British Strategic Foreign Policy, 1806-1815

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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On receiving the news of the crushing French victory at Austerlitz, 1)  Indeed, during the two years following the death of that Prime Minister, real efforts were made (and not only on the part of the Whigs) to make peace and to try to live with an imperial, Napoleonic France. But ten years was in the end too ‘pessimistic' a forecast. As we shall see, from 1807 on, after the collapse peace talks, successive British governments took up the gauntlet and faced up to Napoleon, deciding to fight to the death. In this talk, I shall briefly consider the positive but also negative effects of what one might describe as a ‘foreign policy, which John Holland Rose in 1902 described as ‘feeble and vacillating' in which “the flaccid eccentricities […] made British Statesmanship the laughing stock of Europe in […] 1806-7 and 1809”. (2)
In their various strategies with respect to France and Napoleon, British administrations were however faced with specific geographically related problems. Firstly, the island state rendered international communications with other governments but also notably the armed forces difficult – although this isolation could occasionally be useful for political reasons. Any military operation began with a embarkation and landing, as Napoleon was well aware. The second problem was related to Britain's imperial obligations, in other words, the maintenance of garrisons in all the colonies. At any one time, one quarter of the British army was tied up in colonial administration. As a result, the cabinet could never field more than 40,000 men at any one time (the only exceptions being Walcheren and later operations in Spain). Hence, traditional British continental strategy was the search for alliances and the support of other continental nations.

The Grenville government, 1806-7

This administration can be characterised by its departure from the traditional action promoted by previous governments, namely that of acting in concert with other European states. Mockingly referred to by critics as the ‘government of all the talents' (and thus masters of none), this cabinet tried (in vain, as we shall see) to pursue another strategy; firstly (with Charles James Fox) of peace with Napoleon, but secondly to concentrate on policies directly beneficial to Britain and leaving to one side consideration of allies' needs.
The geopolitical context for this ‘intermediary' administration was the fall of the Third Coalition. Austria had signed the humiliating treaty of Pressburg, Alexander and his troops had set off once again for Russia, and Prussia (which had not contested the violation of Anspach) was completely under Napoleon's influence – indeed they had accepted Hanover from Napoleon after Austerlitz. A British expedition to retake George III's hereditary fief and to establish a bridgehead in the Low Countries which had begun disastrously in the December of 1804 with storms at sea and the loss of 2,000 men was definitively abandoned and the soldiers repatriated.
The government of ‘the Talents' was to last slightly more than a year, from February 1806 to March 1807. The British economy was already suffering the difficulties which would lead it to crisis in 1808. However public disorder was under control and freedom from the necessity of having to pay subsidies to allies provided a brief respite for government finances. That being said, armed forces expenditure was in no way diminished with respect to the previous year, a drop of a mere £70,000 from £18,581,000 in 1805 to £18,507,000 in 1806. (3) But the main source of concern at the beginning of this administration was internal affairs, in particular the formation of the new cabinet and the distribution of ministries (Grenville as First Lord of the Treasury, Petty as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Fox as Foreign Minister, and Spencer and Windham, as Home Secretary and Secretary for War and the Colonies respectively). Grenville and Fox held particular sway over the cabinet, Grenville for his mastery of economic matters and Fox for his speeches, notably on Catholic emancipation and the abolition of the slave trade. The Opposition was in particular disarray, with much in-fighting to establish the head of the group known as ‘Mr Pitt's Friends'. Pitt's political heirs were Castlereagh, Hawkesbury, Spencer Perceval and Canning. But their group had no particular cohesion given that their only point in common was their indignation at being excluded from Grenville's administration.
Consequently, since all the ‘hawks' (i.e., those who were in favour of a war to the death) were in the Opposition, and since the Cabinet (Fox in particular, notorious for his franco and napoleono-philia) was turning its attention to foreign affairs (February 1806), the stage was set for pursuing a peace policy – whilst remaining nevertheless (and paradoxically) at war with Prussia because of Hanover. After initial discussion between Fox and Talleyrand, real negotiations began, directed by a flamboyant ex-POW, Lord Yarmouth, who had been set free specifically to lead the peace talks.
