Gaining a sense of proportion…

Statistics.  A lot of people don’t like them.  A lot of people start to squirm when you bring them up.

Mostly, I think, because stats have his unseemly way of disproving our most favourite and cherished theories about our past.

But I do like statistics.  I like the fact that they don’t have feelings.  They’re not telling us stuff to make us look stupid or to be superior.  Statistics just are.

We’re the ones who put the negative or positive spin on things and therefore either accept that maybe we’d got it a little bit wrong or else, as is more often is the case, someone stomps off in a hissy fit…Indeed, statistics are a prime illustration of Shakespeare’s statement, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Anyway, ever since I read Andrew Lambert’s fine examination of the War of 1812 in The Challenge, I’ve been weighing up the statistical evidence about that conflict and its relative importance to the rest of the world circa 1812.

(I mean, I’ve heard it called the Second War of American Independence–and this alongside of claims that the Americans won it.  Ehem.)

And  it seems to me that at least part of the problem with understanding the Anglo-American conflict of 1812-1814 or even properly evaluating it, or indeed appreciating why it merits so little attention on the world stage, derives from a failure to appreciate the size and scale of the thing or a lack of context, if you will.

And the only way I know how to clear up this confusion is through a study of the stats.

napo-creepAnd this is where my liking of stats turns to love.  Because, you see, they tell me all sorts of things I want to know.  Scale, for example.  For in this examination of the stats or facts, scale is most important.

Because if one weighs the colonial cousins’ claims of battles won, or casualties, or costs against what else was happening at the same time..well, there’s only one way to describe the situation…they’re utterly dwarfed by the Napoleonic conflict which was raging on the Continent and to which the contretemps with America was only a side-show.  And a tiny one at that.

But I don’t want you to take my word for it.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

Napoleon fought many great battles:  Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino, Leipzig, Waterloo.  To name but a handful of the hundreds…(that’s right, hundreds…)

At Austerlitz on 2 December 1806, he and his 50,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry took on the combined Russian and Austrian armies consisting of some 69,460 infantry and 16,565 cavalry.

Despite the odds against him, he won the day, losing in the neighbourhood of 10,000 troops to the Allies’ 16,000 dead and wounded and 20,000 captured.  (Though some believe the numbers of Russian dead to have been in excess of 21,000.)

Do you see what I mean about the scale of the conflict?  And that’s just one battle, one day’s action.

But let’s look at the year of 1812 itself.

When Napoleon crossed the River Niemen to invade Russia at the end of June 1812, he had some 550,000 troops (perhaps more), over 150,000 horses, and his private baggage train alone contained more than 100 vehicles with all the accoutrements of emperorship he thought he might need–silver, wines, books, posh outfits and uniforms, furniture, cooks with their saucepans, servants, china and crystal…

borodino4At the Battle of Borodino on the 7 September, between the Grand Armee and the Russian forces which faced them, there were some 200,000 men on the field that day.

By evening, the French casualties stood somewhere between 28,000 and 35,000, and the Russians had lost between 38,500 to 58,000 casualties.  (A year later, the corpses of 35, 478 horses were found and buried…)

So many lost and all on one day!  And yes, those numbers are shocking!  Horrifying even.

AlbrechtAdam20Sept1812When he scurried back over the border in December 1812, Napoleon had lost all but some 30,000 survivors, plus all the booty he’d tried to pillage, plus that rather splendid baggage train full of imperial geegaws and only 500 horses or so made it back–and they, bless ’em, were as you will imagine no longer fit for service.

And despite his casual, criminal loss of so many of the finest troops and horses the world had ever seen–some half a million men–despite that, upon his return to Paris in December 1812, he set about raising a new Grand Armee of 350,000 troops.

