During the long Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Britain was France’s most consistent enemy. It was a war described by Napoleon as the war of the elephant and the whale: France could not defeat Britain at sea, but the British could only defeat the French on land by coalition building – an expensive and frequently unreliable strategy. It took four coalitions to bring about the final defeat of France. (The other three were smashed by Napoleon.)
Britain entered the war from a position of weakness. Pitt had rehabilitated the national finances partly at the expense of military expenditure. In particular, the army was too small – 15,000 men in the British Isles with perhaps twice as many again deployed to India and the West Indies.
Pitt as war leader
This raises the question: Was Pitt a good war-time Prime Minister? Arguably not. Britain entered the war unprepared and undermanned. The strategy was ill thought out and Fox was right to pick out the confusion of war aims. Furthermore, Pitt mistakenly believed that the war would be short and his financial measures rested on this assumption. He underestimated French fighting capability and France’s sense of patriotic identity. However, he has acquired a reputation as a great war-time leader, because Britain was not defeated and because his allies after his death praised him as ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’.
Britain’s attempt to defeat revolutionary France in the 1790s rested on three strategic pillars:
(a) supporting the European allies with cash and troops;
(b) using the navy to pick off French colonies, especially in the Caribbean;
(c) offering practical aid to opponents of the Revolution within France.
Pitt’s strategy therefore was essentially to follow his father’s policy, though he did not anticipate a war as long as the Seven Years’ War. However the war refused to follow this pattern.
The Armed Forces
The danger of a massive French invasion was so great after 1793 and so protracted that the government was compelled to call Britons for the defence of the nation. This was an era which saw an unprecedented mobilisation - such a scale would not be attempted again until the First World War.
There were three ways in which men could serve in the army.
1. As regular soldiersRegular soldiers
2. In the county militias
3. In the volunteer regiments formed to counter the threat of a French invasion.
The part-time and voluntary forces had reached almost half a million men by 1804.
Traditionally Britain, like other European nations, had fought its wars with the aid of mercenaries, mainly Germans, and supplemented with artisans and labourers who enlisted voluntarily in the armed forces, and with men seized by press gangs against their will.
Recruitment was chaotic as different recruiting parties competed with each other. Faced with this chaos, the government authorized the formation of 100 independent companies each of 100 men. The cost of recruiting fell to the individual who raised the company, but it guaranteed him a commissioned rank relative to the numbers he raised. If he couldn’t find a regiment to receive him he went on half pay and could draw army pension for life.
When married men joined the army, their families often had to resort to the parish. In Sunderland in September 1793 the overseers of the poor of Sunderland estimated that the poor rate would treble.
When the army had difficulties in recruiting, it resorted to crimps, civilians who forcibly recruited men for the army. The employment of crimps led to great hostility - they were seen as synonymous with kidnappers. In 1794 there were anti-crimp riots in London.
Most of the recruits came from the unemployed - also from apprentices who wished for adventure (though this was forbidden, and several young men came before the quarter-sessions for enlisting while apprenticed). Many enlisted while drunk.
At the onset of the war with France the only civil defence force in operation was the militia. This had been remodelled in 1757 when Parliament ordered that every English and Welsh county was to supply a given quota of men between the ages of 18 and 45 and pay them out of the rates. 32,000 men ‘all of them good Protestants’ were to be chosen by ballot and subjected to martial law in time of active service; during peacetime they were to be dispatched for a month’s military training every year under the voluntary leadership of the gentry.
The system was unpopular and inefficient, with the burden of militia service falling overwhelmingly on the illiterate poor. The lords lieutenants, who were in charge of the militia, appointed poorly paid clerks to carry out the organization. Detailed administrative work (for example, assessing which parishes were deficient in quotas) was not carried out.
Magistrates had to swear in the militiamen. They and the mayors and constables had to organize transport and tented camps and allocate billets in local inns. Reimbursement for innkeepers was often insufficient, and innkeepers often petitioned for barracks.
Parliament authorized a weekly allowance for a wife and each lawful child under 10 of a militiaman (if they did not follow the regiment). This came from the rates and was much resented by rate-payers.
There were numerous exceptions - men under 5ft 4inches, peers, army and militia officers (including ex-militia officers who had served for four years), members of the English universities, Anglican and Dissenting clergy, articled clerks, seamen, apprentices, Thames watermen etc. A balloted man could avoid service by paying a £10 fine or by finding a substitute. The newspapers advertised agencies that could find substitutes.
County quotas were rarely met, and now attempts were made to adjust them to the changing balance of population. In 1796 the proportion of eligible men serving in the militia in the heavily agricultural counties of Dorset, Bedfordshire and Montgomeryshire was more than 1 in 10. But the more industrialised counties, which had experienced rapid population growth, only 1 in 30 for Yorkshire or 1 in 25 for Lancashire, were eligible.