Talks began badly in April, with Napoleon hoping to deal separately with Russia and Britain. But by July, the negotiations were in full swing, Napoleon demanding (amongst other things) French control over Sicily. Since this was a concession which the Cabinet had ruled out from the beginning, the parley ran out of steam. Naturally French occupation of Sicily not only would have compromised the independence of the kingdom of Naples but also embodied a direct threat to the British possession of Malta, not to mention creating bridgehead from which to launch French operations in the Mediterranean. On 4 July, the French delegation suggested a swap: Sicily for Hanover. This too was rejected, and to emphasise the rejection the cabinet sent 6,000 men to reinforce the garrison on the island. The Russian delegations (negotiating simultaneously) had offered Napoleon the choice between Dalmatia and Sicily, but the British party wisely surmised that Alexander would not ratify such a concession. The developments however which finally pulled the plug on these talks were recall of Lord Yarmouth (because of his erratic behaviour) and the death of Fox on 13 September. Their substitutes (Grenville for Fox and Howick for Yarmouth) suggested to the court of Napoleon an exchange of Sicily in return for Dalmatia, provided that Alexander was in agreement (but presumably knowing that he wouldn't). However, the international climate had changed. In the course of that autumn Napoleon had taken up arms against Prussia and Alexander was aligning himself with Frederick William III. The chance for a compromise was lost. Franco-British talks ended on 6 October. (4)
The matter of primary interest in these talks was the island of Sicily. Despite clear strategic weaknesses, the British delegation did not lose sight of that key point. The refusal to cede the island was a success for Britain's Mediterranean policy. And in addition to this passive victory, British politicians were happy to note that at the beginning of 1806 on the Italian mainland on the other side of the straits of Messina, France was unable to capitalise on Joseph's strong position in Naples, firstly because of successful British action in Calabria (namely the victory at Maida), secondly, because of the stubborn Neapolitan resistance at the Gaeta fortress and thirdly because of persistent organised brigandage under the leadership of the devilish friar, Michele Pezza. (5) On the other hand, the state of war which remained between Britain and Prussia was a nonsense, given that Napoleon had already taken possession of Hanover and given that the situation rendered it impossible for Britain to collaborate with Prussia against their common enemy, France.
It must be said that the «the talents» frequently showed a lack of judgement in terms of foreign policy. The strength of country was regularly dissipated in expeditions which were, for the most part, badly planned. Three examples show this trend, the first with respect to Turkey, the second regarding Egypt and the third in South America.
In 1806, the cabinet sent admiral Duckworth to menace Turkey with the general strategic aim of helping its ally, Russia. Duckworth sailed up and down the Sea of Marmara unable to act effectively and returned home with no concrete gains, having exposed himself to danger to no good purpose – worse still, some of his ships were damaged by the costal batteries in the Dardanelles. (6) Almost at the same time, a force was sent to invade Egypt – in fact, the British government suspected of renewed interest in the land. No specific gains were however envisaged. The taking of Alexandria on 16 March, 1807, was followed by a bloody engagement whilst British soldiers attempted to safeguard their lines of communication. The invasion army was then closed into the city. And to make matters worse, such diplomatic heavy-handedness alienated the Tsar since Egypt was felt to be an area of importance for Russia. (7) Finally there was the risky expedition to Argentina. The brainchild of the victor of the Cape, Sir Home Popham, this expedition was initially a success, Buenos Aires being easily taken and occupied in June by the 1,600 men at his disposal. One million pounds (taken from the Argentinean public coffers) was sent to London, and the arrival was feted by a public demonstration of support for the affair. The Cabinet, blinded by dreams of conquest and gold, should however have been more circumspect in the matter before launching itself on such a distant and dangerous enterprise – indeed, some historians have noted wryly that the South American project was probably decided upon because the members of the cabinet could not agree on a European policy. Already by 12 August, the inhabitants of the Argentine capital had expelled the unpopular occupying forces and retaken the city. Knowing nothing of this (because of the distance) in the autumn of 1806, the cabinet continued to support the project enthusiastically, setting down goals such as the consolidation of the position in Buenos Aires (in fact already lost) and making preparations for a descent on Chile. Even though informed on 25 January, 1807, of the loss of the city, the cabinet found itself in a position whereby it could not countenance the fall out of abandoning the expedition (as it should have done) and so found itself bound to support a sinking ship, sending a further 11,180 troops. After several quasi defeats and with 3,350 soldiers wounded or killed, British forces left the Rio del Plata zone in July 1807. (8)
