Volume II - Chapiter 8

 

THE CAMP AT BOULOGNE (2)

AND ENGLAND TREMBLED…

 

 

It would have been far better if England

had shown the same goodwill in

the pursuit of peace as Napoleon

(From the Memoirs of Prussian Minister Hardenberg)

  

 Napoleon visits the Camp at Boulogne in July 1804

by Jean-François Hue (1751-1823)

 

Bonaparte, then Napoleon often visited the military camp known as the "Camp de Boulogne" where troops destined to invade England were trained. At the sight of these tens of thousands of enthusiastic men, Napoleon confided to Roederer, a trusted collaborator: "Do you know that my army is formidable. If war only serves the purpose of training and of animating it with one spirit, it will have been useful. We had the Army of the Rhine, the Army of Italy, the Army of Holland, but there was no French army.  Now it exists, and we shall see it in action".

 

The great Camp at Boulogne was not composed of tents, nor did the men sleep under the stars.

True, the arrangements inside (one camp bed for every fourteen men) were decidedly simple, even Spartan, but they were preparing themselves for a decisive victory over the English. The huts, built of wood and daub by the soldiers themselves, were real houses thatched so tightly that (in theory) not the tiniest drop of rain could get in. They were each equipped with a real corbelled window and a real door that opened onto a real street.

The Boulogne camp was in fact laid out in a system of perfectly straight paths, which in accordance with the military setting, bore the names of Republican victories or of the heroes who had given their lives to secure them.

Each regiment had its own garden, each company its kitchen plot, and a well to water the vegetables that supplemented the regular fare.

As for the man who since May 18, 1804, had been Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, even though he preferred to sleep in the small chateau of Clocheville, at Pont-au-Briques, approximately five kilometers south of Boulogne, he too bedded down in his "hut" at the Camp. Let us just say that while, like the others, it was built of wood–of whitewashed boards–its proportions (sixty-five metres long), and its appointments were, as was to be expected, commensurate with the status of its occupant. In the bedroom ceiling, in an allegorical painting laden with symbolism and hope, there was a gigantic eagle upon a golden cloud, taking flight towards England.

Every military chronicler who stayed there retained an ineradicable–and nostalgic–image of the Boulogne Camp: never during their wartime experiences would they ever again witness such luxurious installations.

Sixty-seven thousand men aboard in seventeen minutes

 

Behind this "informal history," however, lay another reality: despite its charming rustic surroundings, Boulogne was no vacation camp. When they were not building huts or setting up the camp and its surroundings, they were engaged in arduous training. The Emperor Napoleon showed himself as exacting a taskmaster as first Consul Bonaparte–and the troop, composed partly of young veterans hardened by five or six campaigns in wars of the Coalition against the French Republic and partly of conscripts, went about their tasks without complaint.

"No harder work has ever been performed with so much joy as by these soldiers whose devotion to their homeland, to French honor, and to the man who to them, personifies all these things, has not the least trace of covetousness or selfishness," wrote the very young naval officer, Grivel in his Memoirs. This was the same Grivel who was later to be an unwilling guest aboard a Spanish prison-ship, whose appalling conditions equaled those of their English counterparts.

Unlike the soldiers in the English army, the dregs of society, the conscripts came from every social class. They were from the four corners of France. Without losing any of their distinctive regional character, recruits from Brittany, Normandy, Lorraine, Gascony, and Bourgogne formed a "national army" for the first time in the country’s history.

 

Every day, from four-thirty in the morning until six at night, embarkation exercises were organized on board the various types of ships that made up the flotilla: the soldiers learned a little about the sailors’ routines, and they, in turn, familiarized themselves with army procedures.

There was only one thought that dampened the spirits of the soldiers in what was called "Seaside Army": it was not the fight with the English–they were all eager for that– but the prospect of crossing the English Channel.

The soldiers had to be trained to handle oars and show that they could use naval artillery. Every day, come rain, wind or shine, these landlubbers spent three hours on a barge or a gunboat, in the port or, if time permitted, on the ships at anchor.