The number, honestly, beggars belief!  Can you imagine that many troops being marched all over the relatively small area of eastern France on their way to the front which would open up in Saxony in the spring of 1813?

sabres2Now remind me, how many troops did the Americans send up to take Canada during the conflict of 1812?  After an artillery bombardment, General Hull surrendered his 2500 American troops to the British General Brock and his 1300 Anglo-Canadian troops…

I hate to put it this way, but in terms of numbers, those stats put this in the realm of what in the European conflict of the day would be called ‘a skirmish’.  Nothing more.

(Wellington lost 4500 men at the Siege of Badajoz in April 1812, in a space of just over 200 yards and in less than two hours fighting…)

Likewise, the naval battles of this 1812 sideshow (because that’s what it was) tell a similar story.

We think of the great battles of the age:  the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen, the Battle of Trafalgar and what do we see?  Fleets of ships fighting it out, blowing each other to smithereens for the supremacy of the seas.

aboukirbay2The Battle of the Nile saw 13 British ships of the line plus 2 other smaller vessels take on 13 French ships of the line, plus 4 frigates of which, by the battle’s end, only 2 ships of the line and 2 others escaped.

The Battle of Copenhagen saw the British fleet of 12 ships of the line plus six others take on a combined fleet of 24 ships of the line, plus over 11 others.

And the greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s signature battle, saw 33 British ships (27 ships of the line plus 6 others) facing and defeating the combined French and Spanish fleets comprised of 41 vessels.

These are victories.  Victories in what was an existential struggle against Napoleonic terror and despotism.

And against the kind of stakes for which the British and their allies were fighting against this Napoleonic military empire, a one-off battle between ill-matched opponents, such as the USS Hornet against the smaller British sloop Peacock just doesn’t merit a look-in.

And if you doubt me, just look at those numbers again.  In all, some 5 to 6 million souls died in Napoleon’s wars of conquest and loss–and that’s not counting the refugee crisis, nor the overall loss of life due to starvation or disease which the presence of such vast armies living off the land caused.  (Frankly, it’s impossible to know how many thousands and thousands of peasants died during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, for example…)

And that’s nearly the entire American population in 1812…

leipzig2So before anyone comes after me to insist on the awesomeness of the firewall at New Orleans, or the brilliance of American ship-building at the time (the French were also building very sea-worthy vessels at the time…) remember I’m going to cite the torching of Smolensk, the bombardment of Vienna, the sieges of Acre, Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, the conflagration of Moscow, the three-day battle of Leipzig…and all those friendly stats that I love so much.

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The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812…

This is a bit awkward. 

On the one hand, it’s fair to say that I would have done just about anything to have on hand the information that Andrew Lambert brings to light in the aforementioned tome when I was writing my May 1812

I would have sold…well, maybe not my soul, but quite probably any number of cakes and mousse au chocolat for the happiness of having all of these documents and accounts so clearly and beautifully laid out before me relating to the three-way trade wars between Napoleonic Europe, Great Britain and the young United States. 

Instead, I spent months piecing together the history of the various Napoleonic and British acts and the American reactions to them.  It was always a case of two lines in this history providing a little information, another small paragraph in another history…

But even if it’s too late for me to include some of the juicier elements in my work, Andrew Lambert has now, at last, most concisely and exhaustively pulled together all the various strands of this messy historic sampler.  And it makes for eye-popping reading. 

(It doesn’t leave many of the American leaders of the time on their pedestals though.  Nor does it paint a very edifying picture of the American press at the time.  Napoleon doesn’t come out very different though–though Lambert did make my day when he called him a ‘fraudster’.  That was a truly happy moment for self.)

But perhaps the greatest challenge to modern American readers will be that Lambert unequivocally proves that the United States did not win the War of 1812. 

They lost.  They achieved none of their alleged aims.  Neither did they attain any of their genuine goals.

What they did achieve was the destruction of New England’s economy, the bankruptcy of their federal government, the burning of the capital, Washington, mass unemployment, destitution and…and…and…

For those who don’t know, who haven’t heard me rant on the subject, the whole thing got started when Napoleon came up with the cunning plan to wage economic warfare on Great Britain.  This he believed would economically cripple Britain so that she could no longer subsidise Continental powers to fight against him, thus allowing him to take the place over.  Very clever, eh? 