However, before having to face up to the political consequences of its actions, “the talents” were obliged offer early resignation because of the failure of its Catholic emancipation bill, which had been rejected by the intransigent king. And with operations abroad having been less than successful, Grenville (and his obsession for the Irish question) was to spend the next ten years in the political wilderness in opposition. Peace talks had come to nothing, the operations in the Dardanelles had brought no specific advantage, and the action in Alexandria had annoyed Russia, the ally the cabinet was trying to woo. In general, attempts to pursue a foreign policy far from Europe, always centred only on British interests, did not provide an answer to the key question, how to respond to Napoleon in Europe. Indeed, the administration's alienation of Russia only served to sow the seeds for the Franc-Russian rapprochement enshrined in the treaty of Tilsit.

The Portland administration, March 1808 – September 1809

In addition to the Orders in Council, in other words, the maritime blockade operated by the British navy in reply to Napoleon's Continental System, there were four major events in British foreign policy during this particularly difficult and eventful period: the destruction of the Danish fleet and the capital city, Copenhagen by the Royal Navy in the summer of 1807; the action in Portugal in 1808; the support given to Spain at the same time; and the massive expedition to Walcheren in 1809. these four costly and aggressive military events come as no surprise when we look at the makeup of the cabinet: the Duke of Portland (William Henry Cavendish Bentinck) as First Lord of the Treasury, Spencer Perceval, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Canning, as Foreign secretary, Hawkesbury (Earl of Liverpool from 1808), as Home secretary, and Castlereagh as Secretary for War and the Colonies. This group of ‘hawks' pursued a robust foreign policy very much on the Pitt model, very different from the peace policy and later strategic European indifference and colonial aggression of ‘the Talents'. Europe had once again become the primary theatre of operations. And the cabinet attempted first and foremost to support the governments in campaign against French in Poland at the beginning of 1807. As a result, and under Swedish and Russian pressure, 10,000 men were sent to Stralsund in June to reinforce a Prusso/Swedish force of about 25,000 men. But the divisions dispatched were sent in two instalments, one just before Russia's crushing defeat at Friedland, and the other just after the signing of the treaty at Tilsit, in other words, at precisely the wrong moment. After the defeat at Friedland, Russia decided to abandon its relations with Britain ; at which point Denmark became more or less Britain's enemy – or rather, her passive position (to put it very euphemistically) with respect to France worried the Cabinet. In June and July, Canning, the most Pittite member of Cabinet, launched a press campaign calling for the destruction of the Danish fleet and the sending of reinforcements for the British fleet in the Baltic. (9) In fact, the Baltic was crucial for Britain since it was a source of a great deal of raw materials (particularly those related to the Navy) such as oak, and above all pitch, 90% of which came from Russia. Indeed imports from the Baltic were considered a national necessity. A Demark which was hostile (or worse still, French) could have closed the Baltic to British shipping. As a result, the forces amassed to crush Demark were significant. 19,000 soldiers sent from Britain took the zone surrounding the capital, and in September the capital itself was shelled for five days. This ‘preventive strike' was not however welcomed unanimously in the House of Commons. The Whigs in the Opposition called the action unjust, and this position can clearly be seen in a remarkable caricature of the period by Gillray, entitled, ‘Phaeton alarmed'. (10)  There Napoleon is shown setting the planet ablaze and setting off – riding a bear symbolising Russia – to pursue the double-headed Austrian eagle. At the same time a British anti-Jacobin Phaeton (in other words, Canning), tramples under foot justice in the shape of a set of scales inscribed with the word ‘Copenhagen'. All the while, the Whigs attempt to extinguish this sun with all sorts of liquid, notably Whitbread the brewer with beer. Behind them the bull of Catholic emancipation is about to run amok. In one corner, the ghost of Pitt weeps, whilst in the other Fox snickers. Clearly Copenhagen was seen by the opposition as not right, and Canning is portrayed as a political juggernaut, crushing everything in his path.
