What if Napoleon Had Landed?

John Cookson asks what might have happened had Napoleon actually landed on British soil in 1803-5.

The virtues of this question perhaps need to be stated. E.H. Carr dismissed the ‘might-have-beens of history’ as ‘a parlour game’; and he was right that the historian’s predominant concern must be with the past as it happened. Yet, at the very least, what might have happened does alert us to the contingency of events – the past need not have happened as it did. The danger of counter-factual speculation occurs when one ‘if’ is seen as setting off a sequence of events and an alternative narrative is constructed bearing little relation to the historical context.

A landing by Napoleon in England should not be taken to assume Britain’s defeat and conquest. On the other hand, Napoleon did embark on a course of action; he set himself objectives, he gathered means to achieve those ends. A legitimate question to ask is whether the means available to the French were equal to the ends Napoleon had in mind. Any answer would have to assess the balance of military advantage between the French and the British; and that problem sets a task of wide-ranging historical analysis. What were the chances of the Royal Navy regaining control of the Channel and North Sea; of Continental intervention on the side of the British; of British numbers and ‘spirit’ overwhelming French military experience and organisation? ‘Might-have-been’ history cannot be anchored in the narrative of actual events, but it must be anchored in the context in which those events occurred. Its great merit, therefore, is that it identifies and emphasises context and helps us give a ‘structure’ to history, without which history would be meaningless.

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