Saturday, 26 May 2018

Why did Britain not win the war with France 1793 and 1802?

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was initially welcomed by most politicians. The Whigs saw it as the dawn of liberty. For Pitt, the revolution would be a useful distraction for Britain’s major rival. Edmund Burke found in 1791 that ‘there was no moving ministers from their neutrality’. Attitudes were slow to change. In his budget in early 1792, Pitt planned to reduce defence spending. It is important to see Pitt’s actions not with hindsight but in the context of traditions of non-interference in the affairs of European powers unless there was a direct threat to British interests. Pitt did not participate in the war for ideological considerations. No action was taken when first Prussia and then Austria declared war on revolutionary France in 1792. It was the French victory over Austrian forces at Jemappes in November 1792 followed by the fall of Antwerp and the opening of the Scheldt estuary in defiance of treaty to all shipping that upset the balance of Britain’s diplomacy. In addition, the French showed themselves willing to export their revolutionary ideas by assisting all people seeking to break the yoke of monarchy and tyranny.
In two important respects France now posed a potent threat to what Pitt perceived as Britain’s ‘security’ and once France declared war in February 1793 he could justify his actions as self-defence. From November 1792 Pitt and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville showed themselves willing to let France resolve her own internal problems if she withdrew her forces from Belgium and renounced interference with the internal government of other countries. Pitt’s objective was to restore the balance of power in the Low Countries and remove the French threat from the United Provinces. French domination of the entire coastline of north-west Europe was a threat both to Britain’s domestic security and trade and it was to contest the ambitions of France in an area sensitive to British interests that Pitt went to war. France also posed a threat to the stability of Britain’s constitution through its revolutionary ideology. In 1792, Pitt had failed to predict that war with France was inevitable. He was now astonishingly wrong about its nature believing that the war would be quickly over.
Fighting France 1793-1802
Pitt and Henry Dundas, his Secretary of War, thought of war in a tra­ditional eighteenth-century way. This entailed a three-pronged approach. The first two had been used against France earlier in the century. The third strategy was something new. The ‘blue-water’ maritime strategy was employed with the Royal Navy blockading the French coast and picking up enemy colonies especially in the Caribbean. Attacks on her colonies weakened France’s commercial base and could later be used as bargaining counters in subsequent peace negotiations. A continental war was also fought using small units of British forces, paid mercenaries and subsidised allies. Finally, Pitt supported opponents of the revolution inside France especially in the west where there was considerable opposition to revolutionary change. Broadly the first part of this strategy was successful, the others less so.
The major problem facing Pitt in the summer of 1793 was which of the various conflicting war aims to pursue. Should he concentrate his energies in securing the Low Countries against French aggression? Should he aid counter-revolutionary forces within France to destabilise the revolutionary regime, as urged by Burke and Windham? Should the main thrust of the campaign be against French colonies? The first and third options reflected the approach used throughout the century. It was the second option that was different and brought to the war an ideological element. Both sides could see their actions in crusading terms, for and against revolutionary and republican dogmas. The conflict between the two options--peace either through military and naval victory or through the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy--was reflected within the coalition ministry. Pitt and Dundas supported the former while Burke and Windham saw the war as the means of eliminating the revolutionary threat.
The First Coalition 1793-1797
Britain could not defeat revolutionary France, with its new armies, a ‘nation in arms’ led by generals using unorthodox and mobile tactics, alone. The British army was too small and poorly trained to provide an effective continental force. Of the 50,000-strong army, half were needed for police and garrison duties in Britain and the rest were scattered abroad. The government therefore turned to German allies for mercenaries: 14,000 Hanoverians and 8,000 Hessians were taken into pay. Britain could only raise 7,000 men under the Duke of York for the Flanders campaign that began in April. The result was the creation of the First Coalition.[1]
Pitt believed that he could successful defeat the revolution from within France. Support for French royalists in the Vendée and in Toulon were both inadequate and too late. A plan to land French émigré troops in southern Brittany in mid-1795 was also unsuccessful. The revolutionary forces were better prepared than expected and their earlier successes gave them higher morale. In addition, Pitt failed to grasp the power of French patriotism in the 1790s. Many people in France preferred the revolutionary to the Bourbon government. They certainly favoured any French government to the restoration of monarchy engineered by Britain, the national enemy.