Opposition was to no avail. And furthermore, the destruction of the Danish fleet was give complete control of that sea to Saumarez's Baltic Fleet.
However, at that very moment, another crisis was brewing, this time in Portugal. In the July of 1807, Napoleon had ordered Portugal to join the continental system and to close its ports to British shipping and goods. And to ensure that Portugal did indeed obey, the French army was concentrated around Bayonne. Just as had been the case with Denmark, the Cabinet (principally Castlereagh) was concerned for the fate of the Portuguese fleet, not wishing it to fall into French hands. As a result, a British invasion of the island of Madeira was planned. Portugal thus found herself trapped between two belligerents, the British on one side ready to destroy Portuguese commerce, particularly with South America, and the French on the other threatening invasion and occupation. Napoleon declared war on Portugal on 20 October and Junot's troops advanced to the Portuguese border. Portugal reacted by closing its ports to British ships. And the Cabinet sent a squadron to blockade mouth of the Tagus. This pressure, combined with the approach of Junot's forces and a declaration made by Napoleon stating the end of the reign of the house of Braganza, convinced the Portuguese royal family to leave the country with almost the entire fleet and to head for Brazil. When Junot entered Lisbon on 30 November, he found only one ship of the line and a few other, unusable vessels. The success of this manoeuvre was complete when the island of Madeira was occupied on 24 December by 3,600 British soldiers. (11)
Nevertheless, despite the success at Copenhagen and in Portugal, Britain's strategic position at the beginning of 1808 remained weak, without allies and once again under threat of invasion. British relations with the United States were strained and the expeditions to South America had gone disastrously wrong. But British hopes were raised in the Spring with the beginning of the French debacle in Spain and the bloody repression of the Dos de Mayo. The consequence of these events was the arrival in Britain of three Spanish deputations asking for assistance. Canning was to receive them with the following famous words (and I quote): « We shall proceed upon the principle that, any nation of Europe that starts up with a determination to oppose [France], whatever may be the existing political relations of that nation with Great Britain's, becomes instantly our ally». (12)  Britain sent 30,000 troops and (via the infamous Convention of Cintra) managed to push the French out of Portugal. But this was only a temporary situation since Napoleon returned in force and drove the British out of the Iberian peninsula in the autumn/winter of 1808-1809. (13)
The last important action of this administration was the massive assault on the island of Walcheren in the Scheldt estuary. The reason for the operation was the threat to Britain of a French held Antwerp and a desire to assist (or use) the Austrian campaign on the Danube, for which Napoleon was forced to divert many soldiers to the east. But why Walcheren specifically? Because of all the possible places for operating (in other words, Spain, the Mediterranean and north western Europe), this was the most promising. The principal goal was to limit French naval power – in Castlereagh's mind the expedition was supposed to be a commando raid, during which French naval forces were to be destroyed as soon as possible, British forces were then to depart, leaving a small garrison on the island. But as everyone today knows, the expedition was an unmitigated disaster. Of the 44,000 men sent, 23,000 died or fell sick. This catastrophe sounded the death knell for the Portland administration.  (14)

The Perceval and Liverpool administrations

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Europe had become the centre of attention for the cabinet as a theatre of war, the period 1808-1811 witnessed more British colonial conquests at the expense of her European rivals. Apart from pirates and corsairs, the seas were devoid of aggressive enemies. Hence, the garrisons in the Caribbean were reduced to a minimum. And the insurrection in Spain brought even more cause for hope in Britain, since the colonial Spanish liked the French as much as the native Spanish did, and as a result many potentially enemy bases (from which the islands occupied by the British could be attacked), such as for example the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico and their colonies on the continent, became friendly to Britain. Furthermore they were no longer used for French commercial raids or invasion attempts. Thereafter, in succession, the following French islands fell into British hands : Saint Domingue (taken by Spanish troops aided by the British), Martinique (captured in February 1809), and Guadeloupe (taken in February 1810 after a long blockade). The cabinet then decided to maintain the resulting 17 garrisons at minimum levels, in other words, only 35 ships of the line, frigates and chaloupes. (15) In Africa, the last French possession, Fort Louis du Sénégal (a base for French attacks on British commerce with West Africa) was captured in 1809. With the taking of Guadeloupe, there were in effect only three islands in the world inimical to Great Britain, Mauritius, Bourbon, and Rodriguez.
