British History - The Napoleonic struggle, II., 1808 - 15 - Wellington and the Peninsular War - The commercial struggle and the blockade - Leipzig and Waterloo - Castlereagh and the resettlement of Europe.
( Originally Published 1922 )[an error occurred while processing this directive]
NATIONAL sentiment, that destroyed Napoleon's cosmopolitan empire, was first brought to a head against him by his attempt to subject the Iberian Peninsula to his direct control. He believed it necessary, if England was to be starved out, to stop British trade with Portugal and its great dependency of Brazil, and to make more secure the enforcement of the Continental System along the coasts of Spain and the Spanish American colonies. He had begun in 1807 by sending Junot to conquer hostile Portugal. Next year, when his armies under this pre-text had occupied friendly Spain, he committed the worst crime and error of his career: he compelled the Spanish Royal family to abdicate and proclaimed his brother Joseph, King of Spain.
This act of vulgar ruffianism on a scale as gigantic as the Partitions of Poland, would, if it had proved successful, have corrupted the West of Europe as surely as the Partitions corrupted the East. But the vengeance on Napoleon was direct and speedy. The Spanish people, whom the ex-Jacobin had left out of his calculations, rose on the French armies cantooned throughout the Peninsula and actually compelled one of them to surrender at Baylen. Baylen was the beginning of Napoleon's downfall. It began the long drain on his Grand Army for the irritating necessity of garrisoning every Spanish town and patrolling every Spanish road. And it was the first example to Europe of the national spirit rising against his power. The peoples were being goaded into self-conscious nationhood alike by French propaganda and by French tyranny. The ideas of 1789 had aroused throughout Europe a desire for self-determination which Napoleon outraged at every turn. It was the peoples who overthrew him, though it was the princes who reaped the benefit of his fall.
The world, just when it had begun to accept Napoleon as inevitable, was startled into a new train of thought by the success of the Spanish revolt, plainly resulting from its popular and national character. Deserted by their contemptible princes, grandees and officials, the common people, in each several province and town, had fallen on the Frenchmen and the traitors. The improvised local Juntas, in which the strength of the movement lay, grouped themselves into a loose national organisation under a central Junta; and in 1810 a Cortes or Parliament was elected. The Spanish rising had, in fact, two aspects, both of them popular. On the one hand the peasants were being urged on by the priests and monks against the infidel French; on the other hand the Cortes was the herald of liberal constitutionalism in despotic and reactionary Spain. It was only after the French had been expelled that these forces came into violent conflict.
In England the news of the rising was received with enthusiasm by all sections, and checked a growing agitation for peace. The Whigs called on the Government to send help to a people struggling to be free; the business men, whose warehouses were choked with goods which the new factory system enabled them to produce but which Napoleon forbade them to sell, found a new Eldorado in the markets of Spanish America 1; while patriots, gloomily watching the fortunes of the war, saw that friendly hands had opened a gate in the hostile fortress of Europe, through which not only our goods but our armies could enter at last.
Sir Arthur Wellesley, of Maratha fame, led the first small British force of 9000 men to the Peninsula. His immediate object was to clear the French out of Portugal, an operation on which his victory at Vimiero put the seal. He was supplanted on the field of battle by superior officers coming out from England with more troops. By the Convention of Cintra they permitted Junot to evacuate Portugal with his plunder. The British public was furious with the generals, including Wellesley, though he was not in fact responsible for the terms, and would probably have captured the whole of Junot's army if he had not been superseded.
During the winter, while Wellesley remained in England under a cloud, a British army of 30,000 men was operating in the Peninsula under Sir John Moore. Napoleon himself, at the head of 250,000 French, was engaged in putting down the Spanish rising. Moore's daring advance into the heart of the country to threaten Napoleon's flank and rear, drew him off the Spaniards and saved Lisbon and Cadiz, and thereby perhaps the whole movement. By his retreat to Corunna through the winter mountains, Moore, at the cost of 5000 stragglers, saved his main body from the eager pursuit of Napoleon, who, having failed in his coup de théatre of capturing a British army, returned to Paris and never again crossed the Pyrenees. Soult came up with the English forces reconstituted at Corunna. The action fought there to cover their embarkation was brilliantly successful, but Sir John Moore was killed by a cannon-ball and buried on the foreign shore.
