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The Horrible Peace: British Veterans and the End of the Napoleonic Wars

07 Nov 23

Capt M K Barritt

This much-acclaimed book treats of big events and processes. It encompasses the last years of a world-wide conflict that engaged Great Britain and its Royal Navy almost continuously for the best part of a quarter of a century. That conflict was triggered by a revolution that shook a major power of Europe, Britain’s nearest neighbour. The shadow of the French Revolution hung over Britain’s leaders, prompting fear and reactionary responses, and setting back moderate reform by four decades. All this human activity, including the famous Waterloo denouement, was literally put in the shade by the eruption of Mount Tambora, the second-largest volcanic event in recorded history.

This background to the author’s examination of demobilisation at the end of the Napoleonic Wars has been described many times. Nor is he the first to declare the decade after 1815 as “anything but peaceful”. What he draws to the reader’s attention is the big factor dictating how and to what extent the Royal Navy could respond to the challenges of that decade. That factor was the public debt, the budget deficit which in 1814-5 stood at £35-6m (c£4bn today). The ratios of public debt to GDP and to income have never “been reached since – even in 1945”. There was a desperate need to reduce expenditure, and the only means of doing that was demobilisation of the armed services which in 1815 were sustained by c72% of gross public expenditure. The Royal Navy, which had 551 ships in commission at the peak point in the war in 1813, was reduced to 181 in commission in December 1816. By 1823 the Navy Estimates were reduced to 9% of the budget.

The author has brought his analytical skill to bear to argue that the urgent need for economies resulted in four stages of demobilisation of the Royal Navy, beginning in 1812 with the withdrawal and paying off of the fleet that had been stationed in the Baltic. Further reductions would follow Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, and Waterloo. What he underlines, perhaps with benefit of a North American perspective, is the hugely undesirable impact of the War of 1812, with naval manpower reaching a wartime peak in 1813 as the service handled operations on both sides of the Atlantic and protected trade. When that war ended in the spring of 1815, 25,000 men were discharged. Subsequent cuts in naval funding drove the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1818, “the world’s first arms limitation agreement”. The author argues compellingly that British fear of resumption of an unaffordable war with the USA dictated the Oregon settlement. Overall, he concludes that the Royal Navy was limited in its ability to impose a ‘Pax Britannica’ in the period 1815-25.

His argument that Castlereagh’s policy of participation in the Congress System reflected a realistic assessment of both the state of the armed services and ongoing domestic turmoil, sets the scene for his description of what happened when servicemen came home. He stresses that they came home to a country in economic crisis. In this book he tells the story of both soldiers and sailors. The latter faced a depressed post-war labour market. Their officers had been competing in war-time for employment. Now the Admiralty favoured the social elite when awarding scarce appointments. Here the author rests his case on previous analysis of primary records by himself and fellow researchers into naval officers’ careers (NR105(4)). He has returned to the archives, making especially useful reference to Admiralty Board Special Minutes (TNA ADM 3/262) to throw light on post-war activities in which some personnel retained employment: coastguard duties, fishery patrol, the West African Squadron interception of slavers. He uses an impressive range of secondary sources and, with judicious words of caution, published memoirs, to paint an absorbing picture of the experience of individuals entering this ‘Horrible Peace’. Stories of those lured into the new navies of South America, or contributing to exploration, hydrography and commercial enterprises, are sometimes familiar. Less so are those who stayed at home and experienced the troubled scene, from the side of the law-breakers and radicals as well as from the side of the law enforcers and protectors of the established order. How many of us know the origin of the term ‘strike’ – the disciplined and co-ordinated striking of the yards of colliers to prevent them sailing during eighteenth century turmoil in the coal industry?

This book was written whilst the author was teaching at Yale University’s School of International Security Studies and at the US Naval War College, with the expectation of connection to contemporary affairs. He notes how emergence in 1815 from over two decades of life in wartime parallels the challenge in our time of adjusting to the end of the Cold War. What light might be thrown on the challenges of war termination, not least when pressure to demobilise threatens to compromise the maintenance of command of the sea? Are there lessons in helping the transition of veterans into the civilian world? NR readers will empathise with the judgment that many sailors and soldiers felt sorely the break-up of messes and squads that had been the most important relationships in their lives. Britain in 1815 had been an ‘armed nation’ with one in six men of military age. How far had veterans picked up political, ideas during wartime service (cf. James Davey’s analysis – reviewed in NR 111(3)), and how did this play out on either side as radicalism was suppressed? How do you balance laissez-faire cuts in government spending with pressure for centralised welfare provision, e.g., the pensions which returning veterans expected?

Evan Wilson concludes by pointing out a number of areas that merit further research and analysis. His main contribution here is to produce a much more nuanced picture of Britain and the Royal Navy at the end of the Georgian age, dismissing anachronistic superpower mythology. Liverpool’s government showed restraint because there were few other choices. He concludes: “Naval historians need to be more sensitive to the collapse in postwar readiness”. There is much here to stimulate NR members, and the book is highly recommended.