Pitt in War: Napoleon
1. The Peace of Amiens
By the Peace of Amiens England gave up almost all her conquests. She abandoned Malta and other posts in the Mediterranean. She kept nothing in Africa. In Asia she kept only the Dutch Ceylon; in the West Indies only Trinidad. Further, she abandoned the Bourbons, and recognized the French Republic under its First Consul. And she recognized also many arrangements which Napoleon had made in Italy and Germany.
Yet it was soon clear that the peace could not last. The First Consul—the Emperor, as he soon became—refused a commercial treaty with England. He sent spies to her harbours and agents to Ireland. He plotted against her in India, and led her to believe that he meant to reoccupy Egypt. Further, he increased his power in Europe by acts which she thought dangerous breaches of the recent Treaty, and in reply to her complaints denied her right to interfere in continental matters.
England, though eager for a final peace, was unwilling merely to give France time to strengthen herself for another struggle, and at last refused to leave Malta, as she had promised at Amiens, unless Napoleon gave her satisfaction. So in May, 1803, war began again. This time, for over two years, England fought single-handed, while France soon allied with Spain. And till the battle of Trafalgar one aspect of the struggle stood out above all others—the French scheme of invading England.
2. The Invasion of England
An army of between one and two hundred thousand men gathered at Boulogne. Hundreds of flat-bottomed boats were built to carry it over. And in all the French and Spanish ports Napoleon's fleets waited and watched and plotted how to get out to sea, and there unite to sweep and keep the Channel clear of English ships just for the two, or possibly three, days that would be necessary for the crossing.
But Englishmen were no less busy. At home the coast was dotted with little towers—many of which still remain—manned by small garrisons and mounted with small guns. The great ports were strengthened.
The Thames was fortified. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers were enrolled, among them even Charles James Fox. And the old king himself prepared to lead his troops to battle.
Far more important, however, than all this was the watch that the English navy kept on the ports of France and Spain. For England's first business was to lock the enemies' fleets up in their own harbours; or—if they got out—to meet and beat them separately before they could join forces for their one great effort.
So Cornwallis, with the biggest English fleet, kept the biggest French fleet shut up at Brest; and Nelson, with a smaller force, watched the French ships at Toulon; and between these two points—at Rochefort and Ferrol and Cadiz and Carthagena—other English admirals mounted guard over other fleets of France or Spain.
The watch was long and wearisome, and could not always be maintained. The blockading fleets were exposed to every risk of wind and weather. Sometimes, as at Toulon, they were far from any friendly port where they could be refitted. And at any moment some accident might enable one or other of the imprisoned fleets to escape, and all would then depend on whether the blockading force could catch it and compel a battle.
Early in 1805 the small French squadron at Rochefort did get out and sailed to the West Indies. But through various mischances it returned too soon, having done but little damage, and was promptly blockaded once again. Far more serious was the escape of Admiral Villeneuve from Toulon. It happened when Nelson had to withdraw for a time to make repairs. His look-out ships failed to discover the direction that Villeneuve had taken, and Nelson, fearing for Egypt, hastened eastwards, only to find that no enemy was there.
Meanwhile a storm drove Villeneuve back to port, but once again he came out, and once again, too, Nelson—short, as usual, of frigates—could not learn his course. And this time Villeneuve cleared the Straits of Gibraltar, picked up six Spanish ships at Cadiz, and hastened off to the West Indies to join the Rochefort squadron, which, however, had already left. The Spaniards sailed slowly, and Villeneuve was in a fever of anxiety lest Nelson should catch him before he reached his destination. As it chanced, however, he had almost got there when his intentions were at last discovered. But the moment that Nelson learnt them he started off in hot pursuit. And the moment he was heard of in the West Indies his enemy fled again before him.
So back to Europe came Villeneuve, and back came Nelson after him. And Nelson warned his Government, meantime, by a swift-sailing frigate. So an English fleet met Villeneuve off Cape Finisterre, in North-west Spain. It numbered only fifteen ships to his twenty, yet—even in a dense fog—it took two prizes. Then Villeneuve fled to the safety of the Spanish ports, and soon the Spanish coast saw Nelson once again.
It was clear now that Napoleon's invasion schemes would never really come to anything. So his troops began to march away to Germany, where in a few weeks they did far more than in all the months when they had lain at Boulogne. But the crowning victory of Nelson—the greatest sea-fight in English history—was still to come.
On October 19 Villeneuve left Cadiz with thirty-three ships, intending to make for the Mediterranean. Two days later he encountered Nelson with twenty-seven sail. And with Nelson, as second in command, was Collingwood, who had himself for a while imprisoned Villeneuve's whole force with only three ships, playing that game of signals to imaginary vessels which had served Duncan so well against the Dutch in 1797.