These French islands were used in attacks on British commerce in the Indian ocean. Indeed, the 1805-1810 period was particularly fruitful for French raiding. In 1807, British commerce in the Bay of Bengal had been wiped out, and in a single six-month period the commercial houses in Calcutta lost £ 200 000. With the arrival at the beginning of 1809 of four large French frigates under Decaen, it looked like it was going to worse. (16)
As a result, in May 1810, Yorke, First Lord of the Admiralty, expressed an opinion that Bourbon and Mauritius should be taken. The forces used were to come from India and the Cape. (17) Once these islands had been taken and on hearing that Napoleon had annexed Holland in July 1810, the cabinet turned its attention to the Dutch East Indies (Sumatra, the Moluccas, Java…), demanding that the existing military bases should be dismantled. With the seizure of Java in September 1811, all the bases which might have been used by France had been neutralised, and as a result the number of British warships stationed in these areas was reduced.

These colonial campaigns 1809-1811 were a reaction to the enemy's weakness but at the same time a perceived urgent need. They were not however a change in strategic direction – the troops which took part did not come from Europe but from the colonies (from North America for the Caribbean theatre and from India for that in the Indian Ocean). In fact, the attacks on the French and Dutch islands were in direct contradiction to the policy of strict financial control which the cabinet had imposed since 1810 in a steadily deteriorating commercial climate. And they marked a reply to the direct threats aimed at the finances of the East India Company. (18)

Starting from the end of 1809, the primary area of British military action was in the Iberian peninsula. (19) Perceval's government decided to persevere with its Spanish policy despite the disaster at La Coruña. Hence, British forces remained in Portugal, hoping to hang on. Fortunately for them, the French invasion of southern Spain (which had remained Spanish up to that point) stretched French capacities, and given the French threat on Cadiz, the Supreme Junta was galvanised into allowing British troops to enter that almost impregnable city/port. In July 1810 there were in the city 9,500 British and Portuguese soldiers under Major General Graham. (20) Indeed as Lord Liverpool had noted, Cadiz was an excellent place to which to retreat, in the case where the situation deteriorated and Portugal had to be abandoned. Furthermore (Lord Liverpool again) ‘The city of Cadiz is more connected with South America than all the rest of Spain put together, and the establishment of our influence here will greatly facilitate any arrangements we may wish to make hereafter with South America.' (21) Whilst the Cabinet wished to concentrate all Spanish resources in the struggle against France, it also recognised that Spanish America had to be kept positive towards Great Britain, regardless of what happened in the Iberian Peninsula.

