Thursday, 28 February 2008

The resumption of war

The second phase of the French wars entailed far greater sacrifices for the British people than the first. Subsidies to allies were much larger, taxation was higher. Nearly two thirds of government expenditure went directly on the army and navy.

The years 1803 to 1805 saw the greatest danger of invasion by the French and later the Spanish (from December 1804 Spain became a French ally). Napoleon’s chief of staff, Berthier, was told that Chatham with its dockyards and the port of Dover would have to be attacked. Napoleon envisaged a short and decisive campaign, with London as the great objective. The port-superintendent at Calais was reported to have offered a toast at a town dinner:
‘to the first review of the French troops in St James’s Park’.
This was reported in the London papers. These threats were taken so seriously that General Sir David Dundas, the main author of defence plans on the British side, wanted to withdraw towards Dover in the event of a British defeat on the coast, with a view to deflecting French attention away from London. For more on this see John Cookson, 'What if Napoleon had landed?' History Today, 53 (September 2003), 10-17.

For most of this anxious period Britain was alone without allies, while thousands of soldiers - regulars, militiamen, volunteers - stood by awaiting a landing.

1803 saw a flood of legislation for the home defence. In March 1803 (before the declaration of war) the militia was embodied. In April regulating officers opened up houses in seaports. Bounties were offered for volunteers, magistrates handed over petty felons and vagrants, and the press gangs were active. The excess of zeal provoked riots in Chester and Carmarthan.

On 27 July the Levy en Masse Act required the Lords Lieutenant and their deputies to draw up lists of all men between the ages of 17 and 55. In the event the enormous number of volunteers (hundreds of thousands – including Pitt) rendered this act superfluous. One reason for the popularity of the volunteers was that it was a way to avoid being balloted for the Supplementary Militia and the Army of Reserve. But it can be argued that it was fear of invasion that mobilized most of the volunteers. This helps to explain why support for the volunteers was uneven. It was in the counties that had most to fear from invasion (eg Kent, Somerset) that men were most ready to join. However there were also those who refused to fight - possibly for political reasons.
'In the last analysis British plans for defence were founded on the idea of the British as a people of "national spirit" whose "military energies" would be unleashed with a vengeance in the event of a foreign invasion.' Cookson, 15.
But would this have happened? Sir Henry Bunbury, at the time a staff officer in the Southern District, later recalled,
‘Our troops where not then of a quality to meet and frustrate the manoeuvres of such an army as that which Napoleon would have led to the attack… Our best reliance was upon the numbers and the daring courage of Englishmen; upon the resolution of millions to vanquish tens of thousands.’ Quoted Cookson, 15.
The Realignment of Party
With the resignation of Pitt, politics was in flux. The experience of the Addington ministry changed the character of the opposition in a fashion that would have seemed inconceivable only a few years earlier.

Throughout the 1790s Pitt’s cousin, William Wyndham, Baron Grenville (left) had been Pitt’s foreign secretary and one of his closest associates. The triumvirate of Pitt, Dundas and Grenville had been the mainstay of the struggle against France. As Foreign Secretary, Grenville had developed an impressive command of the skills of diplomacy but he had been so disappointed by the failure of the Second Coalition that he regarded any repetition of such a bold strategy as doomed to fail. He wholeheartedly believed in Catholic relief and when Pitt allowed himself to be cajoled into promising never to raise the issue again during the king’s lifetime, he refused to give such an undertaking himself. He was also frustrated by Pitt’s lethargy in opposing Addington. This drew him into ever closer co-operation with Charles James Fox (right), even though they disagreed deeply over the question of war with France.

With the support of the Prince of Wales, a stealthy realignment took place in British politics, which formed the nucleus of a revitalised opposition. By the end of 1803 a Fox-Grenville understanding was effectively in place, though it laid Fox open to the same charges of opportunism that he had had to face during the Fox-North coalition.

Pitt’s role was much more equivocal. He had no taste for political manoeuvres with the Foxites in order to bring down Addington’s government. His disdain for party affiliation encouraged uncertainty and squabbles among his henchmen and prevented the formation of a conservative coalition with a strong base. Although he repeatedly attacked the government’s preparedness for invasion in early1804, he made no alliance with Grenville and Fox who were mounting their own assaults on Addington. In spite of a divided opposition Addington’s position had become untenable. On 29 April he announced to the cabinet his intended resignation after he had delivered his budget.

Addington had not been as bad a prime minister as many had feared. He had done better than Pitt in providing a fiscal underpinning for the war. His property tax (a shilling in the pound on all incomes over £150 pa) had adopted the principle of deduction at source. Nevertheless he was seen as an uninspiring leader at a time of national danger.

The Return of Pitt
Fox noted correctly that the beneficiary of their assault on the government was Pitt.
‘We are the pioneers, digging the foundation; but Mr Pitt will be the architect to build the house and to inhabit it.’
But it was not clear that he could form a strong administration. In May the king turned down a request to include both Fox and Grenville in his government and vetoed Fox though after a meeting with Pitt, he declared himself ready to accept Grenville. But Grenville ruled himself out of office, out of sympathy for Fox and for the cause of Catholic emancipation. To complicate matters further, the king succumbed to this third bout of illness. At the beginning of the year he suffered a relapse and then for a time grew progressively worse.

On 18 May 1804 Pitt returned as Prime Minister and Chancellor. On the same day Napoleon was proclaimed hereditary Emperor of the French. (Scroll down.)