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Britain against Napoleon

Roger Knight
Allen Lane

Extract Copyrighted Text

The majority of the British soldiers and seamen serving when Napo­leon was finally defeated in 1815 were not even born when Pitt travelled down the Strand to visit Middleton in the 1780s. Of the public servants and politicians who were to take a major role in the Napoleonic War, only a few, such as George Rose and Evan Nepean, were in post before the start of the war in 1793. Some were not in government at all, such as the self-effacing Irishman William Marsden, who in the 1780s was a young man enjoying the scholarly life pos­sible in London and acting as an East India Company agent. In his early years he had seen service in the Company and travelled widely. From 1796 he was to be second secretary and then in 1804 first sec­retary of the Admiralty. Marsden's successor as second secretary, John Barrow, also travelled widely before working in government, but in the 1780s he was educating himself and tutoring young gentlemen in mathematics.

Most of the future war leaders and decision-makers were still in their teens and early twenties, being educated at university. The most successful group was at Christ Church, Oxford, where early mutual acquaintance helped form bonds of trust and confidence as they moved into positions of national responsibility. The influential dean of the college, Cyril Jackson, selected those whom he helped on merit and gave them stern encouragement. The formidable Lord Grenville was there, to be foreign secretary in 1791. He gave a helping hand to his contemporary Charles Arbuthnot, who, having started as a précis writer in the Foreign Office, rose to undersecretary, then ambassador to Constantinople and finally, in 1809, secretary of the Treasury. George Canning also knew Arbuthnot, describing him as 'pleasant, quick, gentlemanly and universally a favourite'. Canning's character was more complex than his glittering progress through Eton and Oxford might suggest; the son of an actress, he was to find that the English elite never forgot what they saw as his somewhat disreputable origins, and he remained sensitive to this throughout his life. Never­theless, under Pitt's patronage Canning became an undersecretary in the Foreign Office, a notably successful foreign secretary and, briefly in the 1820s, prime minister: he will be a central figure in this history. Canning was close to John Hookham Frere, who shone as a man of letters: 'an idle man,' Canning wrote in his journal, '[he] can accommodate his times to mine easily, and so of him ... I see more than almost any other human being.' Frere had an indifferent career as ambassador to Portugal and then to Spain, and his communica­tions, or rather lack of them, infuriated Nelson. In 1808 he was blamed for having brought about Sir John Moore's advance on Madrid, when a retreat into Portugal had been the soldier's instinct: the decision ultimately led to the retreat to Corunna and Moore's death.

Two Christ Church men who were to become deeply involved in intel­ligence in the war were John King, undersecretary at the Home Office for fifteen years, and William Wickham, later spymaster, diplomat and chief secretary in Ireland. Wickham was a particular friend of Charles Abbot, who became a reforming politician with an eye for detail and then speaker of the House of Commons. Two later prime ministers were also from Christ Church: Robert Banks Jenkinson, as Lord Liverpool in 1812, and the much younger Robert Peel, who started his illustrious career as undersecretary of state for war and the colonies in 1810.

Some future ministers acquired military experience while in their twenties. As the young MP for Rye, Robert Banks Jenkinson raised a regiment of the Cinque Ports Fencible cavalry in April 1794, and for a time could talk about nothing else, boring his friends. He tried to persuade Canning, recently elected as an MP, to join: 'He would have me take a troop in it as Captain. It would be good fun enough. But I do not feel the military disposition sufficiently strong within me - and so I have only bargained not to laugh at him about it.' Not long after, Canning and his friends played an elaborate joke on the young volun­teer colonel by satirizing in verse some of his recruiting posters. Jenkinson took offence, and the quarrel between these old Christ Church friends was resolved only by the intervention of Dean Jack­son. The teasing and mischievous traits in Canning's character led to his colleagues and friends never quite trusting him, something that was almost to destroy his career fifteen years later.

Not yet in office, these young men had time for this sort of amuse­ment. By contrast, the far more serious Robert Stewart, who became Viscount Castlereagh in 1796, took his early experience of hostilities as a volunteer in Ireland to heart. He wrote in 1795: 'Our regiment has learned its duty so fast, that they make now a very respectable appearance, and it has all been effected without flogging ... I should like a military life.' Significantly, in December 1796 Castlereagh experienced at first-hand the effect of military ineptitude and lack of intelligence when the army floundered about the southern Irish countryside in snow and intense cold, as the French invasion fleet approached Bantry Bay. These young politicians were soon to be appointed to junior office, when they would discover the long hours required from an undersecretary.

In addition to gaining a formal education at one of the two English universities, ambitious young men went to the Continent in the ten years of peace before 1793 in order to learn French, a clear path to advancement. The 22-year-old Robert Stewart travelled to the Con­tinent in 1791 and went again in 1792, when he confessed to an aunt that 'I understand French much better than I did, but am rather a greater coward ab[ou]t speaking it than ever.' In addition to his Oxford studies, Robert Banks Jenkinson travelled in France and wit­nessed the fall of the Bastille, as did the irascible William Huskisson, who had his facility with French to thank for his first governmental post as superintendent of the Alien Office in January 1793. Huskis-son's fluency compensated for the inability of both Dundas (home secretary) and Nepean (undersecretary at the Home Office) to speak the language. His main contribution was to be in tackling the immense financial problems that Britain had to face in the later years of the Napoleonic War. Similar financial talents were possessed by John Charles Herries, barely in his teenage years in the late 1780s, but who went on to study at Leipzig University in the 1790s. His know­ledge of languages, combined with his accounting ability, was to be of critical importance when he was made commissary-in-chief in 1811 at the age of thirty-three. Equally important in the last two years of the war was Herries's close working relationship with Nathan Meyer Rothschild, the City banker who contracted with the government to provide enormous amounts of specie to pay the Allied armies. Rothschild was no more than a teenager in Frankfurt in the 1780s and did not arrive in England until 1799....