On the return home of Moore's force came the real crisis of the Peninsular War as far as England was concerned, a moral and political crisis. The discouragement was great. The British public, having expected from its new allies things beyond measure, was beyond measure disillusioned. The Spaniards had indeed failed for all purposes, military and political, except guerilla warfare, and it was not yet understood how much guerilla warfare might mean in Spain. Our own army, though victorious in battle, had been forced by overwhelming numbers to re-embark. Sir John Moore himself had written that it would no longer be possible to hold Lisbon. To pessimists, Napoleon again seemed invincible on land. Most of the Whigs changed their minds and clamoured for the abandonment of the Spanish adventure as hopeless. But the Government continued to supply the Juntas with arms and money, sent back a British force to Portugal and placed Wellesley in command, in spite of his recent unpopularity. These decisions were not a little due to the personal influence which the young general had obtained over Castlereagh, and to a less extent over his rival Canning, who was still in the Cabinet. The policy of Wellington,1 adhered to by successive Tory Governments through four dark and difficult years, proved the key to victory in the world contest. After the failure of the Walcheren expedition, designed to take Antwerp, but ending in the death of four thousand of our soldiers in the fever-laden swamps of the Dutch island, the Cabinet concentrated British military effort on the Peninsular War.
Wellington's campaigns of 1809 - 1 I were actions to defend Portugal as his base, varied by raids into Spain that fostered the guerilla war in that country. Sometimes, as in the Talavera campaign of 1809, the chief event of the year was the raid into Spain, rendered possible by Austria's rebellion against Napoleon ; while in 1810, after Austria had been suppressed at Wagram, Wellington's defence of Portugal was for a while confined to the famous lines of Torres Vedras which he constructed across the peninsula of Lisbon. But until in 1812 the quarrel with Russia seriously drained the French forces in Spain, Wellington could do no more than keep the war alive. The French in the Peninsula sometimes outnumbered the British by nearly ten to one, but out of some 300,000 men it was seldom that so many as 70,000 were available to crush the British and those Portuguese regiments that our officers had trained to stand fire as regular troops. The spear-head of the Napoleonic army of occupation was small in comparison with its shaft, because the Spanish guerillas saw to it that no city and no province could be left without a French garrison, on pain of an immediate revolt. Whatever their failings as regular troops, whatever their deficiency in political and military leader-ship, the Spaniards waged on the invader an unceasing partisan warfare such as Napoleon encountered in no other land.
The Peninsular War, indeed, had two very different aspects, the one immortalised in Napier's dignified and romantic history ; the other in Goya's grim etchings of ' Los Desastres de la Guerra.' The British officer and the Spanish civilian each recorded the aspect that presented itself to his countrymen. As between French and English the war was a display of rival valour by two chivalrous nations. French and English prisoners were treated as the Black Prince and Du Guesclin treated the knights they captured; nor was the spirit of mutual admiration and courtesy confined to the officers of the two armies. Very different were the features of the war waged between the Spanish guerillas and the French invader : - men sawed up alive and impaled on stakes; massacre, rape and torture; all the most bestial passions let loose by hatred and by fear.
In the midst of such scenes as these, it was fortunate that Wellington was at once a great humanitarian and a great disciplinarian. The first quality would have availed little without the second. Unlike Nelson he had no wish to be loved by his men. But he abominated the waste and cruelty of war, and kept it within its strictest limits. He revived and fixed the high traditions of the British Army in many things, and not least in respect for person and property. He once angrily defined ' booty ' as ' what you can lay your bloody hand upon, and keep.' When he first took over the command there was much drunkenness, desertion and looting, in a land flowing with wine ; but by strenuous efforts he established a very different state of things, save on the few occasions when after the storm of cities like Badajos, whole regiments ran amok for days together. When the other armies of Europe were a terror alike to friend and foe, he showed the world an army paying its way even on hostile territory, a protection rather than a burden to the astonished inhabitants.'
Wellington and the school of officers who served under him abroad, did as much as Nelson and his captains to raise the reputation of their country and their service. Only in one respect their system fell short. The common soldiers were, like the common sailors, treated too much like serfs, too little like citizens under arms. But in this the services only reflected the attitude towards the ' lower orders ' then prevalent in civilian life. Nor must it be forgotten that the system of army recruitment filled the ranks with some of the roughest types. Wellington with his naked sincerity of thought and speech, which gives a value to all his sayings, even to those which represent his prejudices, declared that his men were ' the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.' It was not the view of some of his best officers, including the historian of the war who recorded the ' strength and majesty ' with which the British soldier fought. Perhaps, too, the Duke never asked himself if the finest spirits in the country would be drawn to enlist, when by so doing they rendered themselves liable, among other things, to the terrible and degrading torture of the military floggings. But he always maintained that without corporal punishment he could not have fashioned the rough customers of which his force was actually composed into the best disciplined and least criminal of all the armies who swarmed over France in, 1814.
