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Naval Operations

NAVAL OPERATIONS The French navy came under the direct and exclusive control of Napoleon after the 18th Brumaire. At the close of 1799 (see FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS) he had three purposes to serve by the help of his fleet: the relief of the French garrison besieged by the British forces in Malta; the reinforcement of the army he had left in Egypt; and the distraction of Great Britain by the threat of invasion of England across the Channel, or of Ireland. The deficiencies both in number and in quality of his naval resources doomed him to fail in all three. Though he had control of what remained of the navies of Holland and Spain, as well as of the French, he was outnumbered at every point, while the efficiency of the British fleet gave it a mobility which doubled its material superiority. All Napoleon's efforts to support his troops in Malta and Egypt were necessarily made under the hampering obligation to evade the British forces barring the road. The inevitable result was that only an occasional blockaderunner could succeed in escaping detection and attack. The relief thus brought to Malta and Egypt was not sufficient. In February 1800, the " Genereux " (74), one of the few ships which escaped from the Nile, sailed from Toulon with three corvettes, under Rear-admiral Perree, to relieve Malta. On the 18th she was sighted by the blockading squadron, surrounded and captured. Three other survivors of the Nile were at anchor in Malta the " Guillaume Tell " (80), and two frigates, the " Diane " and the " Justice." On the 29th of July the " Guillaume Tell " endeavoured to slip out in the night. She was sighted, pursued and overpowered, after a singularly gallant resistance. The frigates made an attempt to get off on the 24th of August, but only the " Justice," a solitary survivor of the squadron which fought at the Nile, reached Toulon. Malta, starved out by the British fleet, surrendered on the 5th of September 1800. Very similar was the fate of the efforts to reach and reinforce the army of Egypt. The British squadrons either stopped the relieving forces at their point of departure, or baffled, when they did not take them, at their landfall. A squadron of seven sail of the line, under Admiral Ganteaume, succeeded in slipping out of Brest, when a gale had driven the British blockading force off the coast. Ganteaume met with some measure of success in capturing isolated British men-of-war, one of them being a 74, the " Swiftsure." But he failed to give effectual help to the Egyptian army. He sailed oa the 23rd of January 1801, entered trie Mediterranean and, his squadron being in a bad condition, steered for Toulon, which he reached on the 18th of February. On the i gth of March he sailed again for Egypt, but was again driven back by the same causes on the 5th of April. On the 25th he was ordered out once more. Three of his ships had to be sent back as unfit to keep the sea. With the other four he reached the coast of Egypt, on the 7th of May, only to sight a powerful British force, and to be compelled to escape to Toulon, which he did not reach till the 22nd of July. The French in Egypt were in fact beaten before he reached the coast. At the beginning of 1801, a British naval force, commanded by Lord Keith, had sailed from Gibraltar, escorting an army of 18,000 men under General Abercromby. It reached Marmorice Bay, in Asia Minor, on the 31st of January, to arrange a co-operation with the Turks, and after some delay the army was transported and landed in Egypt, on the 7th and 8th of March. Before the end of September the French army was reduced to capitulate. In the interval another effort to carry help to it was made from Toulon. On the 13th of June 1801 Rear-admiral Linois left Toulon with three sail of the line, to join a Spanish squadron at Cadiz and go on to Egypt. In the straits he was sighted by the British squadron under Sir J. Saumarez, and driven to seek the protection of the Spanish batteries in Algeciras. On the 6th of July he beat off a British attack, capturing the " Hannibal," 74. On the gth a Spanish squadron came to his assistance, and the combined force steered for Cadiz. During the night of the 12th/13th of July they were attacked by Sir J. Saumarez. Two Spanish three-deckers blew up, and a 74-gun ship was taken. The others were blockaded in Cadiz. The invasion scheme was vigorously pushed after the '3rd of March 1801. Flat-bottomed boats were gradually collected at Boulogne. Two attempts to destroy them at anchor, though directed by Nelson himself, were repulsed on the 4th and 16th of August. But the invasion was so far little more than a threat made for diplomatic purposes. On the 1st of October 1801 an armistice was signed in London, and the Peace of Amiens followed, on the 27th of March 1802. (For the operations in the Baltic in 1801, see COPENHAGEN, BATTLE OF.)

