REVIEW BY ANDRÉ VAN LOON
The subject of The Coalitions Against Napoleon is fascinating and rich in potential. Moving beyond the well-trodden path of personality-based writing (such as Napoleon versus Wellington, biographies of Napoleon’s marshals, or the career of Horatio Nelson), this book promises to provide a fresh look at the Napoleonic era through a study of the nuts and bolts of the allied coalitions.
At their centre, so the contention runs, is British power, manifested through its financial liquidity, as well as its manufacturing and military prowess. However, it soon becomes clear that the book does not meet the challenge of its subject. Instead of a forensic look at what was involved in defeating Napoleon, we get a swift overview of the key dates, battles, and personalities, driven by a standard (and unquestioned) view of British glory pitted against supposed French vanity. The Battle of Trafalgar, to take an example, is dispensed with in a fairly bloodless paragraph of 20 lines, ending with a laconic ‘Nelson was among the dead’. The diplomatic, military, and geopolitical forces that made Trafalgar a potentiality and then a necessity are essentially left to one side.
Undoubtedly, there are some virtues to such an approach. The Coalitions Against Napoleon is effective at sketching the contours of the struggles from the rise to the fall of Napoleon, indicating how Britain grew more influential the more it spent in resources, despite the loss of the American colonies. A lot of ground is covered: there are even three chapters on the political, economic, and imperial history of Britain stretching back centuries, with an encyclopaedic amount of detail.
The book’s structure is dictated by the seven coalitions, from 1793 to 1815, all of which but the last failed to stop Napoleon. Nester, a professor of government and politics at St John’s University, is good at describing how each coalition involved high hopes and low politics, with British money putting paid to Allied discontent, bickering, and sometimes betrayal.
The coalitions drawn up in Whitehall and European and Russian courts were often destroyed by Napoleon’s overwhelming force on the battlefield: international agreements cobbled together in closed rooms were repeatedly blown apart by Napoleon’s refusal to play by those rules, preferring the sway of his Grande Armée.
Beyond this broad-brush approach, the book fails to take us into the hearts and minds of the principal actors, or indeed of the international forces at work. We do not get an inside view of the coalitions after their creation, nor of how they were directed by Britain. The tone often taken by British politicians at the time is captured well by Nester, such as in his recollection of George Canning’s breezy confidence: ‘It is our business… to teach the world… whenever… the true balance of the world comes to be adjusted, we are the natural mediators for them all, and it is only through us alone that they can look for secure and effectual tranquillity.’
There was a time when such words worked their power, a time Nester is well aware of and returns to frequently. But who George Canning was, not so much biographically as within the making and breaking of the coalitions, or who Henry Dundas, William Pitt the Younger, Lord Grenville, and so many others were in this coalitional context is essentially unconsidered.
It must also be noted that the book is only sporadically interested in the allies engaged in the coalitions. For example, the Seventh Coalition, which led to Napoleon’s downfall, included forces ranging from Austria through to Prussia, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and a host of smaller states – virtually none of which are mentioned in more than a few lines.
Nester is in a hurry, it seems, to tell the story from a mainly British point of view; much colour and interest is lost as a result. The Coalitions Against Napoleon is worth reading for its broad outlines, but its main achievement is in firing a curiosity to consider more than is provided in its pages.
The Coalitions Against Napoleon William Nester
Pen & Sword, hbk (£25)