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.

Daily Life ~ Through the Prism of The Great War

This is one of those blog posts I’ve been avoiding writing for some time now.  Like for well over a year.

Chiefly because writing it will mean that I might have to get up off my sorry backside and go look in a book or two to confirm a couple of details rather than just opening up my brain and allowing the contents to leak onto the page.  Which obviously is my preferred method.

English officersYou see, as I’ve observed the popular focus on the early 19th century in novels and because of the undimming interest in Austen, I’ve come to feel that–somehow–there’s this assumption from the few oblique references to it in Austen’s works that the long wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France really didn’t impact on the lives of the ordinary and/or aristocratic British at this time.

But that’s a bit like inferring that Austen and her family didn’t eat eggs.  Or wouldn’t have known what they were. She never mentions them, does she?  Ergo…

Yet, like eggs or milk or bread, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, the ongoing war with France was so much a part of the fabric of daily life that–like her omitting to say that her characters had eggs for breakfast–it possibly didn’t occur to her to mention it.  Indeed, this period of war created the very weft and warp of their existence…And the daily reminders of it–they called it the Great War–were so constant, so ubiquitous in their daily lives, that Austen and all her readers took it as understood.

horationelson2The wars with France between 1793-1815 defined, changed and effected abso-blooming-lutely everything!  And they went on and on and on, world without end, amen…

And therefore I would contend that in order to truly understand the period–which some call the Regency (though that’s far from strictly accurate)–one must view it not through a rose-tinted lorgnette with an aristocratic mother-of-pearl handle, but rather through war-tinted spectacles.

Let me show you.

From the outset of the French Revolution, English eyes (and newspapers) had been riveted on the unfolding events in Paris.  Remember–France is right across that little arm of water called the Channel (or la Manche if you’re French)…a body of water so narrow, a person can swim it.  A small boat can sail it on a fine day…

Until just 250 years previously, at least a part of France had always been owned or ruled by England.  The ties, therefore, for all sorts of reasons, were very close.  So, it must have seemed like their French cousins and business partners/competition had plunged into a vortex of sanguinary madness such as had never before been seen…

warprintAnd then, in 1793, four years into this Revolution, the French declared war on Britain.  Viscount Castlereagh, when still a young man, was the in the Low Countries during the September Massacres…he daren’t enter France himself…and he read with mounting horror the newspaper accounts of the events that still today are nearly unreadable for their savagery.

By 1797, France was strong enough and cocksure enough to attempt invasions of both Ireland (then under British rule) and the British mainland…both, fortunately, fizzled out–Ireland’s due to a blizzard and heaving gale and the mainland’s due to the inferiority of the French troops and the welly of the Welsh they encountered at Fishguard.

martellotower But subsequently, all along the south coast, successive governments would embark on building a series of Martello towers to protect against the present threat on invasion.

Nor was invasion just a mythical nightmare of a threat.  Napoleon, in power since 1799, used the year of the Peace of Amiens (1802-1803) to establish one of the largest army camps at Boulogne–which again, is just across the Channel and which, on a clear day, one can see from the coast of Kent.  And what the English saw didn’t make for very reassuring viewing.

For at Boulogne, Napoleon was assembling his troops for invasion.  Some 500,000 of them. And often he was there himself, reviewing the troops in full view of the English telescopic lenses trained on the place.  Imagine it.

Bearing in mind that ever since the Commonwealth, Britain hadn’t had a standing army per se–or at least nothing on the scale of the European powers–this was pretty scary stuff.  If that Corsican upstart managed to get those troops across that tiny slip of water, the result would have been overwhelming.  Quite literally.

Thus, the army fellows spent weeks and months working out which were the most likely points of access and then, carving up Kent and Sussex with a series of water courses to hinder the French advance while they, in London, would get the King and royal family away to safety in Wheedon–where they built the early 19th century version of a royal bomb shelter.  As the whole of Kent and Sussex were carved up this way, the impact on transportation and even agriculture would have been immense–a daily reminder of the threat across the water.

It seems impossible to fathom, of course, but although he was pretty hot as a general on land, Napoleon never got the hang of water.  And that, of course, saved Britain time and again from his invading forces.

Those forces gathering and threatening in Boulogne were only held back as the French waited for a spell of calm in which to cross over. Because Napoleon, judging the difficulty of navigation solely on the width of the Channel, had opted for rafts–large wooden rafts, four feet deep–in which to transport his men, horses, artillery across to England.

And when the first troops were loaded onto these rafts for his inspection, they, er, tipped over.  Many soldiers–being unable to swim–drowned, the guns fell into the water and sank, and the horses swam for shore.  Whereupon, Napoleon stormed off in one of his classic rages…

The threat may have been lessened for the moment, but the Brits didn’t lose their sense of vulnerability.  Not ever.

semaphore towerImagine the disruption to daily life, there, along the south coast.  Also along the coast, just as in the weeks preceding the arrival of the Spanish Armada, huge woodpiles were erected to act as beacons should the French be sighted crossing.  Added to this, from 1796, there were the telegraph hills or semaphore towers, marring the skyline perhaps, but able to send coded messages inland (Deal to London) in a matter of minutes.

No wonder the militias in those southern counties were particularly active and always recruiting…and all the landed families of each county would have been expected to send their sons and husbands to be officers in the militia, if they hadn’t already bought commissions in the military or gone to sea…

Britain was indubitably on a war footing and that’s how things would remain until 1814…

Everywhere they went, everything they saw and experienced would have emphasised this, if ever they forgot…the newspapers churned out a daily diet of war coverage, and particularly naval coverage, because it was at sea that Britain truly excelled.

Between the years of 1793 and 1812, year upon year, Parliament voted to expand the size of the Royal Navy, taking its size from 135 vessels in 1793 to 584 ships in 1812, with an increase in seamen from 36,000 to 114,000 men.   Those seamen all had families, families who missed them whilst they were away, families who grieved if and when they were lost.