Nor was the Imperial Guard, which at that time numbered approximately eight thousand, including five thousand infantrymen, spared the drudgery.

It goes without saying that during his visits, Bonaparte, now the Emperor Napoleon, inspected everything thoroughly: the progress of the work and the speed at which the men were finding their sea legs. Nor did he forget to inspect his latest creation, the Sailors of the Guard–their formation dates from this time –a more modest seven hundred and fifty in number. And since no detail was neglected, he also hit on the idea of recruiting a company of guide-interpreters, a hundred strong, who knew England and the English language perfectly.

Exceptional health and morale

These chaotic and sometimes comical embarkation operations improved over the weeks and months, and with practice, the mighty invaders of Albion were capable of stupendous feats: sixty-seven thousand men embarked with all their weapons and kit in seventeen minutes!

This information was confirmed by the same Grivel mentioned earlier. In his capacity as a naval officer, he was able to give an expert opinion:

"Finally they attained such great skill that the entire army could be embarked in an hour and a half. It is extraordinary, but true, and never before, I believe, had a similar feat been achieved."

However important the embarkation exercises were as part of the "crusade," they were not the only intensive training the troops were subjected to. On the orders of the Emperor, who had planned everything, companies carried out their manoeuvers alone, cavalrymen – the new recruits, at least – were trained in wielding a sabre and in horseback manoeuvers. And no one was spared foot drill.

In frequent, combined exercises, infantrymen, cavalrymen and artillerymen were trained to fight as a unit. The long day’s training of the imperial war machine ended, first with an inspection, then with parade, sometimes before the Emperor. Napoleon’s aim had been to turn the Camp of Boulogne into a gigantic military academy for his army, and he had succeeded. The result of all these efforts carried out with such enthusiasm–so keen was their (justifiable) hatred of England–would be the victories of Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, and Wagram.

Also, thanks to this life in the open air and to the "luxury" of the installations at the camps–the water in the many wells dug there was supervised by the health service, and for the first time, anti-smallpox vaccination was administered–the men’s health and morale were exceptional:

"There was no force nor power that could resist such men in such a state of mind," wrote young artillery officer Octave Levavasseur. "Even if the enemy outnumbered them ten to one, it would be crushed all the same."

Panic on the other side of the Channel

Feeling secure in their "splendid isolation," the English had begun by ridiculing the "Lilliputian fleet," and the cartoonists had a field day.

 

 

 The English started by making fun of Napoleon’s invasion force gathered at Boulogne, as is represented in this caricature which shows George III looking perplexed as he watches Napoleon attempting to cross the Channel on a very small, frail boat. But irony soon gave way to panic, as the British army of the time was certainly no match for the 160 000 men stationed at Boulogne and in the surrounding camps on the French coast. In order to find a solution to the trouble they had stirred up by breaking the Peace of Amiens, the British Cabinet set about distributing gold to the Austrians and Russians to persuade them to form the 3rd Coalition against France.

 

This joy was to be short-lived, and, for one Frenchmen visiting England at that time, the spectacle afforded by this nation that had instigated the war and was now in danger of having to fight on its own soil, was definitely an interesting one.

 

 

This French caricature represents English ministers who have just broken the Peace of Amiens seated around a table devouring a pie filled with a live cockerel.  Yet the vast majority of the English nation greeted the news of the peace treaty signed at Amiens in 1802 with joy. The French messenger Colonel Lauriston (one of Bonaparte’s aides-de-camp) who brought the news had received a hero’s welcome when he arrived in London. The crowd, wild with joy, spontaneously unharnessed his horses and triumphantly dragged his carriage to his residence. Their enthusiasm clearly shows that when William Pitt’s ministers broke the peace which was so popular in England, they were merely applying their own policy and fulfilling the wishes of the all-powerful city merchants.

