Resisting Napoleon: the British Response to the Threat of Invasion, 1797-1815
Edited by Mark Philp.
Resisting Napoleon: The British Response
to the Threat of Invasion, 1797-1815. Edited
By Mark Philp.
This book is a collection of essays published in hardback
with black and white illustrations of contemporary political cartoons and
of monuments. The authors are mainly British; there are two chapters contributed
by French writers. It is an academic, or - since that word now carries pejorative
overtones - a scholarly work, aimed at readers who already know a great deal
about the period. Even the dating of the title is precise, there
is no careless confusion of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars here: 1797
refers to Bonaparte's command of the army of
The theme is the examination of the evidence for British attitudes to the wars, at several levels. There is a discussion of the political opposition to the war, and the different nature of the opposition in the 1790s and after 1803. In the 1790s liberal politicians had a conflict between patriotism and liberal principles, which Napoleon conveniently simplified for most of them by 1803. There were many other problems: it was difficult to criticise the conduct of the war without appearing to support the anti-war party.
William Wilberforce faced a difficult decision when Pitt
decided to buy slaves for army service in the
There are three chapters on propaganda of different types: the political caricatures of 1803, the early development of the anti-Napoleonic 'Black Legend', and the patriotic propaganda supplied by the elaborate monuments to fallen soldiers and sailors. There is a good selection of the cartoons printed in the book, but, as inevitable, never enough. It is frustrating to have works referred to which one cannot look at. This chapter does raise that important question: do these cartoons reflect public opinion or were they designed to shape it? Also: who was responsible for them and who was actually reading them?
The 'Black Legend' was the work mainly of French, Corsican
and Genevan writers, though published
The building of monuments, making in
The chapter on music and politics has four authors, with an introduction and three sections, which makes it, to my mind, the least successful chapter, certainly the least memorable. Seditious songs were banned in the 1790s and after 1803 performances of patriotic music became fashionable, to the detriment of the words. The quoted verses at the end can only make the sensitive reader wince: there were some great poets around in that era, but Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) was not one of them. Forming military bands seems to have been the most useful function of the volunteer regiments.
The question of the suppression of seditious activity is
illustrated by a chapter on the trial of the poet and painter William Blake
for sedition in
The most obvious expression of patriotism was the formation of militia regiments and the enthusiasm for joining the sea fencibles and volunteers: this may not have been all that it seemed though, the evidence suggests that volunteering may have been a way of dodging the press gang or compulsory militia service— the Navy certainly thought so. There are three very interesting chapters covering sea fencibles, volunteers and the militia, their organisation and motivation. If I have a quibble it is that the chapter on Addington, which explains the formation of the volunteer and militia regiments, comes later in the book and I would have found it helpful to have read this first.
The two final chapters are slightly off the subject and
are written by French authors. One has analysed the
records of the départements of le
Nord and Pas de Calais for evidence of anti-English sentiment
among the authorities (less of it than one might have supposed) and looked at the local response to the arrest
and internment of British subjects from 1803. Some of the British captives
seem to have become sufficiently well-accepted to marry local women. The
cross-channel movement of people during the period around the Peace of Amiens
is the subject of the last chapter: there is an explanation of the passport
system, its complications and its limitations, and an analysis of the travellers whose passports were issued by the British plenipotentiary
The book is, for the most part quite readable, though it requires concentration in places, and contains much more of interest than I have managed to describe. It cannot be faulted on the provision of references, placed after each chapter. It does remain a collection of essays though, rather than providing a coherent narrative. The most useful lessons that I took from it were the reminder of the importance of detailed local studies like this in sorting myth from fact, and the impossibility of making valid generalisations about the attitude or opinions of the British (or French) People.