The Savage Storm: Britain on the Brink in the Age of Napoleon

Alan Forrest on an account exploring the military, social and political state of Britain as it battled Napoleon's forces

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Reviewed by: Alan Forrest
Author: David Andress
Publisher: Little, Brown
Price (RRP): £25

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Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars was dramatic and eventually triumphant, marking the start of a golden age of empire. In national propaganda Britain liked to present itself as the innocent victim of Napoleon’s unbounded ambition, united in a common mission to defy him. The emperor had made no secret of his animosity towards Britain or his determination to destroy the commercial wealth that lay at the root of its military success; he rightly identified Britain as his most determined enemy and sparked a series of invasion scares that helped stoke the fires of war in London.

Andress’s vivid account of Britain’s history during the war years shows how successive administrations tried to thwart Napoleon’s ambitions by forging alliances, paying coalition partners and opening fronts across Europe and the world, from Holland and the Iberian peninsula to north Africa, North America and the Caribbean. This was a world war, a global conflict with which the British could identify better than the French. But it was a war in which British victory was anything but assured.

This book represents something of a cultural leap for the author, whose previous work has focused on France during the revolution and on the age of revolution across the Atlantic world. But here he is writing from an unambiguously British standpoint, and Napoleon (for whom he professes no liking or admiration) is presented mainly as a threat to British interests, a threat that was relentlessly decried in the press of the war years.

It is, of course, a story that has been told before, and in his analysis of the battles and the tactics employed Andress inevitably draws heavily on previous military historians of the period, especially on Charles Esdaile and Rory Muir, with whose opinions he largely concurs. But that is not to belittle his achievement. He writes movingly about the reality of war, the experience of the common soldier and especially of the sailor – for, in wartime, Britain invested disproportionately heavily in naval defence. Eighteenth-century warfare was often murderous and unrelenting, and the pages in which he describes the gory horror of naval battles like Trafalgar and the Nile are among the most graphic in the book.

What distinguishes The Savage Storm, however, is less its treatment of the British war effort than the fusion of two narratives, the military and the political. Britain may have been united in its desire to defeat Napoleon and to resist invasion, but the country was far from united in other respects. Socially, Britain was deeply divided, with the early stirrings of industrialism and the inauguration of the machine age creating havoc with a traditional artisan culture. Wages were savagely cut, hunger was threatening, and the Luddite riots spread panic among the mill owners and the possessing classes. Dissident voices were met with brutal repression at the hands of the state and the judiciary in an age notable for its draconian code of justice, symbolised by the mass hangings of rioters and machine-breakers at Tyburn and across England. There is little in the social disturbances of these years to suggest the national unity that is implicit in the imagery of John Bull, or in the politicians’ mantra about the ideal political balance which England had supposedly achieved through the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

The Britain depicted here is a country of bitter social tensions and incipient class conflict, a country which, even as it united against Napoleon, was internally at war with itself. The expressions of public rejoicing when the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, was assassinated in May 1812 give a glimpse of the levels of hostility borne towards the political leadership. And the government was surely guilty of a deep-seated cynicism. Throughout the war years, Britain’s leaders used the language of freedom and independence to whip up anti-French sentiment, yet, even as they did so, they furthered the economic and commercial interests of the elite and imposed countless injustices on their own people.

David Andress is surely right to insist that this is a context in which war and politics cannot be seen in isolation, and he shows commendable skill in interweaving the two narratives, the military and the political, to offer a convincing overview of the age.

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Alan Forrest is professor of modern history at the University of York and author of Napoleon (Quercus, 2011)