Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Dawn of the Empire


While neither party kept strictly to the terms of the Peace of Amiens, Napoleon's aggressive policy was such as to disturb other Powers as well as Great Britain. There was no knowing who might be the object of his unwelcome attentions. Frontiers seemed suddenly to have lost their significance and usefulness, treaties became of less value than the parchment on which they were written. Great Britain complained that whereas the Treaty of Luneville had guaranteed the independence of the Batavian Republic, French troops were stationed within her borders, as well as in those of Switzerland. Napoleon retorted by saying that Great Britain still kept Malta. Eventually England declared war on the 18th May 1803, and it was to be a duel to the death.

Napoleon, usually so wide awake, was taken by surprise. He did not anticipate so quick a decision on the part of Addington's administration. He retaliated in an utterly senseless and cruel way by ordering that every British subject on French territory should be arrested and imprisoned. Small wonder that English newspapers vilified the First Consul as the Corsican Ogre, that the pens of Gillray, Cruikshank, Woodward, and a host of lesser artists caricatured him almost out of recognition; that poets poured forth vituperation in minor verse, and that Scott and Wordsworth wrote battle cries. Few people in England entertained the sympathy and admiration for the ruler of France shown by Dr Parr. "Sir," he once remarked, "I should not think I had done my duty if I went to bed any night without praying for the success of Napoleon Bonaparte."

To strike a mortal blow at the very heart of the British Empire and to ruin her commerce on the Continent now became the consuming object of Napoleon's ambition. He would cross the Channel, march on London, subjugate the United, Kingdom, and while preparations for this bold move ere being made, close the ports of Europe against her. "They want to snake us jump the ditch, and we'll jump it," to quote an expression he used at an audience of ambassadors on the 1st May 1803. Frenchmen joyfully anticipated the triumph of the man with so bold an ambition; Englishmen armed themselves as eagerly to defend hearth and home. A Territorial Army of which posterity may well be proud quickly came into being. In March 1805 no fewer than 810,000 troops—Militia, Volunteers, and Fencibles—were prepared to defy Napoleon. The politician and the publican, the ploughboy and the squire, joined hands in the mutual cause as though no difference of class existed. George III. announced his intention of leading the troops in person if necessary. Pitt was acting-colonel of a regiment, and Charles James Fox became a humble private.

Fortunately Great Britain had a navy, while Napoleon had practically to create one. Many of his finest ships were far away in the West Indies, and the Dutch fleet was small and of little consequence. England lost no time in maritime preparations: she was ready; Napoleon wished to gain every minute he could. While the sound of the shipwright's hammer rang through the coasts of France, the white sails of Old England kept watch to prevent all entry or exit from her harbours. The most important command, that of the Mediterranean, was given to Nelson. Cornwallis was stationed off Brest, the great western arsenal of France, while Keith patrolled the North Sea and the Straits of Dover. In addition, there were various smaller squadrons cruising about ready for instant action.

Three-deckers were laid down in many of the most important French seaports, cities and towns vying with each other in offering money to the Government for men-of-war. Smaller centres contributed in proportion to their means; naval stores, artillery, and ammunition were also supplied at the public expense. At Boulogne a flotilla of small vessels of various kinds was collected, some fitted with artillery, others for the conveyance of horses. Rowing boats were built on the river banks for the transportation of the troops. Fishing smacks were purchased and converted into miniature warships; the doings of smugglers were winked at, provided they brought information about the English coast likely to be of use. If ever a man was in earnest, Napoleon certainly was during the time of the Great Terror. He formed a vast camp at Boulogne, detailed battalions of soldiers to construct a mammoth basin to hold part of the flotilla, and others to build forts and learn to row. He showed himself frequently, inspiring the men by his terse phrases of encouragement, and consulting Admiral Bruix and others who had charge of the preparations on the most insignificant detail. He tested cannon, made short voyages in the different types of vessel, and lived for days at a stretch in a little chateau at the top of a cliff.

In the early stages of the war Napoleon had thought it would be possible to convey his troops in the small craft without making use of the navy proper. He hoped that on a dark or foggy night it might be possible to elude the vigilance of the British cruisers and land on the south coast of England before the enemy was aware of his intention. Later, he recognised that a successful crossing was impossible without the protection of the men-of-war, and the necessity for this added immensely to his many difficulties.

