Saturday, 15 March 2008

Guillotined ancestors

There's a fascinating article in today's Times which links to a new site in which French people can discover whether any of their ancestors were guillotined between 1792 and 1795.

The creator of the site, Raymond Combes, a computer programmer and amateur genealogist, believes that his work will force historians to reappraise the period. According to the official figure 17,500 people were guillotined in this period but M. Combes already has more than 18,000 names on his site, which is based on lists compiled for the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1789 and from documents sent in by users. He says:
'A lot of these guillotined were never registered in official records. I'm adding names all the time. But I don't put anyone down unless they are accompanied by documentary evidence.'
Nor has he included the tens of thousands of people massacred during the Revolution.
'It was an important part of out history. But I'm not sure all that violence really served a purpose.'

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The death of Pitt

In spite of its iconic significance, Trafalgar did not decide the invasion. Napoleon had started to break up the camp at Boulogne on 23 August two days after the Combined Squadron entered Cadiz and at a point when he was faced with an alternative choice of swift action in Europe.

On 2 December the French defeated a combined Austrian-Russian force at Austerlitz (‘the battle of the Three Emperors’). On 6 December France signed the Treaty of Pressburg with Austria, which, in effect, ended the Holy Roman Empire. Francis II, the former Holy Roman Emperor, became Francis I of Austria.

When Pitt heard the news he was devastated:
‘Roll up the map; it will not be wanted these ten years’.
One of his last acts as Prime Minister was to erect a formidable coastal defence along the Channel. The landing beaches on either side of Dungeness were isolated by the Royal Military Canal. This programme was substantially in place by the end of 1806. However this did not decisively rule out the threat of a French invasion. Napoleon’s strategy now depended on outbuilding and outgunning the British navy - and his empire’s shipyard resources were fully capable of this undertaking.

From the end of 1805 Pitt’s health began to fail. When he received the news at Trafalgar, he was staying at Bath. He set out for London on 11 January. As he reached his rented house at Putney, Hester Stanhope was deeply shocked by ‘the changed tone of his voice and his struggle for breath as he climbed the stairs’. He died in the early morning of 23 January, leaving debts of up to £50,000. Fox:
‘One feels as if there was something missing in the world - a chasm, a blank that cannot be supplied.’
But there was no closing of ranks. With Pitt’s death Parliament was deeply fractured. Windham opposed an address for his monument in Westminster Abbey. The Common Council of London decided by only 77 votes to 71 to erect a monument to him in the Guildhall. On 22 February he was buried at Westminster Abbey.

The Talents Ministry
The passing of Pitt ushered in a new era of politics. The first priority was an urgent need to form a government. This forced George III to abandon his greatest political prejudice. In the aftermath of Pitt’s death he tried to shake the alliance between Fox and Grenville, but when he failed he recognized that it would not be possible to form a government without Fox. Grenville took office and appointed Fox Foreign Secretary - but on the understanding that the Catholic question was not raised. This was a serious blow to both Fox and Grenville and compromised them in the eyes of their supporters. But Fox gave way because he had two aims that he thought achievable: peace with France and the abolition of the slave trade. He failed to achieve the first aim though he lived to see the beginnings of the successful parliamentary drive for abolition.

He died on 13 September at the duke of Devonshire's house at Chiswick, leaving behind the memory of an intrepid (though flawed) reformer, whose memory would provide the inspiration for Victorian liberalism. His bust shows him in the garb of a senator of the Roman Republic - a fitting representation.

With the passing of Pitt and Fox a remarkable period in British political history had ended. But the war still went on.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Trafalgar: the historian's perspective

This is a magisterial essay from the great naval historian N.A.M. Rodger, taken from the excellent BBC website.

The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) is a high point in British history - a famous victory, a famous tragedy, an event that everybody knows something about and everybody celebrates. It is rather surprising, therefore, that there is no easy consensus as to what it actually achieved.

