The war nobody wants to talk about…

I’m always a little suspicious when politicians deliberately avoid talking about something. 

Take the Napoleonic wars for example. 

You might think that since it was all occurring just 200 years ago, and the past few years as well as the next five years have bicentennials galore that there might be some mention of the thousands of courageous British soldiers who fought to free Portugal and Spain from French domination and tyranny–especially around Remembrance Day. 

Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. 

Because there hasn’t been a peep out of anyone.

Not only that.  But even now when Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, and his History Czar, Simon Schama, who are talking non-stop about putting history back into the curriculum as an essential, the Napoleonic Wars still aren’t being mentioned.  

(And that in itself is a bit odd, because Schama is a specialist in the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Europe…)

But a typical example is this from one of today’s newspapers:  The Better History Group suggests “that at the age of 11, pupils should learn about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, early medieval England and the Crusades.  

“At 12, pupils should be taught about medieval life, the English conquest of Scotland and Wales, the 100 Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Elizabeth I and overseas exploration.”

No mention of something that happened 200 years ago, did you notice?  No mention of the wars that shaped modern Europe at all. 

And I find that remarkable. 

Because 200 years ago, there was no German nation.  There was no Italian nation either. 

Germany as it was before the French revolution consisted of a number of small principalities, independent duchies, the Kingdom of Saxony, the Electorate of Hanover, and the Kingdom of Prussia. 

Then, well, Napoleon got greedy.   

And at first, well, at first, he just demanded that everyone be his ally or he’d whoop them all in battle.  But then, well, he decided that no one could rule the world as well as he could so he just took them all over. 

By 1812, only Prussia was still nominally an independent state–though they were, to be sure, paying crippling reparation payments to France for having been so unwise as to oppose Napoleon.  Oh, and they were also required to have some half of his army quartered upon their citizens. 

Oh, and perhaps I should also mention that he’d destroyed their superlative manufacturing industry by making them part of the Continental System which meant they couldn’t get their hands on the necessary raw materials like sugarcane–so widespread unemployment and the loss of thousands of skills…

Oh, and yes, he did also encourage the use of terror tactics and atrocities–not as widespread against the Germans as against the Spanish–to cow the German-speaking populace into submission. 

All of which led to the formation of an underground anti-French sentiment. 

And yes, this was supported financially by Britain and also by Russia.  All of which led to a new pan-German sentiment and a renaissance of Prussian pride and a determination to fight Napoleon and drive him and his French troops back across the border.

A similar thing happened in Italy. 

Where he’d taken the place by storm in the late 1790s and set himself up as the King of Italy, and er, robbed all the treasuries of the various small city-states and republics, and availed himself of all their artwork including Venice’s horses of St. Mark’s Square in order to redecorate the Louvre. 

Most of the artwork was returned after Waterloo in 1815, although that which had been privately pillaged and looted by his soldiers–that was never traceable and thus never returned. 

Oh, and it was the French atrocities and the robbery that sowed the seeds of Italian unification too. 

These are pretty big events you might have thought. 

And within this period of military conquest and domination in which more that 6 million people died (yes, that’s roughly the number killed by the Nazis in Concentration Camps) you can find the foundations of most of our modern European states.

But you’d never know it was at all important from the way it’s being dismissed today–by those who ought to be mentioning it. 

You’d never know that Britain even existed as a force with which to be reckoned 200 years ago.  Or that it was through Britain’s determination not to be dominated but to remain the freest country on earth that the rest of Europe was liberated, through her soldiers’ sacrifices, through her endless financial subsidies to undermine the Corsican tyrant, through her continued free-trade, and through her Navy that the world ever was loosed from the domination of man who ordered enough atrocities to win him a place in the world atrocity hall of fame. 

No, you wouldn’t.  In fact, if you knew anything about it at all, you might still be thinking that Trafalgar was fought not by the British against the combined French and Spanish navies.  You might even believe that it was fought by the Red Team against the Blue Team as Tony Blair insisted it be done for the bicentennial re-enactment of the event to be in 2005.

But me, I just want to know why?  I understand why Blair was so anti-history.  If people don’t know their own history and how hard won their freedoms are, don’t know what sacrifices were made for future generations by those in the past, those freedoms can more easily be stolen…

But why won’t they talk about it now, eh?  That’s what I want to know.