 

Reports from travelers revealed that, in this country that was so proud of its independence and so confident of its means of defense, the inhabitants were so afraid that everyone was transformed into a kind of soldier. As the rumours gained in strength and scope, the level of fear increased.

 

Agriculture was neglected, factories emptied, speculators anxiously sat on their assets, unable to sell goods that not longer found any buyers, and the London Stock Exchange echoed with the lamentations of the merchants.

 

To add to these concerns, French pirates, including the famous inhabitant of Saint Malo, Robert Surcouf, as well as the Dutch and the Spanish, were wreaking havoc upon His Britannic Majesty’s merchant fleet. A chronicler of the time wrote:

 

"What an opportunity for Europe if only she wanted to profit from it! The present circumstances have revealed England’s weak side and should disclose the secret of how to force this usurping power not to toy with the rights of nations."

 

Ruining English businessmen was a more effective strategy than destroying its armies.

 

The celebrated British phlegm, as famous as that other fiction, fair play, of whose meaning the ruling classes seemed entirely oblivious, evaporated in the face of the threat posed by these one hundred and sixty thousand, tough, determined men commanded by non-commissioned officers who had been battle-hardened in their campaigns with the former Royal Army, and by officers, many of whom had earned their epaulettes at the point of a sabre in the armies of the Republic.

 

Just one example should serve to illustrate the hysterical fear that had seized the country: one day, an English squadron had appeared off the coast of Torbay at an unexpected moment, and as it did not answer reconnaissance signals, the inhabitants of the area took such fright that they spread the rumour of an imminent French landing. Instantly, houses were abandoned up to eighty kilometers inland.

 

When the error was recognized, the level of alarm was sufficient to convince the government to take immediate steps: the red flag was flown all round the English coast, all horses and carriages were put at the disposal of the authorities, a mass recruitment drive was ordered, and since there were insufficient funds to arm all the new conscripts, the government had to resort to a measure utilized in France in 1793: the distribution of pikes. The extraordinary drive led to the recruiting of 100,000 sailors, press gangs went to work with hitherto unequalled zeal, and locks were constructed at enormous cost that were able to flood the entire county of Essex.

 

In addition, the government ordered that at the first sight of a French landing, forests, villages, and means of transport would be put to the torch, roads and canals destroyed, and that cattle that could not be led inland would be slaughtered. All these measures attest starkly to the climate of mad panic that reigned in England under George III.

 

Finally, fortification works were undertaken around London. The rich inhabitants of Dover sought refuge in Canterbury.

 

In short, it did not seem that any resistance was planned, as the retreat had begun even before the commencement of hostilities.

 

A word about the treatment accorded to French prisoners: there were explicit orders that they should be given no quarter; they should quite simply be massacred – since even though they were prisoners and unharmed, they might still pose a threat to the safety of the State!

 

France, the hope of the Irish

 

There was one more threat to add to the anguish of the English leaders, and this came from an enslaved colony: Ireland, which for centuries had been oppressed by England and where several recent attempts had been made to shake off the yoke of London.

 

Shortly before, several counties had revolted to obtain a reduction in the tax on potatoes, the only food of the poor. The reprisals were bloody.

 

The government was convinced–with reason–that the Irish, far from helping to repel an invasion in the country that held it in semi-slavery, would seize the opportunity start a mass uprising, thus providing the French, whom they saw as liberators capable of helping them create a "single and indivisible" Irish Republic, with auxiliaries who had the additional of harbouring a violent hatred of their oppressors.

 

No doubt anxious to prove to France that it deserved to be rescued, Ireland rose up on July 23, 1803. Unfortunately, the leaders of the movement, Russell, and Emmet, a young Irishman of good family, did not succeed in injecting order into the mass of men that rallied to them, and the planned attack on Dublin Castle was aborted. And with it, the insurrection. Emmet and Russell were hanged.