The anti-French coalition proved very fragile. The campaign in Flanders continued in 1794 but it was increasingly clear that Prussia and Austria were more concerned with the affairs of Poland than with the west. Austrian defeat at Fleurus compelled York to retreat across Holland, though he evacuated most of his force from Bremen in April 1795. Between 1795 and 1797, the First Coalition collapsed. Prussia made peace at Basle in April 1795. Holland, which had a strong pro-French party, was taken over in January 1795 and declared war on Britain in May 1795. Prussia made peace with France in April 1795. Spain followed suit in July and made a defensive-offensive alliance with France. The utter defeat of Austria in 1796 and 1797 led to peace at Campo Formio. The collapse of the Coalition changed the basis of British strategy. It imposed constraints from which successive governments were unable to escape. Britain had lost her bridgeheads into western Europe. Holland and Belgium were now in French hands. This left Britain to fight on alone. A Second Coalition[2] was created at the end of 1798 but also collapsed within a few years.
Colonial and naval success 1793-1801
What gains Britain made between 1793 and 1801 were either colonial conquests or naval victories. Sea power cut the French off from their overseas empire. French and later Spanish and Dutch colonies were occupied. French settlements at Pondicherry and Chandernagore in India were secured in 1793 though French influence remained, especially in Mysore.[3] In the West Indies Britain took Tobago in 1793 and supported a rebellion in Santo Domingo. Control was extended over the French islands of Martinique, St Lucia and Guadeloupe in 1794, though it had abandoned the last two by the end of the year. Haiti, rich in coffee, sugar and cotton, seemed to have been wrested from France and Spain when the coastal towns were captured in 1794 but it was never secured.[4] With 40,000 men killed and a similar number incapacitated by disease, Britain lost more men in the West Indies than Wellington was to lose in the Peninsular campaigns after 1808. The Franco-Dutch alliance of 1795 led to Britain’s seizure of Dutch colonies at the Cape of Good Hope, in Ceylon and in the West Indies. From the British point of view, even before the Austrians made peace, the war was reaching a stalemate. British trade and empire had been maintained and extended through military operations backed by naval supremacy.
Nevertheless, French mastery of western Europe seemed complete. Two attempts were made to make peace in 1796-1797: in October 1796 Lord Malmesbury was sent to Paris and this was followed by a second series of negotiations the following July at Lille. French resolve was hardened by the coup d’etat of 18 Fructidor that marked the reassertion of Jacobin influence in the Directory government of France and negotiations foun­dered on demands that Britain should surrender all her conquests while France should keep all hers. Events became increasingly unfavourable to Britain. From late-1796, Pitt faced what was perhaps the greatest threat to national security between 1588 and 1940. The external threat of invasion was made worse by problems in Ireland, which France was willing to exploit, naval mutinies, high prices and inflation. Naval victories over the Spanish at Cape St. Vincent and the Dutch at Camperdown in February and October 1797 ended French hopes of invasion.
The Battle of Cape St. Vincent 14 February 1797
Napoleon Bonaparte persuaded the Directory of the merits of an attack on British power in India and in early 1798, French agents began to intrigue with the East India Company’s greatest enemy in southern India, Tipu of Mysore.[5] Napoleon invaded Rome and extinguished the freedom of Switzerland and, using his naval control of the Mediterranean, took Malta and defeated the rulers of Egypt. The military advantage that he had gained was eliminated by the destruction of the French fleet by Nelson[6] at Aboukir Bay (Battle of the Nile) in August 1798.
Battle of the Pyramids
The implications of Nelson’s victory were far-reaching. The French lost their naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and their army was stranded, though not actually defeated until 1801. Tipu was defeated and killed at Seringapatam in 1799 and the territorial power of the East India Company extended. In Europe, the failure of the Egyptian expedition encouraged those states with grievances to show their hand. The Ottoman Empire declared war on the invaders of their Egyptian province.
Tipu Sultan of Mysore
The Second Coalition 1798-1801
Coalition warfare was the only way to achieve outright victory and end French expansion. The experience of the First Coalition showed how difficult this was going to be. Lord Grenville reassembled a Second Coalition against France. As with the First Coalition, early limited success was followed by disunity and defeat. Austria was defeated at Marengo and Hohenlinden in 1800 and made peace at Lunéville in 1801. Russia withdrew her support and during 1800. France cultivated good relations with Russia, Prussia and Denmark with a view to closing northern Europe to British trade. These moves threatened Britain’s domestic stability since poor harvests increased the importance of imports of Baltic grain. Retribution for the formation of the ‘Armed Neutrality of the North’ and the invasion of Hanover by Danish and Prussian troops was swift. In March 1801, the Danish fleet was destroyed by Nelson at anchor at Copenhagen, invading troops were withdrawn from Hanover and relations between Britain and Russia thawed. The consequences of the formation of the First and Second Coalitions were similar. In both 1797 and 1801, Britain was left isolated after France had successfully defeated the coalition armies and countries that lacked trust in each other. France’s grip on Europe had been gradually tightened. The British Navy had saved Britain from invasion in 1797 and had successfully defeated the navies of France, Spain, Holland and Denmark. It had secured Britain’s colonial possessions and enabled the conquest of enemy colonies in the West Indies, Africa, India and Ceylon. However, it could not defeat Napoleon in Europe and its success encouraged France to concen­trate more on its armies, thus increasing pressure on Britain’s allies. Sea power and land power had fought each other to a standstill, each dominant in its own sphere. A compromise peace was a logical option in 1801-1802 to give both sides breathing space.