Whatever may have been the defects of its qualities, our army was the best fighting instrument in Europe, now that at last it had got efficient leadership. Owing to its superiority in discipline, fire-drill and steadiness, the British could venture to oppose their thin line to the French column of attack.' Our volley-firing was excellent, and being delivered from a broad front could stop the phalanx of the Old Guard itself. Welling-ton, on the eve of sailing for the Peninsula in 1808, had foretold to Croker what would happen when the line was fairly pitted against the column. ' If what I hear of the French system of manoeuvres be true, I think it a false one as against steady troops. I suspect all the continental armies were more than half beaten before the battle was begun.' This had already been demonstrated on a small scale in the otherwise unimportant British victory at Maida in South Italy in 1806. It proved the secret of almost every success in Spain, and finally of Water-loo. But the superiority of our fire would not have availed for the defeat of France, without Wellington's genius; less original and daring than his rival, he was less prone to make mistakes, especially in tactics, than the Napoleon of later years.
It was in Wellington's campaigns that the regimental traditions of the British Army attained that peculiar force and quality, which survived to pull us through the Crimea, although the staff and army organisation grievously deteriorated during the long peace. And it was again the regimental traditions and the Peninsular memories that sent the British Army across the sea in 1914 with the inherited belief that it could not be beaten in the end.
Meanwhile the navy, which had no serious fighting to expect after Trafalgar, was busily employed in blockading the Continent. Napoleon had challenged us to a war of mutual starvation, by the ` Continental System which he devised against our commerce. It was embodied in a series of Decrees of which the most famous were issued from Berlin in 1806 and Milan in 1807. Neutrals and allies as well as subjects were forbidden by him to trade with Britain or her colonies, and all ships and goods that had touched at our ports were rendered subject to confiscation. Our Government replied in a series of Orders in Council, of which the first was issued in January 1807 by the Ministry of All-the-Talents. But the full development of the policy became identified with the later Tory Cabinet of Spencer Perceval. The Orders in Council declared all the countries that enforced Napoleon's Decrees to be in a state of blockade, and instituted a rigorous search of neutral ships to prevent them from trading with our enemies.
Since we held the seas, our system was most acutely felt by the transoceanic neutrals. And since Napoleon held the land, his inveterate war on tea and coffee, sugar and cotton, was most resented in Russia, Scandinavia and Germany, where men had to live without goods from oversea as the price of peace with France. It is therefore no wonder that by 1812 England was at war with the United States and Napoleon with Russia.
As the daily bread of men and women far from the scene of action became more and more affected by the war, the question of the ` home front,' as we should now call it, grew acute, both for Napoleon as ruler of Europe, and for the British Cabinet. To Napoleon the catastrophe of the ` home front ' came with the rebellion first of Russia and then of Germany and Scandinavia, unwilling to bear the deprivations of his Continental System in the absence of any patriotic motives for endurance.
In England the sufferings of the working-class during the Industrial Revolution were increased by the uncertainty of employment in supplying a world whose markets were perpetually opening and shutting according to the vagaries of diplomacy and war. Meanwhile the price of bread rose beyond the means of many of the wage-earners. The bulk of the population craved for peace. But discontent, though deep, was not formidable. Though there might be riots and machine-breaking, the men had in the end no choice but to work on the masters' terms or to starve outright. They were so little organised, so deeply trodden down into economic and political servitude, that their views could do little to help or hinder the conduct of the war. The Cabinet made no concessions to them of any kind during the Napoleonic struggle, a remarkable contrast to the domestic and industrial policy of 1914-18.
As to the class which the Government itself represented, the landlords and the clergy, they were patriotic enough and had, moreover, no great temptation to demand peace. For them the war meant the rise of taxation indeed, but also the rise of rents. and tithes with the price of corn. And for them it meant very little else. The blood tax was a light one on all classes ; for many years there was no fighting on land, and even the seven years of the Peninsular War cost less than 40,000 British dead. At no period had the upper class been wealthier, or happier, or more engrossed in the life of its pleasant country houses. No young lady of Miss Austen's acquaintance, waiting eagerly for the forthcoming volume of Scott or Byron, seems ever to have asked what Mr. Thorpe or Mr. Tom Bertram was doing during the Great War!
If the war was a source of increasing revenue to the land-lords and of prolonged calamity to the working-men, to the middling orders of society it was a gamble, that made one man a profiteer and another a bankrupt. As a whole ` the nation of shopkeepers ' longed for peace to bring security, to open the European markets once for all, and to reduce taxation. But they had no thought of surrender to Bonaparte. Many of the wealthier the bankers, the merchants and the monied men shared the Tory politics of ' the quality,' to whose society they were occasionally admitted. But many a manufacturer of the new type, himself or his father sprung from the working-class, more often than not a Dissenter, his thoughts engrossed by the factory he had built on the bank of some Pennine stream, hated the aristocracy and dumbly resented the war as something from the glory and interest of which he was excluded. Such men were making the new wealth of England, but they had no part or lot in her government, and were jealous of the haughty class that excluded them. They felt equally little sympathy with the real victims of the war, their own employees as little almost as the landlords and farmers felt with the pauperised and starving peasants whose labour filled their pockets so full. It was a hard world of sharply divided interests, with no sense of national brotherhood, save occasionally in face of the foreign foe.
