The Napoleonic Wars at sea


An action during the British fleet’s blockade of the French port of Toulon between 1810 and 1814, depicted by Thomas Luny.

Having beaten the Russians and the Austrians, Napoleon would have liked to resume the invasion of England he had planned for 1805. Yet Napoleon’s expansion of the French army after 1804 had been at the expense of the French navy, which in 1805 could muster just ninety-six battleships to Britain’s 136. As would be the case until 1945, Great Britain took pains to maintain a bigger navy than any European adversary. In 1805 the Royal Navy counted 1,000 ships and 142,000 sailors, making the Napoleonic Wars that proverbial contest between the (British) `whale’ and the (French) `elephant’. The Grande Armée indisputably ruled Europe, but the Royal Navy ruled the waves, and was able to impose a crippling embargo on French trade, supplies and movements (Kennedy 1976: 123-47). Furthermore, in terms of naval training, the British were far ahead of the French, who had purged most of their naval officers during the Revolution. Between 1789 and 1792, the French navy had lost twenty-two of twenty-seven admirals and 128 of 170 captains; most had sensibly chosen exile over death when threatened by their sans-culotte crews (Blanning 1996: 196-9; Griffith 1998: 131-2; R. Harding 1999: 273-7). With attrition like this in the skilled cadres, it was no wonder that the French failed to win a single major sea battle with the British in all of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Multi-deck ships of the line were the heart of the eighteenth-century navy. These lofty battleships – built to a great height to accommodate gun decks and facilitate boarding – displaced up to 3,000 tons, carried up to 150 cannon in their broadside batteries, and could throw a greater weight of metal in a single salvo than all of Wellington’s artillery had fired at the Battle of Vittoria (Glover 1980: 55). Yet the battleships were only the most visible part of a global naval campaign in which the British targeted France’s trade and supply lines. Overall, it was Britain’s cruiser fleet – 160 single-deck, 1,000-ton frigates, each mounting forty guns – that bore the brunt of the Napoleonic Wars at sea, projecting British sea power across the globe and sapping Napoleon’s strength no less effectively than the coalition armies of Russia, Austria and Prussia (R. Harding 1999: 253-5, 257-77; Mahan 1890).

In 1805, squeezed by Britain’s close blockade of the French ports and its seamless patrols along the rest of the European coast, Napoleon resolved to combine his Brest and Toulon fleets in the English Channel, drive off the Royal Navy, and transport an army to England, where he would take London and dictate terms to his most redoubtable enemy. The plan failed, chiefly because Britain raised the Third Coalition in time to distract Napoleon from the cross-Channel invasion and redirect him into Central Europe, where the Austrians eventually mobilized 180,000 men with dismal results. As Bonaparte closed on Vienna, he impatiently ordered his chief admiral, Pierre de Villeneuve, to break out of Cadiz – where the allied French and Spanish fleets were shut in by the British – and join the intensifying attack on the Austrian Empire. As Villeneuve ran from Cadiz for the open sea, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s Mediterranean squadron intercepted him at Cape Trafalgar. Nelson, who would be killed in the fighting by a French sharpshooter, sank, burned or captured twenty-two French and Spanish ships (losing none of his own) and inflicted 10,000 casualties on Villeneuve’s fleet. (With the French fleet bottled up in port, it would be almost impossible for France to replace these casualties with trained sailors.) As always, bold tactics accounted for Nelson’s victory. Whereas Villeneuve deployed in line ahead, Nelson cut across the French line, broke it in two, and then encircled Villeneuve’s confused fragments, pounding them down to the waterline with his broadside guns.

After Trafalgar, Napoleon stopped trying to beat Britain at sea. Complaining that `wherever there is enough water to sail a ship, there is to be found an English ship of the line’, he searched for some other means to defeat the British (Kemp 1969: 152).The search produced a French-imposed reconstruction of Europe: the Great Empire and Continental System of 1806. The Great Empire was a vastly enlarged France that incorporated Dutch, German and Italian territory (Map 1.1). The Continental System was a French-run economic bloc embracing all of Europe, from Antwerp to Moscow. Since more than 60 per cent of Britain’s exports went to Europe at the time, Napoleon hoped to force the British to the peace table by stopping their European trade. Predictably, the Continental System failed, for Britain’s command of the sea permitted the Royal Navy to blockade France, launch peripheral operations like the defence of Spain in 1808 and the landing near Antwerp in 1809, smuggle goods more or less freely into Europe, and punish French collaborators. In one such punitive expedition, a British squadron rained shell on Copenhagen in 1807, blasting its houses and shops to rubble, killing and wounding 2,600 civilians, and forcing the Danes to reconsider their French alliance. Even neutral states that trafficked with France were not spared. The United States, which had just freed itself from British rule, resented the Royal Navy’s embargo on American trade with France, and unsuccessfully declared war on Britain in 1812. The Royal Navy pressed America’s Atlantic fleet back into its ports, stopped France’s mutually profitable trade with the US, and burned the new American capital at Washington to the ground. Meanwhile, French society was made to feel the pain of Napoleon’s wars. Prices rose, and the `tropical commodities’ that made life worth living – tobacco, coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar and rum – all but vanished into the holds of British frigates and privateers. Those French families fortunate enough to procure a lump of sugar after Trafalgar would dangle it from the kitchen ceiling on a string and lugubriously press their watery morning coffee against it (Horne 1996: 233).

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