Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Threatened Invasion of England and its Sequel


Napoleon's first thought after he became Emperor was of the army, in very truth the ,d main support of his throne. He had seen too much of life to believe that his great commanders lived solely to carry out his will without reference to personal ambition. Experience had taught him that "men are fond of toys, and are led by them." He had remarked on the fact when opposition had been raised to the institution of the Legion of Honour in 1802, and he saw no reason to change his opinion. Now was the moment for him to show that those who had contributed to the success of his designs upon the Imperial throne were not to be forgotten. He therefore elevated eighteen generals to the rank of Marshals of the Empire, namely, Augereau, Bernadotte, Berthier, Bessieres, Brune, Davout, Jourdan, Kellermann, Lannes, Lefebvre, Massena, Moncey, Mortier, Murat, Ney, Perignon, Soult, and Serrurier. By honouring the heads of the army, Napoleon not only flattered them and pleased the troops they commanded, but wove a silken cord which he hoped would bind them to himself. Some failed him in the evil days of 1814-1815, but the majority were worthy of the distinction and of his confidence.

A host of other dignitaries were created apart from the Bonaparte family, whose members assumed the title of Imperial Highness, their mother being called Madame Mere, which was as simple and dignified as the good soul herself. There was a Grand Elector, Arch-Chancellor of the Empire, Arch-Chancellor of State, and High Constable, to mention only a few of the many titles conferred at this time.

Napoleon paid frequent visits to Boulogne, and August 1804 the vast camp was the scene of a grand review at which the crosses of the Legion of Honour were distributed to those who had been awarded this coveted distinction. The most intense enthusiasm was aroused: the ancient throne of Dagobert, King of France eleven centuries before, was used by the Emperor, and the platform on which it stood was gaily decorated with two hundred flags. Unfortunately a catastrophe marred the occasion. A flotilla of new boats for the projected invasion was to arrive from Holland and elsewhere at the height of the proceedings. Sever? l of them struck a portion of the new harbour-works and were swamped, causing Napoleon to lose his temper. The enjoyment of the open-air dinner was also marred by heavy rain.

Arrangements for an even more imposing ceremony were soon proceeding. This was the coronation of the Emperor, which took place in the cathedral of Notre Dame on Sunday, the 2nd December 1804, and the Pope, thinking it prudent to respond to Napoleon's wish, graced the service with his presence. As the Emperor crowned both Josephine and himself, the Sovereign Pontiff had to be content with anointing Napoleon and blessing the sword and sceptre. "Vive l'Empereur!" thundered through the magnificently decorated cathedral, cannon were fired, and in the evening illuminations blazed forth all over Paris. It is said that when Napoleon retired to his apartment at the end of the day's proceedings he exclaimed in tones of scorn worthy of Cromwell on a celebrated occasion, "Off! Off with these confounded trappings!" His language always seemed more in keeping with the camp than with the court.

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


One of Napoleon's first acts after his coronation was to write to George III. on the subject of peace, just as he had done when taking the reins of office as First Consul; it was his way of throwing dust in the eyes of the enemy. War had broken out between Great Britain and Spain at a most inopportune moment, for Pitt, who had again come into power, had energetically entered into negotiations with some of the more important European Powers for a third Coalition against France. In April 1805, Russia signified her assent, and was followed in August by Austria. Great Britain agreed to replenish the war-chests of her allies, and, in addition, to furnish men, arms, and ships. The political chessboard was in active use again, and with his usual astuteness Napoleon made several moves before his opponents were aware that the game had begun. On the 26th May he became King of Italy, placing the crown on his own head in Milan Cathedral, and appointing Josephine's son, Eugene Beauharnais, to the important and scarcely enviable post of Viceroy Early in June the Ligurian Republic was united with France, followed later by Parma and Piacenza; and Lucca and Piombino were created a principality, the Emperor's sister Elise being recognised as Hereditary Princess. Napoleon was "consolidating his interests," just as Pitt was following the same principle under somewhat different conditions. These aggressive measures had an extremely irritating influence on Austria. But although her pride was severely shaken, she was slow to move. The army was encumbered by tradition, and the people, having been bitten, were twice shy. The old proverb, "Better half a loaf than no bread," fairly summed up the situation from their point of view. But what if the half loaf were taken? That side of the question had also to be considered.

Shipbuilding still continued to proceed with unabated vigour along the coasts of Holland and of Northern France. Three-deckers, gay with new paint, left the slips and took their first plunge into sea-water. In the Texel, and at Brest, Rochefort, and Toulon, squadrons came into being, but, like unfledged birds in a cage, they had little opportunity to try their wings. The men on England's floating bulwarks saw to that, watching every movement. When the various blockading squadrons had to vacate their station, as occasionally happened, the frigates, "the eyes of the fleet," as Nelson happily termed them, were usually present, although he complained that he had far too few of these useful vessels at his disposal.

