Modern history



WILLIAM PITT’S SUCCESSORS WERE STAUNCH IN THE PROSECUTION OF war, but even less adept at it than he. The three years between the death of Pitt in January 1806 and the rise of Wellington in 1809 were uncheered by fortune. England’s military strength was wasted in unfruitful expeditions to the fringes of the Mediterranean coastline. One small victory was won at Maida, in the Kingdom of Naples. There the rush of French attack was first broken by steady British infantry. Accounts of the battle reached Sir Arthur Wellesley in England, and fortified his views on how to meet the French in the field. But Maida was of no strategic consequence. An ambitious plan to gain a permanent foothold in the Spanish colonies of South America led to the temporary occupation of Buenos Aires and the ultimate loss of valuable forces. Thanks to the Fleet, the sea lanes of the world remained open, and in Europe the important islands of Sicily and Sardinia were kept from Napoleon’s grasp.

In 1806 and 1807 there was a brief Ministry of “All the Talents” under Lord Grenville. The talent was largely provided by the Whigs, now in office for the first time since 1783 and the last until 1830. Over twenty years of divorce from power had had an insidious and lowering effect upon the party. Their organisation and their programme dissolved in the perplexed bickering of their leaders. The renewal of the European conflict quenched the hopes of Parliamentary reform, upon which they had taken their stand in the early 1790’s. The rise of Napoleon destroyed their chance of effective opposition to the war. They had maintained a straggling and futile fire against the strategic proposals of the Government. They hoped now to lift some of the restrictions upon Roman Catholics, for they were much oppressed by the problem of Ireland. But in this they failed. The Secretary of State for War, William Windham, produced admirable paper reforms of the Army. He introduced short-time service, with increased pay. Abolishing the local militia he passed a Training Act, which made universal military service compulsory. The manhood of England would be called to the colours in batches of two hundred thousand at a time. This was a striking piece of legislation. But in practical administration Windham was less successful. “He is a most wretched man of business,” remarked Wilberforce. “No precision or knowledge of details even in his own measures.” The Government’s tenure of office was redeemed by Fox’s abolition of the slave trade, a measure which ranks among the greatest of British achievements, and from which Pitt had always shrunk. It was Fox’s last effort. For forty years his warm-hearted eloquence had inspired the Whigs. Almost his whole Parliamentary life was spent in Opposition. He died as Secretary of State, nine months after his great rival, Pitt, had gone to the grave.

In 1807 the Whigs fell. They were succeeded by a mixed Government of Tory complexion under the nominal leadership of the Duke of Portland. Its object was to hold together the loyalties of as much of the nation as it could command. In this it was remarkably successful. New figures were appearing in the Tory ranks, trained by Pitt in the daily business of government. George Canning, Spencer Perceval, Viscount Castlereagh, were reaching out for power. Politics centred on the conduct of the War Office and on the personal enmity and rivalry of Canning and Castlereagh. These restless spirits soon impelled the Government to discard the strategies of William Pitt. Active participation in the military and naval struggle for Europe became the order of the day.


Speed was essential, for Napoleon was reaching the height of his career. At Austerlitz he had struck down Russia and Austria. He was already master of the Netherlands, Italy, and the states of the Rhine.

At Jena, a year later, he had broken Prussia. He became master of the whole country. For the next seven years French garrisons held Berlin and all important Prussian places. The Czar was still in the field, but in June 1807 the Russian Army was defeated on the Eylau River. There followed the reconciliation of Napoleon and Alexander. On a raft upon the Niemen, with their armies gathered on either bank, the two Emperors met and embraced. Peace was made between them. And not only peace, but alliance. Alexander, estranged from England by the paltry support he had received, yielded himself to Napoleon’s spell. The two potentates planned Europe according to their common interests. Alexander had his moments of revolt. When he reviewed the French Army and at Napoleon’s side watched the Old Guard march past he was struck by the scars and wounds which many of these veterans bore. “And where are the soldiers who have given these wounds?” he exclaimed to Ney. “Sire, they are dead.”

