When was Britain’s finest hour?

13 mins read

Chris Bambery takes issue with Churchill’s claim that 1940 was ‘the finest hour’, arguing that the true moment of imperial greatness was 1815.

Did Winston Churchill or William Pitt preside over Britain’s ‘finest hour’?
Did Winston Churchill or William Pitt preside over Britain’s ‘finest hour’?

When was Britain’s finest hour? For most readers the answer is easy: the summer of 1940, when Britain stood alone in defiance of the Third Reich, urged on by the soaring rhetoric of Winston Churchill.

But I would argue that Britain’s finest hour came in 1815, with the victory at Waterloo, sealing the final triumph in a 22-year-long war with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France. In 1815, Britain reached a pinnacle of military might that it never afterwards matched.

After Waterloo, Britain faced a bright future, and there was an awareness of that. In 1940, on the other hand, Churchill knew that victory would depend on America, and that the price for that would be high, marking another drop downwards in a continuous spiral of imperial decline. Britain in 1945 was essentially bankrupt, whereas in 1815 it had subsidised its allies, and was the world’s financial hegemon.

None of this is to deny the significance of Britain’s continued resistance in the summer of 1940 – not least because without Britain the US could not have carried the war to Germany in the way the Allies did in 1944.

In 1803, with the resumption of war after the brief peace of the Treaty of Amiens, Britain stood alone; as in 1940. Napoleon massed 130,000 men at Boulogne and 2,000 craft to carry them across the Channel. What he needed was control of the sea, however brief, to enable his planned invasion. Nelson’s defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar ensured that never happened.


The French Wars were truly an age of giants: Thomas Telford, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, William Turner, and politicians such as Pitt the Younger and George Canning.

Pitt, prime minister from 1783 until his death in 1806 (except for a brief interlude in 1801-1804), led a Tory administration which, when war came, combined with the pro-war Whigs, splitting that party. This was a government determined to defeat France and to crush supporters of the French Revolution at home.

Pitt, unlike Churchill, created a gifted team of politicians, which would preside over final victory: Canning, Spencer Perceval (best remembered today for his assassination in Parliament), Lord Castlereagh (of whom Shelley wrote, after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, ‘I met Murder on the way, He had a mask like Castlereagh’), and William Huskisson (best remembered for being the first man to be killed by a train).

Britain also produced two truly popular military heroes, Nelson and Wellington, whose positions were unchallenged by any military leader during World War II. Nelson may have been history’s greatest admiral, and Wellington was perhaps Britain’s greatest general after Marlborough.

Victory in 1815 and the men who achieved it are marked in all our towns and cities, from Nelson atop his column in Trafalgar Square to the statute of Wellington in Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square (which is permanently adorned with a parking cone). Yet William Pitt the Younger has none of the profile of Churchill.


Nelson, in contrast to Wellington, was of humble background. He rose to become an admiral through skill and daring, something possible in the Royal Navy, in which talent was usually rewarded. In the Army, you could buy promotion; in the Navy, you had to earn it.

One of the giants in an age of giants: Nelson, here seen boarding the San Nicolas during the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, brought the British way of war at sea to a peak of perfection.
One of the giants in an age of giants: Nelson, here seen boarding the San Nicolas during the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, brought the British way of war at sea to a peak of perfection.

At the Royal Naval Museum in Greenwich you can see the painting Nelson receiving the surrender of the San Nicolas, 14 February 1797. Commissioned after his death, it shows the conclusion of a truly daring action. At the Battle of St Vincent on 14 February 1797, Nelson was in command of the Captain, a 74-gun ship of the line. Leading the boarding party, he leapt through the quarter gallery window of the 80-gun Spanish ship, took her surrender, and stormed on to capture the 112-gun San Josef.

Trafalgar was the moment of Nelson’s supreme glory, but his greatest victory was perhaps at Aboukir Bay in 1798, when he attacked the French fleet at anchor off the Egyptian coast.

Rather than attacking in line, as was the convention, Nelson divided his fleet in two. One half went behind the French fleet through a narrow channel between it and the shore, while the other approached from seaward. Attacked from two sides, the French fleet was bombarded into surrender after three hours, leaving Napoleon Bonaparte’s army stranded in Egypt.

At Copenhagen in March 1801, Nelson ignored orders to withdraw, famously putting his telescope to his blind eye, bringing his fleet close to shore to attack the enemy ships and forts. Victory meant that Britain kept the Baltic open – though it had to bombard Copenhagen into submission in 1807, when the Danes sided with Bonaparte.

