Jonathon Riley

Keynote Address Guelph Conference, February 2012

World War 1812–1815 by Jonathon Riley

World War 1812-1815

In the week of 18 June 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the river Nieman into Russia, heading for Borodino; and Wellington crossed the Agueda River from Portugal into Spain, heading for Salamanca. Both crossings were to prove fateful, if not decisive. Almost to the day, President James Madison crossed a Rubicon his own by declaring war on Great Britain and beginning the attempt to bring all of British North America under the flag of the United States. Of course, this coincidence of events could not be known at the time and with the benefits of hindsight it is useless for us to criticise Madison’s immaculate timing. In the early nineteenth century, several weeks were required for news of such events to be passed from eastern Europe to Spain, London and on to Quebec or Washington: and let us not then forget that it is as far from Halifax, Nova Scotia on to Amherstburg as it is from Moscow to Paris – never mind the additional factors of weather and season, roads and rivers, wind or horse power that governed the speed of communications. The only glimmer of the modern world in terms of communications was the semaphore. But in spite of the want of instant communication, the context was still there and that is what I intend to explore during this short talk.

Napoleon, Russian CampaignSix months later, in December 1812, with the defeats of Detroit and Queenston on which to reflect, the wisdom of declaring war must have seemed doubtful to many Americans, even more so as it was clear that Napoleon had suffered a shattering defeat in Russia when the ragged skeletons of those 65,000 survivors of the army, ten times that number, which had crossed the Nieman, staggered back into Poland. However it was by no means clear then either that this defeat would prove decisive, or that a new European coalition was about to be formed. Napoleon’s military potential was still huge; he controlled most of Germany, including the Confederation of the Rhine and parts of Prussia; Poland; Italy, Illyria and Naples; the Low Countries and Denmark; Switzerland; and half of Spain. He was nominally allied with Prussia and Austria, his arch-enemies the English were now at war in America as well as Spain, and he controlled the mountain barriers of the Pyrenees and the Alps as well as the fortresses on most of Europe’s major river lines. This great span of command certainly gave him the ability to raise new armies to replace the horrific losses of 1812 while his enemies were still far from united. Over the coming year he would not only mobilise new resources, but also inflict damaging blows on his enemies at battles like Lutzen, Bautzen, and Dresden before Nemesis tapped on his shoulder at Leipzig. Even then, he fought a delaying campaign of great skill during early and mid 1814 as the allies closed in on Paris.

From the French perspective, the campaigns of 1813 in central Europe and Spain that followed the catastrophe in Russia were therefore essentially defensive, fought to defend the barrier of territory which the Committee of Public Safety and then Napoleon had conquered. This barrier, built up to ensure the security of France herself within the natural frontiers had pushed French power ever onwards – until it encompassed the Oder, the Vistula, Warsaw, Moscow and Madrid. Thus Napoleon existed only through greater and greater success: and greater success was the means to obtain a favourable peace – that is, one which forced the major powers of Europe to recognise the empire. His armies were therefore the instruments of his diplomacy, indeed a replacement for it.

Who then were the enemies who over the next two years set out to thwart Napoleon’s ambitions? First of course was England, his implacable opponent, whose armies had fought in alliance with those of Portugal, Spain, Sicily and Hanover, waging constant war against his southern flank in the Mediterranean. On 8 January 1812, while Napoleon was preparing to invade Russia, Wellington for the first time embarked on an offensive at the operational level into Spain. The fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo was captured on 19 January followed, after a costly assault, by Badajoz on 6 April. Wellington's ability to push on eastwards in the face of an enemy that was numerically far superior was made possible by the increasingly competent Spanish regular forces fixing French forces elsewhere in Spain, while the simultaneous use of guerrillas, irregulars, against the French lines of communications, posed French commanders with an insoluble problem: if they concentrated against Wellington, they exposed their flanks and rear to the guerrillas; but if they dispersed to fight the guerrillas, they opened opportunities for devastating attacks by conventional forces. Something of this same simultaneity is visible in the use of native warriors in North America, cooperating with British and Canadian regulars against the Americans. On 17 June, Wellington entered the city of Salamanca knowing that General August Marmont's French army lay close by.