 

The fiasco of the English attack on Boulogne

 

Do not think that the English–and it must be understood that we are referring here to the government, and not the English soldiers and people–after their act of piracy (there would be many others, such as the bombardment of the neutral capital of Denmark in 1807, which we shall discuss at the appropriate moment) observed with equanimity these preparations for a war that was of their own sinister making but that they would leave others the burden of pursuing and of finishing.

 

They first of all resorted to their usual stratagem: assassination. 

 

 Jean-Charles Pichegru (1761-1804)

 

It was at the military college of Brienne, where he taught mathematics, that General Pichegru (1761-1804) met a young pupil called Napoleon Bonaparte. He later went on to command the "Armée du Nord" and conquered Holland before he got entangled with the royalist party and foolishly started to conspire for the restoration of the Bourbons. Betrayed, he fled to England where he joined forces with Cadoudal and his assassins and terrorists. Arrested in Paris after the conspiracy of 1804, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell. Inevitably, Bonaparte was accused by public rumour of having had him murdered.  Yet the First Consul had given Réal, the counsellor of state whose mission it was to interrogate Pichegru, these instructions beforehand. "Before committing a fault, he served his country honestly. I do not want his blood.  Tell him he must regard all this as a lost battle.  But he cannot stay in France. Propose Cayenne. He knows the country, and we could establish him there in a good post".

 

In order to rid themselves of what the French aristocrats had nicknamed "that little man" the British government, a great provider of terrorists (let us not forget the 22 dead and 56 injured in the bombing of December 24, 1800 in the rue Saint-Nicaise) financed and organized the famous plot of 1804 that involved General Pichegru, the famous General Moreau, former commander of the Army of the Rhine in 1800, and future traitor in 1813, and the chouan Cadoudal. On August 20, 1803, Cadoudal disembarked at Biville, between Dieppe and Tréport on the coast of Normandy, from a ship of the Royal Navy commanded by Captain Wright.

 

 Georges Cadoudal (1771-1804)

by Coutan Amable-Paul (1792-1837)

 

Georges Cadoudal (1771-1804) was a hired assassin employed by French royalists and the English. At the beginning of the Consulate, Bonaparte who wished to pacify the west of France and put an end to partisan resistance to the Republic and the new "Régime" secretly invited Georges Cadoudal to the "Tuileries" and offered him high command under General Moreau in the "Armée du Rhin" together with a more than generous annual income of 100 000 livres.  Cadoudal preferred to return to England to prepare what he called "the essential coup": the assassination of the First Consul. His arrest in the Latin Quarter in Paris, on 9 March 1804 was far from easy and had a tragic outcome as Cadoudal killed one of the two policemen who pursued him. When Dubois, the Prefect of the Paris Police, asked him whether he knew that he had killed a husband and father, Cadoudal cynically answered that he should have had him arrested by bachelors. Condemned to death, the Bourbon partisan refused the legal pardon that Napoleon, the man he had attempted to murder, offered to grant him. Cadoudal was executed on 25 June 1804.  He died bravely.

 

The conspiracy was to fail. Cadoudal, courageously refusing the clemency offered by the First Consul, ended up on the scaffold, and Prime Minister William Pitt got nothing in return for all the sovereigns and guineas he had spent.

 

The English also regularly bombarded the works in progress without the slightest concern for the (civilian) workers engaged in the construction. But the damage was very slight.

 

They then moved on to a more grandiose project: the destruction of the French invasion fleet in the port of Boulogne itself. The means chosen to achieve this end was also, like its promoters, "infamous and barbarous" as a French historian of the time put it.

 

The British admiralty reverted to the old system of fireships, vessels of various tonnages, loaded with explosives and set on fire before being launched against enemy ships. After assembling an immense number, Admiral Keith, who commanded the English naval forces off Boulogne, felt ready to go into action on the night of October 1, 1804.

 

The English placed so much hope in this primitive process that Lord Melville, the First Lord of the Admiralty, demanded a ringside seat to watch the success–which he never doubted for a moment– of this expedition that he had supported to the hilt. He had himself escorted aboard the Tremendous, which flew the colours of Admiral Keith.