In 1792, the size of the merchant marine was already at 118,000, but this too expanded as the Continent was increasingly closed to British trade and British merchants had to seek farther afield for fresh markets.

nelson'stombAdmiral Horatio Nelson was the hero of the age–embodying the tenacity, the daring, the sea-savvy of Britons through the centuries, standing up to Continental aggression and aggrandisement alone.  He wasn’t just lionised, he was idolised.

Thousands upon thousands of British boys went to sea because of him–and he was known for treating the younkers well.  When he died at Trafalgar, the nation mourned, quite literally.  (Have a look at his catafalque in St. Paul’s if you doubt it.)

Again, along the south coast, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton were all swimming with sailors, and with all those industries which support a maritime war–from shipyards to rope-makers to munitions-makers…it was boom-time.

Encampment in St. James's Park 1780

Encampment in St. James’s Park 1780

Hyde Park and numerous other vast public tracts of land were covered with the tents and paraphernalia of military training camps for the army.

But it wasn’t just in the ubiquity of the military that one sees the war–the preferred and very available art form of this period was the cartoon, the satirical print.  The war and in particular, Napoleon, provided the fertile imaginations of the cartoonists with a veritable buffet of opportunities for their cynical art and wit.

printshopwindow1Given then some 40% of the population was illiterate, it was from these prints, every day displayed in print shop windows, that the British public, gawping and laughing, gathered much of its news and thereby formed its opinions.  (That’s every day for nearly 20 years!)

The theatres too invariably included a naval spectacle or re-enactment as part of each evening’s bill, in much the same way as during WWII wartime dramas starring John Mills were churned out by Pinewood Studios.

Plays about Nelson were the most popular and the plays of Charles Dibden (then popular, now forgot) reflected this with titles like Naval Pillars, a piece based on Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay.  Indeed, it was often joked that Dibden should be decorated by the Admiralty for the number of successful naval dramas he’d written…

As if that weren’t enough, the popularity of these maritime spectacles prompted the owners of Sadler’s Wells to create a lake of real water upon their stage as a more lifelike setting for all these pieces.  And when one considers that up to 20,000 Londoners attended the theatre each night–and that’s not including Vauxhall Gardens where they also produced martial spectacles or any of the smaller venues where the chief attraction was naval illuminations–that’s when you start to see this war as almost the emotional meat and potatoes of their daily lives.

militarystyleClothing design, especially for women, embraced the military influence–whether it was riding jackets a la militaire with double rows of buttons and frogging up the bodices and cuffs, or as lady’s head wear, taking its shape from the common shako or the caterpiller-crested helmets of the dragoons, there it is again.

For the underclasses, let’s call them, all along the coast from Cornwall up to East Anglia, the endless French wars led to an increase in smuggling activity upon an industrial scale.

Brandy, French silk, and all sorts were smuggled in, whilst wool for uniforms was smuggled from East Anglia, and just about everything else you can imagine was smuggled from the rest of the coast to European beaches…the organisation and size of these smuggling gangs grew proportionately more sophisticated as the wars raged on, and once Napoleon closed Europe’s borders to British trade, the size of these gangs just mushroomed.

As did the need for an increased presence of Preventive Officers and Revenue Cutters, patrolling the waters of the Solent, the Channel, and the North Sea…

And finally, these wars hit everyone where they’d feel it most, every day.  In their pockets.

The war itself, added to the agricultural consequences of years of terrible harvests, led to rampant inflation.  Food prices as well as the cost of common goods soared.  The lack of grain was so acute that in the years 1808-1812, the Government had been forced to buy thousands of tons of grain from the United States, to be shipped to feed the British troops on the Peninsula.

shako1Not only that, but within five years of its breaking out, the cost of the war had effectively drained the Treasury–the wretched conditions in the Royal Navy had in 1797 led to mutiny and the army was, not to put too fine a point on it, starving.  There was, as seen up above, a serious threat of French invasion and Ireland needed troops to ward off any French incursion there.

Pitt the Younger was both Prime Minister as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer (a common combination of offices at that time) and he felt there was a need for an increase in ‘aid and contribution for the prosecution of the war.’  His solution?  Income tax.  Which was announced in 1798 and became part of every taxpayer’s nightmare from 1799.  As today’s Inland Revenue describes it, it was a fairly straightforward proposition:

“Income tax was to be applied in Great Britain (but not Ireland) at a rate of 10% on the total income of the taxpayer from all sources above £60, with reductions on income up to £200.  It was to be paid in six equal instalments from June 1799, with an expected return of £10 million in its first year. It actually realised less than £6 million, but the money was vital and a precedent had been set…”

It was, as it turned out, just a drop in the bucket when set against the vast costs of the war.  A detailed, country by country, analysis of the subsidies Britain paid to her allies over this twenty year period adds up to the eye-watering sum of £55,228,892.

(If you’d like that in today’s money, that’s £3.5 billion, using the retail price index.  Or if you prefer to calculate using average earnings, £55.1 billion.)

And if you think they weren’t constantly grumbling about it…think again.

Nor does that sum include the cost of maintaining a military force in the Peninsula under Wellington, the cost of the disastrous Walcheren expedition, nor the vast (and we’re talking millions) sums secretly paid out to the intelligence agents and spies…The total figure, therefore, is closer to £700 million or £44 billion in today’s dosh.

And none of this even hints at the private sadness and inconsolable losses of those who received, daily, from the Admiralty, from Horse Guards, from commanding officers in Spain, letters informing them that their loved ones would not be returning home…

The war, it was everywhere…it was the carefree laughter and the relief of peace that were missing. And for many had never been known.

Le Grand Chiffre…or am I talking in code?