The two armies shadowed each other for almost a month until Marmont attempted to out-flank Wellington on 22 July. Wellington seized the opportunity to attack and in the ensuing Battle of Salamanca won a crushing victory. Wellington entered Madrid on 6 August and even reached as far as Burgos before being forced to withdraw first to Salamanca and then to Ciudad Rodrigo when threatened by combined French forces under Marshal Nicolas Soult, King Joseph and Marshal Louis Suchet

But to Napoleon, how did even the Battle of Salamanca compare to the enormity of the struggles on the Moskova or the Berezina? To both the French emperor and Tsar Alexander I, the ‘Spanish Ulcer’, even in December 1812, was still only an irritation. In the central European theatre, Napoleon’s main – indeed only – opponent was Russia, but the Russian armies had suffered almost as severely as had the French during the terrible winter campaign. The Russian troops were exhausted, supplies were low, and the generals were unwilling to push on into the west.

Then there was Sweden. Since April 1812, Alexander I had had an agreement of mutual assistance with the Regent of Sweden, the former Napoleonic Marshal Bernadotte. This had followed Napoleon’s refusal to back the Swedish conquest of Norway from his ally Denmark, and had been hastened by his insistence that Sweden should enforce the Continental System. The Swedes had more to lose than to gain by doing so and Bernadotte’s reluctance to press matters against Britain led to the French occupation of Swedish Pomerania in January 1812, thus giving the Tsar his first ally through the Treaty of Stockholm. In April 1813 Prussia too acceded to the Treaty of Stockholm, allying herself with Sweden, and in May 1813, Bernadotte’s army landed at Stralsund, considerably extending the potential of the allied military effort.

There was, at the close of the Russian campaign, no indication that Austria meant to abandon her French alliance, nor did Prussia present as yet any semblance of threat; the movement which would soon burst out in the Befreiungskrieg (War of Liberation) was still buried. Thus the possibility that in early 1814, the armies of Austria, Prussia and Russia would cross the Rhine; while those of Britain, Portugal and Spain would march into Bordeaux, must have seemed unworthy of even the most casual speculation. The spark which ignited the collective will to fight against Napoleon was lit on 30 December 1812 by the Convention of Tauroggen between a Prussian army corps and the Russians. It was this that would make two wars, one Franco-Russian and the other in the Peninsula, into a European, coalition war.

At Alexander’s headquarters during the winter of 1812/13, Count Karl Nesselrode had pushed forward the view that Russia alone would never force a settlement with France on any basis but the status quo. Such a settlement would not provide stability, for it would leave Napoleon’s power base intact. Thus the objective must be to restrict Napoleon to at least the so-called ‘natural frontiers’ of France and the means to achieve that would have to be a coalition. The Convention of Tauroggen had therefore to be translated into a treaty which would be the basis of that coalition. As things fell out, not only would this coalition destroy Napoleon’s empire, it would also be the basis of a general Russian-Prussian alignment which would last until 1878.

Alexander dispatched Baron Heinrich Stein, leader of the strongly nationalist Tugenbund, who bullied the fearful and unwilling King Frederick William of Prussia into agreeing terms with Russia; on 28 February 1813, Prussia and Russia were formally allied by a treaty signed at Kalisch on the Polish frontier. It was followed three weeks later by Frederick William’s proclamation An Mein Volk (“To My People’) on 17 March 1813, and thus began what is still known in Germany as Befreiungskrieg, the War of Liberation, although with the Confederation of the Rhine still bound to Napoleon and so it was as much as anything a German civil war.

But the French disaster in Russia which filled Alexander with hope, filled Chancellor Count Metternich of Austria with alarm. Metternich was in favour of a European equilibrium that would restore monarchical rule as well as limit territorial ambitions. He was deeply concerned with the dangers unleashed by revolutionary sentiment following Napoleon’s dismemberment of Italy and Germany; and Stein’s vision of a united Germany under Prussian leadership was a further threat to Austrian dominance. In addition, Polish national feeling, which Napoleon had awakened by the creation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, threatened instability in the east. In a multiethnic entity like the Habsburg Empire, nationalist sentiment was a truly dangerous thing.

His policy seemed in danger in late 1812, for to Metternich there was a sense of danger in the possibility of Napoleon and Alexander making a separate peace on terms favourable to Russia, ignoring Austria which was still, at least on paper, in alliance with France. Metternich responded with characteristic skill. He sent General Count von Bubna to Napoleon, warning the Emperor not to take the Austrian alliance for granted, nor to assume that rivalry between Prussia and Austria was irreversible. At the same time he sent Count Stadion to the Tsar, warning him that Napoleon was still dangerous and likely to raise a new army. His third emissary was Baron Wessenberg, who was sent to London to suggest that a continental peace was now possible – a suggestion which was firmly rebuffed by a British government with no interest in making any peace with Napoleon which did not address maritime rights, the independence of the Low Countries, and the British pledges to Sweden, Sicily, Portugal and Spain.

