Seventy years ago this past week, Germany invaded Poland, and Britain, which had been desperately trying to maintain peace, declared war on Hitler’s Germany. It is a most sobering realisation, that. One that conjures up for many of us a host of images–of soldiers going off to war, the evacuation of children from London, the blitz…And there have been many services of remembrance in places throughout Europe this past week. And amidst all this, the Russians have at last apologised to the Poles for the slaughter at Katyn.
Then this afternoon, I picked up War and Peace, Tolstoy’s seminal novel about the war two hundred years ago, and read the first several lines:
“Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now nothing more than estates taken over by the Buonaparte family. No, I give you fair warning. If you won’t say this means war, if you will allow yourself to condone all the ghastly atrocities perpetrated by that Antichrist — yes, that’s what I think he is — I shall disown you. You are no friend of mine — not the ‘faithful slave’ you claim to be…but how are you? How are you keeping? I can see I’m intimidating you. Do sit down and talk to me.
“These words were spoken (in French) one evening in July 1805…”
And it was impossible not to draw the parallel.
Yet curiously, there remains a whole school of thought which marginalises this conflict which lasted over twenty years, and which gobbled Europe state by state into a military empire such as Hitler could only dream of, into a backdrop for mannered flirtation and a stockist of sexy uniforms.
Two hundred years ago, there were few on the continent of Europe who remembered much of peace. Two hundred years ago, Napoleon’s empire of appropriated states or satellite nations ran from Spain–where the English were fighting the French to drive them from the Peninsula on behalf of their allies, the Portuguese–to Russia. Nowhere was neutral. Nowhere was untouched by his economic stranglehold which had destroyed their livelihoods (no coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, soap or cotton…think about it!) and their prospects of recovery. Nowhere was exempt from his ruinous reparations or from having French troops quartered on them in their homes.
To write about early nineteeth century England without mention of this war is as ludicrous as to write about 1940s Europe without mention of World War II.
There are those who maintain that England, because of her island status, remained untouched–this I think is being given as a licence to ignore all the rest. But I urge them to think again.
England’s population in 1800 was just over ten million. And yes, it is true that at no time when he was Commander in Chief in the Peninsula did Wellington have much over an army of 30,000 – 40,000 men.
Yet at the same time, the Royal Navy was putting over 120,000 men to sea, in a navy which exceeded some 200 ships. And the merchant marine was the same size again. Out of a population of ten million, this is not an insignificant percentage of men under arms. And these men together faced a French fleet of 241 ships and some 60,000 seamen plus their allies, to save Britain from invasion over a period of twenty years.
There were also the local militias which were frequently called out to maintain the peace, particularly in London, where the London mob’s penchant for rioting was similar to that of English football hooligans during the 1980s. And the fear of the mob was exacerbated by memories of the French revolution and the part played by the mob in that sequence of bloody events.
All of which leads me to believe I have not written nearly enough of the war into my books and have only inadequately described how it permeated the fabric of their lives…
And meanwhile, I just wanted to say, I have brought together a few of the faces of the men who fought that war, who stood up to the force of that European dictator and warlord, Napoleon. And I salute them.