Castles, Customs, and Kings…

I may have the reputation of being a walking encyclopaedia, but I can assure you, there are shed-loads of things about which I know nothing.

Quantum physics for example.  Well, I can spell it.  But that’s about it.  And alchemy at the court of James VI and I.  I don’t know anything about that — and in the main I don’t wish to find out.  Not a fan of old James, me.  The fellow gives me the creeps.  I mean, think about it, all that drool…Blech.

But I do know about a lot of other stuff — otherwise refered to by my nearest and dearest as ‘little known facts of doubtful value…’

The only thing is…well, allegedly the detritus which litters my tiny grey cells does in fact have a value.  (I know!  Whoever would have thought it?)

But it’s true.  For this condition which has over the years been the source of much amusement, has now apparently made me the ideal choice as an editor for the soon-to-be published compendium, Castles, Customs, and Kings — which is a ‘best of’ collection of the first year’s worth of blogs on the increasingly popular English Historical Fiction Authors blog, a website on which, each day, an historical novelist (Barbara Kyle, Sandra Byrd, Nancy Bilyeau, and Judith Arnopp among them…) writes a bit about some of their research or historical events and people which interest them.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddIt hits the shelves on the 23rd September 2013, this tome does, courtesy of Madison Street Publishing.

And I’ll tell you an interesting thing.  I’ve genuinely enjoyed editing it.  I’ve truly enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with the various periods of English and British history which are not my specialisms and with which I had sort of lost touch.

I’ve loved reading about mediaeval bathing and banqueting.  I’ve loved learning about different unknown to the world places in England and Wales.  I’ve been fascinated by the various individuals who have peopled this English stage over the centuries and I’ve loved how the authors have brought them to life for me.

(And yes, I am a contributing author of several essays as well as editor…)

Anyway.

The sections range from Roman Britain all the way up to World War II…yes, there are gaps, I suppose.

But whether your eye is fixed on the rival queens of Wars of the Roses or Jane Austen’s London or the languid Lady Mary of Downton Abbey — whether you just enjoy history or revel in historical fiction, this book, well…what I would hope is that readers would enjoy dipping in and out of the various periods of history by means of these essays, as much as I have.

Because these many authors have written engaging looks at the periods and places and people which drew them into the web of writing historical fiction in the first place, and they bring to their work a love and an enthusiasm which is just infectious and winning…and it’s all just made me appreciate more than I ever could have imagined this wonderful country in which I live, “this sceptre’d Isle, this England…”

Below is one of the first reviews we’ve received on Goodreads for the Advance Review Copy, and I can’t tell you how chuffed I am that our collective work has been so well received.

“Full disclosure: I received an advance copy and am writing this about 2/3 of the way through (I will update when I finish the book). I am also not a fan of historical fiction. I rarely read anything on the fiction shelf and even less of books that do not relate to royalty and the daily lives of their subjects across all eras and continents.

“I opened the book expecting to find something akin to a conference proceedings without “trained” experts. Instead I found a new appreciation for the meticulous research and knowledge of the genre’s authors.

“The book is divided into diverse subjects or historical periods. Each author has taken a topic and in a few pages given a succinct, well sourced overview. I find myself adding books to my wish list with every chapter. 

“The book itself first appears daunting in length. The short topic ‘chapters’ make it eady for on-the-go readers to read in small portions or even skip topics. The editors did a great job with transitions and order for each topic. Despite the length, there is no encyclopedia feel and each author’s voice is well preserved.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.indd“This book is a scholarly treasure trove with a wide appeal. It covers everything from the first English word to the food (and recipes) served at a Tudor feast. If you are interested in nonfiction works on England, history, and/or royalty you will find a book that you will return to. Fans of historical fiction and England will find the book rich in supplemental information to complement their reading with an introduction to authors of works they might enjoy.”

So, the short and the long — I hope you’ll have a look at the new book, and I hope very much that you’ll enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together for you.

So there you go.  Looking for something to read?  This may just be the book for you.  Castles, Customs, and Kings…

Slainte!

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Introducing the First Total War…

Where shall I start?

Possibly with a definition of total war, yes?

Total war, which is what WWII most definitely was, is warfare that does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but rather holds that whoever is not fighting alongside one is an enemy and therefore should be exterminated.  Hence just as Hitler was clear that he had to wipe out all resistance to his plans of conquest and rule wherever it might be found, so too 200 years ago, the French brought that level of savage conquest to every corner of Europe…

So, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

What happened in 1789 that changed the course of world history?  Yes, that’s right, Jane Austen had her fourteenth birthday–though what kind of cakey she had or if she had cakey, I can’t tell you.

However, there was something else, which involved a few more people and was possibly–I know it’s hard to credit–even more important than that.  It was the beginning of the French Revolution.

Now before I go any further, let me just say that the coming of the French Revolution was no surprise to observers of the age.  France had been bankrupt for some time, the political machine addicted to privilege, the various classes entrenched in their opposition to change, the general population impoverished, the crime rate staggering, the roads impassable, the harvests meagre, inflation was soaring and the king and queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, alienated from everyone.

The question hadn’t been if there would be a seismic change, the questions were when and how and what?  But no one  in their wildest nightmares imagined what was to come.

Within a few months, the summer stand-off between king and people and various political factions had devolved into an elitest power struggle, the Third Estate (everyone besides the aristocracy and clergy) were in the ascendancy, and the country was fast sliding past civil disobedience into fierce sectarian violence.  By the summer of 1791, King Louis XVI was a prisoner and counter-revolution was sweeping the countryside, in its wake bloody suppression in which thousands were killed.

In Paris, the revolutionaries were relentless and mesmerising in their determination to take their ideology of republican fervour and a moral cleansing (as they saw it) of bloodshed to all the crowned heads in Europe.  On 20th April 1792, France declared war on Austria.