Sorry, sorry, sorry…yes, that headline is me laughing at my own jokes.  Sorry.  It was too good to pass up.

Anyway…codes.  Secret codes.

FrenchiesplantingminesleavingMoscowWell…The reason I’m on about this at the minute is that last Sunday, as announced in this news feature, a page of a letter written by Napoleon in code was going under the hammer at some auction or other.  And this particular letter was of great interest because it detailed what the French army were to do–blow stuff up–upon their retreat from Moscow in October 1812.  So, of great interest to historians and particularly Russian historians.

But of course, as so often happens, the, er, author of this bijou article-ette didn’t quite get his facts right with his comments about Napoleon’s Secret Coded Letter…chiefly because, he writes as though this was the only one.  A one-off.  And how spooky, secret-agenty was that?

Er, not exactly.

Since the days of Louis XIV, back in the late 17th century, the French Foreign Ministry had excelled in code-work.  And let’s face it, in those days of shifting loyalties and French expansionism, they probably needed to.

Anyway, over the hundred or so years, they had developed several examples of petits chiffres (little ciphers) of some 600 characters.

And the way this thing worked was they had the numbers 1-600 written down on their deciphering sheet, and corresponding to these numbers were words, so that when the secretary wrote down his message, he would substitute the numbers for the words in the sentences, which resulted in a pretty confusing or inconclusive reading of the information for anyone without the code book.

By 1750 or so, this enciphering table had been expanded to 1200 numbers, rendering the encrypted messages even more difficult to interpret.  And of course, there were more esoteric codes employing hieroglyphs too.

Copies of these ciphering tables had remained untouched during the years of Revolution in the French foreign ministry drawers, just waiting to be rediscovered and re-used and expanded upon.  But at first Napoleon didn’t have need of them.

In the early Napoleonic campaigns, they had used letters written in a petit chiffre–which were normally composed of number substitutions for about 50 words, but these were quite easy to crack–and if that message fell into the wrong hands, it would only be a matter of a few hours before the contents were decoded.

However, when Napoleonic troops invaded Spain and Portugal in 1808, they found themselves in exceedingly hostile territory, among exceedingly hostile natives…and with the two main armies being separated by hundreds of miles across exceedingly hostile terrain where anything might happen…well…to put it mildly, communication just got a whole lot more difficult.

Yes, in France and across much of the conquered German lands to the east, telegraphs had been erected to aid in the speedy transmission of information from Paris to the other parts of the Napoleonic Empire, but this wasn’t going to work in Spain.  The Pyrenees Mountains were in the way, for a start…

So, it’s at this point, that they go back to the idea of enciphering their letters.  That way, if the Spanish guerrillas captured the courier (as so often happened) even if that happened, neither he, nor, after 1809, his British counterparts and allies could read the thing.  Brilliant, yes?  And by 1811, the need was acute.

marmont1And it’s at this point that Marshal Marmont, assuming command of the Army of Portugal as they called these French divisions, ordered the creation of a new cipher–bigger than the old–comprised of some 1200 numeric substitutions.  And a great many of those numerals would have been used to indicate locations.  Genius!

The next step came from Napoleon himself who ordered the creation of a new cipher, a grand chiffre, for his brother Joseph, nominally King of Spain, (he’s a bit of a feckless loser, to be honest) and to be used to shore up Joseph’s waning authority–and he starts sending the letters to Spain written in this.  But the problem was that not everyone, including Joseph, had the new encryption tables…So, the King resorts to writing things out–writing en clair, as it’s known.

The British too, at this point, are coming into possession of more and more of these coded letters and they’ve got their own code-breakers beavering away at cracking the codes.

The codes vary in difficulty.

Some break words into syllables or even letters and combine separate numbers to form words phonetically or to partially spell them out–as say, if one were to break the word etait (was or were) into four:  et-a-i-t, then it might look something like this when enciphered.  20.14.59.29.  (As if in fact it did when found in a letter from one French officer…)

By the winter of 1811, amidst the confusion of too many code tables and who knew what and when, Napoleon had his chief fixer in Paris, Hugues Maret, compose a new cipher which was to be sent out to all the Marshals in Spain and Portugal and to King Joseph too.  The table had 1200 code numbers, which was expanded to include another 200 numbers which mainly described Spanish places or terms.

GreatParisCipherThe new more complex code, le Grand Chiffre, or the Great Paris Cipher as it was now called, allowed for the same words to be broken up and encrypted in several different ways–making it nearly impossible for a British code-breaker to crack the thing.

Thus the sentence (this is from an actual letter), “Ah my friend, he could not disguise that he was the cause of the capture of [Ciudad] Rodrigo” looked like this when encrypted, “Ah my friend, he could not disguise that he 20.14.59.29 the 36.49.1.12.63.14.17 of 6.28 27.30.31.21.17.41.40.30.49.10.41.39.31.43.10”.

You can imagine the rolling of eyes in the British camp when they came across this stuff…But, as the guerrillas were picking off French couriers with the same ease as shooting fish in a barrel, any and all French messages between Napoleon and his cohorts were written using this code–so you might say, there were nothing but coded letters.

lettersdecodedbyScovellAnyway, despite the challenge or perhaps because of it, a rather canny and quite tenacious fellow by the name of George Scovell didn’t roll his eyes and give up, he cracked the Frenchie blighter!

It didn’t happen all at once and he wasn’t alone in working at it.  Copies of the encoded messages captured by guerrillas were sent on by Wellington to the Foreign Office, the War Office and Horse Guards in London, and their home-grown boffins were hard at work on it too.

[A word about the decrypting process:  the code-breaker’s eye naturally seeks out the repetitive sequences or particular numbers.  For example, the letter e is the most commonly used letter in English.  It also occurs quite frequently in French and Spanish, as does u.  So, the genius of the Great Paris Code is that they didn’t just use numbers for single letters, they also used bigrams and/or whole word codes.  Which makes it almost impossible for the code-breaker to develop a rule.

