Thursday, 13 November 2014

Guineas and Gunpowder. British foreign policy in the Napoleonic Wars

Sherwig’s well written and researched book focuses on the Guineas and Gunpowder that accompanied British diplomacy in its struggle against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The book shows how the use of money developed from a contractual agreement on the use of troops like it had been during most of the 18th century to support for cash stripped allies, amounting to 66 million pounds over a quarter century. A considerable a mount in itself, but modest compared to the costs of the navy and the army in this period.

At first the instrument was used selectively as in the Prussian subsidy in 1794, but this caused resentment among other potential allies. Monetary and material support from 1805 was offered to anyone opposing Napoleon. As such the first surge was during the Peninsular War, where Portugal and Spain received support to the value of over 19 million pounds between 1808 and 1815. But the main effort occurred on the European mainland from 1812-5 when Russia, Prussia and Austria together received almost 15 million pounds, and minor states over 6 million. Especially Sweden got a good deal, if you consider it also got Norway out of it and did very little hard work during 1813 and 1814.

After 1805 the British foreign ministers also tried to make it an instrument to influence policy and strategy of allied states but as such it was only successful when foreign troops were under direct control of British generals in the Peninsula. On the other hand this soured the relationships with Portugal and Spain to the point that the former refused to send troops to the Low Countries in 1815.

The weakest link of supplying support to the Continent was that with British trade excluded by the blockade, very little cash and credit was available. Some of Wellington’s tensest letters to London were about the supply of silver and gold coins. But it is hard to fault the effort made by the government on this point.

The material side is astounding as well, showing that British industry became able to respond quickly to large surges in demand. While it had trouble supplying the Prussian army with tens of thousands of muskets in 1807, it supplied a million firearms to the continental allies by 1813. The interesting thing is that these great achievements were quickly accepted by allies as normal, and demands for British support often unrealistic.

While the use of foreign troops through subsidies was cost effective (foreign secretary Castlereagh estimated that a British soldier on the Continent would cost 60 to 70 pounds a year, and foreign governments were offered 10 to 15 pounds per soldier), it surrendered control of those troops to the interests of its allies and also did not help the British public image. Tsar Alexander was utterly disappointed in the lack of British military action where it would have counted in 1805 to 1807. It also allowed Napoleon to paint foreign coalitions as instruments of British policy.

I’d say this is a classic.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, I knew we supplied money and that The Prussians got uniforms but knew nothing above that



I appreciate comments. Let me know what you think!