So he issued these decrees known as the Berlin and Milan decrees of 1806 and 1807 which were his attempt to exclude all British goods as well as the British ships that carried those goods from any and all Continental ports and markets. 

This was great!  It was going to screw British maritime power to the wall.  They were going to crumble.  Super-dooper, bring me a trooper!  (Well, he may have said words to that effect…who knows?)

Yet strangely, the Brits didn’t think having their economy or their naval power ruined by an upstart Mushroom Corsican, as they liked to call him, was such a good idea.  Nor did Napoleon have a navy with which to enforce his little programme–he’d lost that (oops) at Trafalgar. 

So they retaliated.  With the Orders in Council.  Which declared that all goods carried to the Continent had to be carried in ships which held a license from Britain, etc.  And most importantly, they stepped up their maritime campaign of stopping neutral ships and searching for British seamen who’d decided it was safer to go AWOL than to serve in the Royal Navy.  Which, given that this was a time of war, was both desertion and treason. 

This then, ostensibly, was what the Americans got hepped up about.  And the battle cry rang out, “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” Because it was mostly American ships they were stopping, which had, a hefty contingent of said British sailors…

And this is where Lambert’s work shines so brilliantly.  

For he demonstrates, beyond cavil, that this was really nothing but a political feint.  And it was a propaganda war from the get-go.  As he writes it, “Americans believed that large numbers of American-born sailors were being impressed.  In fact rather less than 10% of the American maritime workforce suffered this fate…A project to surrender all British sailors in American ships in return for the British ending the impressment of Americans was quietly dropped because half of all skilled seamen in American merchant ships were British.” 

President Jefferson was–he who headed off the American reaction to this economic war–as Lambert illustrates over and over again, fiercely Anglophobic and naively, determinedly Francophile.  He was putty in Napoleon’s Froggie hands.

He was also no economist.  He produced his response to the situation even before Congress had received notice of the British Orders in Council. 

And his cunning plan?  The Embargo Act which blocked the American export trade.  As Lambert says, “To punish Britain Jefferson made war on American merchants.  The results were disastrous:  economic hardship obliged American merchants and seafarers to smuggle…Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act would be a useful adjunct to Napoleon’s war against Britain, and that in return a grateful Emperor would give him the prize he really wanted, Spanish Florida.” 

But of course, the Emperor wasn’t playing. 

Yet as Lambert argues, “Jefferson’s futile Embargo had long antecedents:  in 1785 he had argued that America should follow the commercial policy of China ‘to practice neither commerce or navigation’.  He…never changed his view that American merchants were corrupt and corruptible.  He dreamt of an agricultural America…” 

And James Madison, his successor to the Presidency was just as blinkered. 

Though the Federal Government was kept afloat by the taxes and excise they collected from the New England states’ import/export businesses, to the tune of some 98%, in order to pursue their land-grab of Canada while Britain had all her troops otherwise occupied, they played into the hands of Napoleon, wrecked their own trade and economic viability and eventually were cozened into declaring war on Britain.

Lambert also puts on display the extreme bile Madison and his cronies pumped into a press too eager to play the jingoistic tunes of their politicians.  The accounts of the various naval actions–accounts which shew that British gunners were out-firing their American counterparts by 3-1–which actions were then twisted into triumphs…in a way, well, it makes for sickening reading. 

The lack of honesty or honour, the deceit on display is just…Truthfully, it’s a bit gutting.  I’d always thought that Jefferson was this visionary ‘liberty for all’ fellow, you know.  Brilliant with a quill.  With an eternally great way with words.  The most idealistic of the Enlightened thinkers.  An ingenious inventor. 

Professor Lambert has shown him to be the opposite–to be vindictive, vituperative, economically idiotic, predatory, and base.  Denying and lying about Napoleon’s tyrannical reign over Europe, sending gentle good men over to ‘negotiate’ with the monster, who obviously didn’t stick around to be negotiated with…

And the battles.  Holy wow! 

