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   Chapter 8 THE STRATEGY

Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 21460

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"Uprose the soul of him a star

On that brave day of Ocean days;

It rolled the smoke from Trafalgar

To darken Austerlitz ablaze.

Are we the men of old, its light

Will point us under every sky

The path he took; and must we fight,

Our Nelson be our battle-cry!

He leads: we hear our Seaman's call

In the roll of battles won;

For he is Britain's Admiral

Till setting of her sun."


That Trafalgar was a great British victory, won by splendid seamanship and by magnificent courage, everybody knows. On October 21, 1805, Nelson, with twenty-seven line-of-battle ships, attacked Villeneuve, in command of a combined fleet of thirty-three line-of-battle ships. The first British gun was fired at 12.10 o'clock; at 5 o'clock the battle was over; and within those five hours the combined fleets of France and Spain were simply destroyed. No fewer than eighteen ships of the line were captured, burnt, or sunk; the rest were in flight, and had practically ceased to exist as a fighting force. But what very few people realise is that Trafalgar is only the last incident in a great strategic conflict-a warfare of brains rather than of bullets-which for nearly three years raged round a single point. For that long period the warlike genius of Napoleon was pitted in strategy against the skill and foresight of a cluster of British sailors; and the sailors won. They beat Napoleon at his own weapons. The French were not merely out-fought in the shock of battling fleets, they were out-generalled in the conflict of plotting and warlike brains which preceded the actual fight off Cape Trafalgar.

The strategy which preceded Trafalgar represents Napoleon's solitary attempt to plan a great campaign on the tossing floor of the sea. "It has an interest wholly unique," says Mahan, "as the only great naval campaign ever planned by this foremost captain of modern times." And it is a very marvellous fact that a cluster of British sailors-Jervis and Barham (a salt eighty years old) at the Admiralty, Cornwallis at Brest, Collingwood at Cadiz, and Nelson at Toulon-guessed all Napoleon's profound and carefully hidden strategy, and met it by even subtler plans and swifter resolves than those of Napoleon himself. The five hours of gallant fighting off Cape Trafalgar fill us with exultant pride. But the intellectual duel which preceded the shock of actual battle, and which lasted for nearly three years, is, in a sense, a yet more splendid story. Great Britain may well honour her naval leaders of that day for their cool and profound strategy, as much as for the unyielding courage with which such a blockade as, say, that of Brest by Cornwallis was maintained for years, or such splendid daring as that which Collingwood showed when, in the Royal Sovereign, he broke Villeneuve's line at Trafalgar.

When in 1803 the war which brought to an end the brief peace of Amiens broke out, Napoleon framed a great and daring plan for the invasion of England. French plans for the invasion of England were somewhat numerous a century or so ago. The Committee of Public Safety in 1794, while keeping the guillotine busy in the Place de la Révolution, had its own little plan for extending the Reign of Terror, by means of an invasion, to England; and on May 27 of that year solemnly appointed one of their number to represent the Committee in England "when it was conquered." The member chosen was citizen Bon Saint André, the same hero who, in the battle of the 1st of June, fled in terror to the refuge of the French flagship's cock-pit when the Queen Charlotte, with her triple lines of guns, came too alarmingly near. But Napoleon's plans for the same object in 1803 were definite, formidable, profound. Great Britain was the one barrier in the path of his ambition. "Buonaparte," says Green, in his "Short History of the English People," "was resolute to be master of the western world, and no notions of popular freedom or sense of popular right ever interfered with his resolve.… England was now the one country where freedom in any sense remained alive.… With the fall of England, despotism would have been universal throughout Europe; and it was at England that Buonaparte resolved to strike the first blow in his career of conquest. Fifteen millions of people, he argued, must give way to forty millions."

So he formed the vast camp at Boulogne, in which were gathered 130,000 veterans. A great flotilla of boats was built, each boat being armed with one or two guns, and capable of carrying 100 soldiers. More than 1000 of such boats were built, and concentrated along twenty miles of the Channel coast, and at four different ports. A new port was dug at Boulogne, to give shelter to the main division of this flotilla, and great and powerful batteries erected for its protection. The French soldiers were exercised in embarking and disembarking till the whole process could be counted by minutes. "Let us," said Napoleon, "be masters of the Straits for six hours, and we shall be masters of the world."