At the time, and for long afterwards, the British believed that in the hour of his death Nelson had wrecked Napoleon's invasion plans and ensured Britain's ultimate victory over Napoleonic France.

In contrast, French historians preferred to dismiss the battle as an unfortunate but essentially marginal affair, not to be mentioned in the same breath as Napoleon's smashing victories at Ulm and Austerlitz in the same year as Trafalgar - victories that drove Austria and Russia from the war, and yet again confirmed France's unchallenged domination of Europe.

Amongst historians to-day, these opinions have changed surprisingly little, but they have changed sides. Distinguished French scholars such as Jean Tulard, the great authority on Napoleon, agree that,
'... after Trafalgar the emperor was beaten, though he did not yet know it.'
In Britain, meanwhile, historians for the past half-century have agreed that Trafalgar only confirmed what everybody had always known. Britain controlled the sea after Trafalgar, but then she had always controlled the sea, and would have continued to do so even if Napoleon's Combined Fleet had not put to sea in October 1805.

They have also often cited Trafalgar as the ultimate (if not the only) piece of evidence for their overall view of Britain's strategic situation in relation to the powers of continental Europe over the centuries. Their interpretation has been that British sea power, though certainly necessary for survival in the face of aggression from France, was not sufficient for victory over Napoleon, and that ultimately it was Wellington and the British army, fighting alongside a great coalition of military powers in 1814 and 1815, that secured Britain's triumph.

They believe that the great issues between the nations of Europe have always been decided by massed armies clashing on the plains of Flanders and Westphalia, while sea power has played only a supporting role. Articulated by eminent scholars such as Sir Michael Howard and Piers Mackesy - who themselves fought in the analogous campaigns of 1944 and 1945 - this has been the dominant view for half a century. This is strategic history for the age of NATO and the British Army of the Rhine.

We can hardly doubt that this judgement is correct, applied to the circumstances of 1815 or 1945. If it is necessary to fight a war of annihilation, as it was against Napoleon and Hitler, if nothing will do but the conquest and overthrow of the enemy regime, then certainly sea power alone will never suffice.

As a general interpretation of Britain's strategic situation over many centuries, however, the argument is a good deal less persuasive, for such wars have in fact been uncommon in history. Most British wars have been fought for more limited objectives, and the first gift of sea power was that these wars were always fought away from home - leaving Britain free to prosper in peace.

There are still a surprising number of determinist historians who think that being an island has somehow always guaranteed Britain against invasion, and that this has been easy and automatic. But they would perhaps do well to consider that England was successfully invaded by sea ten times between 1066 and 1688 - and that in reality it took the English a very long time to learn how to turn the sea to their own defence.

The determinists might also consider the history of Ireland, which illustrates what happens to an island that has never developed effective sea power. British seapower, by contrast, preserved the country from invasion and guaranteed peace and prosperity at home, up to the time of Trafalgar and beyond.

There is more to Trafalgar than this, however. Britain's command of the sea, in the face of Napoleon's Grand Army massing at Boulogne, was very far from secure in 1805, despite its successes of the preceding century. In three years as First Lord of the Admiralty, from 1801 to 1804, the megalomaniac Lord St Vincent had done as much as one man could to wreck British sea power. Obsessed with a nightmare vision of corruption which scarcely existed outside his own imagination, he had paralysed naval administration, emptied the storehouses, and dismissed a large fraction of the dockyard workforce. In 1804 his successor, Lord Melville, calculated that he had 81 ships of the line in commission, of which 18 were fit only for home waters, and none of the remainder had an estimated service life remaining of more than five years. When Spain entered the war, in December 1804, Napoleon had over 100 ships of the line available.

In the short term the British were able to hang on, thanks to the superior training of the ships' officers and men, but in the medium term Napoleon had an excellent prospect of winning command of the sea. The Royal Navy urgently needed a crushing victory to retrieve its position. There was not the slightest reason for Napoleon to offer it the opportunity, because by August 1805 the emperor's various invasion schemes had collapsed from the weight of their own absurdity, so completely that even he had noticed.

