The Secret War against Napoleon
Britain’s Assassination Plot on the French Emperor
Pegasus Books, New York, 2018, 448 pages
Book Review published on: August 2, 2019
A bomb explodes in a Paris street on Christmas Eve in 1800, killing several bystanders and maiming dozens more. Its intended target, Napoleon Bonaparte, escapes death as his carriage clears the ambush site seconds earlier, placing a building corner between it and the exploding bomb. Paris authorities characterize the event as a terrorist attack, attributing blame to the violence prone, radical political group Jacobins. Joseph Fouché, duke of Otranto and Napoleon’s minister of police, quickly announces to French Consulate members that it was his opinion that England was behind the attack.
In The Secret War against Napoleon, historian and author Tim Clayton tells the story of the British government’s determination to destroy the French emperor by any means necessary. The 1789 overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy by revolutionaries only exacerbated France’s economic, social, and agricultural woes. Britain initially welcomed the French Revolution, assuming that France would take Britain as its model in forming its post-revolution government and society. However, as it grew clear that the revolution would not follow a moderate, circumscribed course toward a British model, alarm bells sounded in Britain. The British government worried that its citizens might be prepared to follow the French model and overturn the established structure of British society. British statesman Edmund Burke prophesied in 1790 that the revolution would result in the imminent destruction of European civilization and demanded a crusade to root out the revolution and restore the Bourbon monarchy and the ancient regime.
Clayton describes Britain’s secret propaganda efforts against Napoleon as both extensive and sophisticated. British leaders discreetly financed the publishing of pamphlets, books, and cartoons, both domestically and internationally, targeting Napoleon, his wife Josephine, and their children. Napoleon is vilified for the murder of innocent civilians, the poisoning of wounded French soldiers, and the tyranny of French citizens. A well-exposed letter reportedly from a French army officer claimed that severely wounded French soldiers were generally strangled or smothered. Napoleon’s wife was ridiculed for infidelity and mothering children of her lovers. One of the more interesting British anti-Napoleon propaganda products are the political cartoons of James Gillray. Gillray had never seen Napoleon but relied on French engravings to provide successful images ridiculing Napoleon as a tiny figure full of hot air and overconfidence. The success of British propaganda efforts was reflected in French requests of extradition of journalists who attacked the French government. Napoleon directed French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to demand that the English press adopt a friendlier tone.
The Secret War against Napoleon concludes with the British attempting to shift blame for the assassination attempts away from themselves and the Bourbons by suggesting that Napoleon had actually invented the attacks in order to entrap his enemies. Clayton asserts British leaders’ refusal to acknowledge Napoleon resulted in King George III’s insanity, William Pitts’s death from alcoholism, and Lord William Grenville’s declining health.
The strength of The Secret War against Napoleon is Clayton’s writing style that makes for a must-read spy story. Its notes, selected bibliography, and numerous illustrations reflect Clayton’s exhaustive research and command of the story. The Secret War against Napoleon makes a great addition to Clayton’s previous works on Napoleon and Britain. It is highly recommend to both scholars and students interested in the period between the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas