“A Low, Surly Growl”: Returning to Britain after the Napoleonic Wars

By Evan Wilson

Britain in 1815 was an empire of contrasts. It had just won a world war; it had just allowed its most dangerous enemy to return.[1] It had enormously powerful armed services; it was dismantling those services to save money. It was leading the world in industrialization; it was deeply in debt.[2] It was on the cusp of its greatest century; it was on the cusp of revolution. Studying this country, at this time in its history, poses some formidable challenges to historians. What kinds of questions to ask, what kinds of material to gather, and what kinds of stories to tell—these are universal historical questions. But for Britain in 1815, the stakes are particularly high: ignoring one half of any of these contrasts comes at great cost to our understanding both of Britain in that particular time, but also more generally of all the Allied powers in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Every member of the victorious coalition quickly discovered the major transition costs associated with the end of two decades of conflict. Whole sectors of national economies that depended on the war effort collapsed, while the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused a global climate catastrophe in 1816 that exacerbated the plight of farmers around Europe. 

Centering veteran soldiers and sailors in studying this period can help us bridge the contradictions of the post-war world. French historians have taken the lead on this front, but there is more to say.[3] In the British case, soldiers and sailors had just helped win the world war; they had also been dramatically affected by Napoleon’s return from Elba, as deployments shifted suddenly, enlistments were extended, and the campaign in the Low Countries got underway. Soldiers and sailors were the backbone of British power, but they were costly to keep in the field and at sea. Reducing the military and naval budgets was the government’s priority because the services received the bulk of government spending. Soon, sailors would enforce the Pax Britannica, and soldiers would grow the British Empire to its globe-spanning peak. But not yet: in the decade after Waterloo, soldiers and sailors participated on both sides of an almost-revolution in Britain. From the Corn Law riots in 1815 through the famous massacre at Peterloo in 1819 to the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820, Britain was teetering on the brink of domestic collapse even while it seemed to be the greatest victor of the Napoleonic Wars.

Veterans were also the beneficiaries of what little social insurance existed in the early nineteenth century in the form of pensions, and those pension records created huge amounts of paperwork that provide fascinating insights into working-class lives. Veterans are therefore a useful category of historical analysis, particularly in a setting as rich in contrasts as Britain after Napoleon. What follows is drawn from my new book, The Horrible Peace: British Veterans and the End of the Napoleonic Wars. To grapple with these contrasts, the book asks, generally, what happened when British soldiers and sailors came home? The modified excerpt below looks at an understudied aspect of military service: the journey home.

What was it like to be demobilized? And how did the experience of demobilization shape veterans’ interactions with the postwar world? Since Britain is an island, nearly every soldier deployed had to return by sea. For most, it was one of the worst parts of soldiering. “To a person not acquainted with a transport, I feel it would be almost impossible to represent the thing,” wrote one young army officer. “I became deadly sick, the smell of rum, ropes, tar, and bilgewater, added to that unaccountable way that so many are afflicted by sea-sickness.”[4] Even ships of the line converted into transports were not spacious. John Spencer Cooper estimated that his regiment added about six hundred people to the crew of one such vessel: “The sailors had hammocks, but we had only the deck, therefore at night we lay like a flock of sheep on a common. Consequently, when the ship rolled, as every one knows ships do, in the Bay of Biscay, there was sad squeezing.”[5] But seasickness and crowding were the least of soldiers’ worries. Most soldiers’ memoirs that discuss demobilization mention a storm at sea, often on the voyage home. That may reflect reality, as we will see, but it also reflects their inexperience, as landlubbers exaggerated relatively normal weather patterns into great gales.[6] A third possibility is that it is a (conscious or unconscious) literary device, in which the storm that they endure marks the transition from their deployment to their homecoming, or perhaps the state of the country to which they were returning.

