Britain against Napoleon: The Organisation of Victory, 1793-1815, by Roger Knight, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 720 pages

Roger Knight’s Britain against Napoleon passes over the dramas of Trafalgar and Waterloo in a few paragraphs. The heroics described in this book are administrative rather than physical, the battles are over contracts and appointments, the targets corrupt placeholders as much as enemy units. It addresses the balance between tax and debt when paying for war; how to achieve efficiencies in ship construction; the challenges of moving armies by sea and then getting provisions to them; the central bureaucracy of war-making.

Such matters are often discussed in a rather dutiful way by military historians keen to hurry on to the sharp end of battle. The great value of Knight’s book is that he puts the organisation of war at centre stage. In doing so, he humanises the politicians, the staff officers and the functionaries, whose decision-making and administrative capacity allowed the country to survive the hardships of a prolonged period of disrupted trade when there were only occasional opportunities to engage with the enemy. It would be hard to tell any story of international conflict without exploring cabinet-level debates on geopolitics and the conduct of war but few might find time for deliberations on civil service reform and the shipbuilding industry.

General Omar Bradley famously remarked that “Amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics”. Knight demonstrates the truth of this observation. Before the battle of Trafalgar began, Nelson already enjoyed a vital advantage because he had recently been able to replenish his ships. His sailors had greater energy than the French and Spanish crews who, as a result of the blockade of Cádiz, suffered from a lack of pay and rations. To support Wellington’s campaign in Spain from 1808 to 1814 took 13,500 individual ship voyages from England, escorted in 400 convoys. As his army approached the French border in October 1813, it was getting through 44 tons of biscuits each day.

Knight’s story is anything but dull. He is in effect describing the birth of the modern state, with the size and scope of government expanding, and with it the need to raise taxes and find competent and incorruptible managers, and to establish an effective working relationship between the private and public sectors.

The war lasted from the moment the French Revolution took an aggressive turn in 1793 to the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, with few interludes. From 1804, the British were worrying about a possible French invasion, trying to identify where any landing might take place. Volunteers were recruited and trained, fortifications built. Then, as Wellington began to make progress in Spain his force had to be maintained, while only a series of expensive subsidies kept allies in the war. With imports and exports in decline, the economy was struggling and unemployment was high. Conditions were ripe for social disturbances.

By 1811, the cost of the army, navy and ordnance had reached £43m. Alarmingly, out of the total budget of £85m, a further £35m was required to cover interest of the national debt and exchequer bills. Even with higher taxes, government income did not reach £70m. To cope, the government had to turn to the City. Here it was helped by an influx of continental merchants and bankers who helped to establish the City’s international aspect. It was in 1811 that Nathan Rothschild became a London banker. Three years later, he used his family network to help fund Wellington’s advance.

The anxiety, and the associated stresses and strains, lasted until Napoleon was clearly defeated. Also in 1811, the emperor took the wise decision not to chance a cross-channel invasion. As with Hitler 130 years later, this was followed by the foolish decision to invade Russia instead. This leads Knight to conclude with an important point about the value of a parliamentary system compared with a dictatorship that is of contemporary relevance.

Constant debate undoubtedly results in delays. During Napoleon’s dominance of the French system Britain had six prime ministers and 10 foreign secretaries. The emperor had the “advantages of continuity and speed of decision”, but the cost was a lost sense of reality. Surrounded by sycophants, he eventually disappeared under a “cloud of illusion”, as did Hitler in his own time. Meanwhile, in a system that allowed for challenge and accountability, the British could not ignore awkward truths. Governments made it their business to stay well informed and allowed themselves to be “jolted out of old ways”. Victory does not necessarily go to those whose strategies are bold and daring, but to those who understand the importance of organisation and preparations for the long haul.

Sir Lawrence Freedman is professor of war studies at King’s College London and author of ‘Strategy: A History’ (OUP)

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