The Franco-Russian Alliance, signed at Tilsit on July 7, was the culmination of Napoleon’s power. He dominated all Europe. The Emperor of Austria was a cowed and obsequious satellite. The King of Prussia and his handsome queen were beggars, and almost captives in his train. Napoleon’s brothers reigned as Kings at the Hague, at Naples, and in Westphalia. His step-son ruled Northern Italy in his name. Spain lent itself to his system, trusting that worse might not befall. Denmark and Scandinavia made haste to obey. Russia, the great counterpoise, had swung over to his side. Only Britannia remained, unreconciled, unconquered, implacable. There she lay in her Island, mistress of the seas and oceans, ruled by her proud, stubborn aristocracy, facing this immense combination alone, sullen, fierce, and almost unperturbed. Some anxious merchants and manufacturers complained of the British blockade, which materially affected their interests. They stirred up Whig politicians to denounce it. But the Government was founded on land, not trade, and turned a deaf ear. Nevertheless Britain owed much of the power that was to bring her victory to her growing industrial supremacy. Industry knew this. The seeds were now sown for a crop of post-war troubles in which industry was to demand a greater share in the councils of the nation. But for the time being patriotism healed all, or nearly all. It was against this contumacious land, which marred and derided the unity of Europe and challenged the French peace, that Napoleon now directed his whole strength. To venture upon salt water, except for cruiser raids on commerce, was to be sunk or captured. The British blockade wrapped the French Empire and Napoleon’s Europe in a clammy shroud. No trade, no coffee, no sugar, no contact with the East, or with the Americans! And no means of ending the deadlock! Napoleon had believed that the marshalling of all Europe under his hands would force England to make terms. But no response came from the Island, which throve upon seaborne trade, and whose ruling classes seemed to take as much interest in prizefighting and fox-hunting as in the world crisis.


Grave and threatening news was conveyed to London from the raft where the two Emperors had met upon the river Niemen. An English secret agent reported that an arrangement had been reached whereby Napoleon was to seize the Danish Fleet and gain control of the entrance to the Baltic. This was to be a preliminary to a joint invasion of England with the help of the Russians. The Cabinet acted with praiseworthy decision. Admiral Gambier was immediately ordered to enter the Baltic with twenty ships of the line and procure, by force if necessary, the surrender of the Danish Fleet. After a heavy action in the harbour of Copenhagen the Danes yielded to this humiliation. This act of aggression against a neutral state aroused a storm against the Government in Whig political and literary circles. But events vindicated the promptitude and excused the violence of their action. Two days after the British Fleet left home waters Napoleon had informed the Danish Minister in Paris that if England were to refuse Russian mediation in the Great War Denmark would be forced to choose sides. Had the British Government not acted with speed the French would have been in possession of the Danish Navy within a few weeks.

At the War Office Castlereagh was busy attempting to reorganise the Regular Army. This was done by drastic and immediate legislation. Thirty thousand men were drawn from the local militia, which had been restored, and formed into regular regiments, and provision was made to raise forty-four thousand recruits for the militia to take their place in home defence.

Secure throughout the rest of Europe, Napoleon turned his attention to the Spanish Peninsula. Powerless at sea, he realised that to destroy his one outstanding rival he must turn the weapon of blockade against the Island. English goods must be kept out of the markets of Europe by an iron ring of customs guards stretching from the borders of Russia round the coasts of Northern Europe and Western France and sealing the whole Mediterranean coastline as far as the Dardanelles. Napoleon proclaimed his policy from Berlin. It was a land blockade of sea-power. The weakest link in the immense barrier of French troops and customs officers was the Peninsula of Spain. To complete this amazing plan it was essential to control not only Spain, but also Portugal, the traditional ally of Britain, whose capital, Lisbon, was an important potential base for the British Fleet.

