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p. 564. Total war, revolutionary warlocked

  • Mike Rapport


To what extent can we attribute French success up to 1812 to the revolutionary mobilization of the people, in terms of ideological commitment; new techniques on the battlefield; and the ability of the revolutionary state to dig deep into French society? ‘Total war, revolutionary war’ attempts to answer this question. France had a strong sense of national identity and nationalism which had started before 1789 but which rose further during the Revolution. This nationalism was based on the idea that legitimate government could only come from the French. Napoleon was able to capitalize on this. When Napoleon came to power in 1799, he inherited a state which had already been through a decade of social and governmental reform.

From this moment until that in which our enemies shall have been driven from the territory of the Republic, all Frenchmen are permanently requisitioned for service in the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge weapons and transport supplies; the women will make tents and clothes and will serve in the hospitals; the children will make up old linen into lint; the old men will have themselves carried into the public squares to rouse the courage of fighting men, to preach the unity of the Republic and hatred of Kings.

The Convention’s decree of the levée en masse 23 August 1793 was the ultimate expression of the ‘nation-in-arms’, the idea that, as one revolutionary pithily put it in 1789, ‘every citizen should be a soldier and every soldier a citizen’. Customarily, the levée en masse is taken to mark the transition from the limited warfare of the eighteenth century to revolutionary war, in which an ideologically motivated citizenry rallied to the cause of the French Revolution and, against the odds, overcame the forces of the old European order. ‘War’, wrote the Prussian soldier and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, ‘had again suddenly become an affair of the people, and that of a people numbering thirty millions, every one of whom regarded himself as a citizen of the State … Henceforth the means available … no longer had any definite limits … and consequently the danger for an adversary had risen in the p. 57extreme.’ Yet historians have since wondered how far the secret of French success up to 1812 lay in this revolutionary mobilization of the people, in such terms as ideological commitment, new techniques on the battlefield, and the ability of the revolutionary state to dig deep into French society.

There was a clearly defined sense of both national identity and nationalism, which had been brewing in the decades prior to 1789 and truly fermented during the Revolution. French revolutionary nationalism was based on the idea that legitimate government could only arise from the French nation (which was why Napoleon crowned himself ‘Emperor of the French’ not Emperor of France) and successive regimes worked hard to fire up popular patriotism. In the process, they did mobilize much of the population into a gargantuan effort, particularly in the desperate years of 1792–4. In a phenomenon that would find its reflection among France’s opponents as the wars intensified, such efforts certainly had some moral impact. The revolutionary feminist Théroigne de Méricourt appeared before the Convention, pistols in her belt, demanding the recognition of the Frenchwomen’s right to form ‘Legions of Amazons’ to fight the war. Since women were denied political rights, a willingness to fight for the patrie was a way of claiming the full rights of citizenship. Male and female citizens collected ‘patriotic donations’ and presented them to the Convention for the war effort. There were cases of women donating their jewellery, in conscious imitation of the sacrifice of the ladies of ancient Rome, who in times of crisis gave up their finery for the sake of the state.

The levée en masse not only conscripted men into the army, but also explicitly mobilized all the resources of the country, recruiting thousands of workers and artisans to increase weapons and ordnance production. The Luxembourg Gardens in Paris resounded with the sound of hammers and bellows after they were converted into an open-air workshop for firearms.

p. 58Aristocratic mansions, convents, and even boats moored on the River Seine were similarly turned into manufactures. By these strenuous efforts, 5,000 Parisian craftsmen turned out 145,000 muskets a year, and one single factory churned out 30,000 pounds of gunpowder a day. In the ways in which the war effort reached deep into French society, through mass conscription, the mobilization of labour, and the ruthless exploitation of resources, this was not only ‘total war’, but also a people’s war.

