Author’s Note: This morning (Sat 9th January, 2021) on Radio 4 I heard ‘On this day in 1799 William Pitt introduced Income Tax for the first time, in order to fund the war against Napoleon.’
Fact: on 9 January 1799 this country was at war with the French Republic, and ‘Napoleon’ was General Bonaparte, in Cairo, superintending the collection of taxes in the newly acquired French protectorate of Egypt.
We are fast approaching from the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death on 5 May, and it is surely time to ditch some of the assumptions inherited from two centuries of prejudice and nationalist narrative.
One I find particularly irritating is the widely held conviction that Napoleon was an incorrigible warmonger who plunged an otherwise peaceful world into conflicts which resulted in untold suffering and the death of hundreds of thousands. One does not have to be an admirer of the man to see the absurdity of this.
Equally absurd is the widespread use of the phrase ‘Napoleonic Wars’ to cover all or most of the hostilities in Europe and its colonies between 1792 and 1815. He did not start them and as soon as he was in a position to do so he did his utmost to put an end to them – on his terms, yes, but has any victorious power ever sought to do otherwise?
To understand what these wars were about it is necessary to go back in time, certainly as far back as the beginning of the eighteenth century, when dynastic chess-games gave way to a Darwinian scramble for survival as stronger powers began to eliminate weaker polities. Two were growing exponentially. To the east, Russia, which moved her frontiers six hundred kilometres into Europe in the space of fifty years. In northern Europe, Prussia, which quadrupled in size. At the centre was the anachronistic Holy Roman Empire, protected by the Habsburg house of Austria, itself vulnerable on account of its fragmentary nature. The only other dominant power on the Continent was France, supported by its Spanish ally, but they were held in check by Britain, with its colonial empire and expansive dominion over the seas, and when revolution broke out in Paris in 1789 France was effectively incapacitated.
At the same time, events in France made monarchs and ministers all over Europe scour their own back yards for potential trouble. As the Revolution developed into a more widespread challenge to the social order, they were drawn together in defence of this. In August 1791 the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and king Frederick William II of Prussia issued a declaration after a meeting at Pillnitz in Saxony in support of the beleaguered Louis XVI. This provoked a surge of revolutionary anger in France which resulted in the declaration of war on the Austrian emperor.
In 1792 a coalition of Austria and Prussia sent an army into France. This was defeated, and further French successes led to the occupation of the Austrian Netherlands, at which point Britain joined the anti-French coalition, along with Sardinia, the United Provinces, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. Britain, which did not have a standing army to hand, subsidised other powers to fight on her behalf. It also funded an army formed out of French émigrés at Coblenz as well as risings in the Vendée and the south of France, at Marseille and Toulon, where the Royal Navy landed troops.
French victories drew revolutionary armies into mostly feudal or oligarchic states, which they overthrew, putting in their place ‘sister republics’ allied to France. At the beginning of 1793 Georges Danton put forward the idea that France had ‘natural’ frontiers designated by the Channel, the Atlantic, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean, the Alps and the Rhine, which implied the inclusion of large areas that had not lain within those of 1789.
The members of the coalition against France had no less selfish, if more diverse, objectives. Austria saw the possibility of increasing its influence and possessions in Italy, as well as helping itself, along with Russia and Prussia, to what remained of Poland. Russia acquired a longed-for naval base in the Mediterranean by occupying the Ionian Islands. Britain seized France’s colonies and those of countries she had occupied. In Italy, the kingdom of Naples leapt at every opportunity to gain territory, even at the expense of the Pope. Prussia helped itself to the British royal family’s fief of Hanover. The war dragged on, as it suited all parties in various ways – even the French Directory since its spoils provided finance, it deflected attention from its own failings and kept ambitious generals such as Moreau, Pichegru, Augereau and Bonaparte busy far away from Paris.
When he did seize power, Bonaparte wrote to George III and the emperor Francis II offering to make peace, and instructed his foreign minister to write to French diplomats at every court in Europe expressing France’s desire to end the war. These overtures were rebuffed (to some satisfaction on his part since the war was convenient as he consolidated his position). He repeated his offers of peace to Austria after defeating, at Marengo in 1800, her attempt to invade southern France. But it was only following the defeat of his other army at Hohenlinden that the Austrian emperor came to terms. The Treaty of Lunéville in February 1801 brought the nine-year war between France and Austria to an end.
Its terms were painful for Austria, which lost territory and was forced to accept a considerable extension of French influence by recognising France’s incorporation of Piedmont and the existence of the French-dominated Batavian, Helvetic and Cisalpine republics. An additional humiliation for the emperor was having to allow Napoleon into the process of rearranging the Holy Roman Empire necessitated by France’s annexation of its territories west of the Rhine.
As the anti-French coalition unravelled, the Kingdom of Naples made peace, ceding the island of Elba to France and closing its ports to British shipping. Bonaparte then turned his attention to Russia. Tsar Paul I had grown disenchanted with his allies and particularly with Britain, whose navy policed his ships in a high-handed way, and he combined with Prussia, Sweden and Denmark to form the League of Neutrals to close the Baltic to British shipping. In Bonaparte, Paul saw a potential ally and at the beginning of March 1801 he ordered the British ambassador to leave St Petersburg, but on the night of 23 March he was assassinated in his bedroom. On 2 April the Royal Navy bombarded Copenhagen and the League of Neutrals rapidly unwound, the new tsar Alexander I making peace with Britain in June.