The crucial point therefore lay in the Peninsula. Slowly the minds of English Ministers turned to this theatre of coming war. Napoleon was determined to strike through Spain at Lisbon before the British Fleet could sail southwards. Canning, in charge at the Foreign Office, displayed the energy of youth. An English squadron sailed to the Tagus, collected the Portuguese ships, and packed off the Portuguese royal family, Government, and society to the safety of Brazil. A few days later Marshal Junot entered the Portuguese capital, and the following day Napoleon declared war on the country he had just occupied.

France and Britain were now locked in their deadliest grip. In reply to Napoleon’s Continental System the British Government issued an Order in Council declaring a sea blockade of all French and French-allied ports—in other words, of almost the whole of Europe. Napoleon’s decrees and the English Orders wounded the merchant shipping of the neutral countries. The results of this trade war were far-reaching for both sides. The commerce of Europe was paralysed and the nations stirred beneath the French yoke. Interference by British ships with neutral vessels raised with the United States the question of the freedom of the seas. It was a grievous dispute, not to be settled without recourse to war.

Napoleon, insatiable of power, and seeking always to break England and her intangible blockade, resolved to seize the Spanish crown. He enticed King Charles IV of Spain and his son Ferdinand into a trap at Bayonne, and under the threat of a firing squad compelled them to sign documents of abdication. He placed his own brother Joseph on the throne of Spain as a vassal of the French Empire. He was overjoyed with the success of this violence. “Spanish opinion bends to my will. Tranquillity is everywhere reestablished,” he wrote to Cambacérès; and to his Foreign Secretary Talleyrand on May 16, 1807, “The Spanish business goes well and will soon be entirely settled.” But, happily for human freedom, things are not so easy as that. As soon as the Spaniards realised what had happened and that their country was practically annexed to France they rose everywhere in spontaneous revolt. Between May 24 and 30 in every hamlet and village throughout the Peninsula they took up what arms they could find and set out for the capital of the province or their local centre, where the same process was already working on a larger scale. Nothing like this universal uprising of a numerous, ancient race and nation, all animated by one thought, had been seen before. The tiny province of Asturias, on the Biscayan shore, separated by the mountains from the rest of Spain, knowing nothing of what the rest were doing, drove out the French governor, seized the arsenal with booty of a hundred thousand muskets, constituted itself an independent Government, declared war upon Napoleon at the height of his greatness, and sent their envoys to England to appeal for alliance and aid. The envoys landed at Falmouth on the night of June 6, and were conveyed by the admiralty to Canning. Canning understood. From that moment the Peninsular War began. For the first time the forces unchained by the French Revolution, which Napoleon had disciplined and directed, met, not kings or Old World hierarchies, but a whole population inspired by the religion and patriotism which Joan of Arc had tried in vain to teach to France, and now Spain was to teach to Europe.

The character of the warfare darkened. In Germany and Italy and elsewhere there had been pillage and rough deeds, but the armies had given quarter and the inhabitants had remained spectators. Now, in Spain, the French troops found as they marched the corpses of their stragglers and wounded, often horribly mutilated, sometimes bearing signs of torture. It was with a chill that they realised they were at grips with a foe who, though incompetent in a set battle, neither gave nor sought mercy. Moreover, this foe lay everywhere. In July King Joseph wrote to Napoleon from Madrid, “No one has told the truth so far. The fact is that there is not a single Spaniard who is for me except the few who came here with me. All are terrorised by the unanimous feelings of their compatriots”; and he called for “plenty of troops and money.” The Emperor was very slow to measure the force of the Spanish revolt. He had been warring in Europe for fifteen years, and he thought he understood the sort of things that happened and their values. He conceived himself a liberator, as indeed he was in many parts of the Continent. He could not understand a people who preferred misgovernment of their own making to rational rule imposed from without. Now, at the end of July, news reached him at the Tuileries of an event in Spain, grave in itself, and menacing to the whole structure of his power.