Such efforts at popular mobilization extended into the army. The civil authorities were determined that conscripts were fired up by patriotism and felt reassured that their sacrifices would be honoured by the patrie, the fatherland. Soldiers were reminded that they were citizens, not chattels: the revolutionary government insisted that soldiers had the right to vote and, on the eve of their departure, they were treated to civic banquets by the local authorities, who gave speeches on how the soldiers had the support of the very communities which they were defending. They were promised pensions on retirement, or on being invalided, while their families were assured that they would be supported for the loss of a breadwinner.

Yet the question as to how far the rank and file was actually driven by ideological fervour is an open one, not least because motivation is intangible and so hard to measure. One must ask, for example, how attentive nervous young conscripts actually were to local politicians lecturing them about the gratitude of the nation (see Figure 5). Yet the private correspondence of French soldiers, which their authors never intended for public consumption and so may be sincere, suggests that some were motivated by a strong sense of citizenship and patriotism. A letter from a young peasant soldier told his family that his life now belonged to the nation: ‘either you will see me return bathed in glory or you will have a son … who knows how to die for the defence of his country.’ In the winter of 1793, another soldier had his faith in the liberating ideals of the Revolution confirmed p. 59when he saw enemy deserters coming over to the French side: ‘They came across the river which is frozen over, because they no longer accept to be slaves, they want liberty.’ After the victory, he added, the soldiers would share the laurels ‘with our father, our mother, our brothers and sisters, and [in a nice Gallic twist] our mistresses’.

5. Boilly’s painting illustrates the conflicting emotions and mixed reactions of conscripts and their relatives

Yet these were the years of the Terror, when French soldiers and civilians were bombarded with republican propaganda and repeatedly warned of the dire, counter-revolutionary consequences of defeat. The Terror also worked in draconian ways to ensure that the army fought with determination: the central government and the representatives on mission, commissars sent from Paris to assert civil control over the armed forces, did not hesitate to execute commanders who they believed were less than zealous in their duties, an example which seems to have made a deep impression on the rank and file: in 1793–4, 84 generals werep. 60guillotined or shot, while 352 others were dismissed. These early years of the conflict were therefore exceptional and, while patriotism undoubtedly mattered in this period, most of the letters available to historians spoke only of fear, exhaustion, and despair. In June 1794, the conscript Pierre Delaporte wrote while fighting the British around Ypres:

The law brought me to arms to defend my fatherland [patrie] which is dear to me. For it I have left my relations and fellow citizens who are also very dear to me … In doing my duty towards the one as to the other, I go to attack men whom I have never seen, who have done me no harm and who believe … that their cause is as good as ours … In these attacks, one often forgets, on both sides, all humanity.

Revolutionary nationalism may have shrivelled as many French soldiers became seasoned veterans and developed a professional ethos. Their loyalties shifted more to the army itself and, above all, to the inspirational commanders who had led them: Bonaparte was only one such figure. His men may still have been patriotically attached to France, but it was a loyalty expressed first and foremost through a soldier’s professional pride and devotion to their great general. By the Napoleonic Wars, the French had travelled ideologically and morally a long way from the republican zeal of the citizen-soldiers of 1793.

One source of France’s military strength may have lain in tactics, organization, and logistics. These were not entirely ‘revolutionary’ in that they originated from the Revolution. They were the product of old regime military theorists responding to the disasters of the Seven Years War. Before 1789, the royal army experimented at almost every level, from strategy and organization down to weaponry. Adopting the ideas of Pierre de Bourcet, a French staff officer who experimented with the deployment of independent columns in mountain warfare, and who published his conclusions in 1775, the army was redeployed p. 61into self-reliant divisions, each with its own infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Armies had customarily marched together along a narrower corridor of supply lines. The divisions of a French army would instead fan out and move across the countryside independently of each other, but maintaining regular contact. Each division was meant to be sufficiently strong to be able to hold off a larger enemy force until the other divisions came to the rescue by marching swiftly to the battlefield. By moving along separate routes, the French army could march rapidly, and in far greater numbers, living off the land and, ultimately, converging on the enemy army and destroying it. The Revolution adopted this concept and Napoleon enlarged the divisions into corps, each commanded by a marshal and coordinated by an efficient staff system: the textbook example of the strategy at work was the Grande Armée’s stunning surge through Germany during the Austerlitz campaign in 1805.