No further progress towards extending the alliance against Napoleon was made until the Armistice of Pleiswitz in June 1813 which followed the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen in May 1813, fought between Napoleon on one side and the armies of Russia and Prussia on the other. Across the Atlantic, the American campaigns against York and on the Niagara were in full swing, HMS Shannon had captured the USS Chesapeake and the British naval blockade of US Ports was biting hard. Lutzen and Bautzen were inconclusive but the three day’s battle at Bautzen was severe enough to make both sides seek a pause. During the armistice, through the mediation of Austria, a final attempt to reach a settlement with Napoleon was made at the Congress of Prague. Napoleon’s victories at Lűtzen and Bautzen in May had certainly proved the stimulus of fear, and at this point London again took a hand. Lord Liverpool was well aware of the dangers of a continental peace based on compromise with Napoleon. Two British liaison officers, General Lord Cathcart and Major-General Sir Charles Stewart (Lord Castlereagh’s half-brother), had been attached to the Prussian and Russian headquarters and these two made it very plain to the allies that England would never agree to any peace which disregarded her interest: the English financial subsidies which were so vital to the allied war effort, therefore, would only continue so long as Britain was in full knowledge of the allied councils, a position strengthened immeasurably by the news of Wellington’s truly decisive victory at Vitoria on 21 June, which came in while the Congress of Prague was in session. British accession to the coalition was never, therefore, in any doubt and even before any formal treaty was agreed, she acted in concert with Russia, Sweden and Prussia.

But there were at this stage of the European war still four distinct allied policies which had to be reconciled before the 6th Coalition could complete its task, leaving aside the particular policies of London in the Americas. These were those of Britain, Spain, Portugal and Sicily; those of Britain, Sweden and Russia; those of Russia and Prussia; and finally those of Austria. While the Congress of Prague was still in progress, the British ambassadors signed treaties with Prussia on 14 June and with Russia on 15 June, and agreed subsidies of £1.5 million in return for a promise that no separate peace would be made with Napoleon. This was a powerful lever in obliging Austria to accede to the Treaty of Reichenbach 12 days later. The treaty was only to come into effect if Napoleon refused the Austrian mediation at the Congress of Prague but we must conclude that once Britain had compelled all the allies to fight for her war aims as well as their own, Napoleon was bound to refuse the mediation and thus force Austria into Britain’s arms. The treaties signed at Reichenbach were, therefore, a masterpiece of diplomatic skill, and were moreover the first real step towards Castlereagh’s aim of uniting all the allies in one unbreakable block – which was achieved on 12 August 1813, the date on which the central European alliance of England, Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden was confirmed at Teplitz.

At this stage, something of London’s grand design emerges. Britain had, throughout the development of the central European alliance, continued to follow the precepts which had been laid down by Pitt which in turn were founded on principles that had applied to British foreign policy since the reign of Elizabeth: that any expansion of Russia should be balanced by the strengthening of Austria and Prussia; that Prussian influence should be extended in northern and western Germany; that Austrian interests should be diverted away from competition with Prussia by extending her interests in Italy and Illyria; and that the colonial territories of France and her allies which Britain had conquered should be used as bargaining chips to achieve the balance of power described by the first three precepts.

To implement this policy, Pitt’s successor, Lord Liverpool, used chiefly the weapon which Napoleon sought to destroy through is Continental System: finance. Britain had, by means of its commercial wealth, been the paymaster of coalition war in Europe since 1793. In 1813, it again embarked on a programme of subsidies in money and equipment amounting to £10.4 million. Total government spending at this time was £87 million, of which 62%, or £53.8 million, went on defence. The subsidies accounted for a fifth of that amount - £580 billion at today’s rates. Thus the vast financial resources of the British Empire underpinned the allied will to continue the struggle which reached its climax at Leipzig. The power of subsidy cannot be understated. Without it the allies, even Austria, had almost no chance of continuing the war. These subsidies, in money, weapons and munitions, amounted to £7 million to Austria; £0.66 million to Prussia; £2.46 million to Portugal; £1 million to Russia; £0.87 million to Spain; £0.44 million to Sicily; and £1.33 million to Sweden. England may have been a minor contributor to the coalition war effort on land, but without her financial power, no armies could have kept the field for long. Figures are hard to come by but as an illustration of this, Russia generated about £40 million in revenue in 1812 and spent £15 million of it on defence. Since a large amount of this was eaten up with fixed costs like pay and food for troops and horses, clothing, general administration, the maintenance of fortifications and so on, the margins available for launching an expeditionary campaign were tight and it was the English subsidy that provided the elastic.