The Peace of Amiens proved to be only an uneasy truce, and it was succeeded by open war, on the 18th of May 1803. From that date till about the middle of August 1805, a space of some two years and two months, the war took the form of a most determined attempt on the part of Napoleon to carry out an invasion of Great Britain, met by the counter measures of the British government. The scheme of invasion was based on the Boulogne flotilla, a device inherited from the old French royal government, through the Republic. Its object was to throw a great army ashore on the coast between Dover and Hastings. The preparations were made on an unprecedented scale. The Republic had collected some two hundred and forty vessels. Under the direction of Napoleon ten times as many were equipped. They were divided into: prames, ship-rigged, of 35 metres long and 8 wide, carrying 12 guns; chaloupes cannonieres, of 24 metres long and 5 wide, carrying 5 guns and brig-rigged; bateaux cannoniers, of 19 metres long by 1-56 wide, carrying 2 guns and mere boats. All were built to be rowed, were flat-bottomed, and of shallow draft so as to be able to navigate close to the shore, and to take the ground without hurt. They were built in France and the Low Countries, in the coast towns and the rivers even in Paris and were collected gradually, shore batteries both fixed and mobile being largely employed to cover the passage. A vast sum of money and the labour of thousands of men were employed to clear harbours for them, at and near Boulogne. The shallow water on the coast made it impossible for the British line-of -battle ships, or even large frigates, to press the attack' on them home. Smaller vessels they were able to beat off and so, in spite of the activity of the British cruisers and of many sharp encounters, the concentration was effected at Boulogne, where an army of 130,000 was encamped and was incessantly practised in embarking and disembarking. Before the invasion was taken in hand as a serious policy, there had been at least a profession of a belief that the flotilla could push across the Channel during a calm. Experience soon showed that when the needful allowance was made for the time required to bring them out of harbour (two tides) and for the influence which the Channel currents must have upon their speed, it would be extremely rash to rely on a calm of sufficient length. Napoleon therefore came early to the conclusion that he must bring about a concentration of his seagoing fleet in the Channel, which would give him a temporary command of its v/aters.

He had a squadron at Brest, ships at L'Orient and Rochefort, some of his vessels had taken refuge at Ferrol on their way back from San Domingo when war broke out, one was at Cadiz, and he had a squadron at Toulon. All these forces were watched by British blockading squadrons. The problem was to bring them together before the British fleet could be concentrated to meet them. Napoleon's solution grew, as time went on and circumstances changed, in scope and complexity. In July 1804 he ordered his admiral commanding at Toulon, Latouche Treville, to seize an opportunity when Nelson, who was in command of the blockade, was driven off by a northerly gale, to put to sea, with 10 sail of the line, pick up the French ship in Cadiz, join Villeneuve who was in the Aix roads, and then effect a junction with Ganteaume and the 21 sail of the line at Brest. He hoped that if the British ships in the North Sea concentrated with the squadron in the Channel, he would be able to make use of Dutch vessels from the Texel. The death of Latouche Treville, aoth of August 1804, supplied an excuse for delay. He was succeeded by Villeneuve. Napoleon now modified the simple plan prepared for Latouche Treville, and began laying elaborate plans by which French vessels were to slip out and sail for distant seas, to draw the British fleet after them, and then return to concentrate in the Channel. A further modification was introduced by the end of 1804. Spain, which was bound by treaty to join Napoleon, was allowed to preserve a show of neutrality by paying a monthly subvention. The British government, treating this as a hostile action as it was seized the Spanish treasure ships on their way from America, near Cape Santa Maria, on the 5th of October 1804, and Spain declared war on the 12th of December. New plans were now made including the co-operation of the Spanish fleet. Amid all the variation in their details, and the apparent confusion introduced by Napoleon's habit of suggesting alternatives and discussing probabilities, and in spite of the preparations ostensibly made for an expedition to Ireland, which was to have sailed from Brest and to have carried 30,000 troops commanded by Augereau, the real purpose of Napoleon was neither altered nor concealed. He worked to produce doubt and confusion in the mind of the British government by threats and attacks on its distant possessions, which should lead it to scatter its forces. One of these ventures was actually carried out, without, however, securing the co-operation, or effecting the purpose he had in view. On the nth of January 1805 Admiral Missiessy left Rochefort with 5 sail of the line, undetected by the British forces on the coast. Missiessy carried out a successful voyage of commerce-destroying, and returned safely to Rochefort on the 20th of May, from the West Indies. But the force sent in pursuit of him was small, and the British government was not deceived into weakening its hold on the Channel. It was in fact well supplied with information by means of the spy service directed by an exiled French royalist, the count d'Antraigues, who was established at Dresden as a Russian diplomatic agent. Through his correspondents in Paris, some of whom had access to Napoleon's papers, the British government was able to learn the emperor's real intentions. The blockade of Brest was so strictly maintained that Ganteaume was allowed no opportunity to get to