Of course, they’re written with all the verve and derring-do of a Patrick O’Brian clash at sea. 

But these were real men, and the actions pitted the professional seamen of the Royal Navy–men who drilled and drilled and worked hard at being the best in all weathers–against blaggarts and braggadocios, some brave, but too many who initiated actions against ships much, much smaller than themselves and then who crowed victory and lied about the disparity in size. 

And when they really were outgunned and outmanoeuvred and outfought, such as when the HMS Shannon took the USS Chesapeake in one of the bloodiest actions of any naval war on 1 June 1813–in 13 minutes, the American press invented scapegoats and declared it a victory anyway.

The whole unfoldment of action which led to the burning of the capital makes for pretty gob-smacking reading too.  There’s always been this prim, self-righteous shock and horror professed over those meanie Brits who came and burned (can you imagine anything so demonic, so savage?) the charming, innocent, delightful little American capital. 

(Forgive me if I’m sounding sarky here.) 

But hang on a minute, one wants to say to Madison and his mates.  This was war.  You declared it on Britain.  Did you think it’d be a picnic?  A riparian entertainment with sparklers? 

Did you miss the part about there being a world war on?  Did Jefferson, in his Francophile gushing, not notice that one of the methods of military engagement was the occupation [and destruction] of the enemy’s capital?  Such as Napoleon did to Berlin.  And Vienna.  And Madrid.  And Moscow.  Or did he fail to read those parts of the news bulletins?  

And what happened really? 

It had needed only 4000 troops to capture the American capital and torch the various public buildings, including the White House and the Navy Yard, as Lambert says, “revealing the unimaginable folly of a government that deliberately picked a fight with a global power, allegedly about questions of principle, without bothering to raise an army or navy capable of defending the country.  By 1814 the only effective American armies were attempting to conquer Canada.”     

The war whimpered to a close in 1814 with the American negotiators quietly dropping all the demands for which they’d allegedly gone to war.  They just wanted out.  They couldn’t afford any more of it.  And Napoleon hadn’t won in Russia as they’d hoped he would.  In fact, he’d lost all of his Empire and been forced to abdicate. (Ouch.)

So, they stopped whinging about British deserters being removed from American ships, etc.  They stopped sending troops up to take Canada–they changed their song from we’ll get Canada and land, land, land, to isn’t it great we haven’t lost any territory…that kind of thing. 

At this point, I’m probably just babbling. 

What can I tell you?  Lambert has simply blown me out of the water with his searing account of this disastrous American war which they’ve somehow blagged into an iconic victory over a 19th century superpower.   

And there are so many reasons for recommending this book that I can only gawp at the sheer number of them.  So all I can honestly say is:  Buy it.  Read it.  Wonder at it.  Andrew Lambert’s The Challenge.  It really is that good.

The artist who taught me how to see…

What with one thing and another, I haven’t had much to say recently. 

Part of that is down to having been reading The Challenge, a quite monumental history on the War of 1812 by Andrew Lambert.  And I shall be talking about that at a later date. 

Once I’ve calmed down and am no longer throwing things at the jingoistic journalists of 200 years ago who just made stuff up rather than reported anything like the truth.

(Breathing in.  Breathing out.  Am calm.  Very calm…)

Ehem. 

But also of late I’ve been doing  a bit of garden writing for another blog.  And one of the subjects which I chose to visit was Gertrude Jekyll, the famed Victorian/Edwardian artist and gardener…

And this is a funny thing, really.  Because in collecting all my books about her together, and in reading through many sections of said books, I was suddenly struck by how much about her I’d known but had forgot.  Which came as a bit of a surprise.  But most of all, I was reminded of how much she’d taught me.  Not just about gardening and plants, but about writing, about seeing, about life, about beauty.

So I’ve continued to just read her collected works.  And it’s been a marvellous homecoming.

