How They Brought the Good News

Colin Kidd

  • In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 739 pp, £25.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 571 26952 5

Familiarity, oddly enough, is all too often an obstacle to historical understanding. The more we think we know about a period, the more preconceptions we have. In the case of the Napoleonic Wars, a patriotic mythology fixated on the achievements of Nelson, Wellington and Sir John Moore at Corunna tends to filter out fear and uncertainty in favour of a seemingly inevitable procession of victories. As Jenny Uglow stresses in her gripping account of Britain during the Napoleonic era, contemporaries had no such feeling of security. There were major invasion scares in 1798 and 1803, prompting defensive measures, coastal fortifications and even plans to flood Romney Marsh. French troops landed not only in Ireland during the Rebellion of 1798, but also in Great Britain itself, at Fishguard, in 1797. While it was true, for the most part, that Britain ruled the waves, Napoleon reckoned that he only needed control of the Channel for six hours to effect an invasion of England. After all, William of Orange had managed it in the autumn of 1688; and Bonnie Prince Charlie had got as far south as Derby with his ragamuffin army in December 1745. The notion of an impregnable island fortress was less convincing when 1688 and 1745 remained fresh in the national memory.

Besides, in an age of gas-filled balloons who needed command of the seas? Reconnaissance balloons had been used by the French army in the Low Countries in 1794, and Napoleon – alert to the potential of air war – set up a Compagnie d’Aérostiers. During the invasion panic of 1803, Uglow notes, a new play, Goody Two Shoes; or Harlequin Alabaster, was performed at Sadler’s Wells; in it a French invasion by balloon is foiled at a lighthouse, in the process confounding our own expectations about what is – or surprisingly is not – anachronism. A rumour circulated that Napoleon’s engineers would construct a pontoon across the Channel, superintended by officers in balloons.

Other accidents of commemoration distort our sense of the past. While the gore of the Crimean War has become part of our canon of remembrance – thanks to Florence Nightingale – the Napoleonic Wars attract a breezier strain of self-congratulation. An emphasis on jolly seafaring tends to block out carnage, disfigurement and mangled limbs. The deaths of Nelson and Moore are remembered, but as moments of high-minded stoicism hardly stained by the spatter of blood. Uglow’s balanced history reinserts the forgotten sufferings of ordinary people into the narrative. She summons back into the annals of the wars the ‘taciturn’ figures the composer Thomas Haswell remembered on the Tyneside of his youth: ‘the sea-dogs of Camperdown, of the Nile, of Trafalgar … in every state of picturesque dismemberment – one arm, one leg, one arm and one leg, or a mere trunk with neither arms nor legs’. Uglow recovers the stories of individuals such as Tom Plunket of the Rifle Brigade and his wife: Tom, invalided out of the army after Waterloo, was eventually reduced to selling matches on the street; the face of his wife, who had also been at the battle, was disfigured as a result of an exploding ammunition wagon. Starvation confronted Plunket’s comrade Ned Costello, unable to provide for Augustine, his common-law French wife, and their baby. In despair he used the £5 he received from the Patriotic Fund to get mother and baby back to France: ‘“Ne m’oubliez pas,” were her last words as she squeezed my hand.’

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