Prussia joined Austria on the battlefield against this new Republican France–and the pitiless wars that would consume the Continent began as France rolled out her vast conscript armies, which over the next 23 years would unleash a torrent of ruthless destruction, pillage, economic strangulation and savage invasion, reaching from the Atlantic shores of Portugal in the west to Egypt and the Acre in the south, and the heart of Russia in the east.

It was to become the first total war, invented by the French, by Robespierre and St Just and other French ideologues.  (Another word for that might be sociopaths…)

In Paris, where paranoia and mob-rule dominated, some 4000-6000 people fell victim over just four days to the vicious slaughter of the September Massacres.

The rest of Europe looked on in stunned and speechless horror.

Louis XVI was eventually tried and found guilty of treason.  He was executed by guillotine on 21st January 1793.  By late that spring, the vainglorious and perhaps pot-valiant rulers of France had declared war on virtually every country in Europe–however woefully unprepared for such a situation they were.

However, failing to succeed with fervour and without much else on the battlefield, with France itself in a state of roiling revolution, counter-revolution and economic disaster, the ‘war party’ of the Brissotins fell, leaving the Committee of Public Safety–a 12 man governing body which included the lawyer, Maximilien Robespierre, Louis de St. Just, and later the painter Jacques-Louis David–in charge of what would soon be known as the Reign of Terror.

Louis XVI’s wife, the hated Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, was beheaded on 16 October 1793.

But she and Louis were hardly alone.  Over the next two years, nearly 40,000 men, women and children would be executed in Paris and throughout France, their deaths ordered by this group of men who believed in the ‘complete destruction of everything that is opposed to the committee.’

Nor were they all or even mostly aristocrats who climbed the scaffold to the guillotine.  Only 17% of the victims of this genocide were of aristocratic birth.  The others were predominantly made up of the clergy–prayer had been outlawed as anti-revolutionary and subversive and the clergy turned out into the streets–and members of the Third Estate…

But these most fanatical leaders of the Revolution soon themselves fell foul of public mood which had begun to swing away from their devastating devotion to bloodshed.  On 28 July 1794, Robespierre himself, along with others of the committee, was guillotined.

Meanwhile, a young Corsican artillery officer had been dispatched to serve in the siege by the British of Toulon in September 1793.  He was energetic, determined, and even wildly fearless in the face of overwhelming odds.

His name was Napoleon Buonaparte, and for his part in the successful action in Toulon, he was made a brigadier, and France, longing for a victory after so many losses against the better equipped, better-fed, better-led armies ranged against her, rejoiced.

1794 saw the French armies getting walloped on all fronts.  1795 saw a new executive government for France, this time a Directory.  But not everyone was thrilled with the turn of events and on 3 October, Paris erupted (yet again) in a revolt which was soon put down by the Directory’s defenders near the Tuileries palace.

Among these defenders was Bonaparte, and whatever the true case of the situation, within days the conviction had spread that it was Napoleon Bonaparte who had stilled the insurrection with “a whiff of grapeshot”.  He was the hero of the hour, the darling of the Parisian salons.

On 9 March 1796, he married Rose de Beauharnais, whom he renamed Josephine.

Two days later, he departed for Italy to command the French so-called Army of Italy.  And it is really from this point forward that the fate of France, indeed the fate of Europe, merges with the personal fortunes of this opportunist, energetic, glory-seeking Corsican general.

His 1796 conquest of Italy left Europe agog.  Within a few brief months, the independent principalities of Piedmont, Tuscany, Modena and the Papal States had been forced to make peace with him.  His rag-tag army had overrun northern Italy and had defeated a series of Austrian armies.

Whilst Buonaparte was away from Paris, France sought to spearhead an invasion of Britain, starting with an invasion force of 40,000 men who were to land in Ireland, cause a Republican uprising, and then move on to overthrow the British government.  But fierce weather drove the French troop ships from the coast of Ireland–and the plan was abandoned.

Elsewhere in Europe, French defeats served only to highlight his brilliance on the battlefield, reinforcing his importance to the Directory.  And the Directory needed good news, for France itself had sunk into a vacuum of political corruption, economic privation and failure, indolence and lawlessness–even as in Italy, Napoleon had transformed the army into a propaganda machine and a power base and was trying his hand at state-making, turfing out the former rulers and creating the Cispadane and Transpadane Republics (which he would subsequently transform into the Cisalpine and Ligurian Republics).

Verona surrendered; Venice was seized.  By the end of the summer, Napoleon had made himself virtual king of northern Italy, and the French plunder of that land was on a scale unsurpassed either before or since, with Napoleon the chief beneficiary.

By December 1797, when he returned to Paris, Napoleon was the national hero.  And this made him dangerous.  Very dangerous indeed.  Hence, when he put forward his new bright idea to the Directory–still a cesspool of corruption and connivance–that he should take an army to Egypt, conquer it and set up a French colony there which could in turn threaten Great Britain’s trade with India, the Directory said, “What a great idea! Off you go then…”

But that didn’t turn out so well, for in the middle of his spate of victories over the ill-prepared, mediaevally-armed Mamelukes, Britain’s Lord Nelson led the Royal Navy to defeat and destroy the French fleet at Aboukir Bay on 1st-2nd August 1798, thus marooning the French army.

Eventually, his army crippled by disease and casualties sustained at the Battle of Acre, Napoleon abandoned them, fleeing back to France on 24th August 1799, where he proclaimed the whole to have been a rip-roaring success and victory for France.  (No kidding.)  But having got a taste for command and absolute power, his ambitions could not be contained.

With the help of his brother, Lucien, he orchestrated a coup d’etat against the financially incompetent Directory on 9th November, aka 17 Brumaire under the arcane Revolutionary calendar.

Within weeks, a new government, a Consulate of three with Napoleon as First Consul was established.   On 17th February 1800, he took possession of the Tuileries Palace.  He was, by right of the new Constitution, the supreme ruler of France.