Nelson's mind was made up. He meant not only to defeat his foes, but if possible to destroy them utterly. His captains had known his plans for weeks past, and an indescribable excitement filled the fleet. Each man felt that at last the decisive moment was at hand. Each man believed that he would soon be led by the greatest sailor the world had ever seen to the greatest naval victory of modern times.
Nelson had not, indeed, ships enough to be sure of wiping out the whole Franco-Spanish fleet. Some had had to leave him: others, though expected, had not yet arrived. But he reckoned still on taking or sinking twenty of the enemy. He feared only that something might even now prevent a battle. So he kept most of his own fleet out of sight till Villeneuve had cleared the harbour, lest at the eleventh hour he should draw back and refuse to fight. Even then for two days he watched the French through his frigates before attacking. But at last, at half-past six in the morning on October 21st, he hoisted the signal for battle.
His fleet was formed in two irregular lines. On the right fifteen ships were led by Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign. On the left ten followed Nelson's own flagship, the Victory.
The plan of attack was clear. Villeneuve was sailing northwards again, with his ships close together in a long line, nearly at right angles to the English advance, but with its ends bent outwards towards the foe. Collingwood, with his division, was to break through the French line and destroy its rear. Nelson would break through farther up and attack the centre. He would deal also with the leading ships, which, however, would need time to turn back and join in the fray. And every captain was to do his utmost to destroy every enemy he could see.
With these instructions the English ships began to move. The day was grey and cloudy. Morning mists shrouded the cliffs of Spain and almost hid Cape Trafalgar, from which the battle was to take its name. The sea was rolling in on the shore with a heavy swell, which showed that a great storm was coming. But as yet the winds were so light that even with every sail set the English took over five hours to get within gunshot of the enemy. The whole fleet was full of suppressed excitement, but Nelson himself was calm and confident, and Collingwood dogged and determined.
About eleven o'clock Nelson warned his captains to anchor when the storm came on. A little later he sent up his famous signal: "England expects that every man will do his duty." Then, as—with bands playing on every ship—the fleet drew near its foe, a final message from the admiral ordered the captains to engage at close quarters. And so the battle began.
The Royal Sovereign, leading her division by some distance, received a storm of shot and shell from Villeneuve's ships. But for all answer she headed straight for their line, though no opening appeared by which she could pass through it. At the last moment Collingwood turned from the French ship he had meant to fight to the larger Spanish one ahead of her, and, as the Royal Sovereign sped on, the Frenchman, to avoid a collision, had to swing round and let her through. From the deck of Nelson's ship only the tops of her masts could be seen above a cloud of smoke and flame, but as she pierced the line her broadsides raked the enemy on either side before she turned to fling herself upon the mighty Santa Ana.
Her example was immediately followed by all Collingwood's division, and presently Nelson's ships, too, came into action. Steering as if to attack the French van, the Victory suddenly turned, passed down the enemy's line, broke through it, firing as she went, and fell upon the Redoubtable. The ten ships behind her followed suit, and Villeneuve, in spite of his superior numbers, was hard pressed. His French, and still more his Spanish, crews were indeed disastrously incomplete, and neither officers nor men approached their English foes in seamanship. Yet if they lacked skill they had no lack of spirit, but fought with desperate and determined courage to the last.
About one o'clock, however, the Santa Ana hauled down her flag, and before an hour had passed the Redoubtable yielded to the Victory, and other vessels also surrendered. And, when the French van, joining at last in the fighting, had been beaten off, the battle gradually ceased. Nine French and nine Spanish ships had been taken, and of the rest eight more were shortly wrecked or captured. But many prizes were lost or had to be destroyed, and three were recovered by the French, so that the fighting strength of the English navy was not much increased. Nor was there much rejoicing in England when the victory was known.
For the price paid for it seemed too heavy. That price was the death of Nelson. He had refused to cover the decorations on his coat, which betrayed his rank to the enemy's marksmen, or shift his flag from the Victory to some ship less exposed to their fire. And he fell, mortally wounded, only a few minutes before the Redoubtable surrendered. He lingered for two hours—long enough to learn of his triumph, but also to learn that Collingwood, brave as he was, had not made the triumph as complete as he himself would have done. And then he died.
There were still sea-fights from time to time, and once Napoleon even began again to prepare for an invasion of England; yet Trafalgar was really the last great event in the naval struggle. Henceforward England's supremacy at sea was indisputable.
But meanwhile Napoleon had triumphed once again in Europe. In 1805, for the third time, Austria, Russia, and England had formed a coalition, though Prussia stood aloof. But the very day before Trafalgar Napoleon was victorious at Ulm. Six weeks later he won a second victory at Austerlitz. Before the end of the year Austria made peace. And when Pitt died on January 23, 1806, it was with words of despair on his lips: "My country! how I leave my country!"