Nelson was the greatest naval commander of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, but there were others whose daring almost matched his, including Thomas Cochrane, the ‘Admirable Cochrane’, as featured in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander.


In 1800, Britain’s population was probably 15 million, compared to France’s 27 million.

But in terms of finance, Britain was far ahead of its enemy. Between 1788 and 1792, for example, immediately before the Revolutionary War, George III and his ministers allocated about £7 million per annum to provide for the defence of the realm and civil administration. During the Napoleonic Wars, expenditures on military and naval forces multiplied five times in real terms, increasing from around 6% to above 22% of Britain’s national income.

A modern finance system gave the British a huge advantage over Napoleonic France when it came to funding war. Contemporary cartoonist James Gillray here reflects on the strange novelty of it all.
A modern finance system gave the British a huge advantage over Napoleonic France when it came to funding war. Contemporary cartoonist James Gillray here reflects on the strange novelty of it all.

After four years of heavy borrowing (1793- 1797), Pitt the Younger switched from funding the war via loans to increasing taxes, so that 58% of the money raised to secure victory came from taxation, compared to around 21% for four previous wars. Because Britain’s tax system was solid, open to parliamentary scrutiny, and a sinking fund was a guarantee to repayment, British governments could borrow what was necessary.

By the latter years of the Napoleonic Wars, Parliament agreed to pay and feed military, naval, and ordnance forces in excess of half a million men, compared to some 75,000 in 1792. In 1805, the French budget was just over £27 million, but Britain’s was over £76 million. Britain’s new income tax raised over £13 million in 1812 alone.

All of this was made possible by the fact that London had become the premier world financial centre following the occupation of Amsterdam by France – a stature achieved due to imperial expansion, growing maritime trade, and the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

Faced with a real threat of invasion, a chain of Martello towers was built between 1804 and 1812 along the coasts of England and Ireland, at a cost of £9 million, while new barracks to accommodate the expanding army cost £7 million. Britain outstripped France in the production of firearms and artillery, and was able to send arms to its allies, as well as funding them via subsidies and loans. Between April 1808 and December 1811, over £20 million went on pay for British forces in Spain and Portugal.

In the hothouse conditions of war, major industries like iron, coal, and shipbuilding not only expanded, but they introduced new technologies and thereby cut costs and increased productivity. These booming industries benefitted from the ability of the Royal Navy to maintain access to foreign and colonial markets. Britain’s merchant marine grew to achieve global dominance in this period.

As early as 1806, the Foreign Secretary, Earl Grey, stated, ‘The sea is ours and we must maintain the doctrine that no nation, no fleet, no cock-boat shall sail upon it without our permission.’


In 1793, Britain was far readier for war, at sea at least, than in 1939. Eighteenth-century governments saw the maintenance of a strong navy as assisting and protecting trade, while they viewed large standing armies as a danger to parliamentary rule.

Pitt the Younger was determined to build up the navy and ensured that the finance to do so was available well before the war with France began. He developed a direct relationship – going over the head of the Admiralty – with Rear-Admiral Charles Middleton, the Comptroller of the Navy, who pushed through much-needed reforms.

Dockyards were brought under direct control to weed out waste and corruption, the accounts were put in proper order, new docks were constructed at Portsmouth and Plymouth, and yards were run on a wartime basis, ensuring speed in the building and repair of ships.

It was Middleton who came up with the idea of putting copper on the hulls of vessels, improving their performance considerably.

Two other changes ensured that the Royal Navy’s gunnery outmatched that of the enemy. Rather than using a slow match, gunlocks similar to the flintlock of a musket were introduced in the firing of naval cannon. The slow match did not always result in immediate ignition, reducing accuracy when ships rolled. The new gunlocks were both safer and more efficient.

A new-rapid fire gun, the carronade, was also introduced, made at the Carron Ironworks in Scotland. It was light, could swivel, its short, fat muzzle meant there was less recoil, and it used less gunpowder. Nicknamed ‘the Smasher’, it was ideal for the close-quarters fighting that was to become the hallmark of the Royal Navy in the age of Nelson.

Compared to French ships, the Royal Navy’s were kept clean, and, added to efforts to ensure fresh provisions, the result was far healthier crews and fewer hands confined to sick bay.

Lord Howe was recalled as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1790, aged 64. He insisted on a new signal book using numbers, as the French did: much simpler and clearer.


