Book Review – ‘Britain Against Napoleon: The organisation of victory, 1793–1815’ by Leighton James

By Leighton James, published October 2020


Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at that climactic battle at Waterloo signified the end of the Anglo-French hostilities which lasted, with two brief pauses, for 22 years. In the aftermath of the battle Waterloo was hailed in Britain as a turning point in history. Victory was used to consolidate a sense of British identity in the nineteenth century and it became easy to remember Britain’s involvement in the French wars as a string of victories that laid the basis for a maritime Pax Britannica that endured until the early twentieth century.

As Roger Knight makes plain in this book, however, this triumphal mood after Waterloo was in marked contrast to the widespread feelings of uncertainty, doubt and threat that beset Britain in the 1790s and the 1800s. Fears over invasion were particularly strong in the early 1790s and the early 1800s. General gloom over the prospects of British success was common among the government and the public after 1807 as Napoleon’s domination of mainland Europe appeared assured. As Knight argues, Britain was only able to continue the long struggle with first Republican and later Napoleonic France due to the radical efficiencies and reforms introduced by successive administrations that tapped into the productive capacity of the nation and the growing economy. Much depended on the hard work and determination of a small coterie of men, such as Lord Grenville, Charles Arbuthnot, George Canning, John King, William Wickham, the future Lord Liverpool, Viscount Castlereagh, Spencer Perceval and Robert Banks Jenkinson. Most were young men, entering government in the 1780s and 1790s, but it was they who were responsible for organizing victory. Knight thus eschews detailed examination of the British military victories, such as Trafalgar and Waterloo, that have tended to dominate popular histories of the period, and focuses instead on the vital governmental and administrative machinery that made success at arms possible …

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Filed under: English Channel | North Sea | Mediterranean
Subjects include: Administration | Navies | Strategy & Diplomacy

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