Since the business men wavered between approval and disapproval of the war, according as victory seemed to draw near, or ruin stared them in the face, it was in 1811 that Napoleon came nearest to starving England out and wearing down her resolution to conquer. But at that supreme crisis a sound instinct taught the middle class in its deep distress to agitate not for peace but for the withdrawal of the Orders in Council. The Orders were denounced by public opinion on the ground that they were involving us in a quarrel with the United States, the best of our few remaining customers. The movement, originating in the ports and manufacturing districts, was brought to bear on the House of Commons through the powerful energy of Henry Brougham, and it ended by imposing its will on the Government. When the accident of Perceval's assassination in the lobby by a lunatic removed the Prime Minister who was personally associated with the policy, the Orders in Council were allowed to drop. But the concession came too late to prevent the outbreak of war with the United States.' If Napoleon's Continental System had been still holding firm, the consequences might have been fatal to us. But Russia and Sweden had thrown off the yoke, and we had won the race of starvation by a neck.
It was not so much the Orders in Council which had beaten Napoleon's economic campaign, as the productiveness of the new machinery and the factory system, and the monopoly of trade which, thanks to the navy, we enjoyed with America and the tropics.
In the winter of 1811 - 12 Napoleon was preparing to invade Russia. His army in the Peninsula, so far from being recruited by fresh drafts, had to send away some of its best regiments, and the Poles were marched from Spain to Moscow on a campaign that was to decide the tragic fate of their country for a hundred years to come.
Wellington, therefore, was in a position to attempt some-thing more than another raid; the time for the liberating con-quest was at hand. Far surpassing the generals opposing him both as strategist and tactician, he prepared his way for a permanent advance out of Portugal into Spain by capturing, early in the year, the frontier fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajos, before the French armies could manage to interfere. In the summer he destroyed Marmont's army at Salamanca. The position in the whole Peninsula was changed by this victory in the north-west; not only was Madrid liberated, but Souk was obliged to evacuate the South of Spain, whither the French were never again able to penetrate. At the price of the surrender of the South, Souk's vigour brought about such a concentration of French armies that Madrid was recaptured, and in the autumn Wellington, having failed at the siege of Burgos, had to fall back once more on Portugal, with the game only half won.
During the winter came the news of the retreat from Moscow. The year 1813 was to see Napoleon's struggle to retain hold of Central Europe, in face of the revolt of the German nation, headed by Prussia and aided by the armies of Russia, Sweden, and after a while of Austria. The issue, that hung uncertain for many months, would have been very different if Napoleon had had with him in Germany the 200,000 veterans who were locked up in Spain for his sins of five years before.
Yet even these 200,000 did not suffice to hold their own against the British and Spaniards. King Joseph was hustled out of Northern Spain by a series of able manoeuvres, and routed at Vitoria with the loss of all his artillery, military stores and chest. In forty days, starting from Portugal, Wellington had driven over the Pyrenees the enemies' main army and the whole paraphernalia of the usurper's government. It was a resounding catastrophe, and had its effect on hesitating nations and statesmen in the struggle for Central Europe, where the scales of war and diplomacy were still held even. In August Austria joined the allies. Napoleon alone still failed to read the signs of the times, and refused to make advantageous terms for himself and France while he still might. In October the issue was decided by the three days' Armageddon in the plains of Leipzig in Saxony. Central Europe was released, and the French fled back to the Rhine as rapidly as they had done a century before, after the battle of Blenheim.