Once on the battlefield, the armies of the French Revolution put other old regime ideas into practice. For one, the French made skilful use of light infantry (chasseurs), deployed as skirmishers, sent out in small detachments with orders to reconnoitre the enemy, find weak spots, harass the opposition, offer a protective curtain as the main army deployed, and unsettle the enemy’s by raking it with musketry (this was particularly effective at Jena in 1806). Such troops, operating away from the main body of the army and commanded by junior officers, had considerable scope for initiative, which gave them an ideological appeal to a French army reformed on the ideal of citizen-soldiers.

The French used artillery flexibly: it bombarded the enemy lines prior to the battle, but also, using the lighter guns introduced by the old regime expert Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval, it would be moved to concentrate its murderous fire on weak points before the assault by infantry. While most eighteenth-century infantry generally attacked in lines, deployed abreast, to maximize firepower, an assault by a French revolutionary army came in p. 62columns: narrow in the front, but deep, so that one rank hurtled on after another, sacrificing firepower in favour of shock. Lines of infantry were deployed to protect the flanks with their musketry, so French tactics were called the ordre mixte, the ‘mixed order’ of column and line, which had been conceptualized by another old regime theorist, Jacques de Guibert, in 1772, but became the standard form of deployment in the new army regulations of 1791. Once the columns had broken through the enemy, cavalry would surge through the gap and break their army apart.

The use of these tactics, where an enemy was hit hard and fast, led the French to emphasize victory in a decisive battle which destroyed the opponent’s army. This was a critical strategic difference between the conduct of ‘revolutionary’ and old regime warfare: the professional armies of the eighteenth century were expensive and conflict so frequent that commanders aimed to fight a war of manoeuvre, threatening the enemy’s lines of communication and forcing a negotiated peace, rather than waste human lives and materials in the carnage of a great battle. The contemporary British expert General Henry Lloyd wrote that such wars could be waged with ‘geometric strictness’, allowing an army to ‘wage war without ever finding it necessary to be forced to fight’. The French revolutionaries and Napoleon alike behaved very differently.

Essential to their energetically aggressive tactics was determined, dynamic leadership willing to strike ruthlessly when the opportunity arose. The French Revolution provided this leadership by its reforms back in 1789. Napoleon is meant to have said that every French soldier carried a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, but the more prosaic truth was just as impressive: by opening promotion to the officer corps to all men—and not, as before 1789, exclusively to the nobility—the French Revolution released cohorts of experienced men from the ranks into the officer corps: less than 5 per cent of officers up to the grade of p. 63captain in 1800–14 were from the old nobility. At least 67 per cent of the 2,248 generals in the French army between 1792 and 1814 were of non-noble origin. Of Napoleon’s eighteen marshals in 1804, only five could claim to be of noble blood. Lannes came from the peasantry, Augereau’s father was a domestic servant, and Murat, King of Naples between 1808 and 1815, was the son of an innkeeper. In the army, at least, the revolutionary principle of ‘careers open to talent’ was no myth. The experience of such promotion in other European armies was not unknown, but not as common. In Russia’s Preobrazhensky Guards, 6 per cent of the officers were sons of soldiers, labourers, or peasants who had proved themselves on the battlefield. The British army drew hundreds of British officers from the well-heeled gentlemen who had served in the militia, giving young middle-class men an opportunity for promotion which otherwise they might never have had. Five per cent of British officers had risen from the ranks because of bravery or long service, but 20 per cent of commissions were still purchased and promotion within the officer corps often depended on political connections, favouring the gentry.