In 1793, Howe introduced a new tactic. Rather than approaching the enemy in parallel line, with each ship sailing up the length of their opponent’s line bombarding all, Howe proposed that ships pass through the enemy line firing close-range broadsides into bow and stern.

A gun crew of Nelson’s Navy.
The superiority of British gunnery
was a decisive factor in the war at sea.
A gun crew of Nelson’s Navy. The superiority of British gunnery was a decisive factor in the war at sea.

This had a number of consequences. Close-range fire was more accurate and powerful. The British shot passed down the length of opposing vessels and caused more cumulative damage. The enemy, when worsted, was unable to simply sail away: a battle of annihilation became more possible.

This was the tactic Howe used on ‘The Glorious First of June’ in 1794. Though only seven of Howe’s 25 ships followed orders and broke the enemy line, the result was a clearcut victory, even though the grain convoy the French fleet was escorting got away.

Other reforms under Howe included an improved form of signalling using numerical flags, improved hygiene (seamen were now issued with two hammocks, so that if one got wet, a dry replacement was available), supplies of lemon juice to combat scurvy, and, where possible, supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat. Medical care onboard ship also improved under Howe, with a higher proportion of wounded British sailors than French surviving to continue their service.

The Glorious First of June ushered in a series of naval victories that contrasted with numerous failures during the American War: St Vincent and Camperdown in 1797, the Nile in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801, Trafalgar in 1805, and San Domingo in 1806.

Napoleon and his generals. Nelson’s
victory at Trafalgar in 1805 put paid to the
French Emperor’s plans to invade England.
Napoleon and his generals. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805 put paid to the French Emperor’s plans to invade England.

Nelson was the finest product of the reformed Royal Navy. Previously, admirals had tried to micro-manage battles, something that was almost impossible to achieve in the clouds of smoke that enveloped the fleets. So he created a cadre of commanders, his friends and confidants, whom he relied upon to seize the chance to get to close-quarters with the enemy. Before the battle, he would brief them on his plans, but he then expected them to engage on their own initiative.

These men were his ‘band of brothers’, men who carved a golden trail: Cuthbert Collingwood, James Suamarez, Ralph Miller, Thomas Freemantle, George Cockburn, Thomas Troubridge, Benjamin Hallowell, and Sam Hood.

The excellence of British gunnery was another secret of Nelson’s success. His crews were taught to fire into the enemy hull (the French tended to aim for masts, rigging, and sails). British powder was of better quality. Above all, British crews loaded, aimed, and fired faster.

After Trafalgar and the lifting of any invasion threat, the war at sea became purely defensive. But naval supremacy cannot deliver victory in a continental war. Napoleon could not be decisively defeated at sea, only on land.


At the start of the war, the British government, particularly Henry Dundas, was fixated on gaining new colonies in the West Indies. This was a failure. In 1794, a British expeditionary force had to be evacuated from Guadeloupe, which remained in French hands until 1810. St Lucia was retaken by France in 1795, requiring a second invasion a year later. The wastage of men from disease was enormous in what was always a secondary theatre of war.

Prior to Britain’s involvement in the Iberian Peninsula, its participation in the fighting in mainland Europe was either as an auxiliary to its allies, as in Flanders from 1793 to 1795 and North Germany (1805- 1806), or for limited objectives, such as the brief capture of Toulon in 1793.

Wellesley at the Siege of Badajoz in 1812. A master of war on land as Nelson was a master of war at sea, they were perhaps unsurpassed by any British generals or admirals of the 20th century.
Wellesley at the Siege of Badajoz in 1812. A master of war on land as Nelson was a master of war at sea, they were perhaps unsurpassed by any British generals or admirals of the 20th century.

This changed in 1807 with British intervention in Iberia, driven by the opening up of the Portuguese and Spanish Empires to British trade, and made possible by the Royal Navy’s control of the seas and the possession of a fine harbour and base at Lisbon.

In August 1808, 15,000 British troops landed in Portugal under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington). He first defeated and drove back General Henri François Delaborde’s 4,000-strong army at Rolica on 17 August, then General Junot’s army of 14,000 men at Vimeiro.

But then Wellesley was replaced, first by Sir Harry Burrard and then by Sir Hew Dalrymple. Dalrymple agreed the Convention of Sintra with Junot, whereby the French army was evacuated from Lisbon, in Royal Navy vessels, taking with them their arms and their plunder.

Dalrymple, Burrard, and Wellesley were recalled to Britain and the two elder generals were sacked. Wellesley survived, but before his return to Portugal, Britain suffered defeat.

