Modern history



IN ENGLAND THE WHIGS, AND ESPECIALLY THE REFORMERS AND Radicals, had at first welcomed the French Revolution. They were soon repelled by its excesses. Eighteenth-century London was not without experience of popular upheavals. But in the Wilkes agitations and the riots of 1780 led by Lord George Gordon the law had always gained the upper hand over the mob. Now France gave a frightful demonstration of what happens when the social forces unleashed by reformers break free from all control. Most Englishmen recoiled in horror. In the House of Commons Fox alone, in the broad optimism of his mind, spoke out for the Revolution as long as he conscientiously could. For this he was vehemently attacked by his former friend and ally, Burke, and the number of his faithful followers among the Opposition diminished. In the country similar feelings prevailed. Liberty-loving young men had enthusiastically applauded the events of 1789. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” Wordsworth wrote. Other poets and writers of the fertile new Romantic Movement shared his views. A few years later most of them were disillusioned. Some groups of scientists and political thinkers with progressive opinions also gave their allegiance, as they have done in our own day, to foreign revolutionary ideas. At the meetings of their societies they toasted the Fourteenth of July and the French Constitution. But they were only a small leaven amid the solid English Conservative mass. More dangerous were the Radical working-men’s clubs which were springing up in the principal towns, generally under middle-class leadership. They kept up a close correspondence with the Jacobins in Paris, and fraternal delegates were sent to the National Assembly and its successor, the Convention. These agitators formed a small but vociferous minority of the British public, and eventually the Government took drastic action against them.

Such was the scene in Britain as the idea of world revolution gathered force in Paris. The unprovoked massacre of political prisoners by the new rulers of France in 1792 was a further shock to the faith of many would-be revolutionaries in the United Kingdom. The execution of the French King in January 1793 was a supreme act of defiance. In his celebrated speech Danton summarised the French Revolutionary attitude: “Allied kings threaten us, and we hurl at their feet as a gage of battle the head of a king.” Marat cried, “We must establish the despotism of liberty to crush the despotism of kings.” The French Republican armies were a threat not only to the Austrian and Prussian enemy, but also to their own Government. It was essential that they should be kept in the field. As a Girondin Minister put it frankly, “Peace is out of the question. We have three hundred thousand men in arms. We must make them march as far as their legs will carry them, or they will return and cut our throats.”

In his Budget speech of 1792 Pitt had announced that he believed in fifteen years of peace for Europe. Non-intervention was his policy. Something more vital to Britain than a massacre of aristocrats or a speech in the Convention, something more concrete than a threat of world revolution, had to happen before he would face the issue of war. The spark, as so often in England’s history, came from the Netherlands. By November the French decree instructing their generals to pursue the retreating Austrians into any country in which they might take refuge was a clear threat to the neutrality of Holland. A second pronouncement declared the navigation of the Scheldt open between Antwerp and the sea. A week later French men-of-war were bombarding the citadel of Antwerp, and on November 28 the city fell into French hands. The whole delicate balance of eighteenth-century international politics was deranged.

In a note to the French Ambassador on December 31 Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary, stated the position of His Majesty’s Government in words which have ever since been accepted as a classic exposition of English foreign policy:

England will never consent that France shall arrogate the power of annulling at her pleasure, and under the pretence of a pretended natural right, of which she makes herself the only judge, the political system, established by solemn treaties, and guaranteed by the consent of all the Powers. This Government, adhering to the maxims which it has followed for more than a century, will also never see with indifference that France shall make herself, either directly or indirectly, sovereign of the Low Countries, or general arbiter of the rights and liberties of Europe. If France is really desirous of maintaining friendship and peace with England she must show herself disposed to renounce her views of aggression and aggrandisement, and to confine herself within her own territory, without insulting other Governments, without disturbing their tranquillity, without violating their rights.

On the last day of January 1793 the French Convention, with Danton’s defiant speech in their ears, decreed the annexation of the Austrian Netherlands to the French Republic. The next day France declared war on Great Britain and Holland, firm in the belief that an internal revolution in England was imminent. Pitt now had no choice. English security was imperilled by French occupation of the Flemish coast, and particularly the Scheldt estuary. Trade with the Continent would be endangered, and the English Channel was no longer safe. But for this deliberate provocation from Paris, Pitt might have avoided the issue a little longer. But now, with the Southern Netherlands in French hands and with world revolution in view, the threat was direct and inescapable.