What follows for the next fourteen years is an unending history of misery, of conquest, battle, pillage and destruction, as Napoleon and his armies swept aside all barriers that stood in the way of his absolute soon-to-be imperial power and greed.  During this period of the wars, Britain, ruling the waves, would diplomatically construct coalition after coalition of European powers to oppose the Napoleonic military machine–paying out millions in subsidies to Prussia, Russia, Austria, Portugal and Spain.  Yet for a decade, no one but the British–and that at sea–could defeat the seemingly indefatigable French.

And curiously, for the first couple of years of his reign the battlefields were quiet-ish, as Napoleon consolidated his power at home, reconstituting the judiciary, the ministries, the civil code, the education system, the law-book–all to suit himself.

Britain was feeling the pinch too and between 1802-1803, under the terms of a thing called the Peace of Amiens, Europe was at peace.

Sort of.

I say sort of, because Napoleon was merely using the time to refashion the state in his own image, to build and train a conscript army, the size and force of which had never been seen before.  And of course, to arrange for his self-crowning as Emperor.

Britain then remained Napoleonic France’s implacable foe.  Consequently, Napoleon began to amass troops for an invasion, situating this ginormous military camp at Boulogne (on a clear day, it could be seen from across the English Channel).  The Royal Navy kept up a constant patrol, bless them.

France, now allied with Spain, sent forth a fleet to draw them away from the Channel, thus to provide a 24-hour window, during which time, the thousands of troops might be transported across the Channel to being the invasion.

There were two catches to this great plan.  One, the “transportation” consisted of four-foot deep barges, which, in the choppy waters of the Channel capsized almost immediately weight was put on them–the horses swam back to shore, the non-swimming troops weren’t so fortunate.

And two, that pesky Lord Nelson again, who led the fleet to victory over the French and Spanish combined fleets on 21st October 1805 at Trafalgar.  France would never again challenge Britain at sea and subsequently, Napoleon’s insatiable lust for conquest would be confined to Continental Europe.

In response, he marched his army at breakneck pace across Europe, roughing up the German principalities through which he travelled, and smashing the allied Austro-Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December (combined casualties–upwards of 30,000 men).

As a result, the centuries-old Austrian Empire was dramatically reduced and Napoleon set up the Confederation of the Rhine at Austria’s expense in the early months of 1806.

Less than a year later, on 14th October 1806, Napoleon led his troops to victory over the Prussians and Saxons at Jena; at Auerstedt on the same day, another defeat for the Allies, this time the Prussians alone, with over 10,000 Prussian casualties.

The subsequent days became a roll-call of Battles and Allied losses, of French sieges and Allied capitulations, which only concluded at the Battle of Friedland on 14th June 1807 with a costly victory over the Russians.

And all the while, these massive armies were in the field, displacing whole villages, eating everything in sight, pillaging, ripping up fruit trees to feed their cooking fires, creating a veritable sea of refugees who sought safety in the nearest forests where they fell prey to the thousands and thousands of deserters and bandits…

The Treaty of Tilsit agreed between Tsar Alexander and Napoleon, on 25th June, temporarily put an end to hostilities, leaving Napoleon free to carve up Europe as he chose.  And he did.

But soon, again, he grew restless, and now greedy for the apparently rich prize of Spain, in September 1807, he sent an army corps to the Spanish border, where they were to demand that Spain allow them to cross their territory in order to subdue Portugal who were allied with Britain.

By the end of November, the Portuguese royal family were being bundled aboard British ships, to seek sanctuary in South America.  Displeased and still greedy, Napoleon launched a full-scale invasion of Spain itself, otherwise known as his first really big mistake.  Certainly it precipitated the most brutal and savage phase of France’s conquest over her European neighbours.

Britain eventually sent a small force to aid the Spaniards who were rebelling against the French invaders, first under the command of Sir John Moore and upon his death, under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Wellesley’s subsequent series of small but significant victories over the French were a first sign that France might be defeated in the field.

Napoleon now opted for economic warfare against Britain by launching the Continental System which was designed to deprive Britain of her worldwide export market by closing all European ports to her shipping and goods.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t control the seas–he had no navy–so Britain continued to trade and continued to subsidise European resistance to French rule.  European businesses and ports, however, went bankrupt in their thousands, and privation and shortages of every kind of commodity became commonplace.  (Smuggling boomed though…)

By January 1811, Napoleon (having turned his back on the ‘Spanish Ulcer’) had decided to invade Russia.  For the next year, he concentrated troops in Prussia (now a vassal state to France) until he had a combined Grande Armee of at least 480,000 men.  By the end of June, having ravished Poland, they were crossing the Niemen into Russian territory.

On 7th September they defeated-ish the Russian army at the Battle of Borodino–which was the most costly battle in terms of human life ever fought at that time.  Though they took Moscow, the French were soon forced to retreat amidst terrible winter conditions which destroyed the remnants of this once great army.

On 4th December, Napoleon abandoned his troops as he had once before.  He reached Paris on 19th December.  (Only some 30,000 of his men were all that was left to struggle home in his wake.)

(Equally, while he had been otherwise occupied on the Eastern front, Wellesley–now Lord Wellington–had been busily driving the French out of Spain…)

Within a day, he had summoned his ministers, calling for a new levy of conscripts…and he was ready to take to the field again by April.  By April too, Prussia and Russia were once again allied against him with Britain as paymaster.  His defeat of the Allies, first at Lutzen and then at Bautzen (Germany), caused some to fear.  But Austria negotiated a truce for the summer months, during which time, Russia and Prussia called up further troops and organised their supply lines.

Austria tried to press Napoleon for peace, but he–as ever the Corsican strongman–refused to negotiate and blew them off.

The Allied powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria took the field against Napoleon’s new Grande Armee and inflicted staggering casualties upon the French forces at the three-day Battle of Leipzig, 16th-18th October 1813.