General Dupont, withdrawing to Madrid from Cordova, had been entangled and brought to a standstill at Baylen, in Andalusia. In the burning summer he had to fight for water, and, not gaining it, surrendered to the Spanish insurgents with twenty-two thousand French soldiers. This was a new event in Europe since the Revolutionary wars began. Napoleon felt himself smitten in a manner deadly to his system. The capitulation of Baylen compelled the evacuation of Madrid. The French army, carrying King Joseph with them, withdrew to the north-east behind the Ebro. Marshal Junot, in Portugal, whose people had likewise risen en masse, was isolated by hundreds of miles of hostile country and by the salt seas where Britain ruled, and from which she could strike. Napoleon felt in every nerve and fibre the tremor which ran through Europe and jarred the foundations of his Imperial throne. Here and now he was strong enough to quit Spain; his power would still have been enormous; but he feared to retreat from a false and dangerous position. He must move, like all dictators, from one triumph to another. This country, which he had expected to incorporate in his Empire by a personal arrangement with a feeble Government, by a trick, by a trap, without bloodshed or expense, suddenly became his main military problem. He resolved to conquer. He reached out to Germany and drew the flower of his armies to the South. He prepared to fill their places by anticipating the conscription of the year 1809 and moved a hundred and sixty thousand recruits through his depots, gradually forward to their posts in Germany and through Austria, about whose attitude he already felt misgivings. The veterans marched through France into Spain. Their journey was made agreeable. They were officially fêted and feasted in all the French towns through which they passed. The soldiers were cheered by the kindness of the people. The people were impressed by the spectacle of the Emperor’s glorious army.

But meanwhile the English had struck a shrewd blow. Canning and his colleagues decided to send an army to the Peninsula to aid the Spanish insurgents. But as the Juntas of Galicia and Andalusia were not as yet willing to accept foreign troops the expedition was sent to Portugal, and in July 1808 disembarked north of Lisbon in the Mondego River. This small British army consisted of thirty thousand well-equipped men. At the head of the first troops to land appeared Sir Arthur Wellesley, whose conduct of the Mahratta war in India had been distinguished. He had gained the Battle of Assaye. He was the younger brother of the Governor-General of India. He was a member of Parliament and of the Tory administration, and actually held office at this time as Chief Secretary to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. He did not wait for the rest of the army, but immediately took the field. At the combat at Roliça Junot received a sharp repulse. At Vimeiro this was repeated on a larger scale. The French columns of assault were broken by the reserved fire of the “thin red line,” which now began to attract attention. Junot retreated upon Lisbon.

Sir Arthur Wellesley was superseded in the moment of victory by the arrival of Sir Harry Burrard, who later in the same day made over his command to Sir Hew Dalrymple. Wellesley’s wish to seize the pass of Torres Vedras and thus cut Junot’s line of retreat was frustrated by his seniors. But the French commander now sent Kellerman to the British camp to negotiate. He offered to evacuate Portugal if the British would carry him back to France. The Convention of Cintra was signed, and punctiliously executed by the British. Junot and twenty-six thousand Frenchmen were landed from British transports at Rochefort. Wellesley in dudgeon remarked to his officers, “We can now go and shoot red-legged partridges.” There was a loud and not unnatural outcry in England at Junot’s being freed. A military court of inquiry in London exonerated the three commanders, but only one of them was ever employed again.

He was the one that mattered:

Sir Arthur and Sir Harry,

Sir Harry and Sir Hew,

Sing cock-a-doodle doodle,


Sir Arthur was a fighting cock,

But of the other two

Sing doodle-doodle-doodle,


Napoleon had intended to court-martial Junot, but as the English were trying their own generals he declared himself glad not to have to proceed against an old friend. History has endorsed Byron’s line, “Britannia sickens, Cintra! At thy name.”