By having the endings of French plural verbs encoded–that’s ons, ez and ent–again, they’re making it more difficult to establish the rules as the cryptographer might spell the letters out using numbers for each letter, or they might vary that with numbers to represent the verb endings.  So a code-breaker can never be sure where the words begin or end–it’s just this fiendish stream of numbers across the page.

And the big break didn’t come until the French in the field began to get sloppy and write enough of their letters en clair that Scovell and the others could deduce the encoded words from the context within the sentence.]

But Scovell, because he had greater access to all the incoming captured communications, and because of his hard work, fine brain and excellent French, was the man to crack the thing wide open–and this without the help of Alan Turing or a prototype Enigma computer…

But it was that huge.

For decrypting the Grand Chiffre enabled Wellington and the British troops to outflank and outmanoeuvre the French, even as Napoleon was withdrawing 30,000 of the best of them for his campaign against Russia…

I don’t know how long it took–but the French didn’t learn for the longest time that the Grand Chiffre had been virtually decoded and that the British knew in advance what they were likely to be up to and were responding accordingly.  Possibly by the time they worked that out, it was too late–Joseph was abandoning Madrid, Wellington had the French on the run…And this is about at the same time as Napoleon is invading Russia–so just prior to writing the abovementioned letter in code, which as you’ve seen, was hardly a singular event… (punk)

May 1812Okay.  So how cool is that?

(And yes, the reason I learned all this stuff, including how to crack these coded messages, was so that I could put it in my novel, May 1812…right at the beginning.  And yes, there on the cover of the book is a page from Scovell’s decryption table, now found in the National Archive.)

200 Years Ago Today ~ The Liberation of Madrid…

Following the rather disastrous rout at Salamanca on the 18th July, the French army–now reduced to a mere 22,000 troops–had fallen back [slowly] on Madrid, the capital of Spain and home to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, whom he had installed as king when he annexed the country. 

But King Joseph aka Pepe Botella [Joe the Fat] was…er…weak.  And immensely unpopular.  (He’s still a hate figure today.)  He didn’t command much respect among the French army either–he was no soldier and his brother kept undercutting any authority he did have by writing directly to the French generals under his command, countermanding his orders…

So, once the news had got through to Madrid and elsewhere that the French army had been smashed…and this took several weeks in some cases because the Spanish guerillas controlled almost the entire countryside and disrupting French communications was one of their chief pleasures and specialities.  So whenever a French courier was sent out, hey presto, he was ambushed and the news never got through…

Anyway, once Joseph realised that his position was untenable, he did what the Buonapartes always did when things went pear-shaped:  he grabbed as much loot as he could manage to pack into his baggage train, and hightailed it out of town.  In Joseph’s case, this was in a creaky carriage, heading south through the waterless, dusty country of Aranjuez and Albacete for Valencia. 

Accompanied by the royal household and some 2000 waggons–okay, quite a bit of loot–and maybe 15,000 civilian afranchiadas, civilians who’d collaborated with his regime and therefore didn’t rate their chances very high if they remained. 

Hence on 12 August 1812, Wellington and his Anglo-Portuguese army rolled–unobstructed and unopposed–into Madrid. 

And as Stephen Maturin would say, “The Dear knows, I give you joy!” 

All of Madrid turned out to celebrate the casting out of the French–their assault on the Madrilenos in 1808 had turned the streets to rivers of blood, literally–and the triumphal entrance of their English liberators.

William Grattan of the Connaught Rangers was there:  “In less that two hours we reached the heights which command Madrid:  the soldiers ran forward to catch a glimpse of the countless steeples that were distinguishable through the haze, and their joy was at its height when they beheld a city that had cost them so much toil and hard fighting to gain possession of.  Ten thousand voices at one and the same moment vociferated, ‘Madrid!  Madrid!’

“The enthusiasm of the army was still further increased by the thousands upon thousands of Spaniards that came from the town to accompany us in our entry:  for miles leading to the capital the roads were crowded almost to suffocation with people of all ranks who seemed to be actuated by one simultaneous burst of patriotism, and it was with difficulty that the march was conducted with that order which we were in the habit of observing.  The nearer we approached the city, the greater was the difficulty of getting on, for the people forced themselves into our ranks, and joined hand in hand with the soldiers…

“At length we entered that part of the town near which the palace stands, but the obstacles which impeded our march, great as they were before, now became ten-fold greater. 

“Nothing could stop the populace, which at this period nearly embraced half that Madrid contained, from mixing themselves with us.  The officers were nearly forced from their horses in the embraces of the females, and some there were who actually lost their seats, if not their hearts. 

“Old or young, ugly or well-looking, shared the same fate, and one, in particular, an old friend of my own, and a remarkably plain-looking personage, was nearly suffocated in the embraces of half a dozen fair Castilians.  When he recovered himself and was able to speak, he turned to me and said, ‘How infernally fond these Madrid women must be of kissing, when they have hugged nearly to death such an ill-looking fellow as me.'” 

Lowry Cole wrote home that even Wellington was completely surrounded by women and girls as he rode into town, all of them wanting to touch him and kiss him, and many of them even going so far as to cut bits off the skirt of his coat to cherish as relics. 

(Who says we invented the cult of celebrity in the 20th century?)

 And amid the “deffening shouts of Vivi les Angoles, Vivi les Ilandos!” which were being shouted from every direction, Captain Bragge adds:  “The inhabitants testified their Joy by hanging all their Curtains, Tapestry etc out of the windows…This had a very pretty effect and was greatly increased by a splendid Illumination with Immense Wax Candles.”

Can’t you just see it? 