The 59th Regiment was among the more battle-scarred regiments in the army. The first battalion had taken part in the capture of Mauritius and Java in the Indian Ocean, and the second had been with the Duke of Wellington in Spain from 1812 through the invasion of France. The second battalion was in the process of returning from Belgium in late January 1816 (it had just missed Waterloo), and its 800 men were divided between two transports: 300 on the Seahorseand 500 on the Lord Melville. A huge storm rolled in from the North Atlantic, and in heavy seas off Ireland, the mate of the Seahorse most familiar with the dangerous coast fell from the rigging and was killed. The resulting wreck was a catastrophe in which only 24 passengers were saved. Nearby, the Lord Melville also wrecked, with only 116 survivors. A third transport, the Boadicea, also wrecked near Kinsale, and there were only 85 survivors from 283 embarked, most of them from the 82nd Regiment. All told, the 858 British men and women killed on the night of January 30, 1816, rival the casualty figures for some of the most significant battles of the Peninsular War. It is true that on aggregate, most soldiers made the journey home safely thanks to the laudable efforts of the Transport Board and the navy, but there were at least half a dozen other major wrecks of troop transports from the beginning of large-scale demobilization in 1814.[7]

Soldiers who survived bad storms in transports remembered the experience for the rest of their lives. Ensign Foster Fyans felt entirely out of place on board because he and his fellow soldiers did not understand any of the signal guns and flags, nor the shipboard vocabulary: “The night was exceedingly dark, the confusion terrific, gun after gun from the Commodore, repeated with blue light signals from all the men of war in the fleet; the master of our own ship bawling loud for Boy Bill, Signal Book, ‘Port your helm, you lubber.’” Being part of a group of transports could be reassuring but also dangerous: “Half a dozen ships were about us, carrying away our rigging, and leaving some of theirs on board of ours, bawling, cursing roaring through speaking trumpets, not to be understood. It was now blowing a hurricane, and expecting every minute to be run down by some vessel … we were scudding up Channel, guns and signals of blue lights every five minutes, Signal make port, any port.”[8]

Such feelings of danger and helplessness provided unstable platforms on which soldiers constructed their postwar lives. Wounded soldiers endured an even more difficult transition. In being separated from their comrades on the battlefield or in a hospital, they lost the control that they had hoped to exercise over the process of leaving the military. The journey home was often especially uncomfortable. John Lowe had taken grape shot under his ribs at Waterloo and had been left for dead on the field for the entire night and day after the battle before being rescued by two Hanoverians. He rode a cart to a hospital in Brussels, then bounced along the road to the coast, followed by a Channel crossing and a ride in another bumpy cart to his regiment’s depot.[9]

Similarly, Sergeant Thomas Jackson of the Coldstream Guards had lost his leg in the failed assault on Bergen-op-Zoom in 1814. He was carried on stretchers into the hold of a transport, where, along with a “gallant band of legless, armless, and others something else less, about a hundred in number,” he endured a gale on the journey home. To complete the indignity, the ship’s cook accidentally dumped hot water down the hatch and onto him. Eventually his band of wounded brothers traveled up the Thames to London by barge, and Jackson guessed how it might have looked:

[W]hat a woful [sic] and miserable spectacle must we, the occupants of the barge, have presented to the view of the lookers on, from either sides of the river: some laying this way, and some that; some sitting; some lounging in any form to find small ease from their pains; many of them exhibiting the bandages, like mine, of their stump legs; others with their bandaged arms, off by the shoulders; others of body wounds, having their coats slung by the neck; and again, others, to whom the shot had no respect, with their faces or heads strapped in crossings of sticking plaster. This, I thought, must have been an appalling sight indeed, to the kind hearted and sensitive Londoners.[10] Passing under London Bridge, the bargemaster told them to give three cheers: “The men, all struck with amazement, turned their eyes to look, but their only response was a low, surly growl.”[11]

Given these experiences, it does not take a particularly vibrant imagination to guess how demobilized soldiers and sailors handled the transition to civilian life amid the postwar economic crisis. Some displayed evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, though we should not apply that diagnosis retroactively. For those who had developed strong attachments to their units, they often described how they were feeling as a form of nostalgia—a desire to rejoin their surrogate homes—perhaps mixed with melancholia. Both were common diagnoses in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Nostalgia derives from the Greek “nostos,” which means homecoming. It is what Odysseus, the archetypal veteran, seeks throughout The Odyssey.[12] Others found life in the army or navy deeply unpleasant. Leaving the service for them was like leaving prison—a comparison they made regularly.[13] What we find when we study returning veterans is a spectrum of attachment to military life, and where they fell on that spectrum shaped how they felt about their prospects in the peace.

In general, the Britain to which they returned was not a land of opportunity. The labor market was already saturated by returning servicemen when “the year without a summer” caused an agricultural labor crisis and a major typhus epidemic in Ireland, where many soldiers were from. There were approximately 100,000 fewer jobs at sea by the time the navy finished demobilizing, undermining the usual historical assumption that sailors had marketable skills—there was no market for those skills. And yet Lord Liverpool’s government showed no inclination to address these problems. “Laissez-faire” was the policy of the day, except when it came to protecting the landed interest via the Corn Laws. 

