Volume II - Chapiter 7

 

THE CAMP AT BOULOGNE (1)

AND ENGLAND TREMBLED…

 

Every wind that blows from England

brings only hate and insult

(Bonaparte to Lord Withworth,

English ambassador in Paris, 1803)

 

Let there be no misunderstanding.

 

England had always regarded the Peace of Amiens signed on March 25, 1802, as a mere truce to allow it to get its breath back after a long struggle against republican France and to lull the enemy into a false sense of security for a while. Never at any moment, however, did it consider the treaty the first stage of a lasting peace.

 

For one English minister, Lord Hawkesbury, the signing of the treaty would “maintain the integrity of the British Empire, obtain the most favourable conditions for its allies, and ensure the continued possession of most valuable conquests made by English armies during the war…”

 

Although the document signed at Amiens had granted England all of that, it did not guarantee its commercial supremacy, and English merchants began to feel the chill: French industry and business with encouragement from the First Consul revived under the peace, and achieved a growth that caused teeth to gnash on the other side of the Channel.

 

To the English mind, it was out of the question that France, devastated by the excesses of the Revolution, should be allowed to compete again and pose a threat to the dominance that England had always regarded as its prerogative by divine right.

 

It was equally out of the question that the English should give up their immense profits from international trade, for they enabled them to manage the everlasting conflicts on the continent by means of subsidies to the European monarchies.

 

The detestable “truce” of Amiens had to be terminated without delay.

 

With the typical bad faith that has always marked English diplomacy, the Cabinet at the Court of St. James found no better excuse – given that the First Consul had, for his part, carried out the provisions of the treaty in good faith – than to contest Article 10. This section stipulated that the English return the island of Malta to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem three months after the ratification of the treaty.

 

Map of the Mediterranean and the Island of Malta

Malta was the key to the Mediterranean for merchant shipping, and when the English occupied the island in 1800, it became a strategic base for the Royal Navy. Despite article10 of the Treaty of Amiens (1802), when the time came for the English to evacuate the island and to hand it back to the Chevaliers de “l’Ordre de Saint-Jean-de-Jérusalem” in whose possession it had been since 1530, the British government refused. On 15 March 1803, Bonaparte in front of the “Conseil d’État”, repeated exactly what he had said to the English ambassador, Lord Withworth. “France cannot back down without backing down on everything else. It would not be honourable. If we gave in on this point, they would demand Dunkirk.”

It should be noted that England could not invoke any ill will on the part of the First Consul, who had scrupulously respected the conditions of the treaty: French troops were to be evacuated from Naples, Taranto and the Roman states within three months; they left in under two.

 

Following long discussions again designed to lull Bonaparte into a false sense of security, the English ambassador in Paris, Lord Withworth  (the agent of the English government in the assassination of Tsar Paul I who was considered “guilty” of having desired a rapprochement with the First Consul) presented Bonaparte with a note on May 2, 1803 that was an ultimatum in which King George III (or more exactly his ministers, since his bouts of insanity were coming more frequently and it was very hard for him to govern anything at all) demanded that England keep a garrison on the island of Malta for 10 years – Malta in the hands of the English meant the Mediterranean would be banned to French vessels – that the little island of Lampedusa located between Malta and Tunisia be ceded whole and entire to England, and that Holland be evacuated by French troops.

 

The ambassador, in his generosity, allowed the First Consul six days to reply!

 

Bonaparte’s Surprising Patience

 

Let us look closely into the First Consul’s conduct in this affair, for it is characteristic of the man who said in 1801, “It is with a sense of horror that I make war,” and who always, as his letters and utterances prove,  pace his detractors, tried to heed the voice of peace and not the roar of the cannons.