The disorganised French fled westward, and for the next several months, Napoleon attempted to stave off the advancing Allied invasion of France, but with his supplies, his finances, and his wasted troops exhausted, he ultimately failed.

Thus after the Battle of Paris on 30th March 1814, Tsar Alexander entered the city in triumph.  On 6th April, Napoleon was forced by his generals to abdicate power.

From the southwest, Wellington was invading France as well.

Let joy reign supreme… Napoleon–at the behest of Tsar Alexander–was dispatched to the island of Elba.  Which he didn’t much care for.

A Congress was convened in Vienna  in September of that year, with the brief to rebalance and redistribute power to the various countries.  They were dancing and discussing and negotiating the final settlements when it was announced that Napoleon had escaped from his island prison and was making his way through France, raising a new army…

The Allies, now led by the Duke of Wellington, met Napoleon’s army on 16th-18th June 1815, at a series of battles which we refer to as Waterloo.  Napoleon was defeated.  At a cost of at least 95,000 casualties, drawn from all corners of Europe.

This time, there were to be no mistakes.  Napoleon was sent, aboard a British ship, to the island of St. Helena…where he would die in 1821.  Possibly of stomach cancer.  Possibly he was poisoned…

The Allies resumed their negotiations in Paris and Vienna, though this time they were in no mood to conciliate French demands for anything.  The treasures Napoleon and his troops had looted from the farthest ends of Europe were removed from the Louvre and sent home.  France was restored to its pre-Revolutionary borders.  Italian and German nationalism had been ignited which would eventually lead to the uprisings of the 1840s and 50s.

Over the course of the wars, Britain had paid out between £55 and £65 million in subsidies to her Continental Allies.  (That’s somewhere between £3.5 billion and £4.6 billion in today’s money.)

More than six million people had lost their lives, hundreds of thousands more were displaced refugees, and it would take until 1890 for the populations of Europe to regain their pre-Revolutionary numbers.

The number of those who lost their lives stands at somewhere between five and six million…but that’s probably not counting those who died as a result of starvation due to the French armies eating up every speck of food in a country including next year’s grain so there would be no harvest, those who lost their lives fleeing the violence, or those who were infected with any of the many diseases the French army spread (like syphilis) which killed its victims within five or so years of contraction.

Likewise we have only the vaguest idea of how many Russian civilians died courtesy of the French invasion in 1812 and its ghastly aftermath.

And thus, until 1917 or thereabouts, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were known simply as the Great War.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.

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.

Getting it wrong…

Funnily enough, I was just reading a blog by multi-novel historical fiction author, Allan Massie, about strong opinions and how too often they’re based on knowing or understanding less than we might before we blast our mouths off.

Ehem.

So anyway…recently I’ve been dipping into the research on the build-up to the War of 1812 again–reading the speeches given by those early presidential icons, Jefferson and Madison, for example, reading histories of the period written both by American and British historians, as well as various eye-witness accounts, plus the American press coverage of events and comparing those to the British reports…

…and spending quality time with the percentages of British sailors employed aboard American merchant ships at the time…and analysing other data, such as tax receipts…

(I know, I know…the wild and crazy world of an historian!  Where do I get the energy?)

And in the midst of all this, I have been forced to conclude that I have got something (many things) completely and utterly wrong.

And when I say wrong, I mean wrong.

assassination3You see, I had always, always, always believed and been wholly convinced in my mind that had the Americans in Congress known at the time of Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination on 11 May 1812 (which of course they didn’t due to the length of time it took for news to travel), they would never, ever, ever have launched into war so precipitately in June.

They would have respected our loss, respected the gravity of the situation, appreciated that we were in the midst of an existential struggle against the most powerful military dictator the world had ever known, and stepped back from the brink, or at least out of deference to the grieving nation, postponed their decision…and maybe sent flowers to the grieving widow.

Or something.

Well, I’m here to say today, I got that wrong.

And not just a little nibbling about the edges wrong.  We’re talking very wrong.

Because you see, I–like probably most people–had completely and utterly swallowed all the Anglo-American political PR that grew up during the 20th century, during two world wars, in which we were the firmest of friends, the most devoted of allies, that we had a special relationship…

Yet I have to tell you–what I have found is precisely the opposite.  And it has shocked the socks off me.

There were a great many reasons why I got it so wrong.

One, of course, was that I failed to realise the depth of Jefferson’s hatred of the British. And the same goes for Madison.

I failed to comprehend Jefferson’s absolute conviction that British commerce was corrupting the morals of the New England merchants and that he saw the moral purpose of the US to be in building an agrarian republican superstate, wholly independent of the sordid aspects of commerce and trade, ruled by those who agreed with him.  (No, I am not making this up.  If only…)

Equally, initially, I failed to read far back enough, and to note that the War Hawks in the Republican party had been making a vehement case for war against the British at least as early as autumn session of Congress which commenced in November 1811.

freetradequiltI also failed to understand just what a nonsense the whole “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” slogan was.

I thought–in my quaint little Japanese fashion, said Yum Yum–that the concept of stopping ships for deserters was some nasty-wasty thing the Brits had devised to annoy the Americans and that the Yankees were rightfully protesting.

Ehem.

And those stats I was telling you about?  Yes, well, it transpires, according to those stats, that some 50% of the seafaring workforce on American ships in the early years of the 19th century were in fact British.  And the American shippers were fully aware that they couldn’t function properly without British manpower.

hmsleopardMoreover, the law allowing the vessels of the Royal Navy to stop foreign ships in time of war and search for British sailors who by rights (I’m sure we’d all agree, if we think of it in terms of WW2, say) should be serving their country…that law dates back to the Seven Years’ War in the 1750’s.

It wasn’t something the British government hastily cooked up to vex their colonial cousins.

