Author and Historian
Britain against Napoleon: the Organization of Victory, 1793-1815
Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, Hardback 2013
'Britain against Napoleon' was shortlisted for the inaugural Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize for Military History.
‘The best history I have read in a long time is Roger Knight’s Britain against Napoleon’.
‘It is a rare gift to make the intrinsically dull interesting…and Knight has that gift in spades…there is scarcely a wasted sentence here, not a duff page, not a chapter…that does not bring you very close to the realities of a total war…’
(David Crane, Spectator)
‘Britain against Napoleon…offers a whole new perspective on Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. The action in Knight’s book takes place not at Trafalgar or Talavera but in London, at the Victualling Department, at the Admiralty and the Navy Board. It is a heroic tale, but one made by heroes of an unusual kind. What could have been a dry tome, heavy on process, is rich in humanity.
Just occasionally a work of history changes entirely and forever our perception of the past. Roger Knight’s Britain against Napoleon does just that.’ (Paul Lay, Editor, History Today)
‘This is a book which examines military operations, finance, logistics and intelligence. It is an enormous canvas, yet Knight manages not only to convey the magnitude of the war but makes this an absorbing book and an essential addition to the history of the Napoleonic Wars’ (Ben Wilson, Sunday Telegraph)
For more than twenty years after 1793, the French army was supreme in continental Europe. Only at sea was British power dominant, though even with this crucial advantage the British population lived under fear of a French invasion for much of those two decades. How was it that, despite multiple changes of government and the assassination of a Prime Minister, Britain survived and eventually won a generation-long war against a regime which at its peak in 1807 commanded far greater resources and manpower?
There have been innumerable books about the battles, armies and navies of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This book looks beyond the familiar exploits (and bravery) of the army and navy to the politicians and civil servants, and examines how they made it possible to continue the war at all. It shows the degree to which, because of the magnitude and intensity of hostilities, the capacities of the whole British population were involved: industrialists, farmers, shipbuilders, cannon founders, gunsmiths and gunpowder manufacturers all had continually to increase quality and output as the demands of the war remorselessly grew. The intelligence war was also central: Knight shows that, despite a poor beginning to both gathering and assessment, Whitehall’s methods steadily improved. No participants were more important, he argues, than the bankers and international traders of the City of London, who played a critical role in financing the wars and without whom the armies of Britain’s allies could not have taken the field.
Knight demonstrates that despite these extraordinary efforts, between 1807 and 1812 Britain came very close to losing the war against Napoleon - not through invasion (though the danger until 1811 was very real) but through financial and political exhaustion.
The Duke of Wellington famously said that the battle which finally defeated Napoleon was "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life": this book shows how true that was for the Napoleonic War as a whole.
‘Roger Knight collects and arranges a thousand incremental instances of reform, reorganisation, the renewal of practices and institutions, with an enthusiasm which I found quite irresistible. But he never loses sight of the wood as he counts the trees…Here is an account of the institutions that had to be reformed in Britain to enable it to survive the threat from Napoleon’s new France.’
(4 January 2014 - John Barrell, Guardian)
‘The great value of Knight’s book is that he puts the organisation of war at centre stage. In doing so, he humanises the politicians, the staff officers and the functionaries, whose decision-making and administrative capacity allowed the country to survive the hardships of a prolonged period of disrupted trade when there were only occasional opportunities to engage with the enemy’.
(Sir Laurence Freedman, Financial Times)
‘Occasionally I finish reading a book that is so good that I immediately want to start it all over again. This is one of them… It is impossible to do justice to the sheer richness of this book in a short review…It is also difficult to disagree with his [Knight’s] view that this struggle was just as much a competition between economies as the two world wars of the twentieth century. As he argues, in the end it came down to “a question of national stamina”, and this book paints a clear and richly detailed picture of how and why Britain outlasted France.’
(Professor Gary Sheffield, BBC History)