Leadership was no doubt a vital ingredient of the persistent French success on the battlefield and nowhere was this more visible than at the top: Napoleon was not the only French commander who was inspirational, aggressive, and gifted with what contemporary theorists called the ‘coup d’œil’, an eye for the right moment at which to strike. Young and determined to prove their mettle, they led from the front. These qualities prompted Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Irish republican leader who was in France between 1796 and 1798, to comment that ‘If a man will command French troops, he must be rather brave … the French Generals not only gave the command, but the example, to their soldiers. They are noble fellows, that is the truth of it.’ Where Bonaparte excelled was in using a mixture of personal example, propaganda, honours, and chastisement to motivate his soldiers. He led from the front in Italy in 1796–7, sharing the dangers with his men; he worked hard to ensure that his army was adequately p. 64paid and provisioned, even if that meant picking the plains of Italy bare to do so; he gave out engraved sabres to men whose courage caught his attention; but he scolded soldiers who he thought had failed in their duty: ‘Soldiers, I am not happy with you … Soldiers of the 85th and 39th’, he roared at two units who broke and ran in 1797, ‘you are no longer French soldiers.’ The offending troops responded by pleading for a chance to redeem themselves and, in the next clash, took very heavy casualties.

Finally, he made masterful use of propaganda to create a personal mystique of his genius as a commander, both amongst his troops and at home. The Courier of the Army of Italy was distributed gratis amongst the soldiers in the field and the civilian population in France: Bonaparte penned a lot of the articles. In one utterly shameless passage, he wrote of himself: ‘He promised victory, and brought it. He flies like lightning, and strikes like thunder. The speed of his movements is matched only by [the soldiers’] accuracy and prudence. He is everywhere. He sees everything. Like a comet cleaving the clouds, he appears at the same moment on the astonished banks of two separate rivers.’ As the historian David Bell has suggested, this was not just propaganda, but the creation of a personality cult based on a subtle blend of myth, real skill as a commander, and adept use of the personal touch. On the eve of battle, he would wander around the soldiers’ bivouacs, asking after their well-being and encouraging them for the combat the next day. A veteran of Austerlitz later wrote, ‘The presence of the emperor produced a powerful effect on the army. Everyone had the most implicit confidence in him; everyone knew, from experience, that his plans led to victory, and therefore … our moral force was redoubled.’

Yet some historians have asked whether the differences between the French army and the rest were as decisive as was once thought. For one, old regime armies did use skirmishers and light infantry, even if not with the same legendary zeal as the French. In the 1790s, Prussian fusiliers were trained to engage French p. 65skirmishers in the kind of open warfare that the latter excelled in—and their discipline was based less on punishment than on their professionalism and unit pride. The Austrians had Tyrolean sharpshooters (although their privilege was to serve only in their own province) and Croatian light troops, while the Russians boasted no less than 30,000 trained skirmishers (Jaeger) in 1789. This number had swelled considerably by 1812, although Russian officers always had misgivings about the wisdom of giving serf conscripts such room for personal initiative. The Russians could also call on the Cossacks, who as light cavalry played a role similato the skirmishers. The French artillery reforms, both in terms of the technical specifications of the guns (increased mobility, greater standardization) and their deployment on the battlefield, had been adopted from Prussian practice: as French attaché to the Austrian army during the Seven Years War, Gribeauval had been on the receiving end of such devastating gunnery.