Here’s how one Spanish eye-witness, Jose Clemente Carnicero Torribio described it:  “When the bells began to announce the entrance of our troops at about ten o’clock, it was wonderful to see the people rushing to…the Portillo de San Vicente, which was the one through which they were said to be coming.  A new town council was formed, and this immediately set forth to greet…the immortal Wellington…

To the crescendo of bells, the people massed in ever greater numbers round the Plaza de la Villa.  When a portrait of Don Fernando [Fernando VII] was placed in the window of the town hall, they simply went mad.  The cheering was incessant; hats and caps were thrown in the air; on all sides people were giving thanks to God; and everyone was filled with the greatest joy and happiness.  Another of the incidents that made the day shine our was the behaviour of the women and children of the poorer quarters.  Joseph…had made a new avenue from the palace to the Casa de Campo [the royal hunting ground]…This had been lined with fruit trees…But the crowd…ripped them up…

“When Lord Wellington arrived, many of the people who greeted him were therefore carrying branches and sprigs of greenery which they waved in time with their cheers and happy shouts of greeting.  In this manner he was accompanied to the town hall.  When he got there, the cheering redoubled…Among thunderous applause, everyone flung their arms around one another, and gave themselves over to congratulating their neighbours in the most unreserved fashion.”

Edward Somers Cocks wrote happily of his experience too:  “Our arrival produced a joy far beyond description…I was never kissed by so many pretty girls in a day in all my life, or ever expect to be again.  If we moved on horseback, the animals were embraced and pulled one way, and we were hauled and caressed the other.  On foot it was impossible to make your way…”

Not everyone enjoyed it all though, as William Wheeler of the 51st wrote:  “But amidst all this pleasure and happiness, we were obliged to submit to a custom so unenglish that I cannot but feel disgust now I am writing.  It was to be kissed by the men.  Which made it still worse, their breath was so highly seasoned with garlick, then their huge mustaches well stiffened with sweat, dust and snuff, it was like having a hair broom pushed into ones face that had been daubed in a dirty gutter.”

Amazing and wonderful, isn’t it?

Many Madrilenos believed this signalled the end of the war.  However, in this they were sanguine…it would be another year before the French armies were driven across the Pyrenees and back into France…Still, what a day, eh?

(Oh, and it’s a happy 250th birthday to George IV too.)

200 Years Ago ~ The Battle of Salamanca

It was a dark and stormy night…

(No, really, it was.)

The rain came down in torrents…

(No, really, it did.  I’m not making this up.  This is what happened.)

Thunder boomed for hours, the lightning cracked and flashed on the polished metal of the guns, temporarily blinding the soldiers.  The winds, howling across the treeless plain, spooked the horses so that they broke free, bolting, stampeding in every direction.  A night fit for Macbeth’s weird sisters, you might have said.

But by early morning, the storm had passed and the sky was a cloudless wash of watchet blue…

For several days, the two armies–the Anglo-Portuguese army under the command of Lord Wellington and the so-called Army of Portugal (otherwise known as the Frenchies) under the command of Marshal Marmont–had been engaged on a series of manoeuvres, of marches and counter-marches, sometimes in parallel, sometimes within gunshot of each other, each hoping for the other to make a mistake, and all under a blazing sun, while the nights were so cold the soldiers were burning coffin-wood for their fires…

On the morning of the 22nd July, therefore, after rounding up their horses, the two armies again began their journeys toward Ciudad Rodrigo, sweeping onto the plains south of Salamanca, each desperate to reach the road to Ciudad Rodrigo and thus their safe path of retreat first.  

Wellington had ordered his troops into a defensive position along a ridge known as the Lesser Arapil, while the French occupied a more southerly ridge called (here’s a surprise) the Greater Arapil.  Anticipating a day of more manoeuvring, Wellington had sent the baggage train off early, down the road to Ciudad Rodrigo.

Marmont, convinced that Wellington was a fearful, defensive commander, believed that the clouds of dust he saw on that road through his telescope were the main Anglo-Portuguese army making a dash for it.  He therefore ordered his troops to string themselves out along the south for a pre-emptive strike to cut off the British retreat.

(Can I just say here, “Big mistake.  Huge.”)

So here we have, just as you can see below in the map, the Anglo-Portuguese army packed tightly together in formation, with lots of reserves at their back–just to the north–and the Frenchies, bless ’em, marching across the front of the British troops (so dumb!) and blissfully unaware of what’s over that ridge, armed with muskets, Baker rifles, cannon, and wearing red coats.

Lord Wellington, stopping briefly in a farmyard to nab a bite of lunch, was munching on a chicken leg while he watched the French manoeuvres through his glass, when he observed the French line extended and straggling along a full four miles across his army’s front. 

“By God!  That will do!” he is said to have exclaimed, throwing the remaining bit of chicken over his shoulder and leaping onto his horse. 

He galloped off for a better view, liked what he saw (particularly the fact that the French line was not arrayed for battle) and declared to his Spanish aide-de-camp, “Mon cher Alava, Marmont est perdu!”  After which he rode hell for leather over to the north-east to give his orders directly to his brother-in-law, Edward Pakenham, who was in command of the 3rd Division:  “Ned, do you see those fellows on the hill?  Throw your Division into column, take those heights in your front–and drive everything before you.”

The next hour’s events proved a rude, not to say fatal, awakening for the French. 

At close on 5.00 p.m. Pakenham did just as he was told and led his men to the westernmost edge of the ridge, then burst over the crest  to surround the leading French division of General Thomieres. 

As one British soldier later recorded:  “We were going up an ascent on whose crest masses of the enemy were stationed.  Their fire seemed capable of sweeping all before it…we retired before this overwhelming fire, but…General Pakenham approached and very good naturedly said, ‘Reform’, and…’Advance…There they are my lads; just let them feel the temper of your bayonets’.  We advanced, everyone making his mind up for mischief…the bugles along the line sounded the charge.  Forward we rushed…and awful was the retribution we exacted for our former repulse.”

