The Battle of Trafalgar
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The British people were anxious for peace, anxious to believe that a durable peace was possible. It accepted the Treaty of Amiens with satisfaction, willing to surrender very much for the sake of a general pacification. But Grenville and others of Pitt's former colleagues looked askance, mistrusting the First Consul, who, they believed, would merely make use of the peace in order to strengthen his own position and that of France, and then turn upon Great Britain.
The omens which had even preceded the ratification of the treaty were verified by the further consolidation of the French ascendency in the lately created republics outside the French frontiers, and in the First Consul's assumption of authority in dealing with the minor German states.
The French ascendency was used to enforce the exclusion of British goods from the ports of the dependents of France. French agents for commercial purposes visited Ireland and made themselves familiar with British ports; the commercial character of the agents was more than dubious. An official "commercial" report regarding Egypt was much more concerned with the facilities for reconquest than with its ostensible subject.
Protest on the part of Great Britain as to the actions of the Republic on the Continent were in effect met by saying that they were none of England's business; and by angry complaints that the French Emigres were allowed scandalously to traduce the First Consul in the British Press, and that the British were abstaining from their obligation under the Treaty of Amiens to evacuate Malta. There was some technical warrant for Napoleon's attitude, but it was no less evident that he was violating the understandings upon which the treaty had been made.
In plain terms it was soon impossible to doubt that Napoleon was determined to rule Britain out of all voice in European affairs, to ruin her commerce by a policy of exclusion, and to enforce her submission by war if she refused it on any other terms. The price was more than she chose to pay. Reluctantly but with grim resolution the country made up its mind to a combat d'outrance, in which, it very soon felt itself to be fighting not only for its own existence but for the liberties of Europe dominated by the will of a military despot.
Fourteen months after the Treaty of Amiens war was once more declared between France and the British Empire, a war in which there was no longer any pretence that France was the champion of liberty, equality, and fraternity; it was a war for the destruction of the British Empire, and its vindictive character was signalised at the outset by the First Consul's decree for the immediate arrest and detention as prisoners of war of all British subjects then travelling in France.
Now there was only one possible method by which Great Britain, single-handed, could strike at France, and that was by crippling her marine and destroying her seaborne commerce. The invasion of France by a British army was unthinkable.
There were two methods by which France with or without allies could seek to strike at Britain, invasion and the destruction of her commerce by its exclusion from Europe. For two years and a half both plans were in operation, until invasion was made once for all impossible by Nelson's last victory of Trafalgar, which therefore terminates the first phase of the war.
But Napoleon had not yet learnt, nor did he ever learn, the inherent futility of attempting to annihilate British commerce without destroying the British naval supremacy; because that supremacy gave her in effect a complete monopoly of the seaborne trade of the world. Europe could not do without goods which could only be brought to her by British ships. Even if European governments were willing, European ports could not be closed so as to block the entry of commodities which Europe could not and would not do without.
The fact had been illustrated during the nine years of the first war, when, as in the Seven Years' War, British commerce had persistently expanded. It was to be proved by demonstration in the second war, when British commerce continued to expand and Europe continued to be flooded with British goods, even after there was scarcely a port on the whole European seaboard which was not theoretically closed to British merchandise.
During the first phase of the war then, while the French control of ports outside the French dominion was limited, it was palpable that British commerce could at the worst be only hampered. The British fleets swept the seas with none to say them nay; and they continued to assert the right of search and the inclusive doctrines as to contraband of war which had been protested against by the Armed Neutrality in 1780 and in 1801 as destructive of the legitimate trade of neutrals. Napoleon's grand object during this time was to effect an invasion of England, and for two years and a half that black shadow hung over the country.
Across the Channel troops were collected, and flotillas were gathered, to be in readiness to embark the troops at a moment's notice and hurl them upon the English shore. The project did not alarm the British Admiralty, which was satisfied that their own dispositions made invasion impossible. The mastery of the sea was secure.