Battle of Copenhagen 1801
Was Pitt a good war leader?
Pitt had left office before the Treaty of Amiens of 1802. He fought the French between 1793 and 1801 much as his father would have done, using Britain’s naval supremacy to blockade Europe and pick off enemy colonies while subsidising allies to fight the land war. Yet, he has been dismissed as a ‘disastrous’ war leader. How true is this? In two respects, Pitt proved successful. He put national finances on a wartime footing through direct taxation rather than loans. He also showed considerable tenacity in pursuing the war. This was evident in 1797 when the First Coalition collapsed and Britain was alone. His actions established a sense of national purpose and raised levels of patriotism to new heights.
In other respects, he was much less successful. In 1793, Britain was unprepared for war and Pitt did not understand the need for more military and naval training. It took Pitt until 1795 to appreciate that this was going to be a long war. Pitt has been unjustly critici­sed for an indiscriminate and poor use of subsidies. Of the £66 million paid in subsidies between 1793 and 1815, only £9.2 million was provided before 1802. The lack of military success, which these bought, was a conse­quence of several things. Pitt’s concern to keep the Low Countries out of French control was not shared by members of the two coalitions, both of which were loose federations of distrusting states. Prussia was more interested in the Baltic than the North Sea and looked to the partition of Poland to pick up more territory. Austria wished to sever her connections with Belgium and consolidate her position in central Europe.
In addition, the French had superior armies, generals and tactics. The British commanders of the 1790s were, with notable exceptions like Nelson not particularly able and the British army was in no position to sustain a long continental campaign. In Europe, reliance on others was unavoidable. This led to the coalitions and they were very fragile. Pitt also faced conflicting advice from his chief ministers. Dundas favoured the colonial strategy. Grenville wanted a continental policy believing that France could only be defeated in France. Pitt could see the advantage of both strategies and failed to decide decisively between them. Pitt’s success as Prime Minister between 1783 and 1793 came largely from his control of events. This allowed him to take decisive, quick decisions. After 1793, his ability to control events was more limited and he often failed to give decisive leadership. He misjudged the military capacity of revolutionary France in 1793. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Pitt’s leadership is that at least Britain had not been defeated by 1802.
The cost of war
The war was expensive for Britain and ended Pitt’s economic reforms. He was hesitant about pushing up taxes and relied heavily on borrowing to finance the war that increased from £4.5 million in 1793 to £44 million by 1797. The effect was inflationary and in 1797, following a run on the banks occasioned by the French landing at Fishguard, the government authorised the Bank of England to suspend cash payments and to issue notes for small denominations (£1 and £2). Inadvertently Pitt had stumbled upon one aspect of successful wartime fiscal policy. It was not until he announced his proposals for an income tax in 1798 and its collection in 1799 that Pitt pursued other aspects of wartime fiscal policy. This graduated tax was a logical, if unpopular, solution and was only accepted on the understanding that it was a temporary wartime expedient. It raised about half the £10 million Pitt had hoped to raise annually and one explanation of the support for the negotiations leading to the Peace of Amiens between 1801 and 1802 was the belief that income tax would be abolished. Wartime ministers, especially if they do not provide outright victory, have rarely been seen as successful. Pitt may well fall into this category. However, to condemn him outright as inadequate fails to acknowledge his appreciation of the commercial implications of the war, the advantages that colonial conquests were to bring and the naval supremacy for which his reforms in the 1780s and early 1790s had laid the foundations. War was a necessity forced upon Pitt, who needed to make commerce and constitution secure.
[1] The First Coalition against France was signed in February 1793. It consisted of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Holland. Spain and Sardinia also entered the coalition strengthening Pitt’s belief that the war would not last long.[2] The Second Coalition consisted of Britain, Russia, Austria, Turkey, Portugal and Naples and proved to have even fewer unifying features than the first.[3] Britain had fought a long war with France for dominance in India culminating in the battle of Plassey in 1757 when Robert Clive defeated a combined Indian-French army. Some French settlements remained though they were quickly taken in 1793-1794.[4] The Caribbean was always a graveyard of troops and seamen largely from malaria and yellow fever. Between 1793 and 1801, the British army sent 89,000 men to the Caribbean and lost 70 per cent of them. The total loss for army, navy and transport crew was probably over 100,000.[5] Tipu ‘the Lion’ of Mysore was the cruel, yet enlightened ruler of Mysore. He was strongly pro-French.[6] Horatio, Lord Nelson (1759-1805) was the most successful and popular naval figure during the war. His victories at Aboukir Bay in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801 and Trafalgar in 1805 played a central role in preserving British freedom. His death at Trafalgar achieved mythic proportions.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Recollections of Victorian Birmingham