Napoleon did not content himself solely with preparations for the campaign in England. He sent Mortier to overrun Hanover, the hereditary territory of George III., seized the important commercial cities of Bremen and Hamburg, and closed the rivers Elbe and Weser against British commerce. In Italy the ports of Tarentum and Leghorn, with which British merchants did a considerable amount of trade, were also occupied. Not content with these drastic measures, Napoleon decreed that any ship which had so much as called at a British port was liable to be captured. With great good fortune the majority of the vessels from San Domingo eventually reached home ports, but several put in at the harbours of Coruna and Cadiz. Spain, unluckily for herself as it afterwards appeared, allowed supplies to be sent to the blockaded ships. Spain, indeed, helped France in other ways, including the payment of an annual subsidy. Portugal also agreed to disburse 640,000 a year.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


Beloved though he was by the majority of the nation, Napoleon had enemies. Several attempts were made to take his life. In one of these, he narrowly escaped being blown to pieces by an infernal machine in the Rue St Nicaise, the plot being promoted by the Royalists of La Vendee. Napoleon showed his vindictive nature by seizing the opportunity to teach a lesson to the Jacobins, who had no hand whatever in the affair, and a hundred and thirty innocent persons were sentenced to transportation for life. Another Royalist conspiracy was that of Georges Cadoudal and Pichegru. These men tried to implicate Moreau, but without success. The famous Republican general, however, was arrested, with the ringleaders; Pichegru was found strangled in prison, Georges Cadoudal was guillotined, and Moreau was banished to America. The last was entirely innocent, but he had the misfortune to be Napoleon's rival, and that was sufficient condemnation. He had won his spurs in the early days of the Revolution by placing himself at the head of a battalion of Breton volunteers, and he was popular with the army. An instance of his sterling integrity, one of many which redound to his credit, may be given. When the landed property of the aristocracy was sold as belonging to the nation, an estate owned by M. d'Orsay, adjoining that of Moreau, was sold to the Republican general at an absurdly low figure. Not only did the new owner inform his former neighbour of the transaction, but he insisted on paying him what he considered was a legitimate price.

The Duc d'Enghien, son of the Duc de Bourbon, was even more unfortunate than Moreau. He also was charged with complicity in the Royalist plot, and although no evidence was produced against him, he was shot and buried in a grave dug before his trial, by a so-called special military commission, in the fortress of Vincennes. The story of the way in which the young duke's father heard the news is pathetic. He was an exile in London, living at the time in a small suite of rooms with one valet. As breakfast did not appear at the prescribed hour one morning, and no notice being taken of his repeated ringing of the bell, he entered the kitchen and found his servant bowed down with sorrow. On the table was a newspaper containing particulars of the grim tragedy. For two hours the sorely stricken parent was overcome by agonising grief in the humble little room. The Comtesse de Boigne, one of the many French emigrants who sought a refuge in England, relates the above, in her entertaining Memoirs, adding that this excessive grief was "accompanied by fits of rage and cries for vengeance."

"This was the only means I had of leaving no doubt as to my intentions, and of annihilating the hopes of the partisans of the Bourbons," Napoleon wrote callously to his brother Joseph. "If what I have done were still to be done," he continues, "I would do it again, and if I had a favourable opportunity I would get rid of the rest." Fouche's caustic comment, "it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder," has passed into a proverb.

The conspiracy of Cadoudal and Pichegru was made a pretext on the part of the Senate for sending a deputation to the First Consul, who was told that, as he was founding a new era, he ought to perpetuate it. "We do not doubt but this great idea has had a share of your attention," said the President during the course of his short and flattering address, "for your creative genius embraces all and forgets nothing. But do not delay: you are urged on by the times, by events, by conspirators, and by ambitious men; and in another direction, by the anxiety which agitates the French people. It is in your power to enchain time, master events, disdain the ambitious, and tranquillize the whole of France by giving it institutions which will cement your edifice, and prolong for our children what you have done for their fathers. Citizen First Consul, be assured that the Senate here speaks to you in the name of all citizens."

The question was duly debated in the Tribunate, Carnot alone voting against the proposal, and by a decree of the Senate Napoleon was declared Emperor of the French on the 18th May 1804. That a conspiracy and a "judicial murder" should herald so important an event was looked upon by some as of evil omen. A few of the more sober members of the nation began to whisper among themselves that France was being more and more absorbed in Napoleon. Perhaps the remark made by the Due de Raguse to the Comtesse de Boigne in 1814 would not have been inapplicable if uttered ten years before. The duke was explaining his connection with the Emperor. "When he said: 'All for France,'  I served with enthusiasm; when he said: 'France and I,'  I served with zeal; when he said 'I and France,'  I served with obedience; but when he said: 'I without France,'  I felt the necessity of separating from him."