In spite of the agency of England, the allies could not agree on a unified strategy until early 1814, even though unified plans had been formed. The eventual decision to restore the Bourbons and the ancient regime signalled that Napoleon would not be able to survive, but the need to make the Bourbons generally acceptable left the allies in the difficult position of being unable to insist on the sort of humiliating surrender terms that Napoleon invited by his regular rejection of terms even after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig in October 1813.

Napoleon shared the same disease that afflicts most dictators: never knowing when to give up. His defeat at Leipzig was indeed decisive. Here, well over half a million men fought for six days. In Napoleon’s army there were Frenchmen, Italians, Neapolitans, Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgians, Swiss, Poles, Saxons, Wuttemburgers, Westphalians, a host of contingents from small Germanic states, Croats and Illyrians. Against him fought Prusians, Russians, Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovacks, Slovenes, Mecklenburgers, Swedes, English, Cossacks, Bashkirs and Kalmachs. It was the greatest battle in Western Europe before the First World War and the largest engagement of the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. History knows it as the Battle of the Nations: Surely, it could have no other name.

Battle of VitoriaBy the time it was over, Napoleon had lost half his army killed, wounded, deserted, sick or taken, half his artillery, 700 tons of powder and shot and 40,000 weapons. He crossed the Rhine into France with only 80,000 fighting men, of whom perhaps 2/3rds were fit for battle. Thus to follow up their victory, the allied armies crossed the Rhine into France very early in the campaigning season – on 21 December 1813.

While the enormous events had been unfolding in central Europe, England’s main contribution against Napoleon continued to be at sea: a constant blockade of all French and client ports, the maintenance of trade and the interdiction of enemy commerce, the seizure of colonies were all principally naval business and after Trafalgar, the French were never again able directly to challenge the Royal Navy’s supremacy – in spite of building and manning large numbers of superb ships, resourced as they were with the finest timber, sailcloth, cordage and ironwork that the whole of their continental possessions could supply. It was in Spain and Portugal, therefore, that French and British arms clashed most violently. Portugal had been England’s ally since the 14th Century. Spain, a once powerful country which for centuries had been France’s rival, had been transformed by Napoleon’s treachery through the secret treaty of San Ildefonso into a vassal: the country was invaded and occupied, King Ferdinand imprisoned and replaced by the Emperor’s brother, Joseph. In dishonouring Spain, Napoleon triggered first a popular revolt, and then a British intervention in both Spain and Portugal. Napoleon himself defeated the expedition in Spain under Sir John Moore, who was killed during the evacuation of the force from Corunna on 16 January 1809. The British main effort then switched to Portugal where Sir Arthur Wellesley was placed in command of the British, German and Portuguese armies. The war in Spain and Portugal continued for the next five years, both on the main front in Portugal and on the much less well-known subsidiary front in Catalonia which was actually run by Lord Bentinck in from Sicily a constant drain on French resources which became known as “the Spanish ulcer.” Napoleon had, in seeking to annex Spain, made a fatal strategic miscalculation which, when later combined with the Russian campaign and the adverse effects of the Continental System, brought him down.

By early 1813, the strength of the British regular army had been increased to 255,000 men of whom the largest force was that deployed for the defence and internal security of the British Isles – especially Ireland. This was followed in importance by the garrisons of the rich West Indies colonies, India and the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean stations, New South Wales and North America. However the war in Spain demanded a force that rose to 55,000 men at its peak, formed into nine divisions when augmented by Portuguese and German allies. In 1813, his force reinforced and with the powers of generalissimo over an increasingly effective Spanish army – many of them guerrillas turned regular – he evicted the French from most of Spain in the brilliant campaign of Vitoria.

In order to regenerate his armies in Central Europe, Napoleon had had to strip troops from the Peninsula; at the same time reinforcements continued to be fed into Wellington's army. The difficulties facing the French commanders, King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan, mounted as their armies became increasingly fixed by allied regular and guerrilla forces. In May 1813 Wellington returned to the offensive, striking northwards towards Burgos without allowing the French armies the chance to concentrate. From Burgos, Wellington outflanked Joseph by wheeling through the mountains to the north, supplied from the sea through the ports of northern Spain rather than on the long and tenuous land route back to Lisbon. Joseph finally took up a defensive position in the valley of the Zadorra river on the plain of Vitoria, where on 21 June the combined French armies were routed. This was campaigning at its finest, the product of surprise, speed, sound logistics and maritime support: the equal of the Emperor at the height of his powers.

