In May 1803, the whale went to war with the elephant. Possessed of the most powerful navy in the world, Britain stood supreme at sea, but on land she was a comparative weakling capable of fielding only puny expeditionary forces of a few thousand men, drawn from an army that had in the 1790s been notorious for the poverty of its human and material resources. With France, however, the picture was completely reversed. Though by no means the invincible force of legend, the French army was an impressive military machine with many victories to its credit, whereas the French navy was in a truly pitiable condition and virtually incapable of putting to sea. How the two belligerents were to strike at one another was therefore most unclear. Particularly outside Europe, ways were naturally found of doing so, but in the end the resolution of the struggle would necessarily revolve around one issue and one issue alone. To overcome France, Britain had to put together a continental coalition that could overthrow Napoleon or, at the very least, bring him to the peace table, while to defeat Britain Napoleon had to frustrate these aims and mobilize a substantial part of Europe against London. Even then victory was not guaranteed for either side. As the events of 1805 would show, for example, such were France’s advantages on land that even the most powerful coalition was not necessarily proof against her, but in the short term the international relations of the war could be said to boil down to a contest for the support of Austria, Russia and Prussia. Meanwhile, the fact that there was such a contest is significant. With hindsight, it is possible to argue that it was a struggle that the French were always likely to lose, but the key issue here was not some irreconcilable fracture in European diplomacy but rather the tensions encapsulated by the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. In Europe was not divided ipso facto between the ancien régime and some new and deadly ideological rival. On the contrary, traditional foreign policy interests had survived unchanged, while overtly political considerations were very much in abeyance, and all the more so as Napoleon initially appeared as just one more player of the diplomatic game and, secondly, very much in retreat from the Revolution.
The general view of Napoleon in the capitals of Europe has already been examined. However, the absence of any real ideological hostility towards him was not the only reason why the French seemed to have some chance of winning the race to build an overwhelming coalition. Setting aside the fact that Spain, the Batavian Republic, the Cisalpine Republic, the Helvetic Confederation and the south German states were all highly vulnerable to French pressure, if not actually pro-French, the British were hampered in their search for allies by a whole range of factors. Not the least of these was the influence of French propaganda. Even before hostilities had resumed, it had been a standard line in France that the chief culprit for Europe’s misfortunes was British greed and ambition, and this message now became one of the central rallying cries of the French war effort. Hardly had Napoleon marched against Austria in September 1805 than he was denouncing the Third Coalition as ‘this new league woven by the hatred and gold of England’, and threatening the destruction of ‘the Russian army which the gold of England has transported from the extremities of the universe’.1 As Madame de Staël recalled, ‘The official gazettes were ordered to insult the English nation and its government. Every day absurd descriptions, such as “perfidious islanders” and “greedy merchants”, were repeated in the papers without cease . . . In some articles the authors went back to William the Conqueror and described the battle of Hastings as a revolt.’2 In taking this line Napoleon was helped by the simple fact that there was no love lost for Britain on the Continent. One of the chief difficulties faced by London in 1803 was its distinctly unimpressive war record: on land the British army had hardly a victory to its credit, while at sea its ships had won only four major victories - victories, what is more, that seemed to have more to do with enshrining Britain’s commercial monopoly than they did with defeating the French. As late as the Waterloo campaign of 1815, bitter distrust of Britain continued to be rampant, and this despite all Wellington’s victories in Spain and Portugal. In 1803, however, there was no Salamanca or Vittoria to draw upon. Indeed, the British army was at that point a force of little or no account in terms of continental warfare. There had been some minor successes in the campaign of 1793-5 in the Low Countries, and then again in the invasion of Holland in 1799, but the British had never put sufficient troops into the field to have a major impact, and in both 1793 and 1799 operations had concluded in retreat and evacuation. However, what stuck most in the craw of foreign observers was not so much that the British army had failed to distinguish itself in the European campaigns in which it had served, but rather that Britain’s commitment to the fighting beyond the frontiers of Europe had the appearance of being of an entirely different order. In the fighting in Holland, Belgium and Flanders, there was nothing to equal, say, the triumphant battle of Alexandria, nor, still less, the energy and enterprise which was displayed in seizing colony after colony in the West Indies. Equally, British troops were always in short supply in Europe, but always seemed to be available in abundance when it came to dispatching expeditions to the colonies: in the whole of 1793 less than 4,000 redcoats appeared in the Low Countries, whereas in September 1795 alone 33,000 men set off for the Caribbean. If there was a general feeling that London was completely unreliable as an ally, that it was in fact quite willing to let everybody else do all the fighting, it was therefore hardly surprising.