In a speech in the House of Commons in March Pitt in sorrow produced his first proposals for war finance and outlined the causes of the conflict.

Many are the motives which have induced us to enter into war. I have heard of wars of honour; and such too have been deemed wars of prudence and policy. On the present occasion whatever can raise the feelings or animate the exertions of a people concurs to prompt us to the contest. The contempt which the French have shown for a neutrality on our part most strictly observed; the violations of their solemn and plighted faith; their presumptuous attempts to interfere in the government of this country and to arm our subjects against ourselves; to vilify a monarch, the object of our gratitude, reverence, and affection; and to separate the Court from the people, by representing them as influenced by different motives and acting from different interests. After provocation so wanton, so often repeated, and so highly aggravated, does not this become, on our part, a war of honour; a war necessary to assert the spirit of the nation and the dignity of the British name? I have heard of wars undertaken for the general security of Europe; was it ever so threatened as by the progress of the French arms and the system of ambition and aggrandisement which they have discovered? I have heard of wars for the defence of the Protestant religion: our enemies in this instance are equally enemies of all religion—of Lutheranism, of Calvinism; and desirous to propagate everywhere, by the force of their arms, that system of infidelity which they avow in their principles. I have heard of wars undertaken in defence of the lawful succession; but now we fight in defence of our hereditary monarchy. We are at war with those who would destroy the whole fabric of our Constitution. When I look at these things they afford me encouragement and consolation, and support me in discharging the painful task to which I am now called by my duty. The retrospect to that flourishing state in which we were placed previous to this war ought to teach us to know the value of the present order of things and to resist the malignant and envious attempts of those who would deprive us of that happiness which they despair themselves to attain. We ought to remember that that very prosperous situation at the present crisis supplies us with the exertions and furnishes us with the means which our exigencies demand. In such a cause as that in which we are now engaged I trust that our exertions will terminate only with our lives. On this ground I have brought forward the resolutions which I am now to propose; and on this ground I now trust for your support.

Britain was to be at war for over twenty years, and was now confronted with the task of making a major war effort, with her armed forces more crippled, perhaps, than at anytime before by lack of equipment, leaders, and men. The conditions of service and the administration of the Army and Navy were so appalling that it is wonderful that anything was achieved at all. Pitt himself knew nothing of war or strategy, and the conduct of military affairs fell largely upon Henry Dundas, who was first and foremost a business man. In the old tradition of the eighteenth century he advocated a colonial and trade war, which would be popular among the mercantile classes and produce some commercial returns. For several years British resources were dissipated in ill-manned and ill-planned expeditions to the West Indies. It was with the greatest difficulty that any men could be raised for these mistaken enterprises.

If Britain had possessed even a small effective army it would not have been difficult, in concert with allies moving from the Rhine, to strike from the French coast at Paris and overthrow the Government responsible for provoking the conflict. But Pitt was barely able to send five thousand men to help his Dutch allies protect their frontiers from invasion. The campaigning which followed was no credit to British arms. An attempt to take Dunkirk ended lamentably. By 1795 the British forces on the Continent were driven back upon the mouth of the Ems on the German border, whence they were evacuated home. Great hopes had been founded in London upon the French Royalists, who launched daring schemes to arrest the Revolution by civil war in France. In 1793 they seized Toulon, and but for the fact that Dundas had already assigned all available troops to the West Indies a vital base for future invasion might have been secured.


Something else happened at Toulon. A young lieutenant of the French Army, sprung from a leading Corsican family, well versed in artillery and other military matters, happening to be on leave from his regiment, looked in on the camp of General Dugommier, who commanded the Jacobin besieging army. He walked along the line of batteries, and pointed out that their shot would not reach half-way. This error was adjusted, and the expert lieutenant began to have a say at that incompetent headquarters. Presently orders arrived from Paris prescribing the method of siege according to customary forms, for which however the necessary material resources were lacking. None dared dispute the instructions of the terrible Committee of Public Safety which was now at the head of French affairs. Nevertheless, at the council of war, held in daylight, on bare ground, the expert lieutenant raised his voice. The orders, he said—or so he claimed later—were foolish, and all knew it. There was however a way of taking Toulon. He placed his finger on the map where Fort l’Aiguillette on its promontory commanded the entrance to the harbour. “There is Toulon,” he said, and all, taking their lives in their hands, obeyed him. He organised and led the assault upon Fort l’Aiguillette. After a hot fight it fell. The whole wide front of the Toulon defences, manned by thousands of Royalists, remained intact, and the feeble lines of the besiegers gazed upon it from a safe distance. But on the morning after Fort l’Aiguillette fell the British Fleet was seen to be leaving the harbour. The lieutenant had understood not only the military significance of the captured fort, but the whole set of moral and political forces upon which the Royalist defence of Toulon hung. Once the British Fleet had departed all resisting power perished. There was a stampede to escape upon such vessels as remained. The city surrendered, and horrible vengeance was wreaked upon thousands of helpless captives, who might have been the vanguard of Counter-Revolution. When these matters were reported to Robespierre and his brother and the Committee in Paris they thought they would like to know more about this competent and apparently well-disposed lieutenant. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte; and, after all, he had taken Toulon.

