A Damned Nice Thing
- Britain against Napoleon: The Organisation of Victory, 1793-1815 by Roger Knight
Penguin, 720 pp, £10.99, June 2014, ISBN 978 1 84614 177 5
I can recall few heated arguments with my father, but I remember very well our Napoleon quarrel. After two years at a British boarding school, I had learned a fair amount of English and just about enough history to mention Wellington and Waterloo as we were approaching Brussels on a drive from Milan. To my great surprise, my father burst out with a vehement attack on ‘the English’ for having selfishly destroyed Napoleon’s empire. Wherever it had advanced in Europe, modernity had advanced with it, sweeping away myriad expressions of obscurantism and hereditary privilege, emancipating the Jews and all manner of serfs, allowing freedom of, and from, religion, and offering opportunities for advancement for the talented regardless of their origins. I do not recall his actual words, and he would hardly have put it as I have here, but that was certainly his meaning, and I remember his equal-opportunity quotation: ‘Every French soldier carries a field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack.’ I also remember his explanation of the reason he accused the English of being ‘selfish’: Great Britain was already on its way to liberty and did not need Napoleon, but Europe did, and Britain took him away.
In other words, for Jozef Luttwak of Milano, formerly of Arad, Transylvania, as for many others on the Continent (and not only the French), all the wars of Napoleon, all his victories, counted for little in evaluating the man and his deeds. What counted was the progressive moderniser, the law-giver of the Code Napoléon of 1804, actually the Code civil des Français, which was really a civil code for Europeans, since Napoleon’s empire français extended across the Low Countries to Jutland and into northwest Italy, and took in the ex-Papal States and Dalmatia (as Illyria), adding up to a good part of Western Europe. Nor was Napoleon’s Code as ephemeral as his victories. It endures as the core of civil law not only in France but in its former European possessions, and their former possessions too, encompassing ex-French Africa, all of Latin America and the Philippines by way of Spain, and Indonesia by way of the Netherlands, as well as Quebec and Louisiana.
Even that list understates the influence of the code, and therefore of Napoleon the moderniser. Its text conveyed three powerfully innovative principles whose influence transcended by far its actual legal application, and which no restoration could undo: clarity, so that all could know their rights if they could read, without the recondite expertise of jurists steeped in customary law, with its hundreds of exemptions, privileges and eccentricities; secularism, which inter alia replaced parishes with municipalities, thereby introducing civil marriage, part of an entirely new form of individual and civic existence; and the right to individual ownership of property – which untied the immobilised holders of communal property – and employment free from servile obligations.
It mattered greatly that these revolutionary principles were proclaimed by Napoleon, already a conservative and commanding figure – unlike the revolutionaries of 1789, who could not give an aura of authority to their Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was itself soon challenged by the more egalitarian 1793 version, with both anyhow rejected by the upholders of privilege. In Napoleon’s vassal states (the Confederation of the Rhine, the Kingdoms of Spain, Italy and Naples, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw), even where the code was not promulgated it was imitated, as was its drastically new style. Just as the florid convolutions and encrustations of rococo had been replaced by the linear elegance of the empire style, the thickets of customary law that Montesquieu had praised as barriers to despotism – as indeed they were, but only for privileged jurists – were replaced by the utterly systematic code, whose descending hierarchy of books, titles, chapters and sections that devolved into 2281 numbered paragraphs was itself infused with the new spirit of modernity. For Europeans of a liberal disposition, the code was a call to modernise not merely the law but society in its entirety – an impulse that would persist for decades.
That is the reason Napoleon’s standing among many continental Europeans survived his final defeat at Waterloo, just as it had survived his assumption of an imperial crown in December 1804, nine months after the code was issued, though the coronation was a big disappointment to Beethoven and those of his fellow German liberals who correctly understood that it signalled an unending appetite for conquest. It should not be surprising that Napoleon’s credentials as a progressive survived the butchery that attended his progress from battle to battle. In those days of very large families and very high infant mortality, death in combat was not yet a scandal, and at least it had a reason, unlike the great number of premature deaths inflicted by unidentified infections and incurable diseases.