Napoleon now moved a quarter of a million of his best troops into Spain. While the Grand Army was gathering behind the Ebro he organised a mighty display. At Erfurt an imposing reunion of all his tributaries and allies was convened. Thirty-eight princes and rulers assembled at the Emperor’s call. When the Czar arrived Napoleon sought to inflame his mind with schemes of a Franco-Russian march to Constantinople and beyond along the historic route to India. Alexander was still fascinated by Napoleon’s personality. He liked to dream of world conquest with him. But he was also vexed by the large garrisons Napoleon kept on the Oder. Talleyrand, by subtle whispers, betrayed Napoleon’s interest, urging the Czar to unite himself with France rather than with its Emperor. All passed off with pomp and splendour. Alexander and Napoleon kissed each other before the august circle. But Erfurt was only a hollow echo of Tilsit.

The moment had now come for Napoleon to take command on the Ebro. An avalanche of fire and steel broke upon the Spanish Juntas, who, with ninety thousand raw but ardent volunteers, had nursed a brief illusion of freedom regained. The Emperor advanced upon Madrid, driving the Spanish army before him in a series of routs, in which the French cavalry took pitiless vengeance. He astonished his personal staff by his violent energy. Always with the leading troops, he forced the fighting, even at Somo Sierra making his own bodyguard charge the batteries, regardless of loss. In December he entered Madrid, and replaced Joseph, who had hitherto followed with the baggage-train, upon the stolen throne. But the Spanish people were undaunted, and all around the camps of the victorious invaders flickered a horrible guerrilla.


A new English general of high quality had succeeded the commanders involved in the Convention of Cintra. Sir John Moore advanced from Lisbon through Salamanca to Valladolid. He had been lured by promises of powerful Spanish assistance, and he tried by running great risks to turn Spanish hopes into reality. His daring thrust cut or threatened the communications of all the French armies, and immediately prevented any French action in the south of Spain or against Portugal. But Napoleon, watching from Madrid, saw him a prey. At Christmas 1808, with fifty thousand men, with Ney, Soult, and the Old Guard, he marched to intercept and destroy him. On foot with his soldiers Napoleon tramped through the snows of the Guadarrama. He moved with amazing speed. Moore, warned in time, and invoking amphibious power, dropped his communications with Portugal and ordered his transports to meet him at Corunna, on the northwest tip of Spain. It was a race; but when the French horse crossed the Rio Seco they were hurled back, and their general captured, by the cavalry of the English rearguard. Moore had already passed Astorga and was half-way to his haven.

At Astorga the Emperor sat down on the parapet of a bridge to read dispatches brought apace from the capital. After a few moments he rose, and stood absorbed in thought. Then, ordering up his travelling coach, he handed over the pursuit of the British to Soult, and, without offering any explanation to his officers, set off for Valladolid and Paris. He had known for some months that the Austrian armies were assembling and he must expect an Austrian declaration of war, but his summons home was more intimate. His brother, Lucien, and his step-son, Eugène de Beauharnais, warned him of an intrigue, or even plot, against him by Talleyrand and Fouché, his Minister of Police. Besides, there was now no chance of cutting off the British. The pursuit had become a stern chase. Soult and Ney could have it.

The retreat of the British through the rugged, snow-bound hill country was arduous. The French pressed heavily. Scenes of mass drunkenness where wine stores were found, pillage, stragglers dying of cold and hunger, and the Army chest of gold flung down a precipice to baffle capture darkened the British track. But when, at Lugo, Moore turned and offered battle his army showed so firm a posture that for two days Soult, although already superior, awaited reinforcements. It was now resolved to slip away in the night to Corunna, where the army arrived on January 14, 1809. But the harbour was empty. Contrary winds had delayed the Fleet and transports. There would be a battle after all. On the 16th Soult assaulted Moore with 20,000 against 14,000. He was everywhere repulsed, and indeed counter-attacked. When darkness fell the pursuers had had enough. But both Sir John Moore and his second-in-command, Sir David Baird, had fallen on the field. Moore’s death and burial have been recorded in famous prose and verse.