It is little wonder that the five years after Waterloo saw Britain come as close as it had in the 1790s to a major revolution. At the Spa Fields riots in London in 1816, sailors arrived carrying a tricolor flag, signifying their rebellious intent. Their attempt to storm the Tower of London—a British Bastille—failed when regiments of soldiers violently suppressed the riot. Elsewhere, though, demobilized soldiers used their military experience to instill discipline and basic infantry tactics in protestors from Glasgow to East Anglia, and most famously, at Peterloo. Veterans, then, were central to the postwar world. Understanding their experience, including how they arrived back on British shores, deepens our understanding of the British experience of the age of revolutions.


Evan Wilson is an associate professor in the Hattendorf Historical Center at the U.S. Naval War College. A recipient of the Sir Julian Corbett Prize in Modern Naval History, he specializes in the naval history of Britain and other countries from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. He is the author or editor of five books, most recently Navies in Multipolar Worlds, which he edited with Paul Kennedy. His work has appeared in several journals, including the English Historical Review and the Journal of Military History. His next book, The Horrible Peace: British Veterans and the End of the Napoleonic Wars, will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in June 2023. Before coming to Newport, he was the Caird Senior Research Fellow at the National Maritime Museum (UK) and the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University. He holds degrees from Yale, Cambridge, and Oxford.

Title Image: J.M.W. Turner, The Wreck of a Transport Ship, c. 1810. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading:

Bamford, Andrew. Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword: The British Regiment on Campaign, 1808–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

Coss, Edward J. All for the King’s Shilling: The British Soldier under Wellington, 1808–1814. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Forrest, Alan, Karen Hagemann, and Jane Rendall, eds. Soldiers, Citizens and Civilians: Experiences and Perceptions of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1790–1820. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Kennedy, Catriona, and Matthew McCormack, eds. Soldiering in Britain and Ireland, 1750–1850: Men of Arms. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Endnotes:

[1] Evan Wilson, “The Monster from Elba: Napoleon’s Escape Reconsidered,” The Mariner’s Mirror 107, no. 3 (2021): 265–79.

[2] The ratio of public net debt to GDP in 1815 was higher than it was in 1945. See B.R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[3] See for example the special issue of the Journal of Military History 80 (January 2016), as well as the work of Alan Forrest, especially The Legacy of the French Revolutionary Wars: The Nation-in-Arms in French Republican Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and ed., with Karen Hagemann and Michael Rowe, War, Demobilization and Memory: The Legacy of War in the Era of Atlantic Revolutions (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[4] Diary of Captain Foster Fyans, 1811, 1:28, National Army Museum, 2007-02-69.

[5] John Spencer Cooper, Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns in Portugal, Spain, France, and America, during the years 1809–10–11–12–13–14–15, 2nd ed. (Carlisle: Coward, 1914), 129–34.

[6] Further evidence of their inexperience at sea: Cooper claims that one sailor received 150 lashes for refusing to swallow a pint of salt water after the ship crossed the Tropic, which seems unlikely. See Cooper, Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns, 134.

[7] Terence Grocott, Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras (London: Chatham, 1997), 390–98.

[8] Diary of Captain Foster Fyans, 1811, 1:29–33, National Army Museum, 2007-02-69.

[9] John Lowe, The Humble Address of John Lowe, arr. and ed. Rev. F. Newnham (London: Sarah Davis, 1827), 18.

[10] Thomas Jackson, Narrative of the Eventful Life of Thomas Jackson: Militiaman and Coldstream Sergeant, 1803–1815 (Solihull: Helion, 2018), 91.

[11] Jackson, Narrative, 91–92.

[12] Thomas Dodman, “1814 and the Melancholy of War,” The Journal of Military History 80 (January 2016): 31–55.

[13] The comparison was most famously made by the lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson: “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., new ed., ed. John Wilson Croker (Boston: Carter, Hendee, 1832), 1:367–68. Elsewhere, though, Johnson demonstrated a better understanding of why men might volunteer for military service: it was exciting, he said, and it had the “dignity of danger.” He also understood the importance of unit cohesion: “Soldiers consider themselves only as parts of a great machine.” James Boswell, Dr. Johnson’s Table Talk (London: C. Dilly, 1798), 126–27.

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