By the end of the year, two major French counter-moves had been repulsed and, once the outcome of the Congress of Prague was known, Wellington pushed into southern France: to have done so before being certain that Napoleon’s main armies would be engaged by the combined strength of a united Europe and not, therefore, free to turn on him, would have been unthinkable. On 7 October 1813 Wellington crossed the Bidassoa into France; on 10 November the French defences along the line of the Nivelle were broken. Soult counter-attacked again on 10 December after Wellington had crossed the Nive. On 27 February 1814 Wellington attacked and defeated the Soult’s army at Orthez.

Further north, the resolve of the continental allies was being tested by Napoleon's brilliant and vigorous defence of France – but matters were only going to end one way. Paris was entered by the allies on 31 March. The last battle of the Peninsular War was fought on 10 April as Wellington cleared the French from the Calvinet Ridge overlooking the city of Toulouse. On 12 April, news reached Wellington of Napoleon's abdication.

It was for this reason that until mid 1814, so few British troops could be spared for the American war and why strategy as seen from London recognised only Halifax, Quebec and the maintenance of the navigation of the Lakes as strategically significant – thus the mis-match of ideas between Prevost and Brock, for example. With Napoleon beaten and the Congress of Vienna in session, British naval power was quickly turned towards America, strengthening and extending the blockade of the American coast, raiding inland and bombarding fortifications. In August, Washington was burned and Maine occupied; but in September, Baltimore was saved and Prevost beaten at Plattsburg. There was a large body of opinion, sure, that favoured shipping the whole of the Peninsular army to America and taking revenge for the stab in the back in 1812: but other counsels prevailed. Wellington himself clearly favoured a resolution as quickly as possible and the negotiations at Ghent concluded well before Napoleon returned, with the violets, in the early spring of 1815.

But if we are truly to understand how conflict in North America fitted into the wider strategic matrix, we have to understand that a major casualty of the campaign in Russia and the events of 1813 in particular was the collapse of Napoleon’s Continental System. It had been this system, and its effects on the trading relations of the world and on England’s ability, through trading revenue, to bankroll the coalitions against Napoleon, which turned European war into a world war that also encompassed America; but this war was some time in the making. In the late eighteenth century, Americans for the most part regarded France with affection for her support in the Revolutionary War, following the Franco-American alliance of February 1778. The beginning of the revolution in France therefore caused much satisfaction in many quarters of the United States, but the Terror showed such an unacceptable face to the USA that after the declaration of war by France against Britain in 1793, the USA continued to trade with both belligerent nations. Indeed on 19 November 1794, the USA and Britain went so far as to sign a treaty of friendship, commerce and navigation.

This caused so much friction between the USA and France that in July 1798, Congress passed an act declaring the US government free of all treaty obligations to France, and even began preparations for war. In France, the Directory rapidly realised that matters had got out of control and resolved to regain American goodwill, inviting the US to send commissioners to France to negotiate a new treaty. By the time the commissioners actually arrived in Paris, the coup of Brumaire had made Bonaparte first consul. Napoleon’s personal interest in the treaty negotiations led to a significant diplomatic success. The Convention of Paris in September 1800, declared friendship and peace between the two countries, while leaving the question of the Franco-American treaty of 1778 to a future round of negotiations.

The real significance of this convention lay in its provision for free trade and a lowering of tariff barriers, since even in 1800, Britain was piling up a large war debt which could only be serviced by exports of manufactured goods. Since nearly one-third of this export trade was to the USA, any reduction of it must help France. At the same time, Bonaparte was engaged in the negotiations with London which led to the Peace of Amiens, and in concluding the second, secret, Treaty of San Ildefonso with Spain – the then owners of the Louisiana Territory. Louisiana, which had been French until 40 years before, was costing Spain over $340 million per year to maintain and combined with some alarm at US territorial ambitions this proved a powerful spur on the Spanish to give up the territory.

