Volume II - Chapiter 10

 

OCTOBER 21, 1805

 

WAS ENGLAND SAVED BY TRAFALGAR?

 

 

When France finds two or three admirals

who are ready to die, the English will be reduced to size.

(Napoleon to Decrès, Navy Minister,

at the Boulogne Camp, 1805

 

There just one condition the Emperor needed to land his troops on the beaches of England, but it was vital. The invasion fleet had to have two or three days to cross the Channel without being harassed by the Royal Navy.

 

The planning engineers calculated that the vessels of the flotilla had to make their way across the Channel seas using their own resources and taking advantage of either a calm spell (relatively rare in the Channel), or a very dark night, or, at worst but most likely, bad weather that would keep the English warships in their home bases.

 

This last point presented the emperor with a strange option. It had not taken long for Napoleon, while still First Consul, to realize that even when fitted out with what in some cases were large-bore cannon, these rowboats, gunboats, pramees and other landing craft, all designed with little freeboard and flat bottoms to make them easy to beach, could not cross the Straits of Dover alone. A similar situation arose 140 years later, on June 6 1944, with the landing craft that carried the American troops coming to liberate France.

 

There could therefore be no question of waiting for bad weather to confine the squadrons of the Royal Navy to port in order to cross the Channel. Since, however, the 2,365 ships of the invasion flotilla could not make the crossing all at once, it had to be expected that English ships would swoop down on them fiercely. England’s fate depended on it.

 

This assumed that that a squadron of ships of the line would protect the flotilla.

 

In March 1805, the Emperor’s plan was finalized.

 

The French squadrons from Brest (Admiral Ganteaume), Toulon (Admiral Villeneuve), and the Spanish squadron from Ferrol (Admiral Gravina), whose passage had been unblocked by the French, were to leave their respective ports and effect a rendezvous in the Caribbean Sea where they would meet the Rochefort fleet (Admiral Missiessy), which had been at Martinique since February. Their plan was to draw out Nelson’s fleet, and then turn back to harass the English fleet in the Channel. From that point on, the French ships would command the Straits of Dover and protect the invasion fleet.

 

The plan was both simple and daring, but to achieve success, the men had to fulfill the Emperor’s expectations, while the conditions had to be particularly favourable and the French admirals especially heroic.

 

In the event, from the very outset, nothing went as planned.

 

An English squadron lying in ambush between the Brest Channel and the Isle of Ouessant never lost sight of its French counterpart from Brest. Ganteaume found it impossible to sail out without giving battle although in which he was outnumbered, and his men were not battle-hardened like the crews of the Royal Navy.

 

As for Missiessy, orders from France to await the arrival of the other admirals reached him too late, and when they arrived in Martinique, he had set sail for Rochefort.

 

That left Villeneuve.

 

 

Admiral Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve (1763-1806)

 

Entered the Navy when he was only 15 in 1778, he was later dismissed as an aristocrat during the French Revolution, then reintegrated during the Directoire. In 1804, he was promoted to vice-admiral and in 1805 when he received command of the combined French and Spanish fleet, Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain rested upon him. All French and subject ships were supposed to assemble at Brest to cover the crossing of Napoleon’s 160,000 strong invasion force. Despite Napoleon’s repeated orders and exhortations pressing him to return to Brest, Villeneuve disobeyed and inexplicably wasted two months, with the combined fleet, first in La Coruña, then in Cadiz. Lack of confidence both in himself and in his crews seems to be the only explanation for his conduct. Napoleon soon regarded him as being weak and wrote to Decrès: ”Villeneuve does not possess the strength of character to command a frigate. He lacks determination and has no moral courage”. Finally stung into action when he was about to be relieved of his command by Admiral Rosily, Villeneuve sailed out of Cadiz on 20 October 1805 with 33 French and Spanish vessels provoking the tragedy of Trafalgar which took place the next day. Made prisoner of war by the British, he was released on parole in 1806, but unable to live with the shame of his conduct he committed suicide on his way home.