The government responded with the Supplementary Militia Act (1796) which demanded a further 60,000 militiamen from England and another 4,400 from Wales, taking care to ensure that the quotas were more equal. In 1797 the militia was extended to Scotland for the first time.
These two acts brought up the total strength of the militia to c. 100,000. From this time onwards the militia became an accepted part of British life.
In addition, ‘gentlemen’ were encouraged to found their own private volunteer corps of infantry or cavalry, but no state subsidies were given to these early volunteers. The government wanted respectable men with a stake in the country - the leaders to be gentry and professions, the men to be tradesmen and farmers. Very often these forces were more remarkable for their elaborate uniforms than their efficiency. Although some historians have argued that the volunteer movement shows that the radicals had little support, the only labouring men who showed enthusiasm to volunteer were those living in the coastal counties, who felt they had most to lose from a French invasion. It was only when there was a nation-wide fear of invasion that the poor identified in a significant way with the fate of the nation.
Those who did volunteer did so from a variety of motives. Unemployment was a powerful factor. In addition, those who volunteered were usually exempt from the militia ballot, and militia training was much tougher than volunteer training. Part-time volunteer service offered companionship in the company of friends; it also offered tradesmen and shopkeepers the opportunity to tout for custom. In the Bristol volunteers, one sixth of the 848 men who joined it earned their everyday livings in the food and drinks trade, and a further 80 were shoemakers and haberdashers.
The role of the Royal Navy was crucial. Because the British maintained their maritime supremacy, they were able to ferry troops to the theatres of war. Most importantly, they maintained (and increased) their global commercial empire, and with it the financial resources to build up coalitions.
The Navy the largest item in the national budget – the National Debt had been created to keep it running. In 1793 it had 54 battleships in commission and another 39 ready. It was directed by the Board of Admiralty, which was composed of civilian and naval members, headed by the First Lord and was responsible for the overall allocation of resources, the movements of fleets and ships, commissions and promotions.
Before individuals could be given command of ships they had to be judged competent to do so. Unlike the Army, promotion in the Navy depended on merit. Before Nelson could be made second lieutenant in 1777 he was examined by three assembled captains – though one of them was his uncle!
The Press Gang
The government entered the war with a depleted navy of 15,000 men. At first it hoped it would be able to man the navy with volunteers. On 1 December 1792 a royal proclamation offered bounties to volunteers: £3 to an able seaman, £2 to an ordinary seaman between the ages of 25 and 50 and £1 to a landsman between 20 and 35. Several men accepted (perhaps reasoning that if they did not volunteer, the press gang would accept them anyway) but many were reluctant to volunteer - said they had not yet received payment from the American War. In anticipation of this reluctance, regulating offices were established in the major ports and press warrants prepared ready for issue. The warrants were issued in February 1793 and gangs combed the ports looking for seamen.
Contrary to popular belief the actions of the press gangs were limited by law. There were many exemptions: all persons under 18 years of age and over 55; seamen with less than two years sea-going experience; apprentices with less than three years’ experience. In the case of inward bound vessels, the press gangs were required by law to leave sufficient men on board to ensure the merchant vessel safe navigation to her anchorage and a safe berthing. Masters, chief mates, boatswains and carpenters were exempt. Generally in the early stages of the war, only seamen were likely to be impressed - reluctant landsmen were a liability. Seamen were easy to spot - they dressed and walked distinctively. Impressment therefore created problems for merchant shipping. After Parliament passed an act (April 1793) allowing British merchant ships to have ¾ of the crew foreign nationals, no merchant ships were safe at sea. Merchant seamen dreaded the moment they arrived back on land when they could be pressed.
There were two kinds of gangs on shore.
(a) those run by land-based recruiting officers from recruiting housesMen seized by the press-gang were offered the option of volunteering so they could take up the bounty.
(b) those sent ashore from warships for a quick raid to boost numbers.
Regulating officers were called Yellow Admirals, meaning admirals without flagships of their own. Some of these were corrupt and disreputable, but not all of them. Captain Peter Rothe (Tyne and Wear) released 22 of the 60 men seized, acknowledging that they were ships’ carpenters or apprentices and therefore exempt. The regulating officer had to live in the district, and it was in his own interests to establish a rapport with the inhabitants. It was very different with the gangs sent from men of war. In October 1792 a frigate captain ignored the advice of the regulating officer and landed a press gang in Liverpool. During the fracas, one of the midshipmen killed the master of a merchant ship. The population destroyed two recruiting houses, and the local authorities made no move against them.
In 1796 a quota system was introduced, which enlisted into the fleet reluctant young men not from seafaring backgrounds, such as urban artisans. This is undoubtedly one of the factors behind the 1797 mutinies. But in spite of problems, Pitt’s government managed to increase the naval personnel to 133,000 by 1801.