On the Spanish frontier, the fortresses of Pampeluna and San Sebastian prevented the victors from penetrating into France in the summer of 1813 at the heels of King Joseph's stripped and demoralised army. The breathing space afforded by the two sieges gave time for the reconstitution of the French forces under Soult, placed too late in supreme command. Then came the last trial of strength in the passes of the Pyrenees, between two veteran armies at the height of military efficiency, and each under splendid leadership. Soult nearly succeeded in relieving Pampeluna, through Roncesvalles, but was foiled by the quickness of Wellington and the stubbornness of his troops. At length, after the fall of the fortresses, the British advance began again, through mountain floods and snowstorms. One after another Souk's defences were forced on the precipitous heights between the Bidassoa and the Nivelle, and finally on the Nive, the gate of entrance to the plains of France. The art of war, as it was known at the end of that warlike age, touched its perfection in that last push over the Pyrenees,
'Followed up in valley and glen
Meanwhile the battle of Leipzig had at one stroke secured the independence of Germany as far as the Rhine. But the fate of Western Europe had yet to be decided. The results of Austerlitz and Jena had been cancelled, but the boundaries of the Treaty of Amiens were still possible. Great, even in eclipse, was the prestige of France and Napoleon. The allies had not thought out their war-aims in Western Europe and were bitterly quarrelling over the districts already recovered in the East. Their counsels were so confused that, a few weeks after Leipzig the Austrian Metternich, with the hasty concurrence of the Czar Alexander and of young Lord Aberdeen, the British representative on the spot, actually offered the Rhine frontier to Napoleon. The infatuated man hesitated to accept peace even on these terms, and the opportunity passed away.
Alarmed by this and other signs of allied vacillation and want of concerted policy, the British Cabinet, at the new year, sent its strong man, Lord Castlereagh, to the Continent to take charge of the whole situation. His first business was to hold together the alliance as a fighting machine, until the conditions indispensable to Britain's security had been won. These conditions, as laid down by the British Ministers, included the acceptance by the Powers of our definition of the rules of sea-warfare; the liberation of Holland and Belgium from French control; and if possible the reduction of France to her `ancient limits ' of 1789, instead of her ' natural frontier ' of the Rhine. If security could thus be obtained, Great Britain was willing to be generous as regards the restitution of many of the colonies that she had taken from the French and their allies. Our Ministers hoped for the restoration of the Bourbons; but they were not yet at the beginning of 1814 prepared to carry on the war to obtain the dethronement of Napoleon, much as they desired that final security for a permanent peace.
Such was British policy in January 1814, when Castlereagh came to the Continent to give it effect. The whole programme was eventually realised, as the outcome of the storms and chances of the next two years, in which the military and diplomatic action of Wellington and Castlereagh were decisive factors.
In 1813 and 1814 Castlereagh played the part that William III and Marlborough had played more than a hundred years before, in holding together an alliance of jealous, selfish, weak-kneed States and princes, by a vigour of character and singleness of purpose that held Metternich, the Czar and the King of Prussia on the common track until the goal was reached. It is quite possible that, but for the lead taken by Castlereagh in the allied counsels, France would never have been reduced to her ancient limits, nor Napoleon dethroned.
The first great step towards a European settlement was the crossing of the Rhine by the allied armies, and the successful invasion of France, culminating in the capture of Paris and the abdication of Bonaparte. This outcome was uncertain till the very last moment. It was partly due to Castlereagh's reconstitution of the Alliance and his insistence on fighting until the ' ancient limits ' were won, partly to Napoleon's unwillingness to accept a peace that would leave France any smaller than she had been when he first became responsible for her fortunes. His wonderful victories with inadequate means in defence of the invaded country confirmed him in this unyielding mood, till it was too late to save either his capital or his throne. During these decisive weeks a large part of his available force was still engaged in the South, opposing Wellington's invasion. With rare sacrifice of personal ambition to humanity and policy, the Duke had saved the French population from outrage by sending home the Spanish army from the frontier. The battle of Toulouse was fought after Napoleon's fall, but before the news had reached either Wellington or Soult.
For nearly a year Elba contained Napoleon, while the Congress was sitting at Vienna. In theory, all the governments of Europe were parties to the Congress. Actually the ` big four,' as we should now call them - England, Russia, Austria, Prussia - reserved all important decisions to themselves alone.
Meanwhile her ancient frontiershad been assigned to conquered France, and the Bourbons had been restored, partly by the allies, partly by the French people. The policy of Louis XVIII was half constitutional, half reactionary, but wholly anti-militarist. The main social changes of the Revolution were tacitly accepted in the new France. The framework of administration and government that Bonaparte had constructed was taken over by his successors, but his system was improved upon by the novelties of a partially free press, and the beginnings of a parliamentary constitution.
French boundaries having been settled beforehand, it was intended to exclude France from sharing at Vienna in the more complicated task of dividing up the rest of Europe. But when Castlereagh, left to himself, failed to compose the quarrels of Russia, Prussia and Austria, the astute Talleyrand, acting as the representative of Bourbon France, seized the occasion to assert his country's place with the ` big four ' in these discussions. Castlereagh was fain to welcome him as fellow-moderator. The small countries and princes, on whose behalf Talleyrand had up till then claimed to speak, having served his turn, were now left without a champion, and their interests were mercilessly sacrificed whenever they did not coincide with those of the Great Powers.
