Sunday, 9 March 2008

The battle of Trafalgar

The Invasion Threat
Napoleon’s plan to invade England depended on his gaining temporary command of the Channel, which, he believed, would give him sufficient time to land an army of 350,000 in eastern Kent, which would then go on to occupy London and end the war.

His scheme depended on a concentrated break-out of the French fleets at Toulon and Brest, which would give the slip to the British navy, then in the Mediterranean, and make for the West Indies, picking up on the way Spanish squadrons from Cartagena and Cadiz. (Spain had entered the war on the French side in 1804.) These would be pursued by the British fleet. When the British navy was safely in the West Indies, the Combined [Franco-Spanish] Fleet was to double back, destroy the British near Ushant, off Brittany, and take control of the Channel while it was crossed by the invading army.

However, part of the scheme was foiled from the outset. The British blockade prevented Admiral Ganteaume from leaving Brest. In March Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (left) broke out of Toulon under cover of bad weather, picked up Spanish ships at Cadiz and sailed across the Atlantic. (The news reached Britain at a time when there was no First Lord – hence Middleton’s sudden appointment.) This left Nelson with an agonizing decision. Where had Villeneuve gone? His hunch was that he was planning an attack on Jamaica. But suppose he was wrong and the Channel fleet was lost?
‘If they are not gone to the West Indies, I shall be blamed. To be burned in effigy or Westminster Abbey is my destiny.’
On 7 May Nelson passed Gibraltar. In 24 days he crossed the Atlantic (it had taken Villeneuve 34 days). On his arrival he found Villeneuve had sailed back to Europe. His despatches, sent by fast frigate, warning of Villeneuve’s probable return, were in London almost a fortnight before the French fleet arrived back in European waters. The element of surprise had been lost and the British forces were ranging against him to the northward. On 22 July Calder fought an indecisive battle off Cape Finisterre. The Combined Fleet made port in Cadiz on 21 August, and after this, the invasion scare was effectively over.

Nelson made depositions for the blockade of Cadiz and returned to England to a hero’s welcome. He saw Lady Hamilton and Horatia for the last time. On 4 September Barham drew up a memorandum on what was to be done: Nelson was to cover Gibraltar, Cape St Vincent and Cadiz. On 15 September he sailed from Portsmouth.

The Third Coalition
During 1805 Russia and Austria began to move against France. In April an Anglo-Russian accord bound the two powers to face Napoleon with a demand for French withdrawal from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and Italy. (Ultimately Tsar Alexander wanted the annihilation of the Turkish Empire and for him the alliance with Britain was one of convenience.)

In May Napoleon assumed the crown of Italy and seized Genoa. This proved the last straw for the Austrians, who allied with Britain on 9 August. Having raised income tax by a further 3d in the £, Pitt was making lavish promises to support the military efforts of the European powers. Already, in July, Naples and Sweden were drawn into the Third Coalition and at the War Office Castlereagh, Secretary for War and the Colonies, began to prepare for military intervention on the Continent.

But with the calling off of the invasion of England, Napoleon’s first priority was to destroy the Austrian army. Accordingly he withdrew his troops from Boulogne. By October 100,000 French troops were on the Danube. On 7 October the Austrian general Mack was defeated at Ulm.

On 20 October, obeying unmistakable orders from Napoleon Villeneuve sailed out of Cadiz in order to join the fleet off Naples for a minor engagement. Historians are still debating about why Napoleon gave his unfortunate admiral such a crazy order. On the following day the Combined Fleet was defeated at Trafalgar, an astonishing achievement for Nelson. Turner's version of the battle is left. Go here for the BBC's wonderful account of the battle and related issues.

Here is the line-up of the two fleets. Nelson's controversial tactic was to sail
head-on into the French fleet and take the inevitable punishment until he could get near enough to inflict huge damage on the enemy. It was a tactic that
relied on an extraordinary degree of skill and professionalism.

The death of Nelson (see Arthur William Devis's painting above) was obviously a serious blow, but Admiral Collingwood (left) who succeeded him as commander of the fleet, kept the French fleet in a state of psychological subservience after 1805.

On 5 November news of Nelson’s death reached London. Later in the month, Pitt delivered his speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet. To the Lord Mayor’s toast to the ‘saviour of Europe’ he replied,
‘Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.'
On 9 January 1806 Nelson was given a state funeral of great magnificence – far more than that afforded to any monarch. He had become the national icon.