Pitt in War: The French Revolution
1. Prophets of Good and Evil
In 1789 news reached England that the French nation had risen at last against the despotism of its kings, and was building up a constitutional government on the English plan. The tidings were not unwelcome. Englishmen had long thought the Frenchman in his wooden shoes the best example of miserable slavery. One of the greatest difficulties in Walpole's Excise scheme was that there was an Excise in France. "No Slavery! No Excise! No Wooden Shoes!" cried his opponents, and the cry was worth more than any sensible argument. So English friends of liberty—especially Fox and the famous poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey—rejoiced at the news that the slaves had at last determined to be free.
Further, England herself had had a revolution just a hundred years before, and Englishmen who believed that France was simply following their example were naturally flattered as well as interested. Some, too, sympathized doubly with the French Revolutionists because they themselves had grievances, such as being refused a share in the government because they were not landowners or did not belong to the National Church.
Such men even hoped in some ways to imitate the French. Societies like "The Corresponding Society" and "The Friends of the People" were established to push on reform in England, and sent messengers to express their friendliness to the National Assembly sitting in Paris. Meanwhile English statesmen like Pitt hoped that if the Bourbon kings of France became less powerful she would be less hostile to England, less ready to help the Bourbon kings of Spain in every quarrel. At least, they thought, a France busied with revolution at home could have no leisure for mischief-making abroad.
But presently the violent doings in France—the sweeping changes, the brutal massacres—roused first misgivings and then wild anger and alarm. And Burke, the champion of the American rebellion, himself led the attack on the French movement. His famous "Reflections on the French Revolution" appeared late in 1790. The French, he cried, were struggling not for liberty but for licence. If left alone they would destroy alike government and order, property and religion, first at home and then in other countries. This teaching was instantly and widely accepted. The King urged "every gentleman" to read the book. The Church, for the most part, echoed Burke's words. So did the majority of the upper classes. Merchants and manufacturers felt their commercial interests threatened. Even the great mass of shopkeepers and working men shared in the general alarm.
The answers to Burke's book increased rather than decreased its influence. For moderate replies made no impression, and violent replies only seemed to show how true were his warnings of the dangerous spirit that was abroad. And when the French began to slay their nobles, when they imprisoned, deposed, and finally executed their king, when London was filled with men of high birth, and once of great wealth, reduced to abject poverty and fleeing for their lives from their own countrymen, then Burke gained all the prestige of a successful prophet.
2. Panic and War
The effect was immense. Enemies of reform in England became doubly hostile. Moderate reformers hung back. Extreme reformers were tempted to a violence in speech, if not in action, which only strengthened the ill-feeling against them. Suspicion filled the air. Secret committees of Parliament declared that conspiracies were hatching to overthrow the Government. Spies of the ministry watched and hunted for signs of evil. Exaggerated tales of treason and plot were busily circulated and readily believed. Burke himself hurled a dagger on to the floor of the House of Commons, crying that three thousand such weapons had been ordered from Birmingham by English revolutionaries. Even Pitt yielded to the panic.
He gave up all thought of Parliamentary reform, declaring that the time was now unsuitable. He passed harsh laws to control public meetings, to check the change freedom of the Press, to suppress sedition at home, to prevent communications with the revolutionaries abroad. Foreigners in the British Isles were placed under the closest observation. Many of George III's own subjects—not real traitors, but the mildest advocates of change—were brought to trial, and, in Scotland especially, punished with extreme severity.
In all this Pitt was supported by the great bulk of the panic-stricken nation. Fox and his followers, indeed, still applauded the French, and denounced Pitt's doings as tyrannical. But Fox's followers were few, and growing ever fewer. Most of the Whigs presently joined Pitt, and some of their leaders even entered his Cabinet. But this was due not merely to the fear of possible revolution but also to the immediate danger caused by actual war with France.
Pitt had avoided war till it was thrust upon him. He said that England had no business to meddle with the domestic affairs of France. He knew that his reforms must cease if war broke out. So he would not give either money or men to either party in the struggle. Nor would he join the kings and emperors of Europe in the war by which they meant to save the lives of Louis XVI and his beautiful Queen, Marie Antoinette, but which in fact only hastened their destruction.
But presently the rising anger of King and Court and Church and Country became too strong for Pitt to stand against. France, too, by publicly offering to help any people which rose against its Government, declared herself the foe of every throne in Europe. And at last England found herself forced to choose between war and a breach of treaties that Pitt himself had made.
Late in 1792 the French, hitherto, defeated the Austrians and Russians in Belgium. The victory roused in revolutionary France the same ambitions that her Bourbon kings had so long cherished and England had so long resisted. Belgium was occupied by French troops. A French invasion of Holland—the other part of the Netherlands—was planned. And the River Scheldt was declared to be, "by natural right," open to trade of every nation.