sea. Villeneuve, who was to have co-operated with Missiessy, did indeed leave Toulon, at a moment when Nelson, whose policy it was to encourage him to come out by not staying too near the port, was absent, ontheiythof January 1805. The British admiral, when informed that the French were at sea, justified Napoleon's estimate of his probable course in such a contingency, by making a useless cruise to Egypt. But Villeneuve's ill-appointed ships, manned by raw crews, suffered loss of spars in a gale, and he returned to Toulon on the 2ist. His last start came when he sailed, unseen by Nelson, on the 30th of March. Aided by lucky changes of wind, he reached Cadiz, was joined by i French and 6 Spanish ships under Admiral Gravina, which, added to the u he had with him, gave him a force of 18 sail. He left Cadiz on the night of the pth/ioth of April, and reached Fort de France in Martinique on the 14th of May. Here he was to have remained till joined by Ganteaume from Brest. On the ist of June he was joined by a frigate and two line-of-battle ships sent with orders from Rochefort, and was told to remain in the West Indies till the sth of July, and if not joined by Ganteaume to steer for Ferrol, pick up the French and Spanish ships in the port, and come on to the Channel. Villeneuve learnt on the 8th of June that Nelson had reached Barbadoes in pursuit of him on the 4th. The British admiral, delayed by contrary winds, had not been able to start from the entry to the Straits of Gibraltar till the nth of May. An action in the West Indies would have ruined the emperor's plan of concentration, and Villeneuve decided to sail at once for Ferrol. Nelson, misled by false information, ranged the West Indies as far south as the Gulf of Paria, in search of his opponent whom he supposed to be engaged in attacks on British possessions. By the 13th of June he had learnt the truth, and sailed for Gibraltar under the erroneous impression that the French admiral would return to Toulon. He sent a brig home with despatches; on the 19th of June, in lat. 33 12' N. and long. 58 W., the French were seen by this vessel heading for the Bay of Biscay. Captain Bettesworth who commanded the brig hurried home, and the information he brought was at once acted on by Lord Barham, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who took measures to station a force to intercept Villeneuve outside Ferrol. On the 22nd of July, 35 leagues N.W. of Finisterre, Villeneuve was met by the British admiral sent to intercept him, Sir Robert Calder. A confused action in a fog ended in the capture of 2 Spanish line-of-battle ships. But Sir R. Calder, who had only 15 ships to his opponent's 20 and was nervous lest he should be overpowered, did not act with energy. He retreated to join the blockading fleet off Brest. Villeneuve was now able to join the vessels at Ferrol. Nelson, who reached Gibraltar on the very day the action off Ferrol was fought, was too far away to interfere with him. But Villeneuve, who was deeply impressed by the inefficiency of the ships of his fleet and especially of the Spaniards, and who was convinced that an overwhelming British force would be united against him in the Channel, lost heart, and on the 15th of August sailed south to Cadiz. By this movement he ruined the emperor's elaborate scheme. Napoleon at once broke up the camp at Boulogne and marched to Germany. The further movements of Villeneuve's fleet are told under TRAFALGAR, BATTLE OF.

With the collapse of the invasion scheme, the naval war between Napoleon and Great Britain entered on a new phase. It lost at once the unity given to it by the efforts of the emperor to effect, and of the British government to baffle the passage of the Channel by an army. In place of the movements of great fleets to a single end, we have a nine years' story (1805-1814) of cruising for the protection of commerce, of convoy, of colonial expeditions to capture French, Dutch or Spanish possessions and of combined naval and military operations in which the British navy was engaged in carrying troops to various countries, and in supporting them on shore. Napoleon continued to build line-of-battle ships in numbers from Venice to Hamburg, but only in order to force the British government to maintain costly and wearing blockades. He never allowed his fleets to go to sea to seek battle. The operations of the British fleet were therefore divided between the work of patrolling the ocean roads and ancillary services to diplomacy, or to the armies serving in Italy, Denmark and, after 1808, in Spain. The remaining colonial possessions of France, and of Holland, then wholly dependent on her, were conquered by degrees, and the ports in which privateers were fitted out to cruise against British commerce in distant seas were gradually rendered harmless. Though privateering was carried on by the French with daring and a considerable measure of success, it did not put an appreciable check on the growth of British merchant shipping. The function of the British navy in the long conflict with Napoleon was of the first importance, and its services were rendered in every sea, but their very number, extent and complexity render it impossible here to record them in detail.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Captain Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and the Empire (London, 1892); Chevalier, Histoire de la marine franchise sous le consulat et V empire (Paris, 1886). All the operations connected with the successive invasion schemes are recorded, with exhaustive quotations of documentary evidence, in Projets et tentatives de debarguement aux lies Britannigues, by Captain Desbriere (Paris, 1901). Captain Desbriere's exhaustive work was done for the historical section of the French general staff, and is a fine example of the scholarly and conscientious modern French historical school. (D. H.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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