When he ordered his Combined Fleet to sea in October, his stated objective - to land a small force of troops in support of planned army operations in southern Italy, which formed a very minor part of his campaign plans against Austria - was so frivolous that it is hard to believe he meant it seriously. Recent French scholars have concluded that the order can only be explained in psychological terms, as the subconscious desire of wounded vanity to punish the hated navy for its failure to contribute to his glory.

After Napoleon's losses at Trafalgar, it seems to have taken him only a few months to realise what he had done. He spent the rest of his reign in a futile and immensely costly attempt to reconstruct his lost battle-fleet.

Without a battle-fleet Napoleon was condemned to an indirect strategy against his enemies, just as the British were. Britain, for want of a great army to commit to the European battlefield, could not win a decisive victory on land, but neither did she risk a decisive defeat. Similarly, Napoleon's defeat at Trafalgar made it impossible for him to intervene in the other decisive theatre of war, at sea.

Having thrown away his fleet, Napoleon had no direct means of attacking a maritime and commercial power such as that of Britain, and he was forced to resort to economic warfare. He believed in the orthodox French economics of his youth, according to which real wealth derived from land and people, while trade was essentially parasitic, and government borrowing was a system of fraud.

He thought a country like Britain, whose wealth derived from overseas trade and whose government waged war on credit, was nothing but a house of cards - which one good blow would bring down. In 1806 he imposed an economic blockade, known as the Continental System, which required his own trading subjects to sacrifice their livelihoods in order to wreck the British export economy. This did not concern him, as he had no opinion of the usefulness of merchants, especially as many of them were not even French.

The system did indeed damage the British economy, but it damaged European economies even more, and in the end it fatally undermined Napoleon's power. Everywhere in his empire merchants kept up their trade as much as they could, with the aid of bribery and false papers. His soldiers and officials, even at the highest levels, were eminently corruptible, so that behind the official fa├žade the political glue of the regime was dissolving.

What was more, his strategy of economic warfare obliged Napoleon to attack every neutral European power that did not choose to participate in his system - but Portugal resisted, Spain rebelled, Sweden evaded his demands and Russia changed its mind. Thus the strategic logic of war against a naval power, without a fleet, drew French armies into campaigns that finally ruined them. Without Trafalgar none of this would have been necessary.

Moreover Napoleon's empire was never politically or economically stable. His revenues never covered the expense of government. To feed his armies, to endow the new military aristocracy which guarded his throne, he needed continual conquests. A lasting peace between France and her neighbours was impossible under his rule, or at least incompatible with his ambitions.
His enemies in continental Europe, who had the same interest in a balance of commercial and maritime power as the British had in the balance of power in Europe, desired to maintain France as a counterweight to Britain, and repeatedly (even as late as 1814) offered him terms that would have saved his throne and many of his conquests. He refused them all, however, and this in the end persuaded them that for their own survival they had to crush him, and force his consent to a peace treaty - the Congress of Vienna, 1815 - that secured Britain unchallenged naval supremacy. As the Prussian Field-Marshal August Gneisenau declared, in 1815:
'There is no mortal to whom Great Britain has greater obligations than this blackguard ... for it is the events which he has brought about which have raised England's greatness, security and wealth so high.'
Condemned by his character and situation to constant aggression, Napoleon could only have escaped his fate by finding some means of expansion outside Europe, where Britain was more vulnerable and the continental great powers were less concerned. With naval power he might have done it - but at Trafalgar he lost that option. Without a battle-fleet he was shut in a strategic box from which there was no escape - he had thrown away the key.

After Trafalgar, there was still long and hard fighting to be done to bring home to the emperor that he had exhausted his long-term options. Most of this fighting was done by the armies, though in effect it was paid for by the Royal Navy, which safeguarded the overseas trade by which Britain earned its own livelihood and subsidised its allies. Just as in World War Two, sea power had to win its war first, if the country was to survive and the soldiers were to have their chance.