7 comments on “The war nobody wants to talk about…

  1. cavalrytales says:

    P’raps we haven’t apologised enough to the French yet. And maybe the Germans, for daring to suggest WE won at Waterloo…and subsequently. They seem to forget the KGL were Hanoverians.(Don’t know their history, do they?).
    Oh – and of course we were at war with Spain up until they begged us to intervene on their behalf. And we upset the Danes at Copenhagen, and the king of Sweden (he’s maaaad). The House of Orange was still quite friendly (but who took any notice of them anyway?) and Portugal…all their top brass had debunked to the sun so they needed every friend they could get.
    There. Maybe now we can talk about the honourable and tragic sacrifices made by EVERY nation in those terrible years without going all red and blue.
    PS. D’you think Blair really didn’t realise how accurate his ‘RED Team Vs BLUE Team’ actually was? Unfortunately I believe he was that naive.

    Really good post, MM.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I don’t know what Blair did or didn’t realise. And from what I’ve heard of Blair’s autobi-made-up-ography, I don’t want to know.

      What I do know is that his renaming of the Red Team and the Blue Team for the reenactment had every Navy from here to outer Zambouli laughing their heads off at our lads, and asking them, “Does he [Blair]think the French haven’t worked out that they lost yet?”

  2. gretavdr says:

    When I was a gel studying history at high school with the dreadful fellow who nearly managed to put me off the subject for good, we studied the unification of Germany and of Italy. But, of course, with this fellow in charge, we just learnt dates and names, not whys and antecedents. Still, in the 1960’s in Perth West Australia we were ‘taught’ about this stuff. A pity the teaching was so poor. I wonder if it is still part of the curriculum now?

  3. grimm says:

    If Britain was the ‘freest country on earth’ after the Napoleonic wars then how do you explain Peterloo?

    And why do you choose not to mention that the horses from St Mark’s square had been looted by the Venetians from Constantinople in the first place?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Whilst I am loth to get into a ding-dong with anyone about anything–except perhaps about the All-Blacks being the finest rugby team on the face of the earth–I truly believe that if one reflects on the terrible and not-unjustified fear of republicanism and popular uprising in 1816, which had its roots in having lived through the French Revolution and having seen first hand the savage behaviour of republican mobs such as during the September Massacres, one can understand Britain’s fear of populist movements.

      In order to more accurately evaluate a government’s response to events, it is always wise to try to see what they saw, not what we, informed by hindsight, believe we see and know.

      Equally, given that Peterloo is a singular event in Britain, and bearing in mind that Britain is at the forefront of the industrial revolution–which caused huge displacement in the population, but for which there were certainly no templates on how to cause the least stress to the population–this singularily is a remarkable achievement given that such popular uprisings across the Continent brought forth a rather different response, with much greater loss of life and liberty.

      And, the opinion of Britain being the freest land on earth is not mine [I wasn’t alive then for one thing], but that of an observer aboard ship during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, who recounted how the injured were willing to serve, to die or to suffer for this land they believed was the freest on earth. The most striking of his recollections was that of an officer, who having had his arm blown off below the elbow, and therefore being in gravest need, refused to be bumped up in the queue above his fellows, even those of lower rank, but insisted on waiting his turn. Then, when his moment with the surgeon came, he drank down a full bottle of rum, and while the surgeon sawed off his arm to above the elbow, he sang at the top of his lungs, “Rule Britannia”–all the verses.

  4. Piotr says:

    The thing we must remember is that every country has its share of “skeletons in the closet”, and it’s ten time easier to pull them out for everyone else to see if they happen to belong to someone we don’t like together (strengths in numbers and all that). Just look at how history and fiction treats Communism, an evil that plagued the Eastern Europeans and others, and produced some lovable villains like Lenin, Stalin and a few other jokers like Pol Pot.

    France on the other hand, dear France. It’s part of the same club as England, and fought bravely against Nazis and Commies (just never mind that French Indochina was crawling with the little buggers). Then there’s that little fact that France is closer, and a tad more smarter than your average bear, and probably could pull off a crossing of the English Channel. Then there’s that risk of the French displaying England’s own skeletons…

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