Octavian and Bismarck – Visionaries of Empire

Today’s cracking guest post comes from Antoine Vanner – a regular guest here. His own adventurous life, his knowledge of human nature, his passion for nineteenth-century history and his understanding of what was the cutting-edge technology of that time, make him the ideal chronicler of the life of Nicholas Dawlish R.N.in eight volumes so far.  Antoine spent many years in international business but now lives in Britain but continues to travel extensively on a private basis.  His latest novel is Britannia’s Innocent (see below).

Over to Antoine!

Emerging from the ruins of the Roman Republic in 31 BC, the empire established by Octavian – later known as Augustus – was to endure for over four centuries in the West and a millennium beyond that in the East. By contrast, the string of empires proclaimed during the 19th Century in France (twice! 1804 & 1852), Haiti (1804), Brazil (1822), Mexico (twice! 1822 & 1864), Germany (1871) and British India (1877) were all to have much shorter life-spans.

The most spectacular “rise and fall” among these new 19th Century empires was to be that of Germany. Economically successful, by 1914 it was arguably the greatest single military power, but it would disintegrate, ignominiously, four years later.

As such, it seems to have little in common with Augustus’s great Roman creation. The link is however that both were brought about by the genius and determination of a single man who realised that current realities contained so many internal contradictions, and involved such instabilities, that a new reality must be imposed.

Almost a century of civil war had shown that the structures of the almost seven-century old Roman Republic were no longer “fit for purpose”. Augustus’ solution – “The Empire” – imposed order, fostered administrative efficiency, provided security against foreign threats and allowed a high degree of adaptation to local circumstances, religions and cultures. (Read more in Adrian Goldsworthy’s excellent Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor)

The German Empire’s creator, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), was no less clear-sighted and no less driven. He recognised that the patchwork of independent German states that still existed in the mid-19th Century (some 40 in 1860) was an anachronism. United, they could be Europe’s – if not the world’s – greatest economic and military power, guaranteeing stability at home and protection against enemies abroad.

Convinced that Prussia, already the strongest of the German states, should dominate such a union (an idea of which the King of Prussia was not convinced), Bismarck, Minister President – essentially Prime Minister – of Prussia from 1862, set about demonstrating the value of unity. The method employed was launching of three wars in six years:

Denmark, 1864: an act of political stupidity by Denmark in 1863 violated existing treaty conditions and allowed Bismarck to launch an attack on her by Prussia, in alliance with the Austrian Empire, the only other contender for German leadership. Victory was fast and absolute.

Austrian Empire 1866: disagreement over details of settlement of the Danish War allowed Bismarck to trigger conflict with Austria. The resulting “Seven-Weeks War” resulted in a massive Austrian defeat. Superior Prussian strategy, use of new technology and mastery of railway transportation to concentrate its armies inflicted a humiliation on the Austrian Empire from which it never recovered.

France 1870-71: Bismarck engineered a crisis with France that he intended would lead to war. Leading an alliance of German states, Prussia inflicted a series of French defeats that included the encirclement of an entire French Army and the capture of Emperor Napoleon III as well as the siege and surrender of Paris itself. The culmination was the proclamation of the King of Prussia as Emperor of a united Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.

Largely forgotten today, the smallest of these wars, that against Denmark in 1864, inspired me to write my most recent novel, Britannia’s Innocent. Massively outnumbered by Prussia and Austria, Denmark’s army performed heroically although defeat was recognised as inevitable. The war was however a disaster in every sense for Denmark. It lost almost 3000 dead and slightly more than that wounded – a heavy toll in a population that was reduced from 2.6 million to 1.6 million by cession of territory under the peace terms. The only major Danish triumph was a naval victory over an Austrian naval squadron off Heligoland, in the North Sea, but it had no impact on the war’s outcome.

Small as the Danish War of 1864 was, by comparison with later conflicts, its tactical lessons were significant. Trenches and earthworks proved surprisingly resistant to artillery fire and allowed small numbers of rifle-armed troops to hold off much larger attacking forces. Massed assaults succeeded only at the cost of high casualties. The same was found across the Atlantic when, that same year, Confederate forces entrenched at Petersburg in Virginia imposed a virtual stalemate, that lasted some ten months, on Union forces.

On the naval front, Denmark’s only ironclad, the Rolf Krake, proved a very valuable asset in its operations against Prussian land forces. With her heavy turret-mounted guns, she represented the future of sea warfare, by contrast with the wooden broadside-frigates that fought each other at Heligoland.


My writing of Britannia’s Innocent reflects these matters and more besides, not least the first appearance in war of the newly formed Red Cross, a revolutionary concept at the time. While working on the book, I found the brutal realities of this conflict oppressive – the awareness that suffering and death for the combatants, and misery for their bereaved families, had been brought about by the wilful stupidity of Danish politicians and by the ruthless determination of a single man, Otto von Bismarck.

And by the time I finished, I found myself loathing him.

A succinct and powerful summary – thank you, Antoine.

Connect with Antoine
Find out more about the Dawlish Chronicles series: www.dawlishchronicles.com
To follow Antoine’s blog click: https://dawlishchronicles.com/dawlish-blog/

Britannia’s Innocent

1864 – Political folly has brought war upon Denmark. Lacking allies, the country is invaded by the forces of military superpowers Prussia and Austria. Cut off from the main Danish Army, and refusing to use the word ‘retreat’, a resolute commander withdraws northwards. Harried by Austrian cavalry, his forces plod through snow, sleet and mud, their determination not to be defeated increasing with each weary step . . .

Across the Atlantic, civil war rages. It is fought not solely on American soil but also on the world’s oceans, as Confederate commerce raiders ravage Union merchant shipping as far away as the East Indies. And now a new raider, a powerful modern ironclad, is nearing completion in a British shipyard. But funds are lacking to pay for her armament and the Union government is pressing Britain to prevent her sailing . . .

Denmark is not wholly without sympathizers however. Britain’s heir to the throne is married to a Danish princess. With his covert backing, British volunteers are ready to fight for the Danes. And the Confederacy is willing to lease the new raider for two months if she can be armed as payment for the lease, although the Union government is determined to see her sunk . .

Just returned from Royal Navy service in the West Indies, the young Nicholas Dawlish is induced to volunteer and is plunged into the horrors of a siege, shore-bombardment, raiding and battle in the cold North Sea – notwithstanding divided loyalties. In 1864, Dawlish is still an innocent, relatively raw. But to survive he will need to learn fast . . .

Buy here:  https://amzn.to/386dd2A


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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