 

Following Napoleon’s orders, he had set sail from Toulon at the end of March 1805, and a few days later, near Cadiz, he came upon the six ships under the command of the Spanish Admiral Gravina. They reached their destination in the middle of May, only to receive new orders to return to Europe, lift the blockade on the Brest squadron, and sail into the Channel at the beginning of August.

 

Federico Carlos, Duke of Gravina, admiral of the Spanish fleet (1756-1806)

 

He commanded the 15 Spanish vessels of the combined French and Spanish fleet placed under the command of Vice-Admiral Villeneuve. It was against his advice that the fleet sailed from Cadiz. He was to be wounded during the battle and die shortly afterwards. He had previously served as Spanish ambassador in Paris.

 

The Emperor had no choice but to wait.

 

Admiral Villeneuve’s strange conduct

 

Villeneuve started out by completing the first part of his mission. He managed to trick the English, who in their pursuit sailed off course towards Egypt, Martinique, the British West Indies and the Leeward Islands., He even fought a battle whose outcome makes his subsequent behaviour all the more incomprehensible.

 

On July 22, on his return voyage to Europe, on the open seas off Finisterre, Villeneuve came up against the squadron of Admiral Sir Robert Calder. In the course of this engagement, which seemed just a preliminary skirmish, despite poor conditions and a thick fog, Villeneuve gained a decisive advantage that left him in position to fight a battle the next day that everyone was convinced would result in victory. Although the French ships sustained relatively light losses of men and materiel, the same was not true for the enemy.

 

Instead of pressing home his advantage and attacking immediately, Villeneuve hesitated and, although he was the clear winner, he allowed the English to flee in disorder, and worse still, he left them in possession of two ships that had been captured. The English were thus able to put it about that 15 ships of the Royal Navy had beaten 20 French vessels.

 

Villeneuve lost the little credibility that he had retained among his officers and men following the disaster of the Battle of Aboukir Bay on August 1, 1798. As for Admiral Calder, he was found guilty by the naval authorities of not having done his utmost to defeat the French during this campaign, and was unjustly reprimanded. His ships were so damaged that they had to limp back to England for repair.

 

 

Napoleon’s growing impatience

 

At Boulogne, officers had been posted at fixed intervals along the cliff tops to signal the sighting of Villeneuve as soon as his sails appeared on the horizon.

 

Time passed, and the Emperor grew impatient when the lookouts reported nothing:

 

"Tell him," he wrote to Decrès, his Navy Minister, on August 13, "of my displeasure that he is wasting crucial time… This only goes to show that Villeneuve is a wretch who sees double, who has more vision than character."

 

Denis Decrès (1761-1820)

 

Entered the French navy in 1779 and served during the American war of Independence then later took part in the Battle of the Nile as rear admiral. Upon his return to France, he was named Prefect of Lorient, then Minister of the French Navy in 1801, a post he was to occupy until 1814. Despite the fact that it was due to his patronage that Vice-Admiral Villeneuve obtained command of the French fleet in 1805, he retained Napoleon’s favour. After the disaster of Trafalgar, which left the Imperial Navy with only thirty odd ships, Napoleon who never lost interest in his navy, entrusted him with the mission of rebuilding the French fleet. Between 1801 and 1814, 85 ships and 65 frigates were launched and in May 1814, 32 other ships were under construction in French shipyards. Other projects included the construction of ports and new arsenals and the creation of two naval colleges. Working under Napoleon, Decrès was to prove a highly skilled and honest organiser and administrator who possessed great drive and although his efforts were rewarded with considerable success, he was never able to fulfil his mission completely due to the colossal sums of money needed to finance the projects.

