Monday, February 3, 2014

Napoleon defeated by British bureaucrats

That’s the compelling, and persuasive, thesis of Roger Knight’s Britain against Napoleon. While most military history glorifies generals and admirals and has a “great man” focus, several recent writers have explored the role played by planners and technicians and managers – civil servants, lower-ranking officers, and private businessmen.

Paul Kennedy did it for World War II in Engineers of Victory. As Amazon’s description says, “Kennedy recounts the inside stories of the invention of the cavity magnetron, a miniature radar “as small as a soup plate,” and the Hedgehog, a multi-headed grenade launcher that allowed the Allies to overcome the threat to their convoys crossing the Atlantic; the critical decision by engineers to install a super-charged Rolls-Royce engine in the P-51 Mustang, creating a fighter plane more powerful than the Luftwaffe’s; and the innovative use of pontoon bridges (made from rafts strung together) to help Russian troops cross rivers and elude the Nazi blitzkrieg.”

Arthur Herman showed in Freedom’s Forge the role played by the auto and shipbuilding industry in building America’s arsenal of democracy. Maury Klein paints a larger canvas in his A Call to Arms.
Historian Thomas McCraw explained how Alexander Hamilton and others developed a system of finance that allowed America to win its revolutionary war and put its new government on a sound financial basis in his The Founders.

Knight shows how Britain drastically reorganized its government after the loss of the American colonies and before the French revolution. Prime Minister William Pitt the younger modernized the shipyards; began a regular shipbuilding program while other nations enjoyed a peace dividend; eliminated costly sinecure jobs in the military establishment; put all the often-feuding navy offices under a single roof; and expanded the intelligence services [though still allowing three separate organizations – in the admiralty, foreign office, and home office – to remain independent]. As the war continued under Napoleon, Knight tells how the British learned from their mistakes and improved the efficiency of their government. They had numerous setbacks and even disasters, along with numerous investigations and parliamentary oversight, but those events combined to give Britain a more capable force. It’s also fascinating to learn how informally governments operated in that distant era.

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