoleon but to put down dissent.
When the war ended, the taxes that had been imposed to pay for the war didn’t go down and returning soldiers flooded the labor market. All that fed into the Peterloo Massacre and assorted efforts to raise pay and win the vote for ordinary people.
You probably know how the movie ends: France lost. Think of Napoleon’s troops slogging through the Russian snows, defeated by General Winter. Think of Waterloo. Hell, think of rabbits if you like. It’s your mind. Napoleon was exiled. He slipped out of exile and raised an army. He lost again. He was exiled again and eventually he died, as we all do sooner or later. Turn the page.
What happened to everyone else? The peace did a careful job of maintaining the balance of power in Europe–it lasted for forty years–and land grabs outside of Europe were solidified. Britain got Singapore, Malaya, the Cape of Good Hope, Malta, Guiana, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Lucia. Its hold on India was, for the time being, unchallengeable.
The cult of Britain’s king and queen expanded beyond court circles and became a focus of popular patriotism, with the king cast as the father of the nation (so what if he went mad every so often?) and the queen as the model of British womanhood. And the aristocracy, having entered into the Napoleonic Wars a hard-drinking, hard-gambling, dissolute bunch, emerged pinched and puritanical.
Some day I’d love to understand how those changes sweep through a culture or a class.
According to Strong, it was a matter of having seen what happened to the aristocracy in France and recasting itself as deserving of respect–and all the more so because its right to rule continued to be under attack at home.
In 1802, Debrett’s Peerage sorted through the aristocracy and presented it as a more visibly coherent group than it had been. And the growth of public schools–those weren’t schools for the likes of you and me but for the upperest of the upper crust–brought the sons of the aristocracy together, unifying their attitudes and experience, forming lifelong networks that reinforced their awareness of themselves as a class that was meant to rule.
Yeah, I know. It makes me want to throw things too.