But England had always insisted that the Netherlands must be independent of France. Pitt himself had made a treaty promising help to Holland if she was attacked. And, whatever "natural right" might say, England was bound by other treaties to keep the Scheldt shut against the trade of all nations except the Dutch. Thus war could hardly be avoided. And day by day ill-feeling between France and England grew. The French envoy in London meddled in English politics. England refused to treat the French Republic as a lawful Government. The French executed their king. England dismissed the French envoy. And at last, on February 1, 1793, France declared war on both England and Holland.
3. Faithlessness and Failure
The war thus begun lasted till 1801. At first England joined with the other Powers in the "First Coalition," or alliance; then she was left to fight alone; then the "Second Coalition" was formed, but lasted even a shorter time than the first; and then came the Peace of Amiens, which was really simply a truce. In 1793 England and Austria, Russia, Prussia, Portugal, Spain, and certain smaller States agreed to restore the Bourbon family to the throne of France, and take for themselves some of her possessions. England was to supply troops and ships, but, above all, money to pay the armies of her allies.
The Coalition, however, failed completely. The chief continental Powers feared and suspected one another. Also, they were too busy plotting a partition of Poland to give proper attention to the war. Prussia soon made peace with France—Spain actually allied with her. And at last England was left alone.
She had not herself done very well. Her army, neglected during the ten years of peace, lacked numbers, equipment, and organization. But above all it lacked proper direction. Good generals and good troops were simply wasted through the incompetence of Pitt's War Minister.
The English forces, instead of being massed together for one great enterprise, were scattered in all directions. Some went to the Netherlands. Some helped French Royalists in raids upon the coasts of France. Some seized ports or islands in the Mediterranean. Some attacked the colonies of France and her allies.
And almost every venture failed at last. The French conquered Holland. The Royalist raids ended in disaster. The captured places in the Mediterranean were all abandoned. Even victories in the West Indies were won only at a vast expense of blood and money. The very navy itself was unsatisfactory. Lord Howe, whom Nelson thought "the first and greatest sea officer that the world had produced," was old and worn, and his victory over the French on "The Glorious First of June" in 1794 was incomplete. And smaller men thought they had "done very well" if they just took a ship or two from an enemy of equal or even lesser strength.
In every way the war was bitterly disappointing. Englishmen—even Pitt—had expected a short struggle and an easy victory. How, indeed, could France, torn by internal strife, and almost bankrupt, resist a coalition of almost all the Powers of Europe? Yet, after four years of fighting, France seemed only stronger, the Coalition had vanished, and England herself was threatened with invasion.
Indeed, in 1797 England was in greater danger than she had known since the coming of the Armada two centuries before. She stood alone against a triumphant France, backed now by the fleets of Spain and Holland. A French expedition to Ireland early in the year failed more through bad weather than through the vigour of the English navy. A French expedition to Wales, in February, actually landed, though the troops were few and their courage small, and it was said that they were induced to surrender through taking Welsh peasant women in their scarlet cloaks for red-coated soldiers. And for months afterwards a Dutch fleet waited only for a good opportunity to make a much more important invasion of England itself.
4. The Darkest Hour
Meanwhile at home there was not only discontent but most serious danger. Disappointment and disgust with the war were widespread. Bad harvests, and the risks of capture at sea, made food supplies scanty and prices high. Money became so scarce that a special law was passed allowing the Bank of England to pay its debts in bank-notes instead of coin. Taxes were ruinously heavy; yet the Government had to ask for voluntary gifts as well to meet the cost of war. There were riots in England. Ireland was on the eve of a terrible rebellion. And, to crown all, most of the navy, on which England, thus distracted at home, depended for protection against danger from abroad, was suddenly rendered useless by mutiny.
Bad management and ill-treatment of the sailors were chiefly to blame. Pay in the navy was miserably low; food was bad; discipline was harsh and even brutal. In April the fleet at Spithead mutinied and demanded reforms. When these were granted the sailors at once returned to duty, but within a week there was a worse outbreak at the Nore, and most of the fleet that was watching the Dutch coast joined in it. Here some demands were made which could not be admitted; the spirit of the mutineers, too, was more dangerous than at Spithead; and it was only with much difficulty that mingled tact and firmness at last restored order and brought the chief offenders to justice.
Yet, in spite of all its troubles, 1797 is one of the most famous years in British annals. For in 1797 two great sea victories were won, and in the first of them the finest sailor known to history began his career of triumph.