It is possible that Napoleon dreamed of replacing the lost Canadian New France of the eighteenth century with another, linking the islands of the Caribbean, Martinique, St Lucia, Guadaloupe, Haiti and Hispaniola to the Mississippi valley and thence in the centre of North America - a French-speaking new world which would overshadow Spain, Britain and the USA. But France could hardly take possession of the territory while still at war with England, for to do so would only invite the English to seize it, and thus the Peace of Amiens provided the opportunity for Napoleon to form General Victor’s expeditionary force to secure the territory. Clearly, however, the Spanish government had second thoughts soon after the agreement and tried to delay the actual handover until Napoleon had promised never to cede the territory to a third power. The Spanish governor remained in post and in October 1802, he abolished the right of US citizens to trade through New Orleans.

This move, coming on top of the news of the cession which in itself seemed to President Thomas Jefferson to renew the prospect of confrontation and conflict with France, pushed Jefferson towards the purchase of the territory. In January 1803 he sent James Monroe as Minister Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Paris, authorising him to open negotiations for the purchase of the east bank of the Mississippi River and the island of New Orleans, which would give the US a secure frontier and an outlet for trade. Napoleon, prompted by the likely renewal of war with Britain and the need for money, was willing to sell the whole territory.

The matter was soon arranged. A treaty of cession was signed on 30 April 1803 which transferred Louisiana to the USA, binding the US to pay 60 million francs (15 million dollars), with interest. This at a time when federal revenue was at most $20 million a year, GDP about $500 million, and represents about $8.4 billion at today’s rates: no mean sum, therefore. Spain had at this point no choice but to agree, but the deal was certainly one of the many causes of bitterness between France and Spain which would later erupt into open war and drive the Spanish into the arms of their ancient enemy, England. As it was, on 20 December 1803, New Orleans became an American city, and the size of US territory almost doubled.

The collapse of the Peace of Amiens in May 1803, shortly after the Louisiana Purchase had been settled, was also the trigger for Napoleon to push ahead with his Continental System. That it developed as it did, however, was the result of Napoleon’s inability to carry through the invasion and conquest of the British Isles. After this, the system was really the only method for him to attack the English directly. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Peace of Amiens, French client states and allies, like Spain and Naples, were obliged to adopt the embryo system, and so too was Prussia after the formation of the Franco-Prussian alliance of February 1806. The closure of the Prussian coast to English trade brought in a state of war with England and a blockade of Prussian ports by the Royal Navy. Furthermore the articles which established the Confederation of the Rhine in July 1806 forbade all those states from trading with England.

It was not until Napoleon’s first alliance with Prussia had overturned into war during 1806, and then war into conquest, that the Continental System was codified in the Berlin Decree. In these decrees, which had monumental consequences for the Napoleonic state and its clients, Napoleon laid down the doctrine that it was the failure completely to exclude English influence which had led to the continuation of war. To bring about the sort of peace that he sought, Napoleon proposed to put the British Isles in a state of exclusion. He was quite clear that in doing so, he was accepting war to the end: either England would be brought down, or his empire would be destroyed – there was no possibility of compromise. Napoleon knew well that the British national debt was enormous: in 1812 it had reached £609 million and by 1814, £725 million – multiply by about 1,000 for today’s rates, at a time when GDP was about £330 million per year. By comparison, it did not approach the same figure again until the First World War. Only the export trade could service this kind of debt and thus maintain Britain’s ability to sustain war.

The important articles of the Berlin Decrees were first, that the British Isles were placed in a state of blockade; second, that all commerce and all correspondence were interdicted; and third, that all merchandise belonging to England, or coming from its factories and from its colonies, was forbidden. The Milan Decrees in 1807 further extended the system by increasing the pressure on neutral nations – but incidentally doing little harm to England. This decree stated that any ship of any nation which submitted to search by the Royal Navy, or which paid any English dues, would be seized on entering a French port. The decrees, followed by the further decrees of St Cloud and Trianon in 1810, created the commercial borders of the French Empire, keeping English goods out, but with the intention of letting French industry and commerce fill the gap. This completely Franco-centric system even went so far as to exclude manufactured goods from industrial areas within the Empire when they competed with France. In the industrialised areas of Germany such as the Grand Duchy of Berg, for example, the resulting job losses were dramatic: 10,000 by 1810, a contributing factor to the revolts which broke out in the Confederation of the Rhine in January 1813.