Furthermore, the American shippers and captains knew very well that Britain was at war with the French Empire and that it was a near run thing.  They may have lived on the other side of the world, but they weren’t stupid.

There’s another tricksy bit to this and that’s the matter of nationality.  Until the fledgling US introduced the idea, nationality and citizenship rested entirely on where one was born.  Full stop.  It was a non-topic.  If you were born in France, you were French.  If you were born in Britain, you were British.

However, the Americans introduced the idea of taking citizenship and made it possible for those coming from other parts of the world to take up American citizenship.  Fine, okay…

But this, unsurprisingly, gave rise to a nifty little scam in forged documents, which were cheap and easy to come by for sailors who’d prefer to work for better wages on American merchant ships, rather than be subject to the discipline, etc. of life in the Royal Navy. And come by them they did.  In droves.

So, when the Royal Navy stopped and searched ships looking for deserters (it was a time of war, no doubt about that), and these (often known to the Navy by name and description) tars then protested that they were Americans and here were the dodgy papers to prove it…well, I think you can see, it wasn’t really something one would go to war over.  Was it?  And everybody knew it.

Also, the number of genuine Americans (if I may designate them as such), taken from American ships in this way–well numbers indicate that not more than 10% of those taken were actually the people they said they were…

nap meissonierWhat I also failed to realise was just how chummy the American statesmen were with France and Napoleon.

I kept assuming–wrongly as I now know–that they were being naive, that Bonaparte was hoodwinking them as he had everyone else.  That they didn’t realise that Bonaparte would say one thing and do another and that he didn’t give a bean about anyone but himself.  Yup, got that wrong too.

Jefferson was a confirmed Francophile.  But so was Joel Barlow, who was sent as Ambassador to Paris in 1811.

And the fellow that the French sent over to be Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Serurier, well he was as honey-tongued a manipulator as ever there was and he smooth-talked anyone who would listen–a carefully regulated steady dripfeed of anti-British venom, plus suppression or denial of what the French were really up to, all wrapped up in a cherry-flavoured sugar coating of French endearments and protestations of eternal love and admiration.

Bonaparte pulled the strings and they all danced.

From 1808, he was telling the Americans that they must ‘defend their flag’ as he urged them to make war on the British.

He and his minions were constantly ragging the Americans–Jefferson, Monroe and Madison–to take on the British for their many anti-free market activities, whilst at the very same time he was ordering American ships and their cargoes seized, held, and confiscated, even as Barlow pressed for indemnity payments and Napoleon’s ministers hemmed and hawed.

shannonAnd every time Barlow was convinced he was reaching some sort of agreement for compensation payments and hammering out a trade agreement that would open up the European market to American trade, the French apparatchiks would dither, and Bonaparte would order stricter adherence to the Continental System particularly as regards the Americans.

Even the emollient language of American historian, P.P. Hill, cannot disguise the fact that the American policy was to turn a blind eye, no matter how egregious the French behaviour.  Even when in February 1812, French privateers burnt at sea the American ships laden with wheat and bound for Spain to feed Wellington’s troops there…

Here’s the recap written by Captain Philip Broke, who got his info from the American newspapers at the time:  “The war party are certainly a wicked and perverse set of men and acting in downright enmity to the welfare of all free nations as well as their natural allies–the mass of the party are sordid, grovelling men who would involve their country in a war for a shilling percent more profit on their particular trade and are perfectly indifferent whether they league themselves with honor or oppression–provided they get their mammon.  Some of their leaders wish for a war only to get places and commands…”

John Randolph wrote:  “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war…a war of rapine, privateering, a scuffle and scramble for plunder.”

And even in April 1812, when the French produced what the Americans knew was a fraud–the so-called St Cloud Decree–in which Napoleon claimed to have ended the trade embargoes against America a year earlier.  (He cunningly had it backdated, by hand…but one gathers the ink was barely dry on the page…)

Even then, when they knew they were being had, when Napoleon’s contempt for American compensation claims and their anger against extortionate French tariffs were at an all-time high, even then, they did not turn from their course.  Indeed, the Republican politicians suppressed all talk of the fraud and various other French cons.

napo-creepBecause, you see, the outcome had already been decided.  The Americans knew that Bonaparte planned to invade Russia; they expected him to triumph there, and then, they anticipated that he would turn the full might of his military Empire upon Britain.

And they wanted to be on the winning side, the side that would give them Canada, no questions asked, the side that would overlook their land-grab in Spanish Florida…And that side, they believed, was with Napoleon and his Empire.

Added to which, they firmly believed that with the troops tied up in Spain, Britain would lack the troops to send to defend the Canadian border, and they meant to enjoy that freedom by strolling up there and taking the place over.  (Just like they’d done in the Spanish territories of Florida…)

The British government, for their part, couldn’t believe it when Congress declared war. They were convinced–despite the tide of vitriolic abuse which had been pouring out of American newspapers for the past two-three years–that the American people did not want war, they wanted fair trade.

They also believed–knowing as they did just how costly a war actually was–that no one in their right mind would go to war over a principle such as “Free trade and Sailors’ Rights”.

So…I got it wrong.  The American Congress of 1812 wouldn’t have halted their determined march to war had they learned of Prime Minister Perceval’s death.  Indeed, it saddens me greatly to say, I think they may have held a party…

Lord Nelson ~ a truly English hero…

Today is the 214th anniversary of the Battle of Aboukir Bay–or the Battle of the Nile, if you prefer–one of the three most significant and wow-worthy battles at which Lord Nelson commanded. 

A brief recap for those who don’t know their naval or Napoleonic history:

The young General Napoleon Buonaparte had the brilliant idea that if France could annex Egypt (he reckoned their nominal rulers, the Turks, wouldn’t mind much) they could begin to forge an empire that could theoretically stretch all the way to India.  And this would be a good thing for all sorts of reasons. 

