Reviews: Books of General Interest

The Savage Storm: Britain on the Brink in the Age of Napoleon

Andress, David.  The Savage Storm: Britain on the Brink in the Age of Napoleon. N.Y./London: Little, Brown, 2013. 448 p. ISBN# 9781408701928. $35/£25

Cover: the Savage Storm

David Andress, historian of the French Revolution [1789: The Threshold of the Modern Age (2009), The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (2006), The French Revolution and the People (2004), The Massacre at the Champ de Mars (2000), etc.], has produced a political, social and military history of Britain during the Wars of the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The book is more of a survey, using a well-chosen, select bibliography of mainly secondary sources to recount Britain’s actions and reactions during this dramatic and menacing period. Andress, as befits the author of a survey work, steers a middle path between the contentious poles of the debate over importance of the reform movement of the 1790s that see the movement as either some sort of nascent socialist revolution or just one in a long series of unpopular, radical failures with little lasting impact (beyond social historians).

Historians such as E. P. Thompson saw the eighteenth century as a period of growing social tensions, political radicalism, and unrest.  General histories of the era often dwell on high politics, diplomacy and military events, ignoring the unrest at home or treating the opposition as little more than “useful idiots.” Andress takes the view that at the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars Britain was “a state almost as much in crisis…as were its American and French rivals.” Even in success, following Waterloo, it took several more years to tamp down the unrest stoked, if not lit, by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. While British politicians used the language of freedom to stir up sentiment against the French and Napoleon’s “military despotism”, they were employing their own repressive “Reign of Terror” (or what one historian has mildly called “a significant increase in the coercive powers of the state”) against their own populace. The activities of political activities of reformers were restricted, political meetings and “treasonable” publications banned, spies, informers and agents provocateurs employed to discredit the opposition. The crisis was exploited to reinforce and enhance the power of the ruling establishment.

During the period of the first “Great War” “Britain faced mass revolt in Ireland, concerted mutiny in its own fleet, movements for radical change that brought tens of thousands to open-air meetings (and sometimes hundreds of thousands to more raucous protest), alarmed reports of conspiratorial armed insurrectionary movements, near-famine conditions, and the most widespread period of violent and coordinated revolt in England since the Civil War…” (p. xiii) The 1790s saw an extraordinary number of state trials for sedition and treason, more than at any time in British history with more than one hundred, of which, despite some mythologizing by later generations, two-thirds resulted in convictions and thirteen in executions.  In addition another hundred or so provincial trials took place with most defendants found guilty.  Even more defendants were brought before local courts and intimidated into submission without formal proceedings or with lesser charges being brought. Threats of loss of employment cannot be counted. “King and Church” vigilante groups, often secretly funded by the government, were also employed to intimidate the reformist opposition. Yet as historian Linda Colley has written Britain’s almost continual warfare during the eighteenth century with France, and especially the Napoleonic Wars, played a seminal role in the 'forging' the British national identity.

While most members of the Napoleon Series will be well informed about the military events of “our” era, The Savage Storm is a useful starting point for any student wishing to get a grounding in British politics and social history during the Age of Napoleon.

 

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2014

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