Even if the incredible should occur and for a few days there should be no force in the Channel to repel invasion, so that the French flotillas might succeed in effecting a crossing unmolested, their communications would at once be cut and the invading force would soon find itself helpless.
Napoleon seems to have believed in the possibility of making the army of invasion live upon the invaded country. But England would not have been easily conquered at a blow; for besides the regular troops who were within the four seas and the partly trained militia, vast numbers of the civil population were under arms drilling and training as volunteers, while it does not appear that Napoleon ever had more than a hundred thousand men, if so many, ready for embarkation.
So while there was no little popular alarm, and the coming of "Boney" was awaited with nervous anticipation, the Admiralty were under no apprehensions. The fleet in home waters was a more than sufficient guard.
It was Napoleon's dream that the rest of the British fleet might be enticed away, and that in its absence French fleets might be so combined as to secure the mastery of the Channel at least for a time; but the dream was chimerical, as the event demonstrated. For two years French and British lay facing each other on the Channel watching and waiting before any further attempt could be made to carry out Napoleon's plan, and then it broke down utterly and ruinously.
Within a few months after the declaration of war, an abortive insurrection in Ireland stirred up by the enthusiast, Robert Emmet, was easily suppressed. But the Addington ministry was tottering, and Pitt's resumption of the leadership was imperatively called for. It was his own wish to emphasise the national character of the struggle by forming not a party but a national ministry, which should include both Fox, who had persistently opposed the first war, and Grenville, who had opposed the peace. Fox, although the king flatly refused to admit him to the ministry, urged his own followers to support the Government.
Grenville himself refused to take office, and after all the strength of Pitt's Cabinet lay entirely in Pitt himself. But if his leadership inspired the country with confidence it was nevertheless not to him but to the admirable strategical arrangements for which the chief credit at the finish was due to Lord Barham at the Admiralty, that Great Britain owed her security.
The French ports were blockaded not in the sense that an attempt was made to keep them sealed up, but in the sense that it was hardly possible for any squadron to put to sea without being detected and overpowered; and at the same time there were complete arrangements for a concentration of forces in case any accident should render such a step necessary. Nelson was in charge in the Mediterranean, Admiral Cornwallis, the brother of the Marquess kept watch over Brest; and it was unlikely that a fleet would get out from either Brest or Toulon without being forced to one of the decisive actions which were the constant desire of British admirals.
Napoleon becomes Emperor
Pitt, however, was not satisfied with watching and waiting. As before he bent his efforts to the formation of a new coalition. Almost at the moment of Pitt's return to office, Europe was standing aghast at the murder of the Duc d'Enghien, the representative of the junior branch of the Bourbons, who had been trapped on German soil, carried over the French frontier, and shot after a mock trial by a military commission. Two months after the murder Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor, and the French Republic was at an end, as it had been in fact if not in name ever since Napoleon became First Consul.
The crime excited the deep indignation of the Russian Tsar; while the proclamation of the new Empire was alarming to the head of the historic Holy Roman Empire. The Powers began to arm, though Russia was the only one of them which as yet was thoroughly determined upon war. Napoleon's ambitions were emphasised when the North Italian Republic invited him to become its king and he accepted the invitation. The dependent republics were forced to reorganise themselves at his dictation.
But it was not till April of 1805 that Russia and Great Britain formed a definite league to which Austria was immediately added; while Prussia, which hoped to get Hanover from Napoleon (who had taken possession of it) as a reward of neutrality, still held aloof. On the other hand, Napoleon forced upon Spain a new treaty which placed her fleet at his disposal. To all appearance he paid little attention to the new coalition, but was engaged upon preparing the stroke which was to clear the way for the invasion of England.
The plan was that Admiral Villeneuve should sail from Toulon, pick up Spanish reinforcements, decoy Nelson away to the West Indies and leave him there, and then return to co-operate with the Brest fleet in crushing Cornwallis and clearing the Channel. Villeneuve succeeded in carrying out a part of his programme. He slipped out of Toulon, evaded Nelson, attached a Spanish squadron at Cadiz, and made/ for the West Indies.