The two questions which so nearly involved the allies in a fresh war among themselves, were Saxony and Poland. Prussia wanted all Saxony, and Russia wanted all Poland. The Czar Alexander, now in his ` liberal ' phase, dreamed of a reunited and liberated Polish kingdom as a dépendance of the Russian crown, with a separate Polish constitution.1 He was opposed by Prussia and Austria, who wanted a divided and enslaved Poland. Castlereagh, fearful of Russian power, preferred their scheme at any rate to the Czar's. Eventually Alexander had to cede portions of the spoil to the two other claimants, but he managed to retain the lion's share of the Polish territory. As might have been foreseen by anyone but the visionary Alexander, the Polish constitution proved an impossible bed-fellow for the Russian autocracy, and ere long disappeared.
Prussia's claims on the whole of Saxony were enforced in the most aggressive manner, till Castlereagh took the bold step of forming an alliance with France and Austria to resist these pretensions, if necessary, by war. Having thus brought Prussia to reason, he hastened to compensate her with two-fifths of Saxony itself, and with Cologne and other extensive territories on both sides of the Rhihe. The aggression of France in Central Europe, ten years before and twenty years before, had been largely due to the absence of any nucleus of opposition along her eastern border. The small, weak States scattered along the course of the Rhine had neither national tradition nor military power. They had become a half-willing prey to the propagandist armies of the Republic, and had formed for Napoleon the obsequious Confederation of the Rhine. After this experience it was not unnatural that England should in 1815 assist Prussia to become the champion of the Fatherland in the ` Watch on the Rhine ' against France. The gentler and more liberal civilisation of Western Germany, having proved its own incompetence in self-defence, was subjected to the despotic and military ideals of Berlin. Under Napoleon the West of Europe had unwisely tried to conquer and hold down the East : the East was now rolling back upon the West, not altogether to the advantage of civilisation.
Castlereagh also endeavoured to strengthen the guard of Europe along the French frontier at two other points, by uniting Belgium to Holland and Genoa to Piedmont. The first of these policies broke down in 1830. But the aggrandisement of the Italian frontier State of Piedmont in the long run helped to make it the nucleus of a Liberal kingdom of all Italy. Castlereagh, who had no sympathy with the Italian Liberals of his day, did not foresee any such outcome to his policy, for Piedmont was then a reactionary State. But the later development of Victor Emmanuel's kingdom was all of a piece with Castlereagh's scheme of erecting barriers against French aggression in Italy, and justified, in result if not in intention, the annexation of the former territory of the oligarchical re-public of Genoa to the Piedmontese monarchy. But in 1814 and for many years afterwards the treatment of Genoa was a stone of offence to all Liberal critics of the Treaties of Vienna. And it was to Austrian domination in Italy that Castlereagh mainly looked for security against the return of French armies into the plain of the Po.
On March 1, 1815, Napoleon returned from Elba and the ' Hundred Days ' began. It will always be a point of controversy how far his lightning restoration was the act of the French nation, how far of the army alone. But the British Government had no time to institute nice inquiries. It had to decide at once. When Napoleon, speaking once more from the Tuileries, offered to become a constitutional monarch, and to live at peace with Europe on the terms of the treaties of 1814, there were risks in treating him as an outlaw. For if the French people were prepared to fight to the death to prevent his deposition, the Allies, who had a few weeks back so nearly come to blows among themselves, would certainly not hold together for another protracted struggle. Judging by past experience, England would soon find herself deserted, and be back again in the isolated position she had so often occupied in the course of the late war. If, on the other hand, the return from Elba was the work of the soldiers alone, a victory by Wellington would settle the affair.
The British Ministers declared themselves ready to wage war so long as Napoleon remained on the throne of France. This bold decision was attacked by the Whig leaders, but it was justified by the event. Probably the speed and completeness of the triumph at Waterloo had much to do with the acceptance by the French people of ordeal by a single battle. When the feelings are divided, it is the event that counts. France was not wholly for the Bourbons or wholly for Napoleon, but she was wholly for a settled government.
Wellington's victory was even more remarkable than it seemed. For Napoleon's army largely consisted of veterans brought back from their prisons in Eastern Europe, while the victors who bore the brunt of their attack were a relatively small number of British recruits, taking the place of our Peninsular regiments not yet returned from the wretched war in America. Our raw troops stood the long and terrible ordeal, because of their confidence in the Duke, and because he appeared again and again to take charge at the critical point and the critical moment, at great risk to himself and at the cost of nearly all his staff. Next day, in Brussels, he said to his gossip Creevey, ' It has been a damned nice thing, the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. . . . By God, I don't think it would have done if I had not been there.