 

 William Pitt (1759-1806)

by Healy George Peter Alexandre (1808-1884)

 

William Pitt (1759-1806), known as Pitt the Younger, was the second son of the war minister and statesman of the same name.  He entered the House of Commons in 1781 and two years later, aged twenty-four, he became Prime Minister. A brilliant orator and an excellent financier he was also an inveterate hater of the French and of the ideas of the French Revolution. He suspended habeas corpus and various "gagging" Acts were passed preventing freedom of speech. Persons charged with sedition were imprisoned or transported as convicts to the colonies without a trial, as he feared that the ideas of liberty of the French Revolution would rapidly become too popular in Britain. His political opponents in the Liberal Party called him "the enemy of the human race". Like his father, he did much to encourage trade and this gave him the powerful support of the rich city merchants. In 1798 he first introduced Income Tax which was to help pay for the long war with France and until his death in 1806 he was the instigator and the backbone of the coalitions against Napoleon. The shock of Napoleon’s overwhelming victory at Austerlitz hastened his death.

 

Pitt wanted to savour a few crumbs of the spectacle himself, but since it was out of the question that one of the ministers of His Majesty, the King of Great Britain and Ireland, should step a board a man of war, he paid a visit to his country home of Walmer Castle, which faced the French coast.

 

This event provoked the following lines in an English newspaper. They are all particularly instructive, as they reveal the imbecilic, odious arrogance and contempt with which the English government regarded Napoleon.

 

"What a subject for a burlesque poem! Consider on the one hand, Lord Melville on board the Tremendous, surrounded by his finest ships, ready to rain destruction on the presumptuous preparations of BONAPARTE. See him personally direct the bloody combat! Against enemies more execrable than Milton's devils. See Mr. Pitt, like the father of gods and men (emphasis in the text) in the Iliad sitting in Walmer Castle surrounded by Lords Harrowby, Hawkesbury, Levison-Gower, like so many deities [sic], weighing in his terrible scales, the destiny of the intrepid BONAPARTE and the great Melville, until the Hero of the North claims a glorious victory."

 

The newspaper neglected to mention whether or not, while he was waiting for the spectacle to commence, Pitt succumbed to his predilection for strong drink, which caused a captured French officer to write in his memoirs, "It was remarked in his entourage that when he was in a state of inebriation, he always railed more furiously against France than when he was sober."

 

Bruix, the French Admiral, understanding the nature of the attack that the ships were to undergo, took every possible precaution. The troops, both soldiers and sailors, remained constantly on the alert.

 

In spite of the enormous efforts deployed, French losses were very slight: one officer, 13 soldiers and 7 sailors killed, and only a few wounded.

 

 

 

fireship

 

This is what Marshal Soult, commander of one of the Corps at the "Camp de Boulogne" wrote to Marshal Alexandre Berthier, then Minister of War and Napoleon’s chief of Staff, about the naval fire ships that the English used in an attempt to destroy the French fleet in the port of Boulogne.

"To attempt to destroy an army by using methods that do not expose the attacker to any danger is a horrible violation to the laws of war. A nation that uses only plots, daggers and fire ships for its defence has already fallen from the rank that it claims to occupy."

 

Everything then was ready.

 

Trained, disciplined, in superb form, the Army that was assembled at Boulogne was a formidable fighting machine.

 

Since none of their low tricks had produced the desired result; the English government chose the course to which it was most accustomed: to sacrifice the blood of its regular mercenaries, Austria and Russia.

 

Napoleon, for his part, did not wish to follow England down the road to war without making one last attempt at reconciliation with the King of England.

 

We shall see in the next chapter how the English monarch greeted this act of goodwill.

 

[1] We will devote a chapter to the fate of French soldiers captured by the English and Spanish, which will permit visitors to the site to make a comparison with the treatment reserved for foreign prisoners by the man the foreign monarchs called "the Ogre," i.e. Napoleon.