Although the First Consul was shamelessly provoked, he showed surprising patience and much skill: he replied, through the intermediary of his Minister for External Relations, Talleyrand, that since that the demands of His Majesty the King of England regarding Malta changed an essential provision of the Treaty of Amiens, he could not decide the matter without consulting Spain and the Batavian Republic (Holland), both signatories to the treaty, as well as the emperors of Germany and Russia, who, together with the King of Prussia, were guarantors of the article relating to the restitution of the island of Malta; that, moreover, as the island of Lampedusa was not a possession of the Republic of France, he could neither refuse nor grant the demands of King George to dispose of this island; that, lastly, regarding the evacuation of Holland, the First Consul pledged himself anew to do so as soon as the stipulations of the Treaty of Amiens were faithfully carried out by each of the contracting parties.

 

In an effort to reach a solution to the Malta question exploited by the English, Bonaparte directly requested Tsar Alexander, of whose duplicity he was unaware, to mediate, and raised the issue urgently with his ambassador in Paris, Count Arkady-Ivanovich Markov.

 

What the ambassador wrote to Alexander repays close reading, for these few lines reveal the extent of the concessions the First Consul was willing to make to safeguard the peace, whatever it cost him:

 

“The First Consul tells me that if the Emperor [Alexander] accords Malta to England in perpetuity or for a period, he will resign himself as one who accepts losing a court action thought to be sound: but that he held to his honour and duty not to cede it of his own volition and by his own action. This reply seemed so noble, so loyal and so generous, that I shall fulfill the First Consul’s commission with twice the zeal and ardour.”

 

This note should be appreciated at its real worth, for its author was motivated by hatred of the French government, and especially its leader, which delighted the London Cabinet and suited them ideally.

 

An Act of Piracy by the English Government

 

The good will of the French head of state left England no other avenue than to initiate the rupture.

 

It did so in its usual brutal and treacherous fashion.

 

Here is what British subjects could read in the London Gazette of May 17, 1803, in a report from a certain W. Fawkner:

 

“At court in the Queen’s palace, the sixth day of May. His Majesty the King present in council.

 

George III (1760-1820)

Insane, King George III (1738-1820) was little more than a puppet in the hands of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, a fierce enemy of Republican, then Imperial France. He signed the decree ordering an embargo on all French and Dutch merchant ships all over the world. For the first time in history, in an unprecedented act of piracy, 1 200 vessels and their crews were captured and taken as hostages by the Royal Navy without a word of warning.

“It is today ordered by His Majesty on the advice of his Privy Council, that no ship or vessel belonging to any subject of His Majesty shall enter any French or Dutch port or those occupied by French armies, until further notice.

 

“In addition, His Majesty decrees a general embargo or seizure of all vessels of whatever type belonging to the French or Dutch republics, that are at present within or that may enter the ports, harbours or docks of the United Kingdom… as well as persons or goods found aboard the said vessels; with the understanding that the greatest care be exercised to safeguard all that comprises their cargoes so that they suffer no damage or negligence…”

 

The merchant ships and their crews were treacherously and brutally boarded and sequestered in English ports, and those at sea were pursued without respite, and without danger, by ships of the Royal Navy.

After this act of pure piracy in the strictest sense of the term, in which over 1,200 French and Dutch merchant ships were held hostage by England, the only aim of the British cabinet was to force France to sign a second treaty on conditions that would of course be infinitely superior for England to those in the treaty signed at Amiens.

 

For good measure, the English government ordered the Royal Navy to bombard all the French Channel ports from Granville to Calais. The essential point to be noted is that none of these ports harboured warships or ships being fitted for war.

 

The First Consul ordered that all house owners who had suffered property damage be recompensed immediately from the public purse.

 

The Duke of Cambridge, Commander in Chief of the Hanoverian Army, Takes Flight

 

Bonaparte was not in the least unaware of England’s secret designs, as he confided to the Prussian ambassador in Paris, the Marquis of Lucchesini?

 

“The English pretend to have concerns; I know what they would like to appease them – again install an English commissioner at Boulogne and Dunkirk, devastate the ports of France and burn its factories and workshops. If they treat Frenchmen in this way, they must have souls of lead and veins with no blood.”