The brilliant strategy with which Napoleon had opened the campaign, nearly drove asunder the British and Prussian armies. His failure was due to his strategical errors of the last three days, his great inferiority to Wellington as a tactician on the field of battle, the mistakes of several of his subordinate commanders, the superiority of our line formation and volley-firing, and the determined energy with which old Blücher brought up his Prussians after Napoleon had written them off as in full retreat.
A political element should be added to the causes of French defeat, the indiscipline and self-distrust of the newly levied army of veterans. It had scarcely had time to be brigaded ; men and officers did not know their immediate chiefs, or, if they did, distrusted their loyalty. The pure Napoleonic zeal was found only in the ranks. The higher the officers, the more strongly they felt the desire for peace, and the greater their misgiving as to the issue of a new war against Europe. Never did the French show greater courage than on that day, but it was ill directed. Officers dashed their troops forward at the wrong moment for fear of being suspected of treason. Finally, at the sunset hour, the panic cry of Nous sommes trahis gave to the military defeat a completeness that was essentially political, but which for a hundred years deceived the world as to the power of endurance and resistance in the armies of France.
The reputation of England and Wellington was immensely enhanced by the campaign. The Peninsula had been the greatest of ' side-shows.' But Waterloo broke the neck of the war and dethroned Napoleon in a day.
Prussia shared with England in the prestige of Waterloo. But she threw away the opportunities of her position by an uncouth desire for revenge on France, by military brutalities to the population, and by a policy of demanding the dismemberment of the French provinces, beginning with Alsace-Lorraine and the north-eastern frontier. British public opinion also was for the moment much inflamed against France after the Hundred Days, and our Cabinet was shaken in its generous policy. But the Czar Alexander remained a friend of Bourbon France, while Castlereagh and Wellington, disgusted with the behaviour of the Prussian army of occupation, stood firm for the policy of ` security not revenge,' which they finally succeeded in inducing the Cabinet to support. Their scorn of popular opinion and its moods, whether in the City or the clubs, was on this occasion most serviceable to Europe. In-deed, although the defects of the settlement of 1815 resulted from its being made by irresponsible monarchs and anti-popular statesmen, its merits in relation to the treatment of France were owing not a little to the absence of all democratic control in the critical treaty-making months that follow the end of a great war, while popular passions are still at blood-heat.
So the British soldier and the British statesman prevented the dismemberment of France, and handed back the French colonies, with the trifling exceptions of Mauritius, Tobago and St. Lucia. But while they scorned revenge, they insisted on security. They took a leading part in the: formation of a new alliance pledged to prevent by arms the return of Napoleon. France had to pay a moderate indemnity, and while it was being paid a portion of her territory was occupied for three years by allied troops under the command of Wellington.
The European Alliance to prevent the return of Napoleon or any of his family to the throne was largely the work of Castlereagh. But he refused to let England be a party to another treaty, which the idealist Czar induced his ` brothers ' of Austria and Prussia to sign. By the Treaty of the Holy Alliance, each of God's self-appointed viceregents solemnly undertook to regulate his home and foreign policy according to the principles of the Christian religion, ` namely, the precepts of justice, Christian charity and peace,' since ' the three allied Princes look on themselves as merely delegated by Providence to govern the three branches of one family, namely, Austria, Prussia and Russia.' To Castlereagh, all this was ` a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.' Indeed, his objections to the Holy Alliance of 1815 were not those of a Liberal, but of an unsentimental Englishman. Nor, as Minister of a constitutional State, had he any intention of allowing the Prince Regent to sign treaties on his personal account, as if it were he who directed the policy of Britain. At the time that Castlereagh first took objection to the treaty, the principles of the Christian religion invoked in the document meant nothing in particular. It was only later that they came to be interpreted by the signatories to mean despotism and obscurantism, as Alexander passed out of his liberal phase and fell under the influence of Metternich.
A more practical ` Holy Alliance ' which Castlereagh urged with partial success upon the Congress, was world-wide co-operation to put down the slave-trade. The English people, divided on so much else, were now united in a passionate enthusiasm for this particular use of our maritime powers. On this point the Evangelicals had at length captured the Tory party, where the slave-trade had once found many friends.
The new Colonial Empire that was to replace the lost American colonies was slowly rising. It has already been shown how the war hastened the growth of our power in India. Canada and Australia were little affected by the Napoleonic struggle or by the treaties that ended it.' But we had to decide in i 8 i 5 how many of the colonies and ports of call all over the world, then in our hands as prizes of war, we intended permanently to retain. In that generation stations and ports of call were more highly valued by our statesmen than colonies. So Malta was kept; and Mauritius; and the Cape of Good Hope as the key of the route to India, though it turned out later to be a very large colony in disguise. Dutch Ceylon, too, was kept as an appendix to India; and Danish Heligoland, which had proved a most useful centre for smuggling goods into Germany during our fight with the Napoleonic embargo.