It was on February 14th, St. Valentine's Day, that twenty-seven Spanish men-of-war fell in with fifteen English ships off Cape St. Vincent, on the south-west coast of Spain. The Spaniards were enormously superior in numbers, but the English at least as much so in quality. Further, the English admiral was no slack or half-hearted fighter, but the famous Sir John Jervis, who this day earned the title of Earl St. Vincent. And Jervis's second in command was Nelson.
With such a chief and such a lieutenant a desperate battle was a certainty. Jervis would never let the Spaniards slip past him to join the French at Brest. And neither he nor Nelson would rest content with "doing very well" if there was any chance of doing better.
So the long Spanish line was cut in two, and the British attack directed mainly on its rear. And while four ships were taken—two by Nelson—the rest were driven to shelter in Cadiz, there to be closely watched by British cruisers.
The second victory was won in the autumn, when the Dutch fleet at last came out of harbour. All through the Admiral Duncan had watched them, even when only one ship besides his own stuck to her post. By a daring trick he hid his weakness from his enemies, for every day he signalled to an imaginary fleet, which they naturally believed to be within hail of him, though out of sight of the shore.
And now, when the Dutch, with sixteen sail to his fifteen, at last appeared, he gave hot chase. They fled to shallow water, where his ships might only too easily run aground. But Duncan was no more ready to lose his prey through over-caution than Hawke had been in the storm at Quiberon Bay in 1759. He forced the foe to fight off Camperdown; he broke through their line and, like Jervis at St. Vincent, concentrated his attack on one part of it; and, after a tremendous struggle, he captured half their ships.
These victories kept up the spirit of the nation. And the very fact that England was now fighting for her own safety, rather than the cause of the Bourbons, enormously strengthened the hands of the English Government. Few Englishmen—whatever they had once thought about the justice of the war—could wish a French invasion to be successful. And next year the prospect brightened.
5. Nelson and the Nile
The English fleet now reappeared in the Mediterranean. Napoleon Bonaparte, the commander of the "Army of England," had determined, before attempting to cross the Channel, to seize Egypt, and thence threaten the English power in India. Pitt heard of his preparations in the ports of France, but was uncertain of their object, and this Nelson was sent to discover.
But Nelson had few of the quick-sailing frigates which then—like cruisers nowadays—formed the eyes of a fleet. So he missed Napoleon's armada again and again. He reached Toulon when it had left. He passed it unconsciously in the Mediterranean, and reached Egypt just two days too soon. Then he imagined it must have gone to Syria, and, flying thither, he was away when Napoleon arrived, landed his troops, and defeated the Turkish armies.
But at last, on August 1st, Nelson, returning to Egypt, found a line of thirteen French ships riding quietly at anchor in Aboukir Bay. The night was coming on, and there seemed scarcely room to sail between the French fleet and the shore. But Nelson showed no hesitation. He divided his forces so as to pass down both sides of the enemy's line at once, and thus expose it to a double fire. And, though a wound disabled him before the battle ended, only two French battleships and two French frigates escaped immediate capture or destruction.
This "Battle of the Nile" shut Bonaparte up in Egypt. It also led Austria, Russia, Turkey, and Naples to join England in the Second Coalition. Once again the Allies agreed to restore the Bourbons and recover the lands which France had conquered. And for a time in Italy and Germany they carried all before them.
But once again, too, an English expedition to the Netherlands ended in failure. Nelson wasted time and lost honour at the corrupt Court of Naples. The English commanders in the Mediterranean grew slack. And, helped by this, Napoleon slipped back to France, overthrew the Government, made himself supreme ruler, with the title of First Consul (like the magistrates of Republican Rome), and then defeated the victorious Austrians.
The results were disastrous to England. The Second Coalition dissolved at once. Russia, Austria, and Naples made peace with France. And, at Napoleon's suggestion, the Northern Powers formed—as in 1780—an "Armed Neutrality" to resist the high-handed methods of England on the sea. England's only consolations were victories in Egypt, which the French were forced to leave, and the Battle of Copenhagen, on April 2, 1801.
At Copenhagen Sir Hyde Parker was in supreme command, but Nelson—now returned from Naples—fought and won the battle. His business was to take or destroy a Danish fleet protected by powerful batteries on shore. The water was shallow, and three of his ships ran aground.
The Danes fought with the utmost vigour. So great seemed the danger that, in the middle of the battle, Parker signalled to Nelson to retreat.
But Nelson, putting his telescope to his eye, declared that he could see no signal, and went on fighting. He spoke the truth—for the eye in question was his blind one. And he won a victory. The Danes surrendered their fleet. If Nelson had had his way the Russian fleet would have been captured also, but he was not allowed to attack it. Presently, however, the death of the Russian Emperor brought the Armed Neutrality to an end. And now, at last, England and France made peace at Amiens and it was hoped that the long and exhausting struggle was really over.