We Shall Fight on the Beaches: Defying Napoleon and Hitler
Ashley Jackson on a comparison of two episodes in which Britain feared invasion
Reviewed by: Ashley Jackson
Author: Brian Lavery
Price (RRP): £20
In considering the threat of invasion posed by France in 1805 and Germany in 1940, the chapters in this book are grouped thematically – ‘The Threat’, ‘The Civilians’, The Defences’ etc. Each chapter is then divided into sections on the Napoleonic invasion threat followed by sections on the German invasion threat. This leads to great clarity and, as one would expect from such an accomplished historian, offers expert distillation of the facts. But it also means that the magnitude of the threat, and a sense of the unfolding drama, is never adequately conveyed, because there isn’t time to concentrate sufficiently on one case before switching to the other. Consequently, the book suffers, as depth is sacrificed for breadth and a “Meanwhile, back in 1940…” comparative structure adopted.
Having said that, this is a hugely enjoyable and informative read, and Lavery’s deep knowledge of matters relating to British defence makes him an ideal person to deliver such a lively and wide-ranging comparative account. The book offers a detailed picture of the systems of military organisation – fleets, battalions, offices of state – and the forces involved. It explains the defensive systems devised should the invader come, including Martello towers and minefields, and the improvisation that characterised preparations for home defence, including the use of rockets in 1805 and civilian buses in 1940. As the nation braced itself, volunteer units, such as the Sea Fencibles and the Local Defence Volunteers, were recruited. Officials worried in 1940 that over-zealous local commanders might enact scorched earth plans that would have devastated British ports and done much of the Germans’ work for them.
The author effortlessly converts his expertise when explaining military affairs. But the book loses focus as he attempts to provide broad political and social context and parallels between 1805 and 1940. He claims that the parallels are striking, though some might say that they are in fact obvious, given that in both cases Britain was facing cross-Channel invasion from a dictatorship. There are no searing insights, and many of the parallels are prosaic: “What Adolf Hitler had most in common with Napoleon was that both lived in very troubled times”, we learn. “Like the rest of humanity,” one feels like adding. A later chapter is introduced with the underwhelming observation that “the factor that had changed least between 1805 and 1940 was the British coast”. The desire to provide broad context leads to too much lightweight potted history: “British culture was flourishing generally despite the effects of war”, we are rather meaninglessly informed, and Jane Austen and cricket are deployed to explain the class system.
There are then a number of non sequiturs thrown up by the hunt for parallels: “[Air Marshal Charles] Portal was an austere man, though unlike William Pitt he had a happy marriage”.
Brian Lavery is one of Britain’s busiest maritime historians and has written some remarkable books that will stand the test of time. This informative and well-written account might not be one of them, though it will be of great use to non-specialists seeking an overview of the two occasions on which it seemed as if enemy soldiers would land on British soil.
Dr Ashley Jackson is senior lecturer in Defence Studies, King’s College London