You see, I’d never really considered it before, but it’s Gertrude Jekyll who taught me to write what I see.  I mean, the woman was utterly brilliant.  And possessed of a pioneering honesty.  And the process begins first with seeing.  Not seeing what we believe is there, but seeing what is there.

Jekyll writes about it this way: 

“Those who have had no training in the way to see colour nearly always deceive themselves into thinking that they see it as they know it is locally, whereas the trained eye sees colour in due relation and as it truly appears to be.  I remember driving with a friend of more than ordinary intelligence, who stoutly maintained that he saw the distant wooded hill quite as green as the near hedge.  He knew it was green and could not see it otherwise, till I stopped at a place where a part of the face, but none of the sky-bounded edge of the wooded distance, showed through a tiny opening among the near green branches, when, to his immense surprise, he was it was blue.” 

Or this:  “On some of those cold, cloudless days of March, when the sky is of a darker and more intensely blue colour than one may see at any other time of the year, and geese are grazing on the wide strips of green common, so frequent in my neighbourhood, I have often noticed how surprisingly blue is the north side of a white goose.  If at three o’clock in the afternoon of such a day one stands facing north-west and also facing the goose, its side next one’s right hand is bright blue and its other side is bright yellow, deepening to orange as the sun ‘westers’  and sinks, and shows through a greater depth of moisture-laden atmosphere.” 

Wow!  Holy wow.  That is seeing!  Seeing what’s truly there, embracing it really, in all its brilliant or soft and wonderful glory. 

And then, once seen, written…

And behold, a whole world is created with those words…a whole scene…you can picture it…you can see it, taste it, feel the mist of it falling on your face, soft as lamb’s wool, cool as spring.

I remember her talking about bark–how it’s grey and black and ridged and often greened over with moss.  She saw what was there…and through her seeing, shews us.

But Jekyll listened too.  She knew how to listen. 

“I can nearly always tell what trees I am near by the sound of the wind in their leaves, though in the same tree it differs much from spring to autumn, as the leaves become of a harder and drier texture.  The Birches have a small, quick, high-pitched sound; so near that of falling rain that I am often deceived into thinking it really is rain, when it is only their own leaves hitting each other with a small rain-like patter.  The voice of Oak leaves is also rather high-pitched, though lower than that of Birch.  Chestnut leaves in a mild breeze sound much more deliberate; a sort of slow slither…”

She’s a wonderful guide, and it is most assuredly thanks to her that I have turned my whole being to this business of listening and seeing–with all pores open to the world around–which is at the heart of any effective descriptive writing.

As I’m sitting here, I’m recalling many of  the things she shewed me, scenes I could never have fully appreciated without her opening my eyes to what was there, scenes which I wrote in Of Honest Fame off the back of that seeing and which are as dear to me as the portraits of my children.  And thinking on that,  I believe I must owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. 

Though possibly–as she was such a wry and winsome creature–the thanks she might hope for and those I can most certainly give, rather as a disciple, is a going forth and seeing likewise…

Getting It Right…

Over the past couple of days I have had the immense pleasure of sitting in the audience at the inaugural talks of the Chalke Valley History Festival (www.cvhf.org.uk), where–on Thursday evening–I heard Andrew Lambert and Peter Snow talking about Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

And may I say that Professor Lambert was every bit as superb, as precise, informative and thoughtful as I remembered from his lectures during the conferences leading up to the bicentenary of Trafalgar.

Today, I had the privilege of hearing Katie Hickman, Katharine McMahon, Simon Scarrow and Guy Walters discussing Fact and Fiction–all about historical fiction writing.  Which I found immensely helpful too.

All had found themselves carried off by research which had led not where they thought they were going.  Ha ha.  All had found it necessary to leave some of their favourite discoveries out.  All were passionate about history and historical fiction.  (As was the audience!)  And all mentioned the difficulties of conveying the past without getting bogged down in concepts that contemporary readers may find difficult–religion being one.  Continue reading