Tate Britain, London

Philip James de Loutherbourg: The Battle of the Nile, 1800

Throughout 1940, Virginia Woolf struggled with the terrors and mysteries of war. Neither of the Woolfs knew that their names were on the “black list” of Britons set to be arrested—and presumably killed—in the event of a successful Nazi invasion, but since Leonard was Jewish, the couple prepared for the worst. They hoarded gasoline in their garage so as to be able to kill themselves by inhaling carbon monoxide, and took the further precaution of acquiring a deadly dose of morphine from a friend. But none of this protected them from hearing Hitler’s voice over the radio, or the noise of German bombers flying over their London house at night, rattling its windowpanes.

“Here they are again,” wrote Virginia in a famous essay published five months before her suicide. “It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death.” Earlier, she had written of how different all this was from British experience of the Napoleonic Wars. Both Jane Austen and Walter Scott lived through those conflicts, she noted, yet neither had mentioned it in their novels. This, she thought, demonstrated “that their model, their vision of human life, was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves…. Wars were then remote; wars were carried on by soldiers and sailors, not by private people.”

In some respects, these claims reveal more about Woolf and the extent of her vulnerability at the outset of World War II than about the Napoleonic Wars, or about Austen and Scott, both of whom in fact wrote frequently on these conflicts, albeit in different ways. Scott composed a rousing song for a volunteer regiment and hoped that his poems and novels on medieval themes would help transform the “whole of the nation into soldiers.” After the wars, he also published a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.

As for Austen, she was always sensitive to how wars “carried on by soldiers and sailors” could nonetheless have an impact on “private people” at home, not least women. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet family is turned upside down and Lydia is ruined because of the movements of a militia regiment charged with guarding the country against a French invasion; while in Persuasion Anne Elliot is finally able to wed Captain Wentworth, an officer in the Royal Navy (as were two of Austen’s own brothers), because of the money he has made capturing French ships, and therefore of course killing Frenchmen.

Yet the fact that Wentworth’s sea battles are only alluded to indirectly in the novel, and take place outside its pages and out of sight of its civilian characters, points to the way in which Virginia Woolf’s remarks in 1940 possess some validity. With only an uneasy truce from early 1802 to the spring of 1803, Britain and France were otherwise continually at war from February 1793 to Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. But whereas France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, the Netherlands, Russia, Austria, Poland, Egypt, South Africa, Ceylon, together with parts of the Caribbean, the United States, and India were all at some point directly caught up in fighting that was connected to these mammoth wars, the territory of Britain itself (though not Ireland) remained free from battle and conspicuous slaughter. To this extent, and in the literary scholar Mary A. Favret’s phrase, this was “war at a distance.”* As far as Britain was concerned, the conflict with France went on well nigh unrelentingly for almost a quarter of a century, but—in some ways at least—it took place only elsewhere.

This poses challenges for those seeking to understand the British home front between 1793 and 1815, in much the same way that American historians face challenges when trying to assess the impact of armed conflict on the United States after the Civil War in the 1860s, particularly in the states that were not scenes of fighting. How exactly does one investigate, measure, and describe the effects of warfare on a society that engages in it on a large scale, and is touched by it in multiple ways, but nonetheless remains in part free from direct contact with many of war’s more extreme brutalities? What does war mean to a society that continues to enjoy butter, while other peoples are mainly experiencing guns?

In her new book, In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793–1815, Jenny Uglow’s response to these challenges is to link together, along with a mass of other archival, printed, and visual evidence, testimonies and responses from “a cavalcade…of actors.” She has ransacked the letters and diaries of some forty individuals and families who lived through these wars. About a third of her sample is made up of women, and it includes soldiers and sailors, arms manufacturers, brewers and Quakers, industrialists and factory workers, fine ladies and farmers, clergymen, bankers and radical artisans. With great skill, Uglow threads the voices of these individuals through no fewer than sixty chapters, taking the story in chronological order from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the aftermath of Waterloo. Thus Chapter 40, which looks at the “private lives” of Britons during the year after the crucial naval battle of Trafalgar in 1805, is made up almost entirely of diary entries and personal letters, and ranges from a mother writing to her eleven-year-old son to an account of an agricultural worker perishing under the wheels of a cart.


Along with Uglow’s vivid prose and her close understanding of the period and its literature, this method can be illuminating. She conveys very well the sense of dislocation felt by men and women who knew their country to be engaged in an unprecedentedly huge war, but who were still able more or less to get on with their ordinary lives, just as in peacetime. People in other countries also sometimes experienced this sense of dislocation, in part because there was no television or photography available to bring the sight of battle into civilian homes and force awareness of its violence.

But since Britain was cut off from the killing fields of Continental Europe both by the sea and by the world’s strongest navy, the detachment and disarray felt by some of its inhabitants could be very marked. The feverishly compressed diary entries of Mary Hardy, a Norfolk brewer’s wife, are full of this only half-acknowledged tension, this sense of living through quite different times at the same time. “Mrs Forster came an hour in the eveng. The British troops & Allies defeated in Flanders,” she writes. Or again: “Mrs Lebor & Miss Brathwaite drank tea here. A Great Battle fought in Germany….”