At the end of 1810, Wellington was obliged to face up to a massive invasion of Portugal by 65,000 French troops under Masséna. Despite being in retreat, the Anglo-Portuguese army of 50,000 managed to hold Masséna at Busaco (27 September) and pushed back the siege of the impenetrable lines of Torres Vedras (wisely prepared by Wellington the previous autumn). And despite the impasse at the Portuguese border, the general strategic position in the Pensinsular (and so for Britain) was much improved at the end of 1811. Whilst some historians have criticised British policy in the Peninsular as lacking in conviction, we know for fact that Lord Liverpool– at least personally speaking – was entirely convinced by it. And when Wellington complained to Liverpool regarding the way in which the campaign was run, particularly the chronic lack of funds, the lord replied to the Iron Duke that ‘I never knew a question upon which there was less difference of opinion in Cabinet than upon the subject of Portugal'. (22) In effect, the government concentrated on the Iberian peninsular to the detriment of all the other possible theatres of operation. Sicily was never considered a possible centre for operations and was subsequently left to her own devices – and even the garrisons there were reduced when several regiments stationed on the island were sent to eastern Spain in order to create a diversion for the many theatres of operation in the west. (23) In fact, the diversionary tactics in eastern Spain, although slow, were nevertheless effective in that they kept Suchet's troops pinned down, preventing him from sending reinforcements to the west of the peninsula where they were needed. Just as Sicily was ignored, so was the Italian peninsula; apart from anything, it could hardly have been called a hotbed of sedition. And the Italians seemed to content with the French regime, totally unlike Spain. Only after 1813, when Napoleonic power in Italy seemed to be on the wane did the Cabinet begin to turn its attention to the Italian peninsula, taking Genoa in the April of 1814.  (24)
Another secondary theatre (besides the Italian peninsula) was North America. The War of 1812 was particularly annoying for Britain, the least negative part of the affair being the possibility of using the troops which had served in the ex-French possessions in the West Indies and who were already stationed on the North American continent. In general, there were no large scale transfers of troops from Europe to the United States. Hence, in the difficult context of war in North America, Napoleon's invasion of Russia in June 1812 seemed to British politicians like manna from heaven. They were however not surprised by the attack. The Russians had previously made overtures to the British in August 1811, offering support to help liberate the Iberian peninsula. Whilst these suggestions were gratefully received, British ministers emphasised two facts: one, that the war in Spain was a heavy drain on resources (the Russian should not therefore expect financial support); and two, that those who wished to fight Napoleon ought to be motivated to do it, on principle, of their own volition. Hence, when Napoleon attacked Alexander, since there had been no collaboration with the Russian, Britain sought alliances with Sweden and Denmark, but most of all Sweden given her important position in the Baltic and her military capacity (though very much reduced) and regardless of the fact that Bernadotte was particularly difficult to deal with. In March 1812, Sweden made a formal request for an end to hostilities between herself and Britain. Russia, on the other hand, wished to se how things developed before joining the war (the Turco-Russian was still going on). Sweden however showed such a lack of eagerness to sign the peace treaty that Britain refused a Swedish request for a subvention of a million pounds, made on 18 July. Finally on 24 August the peace treaties between Britain, Russia and Sweden were ratified. However, at that point, it was too late in the season to act, and it was not until December that Sweden found herself once again at war with France.
In January 1813, suspecting that all had not gone as planned for Napoleon in Russia, Castlereagh observed that it was perhaps the moment for another great coalition. Once again the strategy of the cabinet (Lord Liverpool's administration had replaced Percival's on the latter's assassination) was to promote ‘whatever scheme of policy [which] can most immediately combine the greatest number of powers and the greatest military force against France'. (25) The cabinet decided first of all to help Prussia and to equip the German Legion (then in Finland) so as to fight under Bernadotte; it numbered about 10,000 men. Later sailed the first of many arms shipments to the allied nations and generous subventions (Russia and Prussia received £2 million in the spring of 1813, Austria £1 million and arms and divers equipment). The final cost, for the period march-November 1813 (including the aid to Sweden and southern European states) was a colossal £13 million (a sum equivalent to all the subventions and loans made in 1793-1801 put together, and that without counting the loans made to Denmark, to Holland and to Hanover, who joined the coalition towards the end of 1813). (26) In addition, 3,000 soldiers were sent to garrison Stralsund as a result of a request from Sweden. But none of this was really a significant change in the strategy pursued in the Iberian peninsula. The force sent to Stralsund was seen as temporary, and after the setback for the allies at Lützen and Bautzen in May 1813 and the armistice of Plaswitz, Liverpool and his cabinet continued the policy they had pursued in Spain up to that point. In fact the cabinet had serious doubts as to the resistance capabilities of the coalition, and the armistice led to considerations on how to cut the subventions. Nor was any thought given to the subject of revoking the maritime laws imposed by the Royal Navy and detested by all nations alike. Even the allied victory at Leipzig (16-19 October, 1813) did not re-assure the Minister for War and for the Colonies, Bathurst – his fear was that bolstered by their success the allies would be tempted to demand that they keep some of the territories captured under the excuse of a general peace. Indeed, given this general climate of British distrust of the allies, Castlereagh's visit to allied headquarters at the beginning of 1814 was very cunning. Just at the moment when subventions were to be renewed and Napoleon was piling victory upon victory in the French Campaign, Castlereagh found himself in a powerful position and able to force the allies to accept the Treaty of Chaumont, under which the four principal powers were to be allied against France for twenty years and were each to provide 150,000 men to the coalition. The subventions would only be paid after signature of the treaty.