 

Bonaparte therefore had no option other than military force.

 

The reaction, as one would expect, was swift. The French government arrested all British citizens on French soil, and then launched a military expedition against Hanover, a fiefdom of the British crown, as the only way to attack England on the continent and acquire British subjects to exchange for French sailors held in prison.

 

In a typically cowardly response the English government invoked the neutrality of Hanover, which “was not at war with France.”

 

Let us savour the French reply conveyed by Talleyrand:

 

France cannot recognize His Britannic Majesty as two persons, one who delights in peace, and another who incites all the horrors of war.”

 

Mortier

General (and future Marshal) Adolphe MORTIER (1768-1835) commanded the French troops who marched to occupy Hanover, a possession of the British Crown .The expedition was ordered by the First Consul to respond to the British aggression against French and Dutch merchant ships. In a letter addressed to Bonaparte, Mortier wrote: “Citizen First Consul, the army of Hanover was in a state of despair; they implore your leniency. I thought that as they have been abandoned by their king [of England], you would wish to treat them with kindness.” This was done. The army of Hanover was a force of 39 000 men, the French army corps commanded by Mortier only totalled 13 000 men.

The operation was successfully commanded by General, and future Marshal, Mortier, and gave France control over the mouths of the Elbe and Weser, which ipso facto prevented the English from sailing their ships down the two rivers and exploiting their trade outlets.

 

Let us recall, for the sake of the story, that at the announcement of the approach of French troops, the Duke of Cambridge, one of the sons of the King of England and the commander in chief of the Hanoverian army, took flight (as indeed had his brother the Duke of York in October 1799 in Holland to avoid being taken prisoner by General Brune’s troops), after having sworn several days earlier, let it be stressed, “to die in arms rather than let the French take Hanover.”

 

At the start of the expedition that threatened his control of the continent, the King of England had a manifesto widely distributed to his Hanoverian subjects that insulted the French and their leader, the First Consul. As soon as he arrived, General Mortier had answered the provocation with a proclamation in which we find the following words:

 

“…The King of England, renouncing his most solemn oaths, has betrayed his signature by refusing to evacuate Malta, as he was formally required to do by the Treaty of Amiens; he has initiated hostilities and is thereby entirely responsible before God and man for the calamities that the scourge of war will rain down upon those states subjected to his control…”

 

The ports of the Dutch and Spanish allies of France were closed to the English, and bankruptcies, which because of the embargo had become more frequent in France and the allied states, in a poetic turning of the tables, began to multiply on the other side of the Channel.

 

Frenzied Activity in Boulogne

 

Immediately after the breach of the (false) Peace of Amiens, the First Consul realized that he had to strike hard to put an end to the troubles England was provoking.

 

This great blow would have to be the invasion of the British Isles.

 

“An invasion and two months in England would bring France peace for a hundred years,” said Bonaparte.

 

When one considers the extent of the malfeasance that the English had been guilty of and persisted in, plans for such an invasion were fully justified.

 

We can never repeat enough the criminal and treacherous responsibility of England which, from 1793 to 1815 paid the European monarchies seventy-six million pounds – one-and-a- half billion gold francs at the time, half of which was distributed between 1811 and 1815! – in order to ruin France, and bring it to its knees by waging war without cease.

 

It was indeed the English government of the time, and it alone, that bore responsibility for hundreds of thousands of lives that history books always blame on Napoleon – but to please whom, we may ask?

 

There was an outburst of patriotic feeling in all of France as soon as the Consular government revealed its intention to cross the Channel with an army to make “Perfidious Albion” see reason, to use the expression that was invariably applied from that time on.

 

Almost all departments voted to build a ship of the line; the larger cities provided a frigate, and each commune according to population and resources donated a heavily armed transport vessel for shipping cavalry, a gunboat, and a landing craft or other vessel with a shallow draft.