When since the days of William the Conqueror were the shores of Great Britain menaced by such a peril? "There is no difficulty," said Moltke, "in getting an army into England; the trouble would be to get it out again." And, no doubt, Englishmen, fighting on their own soil and for their own hearths, would have given an invader a very rough time of it. But let it be remembered that Napoleon was a military genius of the first order, and that the 130,000 soldiers waiting on the heights above Boulogne to leap on British soil were, to quote Mahan, "the most brilliant soldiery of all time." They were the men who afterwards won Austerlitz, who struck down Prussia with a single blow at Jena, who marched as victors through the streets of Vienna and of Berlin, and fought their way to Moscow. Imagine such an army, with such a leader, landed on the green fields of Kent! In that case there might have been an English Austerlitz or Friedland. London might have shared the fate of Moscow. If Napoleon had succeeded, the fate of the world would have been changed, and Toronto and Cape Town, Melbourne and Sydney and Auckland might have been ruled by French prefects.

Napoleon himself was confident of success. He would reach London, he calculated, within four days of landing, and then he would have issued decrees abolishing the House of Lords, proclaiming a redistribution of property, and declaring England a republic. "You would never have burned your capital," he said to O'Meara at St. Helena; "you are too rich and fond of money." The London mob, he believed, would have joined him, for, as he cynically argued, "the canaille of all nations are nearly alike."

Even Napoleon would probably have failed, however, in subduing Great Britain, and would have remained a prisoner where he came intending to be a conqueror. As he himself said when a prisoner on his way to St. Helena, "I entered into no calculation as to the manner in which I was to return"! But in the battles which must have been fought, how many English cities would have perished in flames, how many English rivers would have run red with the blood of slain men! "At Waterloo," says Alison, "England fought for victory; at Trafalgar for existence."

But "the streak of silver sea" guarded England, and for more than two years Napoleon framed subtle plans and organised vast combinations which might give him that brief six hours' command of the Strait which was all he needed, as he thought, to make himself the master of the world. The flotilla could not so much as get out of the ports, in which the acres of boats lay, in a single tide, and one half of the army of invasion must lie tossing-and, it may be suspected, dreadfully sea-sick-for hours outside these ports, waiting for the other half to get afloat. Then there remained forty miles of sea to cross. And what would happen if, say, Nelson and Collingwood, with a dozen 74-gun ships, got at work amongst the flotilla? It would be a combat between wolves and sheep. It was Nelson's chief aspiration to have the opportunity of "trying Napoleon on a wind," and the attempt to cross the Straits might have given him that chance. All Napoleon's resources and genius were therefore strained to give him for the briefest possible time the command of the Channel; and the skill and energy of the British navy were taxed to the utmost to prevent that consummation.

Now, France, as a matter of fact, had a great fleet, but it was scattered, and lying imprisoned, in fragments, in widely separated ports. There were twelve ships of the line in Toulon, twenty in Brest, five in Rochefort, yet other five in Ferrol; and the problem for Napoleon was, somehow, to set these imprisoned squadrons free, and assemble them for twenty-four hours off Boulogne. The British policy, on the other hand, was to maintain a sleepless blockade of these ports, and keep the French fleet sealed up in scattered and helpless fragments. The battle for the Straits of Dover, the British naval chiefs held, must be fought off Brest and Ferrol and Toulon; and never in the history of the world were blockades so vigilant, and stern, and sleepless maintained.

Nelson spent two years battling with the fierce north-westers of the Gulf of Lyons, keeping watch over a great French squadron in Toulon, and from May 1803 to August 1805 left his ship only three times, and for less than an hour on each occasion. The watch kept by Cornwallis off Brest, through summer and winter, for nearly three years, Mahan declares, has never, for constancy and vigilance, been excelled, perhaps never equalled, in the history of blockades. The hardship of these long sea-watches was terrible. It was waging an fight with weariness and brain-paralysing monotony, with cold and scurvy and tempest, as well as with human foes. Collingwood was once twenty-two months at sea without dropping anchor. In seventeen years of sea service-between 1793 and 1810-he was only twelve months in England.

The wonder is that the seamen of that day did not grow web-footed, or forget what solid ground felt like! Collingwood tells his wife in one letter that he had "not seen a green leaf on a tree" for fourteen months! By way of compensation, these long and stern blockades developed such a race of seamen as perhaps the world has never seen before or since; exhaustless of resource, hardy, tireless, familiar with every turn of sea life, of iron frame and an iron courage which neither tempest nor battle could shake. Great Britain, as a matter of fact, won her naval battles, not because she had better ships or heavier guns than her enemies, but only because she trained a finer race of seame

n. Says Brenton, himself a gallant sailor of the period, "I have seen Spanish line-of-battle ships twenty-four hours unmooring; as many minutes are sufficient for a well-manned British ship to perform the same operation. When, on any grand ceremony, they found it necessary to cross their top-gallant yards in harbour, they began the day before; we cross ours in one minute from the deck."