Meanwhile the Terror rose to its height, and in the political frenzy of Paris no one knew when his hour would come. Men and women went by forties and fifties every day to the guillotine. In self-preservation politicians and people combined against Robespierre. It was July 27, 1794, or by the new French reckoning the 9th Thermidor of the year II, for the Revolutionaries had decided to tear up the calendar of Julius Cæsar and Pope Gregory and start afresh. On that day, in a furious convulsion, Robespierre was dragged down and sent where he would have sent the rest. Our lieutenant of Toulon fame was cast back by this event. He was associated with the Robespierres. He was their “maker of plans.” By a spin of the coin he might have followed them into the shades. But the extremity of the Terror had died with Robespierre, and the Directorate which succeeded soon had need of him. In 1795 a strong movement to set up a respectable Government led to an armed rising in the well-to-do quarters of Paris. One of the members of the Directorate, Barras, all being in dire peril, remembered the lieutenant who had taken Toulon. Placed in command of the military forces, Bonaparte planted his cannon around the legislature, and scattered the citizens who declared they were seeking a free and fair election in accordance with the public will. This cannonade of the 13th Vendémiaire (October 4) was the second leap upward of Bonaparte. On its morrow he claimed command of the French army against the Austrians in Northern Italy. He animated his ragged and famishing troops by the hopes of glory and of booty. He led them in 1796 through the passes of the Alps into a smiling, fertile, and as yet unravaged land. In a series of most hazardous minor battles, gained at heavy odds, he routed the Austrian commanders and conquered the broad base of the Italian peninsula. By these victories he outstripped all rivals in the military field and became the sword of the Revolution, which he was determined to exploit and to destroy. This was the third phase. Corsican, Jacobin, General, were milestones he had left behind him. He now saw as his next step nothing less than a conquest of the Orient after the fashion of Alexander the Great. He planned the invasion of Egypt as a preliminary to the capture of Constantinople, and all that lay in Asia.


In England the Government had been forced to take repressive measures of a sternness unknown for generations. Republican lecturers were swept into prison. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended. Distinguished writers were put on their trial for treason; but juries could not be prevailed on to convict. The mildest criticism of the Constitution brought the speaker under danger from a new Treason Act. Ireland, governed since 1782 by a Protestant Parliament independent of Westminster, was now on the verge of open rebellion, which, as Pitt saw, could only be averted by liberal concessions to the Irish Catholics. Henry Grattan, the eloquent Irish leader, who had done so much to win more freedom for his country, urged that Catholics should be given both the vote and the right to sit in Parliament and hold office. They got the vote, but seats in Parliament were still denied them.

Few victories came to brighten these dark years. In 1794 the French Channel Fleet, ill-equipped and under-officered, was half-heartedly engaged by Admiral Howe. Three years later, off Cape St Vincent, the Spanish Fleet—Spain being now in alliance with France—was soundly beaten by Jervis and Nelson. But such had been the neglect of conditions of service in the Navy that the ships at Spithead refused to put to sea. The movement spread to the Nore, and for some weeks London was in effect blockaded by the British Fleet, while a French squadron was on the high seas making for Ireland on a vain quest. The men were entirely loyal; indeed, on the King’s birthday the salute which they fired was so hearty and the guns so well charged that the fortifications of Sheerness tumbled down. Some slight concessions satisfied the mutineers, and they retrieved their honour in a handsome victory off Camperdown over the Dutch, who were now satellites of France. Meanwhile the Bank of England had suspended cash payments.