Even more sophisticated reporters could find themselves struggling to react to what they knew to be epic and terrible events that were experienced only at a disconcerting remove. In December 1805, when the body of Admiral Horatio Nelson was brought back to England, pickled in alcohol, and readied for a grand state funeral, the essayist Charles Lamb sought and failed to find suitable language to convey the mood in London. “The whole town,” he wrote to William Hazlitt, was “as unsettled as a young Lady the day before being married.”

Uglow is also very good at evoking the decidedly mixed fortunes that could be experienced by individuals caught up for years in these horrendously long wars. As is always the case, some very poor men who fought but managed to survive were nonetheless left irremediably damaged. Ned Costello, formerly of the Rifle Brigade, was just able, after the war, to pay the fare back to Calais for his French-born common-law wife and their baby. But he had no money left to stay with her there: “‘Ne m’oubliez pas,’ were her last words: as she squeezed my hand,” he wrote. As is also always the case, protracted warfare allowed some entrepreneurial and lucky men to flourish, even when their origins were very modest.

This was true of William Baldock, “a poor boy…remarkable for dirtiness and slovenliness,” who climbed relentlessly from a bricklayer’s laborer to a builder of army barracks. It was no less true of Claude Scott, who seems to have started out keeping the books in an alehouse in East London, near Stepney. Equipped with an agility for figures and on-site knowledge he had acquired of the dockside grain trade, he managed to purchase enough Polish wheat to supply a British expedition to the West Indies, and ended his career worth £300,000, easily a billionaire by today’s standards.

Uglow excels at telling such revealing small stories. She is aided enormously in reconstructing them by the fact that while, by the late eighteenth century, literacy and print were expanding fast on both sides of the Atlantic, war and communications remained remarkably low-tech. Both the French and the British experimented with optical telegraphy during these wars. But in the main, state officials, army and navy officers, ordinary fighting men, and “those at home looking on, waiting, working, watching,” as Uglow puts it, spent enormous amounts of time writing things down. One of the things that struck visitors to Waterloo in the immediate aftermath of the battle was not just the stripped and pillaged corpses of the soldiers, and the carcasses of thousands upon thousands of horses, but also the sheer amount of paper littering the field, stuck fast to bloodied bodies, or caught up in a breeze and drifting slowly across them. These were the remains not just of books and pamphlets and newspapers, but also of handwritten military orders and maps, diaries, wills, makeshift stories intended for the press, final letters home, paper keepsakes from wives, parents, girlfriends, and children, and more.


It is in part because so much writing emerged from these struggles at the time, and such a dramatic cast was engaged in them, not least Napoleon himself, that so many books have been devoted to these wars during the past two hundred years. Yet there is always much more to war than individuals and writing, and Uglow’s chosen approach inevitably brings with it certain limitations. She has done so much research, and uncovered so many wonderful extracts and sources, that it is possible to perceive in her account some of the broader, more impersonal contours of the wars between 1793 and 1815. But one has to know what to look for, and the reader is left to do a great deal of work.

One can detect, for instance, some of the ways in which, for Britain, these were not simply wars fought at a distance. By 1800, the country possessed the world’s most advanced and diverse press and publishing networks, so it was perforce deeply and directly caught up in the ideological arguments that were at the very heart of this “war of system against system,” as the London Times put it. Before the French Revolution, the word “democracy” had generally been used in Britain only in reference to classical times, or was cited disapprovingly as a mode of government synonymous with mass disorder.

Many Britons continued to hold this view of democracy very strongly after 1789. But as Uglow’s stories suggest, new readings of the term also became far more prevalent. In 1796, when the eleven-year-old Louisa Gurney detected preferential treatment being extended to her older sister, she knew—child of a proud nonconformist family as she was—exactly how to frame her protest. “I love democracy, whenever and in whatever form it appears,” she wrote defiantly.

Nor was Britain entirely immune to the territorial adjustments that these wars inflicted on so many other parts of Europe and the world beyond. One of the accusations British politicians and polemicists regularly flung at French revolutionaries and at Napoleon was that they kept invading other countries in the name of liberty, and then rigged up new constitutions in order to dominate them. These accusations were valid enough, but the British were fully capable—as Uglow shows—of acting in a comparable manner themselves.

During the summer of 1800, the parliaments of Westminster and Dublin passed Acts of Union for the melding together (on paper) of the islands of Britain and Ireland, a new written constitution of sorts. The resulting multinational conglomerate was given a new name, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It also acquired a new flag, a new royal seal, and a new title for its king, George III, plus a changed parliamentary order that would have dramatic political repercussions throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The reason for these alterations was London’s determination that Napoleon not be allowed to use Ireland as a staging ground for an invasion of Britain. In order to block this, its rulers were obliged and prepared to oversee a substantial remodeling of the British state itself.

