Beginnings of the Napoleonic Wars
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
[Ed. Despite the generally accepted title 'Napoleonic Wars' to cover the conflict between France and Britain, when hostilities commenced after the French Revolution Napoleon was an unknown - it was not well into the conflict that Napoleon took power]
War was declared between Great Britain and France on February 1, 1793. This first war was brought to a close by that suspension of hostilities which is called the "Peace of Amiens," in 1802. Primarily it was a war against an aggressive France which, with the cap of Liberty on its head, was reviving the pretensions of the most ambitious and the most absolute of its monarchs to dictate to Europe and to tear up treaties. It could not lose that character while the policy of the French government was persistently aggressive, and it remained aggressive from beginning to end. On the other hand, public opinion supported and urged on the war because public opinion conceived an intense and ineradicable terror, not so much of France as of the French Revolution.
While at first the revolution had excited a considerable amount of sympathy, the proclamation of the republic, the beheading of King Louis, and the subsequent reign of terror in France produced an immense reaction of sentiment, for which the way had been prepared by the eloquent denunciations of Burke, whose prophecies concerning its course were repeatedly justified by literal fulfilment. Those who believed that fundamentally the cause of the Revolution was the cause not of anarchy but of liberty, that the Revolution was driven to its excesses not by its inherent character but because foreign intervention had brought it to bay and forced it to fight savagely for its life persistently denounced the war as essentially unnecessary, unjust, and reactionary; while the country, thoroughly convinced that the Revolution must be fought to the last gasp, regarded them as traitors. Great Britain hitherto far in advance of the rest of Europe in the doctrine and practice of political liberty, was nevertheless the most determined in its resistance to revolutionary France, and the downfall of England became a primary aim of the man who concentrated France in himself.
The course and the meaning of the war will be followed more easily if we have before us a sort of ground plan of controlling events. In the last days of September 1792 France had declated herself a republic. During the next three months the republican government proclaimed itself the enemy of monarchies at large, being already at open war with Austria, Prussia, and Sardinia, because the appropriation of Savoy was a part of the programme of securing the natural boundaries. The French armies, after the turn of the tide at the cannonade of Valmy, made continuous progress.
Committee of Public Safety
At the end of January Louis was guillotined, and immediately afterwards Great Britain was added to the hostile belligerent powers. Until mid-summer there was a struggle for supremacy in the French Assembly between the orthodox literary republicans - the Girondins - and the extremists of the "Mountain." The Girondins were beaten, and the control passed to the body called the Committee of Public Safety, which was composed entirely of extremists, among whom the greatest man, Danton, very soon became a suspect on account of his counsels of comparative moderation. From October 1793 to June 1794 the reign of terror was in full operation, and the tumbrils carried their daily loads of victims to the guillotine, beginning with Marie Antoinette and the leading Girondins.
In course of time the Revolution began to devour its own children; in March the infamous Hebertists were struck down; in April Danton fell; and at last, partly in sheer revulsion from the carnage, partly because every man felt that unless the thing were peremptorily ended the next turn of the wheel might send him to the guillotine, the downfall of Robespierre himself and his principal colleagues was compassed. With their fall at the end of June the terror came to an end. Fifteen months later, in October 1795, the new government was formed, known as the Directory, which lasted till its overthrow at the end of four years, in November 1799, by the coup d'etat of Bonaparte, who established himself as Dictator with the title of First Consul.
It will be seen, then, that the first eighteen months of the war covered the period at which the excesses of the Revolution were at their height, and produced that indelible impression of the atrocities of Jacobinism which made the reaction irresistibly dominant in England. And daring this same period, when, according to all rational calculations, France ought to have been entirely bankrupt, when she should have been utterly prostrated by internal dissensions, when her armies ought to have been practically impossible to levy or, when levied, to lead, she carried on her government, fought with continuous success by land against the gathered armies of more than half Europe, and produced mainly from the lower social ranks generals of the highest ability - who were seldom given the chance of blundering twice, since failure was virtually construed as a proof of treachery to the republic Even before the Directory was established two of France's enemies, Prussia and Spain, had withdrawn from the European coalition; and before the end of 1797 the French victories on the Continent had broken it up altogether and Great Britain was left standing alone.