In any case, most armies evolved in response to the long war: by 1812, the British probably had the best single light infantry formation in Europe (the Light Division serving in Spain), while the Russians may have had the best horse artillery. Secondly, coalition forces eventually learned that, since Napoleon’s strategy depended on the utter destruction of his opponents in a collision on the battlefield, the best means of defence was not to oblige him: in Spain in 1810, the British, Portuguese, and Spanish showed how strategic withdrawal, leaving scorched earth behind them, could exhaust the French, before the allies struck back in 1812 and again in 1813. The Russians watched the war in Spain with interest and, as early as March 1810, were drawing up plans for such a strategy in the event of a French invasion. In August 1811, Tsar Alexander I told the Austrian government that ‘It is only by being prepared, if necessary, to sustain war for ten years that one can exhaust [Napoleon’s] troops and wear out his resources’. But to do that, a state had to have a deep or rugged hinterland to retreat into: it is no coincidence that Napoleon met his most disastrous defeats in Russia and Spain. Finally, some historians p. 66have pointed to the critical factor of numerical superiority. French battlefield tactics involved appalling casualties, possibly because the key to French success was less any tactical finesse than their ability to throw numerically superior forces into the carnage until they overwhelmed the opposition by sheer force of numbers. When the allies managed to match them man for man, the French lost. The key to French victory, and Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, therefore lay in the efficiency with which the opposing sides could mobilize their human and material resources.

On paper, the successive coalitions ought to have had a decisive advantage. France, as the contemporary military theorist Clausewitz noted, had a population of close to 30 million at the outbreak of the French Wars, which was easily outnumbered by the Russian Empire alone, which had 40 million. Combined with France’s other main opponents in this period—Britain (15 million), the Habsburg Empire (22 million), and Prussia (10.7 million)—the allied powers had an overwhelming advantage in purely demographic terms. Yet no matter how populous and prosperous a country might be, for any state to prosecute a war, a government needs the mechanisms to tap the human, financial, and material resources embedded within society. While inspired strategy, tactical brilliance, and acts of bravery can decide individual battles and campaigns, an entire conflict is ultimately decided not only by the overall balance of numbers, but also by the ability of the belligerents to exploit their resources effectively. Warfare is not just a question of what happens on the battlefield, but also of how to secure the men, money, and supplies needed to keep fighting.

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Occupied Europe and the Napoleonic Empire

For all the might of France itself, such was the scale of the conflict that French resources alone were never enough to allow Napoleon to wage war with all its dreadful human costs. The solution was to exploit the Napoleonic Empire, which fell into three zones. First, p. 67there was the ‘Empire of the French’, ruled directly from Paris, which at its height in 1811 included France and the Low Countries; the Rhineland, Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and Oldenburg in Germany; Piedmont, Genoa, Parma, Tuscany, and Rome in Italy; and Illyria (modern-day Slovenia and Croatia). Secondly, there were the satellites, which were notionally independent, but which were in fact puppet-states ruled by Napoleon, his family members, his marshals, or other appointees, including Westphalia and Berg in Germany, the Italian kingdom of Naples, Switzerland, and the Duchy of Warsaw. Thirdly, there were countries whose rulers calculated that their interests were best served by an alliance with France, like Denmark, Baden, Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, and those who had been bludgeoned into joining Napoleon, namely Prussia in 1807 and Austria in 1809.

The primary purpose of such domination was to feed the war effort with cannon fodder, money, and material resources. During the French Revolutionary Wars, metal currency was extracted from the occupied territories by draconian financial levies: between September 1794 and November 1798, millions of livres were sucked out of the Rhineland, including a heart-stopping 50 million in December 1795. Italy fared little better: in 1796, Parma was emptied of 2 million livres, Genoa 2 million, and Milan a crippling 20 million (five times its usual annual tax revenue). Ordinary people suffered the most, since official demands for money came on top of requisitioning of supplies by French soldiers. On top of this, the conquests, whether annexed to France or converted into ‘sister republics’, were bound to raise soldiers, either as conscripts directly into the French army, or in their own forces, which were deployed in French interests.

Yet where the French were able to put down institutional roots, particularly in the inner parts of Napoleon’s Empire—Belgium, the Rhineland, Piedmont—they left a constructive legacy. The abolition of seigneurialism and serfdom, and the principles of civil p. 68equality and meritocracy explicit in the Napoleonic Code of 1804, were introduced across the Empire and in the satellite states, while the religious toleration written into the Concordat of 1802—whereby Napoleon made peace with the Catholic Church after more than a decade of revolutionary conflict in France—was rolled out across his European empire, often against the bitter, violent opposition of the zealously orthodox. Yet, fundamentally, the three spheres of French domination were exploited for their human and material resources.