 

However, as Villeneuve was the man on whom the whole operation depended, Napoleon thought it best to send a dispatch couched in quite different terms that were intended to spur him to action:

 

"Vice Admiral Villeneuve: Sir, I was pleased to learn that in the battle of the 3rd Thermidor (July 22) several of my ships showed the courage I expect. I am pleased with your fine action at the outset of the engagement that thwarted the enemy plans. I hope that this dispatch will find you no longer at La Coruña; that you will have repelled the enemy to meet up with the captain of the German ship, sweep everything you encounter before you, and enter the English Channel. If you have not yet done this, do it now. Advance bravely on the enemy… the English are not as numerous as you think; they are all nervous. If you were here for but three days, even only for 24 hours, your mission would be completed… Never has a squadron faced danger in pursuit of a greater goal, and never have my troops on land and sea spilt their blood for a greater or nobler cause. In this great enterprise to attack the power that has for six centuries oppressed France, we may all lay down our lives without regret."

 

The Emperor’s anxiety was heightened by the fact that Villeneuve’s dispatches were contradictory. To the Navy Ministry, he wrote that he was withdrawing to Cadiz, but he claimed to Imperial Headquarters that he was setting sail for Brest.

 

On August 22, Napoleon sent three letters, among dozens of others.

 

One was to Decrès, in which he shared the low opinion he had of his protégé – Villeneuve owed his command to Decrès:

 

"I consider that Villeneuve does not have the character needed to command a frigate. He is a man without resolution or moral fibre… What is most insolent is that, on an expedition of this magnitude, he gives no details and does not say what he will or will not do. He is a man who has no knowledge of war and has no idea how to do war".

 

To Admiral Ganteaume, still in Brest, he wrote:

 

"From what I have been able to understand of Admiral Villeneuve’s dispatches, it seems he intends to sail to Brest. It also seems that once he has joined up with you, he expects to spend several days at Brest taking on supplies. My intentions are that you do not allow him to waste a single day. With a numerical advantage of 50 ships of the line, you must straightaway set sail down the Channel at full strength. I count on your abilities, your resolution, and your character in this vital mission. Leave, and come here: we shall avenge six centuries of insult and shame. Never have our troops on land and sea risked their lives for so great a cause."

 

The last dispatch was for Villeneuve, with a final encouragement:

 

"I trust that you have arrived at Brest. Leave, do not waste a moment, sail down the Channel with my combined squadrons. England is ours. We are ready. Everything is underway. Be here for 24 hours and it will be over."

 

But Villeneuve arrived neither at Brest nor at Boulogne.

 

 

Did Villeneuve make a "last stand?"

 

When Villeneuve put in at the port of Cadiz on August 20, he had under his command twice as many men as Admiral Collingwood had available to blockade the port and bottle up the Spanish vessels of Admiral Gravina. It seems that Villeneuve was dissuaded from cutting off Collingwood’s retreat and destroying his squadron because of his lack of knowledge of the number of English ships stationed around Cadiz, and his assumption that Nelson had already joined them.

 

He did not budge from the port of Cadiz.

 

Although Villeneuve at this point had 33 ships of the line under his command, he was to stay at anchor for almost two months.

 

The English took advantage of these two months to send reinforcements to Admiral Collingwood. Ships damaged in recent battles were repaired in haste. Hoisting his admiral’s ensign on the Victory, which he had captained during the last two years of campaigns, Nelson urged that he be sent ships as soon as they were seaworthy.

 

Nelson arrived at Cadiz on September 29. He was careful to hide the true strength of his fleet, and avoided appearing within view of the coast with all his ships.

 

After waiting for two months, what impelled Villeneuve to leave Cadiz on October 19?

 

 

Trafalgar

 

It was just off the southern coast of Spain, on 21 October 1805 that the Battle of Trafalgar took place when Vice-Admiral Villeneuve finally decided to sail out of Cadiz with the 33 vessels of the combined French and Spanish fleet apparently to save his honour. The fleet was totally annihilated: 2,180 killed, 4,760 wounded against the British who only lost 402 men – including Nelson - and 1,140 wounded. The battle was an overwhelming defeat for the French, yet an English minister wrote in a report, “The French fought uncommonly well”.