Britain was still unbeaten and in possession of many French and Dutch colonies, as well as Malta. But with no proxies left on the European mainland and confronted with unrest at home and the crisis over the Act of Union, Prime Minister Pitt resigned, to be replaced by Henry Addington, who opened negotiations with France. Preliminaries of peace were signed in London on 1 October 1801 and a treaty was signed at Amiens on 25 March 1802. By 25 June, when a treaty was concluded with The Porte, France was not at war with anyone for the first time in ten years. So, the only Napoleonic aspect to that decade of hostilities is that he brought them to an end.
In Britain, the peace was seen by many as little more than a truce from the start. There had been five treaties signed between the two countries since 1697, and only one had lasted more than ten years. Whether Bonaparte saw it as a truce or not is impossible to tell.
He set about consolidating France’s position in Europe, within the letter if not the spirit of the treaties he had contracted, and reasserting her authority over the colonies which the Treaty of Amiens had returned to her. He was unyielding on lesser points which in the hurry to conclude peace had been left for future resolution, and made no move to negotiate the trade treaty which was of the greatest importance to Britain.
Bonaparte may not have been a great economist, but he did grasp one thing: whether they were formally at peace or not, France and Britain were locked in economic conflict. In peacetime British manufactures goods undercut French ones, hurting France’s industries, particularly the important textile sector. Mindful of the catastrophic effect on the French textile industry following the treaty of 1783, which had opened French markets to British imports, he protected it with tariffs on British imports.
Enraged at Bonaparte’s behaviour, Britain attacked and then declared war. Russia, Austria and Naples were drawn into a new coalition, funded by British cash, as was a conspiracy by French royalist agents to assassinate Napoleon. He responded by defeating the armies sent against him, at Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, Auerstadt and finally Friedland, as well as in Italy. He made peace with his enemies on the Continent, imposing draconian terms on Austria and Prussia, and removing the Bourbons from the throne of Naples, which he gave to his brother Joseph. He did not make peace with Britain as, buoyed by Nelson’s destruction of the French and Spanish fleets off Trafalgar, she remained impregnable and defiant. However distasteful his behaviour might appear to some, it is certainly not the case that Napoleon either willed or initiated this round of hostilities.
The French hegemony he imposed on much of Europe was unacceptable to many, but only because it put paid to their own ambitions. Austria’s attempt in 1809 to avenge Austerlitz and recoup her losses by attacking while Napoleon’s attention and forces were absorbed by Spain was an act of open aggression and its bloody harvest at Eckmuhl, Aspern-Essling and Wagram cannot be laid at Napoleon’s door.
His intervention in Spain was certainly an act of aggression, but against whom is difficult to say since the country’s rulers effectively invited him in. And no other power would have tolerated any more than France could the existence of a failing state on its border whose weakness the British were likely to exploit. Napoleon’s greatest sin where Spain was concerned was to make such a mess of things and leave it to his brother and a set of bickering marshals to sort out.
His invasion of Russia in 1812 is frequently cited as capital evidence of his lust for conquest and callous warmongering, yet placed in context it is anything but. The overwhelming evidence is that he had no wish to go to war, did not want to fight the Tsar and certainly had no desire for Russian territory. What he did want was Alexander to honour the terms of the Treaty of Tilsit. This Alexander would not do as they hurt Russian pride as well as her economy. The tsar made no bones of the fact that he intended to go to war himself, in order to overthrow France’s hegemony over Europe, and if possible remove Napoleon himself from the throne. He effectively challenged Napoleon, who had put himself in a position from which he could not retreat without losing face. As the Russian historian Mikhail Nikolaevich Pokrovsky put it, the invasion was ‘an act of necessary self-defence’ on the part of Napoleon.*
The one instance in which Napoleon chose war over peace – to his own detriment – was in 1813, when he could have prevented Austria from joining Russia and Prussia in alliance against him by making a few relatively minor concessions. His fear of appearing weak and losing face at home, as well as a lingering delusional faith in his ‘star’ inclined him to seek resolution on the battlefield.
His return from Elba and the Waterloo campaign are also often cited as evidence of his incorrigible lust for war. Yet his motives were certainly not aggressive. Deprived of the funds he was supposed to receive under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he would not be able to survive in any comfort on the island for more than a couple of years, let alone defend himself, while he knew that the allies who had congregated at the Congress of Vienna had already decided to remove him to a more secure prison. His supporters in France suggested that he would have no trouble in recovering his throne, which turned out to be the case, and he hoped that if he promised to abide by the Treaty of Paris and confine himself to ruling within the borders fixed by that, he might be allowed to reign in peace. It was the allies who, rightly or wrongly, declared him an outlaw and went to war. His mistake was to go out to head them off.
Whatever one may think of Napoleon and however distasteful one might judge his actions and utterances, to view him as the warmonger responsible for the death of millions is historically untenable.
* See Mikhail Nikolaevich Pokrovsky, Russkaia Istoria s Drievnieshikh Vremeni, 5 vols., Moscow 1910-13, vol. III/181-193.