Nelson, after starting on a false scent, went in pursuit, leaving Collingwood behind to keep ward over Cadiz. The quarry escaped him, but a swift brig carried warning to England; the Channel fleet was concentrated at the west of the Channel, and Calder was detached from Ferrol with thirteen ships of the line to deal with Villeneuve, who had twenty.
Nelson, meanwhile, was on his way back to join Collingwood's squadron at Cadiz. Calder found Villeneuve off Cape Finisterre and engaged him. The battle itself was not of a decisive character, but was decisive in its effects, since Villeneuve ran for Corunna, and Calder returned to the main fleet, to be court-martialled for having been contented with the capture of two ships.
By this time Nelson had already joined Collingwood; and Napoleon's great naval coup was completely brought to nought. Nelson himself returned home for a few weeks, while Villeneuve gave up all idea of raising the blockade of Brest, and turned his attentions towards Cadiz. Calder's action was fought on July 22nd. On August 15th, Villeneuve sailed from Corunna for Cadiz, and on September 29th Nelson rejoined Collingwood.
Stirred by bitter taunts flung at him by the Emperor, Villeneuve put to sea with thirty-three ships of the line, French and Spanish, and five frigates. Nelson, with twenty-seven ships, caught him on October 21st off Trafalgar between Cadiz and Gibraltar. Kelson was to windward, with a north-west wind to carry him down on the enemy's line, which was heading from south to north.
As at the Nile, he resolved to use his opportunity to annihilate the Franco-Spanish fleet in spite of its superior numbers. The method of the attack was unusual but decisive. Nelson's fleet bore down in two parallel lines, headed by Nelson himself and by Collingwood, almost at right angles to the French line, which was pierced at two points.
The van was cut off and kept out of action, while the centre and rear were shattered by Nelson and Collingwood, every ship being taken or destroyed. Even the van could not escape completely, since four of them were taken besides the eighteen prizes secured in the main action. The victory was absolutely overwhelming. The British supremacy had never in fact been seriously endangered for a moment since the battle of Camperdown; the work had been completed by Nelson in the bay of Aboukir.
Trafalgar made an end of all serious resistance to the British monopoly of the seas. It was the last real naval action of the war, because after it there was no navy to fight. Nevertheless the victory was dearly bought at the price of the death of him who by universal assent is accounted the greatest sea-captain that the world has known. Nelson's career of glory had reached its glorious close.
The triumph of Trafalgar dispersed once for all that shadow of invasion which had hung over England. But Napoleon, the world at large, even perhaps Britain herself, were made blind to its decisiveness by the crushing of the European coalition at Austerlitz. When Villeneuve sailed from Corunna for Cadiz instead of for Brest, the Emperor of the French saw that his dream of an invasion of England had melted into air.
With characteristic promptitude he turned upon the foes who were slowly gathering against him in the east. The Austrians had massed an advance army at Ulm. The Russian armies were still far away. The German principalities which lay between the French frontier and Ulm were already virtually under Napoleon's heel. He poured his armies through their territories, swooped upon Ulm, and compelled the whole Austrian force there to capitulate on the day before Trafalgar was fought.
The way lay open to Vienna, which was soon occupied; but the Russians were now advancing, and the rest of the Austrian army, which had fallen back, moved to join them. On December 2nd, at Austerlitz, Napoleon won what was perhaps the most brilliant of all his victories over the combination of Russians and Austrians.
The Russians retreated; the Austrian resistance was annihilated. Prussia, which had just resolved to join the coalition, returned to its attitude of neutrality, and Napoleon's triumph on the Continent was complete. "Roll up that map of Europe," said Pitt;" it will not be wanted again for ten years."
His own end was very near. On January 23, 1806, three months and two days after Trafalgar, the great English statesman, whose last years had been devoted to the struggle with France, followed to the grave the great English sailor who had struck for Britain the decisive blow in the struggle.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.