 

Here is the version that appeared in the Annual Register, 1805:

 

"Admiral Villeneuve, convinced that the English fleet blockading Cadiz numbered only 21 vessels while the Franco-Spanish fleet had 33, decided to take advantage of his huge superiority in strength and to mount a great effort to reduce the naval power of Great Britain. It is also said that personal motives induced the French admiral to take this decision. Since his return from the West Indies, the official French newspaper, the Monitor, has severely criticized his conduct during that campaign; Bonaparte [the English never addressed him as the Emperor Napoleon, as civility dictates] also spoke of him disparagingly; he was reviled by the Spanish who criticized him for not supporting them better in battle on July 22, when they bore the brunt of the action [!]; lastly, it is widely believed that his command will be transferred to Admiral Rosily, who has left Paris to take over [in fact, he arrived in Cadiz on October 25]. Stung and humiliated by this chorus of criticism, he determined, it is said, against the will of the Spanish, to do battle with Lord Nelson. A victory over the greatest naval officer of the century could restore his honour and bring him glory, while a defeat could hardly make the humiliating situation in which he found himself any worse."

 

Although this is an English assessment, it is not unsound.

 

 

Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1806)

 

Entered the Navy as a midshipman aged twelve, but only saw active service for the first time in 1793 when the long conflict with France began. From then on, he was continuously on active service and lost an eye in 1794 and an arm in 1797.  Promoted rear admiral in I798, then vice –admiral in 1801, his fame and success rested partly on his unrivalled mastery of naval warfare, and partly on his courage, drive, determination and personality. It was he who found and destroyed the French ships anchored in Aboukir Bay in what is known as the Battle of the Nile. This victory made Nelson a national hero and he was created Baron Nelson of the Nile. In 1801 he participated, as second-in-command, in the surprise attack of the Danish fleet, which was completely destroyed in the port of Copenhagen. Although Britain was not at war with Denmark at the time, this act was supposedly justified by the fact that Denmark wished to remain neutral and would not declare war on France. In 1805 when Nelson learned that Admiral Villeneuve was at Cadiz with the French fleet he was determined to prevent him from getting into the English Channel.  Although he was victorious, he was destined not to outlive the battle of Trafalgar and he died aboard his ship a few hours after being struck by a bullet. His body was brought back to London where he was given a state funeral and he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

 

We do not intend to give a full account of this sadly famous battle, and will content ourselves with the results.

 

For the Royal Navy, given the stakes and the outcome, figures can be considered "reasonable:" 1,587 dead or injured, including, it is true, Admiral Nelson.

 

 

H.M.S. Victory

The Victory became Lord Nelson’s famous flagship after he was given command of the British fleet in the Mediterranean, in 1803. During the battle of Trafalgar he was shot by a French sailor as he paced up and down on the deck of his ship, making an all too visible target in his uniform adorned with all his decorations. He died a few hours later. Shortly before his death, he told his officers, “If anything happens to me, recollect that death is a debt we must all pay”.

 

For the combined French and Spanish fleets, on the other hand, the numbers are appalling: 4,400 dead or drowned, 2,500 wounded and 7,000 taken prisoner, including Villeneuve (freed on parole in April 1806, he returned to France and took his own life in Rennes), and over half the 33 ships taking part were sunk or captured by the enemy.

 

 

Three years’ work reduced to nothing

 

 

 

 The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805

 

The 33 vessels of the combined French and Spanish fleet commanded by Admiral Villeneuve were certainly no match for the 27 vessels of the Royal Navy commanded by Nelson. The French navy had still not recovered from the chaos of the Revolution and the crews often lacked training, experience and cohesion, whereas the crews of the Royal Navy hardened by brutal, inhuman discipline were better trained and far more accustomed to war at sea. However great a victory, Trafalgar did not save Britain from a French invasion - as is generally thought – for Napoleon threatened with war by both Russia and Austria had been forced to abandon his plan two months before the battle took place.

 

 

 The battle of Trafalgar by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

 

This unparalleled defeat, which the Emperor was to learn of when he was already on the triumhal path of December 2 at Austerlitz, regrettably put an end to any realistic hopes of bringing England to its knees. Its ability to cause trouble was undiminished.