More remarkable is the fact that Napoleon’s reputation as a progressive survived his own murderously authoritarian outbursts. One is preserved in an angry letter of 5 August 1806 to Marshal Berthier in which he ordered the trial, conviction and execution of Johann Philipp Palm, a bookseller in Nuremberg, guilty of having printed a pamphlet, Deutschland in seiner tiefen Erniedrigung (‘Germany in its deep humiliation’), which called for resistance against the French army, with added vituperation against Napoleon and the collaborationist king of Bavaria. It seems that only ten copies had been sold when the incredulous Palm was arrested, hurriedly tried and repeatedly shot in a botched execution three weeks later. Even though the news of this judicial murder caused widespread revulsion, especially among Germans, it did not significantly diminish Napoleon’s standing as Europe’s moderniser, and liberator from bigoted religious oppression, then still the most pervasive of tyrannies.
The intellectually inclined had another reason to hold Napoleon in high regard: his exceptional intelligence shone all the more brightly at a time when rulers were almost invariably dynasts, very ordinary people and perhaps less than ordinary because of inbreeding. The contemporary belief that Napoleon had an extraordinary mind is easily proven by the 41,000 or so letters preserved in the archives, in which he directed his ministers on how to govern France, instructed his familiars in the rule of their vassal states, commanded the campaigns of his armies, and ordered their supplies. He would habitually dictate four letters at a time on four different subjects to four different secretaries, to give each of them the time they needed to write down each paragraph he spoke out loud, and all this in a style both elegant and concise, which could convey complex orders and important admonitions in very few words, sometimes by way of revealing details (‘I noticed that several gun caissons did not have their little pots of grease or all their replacement parts’).
As for Napoleon’s immense reputation as a military genius, it too survived his final defeat at Waterloo, in part because to this day many do not recognise the real nature of that defeat. It was not merely a tactical defeat, although Napoleon’s urinary infirmity forced him to leave tactics to that unimaginative pounder Marshal Ney, who could do no better than a frontal attack in a battle that could still have gone either way – a ‘damned nice thing, the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’, in Wellington’s opinion. Nor was it merely a defeat at the operational level, compounded or caused by Marshal de Grouchy’s classic error of engaging the Prussian rearguard at Wavre on the critical day, 18 June 1815, although he and his 33,000 French soldiers could have reached Waterloo in good time: he heard the gunfire, yet persisted in his own separate fight, thus violating Napoleon’s very first rule of concentrating all available forces at all costs for the major battle. (De Grouchy, an exceptionally well-educated aristocrat who had rallied to the Revolution, fighting in countless battles, would spend the rest of his long life defending his failure in excellent prose.) Nor was Waterloo simply a frontal defeat at the level of theatre strategy, with the Allies performing better than Napoleon in mustering all possible infantry, cavalry and artillery forces across the whole of Europe to concentrate them at the centre of the entire struggle, a few square miles of plain and a ridge, beside the road to Brussels.
Waterloo was instead that most definitive of defeats: an irremediable loss at the level of grand strategy. It was in this sense an intellectual defeat for Napoleon himself: had his mind been working properly, he would not have been at Waterloo that day, or on any other battlefield, because by June 1815 the coalition ranged against him comprised the Habsburg Empire, the Duchy of Brunswick, the Kingdoms of Prussia and Hanover, the Duchy of Nassau, the tsarist Empire of all the Russias, the Kingdoms of the Netherlands, Portugal, Sardinia, Sicily, Sweden and Spain, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Swiss Confederation, and the French monarchists with their loyalist troops, as well as the British and their empire. The 118,000 troops actually at Waterloo, from the armies of Prussia, the Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau, along with 25,000 British soldiers and 6000 of the King’s German Legion, were quite enough to outnumber the 73,000 French soldiers, yet they were only a fraction of the total troop strength of the coalition.
