'A model officer', from Rowland's caricature, 1796
'A model officer', from Rowland's caricature, 1796

Before the end of 1794 Pichegru had invaded Holland, and had taken possession of the Dutch fleet in the Texel. The stadtholder, William, withdrew to England; the now dominant republican party in Holland, always inclined to France, accepted the French alliance; and Holland was transformed into the Batavian Republic.

In April 1795 Prussia deserted the coalition and made peace with France by the Treaty of Basle; Spain followed suit in June. But neither Austria nor Great Britain would make peace except on condition of the restoration of the Netherlands to Austria. The Austrian generals too met with better success, and Pichegru, dis­satisfied with the order of things in France, was as inactive as he could venture to be.

But the establishment of the Directory at the end of the year gave France a more stable government, and early in 1796 the command of the French armies in the north of Italy was entrusted to Buonaparte, to whose services the Directory were indebted for the successful coup d'etat which had placed them in power.

Buonaparte to the fore
The brilliant campaign of the young general of six-and-twenty made the French complete masters of North Italy before the end of the year, and established Buonaparte's reputation; although the invasion of Austria by co-operating armies under Jourdan and Moreau was foiled by the skill of the Arch­duke Charles, who fell upon Jourdan before a junction could be effected, and crushed him, so that Moreau was also obliged to fall back. On the other hand, the British fleet failed to accomplish anything of importance.

Its energies had been dissipated in the futile seizure of islands, which were perfectly use­less from a military point of view. Admiral Hotham, who held the Mediterranean command, was a hopelessly unenterprising person, who, when he caught a French fleet which he ought to have annihilated, considered that he had "done very well" in capturing a couple of ships, to the intense disgust of Nelson, who was serving under him.

More ominous, however, was the fact that the Dutch fleet was now virtually under French control, though it was not yet able to take the seas; and the further fact that in the late summer Spain entered upon an alliance with the French Republic which, therefore, had three fleets at its disposal. Hotham, in the Mediterranean, was happily displaced by Admiral Jervis; but the alarm created at headquarters by the transfer of an actual preponderance of ships to France caused that great sailor's activities to be crippled by instructions that he was to evacuate the Mediterranean itself.

Nelson arrives on the stage
At the turn of the year, then, the danger was grave. Austria had just failed in one great effort to recover Lombardy, and was preparing another which was to be equally unsuccessful. The Dutch fleet was being made ready in the Texel, and a French fleet was blockaded at Brest; but the Spanish fleet was very much larger than Jervis's squadron at Gibraltar. If that fleet succeeded in evading or overwhelming Jervis, a complete disaster 'might easily result.

In February, however, that particular question was decisively settled. The Spaniards, with twenty-seven sail of the line, sailed from Cartagena for Cadiz. On February 14th, Jervis, cruising off Cape St Vincent with fifteen ships of the line, fell in with them. Ten of the Spaniards were separated from the rest to leeward, and Jervis sailed down to engage the main body. The battle was practically decided by the action of Commodore Nelson, who, supported by two other captains, left the formal line of battle to engage five of the Spaniards which were endeavouring to join the leeward division.

The manoeuvre threw the Spanish line into confusion, and the result was a decisive victory. Although only four of the enemy's ships were taken, the action completely demonstrated the utter inefficiency of the Spanish Navy. It was made evident that this supposed accession of strength to the maritime power of France was illusory. Nelson's manoeuvre was in contravention of orders; nevertheless it won the hearty approval of the admiral, who fully recognised his subordinate's justification. Jervis was rewarded with an earldom and the title of St. Vincent, and Nelson was gazetted Rear-Admiral.

Still the danger was not past. It was manifest that Britain's power and even her existence depended upon the Navy; and in April the fleet at Spithead mutinied. The men's grievances were flagrant and intolerable. They had petitioned for redress and their petitions were ignored. The Spithead mutiny was orderly and well organised.

There was no violence, but the men stood together. The justice of their demands was so conspicuous that all were conceded, including the removal of officers of whose tyranny they complained. The men promptly returned to their obedience, and there appears to be no doubt that they were determined throughout to be perfectly loyal though resolute in insisting on the redress of grievances.

The Nore mutiny
More serious, however, was another mutiny which broke out a month later in the squadron at the Nore. Here the ringleaders were men who had become imbued with the French revolutionary doctrines; and while these had the upper hand the danger was extreme. The mutiny spread through the North Sea fleet, whose duty it was to keep guard over the Dutch fleet in the Texel, which was expected to put to sea immediately.

All but two of the ships deserted and joined the mutineers at the Nore. Still Admiral Duncan with his two ships sailed for the Texel and adopted the rather simple device of signalling to an imaginary fleet in the offing, in order that the Dutch might believe that the British were present in force.

Happily, however, they were not ready to come out. Then the loyal minority began to get the upper hand among the mutineers; one ship after another returned to its obedience, and the ringleaders were handed over to the authorities. The real grievances were remedied, and only eighteen of the worst offenders were put to death, the Government recognising that the men had been led astray and were honestly repentant of their treason.

Meanwhile Buonaparte (or Bonaparte, as he now spelt his name) had been continuing his victorious career, and had extracted from the Austrians at Lobau a provisional agreement which was in effect ratified by the substantive Treaty of Campo Formio in October.

Pitt at this stage was ready to go great lengths to procure a peace. But a change in the per­sonnel of the French Directory confirmed in power the group most hostile to Britain; and the only terms which the French chose to dis­cuss were impossible for British acceptance. Negotiations were broken off, and the Dutch came out of the Texel only to be decisively beaten, in an engagement of the traditional character at Camperdown by Admiral Duncan.

There was no doubt about the spirit of the fleet when it came to actual fighting. Duncan shattered the Dutch fleet, in spite of the enemy's obstinate courage, as Jervis had shattered that of Spain. The great crisis was over, although Great Britain was formally left in complete isolation by the signing of the Treaty of Campo Formio six days after Camperdown.

Some months earlier in the year there had been a serious financial crisis in England. There had been a heavy drain upon the supply of gold in the country, and a run upon the Bank of England was threatened. The crisis was met by an order suspending cash payments, which was confirmed by an Act of Parliament extending it to the close of the war.

The loyalty and confidence of the mercantile community were displayed by its readi­ness to accept the Bank's notes, although they would not be convertible into currency until the war was over; and it is remarkable that even under these conditions the value of the Bank paper was scarcely depreciated.

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.

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