Saturday, September 8, 2012

British Veterans and the Napoleonic Wars by Christy English

Napoleon as King of Italy

The Napoleonic Wars tore Europe apart. The map was completely re-written time and again as Napoleon Bonaparte drew older countries under the auspices of France, handing sundry crowns to his brothers and sisters, who served as figureheads for the Emperor. There was no real question in anyone’s mind who was truly the ruler of those territories, and for over a decade, most power in Europe led back to France.

The French Empire in Europe in 1811

The only country that stood firm in the midst of this chaos was Great Britain. For almost two decades, England and its empire funneled troops into the war against Napoleon and his generals, finally conquering the French for the last time at Waterloo.

Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Though the Duke of Wellington is deservedly given credit for this victory, many men, both cavalry and infantry, both officers and soldiers, bought that final victory with their skill and their lives. This post is meant to honor them, while also briefly exploring the question of the fate of those who lived.

Some men returned to jobs and families at home. Some took up farming if they were fortunate enough to either own their own land or were able to regain tenancy on lands held by a gentleman. Some men went to the cities to seek work in industry, but the British economy suffered a post-war slump, which left many veterans out of work. Officers were able to return to England on half pay, but noncommissioned officers were left with little or nothing.

In my upcoming Regency romance novel, HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, Caroline Montague is sold in marriage because her father, an officer in the British cavalry, is in debt. Baron Montague did not go into debt because of his lifestyle, however but because any veteran who served under him could, upon returning to England, come to his estate in Yorkshire and be given employment. As Baroness Montague says, “Honor costs money,” and their daughter marries well in order to pay for this extravagance.

Of course, my novel is fiction. No doubt some wealthy men did what they could for the veterans returning from the Napoleonic wars. But more did not. Most veterans were left to shift for themselves. Those wounded and maimed had the worst time of it, often becoming beggars in the street when there was no other option.

The Regency period was a time of opulence and rebuilding, a time of innovation and industrial growth. But it was also a time when the men who had won the Napoleonic wars came home to fight a different battle altogether, a battle for their dignity and their survival.

After years of acting in Shakespeare’s plays, Christy is excited to bring the Bard to Regency England. She can often be found hunched over her computer, immersed in the past. Her latest novel is HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, a re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew. She is also the author of the historical novels TO BE QUEEN and THE QUEEN’S PAWN. Please join her on her website


  1. The Wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars extended from 1793 until 1815, with short breaks in 1802-3 and 1814-15. So a full generation of war which consumed all of Europe from the coast of Portugal in the west, to Moscow in the east, and everything in between. Best estimates of the total number of casualties lie between five and six million.( Which may not seem like a lot until you consider that in 1800, the population of Great Britain stood only at 11 million...) However, this number does nothing to hint at the hundreds of thousands of refugees, of families reduced to destitution, of villages and cities pillaged and devastated by artillery, of businesses, commerce and ports destroyed, nor of the loss of the skilled European workforce--all of which lay in ruins by 1815.

    Great Britain alone of the European countries was not invaded by French forces in this era of total war.

    So whilst the British veterans did not have an easy time of it upon their return home, they at least did not return home to a place that looked like the Somme in 1918, which is what much of Europe had been reduced to. Also, because of British commitments in Canada and India, for example, many continued on in the army.

    Equally, the idea that it was the Duke of Wellington who, on his own, beat the forces of Napoleon at Waterloo, is, I very much regret to say, nothing more than British propaganda of the period.

    Certainly, Wellington wrote his dispatches post-Waterloo to give that impression, and deliberately excluded the extra-ordinary skill, determination and troop numbers brought to the battle by the Prussians, under the leadership of General Blucher. But without Blucher and his troops marching at double-time to reach the battlefield and then promptly throwing themselves into the action, Napoleon would undoubtedly have won the day.

    Moreover, whilst Great Britain did commit many troops to supporting our Portuguese and Spanish allies from 1809-1814 on the Peninsula, we committed only a minute fraction of the total number of men compared to the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians in their decades-long fight against the Napoleonic military machine.

    For example, the British army in Spain was never greater than some 50,000 troops, though frequently it numbered in the region of 35,000 troops. Compare that to the Battle of Borodino alone, where the Russians put 200,000 men into the field on one day--and their losses are estimated between 38,500 to 58,000. The losses of the Grande Armee are somewhere between 35,000 and 45,000 for the same day.

    And these levels of troop commitments would be repeated just over a year later in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig when the Allies--Austria, Prussia, Sweden, and Russia, would finally win a substantial victory over Napoleon and his new Grande Armee.

  2. In writing a novel with an alternative history I suppose I've become used to questioning assumptions and reading this post it occurred to me that at times it does appear to make an assumption that the British/Prussian victory over Napoleonic France as a good thing and that the right guys lost and the right guys won.

    Sometimes in history we can all be grateful for how events panned out; that is, grateful, not only as a nation, but as humans. I doubt any would imagine that a Nazi victory in WW2 would have resulted in a more humane world. Similarly, we might look at Sarajevo in 1914 and suppose that a better world could have resulted had that spark been extinguished and WW1 avoided.

    With the Napoleonic wars I am less clear which side could lay claim to the moral good and far from certain whether a better Europe, by which I mean a Europe based more on the ideals of Equality, Liberty and Fraternity, might have resulted from French dominance, rather than British dominance. Certainly, we might imagine that the Franco-Prussian War would not have happened as it did and perhaps the aspirations of Germany would have been wholly thwarted without the chaos of WW1 & 2. On the other hand, perhaps Republican France and Tsarist Russia would have eventually quarrelled for dominance.

    Whichever, as we cannot be certain which would have been the better outcome for humanity I would be wary of heaping too much praise upon the victors, and wary, also, of suggesting that the losers were deserving of their fate.

  3. That's another surprise for most people upon learning that there were no benefits, or jobs, for those returning wounded soldiers. I look for ward to reading your book, Christy.

  4. Actually, I can recommend so good reading on this subject -

    Freely available on Google books as a .pdf file, this gives a historically accurate basis for what returning soldiers (whole and damaged) might expect from the English government and people.

    Hope this helps with some folks historical research,


  5. Although their numbers are small, in comparison with the national armies involved, and this comments relates more to the earlier part of the Napoleonic War in Europe period, there were many naval officers and ordinary seamen who did very nicely, thank you, from prize money allocated from sea victories.
    Admirals, and Flag Captains received the lion's share, but many ordinary sailors received sufficient money to buy small businesses or set them selves up with a house or plot of land. And though many returned wounded there was provision for small pensions to be paid for life.
    Without the Navy, the Sea Fencibles, the hundreds of thousands of land-based volunteers and the Channel fleet, England could not have withheld Napoleon's proposed invasion force and today the map might have been different.
    Just a thought.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. I love hearing about these issues in more depth, from so many different points of view. And thank you Gerri, I hope you enjoy the book. :)

  7. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  8. Interesting, really interesting this paper about Napoleonic wars. If you want more information about the last battle have a look on "Seventy images for hundred days".
    Highly recommendable
    You´re Welcome!! : ))


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