While it was theoretically divisible by sufficiently clever diplomacy, this was not a coalition that Napoleon could possibly defeat in battle. True, some of the allies could muster only a few troops (Nassau fielded 3000 for Waterloo), others could not train them properly (some of Brunswick’s were mere boys), others still could not get their forces to the scene fast enough, but it scarcely mattered. Napoleon had only the French, once the Neapolitans of his brother-in-law Murat, still king of Naples, were knocked out by the Austrians in early May. There were no other European powers left to enrol in a counter-coalition.
In the end the shortcomings of Marshal Ney as a tactician made no difference. If Wellington was right, the balance in the field might have been tilted by exceptionally good tactics, but that would merely have delayed Napoleon’s final defeat until the next battle, for the coalition would not have seen a tactical defeat as conclusive. The same is true at the operational level: if de Grouchy’s 33,000 soldiers, once thrown into battle, had succeeded in breaking Wellington’s array, driving off the Prussians, Napoleon’s Waterloo would have come in some other place, as soon as the coalition could reassemble to fight, with the added forces that could not be deployed in time for Waterloo.
That is how the logic of strategy works. Its different levels might be thought of as the floors of a building. Nothing can be achieved at the operational level of strategy without adequate tactical capacity below it – there’s no point in moving units around in clever manoeuvres if they cannot fight at all – just as there is no capacity at the tactical level if there are no supplies and no weapons. The technical level of strategy is just as essential, for all its simplicity as compared to the mysteries of unit cohesion, morale and leadership which largely determine tactical strength. But this edifice of several storeys has a most peculiar feature: there are no stairs or elevators from the operational level, where battles are fought, up to the level of grand strategy, where entire wars are fought with every political and material strength or weakness in play, including alliances and enmities. Absent overwhelming superiority to begin with, no war fought with the wrong allies against the wrong enemies can yield victory, even if a hundred battles are won. By 1814, that was Napoleon’s predicament, as it would be for Germany in both world wars: German forces fought skilfully and often ferociously to win again and again in battles large and small, but nothing could overcome the consequences of siding with the decrepit Ottoman and Habsburg Empires against the British, French, Japanese and Russian empires the first time around, or with Bulgaria and Italy against all the Great Powers but Japan the second time.
The other side of Napoleon’s strategic defeat was Britain’s ability to assemble the alliance and hold it together, notwithstanding all manner of hindrances, rivalries and tensions. An essential aspect of the ‘organisation of victory’ – the subtitle of Roger Knight’s excellent study – was the formation of a cadre of professional British diplomats, well endowed with the necessary skills and tenacity at a time when every journey to a foreign capital was an arduous adventure, even without the predations of French privateers and cavalry patrols. Ambassadors were appointed to France only in 1802-3, and then again in 1814 (Wellington got the job), but seven served in Russia from 1788 to 1820, except for two periods when relations were suspended in 1800-1 and 1807-12; there were British ambassadors at the Habsburg court except during the Napoleonic high tide which began with the battle of Wagram in 1809, whereupon the British ambassador Benjamin Bathurst, the good-looking son of the bishop of Norwich, tried to return home via Berlin and Hamburg in a light carriage in the guise of a German merchant (‘Baron de Koch’). He made it as far as Perleberg, west of Berlin, where his luxurious clothing seems to have attracted robbery and murder, with a great number of suspects to choose from among French stragglers, German insurgents, highway robbers and villainous innkeepers. (None scared off Bathurst’s formidable wife, Phillida, who promptly set out for Germany on hearing of her husband’s disappearance, paid vast sums for extensive searches in Perleberg, then travelled to Paris to see Napoleon himself. The emperor denied any knowledge of the affair but politely offered his assistance. The media, as always, were less civil: when the Times accused the French of having killed Bathurst, Le Moniteur universel replied in kind, accusing the British of habitually paying assassins and portraying Bathurst as deranged, as though this were part of the job profile: ‘The English diplomatic corps is the only one in which examples of madness are common.’)