Sir John Moore had taken command there, and in November 1808 advanced into Spain to assist the Spanish armies fighting Napoleon, who was himself in the south of the country. Aiming towards Madrid, Moore defeated General Soult’s scattered and isolated 16,000- man corps at Carrion.

But Napoleon hurried north with 80,000 men, and the French threatened to encircle and capture Moore’s force. He decided to retreat to La Coruña in the north-west, and Soult failed to intercept him.

Moore’s retreat took place in terrible conditions. Twenty-six thousand British troops were successfully evacuated by the Royal Navy while Moore fended off a strong French attack on the port, but the commander was killed.


After La Coruña, Soult, with an army of 20,000, invaded northern Portugal and succeeded in capturing Portugal’s second city, Porto, with its valuable dockyards and arsenals intact. After halting to refit his army, he advanced on Lisbon.

Wellesley returned to Portugal in April 1809 to command a British army reinforced by Portuguese regiments. At the Battles of Grijo (10-11 May 1808) and Porto (12 May 1808), Soult was defeated and driven out of the country.

Wellesley now advanced into Spain, but, after winning a bloody victory at Talavera, was faced with lack of provisions and found himself in danger of being encircled, so withdrew to Portugal.

In 1811, Wellesley faced an invasion by General Masséna at the head of 65,000 men. His response was to pull back to the prepared defences of the Lines of Torres Vedras outside Lisbon.

The contrast between the two armies was immense. Like Soult before, Masséna’s army had to live off the land. Thus the French often went hungry, spent much time foraging, incurred the enmity of the local population, and became the targets of guerrilla attacks. Wellesley’s army, by contrast, was supplied by sea and received coin to pay its way. By 1813, a full 90% of the British army’s bread supply was arriving by sea.

After a month, Masséna had to withdraw because of lack of provisions.

Wellesley also benefitted from French failure to concentrate their forces in the Peninsula, with different armies operating under different generals in different theatres. The centralised direction of Napoleon was a vital missing element in French strategy in Spain.

Nevertheless, Wellesley’s advance into Spain petered out after he failed to take the border fortresses of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo. Only in 1812, with Napoleon tied down in Russia, were the British able to resume their offensive and break through, capturing both towns, then defeating the French at Salamanca in July. Again, though, Wellesley was forced to fall back on his main base in Portugal; decisive victory over the French forces in Spain was still beyond his power.

The following year, 1813, with Napoleon withdrawing troops from Spain in a desperate effort to shore up his crumbling empire following his retreat from Moscow, Wellesley was able to launch a war-winning offensive.

With 121,000 men (54,000 British, 40,000 Spanish, and 28,000 Portuguese), he marched from northern Portugal into northern Spain, whose ports could supply his advance. In late May he took Burgos. On 21 June, at the Battle of Vitoria, an outnumbered French army was forced from its positions and its retreat turned to rout.

Wellesley advanced to the Pyrenees, taking San Sebastian and Pamplona, and by the time Napoleon finally abdicated in 1814, with France invaded by Russians, Prussians, and Austrians, the British had reahed Toulouse.


The combined British and Prussian victory at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 – following Napoleon’s flight from exile and his brief return to power during ‘the Hundred Days’ – was the culmination of a titanic struggle that had shaken the continent for a quarter of a century. That struggle – against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France – was itself the culmination of a long series of wars between the rising maritime-commercial power of Britain and the established power of France.

The Battle of Waterloo as depicted by William Sadler.
The Battle of Waterloo as depicted by William Sadler.

Britain and France fought six major wars against each other between 1688 and 1815. They were formally at war for a full half of this entire period. Invariably, other states were also involved as allies of one or the other. Eighteenth-century Europe was a ‘continent of warring states’, and the struggle for global supremacy between Britain and France was a predominant issue throughout.

After 1815, Britain and France never went to war against each other again. Instead, they became allies – against Russia in 1854-1856, and against Germany in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.

The period 1815-1848, moreover, was a sustained period of conservative peace – an epoch of ‘throne and altar’ – in which Europe was dominated by reactionary absolutist regimes, while Britain, with its constitutional monarchy and parliament of property-owners, was free to use its maritime supremacy to build its empire, its trade, and its industry.

By mid century, Britain had become the paramount global superpower. This was the fruit of Waterloo. 1815, not 1940, was Britain’s ‘finest hour’.

Chris Bambery is an author and broadcaster whose books include The Second World War and A People’s History of Scotland.

This article was published in the October 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.