On the Continent the French were everywhere triumphant. Bonaparte, having reduced Northern Italy, was preparing to strike at Austria through the Alpine passes. In April 1797 he signed with her the preliminaries of Leoben, converted some months later into the Treaty of Campo Formio. Belgium was annexed to France; the Republic of Venice, with a glorious history reaching into the Dark Ages, became an Austrian province. Milan, Piedmont, and the little principalities of Northern Italy were welded into a new Cisalpine Republic. France, dominant in Western Europe, firmly planted in the Mediterranean, safeguarded against attack from Germany by a secret understanding with Austria, had only to consider what she would conquer next. A sober judgement might have said England, by way of Ireland. Bonaparte thought he saw his destiny in a larger field. In the spring of 1798 he sailed for Egypt. Nelson sailed after him.

During the afternoon of August 1 a scouting vessel from Nelson’s fleet signalled that a number of French battleships were anchored in Aboukir Bay, to the east of Alexandria. In a line nearly two miles long the thirteen French “seventy-fours” lay close in to the shallow water, headed west, with dangerous shoals to port. The French Admiral Brueys was convinced that not even an English admiral would risk sailing his ship between the shoals and the French line. But Nelson knew his captains. As evening drew near, the Goliath, followed by the Zealous, cautiously crept to landward of the French van, and came into action a few minutes before sundown. Five British ships passed in succession on the land side of the enemy, while Nelson, in the Vanguard, led the rest of his fleet to lie to on the starboard of the French line.

The French sailors were many of them on shore and the decks of their vessels were encumbered with gear. They had not thought it necessary to clear the gun ports on their landward side. In the rapidly falling darkness confusion seized their fleet. Relentlessly the English ships, distinguished by four lanterns hoisted in a horizontal pattern, battered the enemy van, passing from one disabled foe to the next down the line. At ten o’clock Brueys’s flagship, the Orient, blew up. The five ships ahead of her had already surrendered; the rest, their cables cut by shot, or frantically attempting to avoid the inferno of the burning Orient, drifted helplessly. In the morning hours three ran ashore and surrendered, and a fourth was burned by her officers. Of the great fleet that had convoyed Napoleon’s army to the adventure in Egypt only two ships of the line and two frigates escaped.

Nelson’s victory of the Nile cut Napoleon’s communications with France and ended his hopes of vast Eastern conquests. He campaigned against the Turks in Syria, but was checked at Acre, where the defence was conducted by Sir Sydney Smith and a force of English seamen. In 1799 he escaped back to France, leaving his army behind him. The British Fleet was once again supreme in the Mediterranean Sea. This was a turning-point. With the capture of Malta in 1800 after a prolonged siege Britain had secured a strong naval base in the Mediterranean, and there was no further need to bring the squadrons home for the winter as in the early part of the war.

But still the British Government could conceive no coordinated military plan upon the scale demanded by European strategy. Their own resources were few and their allies seldom dependable. Minor expeditions were dispatched to points around the circumference of the Continent. Descents were made upon Brittany, in Spain, and later in Southern Italy. These harassed the local enemy commanders, but scarcely affected the larger conduct of the war. Meanwhile Napoleon again took charge of the French armies in Italy. In June 1800 he beat the Austrians at Marengo, in Piedmont, and France was once more mistress of Europe. The main contribution of the Island to the war at this time was the vigilance of her fleets and the payment of subsidies to allies. Napoleon’s taunt of “a nation of shopkeepers” had some foundation. The time had not yet come when British troops were to distinguish themselves except by pin-pricks and gadfly tactics. General Sir Ralph Abercromby sourly remarked that “There are risks in a British warfare unknown to any other army.” He was soon to disprove the slur he thus cast on his troops by landing in Egypt and forcing the capitulation of the French. His victory at Alexandria in 1801, in which he was mortally wounded, offered the first light of dawn. The French were cleared from the Orient.