But it was these iron blockades that in the long-run thwarted the plans of Napoleon and changed the fate of the world. Cornwallis off Brest, Collingwood off Rochefort, Pellew off Ferrol, Nelson before Toulon, fighting the wild gales of the Bay of Biscay and the fierce north-westers of the Gulf of Lyons, in what Mahan calls "that tremendous and sustained vigilance which reached its utmost tension in the years preceding Trafalgar," really saved England. "Those far-distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked," says Mahan, "stood between it and the dominion of the world."

An intellect so subtle and combative as Napoleon's was, of course, strained to the utmost to break or cheat the British blockades, and the story of the one crafty ruse after another which he employed to beguile the British leaders is very remarkable. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the manner in which these plain-minded, business-like British seamen, for whose mental powers Napoleon cherished the deepest contempt, fathomed his plans and shattered his combinations.

Napoleon's first plot was decidedly clever. He gathered in Brest 20,000 troops, ostensibly for a descent upon Ireland. This, he calculated, would preoccupy Cornwallis, and prevent him moving. The Toulon fleet was to run out with the first north-west wind, and, as long as a British look-out ship was in sight, would steer east, as though making for Egypt; but when beyond sight of British eyes the fleet was to swing round, run through the Straits, be joined off Cadiz by the Rochefort squadron, and sweep, a great fleet of at least sixteen sail of the line, past the Scilly Islands to Boulogne. Napoleon calculated that Nelson would be racing in the direction of Egypt, Cornwallis would be redoubling his vigilance before Brest, at the exact moment the great Boulogne flotilla was carrying its 130,000 invading Frenchmen to Dover! Napoleon put the one French admiral as to whose resolve and daring he was sure-Latouche Treville-in command of the Toulon fleet; but before the moment for action came Treville died, and Napoleon had to fall back upon a weaker man, Villeneuve.

He changed his plans to suit the qualities of his new admiral-the Toulon and Rochefort squadrons were to break out, sail separately to a rendezvous in the West Indies, and, once joined, spread havoc through the British possessions there. "I think," wrote Napoleon, "that the sailing of these twenty ships of the line will oblige the English to despatch over thirty in pursuit." So the blockades everywhere would be weakened, and the Toulon and Rochefort squadrons, doubling back to Europe, were to raise the blockade off Ferrol and Brest, and the Brest squadron was to land 18,000 troops, under Augereau, in Ireland, while the Grand Army of Boulogne was to cross the Straits, with Napoleon at its head. Thus Great Britain and Ireland would be invaded simultaneously.

The trouble was to set the scheme going by the release of the Toulon and Rochefort squadrons. Nelson's correspondence shows that he guessed Napoleon's strategy. If the Toulon fleet broke loose, he wrote, he was sure its course would be held for the Atlantic, and thither he would follow it. In the meanwhile he kept guard so steadfastly that the great French strategy could not get itself started. In December 1804 war broke out betwixt Britain and Spain, and this gave Napoleon a new ally and a new fleet. Napoleon found he had nearly sixty line-of-battle ships, French or Spanish, to weave into his combinations, and he framed-to use Mahan's words-"upon lines equal, both in boldness and scope, to those of the Marengo and Austerlitz campaigns, the immense strategy which resulted in Trafalgar." The Toulon and Rochefort squadrons, as before, were to break out separately, rendezvous in the West Indies, return by a different route to European waters, pick up the French and Spanish ships in Ferrol, and then sweep through the narrow seas.

The Rochefort squadron duly escaped; Villeneuve, too, in command of the Toulon squadron, aided by the weather, evaded Nelson's watchfulness and disappeared towards the east. Nelson, however, suspected the real plan, and with fine insight took up a position which must have intercepted Villeneuve; but that admiral found the weather too rough for his ships, and ran back into Toulon. "These gentlemen," said Nelson, "are not accustomed to a Gulf of Lyons gale. We have faced them for twenty-one months, and not lost a spar!" The Rochefort squadron was, of course, left by its own success wandering in space, a mere cluster of sea-vagrants.

By March 1805, Napoleon had a new combination prepared. In the ports between Brest and Toulon were scattered no less than sixty-seven French or Spanish ships of the line. Ganteaume, with his squadron, was to break out from Brest; Villeneuve, with his, from Toulon; both fleets were to rendezvous at Martinique, return by an unusual route, and appear off Boulogne, a great fleet of thirty-five French ships of the line.