It all began, however, with France itself. When Bonaparte seized power in 1799, he inherited a French state which had undergone a decade of revolutionary reform. Napoleon’s inheritance included the efficiency of France’s new administrative system, a centralized, uniform structure of which the Bourbon monarchy could only have dreamt. The French Revolutionary Wars had showed just how effective the system could be in mobilizing French society. In 1789, the overlapping and often conflicting jurisdictions of royal officials, sovereign courts, and provincial institutions were abolished, and replaced by eighty-three more or less equal departments, which became (and remain) France’s main administrative unit. While initially the purpose was to decentralize by placing local initiative into the hands of elected officials, the current could be reversed, so that authority could flow from the centre and be imposed, via the departments, onto the districts and communes (the most localized level of authority).

While the Revolution began this process of centralization, it reached its apotheosis under Napoleon, who in 1800 introduced the prefects, one for each department. They were the eyes, ears, voice, and hands of the central government, charged with public order and the enforcement of all the laws coming from Paris, while reporting back on the condition of their departments. Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother and his first Minister of the Interior, admonished the first prefects with a long list of duties, at the top of which they were to ‘apply yourself immediately to p. 69the conscription draft … I give special priority to the collection of taxes: their prompt payment is now a sacred duty.’ As the ‘Empire of the French’ expanded, so too did this administrative system: by 1811, it stretched from northern Germany to Rome, incorporating a grand total of 130 départements, each with their own prefect.

Dramatic though the levée en masse of 1793 was, the conscription system that Napoleon inherited from the Revolution was the Jourdan Law of 1798, which remained in force until 1815. Every 22 September (the first day of the year in the Revolutionary Calendar, which Napoleon did not abandon until 1806), all young men of 20–5 years of age were arranged into ‘classes’, from which the new conscripts were drawn by lot, beginning with those aged 20 and then progressing up the age scale as required. As the ‘Empire of the French’ expanded, so too did the Jourdan Law: by 1811, recruits from as far north as the German Hanseatic ports and as far south as Rome were being directly conscripted into the French army. Only Illyria was exempt, because this region was the old frontier with the Ottoman Empire and the Croats had a tradition of military service in return for land and personal freedom. Napoleon’s satellite states and allies were also required to raise armies, a ‘blood tax’ which was resented, often evaded, and sometimes resisted, but which meant that Napoleon’s forces were polyglot: two-thirds of all his troops came from outside France proper, including Poland, Lithuania, Croatia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Low Countries, and Spain. From the Emperor’s perspective, the system meant that he could rely on a steady supply of recruits: the levies from France alone between 1800 and 1813 raised 2.8 million men. At the hideous sight of thousands of frozen corpses at Eylau, he is meant to have said, ‘I have an annual income of 100,000 men; one night in Paris will replace this.’ After 1812, however, as the Empire unravelled and more and more of the burden of fighting fell on the French themselves rather than their allies and satellites, the system became utterly rapacious in France. One of Napoleon’s prefects p. 70bluntly complained in 1813 that ‘I am taking everyone; there will be no one left from the years 1813 and 1814 capable of procreation and maintaining the population’: by this point, nearly 50 per cent of each class were being drafted. In all, 7 per cent of the entire French population was conscripted under Napoleon (36 per cent of all those liable).