The years 1806 and 1812 were years of enormous economic strain for the belligerent powers, and all Napoleon’s diplomatic and military efforts were directed towards perfecting the system. The client states and allies had no choice but to accept the system, other states were coerced into it by military defeat; by the time of the invasion of Russia, only Turkey, Sicily and Portugal were officially outside it. Not that the client states or reluctant allies were at all in favour of the system – quite the reverse. Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, for example, tried to gain exemption from it, but received the reply that ‘it is the only way to strike at England and to force her to make peace.’ But only two months later Napoleon was again writing to Louis that ‘I am informed that commerce between Holland and England has never been more active.

Where the system worked, and Napoleon kept out British trade, Europe suffered, because the Continental System was not a blockade of Great Britain by France, for the French navy was incapable of attempting this. Nor was it a blockade of the French Empire by the English, for the English government freely issued licences for trading with Europe. The Continental System was a blockade of the French Empire by itself.

But the Continental System really only worked where the French dominated all the coasts. France and Italy were relatively secure, but Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium and the Baltic were never properly committed. This state of affairs was largely behind the incorporation of Holland into France in 1810, followed by northern Hanover and part of Westphalia in 1811. Even so it almost worked, albeit indirectly, as America became more closely embroiled in the affairs of Europe. But the extension of the system by the annexation of the north German littoral was bound to offend the Tsar. The annexed territory included the Baltic port of Lűbeck and the possessions of the Duke of Oldenburg, a cousin of the Tsar, which had been guaranteed by the Franco-Russian Treaty of Tilsit. Thus the annexations, aimed directly at control of the Baltic, directly threatened Russian interests and violated treaty obligations.

Tsar Alexander had, as a result of the Treaty of Tilsit, joined the Continental System but he had never excluded neutral shipping, which of course carried English trade. Tilsit had also bound the Tsar to force Sweden to join the system and the Tsar had done so, by war. In 1809, the Swedes had joined the system. But after this war, the Swedes had continued to trade freely with England and indeed, the more closely Napoleon controlled the north German coast and Denmark, the more the Swedes benefited from English trade both in Sweden proper and in Pomerania. Thus the Continental System, perhaps because it was never in operation for long, succeeded only in setting most of Europe against Napoleon. But given that only one-third of England’s trade was with Europe, while two-thirds was with the rest of the world, it was the indirect effect of the system which most nearly brought disaster to England and which was to bring her into conflict with America.

In response to the Continental System, the English tried to do two things: first, to keep open the seas so that any neutral nation, especially America, could trade with them. The Royal Navy in general did a good job but of course, French privateers did their best to counter this: they took 500 British ships per year on average between 1793 and 1815. On the other hand by 1811, some 4,000 former French ships flew the British flag. Secondly, they aimed to penalise any neutral state which adhered to the system. The mechanism for achieving that was the Orders-in-Council, issued in response to the Berlin Decrees from January 1807. The first order stated that

No vessel shall be permitted to trade from one port to another, both of which ports shall belong to or be in the possession of France or her allies, or shall be so far under their control, as that British vessels may not freely trade thereat.

Subsequent orders and the system of licences increased the pressure on both neutrals and states within the Continental System to defy Napoleon, and thus English goods continued to reach Europe in neutral ships which were further encouraged by relaxation of the British navigation acts. As time went on, the licence system became a vital measure for keeping Wellington’s Peninsular Army fed, chiefly on American grain.

In America, controls imposed by both France and Britain were bitterly resented, although it is doubtful if either President Jefferson, or his successor James Madison, realised that the Berlin Decrees had brought in a total war. In 1807, Jefferson introduced an embargo act which prohibited US trade with all foreign nations. This act did far more harm than good, was widely ignored, and was replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act (1809), which prohibited trade with either France or Britain until each dropped their blockade decrees. This act again it did more harm to the US than to France or Britain. Napoleon’s response was the Decree of Rambouillet, by which all US shipping entering French ports or found on the high seas was subject to seizure. In 1810, Congress repealed the act, but offered to either power which respected neutral rights the reward of refusing trade with the other.

Napoleon’s response was that the Milan Decrees would be revoked on the understanding that so would the Orders-in-Council, and in November 1810, Madison gave London three months to repeal the orders and, receiving no satisfactory response, re-imposed the embargo act. Thus Napoleon, who had no intention whatsoever of weakening his system, hoodwinked the US and pushed her further towards war with Britain. Certainly, given the trade figures I described earlier, the most dangerous situation for Britain was a successful Continental System and a disruption to US trade, and this is exactly what occurred in 1811.