Napoleon never thoroughly understood the difficulties of naval warfare. He was disposed to think that a naval squadron could carry out a manoeuvre with the almost mathematical exactness of a regiment. Tides and wind meant little or nothing to him; Sir Neil Campbell, the Commissioner at Elba for Great Britain during Napoleon's short-lived rule of that island, perceived and noted this in his diary. And yet it must be conceded that the strategy which the Emperor had been secretly conceiving for the concentration of his scattered fleets was as clever as it was bold. "The wet ditch that lay around England" was not to be crossed by the flotilla alone; he had long since abandoned that plan as impracticable. The navy proper was to have a share in the downfall of the United Kingdom. By feints in directions calculated to deceive the enemy as to his real designs he hoped to assemble sufficient ships to command the Channel, if only for a few days. This would enable him to slip across with his army, although how he proposed to get out of England is not quite clear. A sufficient military force was to be left in France to provide for the possibility that other enemies might take advantage of so favourable an opportunity to cross the French frontiers.

Napoleon's general design was changed again and again as circumstances dictated, and twice an attempt was made to rally the naval forces. Suffice it to say that Missiessy with the Rochefort squadron eluded the English fleets and reached the West Indies, where he was to be joined by Villeneuve, his colleague at Toulon, the idea being that while the British were chasing them the ships at Brest under Ganteaume should land a force in Ireland and afterwards return to convoy the flotilla. Villeneuve, owing to stress of weather, was forced to return to port, Ganteaume being hemmed in by Cornwallis, a hero who has not had full justice done to him, largely because the naval annals of the time are dominated so completely by Nelson. Even the latter was deceived when he found Toulon empty, and he chased an entirely spectral fleet in the direction of Egypt, sufficient proof of the cleverness of Napoleon's elusive plan.

In the early days of 1805 the Emperor determined to delay no further. He who said that "God is on the side of the biggest battalions" probably thought that the same maxim applied to fleets. The Spanish naval resources were now allied to those of France, making them numerically stronger than those of the enemy, although decidedly deficient in fighting qualities and seamanship. In brief, Napoleon's last desperate attempt at the invasion of England was as follows: Villeneuve with the Toulon squadron, after joining that at Cadiz, was to make for the West Indies, there to be met by Missiessy. Ganteaume, escaping from Brest, was to call at Ferrol for the vessels lying there and join the others, making fifty-nine first-class ships in all, excluding frigates. The combined fleets were then to make a dash across the Atlantic and appear before Boulogne, where the flotilla would be in readiness to sail.

Villeneuve carried out his part, but Missiessy and Ganteaume failed, the latter because he was unable to pierce the British cordon. Napoleon, not to be discouraged, sent word to Villeneuve to come back, drive the British from their station off Ferrol, secure the fourteen ships in that harbour, repeat the operation at Brest, where there were twenty-one ships, and then make for Boulogne. Nelson had given chase and been outwitted, but by sending a swift-sailing brig to Plymouth to inform the authorities of his misfortune and the approach of the French fleet on its homeward voyage, they were enabled to order the British ships off Rochefort and Ferrol to leave their position and intercept Villeneuve. This, under Admiral Calder, they were successful in doing, two Spanish ships being lost in the action that was fought. Owing to fog and want of confidence on Calder's part, however, the contest was indecisive, and the Frenchman reached the Spanish fort of Vigo, afterwards creeping into Ferrol, where fourteen sail-of-the-line awaited him, the total force now being twenty-nine. Meanwhile five French ships which had been hemmed in at Rochefort, taking advantage of the absence of the British, were likely to join them, thus placing thirty-four vessels at Villeneuve's disposal for a dash to Brest. He made the attempt and failed, neglected to inform the commander of the Rochefort squadron, who was vainly searching for him, and retreated to Cadiz, where six Spanish ships were added to his squadron.

Calder and Collingwood "sat tight" outside the harbour with one eye on the enemy and the other searching for signs of the British ships which they knew would be with them before long. Nelson, after spending a short time in England, hove in sight off Cadiz on the day before his forty-seventh birthday and assumed supreme command. The officers trooped into his cabin to congratulate him. "The reception I met with on joining the fleet," he declared, "caused the sweetest sensation of my life."

On the 19th October the signal, "The enemy are coming out of port," flew from the mastheads of the frigates stationed to watch the goings-on in the harbour. Thirty-three sail-of-the-line, five frigates, and two brigs had passed out by the following day. Nelson's force consisted of twenty-seven men-of-war, four frigates, a schooner, and a cutter. The enemy therefore had the advantage as regards numbers of six first-class ships. In armament the combatants were nearly equal, as in bravery and daring, but the French were very inferior in seamanship and general morale. The 21st October 1805, on which the Battle of Trafalgar was fought, is a red-letter day in the history of the British Empire, perhaps of the world. The story belongs rather to the life of Nelson than of Napoleon, and as such cannot be dealt with here. Eleven ships only escaped of the thirty-three which had ventured to contest England's command of the sea. The conflict in Trafalgar Bay was Napoleon's maritime Waterloo. It cost the life of the greatest naval commander of modern times, but it sealed the supremacy of his country on the element which she has made particularly her own. On land, success still remained with the man whose gigantic schemes for invasion were so completely shattered; at sea, it was never to attend his efforts.