On the other hand, the Cabinet clearly recognised that its lack of troops in northern France limited not only its influence in the negotiations with the allied powers but also its power to act. Indeed, when the French occupiers evacuated Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague at the end of 1813, the Dutch were obliged to liberate themselves. And so when later the Dutch sent a deputation to London to ask for arms and munitions, the British made a significant change in their strategy up to that point, sending troops to aid the Dutch. Military activity in Spain however meant that they were only able to send 5,500 men, and second and third choice battalions at that. And it was indeed this lack of troops which made it impossible to take complete advantage of the situation in Holland, itself the first real chance in the Low Countries since Walcheren. That being said, the sending of troops marked an important change in strategy policy. Ministers now felt ‘as much bound to support the cause of Holland as [that] of the Pensinsula'. Indeed, had it not been for insurmountable logistical difficulties and the weakness of the allies in situ (not to mention Wellington's tenacity keeping his forces), several Wellington's regiments would have been transferred from Spain to Holland. Here the British Cabinet's sigh of relief is almost audible as they return to Britain's traditional strategy, namely one directed towards the Netherlands. As usual, Antwerp was the central strategic point. Ministers informed Wellington: ‘you may consider it [the elimination French influence] almost as a sine qua non as far as peace with us is concerned'. The military considerations of the Iberian peninsula were subordinated to the strategic necessities of the Low Countries. But this campaign was not a success. Bernadotte (technically an ally) did not play ball, but preferred to attack Denmark, rather than to assist general allied policy and to try to crush Napoleon. Only the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814 was to open Antwerp to British troops.
It was however the campaign of the Hundred Days which showed most clearly ministers' strategic priorities. Firstly, ministers revived the coalition, raising an army of 700,000 men. Secondly, they paid subventions – £7 million in total. And thirdly they considered the preservation of the Low Countries essential. Just as in 1793-1795, the first-choice place for confrontation was the route from France to Brussels and Holland. As early as 21 March, 5,500 troops were ready to cross the Channel to Ostende. Whilst the principal aim of this political strategic was to prevent France from entering the Netherlands, it also perfectly coincided with its military strategy of concentrating forces in Belgium. It is clear that these troops could easily join Dutch and Belgian troops, and they were also close to Blücher's Prussian army, the largest in the region at the time. On the other hand, many of Britain's best regiments were not in Europe but rather in North America: they had been sent there during the First Restoration to bring the War of 1812 to an end. There was not enough time to recall more than a minimum to participate in the Waterloo campaign. Other troops were blocked in garrisons in the Mediterranean and in Ireland. As a consequence, the success of the Anglo-German-Dutch force of 74,464 men, of very disparate quality, was particularly remarkable. But the Cabinet preferred to interpret the victory as the justification of its strategy. (27)
To conclude, then, we have seen that the attempts of the administration of « the Talents » to pursue an isolationist and colonialist foreign policy without reference to Europe was doomed to failure. In the end, British politicians understood that if they wanted to live and trade peacefully with their neighbours, they were sooner or later going to have face up to the problem of France.


1) This famous remark is probably apocryphal. It first appears in print in Thomas Hardy's ‘epic drama', The Dynasts (1904) “Roll up that map. 'Twill not be needed now These ten years!”, see John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt : the consuming struggle, Stanford (Ca) : Stanford University Press, 1996, p. 822 and n. 4.