Trafalgar did more, however, than hold the ring at the worst crisis of the war. It won Britain an unchallenged command of the sea, in quantity and quality, materially and psychologically, over all her actual and potential enemies, which lasted long after the age of Napoleon.
The victory allowed 19th-century Britain to reduce the Navy well below its present size without running any serious risks. Beyond the fall of Napoleon, the achievement of Trafalgar was to settle Britain's security for a century.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The battle of Trafalgar

The Invasion Threat
Napoleon’s plan to invade England depended on his gaining temporary command of the Channel, which, he believed, would give him sufficient time to land an army of 350,000 in eastern Kent, which would then go on to occupy London and end the war.

His scheme depended on a concentrated break-out of the French fleets at Toulon and Brest, which would give the slip to the British navy, then in the Mediterranean, and make for the West Indies, picking up on the way Spanish squadrons from Cartagena and Cadiz. (Spain had entered the war on the French side in 1804.) These would be pursued by the British fleet. When the British navy was safely in the West Indies, the Combined [Franco-Spanish] Fleet was to double back, destroy the British near Ushant, off Brittany, and take control of the Channel while it was crossed by the invading army.

However, part of the scheme was foiled from the outset. The British blockade prevented Admiral Ganteaume from leaving Brest. In March Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (left) broke out of Toulon under cover of bad weather, picked up Spanish ships at Cadiz and sailed across the Atlantic. (The news reached Britain at a time when there was no First Lord – hence Middleton’s sudden appointment.) This left Nelson with an agonizing decision. Where had Villeneuve gone? His hunch was that he was planning an attack on Jamaica. But suppose he was wrong and the Channel fleet was lost?
‘If they are not gone to the West Indies, I shall be blamed. To be burned in effigy or Westminster Abbey is my destiny.’
On 7 May Nelson passed Gibraltar. In 24 days he crossed the Atlantic (it had taken Villeneuve 34 days). On his arrival he found Villeneuve had sailed back to Europe. His despatches, sent by fast frigate, warning of Villeneuve’s probable return, were in London almost a fortnight before the French fleet arrived back in European waters. The element of surprise had been lost and the British forces were ranging against him to the northward. On 22 July Calder fought an indecisive battle off Cape Finisterre. The Combined Fleet made port in Cadiz on 21 August, and after this, the invasion scare was effectively over.

Nelson made depositions for the blockade of Cadiz and returned to England to a hero’s welcome. He saw Lady Hamilton and Horatia for the last time. On 4 September Barham drew up a memorandum on what was to be done: Nelson was to cover Gibraltar, Cape St Vincent and Cadiz. On 15 September he sailed from Portsmouth.

The Third Coalition
During 1805 Russia and Austria began to move against France. In April an Anglo-Russian accord bound the two powers to face Napoleon with a demand for French withdrawal from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and Italy. (Ultimately Tsar Alexander wanted the annihilation of the Turkish Empire and for him the alliance with Britain was one of convenience.)

In May Napoleon assumed the crown of Italy and seized Genoa. This proved the last straw for the Austrians, who allied with Britain on 9 August. Having raised income tax by a further 3d in the £, Pitt was making lavish promises to support the military efforts of the European powers. Already, in July, Naples and Sweden were drawn into the Third Coalition and at the War Office Castlereagh, Secretary for War and the Colonies, began to prepare for military intervention on the Continent.

But with the calling off of the invasion of England, Napoleon’s first priority was to destroy the Austrian army. Accordingly he withdrew his troops from Boulogne. By October 100,000 French troops were on the Danube. On 7 October the Austrian general Mack was defeated at Ulm.

On 20 October, obeying unmistakable orders from Napoleon Villeneuve sailed out of Cadiz in order to join the fleet off Naples for a minor engagement. Historians are still debating about why Napoleon gave his unfortunate admiral such a crazy order. On the following day the Combined Fleet was defeated at Trafalgar, an astonishing achievement for Nelson. Turner's version of the battle is left. Go here for the BBC's wonderful account of the battle and related issues.