Also essential for France’s military capacity, the Revolution had decisively sliced through the knot of fiscal privilege, venal offices, and tax-farms which had proved so resistant to reform prior to 1789. In its place was put a system of direct, uniform taxation based on incomes and land, to which were later added indirect taxes on consumption and on the employment of domestic servants, coaches, and windows. The revolutionaries also raised, potentially, some 2,000 million livres from the nationalization and sale of church land. At the same time, the revolutionaries, adherents of the free market that they were, had eliminated the morass of internal customs barriers and tolls and banned such restrictive institutions as guilds. In France, Napoleon therefore inherited the makings of a resurgent economy tapped by an effective fiscal system—one which he then fine-tuned by introducing a comprehensive tax survey and further indirect taxes on such consumables as tobacco, alcohol, and salt. He also established the country’s first national bank, the Bank of France, in 1800, with shareholders and government backing, although the attempt to mimic the British ‘sinking fund’ to manage the national debt failed because investors were wary of buying its interest-bearing bonds.

The French system of public finance was introduced across Europe to varying degrees, but, vast though the amounts of money raised were, they never met the spiralling costs of the war: the kingdom of Italy’s tax revenues were boosted by 50 per cent between 1805 and 1811, but its debts quintupled in the same period. Almost everywhere, the authorities tried to make up the shortfalls by increasing indirect taxes—on salt, tobacco, and p. 71imports—but since these fell proportionately harder on the poor, they provoked seething resentment.

The exploitation of Europe took a particularly sophisticated shape in the ‘Continental System’, established by the Berlin decrees in November 1806. The aims of the system were twofold: to wage economic warfare on the British by excluding their commerce from Europe and to secure a captive market for French agriculture and manufacturing. This latter goal—which has been described as the ‘uncommon market’ or a ‘one-way common market’—was only partially met. Some European economies certainly profited from the system: with British imports slowing, the cotton manufacturers of Saxony and the wool weavers of Silesia were able to export to Eastern Europe, while some historians have argued that Belgium witnessed its first great period of industrial ‘take-off’ behind the blockade’s protection. Yet Napoleon himself was adamant that his economic watchword was la France avant tout—‘France first’.

In practice, some parts of France benefited while others suffered desperately. Profiting from its strategic location on the Rhine, Alsace became an important entrepôt for commerce between the French Empire proper and the satellite states in Germany, but the life was stifled out of the maritime ports and their hinterland, suffering from the lack of overseas trade and of imports of raw materials. In 1808, the American consul at Bordeaux wrote that ‘grass is growing in the streets of this city. Its beautiful port is deserted except by two Marblehead fishing schooners and three or four empty vessels which still swing to the tide’. It is perhaps no surprise that as the Empire collapsed in 1814, Alsace remained loyal to Bonaparte, while the Bordelais welcomed Wellington as a liberator.

The aim of sinking British manufacturing floundered because the system was never watertight in barring British goods: it could only work if Napoleon was able to offer his European subjects alternatives p. 72to imports from Britain and its empire, but he could not. The European demand for commodities such as sugar, coffee, and cotton was such that it could only be fully satisfied by tapping the global trade that the British dominated. The British happilyp. 73obliged by setting up smuggling centres on Gibraltar, on Mediterranean islands such as Corfu, Sicily, and Malta, and on Heligoland in the North Sea: sugar from the British plantations in the Caribbean was spirited ashore at Salonika and furtively carried over the mountains by mules, before being sold across the Napoleonic Empire. In 1812, Napoleon appalled Europeans by ordering public bonfires of millions of francs worth of confiscated British contraband in Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Frankfurt (see Figure 6). Yet the French themselves realized Britain was an important market for their wine, champagne, brandy, silk, even wheat, and the Napoleonic state periodically issued licences permitting its subjects to trade with the British in such goods. The most devastating consequence, however, was political: to enforce the blockade, Napoleon resorted to political pressure and, on two particularly fateful occasions, to force: the first of these was when he attacked Portugal in 1807, precipitating the agonies of the Peninsular War, and the second was the equally disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.

6. Public bonfires of British contraband, like this one in Amsterdam in 1812, were aimed at reinforcing Napoleon’s blockade of Europe, but they also appalled mercantile communities already suffering from the commercial disruption of the ‘Continental System’