 

It is not fanciful to state that the invasion of England would have brought general peace, since if London’s mercenaries had been deprived of their subsidies, they would not have taken the initiative to wage the incessant wars that for 11 years were to ransack and pillage Europe.

 

The defeat at Trafalgar also brought to naught three years of extraordinary and enthusiastic efforts by the entire country, so great was the fully justified hatred of the French for England. Did this defeat really save England from invasion?

 

The admiral’s repeated hesitation finally made the Emperor realize that Villeneuve was going to let him down and that he would have to abandon his great plan: threatened by the Coalition on the borders of Bavaria, he wished to crush it at London.

 

Despite their (hypocritical) protestations of peace, the Austrians had rearmed. It was one result of the coalition accord, drawn up a year earlier and signed officially between England and Russia at St. Petersburg. After long discussions on the amount of subsidies it would receive, the court at Vienna cashed in millions of gold sovereigns that England was willing to pay for mercenary services. By the middle of 1804, the London cabinet had already poured two and a half million pounds into Russian and Austrian coffers to persuade them to join the war against France, and at the close of the same year, the London merchants were relieved of five million pounds more to finance the coalition.

 

Napoleon was no longer fooled:

 

"I have really nothing to expect from Austria’s explanations," he wrote to Talleyrand. "They will reply with fine words, and stall for time so I can do nothing this winter; their subsidy agreement and the coalition accord will be signed this winter [the Emperor did not know that it had been signed on August 9] on the pretext of a military emergency, and in April I shall find a hundred thousand Russians in Poland, equipped by England with supplies, horses, artillery, etc., and fifteen to twenty thousand English on Malta, and fifteen thousand Russians on Corfu. I will then be in a critical position. My mind is made up."

 

His decision, under duress, was to abandon the invasion plan for England: how could he invade a country across the water, while at his rear two others were preparing to attack?

 

When Napoleon sent his last message of encouragement to Villeneuve on August 22, his decision was already made, a decision that was enshrined in what is known as the "Dictée de Boulogne."

 

He had summoned Daru, Quartermaster General of the Grande Armée and dictated – in one long session of four or five hours! –complete plans for the 1805 campaign: the departure of all troops from Hanover and Holland to the western borders and the south of France, the sequence of marches, their length, rallying points for the columns to meet up, surprises and lightning attacks, possible enemy movements…

 

There are always those who wish to diminish the achievements of this man of genius, and certain writers, "Napoleonic" historians and others, delight in arguing that Napoleon’s dictation was a deliberately staged performance that the Emperor had been planning for some weeks. It is hard to see how that could diminish this staggering feat; on a starting line nearly 900 km long and lines of operation extending a  some 1300 km, the original instructions dictated to Daru were followed day by day, kilometre by kilometre, all the way to Munich.

 

 

The Emperor gives fair warning to Austria

 

Talleyrand, quoting Napoleon, told the Austrian ambassador, Cobentzel:

 

"If ever a man owed his country and his emperor a great duty, it is you, Ambassador. Your alone of your country know France; you alone of your country know that the Emperor of France desires peace; you know that there is not a single soldier in the départements of the Rhine; alone of your country you know that we have not called up a single reserve and that we only mustered the first battalions at the expense of the second battalions… If you convey the full force of these truths to your master, and if it is true that he has been dragged into this conflict, it will be impossible for him not to see that he is being drawn into war despite himself, and then peace will prevail. If, on the other hand, your master wants war, well, you will have done your duty; he will not be dragged against his will. But tell him that he will not be celebrating Christmas in Vienna; not that you do not possess a large and powerful army, but urgent orders for the movement of three hundred thousand men can only come from one head; a cabinet can only move slowly on such things."

 

On August 28, in Boulogne, a dispatch was handed to the Emperor. Signed by Otto, the French ambassador in Munich, it announced that the Austrians had just crossed the River Inn and advanced into Bavaria.

 

The Austrian Emperor did not yet know it, but he would not be "spending Christmas in Vienna."

 

The soldiers making up what by its half-turn to the east became and remained the "Grande Armée" were not unhappy at the new turn of events: they would not have to cross the Channel.