 

Even Holland, which had suffered enormous losses when the English breached the Peace of Amiens, showed great zeal in building ships for the invasion fleet.

 

Those with empty pockets offered their labour, nor were soldiers slow to contribute, foregoing part of their pay to give concrete support to the war effort.

 

Not all the vessels were built – there would have been too huge a number – but funds collected for their construction were devoted to the cost of arming and maintaining the flotilla.

 

For a while, Paris became a kind of arsenal: two depots were set up, one opposite the Invalides, the other on the Quai de la Râpée.

 

At its completion, the invasion fleet destined for England numbered no fewer than two thousand three hundred and sixty-five ships of every description, manned by seventeen thousand sailors, one thousand two hundred of whom were officers. This armada could embark an army of one hundred and sixty thousand men and almost ten thousand horses, with all the materiel and enough provisions for two weeks’ campaigning.

 

Great Endeavours

 

It was its proximity to the English coastline – fifty kilometres of grassy downs lying between the cliffs of and the headland of Hastings – that led to Boulogne being chosen as headquarters for the operation.

 

The Military Camp of Boulogne

Bonaparte was aware that the British army was weak and certainly no match for his own vast, well-trained, enthusiastic national army made up of patriotic Republicans. Knowing this, he decided to strike a decisive blow by invading England to put a stop to the trouble and turmoil that the British Government was continuously stirring up all over Europe against France. An armada of some 2 400 boats was built to transport 160 000 men, 10 000 horses and 450 guns across the Channel.

Formed by the mouth of the little Liane River and considered a “wretched” harbour before it was chosen for the great plan, the port of Boulogne had been the site of work on a grand scale.

 

The engineering officers first levelled the land before laying out access roads to the future camp. Then they dug out docks, and built quays, jetties, and a lock dam to keep the vessels afloat during the ebb tide, and built a stone fort at the pier end on the west jetty.

 

A cordon composed of ships of the flotilla protected the town and port from English bombardments, and the defense was strengthened by three forts built for the occasion: Conflict Fort, Crib Fort and Wood Fort.

 

Since Boulogne was inadequate for the task despite all these preparations, ships, small craft and men were posted in the neighbouring communes of Wimereux, Étaples and Ambleteuse. They extended even as far as Ostend in Belgium.

 

In the camp, generally known as “Boulogne Camp,” under the watchful eye of First Consul Bonaparte, soon to become the Emperor Napoleon, soldiers and sailors worked tirelessly to be ready for the great day.

 

As soon as he was sworn in as emperor, Napoleon continued to visit Boulogne to be amongst his soldiers, and it was there on August 16, the day after his birthday, that right under the noses of the English, whose ships were patrolling the French coastline, [1] he conducted a massive ceremony awarding the cross of the Legion of Honour, not just to his soldiers, but also to a large number of civil servants invited to Boulogne for the occasion.

 

The Ceremony of the Legion of Honour 16 August, 1804

In an atmosphere of patriotic enthusiasm, Napoleon, just crowned Emperor, decorated men regardless of their rank. One by one, civilians and soldiers alike approached the throne and were decorated by Napoleon with the Order of the Legion of Honour created in 1802 by Bonaparte to reward both military and civil merits. Meanwhile, powerless, a squadron of the Royal Navy cruised back and forth just off the coast of France.

To the joyful sound of salvoes of French artillery saluting Napoleon, were added the echoes of the gunfire of the powerless British vessels at sea. It was a spectacle that no one there would ever forget.

 

(To be continued)

 

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[1] The hatred that the English felt for Napoleon did not end with his death in 1821. The Boulogne Chronicle records that during World War II, Royal Air Force pilots returning from a mission would rarely fail to shoot up the Doric column 53 metres high, known as the “column of the Grande Armée,” erected to the north of Boulogne on the road to Calais. It was guilty of displaying a statue of the Emperor!