But on the whole we were generous in our restorations. France and Denmark got back their most valuable islands. Holland, to whom we had assigned the doubtful boon of Belgium, lost indeed the Cape and Ceylon, but we paid her three million sterling for what is now British Guiana, where before the war British planters had lived under the Dutch flag. Above all, we restored to Holland her wealthy empire in the East Indies: Java was given back to the Dutch in 1815, and shortly afterwards we ceded to them our ports and interests in Sumatra. It was the more remarkable because the brief period of our occupation had been signalised by the work of one of the greatest and best servants our Empire ever possessed, Sir Stamford Raffles. He was perhaps the first European who successfully brought modern humanitarian and scientific methods to bear on the improvement of the natives and their lot. Finally, in 1824, the trading station of Singapore was all that Britain chose to retain of Raffles' legacy in the Malay Archipelago until in the following generation an equally remarkable man, ` Rajah ' Brooke of Sarawak, without official aid, won northern Borneo by sheer force of personality and by the best British methods of treating native races.
The greatest gains with which Britain emerged from the war did not appear in the treaties. There were the unrivalled supremacy of our navy and of our mercantile marine; the reputation of having been the only Power that consistently withstood Napoleon; the possession of a Parliamentary system now more than ever the envy of ` less happier lands ' since the relative failure of ` French principles ' of liberty, With these advantages we faced the coming era.
The policy embodied in the treaties of 1815 was, in some of its chief aspects, generous and wise. It prevented a war of revenge by France, and it gave security to the British Empire for a hundred years ; on both counts the policy of Castlereagh had been the decisive factor. The defect of the settlement, destined to imperil Britain once more when the wheel had come full circle, was its entire neglect of the craving of the European peoples for nationality and for freedom. While France secured the rudiments of constitutional government under the ` charter,' of which Talleyrand and the strange Czar Alexander had been the chief advocates, Germans, Italians and Spaniards were thrust back under the crudest forms of reactionary despotism, and the populations of Poland, Belgium, Italy and Germany were treated as mere assets and counters in bargains over the personal claims of alien sovereigns. It will always be open to controversy how far this was inevitable in view of the attitude of the Prussian, Austrian and Russian governments; or how far England might have made a stand on the lines of Canning's policy a few years later, if it had not been for the ultra-Tory doctrines of the Cabinet. It is certain that Castlereagh, not from negligence but on a consistent line of policy, in this respect did practically nothing. But it is more than doubtful whether he could have done anything if he had tried. Britain was not the lord of the land, but of the ocean, and where Prussia, Russia and Austria were agreed, they were in a position to impose their will on Central and most of Western Europe. That was the price that Europe paid for the overthrow of Napoleon.
Closely connected with this first defect in the settlement was another. The new distribution of territory fostered the undue growth in the European polity of the three Eastern despotisms, who would certainly be able to overpower German popular liberties and might some day be too strong for France and England combined. Not only were popular wishes absolutely ignored, but even the principle of ` legitimacy ' - that is to say, the restoration of states and sovereigns as they had been before 1789 was adhered to only where it suited Russia, Prussia and Austria. Wherever the province in question was coveted by one of the Great Powers, historical claims were pleaded in vain. The kingdom of Poland, as it had existed in 1792, was not accounted `legitimate' in 1814. Part of the kingdom of Saxony and the prince bishoprics of the Rhine were given to Prussia. The Republic of Venice and its Adriatic sea-board went to Austria. On the other hand, since the Temporal Power of the Pope over Central Italy suited Austria's game, it was restored, as if the eighteenth century had come back again. Protestant England set her seal to the arrangement, for the overthrow of which she was destined forty-five years later to hold the ring as an enthusiastic assistant.
The net result was that Russia, Prussia and Austria were left with the chief power on the Continent, even if France and England for a while longer held the intellectual lead. This eastern and despotic predominance proved fatal to continental liberties in 1848-9, was recognised as the unwritten law of Europe after 1870, and has only been brought to an end by the terrible and costly convulsion of our own day. But again we may ask, how could Castlereagh have endeavoured, after Napoleon was conquered, to go back on the promises by which alone Russia, Austria and Prussia had been induced to carry through the war of liberation ?
Thus the merits of the great settlement associated with the names of Wellington and Castlereagh gave Britain security which she used for a hundred years of progress in liberty and high civilisation ; while the defects of the same settlement, for which also they were in part though in smaller degree responsible, set a date to that happiness in the end.