Here is the line-up of the two fleets. Nelson's controversial tactic was to sail
head-on into the French fleet and take the inevitable punishment until he could get near enough to inflict huge damage on the enemy. It was a tactic that
relied on an extraordinary degree of skill and professionalism.

The death of Nelson (see Arthur William Devis's painting above) was obviously a serious blow, but Admiral Collingwood (left) who succeeded him as commander of the fleet, kept the French fleet in a state of psychological subservience after 1805.

On 5 November news of Nelson’s death reached London. Later in the month, Pitt delivered his speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet. To the Lord Mayor’s toast to the ‘saviour of Europe’ he replied,
‘Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.'
On 9 January 1806 Nelson was given a state funeral of great magnificence – far more than that afforded to any monarch. He had become the national icon.

Monday, 3 March 2008

The second Pitt administration

Pitt’s second administration was hampered by serious weaknesses. The king, who had been reluctant to part with Addington, was no longer a reliable ally and was suffering from increasingly frequent bouts of insanity. He was no longer able to command the Commons as he had done in the past. Wilberforce noted that
‘the old opposition are extremely angry with Pitt for coming in without Fox’.
Because of the failure of Grenville to join his government, he was forced to head a narrowly based ministry, almost devoid of talent, except for his First Lord of the Admiralty, Henry Dundas, who had been ennobled as Lord Melville. Though he had talented young supporters in the Commons (Viscount Castlereagh, George Canning) they lacked experience. Addington (having patched up his quarrel with Pitt) was brought back into the government as Viscount Sidmouth (Jan 1805) and made Lord President of the Council, but this was not enough to give the administration a broad base. It looked to many as if Addington had been victimised not to form a coalition but to make way for Pitt’s ambition. In particular, the alliance with Melville smacked of cronyism. This was Pitt’s situation at the beginning of 1805, the year his biographer John Ehrman has described as the most traumatic of his life.

Martello Towers
Pitt’s weak administration faced the most serious invasion threat of the war. In May 1804 Bonaparte confirmed his position as dictator by his elevation as Emperor (he was crowned in Notre Dame on 2 December 1804). In the summer of 1804 more than 80,000 Frenchmen were assembled at and around Boulogne. As a response the Royal Military Canal was constructed in haste to provide a water obstacle to seal off the Dungeness Peninsula and Romney Marsh. The sluice gates were protected by Martello towers. These were constructed following a survey of the coastline of south-east England from Beachy Head to Dover. On 21 October 1804, the idea to erect towers along the English coast was discussed at a conference at Rochester. The proposal that emerged from the conference was to build 83 towers along the Kent and Sussex coast, though the onset of winter initially delayed the building. A total of 73 circular martello towers were built by the end of 1806 - by which time they were no longer needed.

The Impeachment of Melville
In response to growing concerns about corruption, Sidmouth set up a series of enquiries into naval administration. These unearthed grave financial irregularities reflecting on Melville in the days when he had been Treasurer of the Navy. He had, in fact, in a way that was probably more negligent than corrupt, mingled public and private accounts. In April 1805 the Commons voted on the Speaker’s casting vote for impeachment. In May he was forced to resign.

This was a great blow for Pitt. He had come to power at the end of 1783 as the spokesman for a cleaner type of politics - now he seemed associated with corruption. In the following May-June the impeachment failed in the Lords, but Melville’s career was over and Pitt’s hopes of forming a broadly-based coalition were over. As a sign of the fragility of his coalition, Sidmouth had voted with the opposition for impeachment. In June 1805 he too resigned. By the end of the year Pitt was desperately casting around for new allies.

However, Melville’s replacement, his cousin the 80 year old Sir Charles Middleton, Evangelical, abolitionist and friend of Wilberforce. He was ennobled as Lord Barham proved an extremely able strategist and administrator.