(At approximately the same time as Wellington was giving his orders to Ned Pakenham, cannon-shot from the Lesser Arapil tore into the Greater Arapil and the side of Marshal Marmont, destroying two ribs and an arm.)

Pakenham drove his men forward into General Thomieres men who’d been completely taken by surprise. They managed to get off no more than one round before the feared rolling musketry of the 74th, 88th and 45th  was opened up on them. 

Pakenham’s men crushed the French infantry, the survivors throwing down their arms and running away.  Their first job done, they moved on toward the centre of the French line, which was also having more trouble than they’d anticipated–due to those reserves Wellington had and had ordered forward–General Leith’s Fifth Division and the cavalry brigade under the command of General Le Marchant. 

The battle continued for some time, with the British troops inflicting heavy casualties, breaking the entire French left, taking 2500 prisoners, 12 guns and 2 eagles.  A late effort by General Clausel and Bonnet to break the British centre was doomed.

Three French infantry divisions were available to cover the retreat into the wood south of the Arapil Grande and they fought bravely as the whole Allied army pushed forward, driving all before them. 

Victory belonged to the Allies!

The Battle of Salamanca or Los Arapils as it’s known in Spanish is known as Wellington’s masterpiece.  Some French writers have since observed that at Salamanca, Wellington beat 40,000 men in 40 minutes.  Which has a nice ring to it, I think. 

The Anglo-Portuguese army fought hard–there were some 14,000 French dead and wounded, with another 10,000 stragglers.   Generals Ferey, Thomieres and Berthelot were killed, and Marshal Marmont as well as Generals Clausel and Bonnet wounded.  In addition to this, the Allies took 20 guns, 2 Imperial eagles, and 6 colours.  All this to 5000 Allied casualties. 

Wellington himself had spent the entire battle galloping among the troops as bullets and cannonball whizzed by him–one bullet striking his saddle holster and bruising his thigh.

Wellington did not press his exhausted troops to pursue the disorganised and retreating French into sheltering woods or over the bridge of Alba over the River Tormes, and for this he has been criticised. 

However, the next day, he did order General Anson and his dragoons from the King’s German Legion to cross the bridge to harry the French rearguard.  The KGL hurried to join the fray.  Finding that Chemineau’s Brigade of the 6e Leger and 76e Ligne had been cut off by the rapid retreat, the dragoons charged the artillery battalion squares, shattering them.

For Wellington, the way was now clear to Madrid…and the final push to dislodge the French from the Iberian Peninsula was now on.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.

200 years ago today ~ the Trial of John Bellingham

Imagine what would have happened if Winston Churchill had been assassinated in May 1944. 

Instantly all sorts of frightening scenarios flood the mind, don’t they? 

Would Britain have won the war?  Was it a Nazi plot?  Who or what was the next target?  How would security have been expanded?  Could it have been expanded?  Would Hitler have used the event and the terror it caused to launch an even more appalling strike?  An invasion, perhaps?  Who would have taken up the job of Prime Minister?  Who was left?   

The possibilities are endless.  And, as I say, frightening.

Well, exactly 200 years ago today, this is exactly the situation in which Britain found herself.  The assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 changed everything! 

Not only that, but Perceval was Chancellor of the Exchequer too.  So you might say that the assassin, John Bellingham, had taken out heart of government with a single shot. 

And, as in my imagined scenario of 1944, all of Europe was at war and had been for a long, long time. 

Times were turbulent, both domestically and abroad.  There was hardly a country in Europe whose government or hereditary ruler hadn’t been deposed by Napoleon, mafia-style, and one of his feckless siblings put on the throne.  Whole countries had been absorbed by others and turned into French satellites.  Across the Atlantic, the Americans had been gearing up for a war in which they could land-grab Canada.  At home, there were the Luddite disturbances in the north, the harvests had been bad for several years running, and the King was mad.  And they were fighting a war against a military genius with an empire which ranged from Spain to Russia…

Insecurity was normal.  

The most immediate effects of the assassination were felt, as was to be expected, here at home.  Hence, during the evening of the 11th, the Cabinet met for hours, hammering out a series of security measures which they trusted would keep the peace and prevent panic from overtaking the realm: 

Sharpshooters were installed atop government buildings.  The Household Guard–those troops responsible for guarding the King and Queen at Windsor and the Prince Regent in London–their numbers were trebled.  The mails were stopped until further notice.  The militia was called out in mass to patrol the streets of London.  The Thames River Police were given orders to search vessels for possible conspirators. 

Nevertheless, fear, panic, terror and distress gripped the nation as the news filtered out from the capital.  It was no non-event, such as history books might suggest.  No, it had more in common with the terrorist attacks of 7/7.

Not only that, but the British were right to suspect the hand of France in it.  Because, let’s face it, by 1812, the French Emperor was good at coups. 

So, at 5.25 p.m. on 11 May 1812, when Bellingham fired that fatal shot at point-blank range, the MPs tore about the place, shouting it was a conspiracy, and searching for accomplices.  There was precedent!

Yet, though it took many people time to accept this, there were no co-conspirators.  Indeed, though the British didn’t know it, Napoleon had left Paris for Dresden on the 9th May, on his way to joining his half a million troops massed in Prussia and Poland, ready for the invasion of Russia. 

Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, was one of those who doubted that Bellingham’s action had been part of a conspiracy or coup.  Even as he assuredly kept his intelligence agents busy looking for enemy agents and the “Black Chamber” of the Post Office was opening every foreign letter…

Which might have been some comfort.  But not much. 

So what next? 

On the 12th, Parliament voted a handsome annuity to Perceval’s wife and 12 children in recognition of his service to the country.  Lord Castlereagh tried to speak to the motion, tried to articulate his affection for his friend and colleague, but broke down sobbing and had to be escorted back to his seat. 

