By LEO DAMROSCH
An 1850s illustration of the French cavalry and British soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo.CreditThe Print Collector, via Getty Images
Most Americans probably have an indistinct idea of the warfare between Britain and France at the turn of the 19th century. So far as Britain is concerned, we are likely to recall that Admiral Nelson won a great victory in 1805 at Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain, and was mortally wounded during the battle. In words that became famous, he had signaled to his fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” We are likelier to remember the Duke of Wellington’s triumph at Waterloo 10 years later, which ended Napoleon’s sensational career. A comment Wellington supposedly made afterward is also frequently quoted, that the engagement had been “a damned close-run thing.” And as a sidelight to the international conflict there was our own American War of 1812, during which Francis Scott Key was inspired to write his verses about the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.
What we may not realize is that the fighting in Europe, and in far-flung regions of the globe as well, endured for 22 years and affected life profoundly for an entire generation. Boys who were born after it began in 1793 grew up to fight in the wars their fathers had fought before them; a million British soldiers served, nearly 10 percent of the entire population. Year after year, the fighting waxed and waned. In 1794-95, for example, a British expeditionary force mounted a futile campaign in the Low Countries and returned home after accomplishing nothing but the loss of 20,000 men. By the end of hostilities, two decades later, at least twice that many had died in the Caribbean, mostly from yellow fever. There was land warfare in Egypt (after which the Rosetta stone was brought to the British Museum); there was a British naval victory at Copenhagen; and there was the protracted campaign in Spain that inspired Goya’s great etching series “The Disasters of War.”
In her latest book, “In These Times,” Jenny Uglow traces what life on the British home front was like during those fraught decades. New heroes and scapegoats emerged, fortunes were made and lost, taxes on everything went up, bad harvests provoked food riots, and there were strikes, stock market disasters and bank failures. Her narrative is more or less chronological, gathering a vast collection of names and facts into 60 chapters with titles like “Invasions, Spies and Poets,” “Denmark, Egypt, Boulogne — Peace,” “Going to the Show” and “Swagger and Civilization.”
Diaries and letters from 30 or so families are quoted repeatedly and lend some focus. A typical entry, by a Norfolk brewer’s wife in 1794, illustrates the interplay between sensational news and routine daily affairs: “May 23, Friday. A cold Showry day. Mr. Hardy & Wm. at home all day. The Girls walked up to Holt afternoon, drank tea at Mr. Jennis’s. From the News Papers, the British Troops Defeated with great loss in France. Many people taken up in England for Sedition & Treason, the Habeas Corpus Act Suspended.” At times, the flow of anecdotes can seem rather casual. Uglow writes: “In the middle of the Bay of Biscay Harriot’s daughter Sophia gave birth to her third son, his arrival announced by the captain with a blast of his trumpet. The refugees were just in time. When Soult sacked Oporto on 29 March, the piled-up bodies rose above the waters of the Douro.”
Now and then there is a surprising glimpse of a well-known figure. Samuel Taylor Coleridge dropped out of Cambridge and, although utterly unfit to be a soldier, enlisted as a private in the Light Dragoons. Not wanting to give his real name, he identified himself as Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. He was discharged after three months. After Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile, “Jane Austen abandoned her white satin cap and borrowed a ‘Mamalouc cap,’ modeled on Egyptian fez work, adorned with Nelson’s emblem.” The unscrupulous George Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice” is one of the officers quartered in southern England against the threat of a French invasion, and the admirable Frederick Wentworth in “Persuasion” is based on two of Austen’s brothers who were naval officers (and eventually became admirals).
All along the way, Uglow has assembled interesting information. The expression “lock, stock and barrel” refers to rifle components that were produced in separate factories and afterward assembled by the Ordnance Board. British sailors were called “tars” after their canvas jackets, waterproofed with tar. To meet the enormous demand for military footwear, shoemakers introduced standard sizes for the first time.
As the fighting dragged on and patriotic joy gave way to resentment of expense and bloodshed, there were savage crackdowns on free speech. Any criticism of the government could be prosecuted as seditious. The journalists Leigh Hunt and William Cobbett each spent two years in jail, and a Scottish radical was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation in Australia by a judge who called the British constitution “the best that EVER was since the creation of the world.”
The effects of war were felt especially in industry, which was evolving rapidly to meet military demands. Steam engines were installed in collieries, and street lighting was introduced in cities, fueled by “carbonic gas.” But the human cost was great. “If you are not very sharp and wide awake,” a boy employed in a cotton mill wrote, “you would be caught by the straps Drums shafts Pulleys rollers or Cog wheels which may make you minus a limb or two or perhaps your Life.” Inspectors visiting the Birmingham textile factory of Robert Peel, whose son would one day be prime minister, were told the children there were kept barefoot because “if they gave them shoes they would run away.”
The strength of “In These Times” is its copiousness, but the torrent of names and facts grows exhausting. Pictures might help, but although there are more than a hundred illustrations, most are tiny and few are discussed in the text. Keeping one’s bearings is never easy. In one five-page sequence the following are briefly mentioned: William Wordsworth’s stay in France, where he left behind an illegitimate daughter (“his sadness would last for years”); pantomimes starring “the young clown Joe Grimaldi,” not otherwise described; Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan orating in Parliament (though their words are not quoted) and Edmund Burke dramatically flinging down a dagger there; Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza, whose French husband was guillotined; Fanny Burney, who also married a Frenchman; John Keats, who was tutored in French by still another émigré; a mention of dockyard guards in a letter to the Rev. Reginald Heber’s cousin Mary by her friend Mrs. Drake; and a description from the diary of William Rowbottom of the burning of an effigy of the pro-French Tom Paine. That is only a partial list.
Most of all, one wishes for a fuller account of certain individuals who appear briefly and then vanish. We hear that a Welsh cobbler known locally as Jemima the Great, brandishing a pitchfork, captured 12 French soldiers during an abortive invasion attempt, and that a deaf girl in Cornwall rescued her father from a press gang “by smacking the ganger across the face with a dogfish.” But why were the pitchfork and the dogfish so effective? We are not informed. Still, the anecdotes are consistently entertaining, if best consumed in moderate doses.