Let us examine this problem in more detail. Barely a single one of the powers who had fought alongside Britain in the 1790s had much reason to applaud her conduct. As a case in point, we may first turn to Spain. At war with France between 1793 and 1795, in 1796 she had changed sides. In doing so she was in one sense only reverting to the anti-British stance that had characterized her foreign policy throughout the eighteenth century. Yet it was also connected with a more recent series of complaints. For example, the Jay Treaty with the United States of 19 September 1794 had seriously jeopardized Spain’s interests in Louisiana, while the British had failed to send Spain financial help and could be accused of having abandoned the Spanish forces that had been sent to assist in the defence of Toulon in 1793. At the same time the British had seized goods bound for Spain in neutral ships - they did not even draw the line at naval stores paid for by the Spanish government - and plied a lively smuggling trade on the coasts of both Spain and her American colonies. In the words of the royal favourite, Manuel de Godoy, British policy was all too easy to interpret: ‘Britain first, Britain second, Britain third and Britain always. As for everybody else, they could have the crumbs and the left-overs.’3
Austria, meanwhile, had even more to complain of. Throughout the Wars of the First and Second Coalition Britain had in effect expected Austria to fight for British interests in the Low Countries for nothing. No subsidies were ever forthcoming for Vienna, nor any guarantees respecting Prussian and Russian gains in the east, and Francis’s attempts to rid himself of the troublesome Austrian Netherlands by means of the so-called Bavarian exchange were consistently blocked. Indeed, far from getting anything herself, Austria found herself constantly being badgered to put still more into the allied cause in an attempt to get unreliable partners to fight harder, while at the same time being forced to watch Prussia being given a free hand in Poland and being paid large sums of money in exchange for doing almost nothing. Not until May 1795 was Austria finally offered a formal deal. In exchange for a loan of £4 6 million, whose terms, incidentally, were extremely demanding, she was to keep 170,000 men deployed against France. A second loan of £1 62 million was forthcoming in 1797, but this was still less than generous when set beside the terms that had been offered Prussia, which amounted to a subsidy of £1 6 million a year, with an additional £2 million in results-based bonuses, in exchange for an army of a mere 62,000 men. In addition, Vienna still could not get London to recognize its interests in Eastern Europe where the British were now chiefly interested in a deal with Russia, while insult was added to injury when in 1796 Pitt opened peace overtures with France without even consulting the Austrians. Nor did matters improve with the coming of the Second Coalition: Austria once again received no subsidy. She was expected to commit all her forces to the war, abandon all say in the Allies’ war aims and conduct of operations, and see both Russia and, still more annoyingly, Prussia offered the most generous of terms. At this, even observers connected to the British government expressed embarrassment. As William Windham confided to his diary on 8 November 1799, ‘Messenger from Vienna. Long report of a conversation with Thugut in which Thugut presses against us some facts in our conduct . . . which it does not seem easy to answer. One sees . . . that much of their conduct arises from the suspicion, not very ill founded, of our attempting with the aid of Russia to forcer la main à l’empereur.’4 To make matters worse, the British approach rested on a fundamental miscalculation of the assistance likely to be derived from the eastern powers. In the end, Prussian help could not be obtained at all nor Russian help retained, and in it finally looked as if Britain would have no option but to back Vienna to the hilt. The Austrian defeat at Marengo notwithstanding, on 23 June the British ambassador to Vienna, Lord Minto, signed a pact whereby Britain promised to pay Austria a subsidy of £2 million. Even then, however, only the first instalment - one third of the money - was authorized for payment immediately, the remainder being kept back for payment in two further tranches in September and December. No wonder, then, that Thugut responded to the news of the subsidy with ‘the greatest possible coldness in language and manner’.5
Underlying all this is a point that is well worth making when one considers Britain’s reputation in Europe in 1803. French propaganda, as we have seen, attributed all Europe’s travails since 1972 to ‘Pitt’s gold’. In reality, British foreign policy in the 1790s had not revolved around subsidies. They had been paid, certainly: between 1793 and 1802 £9 200,989 had gone in subsidies to eleven different states. But this was as nothing to the sums that were later disbursed: in 1812 the total was £4,441,963; in 1813, £5,308,679; and in 1814, £10,016,597. The fact is that in the Revolutionary War the British only used subsidies relatively sparingly, if only because, until Pitt’s reforms began to take effect from 1799 onwards, the British government simply could not afford to pay the massive bribes of legend. As the war was initially paid for in large part by increasing the national debt, there was a natural unwillingness to spend more money than was absolutely necessary, while the Bank of England was convinced that paper bills could not be issued unless their sum total was covered by the country’s reserves of bullion. Indeed, even as it was, London sometimes experienced considerable difficulty in meeting its commitments, as in 1800 when a financial crisis in Germany caused a sudden fall in the value of British bills of exchange. Had several major powers ever needed paying at the same time, it is probable that the money would simply have run out. By the time that the Napoleonic Wars had broken out, of course, things were very different. The great increase in taxation overseen by Pitt and the abolition of the rule laying down that all paper money should be redeemable in gold had ended many of the constraints under which the governments of the s had been operating. This allowed for a massive change in British policy that would see money offered to anyone who would fight the French. But in May 1803 this change had yet to be vouchsafed to Britain’s potential partners, and such was the distrust of London that, as we shall see, even when the new largesse began to be revealed, continental attitudes were slow to change.