London itself appeared to be under martial law–what with the number of militia on every street.

And, there were ramifications.  Very serious ones.  First off, they needed to find a new Prime Minister.  But what would happen to the war effort?  Would another Prime Minister continue the fight against Napoleon, would he support Wellington’s efforts in the Peninsula, would he secure the troops Wellington needed, and the supplies?

Meanwhile, what of the assassin, the man who had unleashed this latest bout of insecurity upon the nation? 

Since the early hours of the 12th, Bellingham had been incarcerated at Newgate prison, in a cell adjoining the chapel. 

All day the 12th and the 13th, as Castlereagh was speaking and weeping, and as Perceval was being laid to rest, Bellingham was visited by the sheriffs and other public functionaries.  He remained cheerful and was quite clear in all his conversation that when he came to trial, it would “be seen how far he was justified.”  And he repeated that he considered the whole a private matter between himself and the Government which had given him carte blanche to do his worst…

Four days after the death of the Prime Minister, on the 15th May 1812, Bellingham was brought to trial at the Old Bailey. 

At 10.00, the judges took their seats on either side of the Lord Mayor.  The recorder, the Duke of Clarence, the Marquis Wellesley and nearly all the aldermen of the City of London crowded onto the bench.  The court was packed with MPs, jostling among the throng.

At length, Bellingham, wearing a light brown surtout coat and a striped yellow waistcoat, appeared–his hair was unpowdered, the press noted.  He appeared undismayed by the whole.  He bowed to the Court respectfully and even gracefully, some said.

The Attorney General opened the case for the prosecution and several witnesses were called.  Several more witnesses were called in defence to testify that they considered Bellingham insane.  Eventually, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield gave the summing up, and the jury retired to consider the verdict.  

Fourteen minutes later, a guilty verdict was returned.  The death sentence was passed and Bellingham was ordered for execution on the following Monday–the 18th. 

From the moment of his condemnation, Bellingham (as was custom) was fed on bread and water.  Any means of suicide were removed from his cell and he was not allowed to shave–which bothered him.  On Sunday, he was visited by a number of religious gentlemen to whom he resolutely maintained his innocence. 

But what of the rest of the world?  What of the war? 

With the sudden vacancy at the top, those men who’d longed for power began shifting about, seeing this as their opportunity.   The Opposition party, the Whigs, thought that their moment had arrived and hourly expected messengers to invite them to a meeting with the Prince Regent, during which they would happily accept his offer to form a government–which for the war effort would have been nothing short of disaster. 

Meanwhile, Richard Wellesley (brother to the Duke of Wellington) had intended to launch a savage attack on Perceval and his conduct of the war prior to the 11th.  But when he’d sat in the House of Lords, with his notes before him, he’d gone blank and hadn’t made the speech.  Yet, within a day of Perceval’s death, those notes had been found and their gist printed in The Times

The nation was appalled by such bad taste and as one turned against Wellesley. 

Still, strangely, the Prince Regent did send for him (Wellesley was an old friend and gaming companion), though not to offer him the Premiership.  No, it was only to assess how many friends Wellesley could find who would be willing to serve in alongside him in a Cabinet. 

That list turned out to be woefully short. 

Just one man–George Canning–said yes.  (And George Canning was known not to be a gentleman.  Indeed, there were just as many men who wouldn’t serve alongside Canning…)  Too many were offended by his complaints that Perceval had not been willing to spend enough in support of the war and Lord Wellington’s troops, while at the same time trying to negotiate with Whigs who criticised Perceval for spending too much and who had declared themselves against the was effort in Spain and Portugal. 

Next, the Prince Regent would turn to Lord Moira, a Whig, to see if he could form a government…which would have been a very different sort of government and would most assuredly have seen Britain suing for peace with the Americans and with Napoleon–thus ending Wellington’s career.  (Would Napoleon have been defeated without him?) 

The Whigs were jubilant and loud in their triumph.  The officers and under-secretaries at the Admiralty and at Horse Guards were appalled.

But again, Moira turned to George Canning and his followers for support, so this went nowhere.  Even as the country seethed with instability and uncertainty. 

Eventually, another of William Pitt’s disciples (as Castlereagh and Perceval were), Lord Liverpool, was appointed Prime Minister by the Prince Regent.   He kept much of the existing Cabinet appointments intact–Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office, but added Leader of the House to his list of duties.  And the war against the French was pursued even more vigorously to the total defeat of the French Empire and the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

But, 200 years ago today, they didn’t know all that…and on 15th May, they couldn’t even begin to imagine it.

Three cheers for Spencer Perceval…

One of the things which really winds me up is how the Victorians routinely minimised the achievements of the early 19th century–those 37 years before Victoria ascended the throne when they were not in charge.  And what gets me even hotter under the collar is how this diminishing rewriting of history has been carried forth by 20th century historians. 
 
I’m not suggesting that the Victorians were unique in their historican revisionist efforts–I fancy there’s little to compete with James I’s efforts to stamp out the long shadow of Elizabeth I’s successes and popularity.  I mean, he had her dug up, and her remains dumped in a little side chapel of Westminster Abbey on top of those of her sister, Mary, with a snidey little comment about them having only one salvation (since they both died childless). 
 
And then he had the remains of his mum–that would be the mum who abandoned him when he was nine months old, the mum who’d been beheaded for treason against the English throne which he now occupied, the mum he’d been raised to call “the whore of Babylon”–that mum–reinterred in pride of place…with a nauseating little verse about her being in the line of greatness or some such weasel-fur. 
 
That, you’ll have to admit, is both disturbed and disturbing.
 