About the end of June the Toulon fleet got safely out-Nelson being, for once, badly served by his frigates-picked up additional ships off Cadiz, and disappeared on its route to the West Indies. Nelson, misled by false intelligence, first went eastward, then had to claw back through the Straits of Gibraltar in the teeth of strong westerly gales, and plunged over the horizon in fierce pursuit of Villeneuve. But the watch kept by Cornwallis over Ganteaume in Brest was so close and stern that escape was impossible, and one-half of Napoleon's combination broke down. Napoleon despatched swift ships on Villeneuve's track, summoning him back to Ferrol, where he would find a squadron of fifteen French and Spanish ships ready to join him. Villeneuve, Napoleon believed, had thoroughly deceived Nelson. "Those boasted English," he wrote, "who claim to know of everything, know nothing of it," i.e. of Villeneuve's escape and course. But the "boasted English," as a matter of fact, did know all about it, and in place of weakening their forces in the Bay of Biscay, strengthened them. Meanwhile Nelson, with ten ships of the line, was hard on the track of Villeneuve with eighteen. At Barbadoes, Nelson was sent a hundred miles out of his course by false intelligence, and that hundred miles just enabled Villeneuve to double back towards Europe.

Nelson divined this plan, and followed him with the fiercest energy, sending off, meanwhile, his fastest brig to warn the Admiralty. Villeneuve, if he picked up the Ferrol and Rochefort squadrons, would arrive off Brest with forty line-of-battle ships; if he raised the blockade, and added Ganteaume's squadron to his own, he might appear off Boulogne with sixty great ships! Napoleon calculated on British blunders to aid him. "We have not to do with a far-sighted, but with a very proud Government," he wrote. The blunder Napoleon hoped the British Admiralty would make was that of weakening the blockading squadrons in order to pursue Villeneuve's fleet, and thus release the imprisoned French squadrons, making a great concentration possible.

But this was exactly the blunder into which the Admiralty refused to be tempted. When the news that Villeneuve was on his way back to Europe reached the Admiralty, the First Lord, Barham, an old sailor, eighty years of age, without waiting to dress himself, dictated orders which, without weakening the blockades at any vital point, planted a fleet, under Sir Robert Calder, west of Finisterre, and right in Villeneuve's track; and if Calder had been Nelson, Trafalgar might have been fought on July 22, instead of October 21. Calder fought, and captured two of Villeneuve's ships, but failed to prevent the junction of Villeneuve's fleet with the squadron in Ferrol, and was court-martialled for his failure-victory though he called it. But this partial failure does not make less splendid the promptitude shown by the British Admiralty. "The English Admiralty," Napoleon reasoned, "could not decide the movements of its squadron in twenty-four hours." As a matter of fact, Barham decided the British strategy in almost as many minutes!

Meanwhile Nelson had reached the scene; and, like his ship, worn out with labours, sailed for Portsmouth, for what proved his last visit to England. On August 13, Villeneuve sailed from Ferrol with twenty-nine ships. He had his choice between Brest, where Cornwallis was keeping guard, with Boulogne beyond, and where Napoleon was watching eagerly for the white topsails of his fleet; or Cadiz, where Collingwood with a tiny squadron held the Spanish fleet strictly bottled up.

Villeneuve's true course was Boulogne, but Cornwallis lay in his path with over thirty sail of the line, and Villeneuve's nerve failed him. On August 21 he swung round and bore up for Cadiz; and with the turn of the helm which swung Villeneuve's ship away from Boulogne, Napoleon's last chance of invading England vanished. Villeneuve pushed Collingwood's tiny squadron aside and entered Cadiz, where the combined fleet now numbered nearly forty ships of the line, and Collingwood, with delightful coolness, solemnly resumed his blockade-four ships, that is, blockading forty! Napoleon gave way to a tempest of rage when his fleet failed to appear off Boulogne, and he realised that the British sailors he despised had finally thwarted his strategy. A French writer has told how Daru, his secretary, found him walking up and down his cabinet with agitated steps. With a voice that shook, and in half-strangled exclamations, he cried, "What a navy! What sacrifices for nothing! What an admiral! All hope is gone! That Villeneuve, instead of entering the Channel, has taken refuge in Ferrol. It is all over. He will be blockaded there." Then with that swift and terrible power of decision in which he has never been surpassed, he flung the long-cherished plan of invading England out of his brain, and dictated the orders which launched his troops on the road which led to Austerlitz and Jena, and, beyond, to the flames of Moscow and the snows of the great retreat, and which finally led Napoleon himself to St. Helena. Villeneuve's great fleet meanwhile lay idle in Cadiz, till, on October 20, the ill-fated French admiral led his ships out to meet Nelson in his last great sea-fight.

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