One, it would give him his own kingdom–and he rather liked that idea.  Also, it would play into his and France’s obsession with antiquity and studying ancient civilisations.  And finally, and most significantly, it would establish a French military presence in the eastern Mediterranean which would seriously impede Britain’s phenomenal overseas trade and grab a piece of the action for themselves too. 

(He also planned at one stage to establish his own religion there–a kind of quasi-Islamic/Christianity thing with himself as chief prophet…but we’ll leave that one, shall we?)

Anyway, Napoleon put his plans to the Directory. 

They didn’t much mind either way, but they were keen to get this very popular young General out of Paris and a good long way away. 

So they gave in to his nagging and he was allowed to gather up a small army, as well as a group of artists, scientists and engineers known as les Savants, to go with him and found the new colony in Egypt. 

They set off from Italy–first stop Malta, where Napoleon turfed out the traditional rulers, the Knights of Malta, and robbed the place blind.  Then onto Egypt, where he and his troops were ashore at Alexandria on the 1-2 July 1798.

Meanwhile, the British had got wind of the intended conquest of Egypt and Nelson and the Mediterranean fleet set off in hot pursuit.  And chased the French all the way round the Mediterranean, never catching up with them.

After the soldiers and Napoleon were safely ashore, the French Admiral, Admiral de Brueys, sailed about a bit looking for the best harbours for the French fleet to anchor in, doing some reconnaissance, that kind of thing.

He thought he’d found the best place for anchorage–Aboukir Bay.  And he lined his 13 vessels up, chained them together from their bows so that they couldn’t get washed away, and settled down to enjoy the sea breezes.  Or to write complaining letters to the Directory.  Or something.

It’s at this point, mid-afternoon on the 1st August, the British see the line of French ships about two miles long, strung out along the coast. 

(The French also notice the British fleet, but don’t bother about them for two reasons–one, it’s going to be dark soon and what maniac would launch a nighttime battle in unfamiliar waters?  And two, they’ve anchored close to the shore and there are sandbanks in between, hence they know they can only be attacked from one side because no one could get in between them and the shore…)

Yet Nelson gave the order to press on toward the French.   And, relying on his captains to use their initiative, he led the way forward. 

Rather than having a sailing order, the British ships got on as fast as they could, ready to have at them.  And a classic Nelsonian battle was joined.  Captain Foley aboard the Goliath led the way, taking his ship along the inside of the Guerriere–the manoeuvre the French had deemed impossible.  Several other vessels followed him, while Nelson led the way at sea.

The result was a Nelsonian sandwich, with the French fleet caught in the middle like lunchmeat (their shore-facing gunports still closed) while the British ships raked them with broadsides from both port and starboard. 

Several British officers were seriously wounded, including Nelson himself. 

But that was nothing to the damage inflicted on the French.  At 9.03 p.m. a fire was seen to have broken out in the cabin of the French ship, l’Orient.  Within minutes it had spread, and at 9.37, l’Orient blew up, scattering molten lead shop and equally molten gold pieces (the bullion they’d nicked from Malta) into the air. 

The battle dragged on into the next morning–but by early in the day only two remaining French ships had not been captured or destroyed…

Napoleon and his French troops were now effectively marooned in Egypt and without hope of either rescue or fresh supplies. 

But what of Nelson…well, he did recover from his wounds–in Naples.  And eventually made his way back to Britain where he was lionised and adored, with crowds lining the roads upon which he travelled, women pushed their babies at him to kiss…it was a hero’s welcome and then some.

Yet it wasn’t just that he was a hero.  And it wasn’t just that the defeat of the French had ended their overseas pretensions or had come in a year when there had been little else to show for all the money expended on the war effort.

It was that Nelson–quite consciously I believe–had, even as he was going about his French-beating-business, ensured that he embodied the ideal of English military heroism, an ideal that had long been present in the English psyche–going back to Elizabeth I’s rousing speech given at Tilbury in 1588, before the Spanish Armada, where she said:

My loving people…I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust.

I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, by your forwardness, that you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble and worthy subject; not doubting by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and by your valor in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over the enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

Rousing stuff, isn’t it?  Who wouldn’t fight for and with her? 

Later in the 1590’s when Spain again thought sending a new Armada against Britain would be a cunning plan (they never learned, did they?) Elizabeth–older now, and less inclined toward public show–didn’t appear to give that enheartening speech. 

But a young playwright by the name of William Shakespeare had stepped in to fill the gap, writing a play and creating a character who would epitomise for all time this sense of English unity of purpose against a common enemy, a sense of loyalty and devotion to one’s fellows.  Henry V

And his speech to his troops before the encounter with the French (who else?) at Agincourt remains the rallying cry in times of war and uncertainty: 

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more…

O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

It is the battle cry of the English military.

And, you see, for some time, Nelson had been working closely with the captains of his fleet–when he invited them to dinner on board his flagship, he would listen to their thoughts, discuss his ideas of successful attack with them, he encouraged them to trust him, he encouraged them to trust their own initiatives. 

He forwarded the idea that one couldn’t go far wrong by ‘having at the enemy’ and trusted that every man would do his duty.  He lived alongside his men, not removed from them.  He shared their lives and was never austerely separate (as was Wellington.)  With him, as in Henry’s speech, it was all about fellowship.

He led from the front–hence his frequent wounding.  He even came to refer to these fellow captains at sea with him as his ‘band of brothers’, echoing–deliberately I think–Henry V in the St. Crispin’s Day speech. 

Nelson was magnanimous in victory–another quality the English like to claim for their military heroes.  (As opposed to Napoleon who ordered 4000 prisoners slaughtered at the Bay of Jaffa.) 

After the explosion of l’Orient, the British sailors did their best to pull from the water any survivors.  (They did this at Trafalgar too.)   

In short, Nelson ensured that he fitted the template for English heroism which Shakespeare had formulated in Henry V.  He followed the programme, unto the death as it happens. 

