Britain’s Close Call: New Book Reassesses the Defeat of Napoleon

The defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte by Britain is a far greater achievement than has ever been acknowledged, according to a new book by a Greenwich academic.

In Britain against Napoleon: the organization of victory, Professor Roger Knight points out that a British victory was by no means certain. With France a greater power, and the whole of Europe conquered by Bonaparte, Britain had to use army, navy, politics and all its financial strength to turn the tide until the final battle at Waterloo in 1815.

Controversially, he also downplays the role of Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. “We have been blinded by the myth of Nelson,” he says. “In fact, the war continued for another decade, and Napoleon looked unbeatable until 1812. People don’t understand what a struggle Great Britain faced, and just how great an achievement victory was.”

Professor Knight, visiting professor at the university’s Greenwich Maritime Institute, has a background in maritime history and is the author of the prize-winning biography of Nelson, The Pursuit of Victory. However, in his latest book he examines the war from a ‘360 degree’ perspective for the first time, looking beyond the familiar exploits to show how the whole British population worked for victory, from farmers and manufacturers to an early Home Guard.

“Contrary to the British myth, it was never inevitable that Napoleon would lose,” he says. “Britain’s success was the most extraordinary story.”

Britain against Napoleon has its launch at Somerset House today (Monday 21 October) and is published by Penguin.

Professor Knight’s career as museum curator and historian has spanned more than forty years comprising curatorial and research roles at the National Maritime Museum and subsequently at the university, where he combines teaching with writing about naval history.

Story by Public Relations, University of Greenwich

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