In 1800 the political situation in Britain was dominated by the passing of the Act of Union with Ireland. The shocks and alarums of the previous years determined Pitt to attempt some final settlement in that troubled island. The concessions already won by the Irish from British Governments in difficulty had whetted their appetite for more. At the same time Irish Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats. In Ulster the Protestants founded the Orange Society for the defence of their religion. In the South the party of United Irishmen under Wolfe Tone had come more and more in their desperation to look to France. Rebellion, French attempts at invasion, and brutal civil war darkened the scene. The hopes that had once been pinned in the independent Parliament at Dublin faded away. Even by eighteen-century standards this body was shockingly corrupt. Pitt decided that the complete union of the two kingdoms was the only solution. Union with Scotland had been a success. Why not with Ireland too? But the prime requisite for any agreement must be the emancipation of Irish Catholics from the disabilities of the penal laws. Here Pitt was to stumble upon the rock of the conscience of a monarch now half-crazy. Unscrupulous backstairs influences, false colleagues within the Cabinet Council, pressed George III to stand by his coronation oath, which he was assured was involved. Pitt had committed himself to the cause of Catholic freedom without extracting a written agreement from the King. When George refused his assent, on March 14, 1801, Pitt felt bound to resign. Catholic emancipation was delayed for nearly thirty years. The Act of Union had meanwhile been carried through the Irish Parliament by wholesale patronage and bribery against vehement opposition. Grattan made the greatest speech of his career against the Union, but in vain. Westminster absorbed the Irish Members. Bitter fruits were to follow from this in the later nineteenth century.

Pitt was worn and weary, and perplexed by the uncongenial task of organising England for war. He has been blamed by later historians for his incapacity in directing an extensive war, and for his methods of finance, in which he preferred loans to increased taxation, thereby burdening posterity, as others have done since. He chose to incur gigantic debts, and to struggle haphazardly through each year until the dismal close of the campaigning season, living from day to day and hoping for the best. But if Pitt was an indifferent War Minister his successors were no improvement.

Indeed, with all his defects William Pitt stood high above his contemporaries. Certainly he held more popular confidence than any other man. He possessed perseverance and courage and never flinched from criticism. In ringing tones and well-turned oratory he retorted upon his opponents:

He [Mr Fox] defies me to state, in one sentence, what is the object of the war. I know not whether I can do it in one sentence, but in one word I can tell him that it is “security”; security against a danger, the greatest that ever threatened the world. It is security against a danger which never existed in any past period of society. It is security against a danger which in degree and extent was never equalled; against a danger which threatened all the nations of the earth; against a danger which has been resisted by all the nations of Europe, and resisted by none with so much success as by this nation, because by none has it been resisted so uniformly and with so much energy.

Pitt was succeeded by a pinchbeck coalition of King’s Friends and rebels from his own party. Masquerading as a Government of National Union, they blundered on for over three years. Their leader was Henry Addington, an amiable former Speaker of the House of Commons whom no one regarded as a statesman. As the young George Canning, a rising hope of the Tories, put it in jesting rhyme,

As London is to Paddington So is Pitt to Addington.

War-time conditions demanded some form of Coalition Government. The Whig Opposition, if only for their lack of administrative experience, were deemed unfit. In 1800 they had been reduced to impotence by the transformation of the war from one against world revolution to one against world Cæsarism. Until the rise of Bonaparte they had steadfastly pleaded for peace and understanding with the revolutionaries. Now they were reduced to points of strategy and military detail upon which they carried no authority. The sense of being the only possible national leader seems to have affected Pitt’s actions remarkably little. Young men like Canning and Lord Castlereagh were trained in office under him. And they remained loyal to their chief. As Canning wrote, “Whether Pitt will save us I do not know, but surely he is the only man that can.

In March 1802 Addington’s Government made terms with Napoleon by the Treaty of Amiens, and for a time there was a pause in the fighting. Pitt supported the Government over the peace in spite of the arguments of some of his own followers. English tourists flocked to France, Fox among them, all eager to gaze upon the scenes of Revolution and to see at first hand the formidable First Consul, as he now was. But the tourist season was short. In May of the following year war was renewed, and once more mismanaged. The administration had failed entirely to use the breathing-space for improving the defences. Napoleon was now assembling his forces at Boulogne, intent upon the invasion of England. Pitt was in retirement at Walmer, in Kent. The strain of the past years had broken his health. He was prematurely aged. He had lived a lonely, artificial life, cheered by few friendships. The only time that he ever came in contact with the people was during this brief interval from office, when as Warden of the Cinque Ports he organised the local militia against the threat of invasion. Few things in England’s history are more remarkable than this picture of an ex-Prime Minister, riding his horse at the head of a motley company of yokels, drilling on the fields of the South Coast, while a bare twenty miles away across the Channel the Grand Army of Napoleon waited only for a fair wind and a clear passage.

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