Oh, and he delivered some cracking victories against the French too.  (Always a crowd-pleaser!) 

Quite a man, wasn’t he?  And quite the hero.

Lord Nelson ~ A Different Point of View

Everybody knows the story. 

He was a lad from Norfolk sent to sea as a younker.  He had talent and determination and verve.  And over the course of his life, he became Britain’s greatest naval hero, at actions such as the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, the Battle of Aboukir Bay and the Battle of Copenhagen.  Ultimately, this utterly brilliant, crazily courageous man saved Britain from the threat of imminent French invasion at the Battle of Trafalgar. 

He is, of course, Horatio Nelson, or if you prefer, Admiral Lord Nelson (1758-1805).  And he is, or he should be, known and admired by all.  And mostly, he is.

But there are one or two elements of his personal life that still make historians and particularly naval historians squirm–and one of these is his passionate long-term affaire with Emma Hamilton. 

It was an affaire that allegedly shocked the nation–even a nation so steeped in salacious tales of men and their mistresses as early 19th century Britain.  But perhaps it’s time to rewind, look at the facts and maybe consider them from another point of view–his. 

So to recap:  he went to sea when he was twelve.  From the outset he suffered from seasickness–this would plague him all his life.  By 1779, he was suffering from malaria, which would prove a terrible and recurring debility. 

Whilst on duty in the Caribbean in 1786-7, he met then married a young widow, Frances Nisbet–she had a young son and no money–and eventually returned to England with her, intending that they should make their home there…and they seemed happy enough, though his great wish–for children–remained unfulfilled.

The resumption of hostilities with Revolutionary France ended this idyll, if idyll it was, and he was recalled to duty in January 1793 just as France was gearing up to declare war on Britain on 1 February.  

By 6 February, he was aboard the HMS Agamemnon,  and soon heading for Gibraltar–and it was sometime in the summer of 1793 that he probably first met Emma Hamilton, wife of the British diplomat in Naples.  (Nothing happened.)

Also that July, during the siege of Calvi [Corsica], a shell burst on a rampart made of sandbags, sending a shower of stones and sand into the air and into his right eye, an injury which would eventually lead to his loss of sight in that eye.

By 1797, he’d been a key player at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent.  Kudos all round.

But shortly thereafter, at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, his right arm was hit by a musket ball.  He would have bled to death but for a tourniquet applied by his stepson, Josiah, and later that day, most of that arm was amputated.  Not very successfully either, and he returned to Britain in the frailest of health, his stump swollen and inflamed. 

Over the next few months, his wife nursed him back to health–and the word nursed is important here.  From all accounts, she was a bit of a whinge-bucket and a worrier–she didn’t like Norfolk and complained incessantly about it.  She was apparently infertile.  And in nursing him, she allegedly “laid aside her scruples” as Tom Pocock phrases it so that she could clean and dress his wound and administer opium. 

Now at this point, though I’m generally the most avid devotee of the married state and all it entails, I’m saying “Hang on a tick…”  Because you see, this is where the criticism of Emma and the praise of Fanny falls apart for me.  She “laid aside her scruples…” 

So, looking after this wounded veteran who was willing to lay down his life for his country in time of greatest need, was somehow not part of “love, honour, cherish and obey, in sickness and in health”?   

(Someone talk me through this…)

And there was another scruple she apparently wasn’t willing to lay aside either–and that was to do with marital relations.  She was willing to nurse him, but physical intimacy was off the menu.  She recoiled from him; how cruel is that?

Now before some feminist accuses me by saying, “Yes, but she was a person and had her own self to consider…”  I’d like to just point out, he was a person too, a human being with needs and desires who’d made immense, intense sacrifices not just for her, but for the 11 million other Britons as well. 

Now I have never been wounded, nor have I been disfigured by accident.  But this one thing I do know and that is that injuries such as Nelson sustained often leave the sufferer not just physically scarred, but prey to the most wretched and heart-breaking of fears–to feelings of self-loathing, self-doubt and loss of self-esteem, a conviction that one has become hideously deformed and will never again be attractive or lovable, fears about identity and virility…and desperate for the physical reassurance that a loving relationship can give.  And it’s not just Afghan vets who’ll tell you this…

(Hence, to me, for her self-pitying treatment of this gallant, brave, devoted man, Frances Nelson will always be among the most selfish, sanctimonious, dung-hearted of sows who ever plagued the earth…)

Ehem.  

Nevertheless, by 28 March 1798, our man was back in service and, in true Master and Commander fashion, delighted to be so.  And that summer, after a chase around the Mediterranean, he took on the French fleet at the Battle of Aboukir Bay.  It was a scintillating and daring victory. 

But during the course of it, Nelson took a shot in the forehead from which a flap of skin fell down over his good eye.  He thought he was a goner.  Not so.  In an hour, he was bandaged and up on deck again, leading his crew.    

To speed his recovery, he was taken to the Hamilton’s home in Naples, and it was at this point that the affaire began. 

Imagine it:  He’s wounded.  His malaria is recurring so he’s sick as a sick dog.  He’s fresh from the horrors of a particularly annihilating battle.  He’s exhausted; he’s emotionally fraught; he’s been maimed and he’s in constant pain.  

And the woman who’s soothing his fevered and sliced up brow is none other than the most beautiful woman in Europe.  Not only that but she’s warm-hearted, effusive, ebullient, voluptuous, generous and kind.  He’s desperate for sex for so many reasons and holy wow is she sexy!  How could he not have fallen for her?

And he was such a hero, such a brave and brilliant and loving man, she fell right back.

By 1800, they were making their way back to London, overland–Sir William Hamilton and his wife and Lord Nelson. 

When he landed back in Britain, Nelson received a rapturous welcome, a hero’s welcome, everywhere he went.  The affaire allegedly shocked society.  Frances got sanctimonious and spiteful–which didn’t work out so well for her.