No British ambassadors to Spain or Portugal were murdered, but when the Portuguese monarchy relocated to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 – they stayed until 1821 – a British ambassador remained in Lisbon, while Percy Clinton Sydney Smythe, Viscount Strangford, followed them to Rio as ‘envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary’, a lesser rank reserved for the likes of Sardinia, Genova and Parma. Whatever their individual qualities and shortcomings, it was the envoys of the Napoleonic years who gave British diplomacy the high reputation it still largely enjoys. Contemporaries saw them as patiently weaving and repeatedly patching up the vast alliance that would entrap Napoleon, with their quiet comings and goings ultimately prevailing over the massive clangour of the French armies.
More crucial still in the organisation of victory was Britain’s system of public finance, the most effective in the world, which enabled the payment of millions of pounds in subsidies to the rulers of Austria, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, Hanover, Savoyard Sardinia and Bourbon Sicily. Portugal alone received £1,237,518 in 1810, with further subsidies each year until 1814, peaking at £2,167,832 in 1812. Sweden under its French-born king, Bernadotte (one of Napoleon’s marshals till 1810), went on the payroll in 1813 at the rate of £1,320,000, while in 1814 the Habsburgs, Prussia and Russia received £1,064,882, £1,319,129 and £2,169,982 respectively.
Hundreds of steam engines were at work by the time of Waterloo, and industrialising Britain was generating wealth rapidly as agricultural Europe could not, but the real difference was that Continental potentates had to wait on the slow inflow of revenues brought in by tax collectors, while British governments could quickly raise vast amounts, issuing bonds by way of City of London brokers, notably the consolidated annuities, or ‘Consols’, that paid a steady 3 per cent per annum from 1757 to 1888.
Britain was not in the business of bribes or incentives: Napoleon’s power was great enough to arouse the opposition of all who desired their independence, and was therefore undone by its very magnitude, in accordance with the paradoxical logic of strategy. But the subsidies did allow Britain’s allies to raise and equip military forces right away, without sitting it out until next year’s harvest and the tax accruing. In the winter of 1812, Britain sent (inter alia) 101,000 muskets to Russia to help it rebuild its army, and it was the British subsidy that immediately paid for them.
In retrospect the fight against Napoleon seems to have engendered a new strategic method, later employed against Germany in two world wars and against the Soviet Union thereafter. The French might call it the Anglo-Saxon encirclement strategy. Its essential aim was to avoid direct combat with a formidable enemy, or at least to limit engagement to a minimum. Instead of confronting one vast army with another – at Waterloo there were only 25,000 British troops – the Anglo-Saxon approach was to take on the big beast by assembling as many neighbourhood dogs and cats as possible, with a few squirrels and mice thrown in. With the obvious exception of the Western Front in the First World War, that is how the two world wars were fought, with an ever longer list of allies large, small and trivial (e.g. Guatemala, whose rulers could thereby expropriate the coffee plantations of German settlers), and that is how the Soviet Union was resisted after 1945, with what eventually became the North Atlantic Alliance. Like the anti-Napoleon coalition, Nato was – and remains – a ragbag of member states large and small, of vastly different capacity for war or deterrence, not all of them loyal all the time, though loyal and strong enough. Like the challenge to British diplomacy in the struggle against Napoleon, the great challenge to which American diplomacy successfully rose was to keep the alliance going by tending to the various political needs of its member governments, even those of countries as small as Luxembourg, whose rulers sat on all committees as equals, even though they could never field more than a single battalion of troops.
Now it is the turn of the Chinese, whose strength is still modest yet growing too rapidly for comfort, and who are inevitably provoking the emergence of a coalition against them; the members range in magnitude from India and Japan down to the Sultanate of Brunei, in addition of course to the US. Should they become powerful enough, the Chinese will force even the Russian Federation into the coalition regardless of the innate preferences of its rulers, for strategy is always stronger than politics, as it was for the anti-communist Nixon and the anti-American Mao in 1972. China cannot therefore overcome its inferiority to the American-led coalition by converting its economic strength into aircraft carriers and such, any more than Napoleon could have overcome strategic encirclement by winning one more battle. The exact repetition of Napoleon’s fatal error by imperial and Nazi Germany is easily explained: history teaches no lesson except that there is a persistent failure to learn its lessons. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese will do any better.