But anyway…I bring all this up because the bicentenary of the Assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 is nearly upon us…
 
For despite what the Victorians with their luxuriant sidewhiskers thought, he was a very sound thinker, a good man, and an excellent Prime Minister.  And not only that, he was PM at a time when England was facing some of the gravest crises in her long history.  And he steered the government and the country through these shoals, bless him…
 
Spencer Perceval was born on 1 November 1762, the seventh son of the high-living Earl of Egmont.  But he was also the second son of the the Earl’s second wife, which meant that when he came into his inheritance (a mere £200 a year), well, there wasn’t going to be much to it and he’d need to make his own way in the world. 
 
His father died when he was eight.  He was educated at Harrow; did well at Trinity College, Cambridge, and from there went to study at Lincoln’s Inn.  He was called to the bar in 1786. 
 
He was profoundly religious young man too and it was this which would inform both his private and professional conduct throughout his career.   A devout evangelical Anglican, he was almost the antithesis of what we think of when we think of aristocratic youth in the late 18th century.  For instance, he was fierce in his hatred of slavery and was most certainly a driving force behind the subsequent abolition of the slave trade. 
 
He fell in love with a manufacturer’s daughter, Jane Wilson, when she was 18, but her father refused consent and told them to wait till she was of age–he doubted the Perceval’s ability to provide for her.  Admittedly, his prospects were limited.  Still, the couple duly waited, and the young Perceval asked again for her hand, three years later, when she was 21. 
 
But again, Mr. Wilson refused.  Upon which, Miss Wilson climbed out of the Drawing Room window in her father’s house and the couple eloped, marrying by special license in East Grinstead. 
 
Their first home together was over a shop in Bedford Row–and they remained devoted throughout their married life, producing 12 children to prove it. 
 
The hardworking Perceval’s career prospered too.  By 1795, he had come to the attention of William Pitt, the Prime Minister, who admired his debating very much, and by 1796, he was King’s Counsel, with an income of £1000. 
 
That same year in May, Perceval was elected to Parliament as a member for Northampton–a radical borough where every male not in receipt of the poor law had the vote.  Even so, within a short time, he had to defend his seat in a hotly contested general election. 
 
He succeeded in that and held the same seat for the next 16 years until his death, while at the same time, he continued with his legal career–because in those days, MPs were unpaid.
 
In March 1807, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons in a new ministery formed under the Duke of Portland–a ministry which was subsequently to be riven by George Canning’s underhanded attempts to get rid of Viscount Castlereagh at the War Office. 
 
Amidst all the plotting, Perceval remained untainted by Canning’s machinations–quite frankly he didn’t like him and he distrusted him.  (Not without reason.) 
 
(The whole incident deserves a novel of its own–it’s that Machiavellian…) 
 
But to continue…
 
Along the way, he was adviser to Princess Caroline during the investigation into whether she’d had an illegitimate child (she hadn’t), producing a 156 page letter to George III, known as ‘the Book’. 
 
And it was George III, referring to him as “the most straightforward man I have ever known,” who on 4 October 1809–three years after Pitt’s death–asked Perceval to form a Government, which saw him, with his wife and children moving into 10 Downing Street. 
 
As Prime Minister and Chancellor, Perceval strengthened the Orders in Council–which were Britain’s economic fight-back against Napoleon’s Continental Blockade.  And he held the Government together over the increasingly demoralising issue of the King’s mental illness and the need for the Prince to be made Regent.
 
He was also well-known and well-respected for the droll wit with which he dispelled tension during debates in the Commons–as when in response to a particularly vituperative attack upon the Government, he stood up at the Dispatch Box, saying affably, “I have nothing to say to the nothing which has been said.”  (Cue laughter from the whole House…)
 
Curiously, although when he was made Regent in February 1811, everyone assumed that the Prince of Wales would dismiss Perceval and find a government within the ranks of his longtime friends and drinking companions, the Whigs–  that is exactly what the Prince Regent didn’t do.  (Perhaps Prinny wasn’t quite so thick as we’d like to believe either…) 
 
He kept Perceval on, and Perceval, for his part strengthened the government by enlisting the equally hardworking and devout Viscount Castlereagh as Foreign Secretary. 
 
Writing of Perceval’s premiership, Bruce Anderson pointed out recently in The Telegraph:  “Britain faced interlocking crises: economic, social and political.  The war was bad for trade, just at a time when the agricultural and industrial revolutions were causing widespread and disruptive changes.  Technological advances create jobs and reduce prices.”

Yet, “Perceval’s performance justified his master’s [Pitt] praise.  An outstanding debater, and a man of obvious moral depth, he was popular with everyone who knew him.  This enabled him to hold everything together.  While PM, he also acted as Chancellor and made sure that there was enough money to fight the war without crippling the economy.  With no military background, he proved himself a sound judge of military merit, especially when it came to Wellington.  Back in London, the “croakers” were carping about the cost of his campaigns and the shortage of victories.  Perceval stood firm, thus enabling the Great Duke to win battles, and immortal fame.  Perceval’s contribution should not be forgotten, just because he was struck down in the darkest hour before the dawn.”

Perceval’s achievements were enormous and his contribution to the betterment of mankind lasting.  And these should never be underestimated.  Like Castlereagh and Liverpool after him, he was a specialist in nothing germane to the terrors of a 20-year war against the most powerful military state the world has ever known–an empire which Napoleon sought to stretch from the coast of Portugal to the steppes of Russia.  And for much of that time, Britain stood alone against the might of militarised France and all her acolyte states. 

Yet during that time too, Perceval was one of that determined band of  reformers who sought to improve the lot of their fellow man, working wholeheartedly to abolish slavery and the slave trade at a time when the rest of the world still thought these a fine idea.  He was part of the movement which pushed for improvements to the prison system and the treatment of transported convicts.  It was during his watch too that the law was reformed to offer greater protection to apprenticed children–for the first time since the days of Elizabeth I.

Above all, through it all, Spencer Perceval remained a true Regency gentleman.