Napoleon at the Channel

Inspecting the Troops at Boulogne, 15 August 1804.

Cartoon on the invasion, showing a tunnel under the Channel and a fleet of balloons.

During the months after the Treaty of Amiens, Napoleon moved aggressively to cement France’s control over the states along its borders. Although this did not violate the Peace of Amiens, the British grew alarmed. They also were alarmed by France’s protectionist trade policies, its actions in St. Domingue, and perhaps most of all by its hints that it might again invade Egypt. What precipitated war, however, was the strategically vital island of Malta, which the British had promised to return to the Knights of Malta. The British regretted their promise, and fearing the French would capture the island again, they refused to comply with the terms of the Treaty of Amiens. Napoleon considered this a provocation that he could not accept without showing weakness. In May 1803, barely a year after the signing of the formal peace, a new war began. Napoleon had not expected a lengthy peace, but he did not wish war to begin before he was ready. Unfortunately he and the British government each had attempted the dangerous tactic of using threats to force the other to back down, such as French bluster about a new attack on Egypt. Given the mutual suspicions of the two countries, this virtually guaranteed war.

This premature war caught both the French navy and the British navy unready. The French had inadequate time to rebuild their navy, particularly given the wear and tear caused by the St. Domingue operation. Although the French navy still had a dozen ships in construction from the previous war and had begun half a dozen more since its end, it had launched only one ship of the line since war’s end and acquired two from Spain as the final installment of their 1800 agreement. Moreover, its existing ships still needed repair. The worst were the Terrible, 110, and ten 74’s, which were judged beyond repair; only twenty-three ships of the line were at sea or in condition to serve, including thirteen still in the West Indies. Furthermore the dockyards had not yet been replenished. Napoleon admitted in 1802 that the French navy needed more than ten years to match the British.

Fortunately for France, the Addington government initially had taken the Peace of Amiens seriously and had demobilized the British fleet. Worse still, its new first lord of the admiralty, Earl St. Vincent, promptly began an ill-timed economy campaign that disrupted the work of the shipyards. During the period between hostilities, the British navy launched only two 74’s and two 50’s, while only ten ships were on the building slips when war resumed. Not surprisingly, it took the British even more time than usual to mobilize their fleet. Only seventy-six ships of the line and ten ships of 50–56 guns were in service on 1 January 1804, and only about a dozen ships of the line and 50’s were added over the course of the year.

Napoleon and his naval minister, the naval architect Pierre-Alexandre-Laurent Forfait, immediately began planning to invade England. In March 1801 the Consulate had ordered the construction of a flotilla of landing craft and of shallow draft prames to escort them, although little work was completed before the end of the war; only one of the 110-foot prames (carrying 12 cannon) was launched in 1801, for example. Similar delays had plagued the attempts of Choiseul to build 22-gun 130-foot-long prames for his invasion attempt of 1759; twelve were launched, but not until after the invasion attempt had been abandoned.

Napoleon now began a new and much more massive effort to build a flotilla of landing craft; between September 1803 and September 1804, more than 25 percent of the French budget was spent on the navy, including some 15 million francs donated by various municipalities for shipbuilding as had been done following the defeats of Quiberon and the Saintes. By mid-1805 the navy had launched nineteen prames, more than 300 chaloupe cannonières (approximately 80 feet long and carrying 4 or 5 cannon), and numerous other vessels. An army of more than 100,000 men was assembled along the Straits of Dover and trained to board its landing ships quickly. Without an escorting fleet of numerous ships of the line, however, the invasion flotilla could not sail. The British navy blockaded the twenty ships of the line available in Brest, five at Ferrol returning from the Caribbean, and half a dozen or so at Rochefort. For this duty the British made use of forty-five to fifty ships of the line, of which at least thirty were always at sea.

The French lacked the strength to break the blockade unless the British were lured off station or the dozen ships of the Toulon fleet could elude the British and reach Brest. Both were slim possibilities, particularly since command of the British fleet off Brest was given to Admiral William Cornwallis, an experienced commander respected by both St. Vincent and Nelson. The squadrons of Toulon and Rochefort were not able to sail until the beginning of 1805. By then Napoleon had placed the navy under an experienced naval officer, Rear Admiral Denis Decrès, who served as naval minister until the end of 1814. Napoleon continued to direct naval strategy, but without appreciating its inherent difficulties. Unlike Napoleon’s armies, the French navy could not disregard wind and weather, and it was never able to train the crews of its ships adequately.

The British political situation had changed. On 10 May 1804 Pitt, who had become disillusioned with the Addington government, returned to office. His political position was far weaker than during his previous administration; even his cousin Grenville had become a political opponent. His friend Dundas, now Viscount Melville, however, was willing to serve in his cabinet. Pitt named him to replace the misguided St. Vincent as first lord of the admiralty. Melville, a fine administrator, served for only eleven months before resigning because of his involvement in a financial scandal. He was replaced by his friend and relation, the exceptionally experienced and able Charles Middleton, who was raised to the peerage as Baron Barham.

Upon resuming office Pitt quickly turned his attention to creating a new coalition to oppose Napoleon on the European continent, eventually enlisting Russia and Austria but not Prussia. It was not until 1805, however, that war on the continent resumed. In the interim Britain added to its own enemies. Although Spain was trying to remain neutral, Pitt assumed she was preparing to join France. In a similar circumstance in 1761, Pitt’s father had argued unsuccessfully for seizing a Spanish treasure fleet expected from the Western Hemisphere. The younger Pitt met no opposition within his cabinet when he proposed doing the same thing. On 5 October 1804 a squadron of British frigates intercepted four Spanish frigates carrying treasure. It captured three, while the fourth exploded with heavy loss of life. The court of Charles IV of Spain was outraged. Spain joined the war as a French ally.

Such ruthlessness was a mark of the times. In one way the British were even more ruthless than the French; even under the Terror, the Convention rejected the idea of assassinating William Pitt, whereas the British government was involved in attempts to assassinate Napoleon. The Britain of Pitt and the France of Napoleon were heirs to the brutal legacy of Cromwell’s England, Louis XIV’s France, Frederick the Great’s Prussia, and Catherine the Great’s Russia. Napoleon’s subsequent savage repression of Spain did not differ greatly except in scale from the Russian treatment of Poland or the British treatment of Ireland. None could really compare with the horrors of the twentieth century, the closest approximation being the unrestrained cruelty and racism of the war in St. Domingue. Although Napoleon was arrogant and duplicitous, some of his policies were progressive, like his support of religious toleration. For all his faults, he was more similar to Louis XIV than to madmen like Robespierre or Hitler.


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