The First Coalition
By March 1793 there was a de facto alliance against France that came to be known as the First Coalition, comprising Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Spain, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, many German and northern Italian states, and Holland. But this coalition was undermined by the fact that the allies were fighting the war from different motives. The French army put up strong resistance to the Duke of York and his German allies in the Low Countries. Austria and Prussia proved less than reliable allies because they had ambitions in Europe (such as the partition of Poland) which Britain did not share.
Pitt’s coalitions were essentially fragile. He was faced with the question of how to deploy the available British forces, plus the 22,000 men hired from Hanover and Hesse. But he was never able to deliver a knock-out blow against France.
In late February the French invaded Holland. British troops under the command of the duke of York were sent to Flanders but the campaign proved a failure. In August the British began a campaign to capture Dunkirk, but when the duke’s army was defeated at Hondschoote in early September it became apparent that the siege must be raised. The army was too thinly spread as it was also fighting in the Caribbean. Of the 89,000 troops sent to the Caribbean, about 70% were lost mainly to yellow fever. But the ‘West Indian’ strategy can be defended on the grounds that, as an essentially trading nation, Britain could not ignore the opportunities for conquering West Indian islands. Notable permanent gains included the sugar island of Demerara (captured from the Dutch in 1796) and Trinidad (seized from Spain in 1797).
The Levée en Masse
The war was not going all France’s way in 1793. They suffered reverses in the Low Countries and their brilliant general Dumouriez defected to the Austrians. In June a coup brought about the fall of the comparatively moderate Girondin deputies in the Convention and the rise of Robespierre and the Jacobins.
The most immediate result of the British activity was the levée en masse of 23 August. Castlereagh:
‘We contend against an opponent whose strength we have no means of measuring. It is the first time that all the population and all the wealth of a great kingdom has been concentrated in the field. What may be the result is beyond my perception.’ Lord Sheffield: ‘All we have done is to make all France soldiers.’The Jacobin coup intensified French royalist anger. In August 1793 they opened the port of Toulon to Lord Hood’s fleet. This, in theory, meant that the Allies had a base from which an allied offensive might be mounted. But it also meant that troops intended for the West Indies had to be diverted to a third front – the Mediterranean. In December 1793 Toulon fell to Bonaparte – a serious setback for the British war effort.
Toulon represented the least successful aspect of Pitt’s strategy – his attempts to help French royalists. Toulon proved a failure, so did the Quiberon expedition of June 1795, which led to a mass shooting of French royalists, including Urbain d’Hercé, the Bishop of Dol.
The First Coalition was such an inchoate construction that it is not surprising that it crumbled before the determination of Carnot’s levée en masse. By 1795 only Austria was left in the field, and she was about to experience crushing defeats at the hands of General Bonaparte.
In the early years of the war, the mortality rate was appalling. Men were sent to Flanders or the West Indies with no training, little equipment and inadequate clothing. In 1794-5 the only troops in Flanders to have great-coats were those whose regiments had received them from public donations. There was no clothing department at the War Office and the clothing of a regiment was the responsibility of the colonel, who was expected to make a profit out of it. He received an annual sum of money for clothing his regiment, and negotiated, either personally or through his agent, with a wool merchant. The sum he received was based on the regiment’s full complement, whether or not it was up to strength. The lack of shoes led to crippling diseases in the West Indies.
An armed people?
Linda Colley suggests that the evidence suggests that in the early years of the war the British people was as afraid of its own people as of the enemy, with the authorities anxious to set up a respectable and propertied home guard to restrain domestic disorder. But in the winter of 1797 as fears of a French invasion grew, the government, d esperate and without European allies, moved to enlist plebeian support.
In 1798 the Defence of the Realm Act demanded from each county details of the number of able-bodied men in each parish and what service he was prepared to offer the state. A further survey was done in 1803. A better known outcome of this frantic search for numbers was Britain’s first census, ordered by Parliament in 1800. The state was for the first time since Domesday Book attempting to compile precise information on its people.
The evidence suggests that even at the height of patriotic excitement about a possible French invasion in 1803 some Britons were averse to fighting for their country. Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire seemed to show an unwillingness to volunteer. On the other hand in the south and south-west, over 50% of all men aged between 17 and 55 volunteered to take up arms in 1803. Patriotism seems to have been reinforced by self-interest - whether men were convinced a French invasion was genuinely imminent.
It has been suggested that whereas the old historiography associated economic change with social and political disruption, urban artisans, more easily reached by propaganda and recruiting parties, were in practice more ‘patriotic’ than rural labourers. The government took a political risk in creating a nation under arms, though it had no choice.
‘A nation where formal political power was concentrated in the hands of the propertied few, and where perhaps only one adult male in 50 had the vote, had no alternative but to look to the mass of its inhabitants to win its wars and preserve its independence.’ Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation (1992), 318.