So I think, without overdoing any of this, I think the British military contribution was central to holding the line, certainly on the ground. And then if one was looking at what happened subsequently: the naval blockade and hence the economic blockade – and then the attacks on Washington, that could only have happened through regular military forces.
The thing worth remembering from the British point of view is firstly we were fighting a world war. That’s what the Napoleonic Wars were. We were fighting a world war that was reaching its climax in Europe. Enormous financial and military resources were going into that. The entire Royal Navy and all its ships and battleship equivalents were off the European coast in the Mediterranean, off Spain and France. The whole British army was essentially fighting in the peninsula. British money was being used to support allies – in other words, opponents of Napoleon be they Russia or Prussia or everybody else – that is where the focus was. So to conduct another conflict on the other side of the world was a considerable ask.
Secondly, the logistics of this. It’s not just a matter of getting a few people across a river. It’s crossing the Atlantic in all weathers and two winters, maintaining forces by sea, first of all, and eventually by a blockade of the American coast. And of course maintaining military forces and militia on a vast continent with extremely difficult terrain and in North American winters. Just doing that requires a bit of organization and credit.
You had in the Royal Navy the greatest multinational institution in the world at the time. Almost every nationality served on the ships. It was an extraordinary organization that was capable of fighting a world war and yet exploring the globe at the same time. Think of Cook and others.
So I would say even though parts of it weren’t well executed. I mean some of the naval encounters, particularly in the early part of the war, when I think the British navy was perhaps a little complacent and certainly had ships that under-matched their opponent. And secondly things like the assault on New Orleans, which could have been better done.
You could hardly say this was a glittering campaign. But parts of it went well: the later naval engagements, the assault on Washington, etc. Perhaps, most importantly for history, the holding of the land border with the United States in the early part of the war.
The Globe: Do you think General Brock receives enough attention back home in Britain? Is he commemorated enough in the U.K.? He is certainly feted in Canada.
Pocock: Alas, I think General Brock is rather in the shadow of General Wolfe. Wolfe is memorialized in Britain and in his place of birth and other places. Everyone knows the great picture [ The Death of General Wolfe] by Benjamin West. The panorama.
Wolfe is the man people remember, and perhaps justly, because he changed the history of the continent. But Brock held the line. And that was massively important in Canada’s history, in retrospect. But I think he’s not perhaps as well known as he might be [in the United Kingdom]
Who knows, one of the small side effects of commemorations in the next couple of years might be to return a bit of attention to him. He was a rather dashing character as far as I understand and died in combat in the prime of his life, as did Wolfe. On a field of victory, as did Wolfe.
There seem to be a number of British military people who specialized in doing that. I mean [Admiral]Nelson of course had the greatest death bed scene in British history.
The Globe: Maybe you could do something to get General Brock more attention in London.
Pocock: It’s a fair point. If we’re going to look a this seriously, I think over time we will. ... Perhaps General Brock deserves a better place in the sun.