Britain’s Rise to Global Superpower in the Age of Napoleon
Frontline Books (2020)
Illustrations: Central eight-page mono plate section
In Britain’s Rise to Global Superpower in the Age of Napoleon, Dr William Nester attempts to chart the rise of Britain, through the many false starts and setbacks in the Napoleonic period to the country’s final ascendency to global superpower.
This is a topic epic in scale and Nester has eagerly embraced the full range of campaigns which Britain’s armed forces were engaged in. Ranging from the main theatres of the war in Europe and the high seas to colonial engagements in the Atlantic and India, even the War of 1812 is examined in its own chapters. However, the scale of this book is both a blessing and a curse. Each chapter forms a vignette of the campaign it is exploring, including rapid fire descriptions of the general trends of the war, including the specific campaigns Napoleon is simultaneously engaged in, before moving onto a run-down of the British campaign itself. These descriptions are often brief providing broad sweeps of the campaign, rarely delving into tactical, economic, or diplomatic details. This means for much of the text the focus is on covering the broad sweep of Britain’s military experience of the war, while rarely delving into details.
Britain’s Rise to Global Superpower’s tendency to drift into a general history of the war focused on Britain, can be seen in the lack of a central thrust to Nester’s argument. In the introduction Nester begins to lay the foundations for a potential thesis by briefly exploring the general lessons that British forces learnt when faced with the revolutionary changes instituted by the French state to mobilise their national war effort. Nester briefly mentions the ‘learning curve’ paradigm, which readers familiar with the First World War will recognise. The ‘learning curve’ concept argues that from the first bloody day of the Somme in 1916 to the end of the war the British Army gradually learnt how to engage on the modern industrial battlefield and ultimately triumph over the Imperial German Army during the Hundred Days Campaign of 1918. Nester’s brief mention of a similar ‘learning curve’ concept for the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, suggests that this might be the central thrust of his argument, that Britain faced with the mass mobilisation of France’s manpower, and harassed on the battlefield by swarms of tirailleur, learnt to overcome these challenges and eventually triumph over France at Waterloo in 1815. However, this is only briefly mentioned in the introduction, alongside a general discussion of the tactics, weapons and what the army and navy of Britain were like during this period and does not become a central part of the main body of the text.
Instead as the book progresses Nester keeps his focus firmly on the military campaigns, with some chapters devoted mostly to Viscount Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. These two admittedly titanic figures in the era end up acting as the driving force in this book, as many chapters are focused on charting their rise to prominence. This is unfortunate as it side-lines the decisions made in Parliament for harnessing Britain’s material resources for fighting France. While relegating the reforming work undertaken in the British army by Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, Sir Ralph Abercromby and Sir John Moore, to the side-lines, while Nester focuses on the successes or failures of the British Army on the battlefield.
Without a core driving argument, such as arguing for a ‘learning curve’ in the development of the British Armed forces, this book becomes less an exploration of Britain’s rise to world power and more of a general Anglocentric account of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Its sparsity of detail means this is a good general introduction to the military campaigns of the period, but it is a shame that more of the diplomatic and economic factors in Britain’s victory were not explored, which would have allowed the reader to chart the full range of resources that Great Britain mustered to face what is sometimes considered the first modern total war.