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.


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…)


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.

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.

Back to the original sources…

One of the great pleasures of being historically-minded in this, the early 21st century, is the trend among modern historians to return to the original sources rather than relying on what previous generations of historians have said and written.

Let me give you an example.

In 2005, for the final conference celebrating the British victory at Trafalgar, the Inshore Squadron were called upon to do a ‘show and tell’.

Now the official story has always been daring and well-seasoned British sailors led by the great Nelson against French numpties led by the depressive Villeneuve–with the expected result.  Through Nelson’s daring at executing a thing called ‘capping the T’, the British broke through the Allied line and routed them.  The British won, and destroyed the combined French and Spanish navies.

But, as they explained, whilst they were thinking about this exercise, and preparing for it, it occurred to them that perhaps they maybe should read the ships’ logs from those ships involved in the action on 21 October 1805.

So they did. Continue reading

Empires of the Sea

Empires of the Sea:  The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley.  Random House, New York, 2008.  $30.00.  315 pps.

Often histories of 16th century Europe focus on the unfolding dramas of Northern Europe–the religious ferment of the Reformation, or Tudor England, that romping Renaissance soap opera featuring the ever-recognisable Henry VIII and all those wives, and his fiery daughter, Elizabeth I, patron of Shakespeare.

Yet curiously, simultaneously, a sequence of tumultuous power struggles was convulsing the southern regions of Europe–a series of battles for military, religious and economic domination was played out across the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean, which wholly dwarf the familial power-plays of the north.  Empires of the Sea:  the Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, is Roger Crowley’s neatly encapsulated history of this defining epoch.

After taking Byzantium (Istanbul) in 1453, the Ottoman Turks looked west.  They consolidated their power, and set their sights on Rome.   They had a new, young and energetic leader in Suleiman, eager to prove his military might and add his chunk of conquered real estate to the imperial portfolio.  He conquered Hungary, then turned his attention to Rhodes where the ageing relics of the mediaeval world, the Knights of St. John, held sway, and succeeded in driving them out.

Over the next decades, the velocity and brutality of this power-struggle between the Christian west and the Muslim east mushroomed–between the Catholic rulers, Charles V and Philip II of Spain, the Pope and the Knights of St. John, on the one hand, and the ever-increasing armies and navies of Suleiman the Magnificent and his son, Selim, ably abetted by their tame North African pirate navies.

To those unfortunate enough to live along the coasts of southern Spain, Italy, or upon the islands of the Mediterranean, it was an age of unrivalled terror.  At any moment, the savage forces of the pirates, Barbarossa, or his brother, Dragut Rey, might bear down in a lightening strike.  Within a day, whole towns and villages were sacked, their inhabitants slaughtered or enslaved and bound aboard galleys for the markets of North Africa.  Despite the appeals of the pope, the response of the European rulers to this threat was invariably dithering, incoherent, or occasionally, apathetic.

In 1565, the Ottomans sent the largest fleet ever assembled to lay siege to the island of Malta, the conquest of which would given them control of the whole of the Mediterranean.

The Knights of St. John prepared to meet this assault as best they could.  And somehow, despite the failure of aid to reach them, and their significantly lower numbers of combatants, they held out over several months of terrifying and ferocious attacks, in a most dramatic display of courage, determination, grit and great leadership.  The victory celebrations were held Europe-wide.

The Turks did not acknowledge defeat at Malta, and by 1570, they had recovered enough to send a navy and siege engines to Cyprus.  Yet the final conquest of that island with its acts of unparalleled barbarity was to have unforeseeable consequences (including probably the key to understanding Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice).  It both horrified and energised the Venetians, forcing them off the diplomatic fence, and unified the Christian powers, bringing them together for a final decisive battle to defeat the Turkish fleets at Lepanto in October 1571.

But while this hardly signalled the end of either the Turkish expansionism or the Barbary Pirates, the religious and cultural boundaries of Europe were now fixed, and never again would East meet West in such a conflagration, nor would the Mediterranean provide the arena for such a decisive naval action.

From the outset, Crowley’s research of his subject is thorough and exact.  He liberally provides key Christian eye-witness accounts from the period, detailing the royal and diplomatic uncertainties, and underscoring the huge anxieties of the age–the equal of Churchill’s jeremiads about Germany’s rearmament in the Thirties.  He offers exquisitely delicate insights and undulating descriptive passages when writing of the places.  Still, in his descriptions of the battles, his prose is so lean, so taut and tense, it is impossible not to be caught up in the harrowing action.

Though he never revels in gore, the unadorned facts invariably produce cover-your-eyes, heart-thumping moments.  Had Dick Francis turned his hand to history rather than racecourse thrillers, this would have been it.

It is rare that a book comes along which requires we reconsider our verdicts on the past.  Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea is an honest history of an underestimated and oft-neglected subject and it is definitely one of those rare books.

(This review first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)