“From the spot where he fell,” wrote Napier, who fought in the action,

the General was carried to the town by a party of soldiers. The blood flowed fast, and the torture of his wound increased; but such was the unshaken firmness of his mind that those about him, judging from the resolution of his countenance that his hurt was not mortal, expressed a hope of his recovery. Hearing this, he looked steadfastly at the injury for a moment, and then said, “No, I feel that to be impossible.” Several times he caused his attendants to stop and turn him round, that he might behold the field of battle, and when the firing indicated the advance of the British he discovered his satisfaction and permitted the bearers to proceed. Being brought to his lodgings, the surgeons examined his wound, but there was no hope; the pain increased and he spoke with great difficulty. At intervals he asked if the French were beaten, and, addressing his old friend, Colonel Anderson, he said, “You know that I always wished to die this way.” Again he asked if the enemy were defeated, and being told they were, observed, “It is a great satisfaction to me to know we have beaten the French.” His countenance continued firm and his thoughts clear; once only, when he spoke of his mother, he became agitated. He inquired after the safety of his friends, and the officers of his staff, and he did not even in this moment forget to recommend those whose merit had given them claims to promotion. His strength was failing fast, and life was just extinct, when, with an unsubdued spirit, as if anticipating the baseness of his posthumous calumniators, he exclaimed, “I hope the people of England will be satisfied. I hope my country will do me justice.” The battle was scarcely ended when his corpse, wrapped in a military cloak, was interred by the officers of his staff in the citadel of Corunna. The guns of the enemy paid him funeral honours, and Soult, with a noble feeling of respect for his valour, raised a monument to his memory.1

Moore’s countrymen may well do him justice. By daring, skill, and luck he had ruptured Napoleon’s winter campaign and had drawn the Emperor and his finest army into the least important part of Spain, thus affording protection and time for movements to get on foot in all the rest of the Peninsula. He had escaped Napoleon’s amazing forward spring and clutch. He died like Wolfe and Nelson, in the hour of victory. His army re-embarked unmolested. His campaign had restored the military reputation of Britain, which had suffered increasing eclipse since the days of Chatham; he had prepared the way for a new figure, destined to lead the armies of Europe upon the decisive field.


The return of the Emperor to Paris recalled his servants to their treacherous allegiance. He had now to face war with Austria. For this purpose he made demands upon the manhood and youth of France, already drained by so many years of glory, which shocked his counsellors. He drew the class of 1810 to the colours; he compelled the leading families to send their sons to the military colleges from the age of sixteen upwards. He brought some troops back from Spain, and in April, having a flow of life filling his ranks or training on behind him to the number of two hundred and forty thousand men, he marched against Austria. High authorities consider that the opening phase of the campaign of 1809 in the Danube valley ranks among the finest examples of military genius. He found his marshals ill-connected and in disarray. As he approached the front he sent his orders before him to the various corps. In what has been called the Battle of the Five Days—at Thann, Abensberg, Landshut, Eckmühl, and Ratisbon—he unfolded a single theme of war, which at every stage corrected the faulty dispositions into which his subordinates had drifted and was marked each day by a fresh and fruitful victory. The centre of the long Austrian front was pierced, and its fragments retreated with heavy losses. For the second time he entered Vienna at the head of his troops.

But he had not yet disposed of the Austrian army. When he attempted to cross the Danube at Aspern-Essling a sudden rise of the river broke his bridges and he narrowly escaped a decisive defeat at the hands of the Archduke Charles, ablest of the Austrian commanders. In the wooded island of Lobau he lay crouched for six weeks while he gathered reinforcements from every conceivable quarter of his Empire. Meanwhile the Czar, nominally his ally, trembled upon the verge of coming in against him. On July 4 he sallied out from his island and forced the passage of the Danube in the immense Battle of Wagram. Nearly four hundred thousand men fought on this field, and forty thousand fell. Europe was stunned. The Czar Alexander hastened to send his congratulations, and Austria submitted again to the conqueror’s sword.

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