Of course, Britain was not simply a state. By this stage, it was an empire that had substantially recovered from the “loss” of the American colonies in the previous great war, and was expanding in other parts of the world at a faster rate than ever before. This point, too, emerges regularly from Uglow’s pages, without however being specifically acknowledged or analyzed. Time and time again we catch glimpses of how many and various were the geographical pies into which greedy British fingers were inserted. To begin with, there was the dynastic connection with Hanover, George III’s German electorate, from which Britain regularly hired troops. Then there were the overseas trading companies like the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Royal African Company, both of which supplied vital weaponry and money.

Above all, there was the mighty East India Company, now engaged in a rapid tentacular spread across the South Asian subcontinent. Among many other things, the company provided the British war effort with its favorite “Brown Bess” musket, six feet long when combined with a bayonet. It also made possible a steady supply of Indian and Chinese seamen, who served as substitutes for the thousands of British merchant seamen impressed into the Royal Navy. By 1805, there were so many of these Asian seamen that a four-day festival was put on in the East End of London for “Lascars of the Mahommedan persuasion,” complete with drums and tambourines and sword dances. And along with drawing on its existing imperial and overseas connections in order to fight these wars, Britain also picked up about twenty additional colonies in the course of them, for example Ceylon and Cape Town, both taken in 1795.

But then empire was generally what these wars proved increasingly to be about. At one level, the fierce disruptions caused by Napoleon’s military adventures served to undermine some long-standing imperial configurations, including the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish and Portuguese empires in South America. At the same time, some other well-established imperial powers, conspicuously Britain, but also Russia, actually gained in strength and territorial extent during these conflicts. And then there were the new-minted empires, driven by revolutionary ideas, but no less aggressively expansionist for that. Napoleon failed to take Egypt, but at its height his empire in Europe encompassed about 40 percent of the continent’s population.

By the same token, Americans failed in their attempts to use the 1812 war with Britain to conquer Canada. In 1803, however, the US government succeeded in purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France—almost 830,000 square miles—without troubling to make any inquiry about the wishes of the Spanish, Mexican, French, and various nonwhite populations involved. It was with some of the money he secured from this transaction that Napoleon hoped to launch a vast invasion of Britain.

As these developments suggest, there is a point beyond which the British home front in these wars cannot satisfactorily be examined in isolation. Much of what happened in that small island between 1793 and 1815 was closely bound up with events and developments occurring not just in other countries, but also in different continents and different empires. The degree to which Britain’s victory in these wars contributed to its global dominance for the remainder of the nineteenth century was in turn substantially due to the fates of its European and non-European rivals. French defeat in 1815, plus the collapse of Spain’s overseas empire that was accelerated by these wars, substantially swept from the board Britain’s two longest-standing European competitors. Since Russia after 1815 remained largely intent on overland expansion eastward, while the new American empire focused largely on overland expansion westward, Britain was left relatively free to consolidate its maritime power and with it an increasingly large and disparate extra-European empire.

Yet even now, when that overseas empire has become as dust, the Napoleonic Wars continue to have a residual impact on British responses, and Uglow’s book helps to suggest why that is so. As she shows, Britain went to war with France in 1793 reluctantly, and made deep concessions to it in the temporary peace signed in 1802. Moreover, in the immediate aftermath of this treaty, large numbers of prominent Britons rushed to catch up with the Continental contacts of which war had temporarily deprived them. Over eighty members of Parliament and more than sixty peers of the realm spent part of 1802 once again enjoying Paris. As this reminds us, for all their successive, increasingly ferocious wars with France over the course of the long eighteenth century, there was a degree to which patrician Britons were often good Europeans, fully au fait with Continental cultures and languages. But the second phase of these wars, which shut Britons out of Continental Europe for over a decade, may have contributed to a significant shift in such attitudes.

The scale of Napoleon’s dominance after 1803, together with his adoption of the title “Emperor” and his ornate projects for European union, arguably served to make the continent the “other” in some British eyes and to do so to a degree that was wholly new. “I wished to found a European system,” the emperor declared at one point: “a European code of laws, a European judiciary: there would be but one people in Europe.” From 1803, Napoleon also advanced far down the road of plotting a major invasion of Britain, optimistically issuing a medal of himself as Hercules throttling the British lion.

As a result, these wider European projects understandably provoked skepticism and often horror on the other side of the Channel. “Europe is France,” declared a former British prime minister grimly in 1805, “at least the continental part of it deserves no other name.” It is possible then that behind some of the Euro-skepticism (or at least Euro-wariness) that characterizes so many British politicians now, there lie powerful folk memories of the ambitious European projects and extreme aggression of Napoleon Bonaparte. And there may have been other long-term legacies of these wars. Post-1815 Britain, like post-1945 America, exhibited both a taste for hegemony and an inclination to fight large numbers of small, intense wars in other, weaker countries. In both cases, one must wonder how far this tendency was fostered by a belief that war could be engaged in—but somehow and at some level at a distance.