Now we have seen that to the very last Pitt had continued firmly convinced that the British Empire would remain a neutral spectator of the events on the Continent. Like Walpole, he had believed that the one fundamental necessity for England was peaceful recuperation and commercial development. Like Walpole, he had succeeded in accumulating the sinews of war without making any preparation to carry it on should it be forced upon him. And, like Walpole, when war was forced upon him he did not know how to organise it But, unlike Walpole, when war came he faced it with indomitable resolution, in a high spirit of patriotism which the whole nation caught from him, even as it had been inspired with a like spirit by his father. In Spite of mismanagement, neither Pitt, nor the nation, nor the king ever faltered even in the darkest hours, nor did the king or the nation ever slacken their confidence in "the pilot who weathered the storm."
Pitt's lead was immediately followed by the accession to the coalition of Holland and the Bourbon Powers of Spain and Naples. Virtually it was only the outer ring of the Scandinavian states, Russia and Turkey, with the Venetian Republic and Portugal, which stood aloof. And besides these enemies of France outside there were still royalist centres in the country itself which of necessity distracted a share of the French government's attention. Until the fall of the Girondins in summer, there was a check to the successes of the French arms which had been so marked during the winter.
But from the time when Carnot on the Committee of Public Safety devoted himself to the military administration, he earned his title of "Organiser of Victory." The royalist insurrection in La Vendee was crushed. The Prussians and the Austrian and British armies in the Netherlands, after capturing Valenciennes and Mainz, failed to co-operate for an effective invasion and wasted their opportunities. In the South the royalists at Toulon, sheltered by the guns of a British squadron under Admiral Hood, defied the besieging forces of the republic until the geriius of a young artillery officer, Napoleon Buonaparte, devised and executed a movement which made resistance hopeless.
The royalists were taken on board the British ships, and Toulon was abandoned to the republicans. The attacks of Sardinia on the southeast, and of Spain on the south-west, were repulsed and followed by counter attack. Austria and Prussia quarrelled over the partition of Poland, instead of devoting their attention to the French war; and along the line of the Rhine and in the Netherlands the French, under the command of Jourdan, Hoche, and Pichegru, once more drove back the hostile armies.
Nor did any better success attend the arms of the coalition in 1794. Prussia, already threatening to withdraw, was only prevented from doing so by a treaty with Great Britain, which paid her a large subsidy for the maintenance of sixty thousand men; and then the Prussian army remained persistently inactive, because the whole real interest of the Prussian government was concentrated upon Poland. Before the end of the year the British had been driven back out of the Netherlands into Holland, and the whole of the Austrian and Prussian forces were on the further side of the Rhine; while the French were making progress on the Italian side of the Alps and the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. In one field alone were the allies successful. Britain had fully recovered her naval ascendency, although she made nothing like a full use of it because of the lack of direction at headquarters.
There was no organised strategical plan. Nevertheless the republican government had too much to do on land to organise fleets which could hold their own against such a commander as Lord Howe, whose victory off Ushant on the 1st of June was the only relieving event of the year. The French fleet was conducting a convoy of corn-ships to Brest, when Howe caught it and shattered it, though the corn-ships made their escape.
British self-respect was saved by Lord Howe's victory, for the British performances on land were far from creditable. The Navy preserved the great tradition which made it possible, if difficult, for capacity and merit to win recognition even in the absence of any very marked aristocratic connection. But commands in the Army were still an aristocratic preserve in which connection outweighed demerit As a matter of course the chief command was given to the king's second son, the Duke of York, who, at the head of an army, was thoroughly inefficient, although when he was transferred to the administrative control he did very much better work. But the fact remained that he was wholly unfitted to cope with generals of the order of Jourdan or Pichegru. His incapacity was not redeemed by any efficiency in his subordinates, still less in the wholly incompetent military administration at home.