Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

Napoleon, Emperor of the French

"Who, born no king, made millions draw his car;

Whose game was empires and whose stakes were thrones;

Whose table, earth; whose dice were human bones."


The dreams of Napoleon, with regard to India, vanished in the thunder and smoke of the battle of the Nile.

"If it had not been for you English," he said, "I should have been Emperor of the East."

A year later, after varied success in Egypt and Syria, he made up his mind to return to France, though the great army must be left behind for the present. One dark night, he embarked in a small ship that had been secretly built, and sailed away along the coast of Africa to Tunis. His voyage was one of great peril, for English ships were patrolling up and down the Mediterranean, and would gladly have fallen in with Napoleon. With all lights out and under cover of the night, the little ship safely accomplished the narrow channel between Sicily and the African coast, and Napoleon reached his old home in Corsica safely.

On October 16, 1799, the citizens of Paris were astounded by the news, that Napoleon was actually among them again. What if he had left them but a year ago, with a magnificent fleet and an army of picked soldiers? He returned alone, but at a time when France stood in need of a strong man.

His arrival inspired all with joy. Men had grown dissatisfied with their Directory. They were ready for a change. Napoleon was at once given command of all the troops in Paris; and, with his military force to support him, he dissolved the Directory and formed a new Government, in which he himself took the highest place. In imitation of the Romans of old, he took the title of Consul. He at once went to live at the palace of the Tuileries. Not a single member of the royal family was left in France, for the little dauphin had died five years before of ill-treatment, and his sister was in exile.

It is curious to remember, that one of Napoleon's first orders as Consul, was to command the French soldiers to wrap their banners in crape, for the death of George Washington in America, for "he was a great man," he said, "who fought against tyranny."

The next object of the Consul, was to reconquer Italy, which had been won back by Austria, during his absence in Egypt. He collected a large force, and, taking command himself, set out as secretly as possible. He knew the Austrians to be encamped in a valley at the foot of Mount St Bernard, a part of the Alps supposed to be impassable.

This famous expedition across the Alps, was one of Napoleon's greatest exploits, and for danger and daring exceeded anything, that had been attempted since the days of Hannibal. With astonishing courage, the French soldiers struggled up the steep and slippery mountain, covered with eternal frost and snow. There was no path. Gallantly they dragged up the cannon, baggage, knapsacks, guns, leading their horses and mules. Amid precipices and glaciers they made their way, across chasm and along airy ridges of rock. And Napoleon himself, dressed in the grey overcoat which had become already famous, cheered on his men, inspiring them with that confidence which had won him so many victories. After seven days' incessant toil they arrived at the end of their goal, and the victory of Marengo repaid them for their tremendous march.

Two months later Napoleon was back in Paris.

"We have done with the romance of the Revolution: we must now begin its history," he said on his return to France.

He was indeed to open that history with an event that affected the whole world, when, in 1804, he was crowned Emperor of France.

Nothing could exceed the magnificence of the ceremony. Napoleon himself was dressed in a French coat of red velvet, embroidered in gold, his collar gleaming with diamonds, over which he wore the long purple robe of velvet and ermine, with a wreath of laurel on his head. His wife, now the Empress Josephine, in white satin glittering with diamonds, was beside him. The Pope had been fetched from Rome to perform the service; but as he was about to crown the Emperor, he was gently waved aside, and Napoleon, with his own hands, crowned himself.

He was more than ever bent now on the conquest of England, and all the forces of his vast empire were brought against her. Great Britain was the one "barrier in the path of his ambition." His plan of invasion was very formidable. He constructed a huge camp at Boulogne. In the port he had 1000 ships built, each to carry 100 soldiers and some guns across the Channel to the coast of Kent.

"Let us be masters of the Straits for six hours," said Napoleon, "and we shall be masters of the world."

So sure was he of success, that he actually had a medal struck of Hercules crushing the sea-monster to commemorate the victory that was never won. There were French fleets in the harbours of Toulon and Brest waiting to help, as well as Spanish ships in the harbour of Cadiz. But for the present these were all closely blockaded by English admirals. There is nothing finer in the naval history of England, than the dogged perseverance with which these dauntless men kept watch. For two years Nelson guarded Toulon, for three years Cornwallis watched the French ships in the harbour of Brest, while Collingwood blockaded a port in the north of Spain. It was these "iron blockades" that thwarted the plans of Napoleon, and saved for England "the realm of the circling sea."

It was not till June 1805, that a general move took place. The French fleet escaped from Toulon, joined the Spaniards at Cadiz, and sailed for the West Indies. Nelson, with ten ships, went off in full pursuit, only to learn on arrival that the French admiral Villeneuve had doubled back towards England. There was no time to lose.

"The fleets of England are equal to meet the world in arms," Nelson said confidently. His words were to prove true when, in October, the fleets met in the last great sea-fight off Trafalgar, which was to decide England's supremacy at sea.