British Expeditionary Warfare and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1793-1815
Robert K. Sutcliffe
The campaigns against France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were massive undertakings that required cooperation between disparate nations to achieve ultimate victory. Historians have written volumes about the various military, diplomatic, and economic endeavors required to build international coalitions and conduct military operations to face Napoleon’s martial machine. Britain’s efforts in these actions were crucial to the overall success of the coalition forces that finally brought Napoleon to heel at Waterloo. The way this was accomplished went far beyond military planning; it also required colossal logistical coordination. In British Expeditionary Warfare and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1793-1815, Robert K. Sutcliffe seeks to explain the seldom praised, behind the scenes efforts of the British military and governmental committees to coordinate the deployment and supply of the armies of Britain and its partners (in Europe and beyond) during the decades long conflict. Sutcliffe posits that these logistical efforts, despite many obstacles and setbacks, played just as much of a role as the battles themselves in securing the downfall of the man who sought to be Emperor of the World.
The majority of Sutcliffe’s work deals with the role of Britain’s Transport Board in securing the shipping necessary to facilitate the movement of the tremendous amount of manpower and supplies necessary to sustain Britain and its allies in the field. He utilizes substantial primary source material—Parliamentary papers, organizational logs and records, committee reports, and official correspondence—to build his case of not only the scale and scope of the Board’s efforts, but the many bureaucratic and economic challenges, as well as the frequent official pushback that the Board faced in accomplishing its daunting missions. Often on short notice, faced with government and military officials who regularly planned operations of a scale that were seemingly impossible to achieve and that seldom fully understood the logistics involved, and obliged to attempt to balance the needs of the British economy with its military needs and the needs and wishes of the owners of the merchant vessels that formed the backbone of the transport fleet, the success of the Board in most of its missions is a testament to its organization and management.
The text is filled with a dizzying array of numbers, tables, and charts that convey the immensity of the logistics involved but, coupled with Sutcliffe’s dry and matter of fact prose style, it often reads as bland as the official documents from which it is derived. There are a few moments where he is able to build excitement and drama into his prose, such as his descriptions of the British Navy’s landings in Egypt in 1801 and the campaigns along the Tagus River in Portugal during the Peninsular War, but these are few and far between. Nevertheless, British Expeditionary Warfare does indeed fill a gap in the literature of Britain’s role in the Napoleonic wars and significantly contributes to a more complete historical picture of the era.
Reviewed by Eric A. Walls, East Carolina University
- Woodbridge, Sussex: The Boydell Press, 2016
- 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xxi + 272 pages
- Illustrations, maps, tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $120.00
- ISBN: 9781843839491