2) Of primary importance on this subject, see the detailed study Christopher D. Hall, British strategy in the Napoleonic War, 1803-15, Manchester: Manchester U.P., 1992, in particular, chapters 6-8. See also Rory Muir, Britain and the defeat of Napoleon, 1807-1815, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, Sir A. W. Ward, G. P. Gooch (eds), Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, 1783-1919, vol. I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922, and Paul W. Schroeder, The transformation of European Politics 1763-1848, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003, p. 257-586. See also John Holland Rose, The Life of Napoleon I, London: George Bell & Son, 1902, p. ix.
3) The figures are given in C. D. Hall, op. cit., p. 131.
4) For further details on these negotiations, see Franklin A. Walker, ‘The Grenville-Fox "Junction" and the Problem of Peace', Canadian Journal of History, vol. XII, 1977, I, pp. 51ff.
5) See Piers Mackesy, The war in the Mediterranean, 1803-1810, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1957, pp. 130-52.
6) See P. Mackesy, op. cit., pp. 169-80.
7) See P. Mackesy, op. cit., pp. 184-5 and J. W. Fortescue, A History of the British Army, [s.l.] : Macmillan, 1899-1930, vol. 6, pp. 5-28.
8) See J. Lynch, ‘British Policy and Spanish America, 1783-1808', Journal of Latin American Studies, I, 1969, pp. 1-7 and J. W. Fortescue, op. cit., vol. 5 (1910), pp. 314-17.
9) See A. N. Ryan, ‘The causes of the British attack upon Copenhagen in 1807', in English Historical Review, LXVIII, January 1953, pp. 37-55. For the events in and around Copenhagen, see Dudley Pope, The great gamble: Nelson at Copenhagen, Rochester: Chatham Publishing, 1999.
10) Published in Napoleon I : im Spiegel der Karikatur = vu à travers la caricature = in the mirror of caricature = visto attraverso la caricature / [ed. Hans Peter Mathis; contributions by Jérémie Benoit and Philippe Kaenel; catalogue by Philipp Gafner]. - Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 1998, pp. 216-17.
11) See J. W. Fortescue, op. cit., vol. 6, pp. 92-104.
12) Quoted in C. D. Hall, op. cit., p. 170.
13) See David Gates, The Spanish ulcer: a history of the Peninsular War, London: Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 9-12 and 82-92. For the Convention de Cintra in particular, see Michael Glover, Britannia sickens: Sir Arthur Wellesley and the Convention of Cintra, London: Leo Cooper, 1970.
14) See C. D. Hall, op. cit., pp. 177-78, J. W. Fortescue, op. cit., vol. 7 (1910), pp. 45-6 and 65-82, and Gordon C. Bond, The grand expedition: the British invasion of Holland in 1809, Athens [Ga.]: University of Georgia Press, c1979, pp. 72-80.
15) C. D. Hall, op. cit., pp. 186.
16) Cyril N. Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, 1793-1815, London: Allen & Unwin, 1954, pp. 275-95.
17) Cyril N. Parkinson, op. cit., p. 366.
18) C. D. Hall, op. cit., p. 189-90.
19) For the war in the Iberian peninsula in general, see Charles J. Esdaile, The Peninsular war, a new history, London: Penguin Group: Allen Lane, 2002, David Gates, op. cit., and Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902.
20) C. D. Hall, op. cit., p. 190.
21) Quoted in C. D. Hall, ibid.
22) British Museum, Add. Mss. 38325, Liverpool papers; ff. 45-6, quoted in C. D. Hall, op. cit., p. 192.
23) For the history of the British occupation of Sicily, see D. Gregory, Sicily the insecure base: a history of the British Occupation of Sicily, 1806-1815, London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1988, and J. Roselli, Lord William Bentinck and the British Occupation of Sicily, 1811-1814, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.
24) P. Mackesy, op. cit., p. 357-74.
25) In Memoirs and correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh, (ed. Marquess of Londonderry, 8 vols), vol. VIII, London 1848-53, p. 301-04.
26) J. Sherwig, Guineas and Gunpowder. British Foreign Aid in the Wars with France, 1793-1815, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969, p. 309-10.
27) J. W. Fortescue, op. cit., tome 10,

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