This book offers readers an absorbing portrait of Birmingham’s nineteenth century. It provides eyewitness accounts of the main events and personalities of the time. These twenty-five autobiographical articles were originally published in the Birmingham Gazette and Express in 1907-9, but have been long forgotten. In bringing them back to attention, the editor provides fascinating glimpses into life in Victorian Birmingham. Who knew that the town famous for brass bedsteads, buttons and glass produced a prize-winning strawberry? Or that a leading politician, wounded at being described as the ugliest man in Birmingham, set out to find a man who was even uglier?

‘Stephen Roberts is an indefatigable and dedicated researcher of Victorian Birmingham. His knowledge is deep and wide-ranging yet he succeeds in sharing his expertise in an accessible and engaging way through his engrossing books and lively talks.’ – Carl Chinn.

Monday, 7 May 2018

What were British foreign interests between 1793 and 1841?

In the fifty-four years before 1793, Britain had fought three major wars with France lasting some twenty-three years. Britain could not ignore France and the threat to European security posed by the expansion of the French Revolution. Lord Auckland declared in Parliament in 1799: ‘The security of Europe is essential to the security of the British Empire’.

What strategies underpinned British foreign policies between 1793 and 1841? Contemporaries identified blue-water or maritime and continental policies. Colonial expansion was in Britain’s economic interest and colonial wars were fought largely for wealth, raw materials and markets. Britain lost the American colonies in 1783 but had already gained Canada and Newfoundland with their furs and fisheries. She was dominant in the Caribbean with its sugar and cotton and in India and was opening trade links with China. However, the key to Britain’s security lay in its continental policies.

Since the loss of Calais in 1558, Britain had no realistic territorial ambitions on the continent. However, her security from invasion and her continental markets meant that Britain needed allies in Europe and be prepared to aid them with subsidies and with force. By doing this, she prevented French expansion especially into the Low Countries where Britain had important interests. The Low Countries provided routes and markets for her exports and the harbours of the Scheldt estuary provided an enemy with invasion bases north of the Straits of Dover. For Pitt, continental markets seemed especially threatened and it was to save Holland that the British government entered the war in January 1793. A balance of power in Europe was central to British foreign policy. It was a necessary for expansion overseas and trade in Europe, and for security at home including security from subversive ideas.

There were important respects in which Britain’s history in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries differed from continental experiences. By the 1790s, Britain was already well advanced industrially and commercially. Economic and population growth meant that Britain was increasingly dependent on international trade for both food and industrial raw materials. Britain had no large army but to protect trade routes Britain felt that she must be supreme at sea. What Britain regarded as the pursuit of a vigorous trading position was seen differently by foreigners. To them it was downright aggressive.