In 1801, Nelson was back at sea, leading the Royal Navy to victory over the Danes (allies of the French) at the Battle of Copenhagen.  Subsequently, he chased the French fleet all over the Atlantic and eventually destroyed the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805–a victory which ended forever the Napoleonic dreams of overseas empire and the threat of invasion for Great Britain.  (Huzzah and thrice huzzah!)

Frances, as Nelson’s widow, received all his pensions and honours, of course. 

Emma, in one of those acts of political hypocrisy which make me spit teeth, was barred from even attending his state funeral.  Which, to me, is unforgivable.

Because Emma had given Nelson something quite unique, quite tremendous:  when and wherever he was with her, he wasn’t disgusting, he wasn’t ashamed, he wasn’t less than a man.  When he was with her, he was whole.  She loved him fully.  She loved him in all ways. 

And I truly believe it was her unstinting, all-embracing, passionate devotion–with no holds barred–that rebooted his unfaltering courage in the long months that led to the victory over the French at Trafalgar.  She didn’t just believe in him, she loved him with her whole being, every part of him.

But she did even more than that.  Through her very public display of long-term affection for this maimed veteran–and that’s what he was–I do believe she set a new standard for treatment of the war wounded, treatment which must have been so vital for all those brave lads returning wounded or maimed by cannon, gunshot or disease from the Peninsula and from Waterloo some years later.  She demonstrated a lesson that we’re still struggling with, even after two world wars:  the power of love and how it transforms and uplifts and heals even the most wounded of souls.

200 years ago today ~ War and a new Government…

I shall be brief. 

You may recall that on 11 May 1812, Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. 

Now today this might have triggered a new Parliamentary election or an election of a new leader of whichever party held power, or even the accession of a Deputy Prime Minister to the post of Prime Minister. 

However, 200 years ago, the post of Prime Minister was in the gift of the Prince Regent.  And the chappie who accepted that gift-post needed then to fill the other various Cabinet positions from among his political allies, friends and even relations.

With Perceval’s death, many had expected the Prince Regent to turn to his former drinking cronies, the Whigs–those to whom he’d always promised power when he wasn’t in a position to give it–to find and form a Government from amongst their ranks. 

But that’s precisely what the Prince Regent didn’t do.

Instead, he turned first to Sir Richard Wellesley, Lord Wellington’s elder brother and another former drinking partner.   

Still, there was a problem. 

Too many of the current Cabinet Ministers and others in the Tory party distrusted Wellesley.  Also, he’d had published a critique of Perceval’s premiership after Perceval’s death, in the Times.  You couldn’t top this for being dishonourable. 

So, Wellesley needed to elicit the support of some of the front bench of the Whig benches.  However, the two biggest shots, and obvious choices, were Lords Grey and Greville and neither of them would join a Cabinet that did not promise to push through Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. 

And the problem with that was?  The Prince Regent was wholly against the idea and would have none of it. 

Hence, Wellesley had to eventually tell HRH that he couldn’t do the job, he couldn’t form a Government.  Full stop.

Then, on 21 May, a chap by the name of Wortley called for a vote of ‘confidence’ in the Government, claiming that “…the administration which was now upon the eve of being formed was inadequate to meet the exigencies of the times…” and “that the present government was not very strong, even with the aid of Mr. Perceval’s great talents…and that they were certainly worse than weak without them.”

Nice, eh?  We’ve got a little governmental crisis here, we’re in the midst of a world war, so what shall we do?  Oh, I think add the toppling of the Government to it, don’t you?  Great idea! 

The Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, speaking in the House of Commons, addressed the motion thusly:  “At no period of our history was it more necessary that a Government should be formed of the united talent and honour of the nation…” 

He announced his readiness to resign from his position as Foreign Secretary.  Then he added, “But for the moment, but for the moment, the whole attention of the administration should be bent to the great difficulties in which the country is placed, and, above all, to conducting the war on the Peninsula on the largest possible scale.”

The Government lost the vote by four votes. 

The Prince Regent now did as was expected of him.  He turned to the Whig peer, Lord Moira. 

And Lord Moira had the cunning plan to form a coalition government by bringing in George Canning (Lord Castlereagh’s rival and enemy–they’d even fought a duel over Canning’s backstabbing ways–which ended with a bullet in Canning’s thigh…Whoops.) and his chums. 

But that didn’t work out so well either.  There were a number of people who didn’t quite trust Canning after the behaviour which had led to the duel.  He wasn’t, as it were, considered a gentleman

So…there we are…sitting in Brook’s Club on 8 June, with the Whig MP, Thomas Creevey , who was writing to his wife and telling her quite jubilantly that Lord Moira had been made Prime Minister that day.  When what should happen, but Castlereagh walked past him and stopped to have a brief word. 

Whereupon Creevey finished his letter this way:  “Well this is beyond anything, Castlereagh has just told us that Moira resigned the commission this morning, and that His Royal Highness had appointed Lord Liverpool Prime Minister.  Was there ever anything equal to this?”

The new administration was in place by 200 years ago today:  Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister; Lord Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office and became Leader of the House of Commons as well; Lord Sidmouth took over the Home Office…

The first order of business that the new administration undertook on 16 June was to repeal the Orders in Council–those Orders which had brought the 50-year old United States to the point of declaring war with Great Britain. 

But their action came too late.

For on the very same day, the United States Congress–led by the War Hawks and President James Madison, who were eager to take full advantage of Britain’s large-scale military commitments in the Peninsula against Napoleon’s troops there to launch their own land grab of Canada, and fully expecting their favourite ally, Napoleon to conquer Russia–declared war on Great Britain. 

There were those who expected that with the repeal of the Orders in Council, the alleged cassus belli, the Americans back down by saying, “Righto, that’s us sorted,” and war would be averted. 

But that sanguine hope was not to be fulfilled. 

And there you have it.  A busy day all round, wasn’t it?