The results for the British economy were dramatic. Lancashire was deprived of raw cotton, and goods began to pile up at ports. British exports to the US fell from £11 million per year to £2 million, and the government found itself forced to pay for the vital American grain in gold rather than in goods. Weekly wages for workers fell by two-thirds, and in industrial Lancashire, a fifth of the population was thrown onto the rates by unemployment as the mills were forced to close. Credit and gold became unobtainable and there was a run on the pound. Worse still, food prices rose 87 per cent above their pre-war levels because of a bad harvest and the need to import grain from Italy, Poland and even France – which Napoleon permitted in order to accelerate the drain on his rival’s exchequer.

There were riots in Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, which required the diversion of troops from the Peninsula: the situation was critical, for a rebellion in England now would certainly have handed victory to Napoleon. But in fact, relief was already in sight. The embargo and non-intercourse acts had been hugely unpopular in America, especially in New England, and were widely ignored by the mercantile community who were happy to continue to use British licences. In this they were encouraged by the British, who after 1812, continued to trade with New England while blockading southern ports from the Gulf coast to Long Island, thus increasing national divisions and anti-war sentiment in New England.

England’s saviour was the Tsar. His famous Ukase of December 1810, gave preferential treatment to neutral US shipping and thereby indirectly re-opened the door to English trade. In doing so, he effectively spelled the death of the Continental System. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 accelerated the process by opening the ports of Russia and Sweden to British ships as well as neutrals: by the spring of 1813, British exports were at their highest level for years: total exports were valued at £118 million for the year 1812-13, while taxation yielded £68 million, or five times the pre-war figure. It was this that allowed England, with a population of only 18 million, to subsidise the armies of the 6th Coalition that brought Napoleon down.

However matters went from bad to worse between Britain and the USA. The issue of impressments aside, the matter of the Orders-in-Council was one of the stated reasons for Madison’s declaration of war in 1812. By the time of the declaration, the British government had revoked the orders – there seemed no need for them any longer – however this news did not reach Washington in time. But the other issues remained unanswered and the British seemed willing to fight to uphold them, especially impressment, and to use economic weapons to undermine Madison at home.

The issue of privateering is worthy of remark, for apart from the invasion of Canada, this was the only method by which the US could attack Britain directly. This it did essentially through private enterprise – privateers – backed up by its small naval resources, and it must be said, with considerable success. The privateers interfered with the sea communications between Britain and the Peninsula and Wellington’s dispatches are full of complaints about the inability of the Royal Navy to check their activities. They intercepted cargoes bound for Spain, they forced ships to sail in convoy, thus slowing down the supply rate, they attacked the valuable Indiamen and Guineamen carrying rich cargoes from Asia and Africa. Privateering did, however, have disadvantages: it diverted the best seamen and resources from the US Navy; and because it was private enterprise, it was more likely to try and intercept the rich, profitable Indiaman than the less glamorous, but vital, supply brig loaded with weapons, ammunition, or equipment.

The British blockade on American ports was however highly effective, for US shipping losses were if anything greater in volume – and therefore far greater in effect - than those of Britain, for the Royal Navy took 1,400 American ships and 20,000 seamen between 1812 and 1815, effectively stopping all American trade except for that needed by England, and bankrupting the US exchequer. US GDP rose dramatically between 1803 and 1814, from $0.5 billion to $1.1 billion, reflecting the fortunes being made from illicit wartime trade – but it fell back rapidly once peace was signed, however government revenues never rose above $20 million a year and the burden of paying for the war was therefore insupportable. It, in contrast to GDP, rose quickly once peace was signed.

So at last we come to the great paradox of the world war between 1812 and 1815. US trade continued with Spain and Portugal, with Britain’s continental allies like Russia and Sweden. Through their ports, transhipped American cotton could be brought to English mills, supplementing that which was smuggled out with the connivance of the blockading squadrons. Trade also continued with British North America too: US grain fed not only the British Peninsular and Mediterranean armies and the Royal Navy that was blockading its coasts, but also the British army in the Canadas and the Maritime provinces - and also to a large extent the allied civilian populations of Spain and Portugal thanks to English licences. It was a trade which had to be kept going, even when for England to pay for the grain in gold meant that allied troops in Europe fell six months in arrears of pay. So while American and British troops fought each other in the Canadas or on US soil; and American privateers attacked British ships on the coast of Europe; and the Royal navy and the US Navy did battle at sea and on the lakes; it was American trade and American food, bought with English gold, that sustained the allied war effort against Napoleon.


Read Napoleon as a General by Jonathon Riley