Economic change in Britain had resulted in social transformation, in particular the emergence of an articulate middle-class public opinion. Castlereagh recognised as early as 1820 that public opinion could not be ignored. Canning and Palmerston made conscious efforts to woo and direct public opinion by the publication of the documents explaining their policies and by a judicious use of the press. Public opinion was, however, frequently uninformed, prejudiced and xenophobic. It was firmly convinced of the superiority of Britain and its institutions to other countries in the world. This enabled both Canning and Palmerston to appeal to public sympathy when acting in defence of ‘constitutional states’.

Contemporaries liked to see Britain as the greatest power in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century. This is clearly an overestimation. Commercial interests often compelled Britain to assume a role in the world which politicians did not always seek but in terms of the continent she was always only one among five great powers: Britain, France Aus­tria, Prussia and Russia.[1] It was the ‘balance’ between these five powers that dominated much of Britain’s foreign policies. This ‘Concert of Europe’ became an important concept in the course of the nineteenth century. Initially it meant the coalition against Napoleonic France but gradually it came to define the permanent relationship between the great powers.

Its development and acceptance was, however a slow process. It frequently reverted to being a coalition for specific purposes. In the 1820s, when the government of most Euro­pean countries was in the hands of conservatives, the Concert tended to be the means through which the status quo was maintained. This attitude brought it into conflict with the growth of nationalism. Austria, Russia and Prussia certainly had a more interventionist view of the Concert that Britain. They wished to use it as the basis for the defence of the whole existing structure of society and of ‘legitimate’, by which they meant ‘Conservative’ authority. Britain could agree with this position when it came to the containment of France and was quite prepared to support the Bourbon restoration in 1814. However, the principle of legitimacy did not have the same ideological appeal to the British government as it did to the other European powers. In fact, all the great powers were prepared to depart from the principle when it conflicted with other national interests or ambitions. British statesmen believed that the Congress of Vienna had created a desirable territorial ‘balance of power’[2] in Europe and that peace could be preserved as long as no power threatened it. Conse­quently, there were no permanent blocs of power in this period. France sided with the Eastern Powers over Spain in 1822 but with Britain twelve years later. Britain sided with Russia over the Eastern Question in 1840 but with France against Russia in 1854. All British governments found it inconvenient to seek allies. It was more flexible and more valuable to support a ‘balance of power’ policy in Europe and participate only when that balance seemed threatened by an actual or potential aggressor from among the Great Powers. Pragmatism and the specific interests of the great powers rather than adherence to a particular ideology marked foreign relations after Waterloo.

As far as Britain was concerned, the Congress of Vienna defined the limits of her continental ambitions and, while a general peace was maintained, British trade could expand unhindered. Britain was quite prepared to see the Vienna Settlement altered if its basic aims were still fulfilled. In the 1830s, Britain was prepared to see an independent Belgium as long as its neutrality was guaranteed. Palmerston would have liked to see Austrian influence removed from Italy so long as French ambitions did not fill the political vacuum. By 1841, he clearly regarded some parts of the 1814-1815 Settlement as obsolete but he, like his predecessors at the Foreign Office, did not adopt a ‘revisionist’ approach to European affairs.

British foreign policy throughout the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been criticised for being pragmatic, as it was not based on any long-term ideological or systematic considerations. It is, however, possible to identify two gene­ral principles that did underlie the actions of successive Foreign Secretaries: security and trade. These tended to be implicit in policies, underlining and on occasions determining action. Pitt, Castlereagh, Canning and Palmerston all accepted that they had a responsibility for ensuring that British trade could be carried on throughout as much of the world as possible without interference. Free trade was not simply an economic dogma. It was also seen as a means of achieving international peace. Destructive economic competition--a prime cause of war--would be replaced by trade for mutual advantage.

There was an essential continuity between Britain’s foreign policy before and after 1815. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars did not induce Britain to abandon the balance of power, though it sought to eliminate melding and ineffectiveness. William Pitt provided the foundations for this development in the plans he made for peace, guidelines put into practice by Castlereagh and Canning. Pitt planned for a concert among the Powers to provide a more effective system of European security, with a new distribution of power in order to contain future French aggression and a guarantee between the Powers to maintain it.

[1] The ‘Great Powers’. These were regarded as Britain and France (the ‘Western powers’ with their systems of government based on constitutional monarchies) and Russia, Austria and Prussia (the ‘Eastern powers’ with systems of government based on the absolute power of the ruler).

[2] Balance of power. Contemporaries believed that if the power of the leading states in Europe was ‘balanced’ then expensive and unnecessary wars could be avoided and peace maintained.