In financial as much as military terms, then, there was considerable reason to question British commitment to the war. Further strength was lent to France’s propaganda claims by the impact of Britain’s activities in the colonies and on the high seas. For statesmen such as Dundas, every sugar island that was filched, every merchantman that was seized and every port that was blockaded was a blow against France’s power, and, in particular, her ability to finance her war effort. But for inhabitants of the Continent with interests in the colonial trade - and this numbered not just Frenchmen, but also Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutchmen, Germans, Danes and Swedes - there was a different side to the story. Overseas trade did not cease altogether: neutral ships continued to ply the waves and a degree of indirect contact with the colonies was maintained through a variety of shifts and subterfuges. Yet the French Revolutionary Wars had none the less wrought considerable havoc. The Batavian Republic offers a good example. Here distress was very great. Between 1785 and 1789 an average of 324 ships were entering the river Maas every year, whereas in 1799 only ninety-five vessels appeared. The ports, then, were very quiet, whilst a similar fate befell the many industries that in one way or another served maritime interests. For example, West Zaandam had seven shipyards and ninety sawmills in the s, whereas in1800 it had just one of the former and seven of the latter. Fishing, too, suffered terribly: between 1793 and 1795 the villages of Middelharnis, Vlaardingen and Maasluis lost two-thirds of their vessels. As a result poverty soared: by October 1800 one third of the population of Amsterdam were in receipt of poor relief while in Vlaardingen the proportion was one half. The problems of the Batavian Republic were particularly severe: the Dutch economy was disrupted not just by the decline in shipping, but also difficulties with the import of such items as Belgian coal and German pipe-clay. However, even neutral states were not immune to the difficulties that beset Europe’s coasts. As the British envoy to Prussia reported to Lord Grenville, for example, ‘The towns want maritime trade and manufacturers.’6 All this was particularly unfortunate for Britain. It laid her wide open, of course, to France’s charges that she was only fighting the war to beggar her commercial rivals, and all the more so as her own ports were clearly booming - between 1785 and 1800 the value of the West Indian trade rose by 150 per cent, whilst the war years had seen the number of British merchantmen rise from 15,000 to 18,000 . And, despite the retreat at Amiens, the fact was that the British Empire had seen significant gains thanks to the wars of the 1790s, most notably Spanish Trinidad and Dutch Ceylon. If French propagandists who argued that all that interested the British was the enslavement of the rest of the world gained a certain audience in Europe, it was not to be wondered at.
In this struggle for public opinion, it has to be said that the British were in many respects their own worst enemies. Unlike most states in Europe, Britain - or, more specifically, England - had already developed a strong national consciousness with a vibrant popular content. Inherent to this national consciousness was a sense of superiority that can at best be described as being intolerably smug. Buttressed by Protestantism and a variety of historical events that had achieved a mythic status in the public consciousness - the Reformation, the defeat of the Spanish armada, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and, most recently, the final overthrow of the Jacobite cause - the British felt that they were more prosperous, more advanced and more free than any other people in Europe. Mixed in with this was a racism that shines forth very clearly from, say, Gillray’s cartoons depicting a bluff and hearty John Bull defying a weedy and pasty-faced Napoleon. Frenchmen, Germans and other continentals did not find Britain a comfortable environment, and the Englishman abroad was no more popular than he is today. Here are the words of Joseph Sherer, an officer who served in the Peninsular War under Wellington and was markedly more reflective than many of his comrades:
The English . . . cannot make themselves beloved. They are not content with being great; they must be thought so and told so. They will not bend with good humour to the customs of other nations, nor will they condescend to soothe (flatter they never do) the harmless self-love of friendly foreigners. No: wherever they march or travel, they bear with them a haughty air of conscious superiority, and expect that their customs, habits and opinions should supersede, or at least suspend, those of all the countries through which they pass.7
Sherer’s remarks are reflected all too clearly in the primary sources. Memoir after memoir makes it quite clear that there was tremendous prejudice towards all foreigners and in particular Catholic foreigners. To cite an anonymous officer of the Guards’ recollections of the Spaniards:
When roused to energy, they may be induced to act, but, with pompous promises and grandiloquent phrases, postponement and the fear of troubling, their lazy intellects predominated. It was always mañana, but never today with them. To put off everything seemed looked upon as the acme of all that was clever, and never to do that which another could do for them was the perfection of dexterity. Their whole mind, in short, seemed bent upon doing nothing and - they did it.8
The same theme surfaces again and again in other contexts. It is particularly prevalent in accounts of the campaign of Waterloo, one British soldier writing, ‘Had the number of troops which Wellington commanded all been British, the contest would not have lasted so long, nor would the French have left the field with so large a fragment as did escape the army. But he had to trust to the Belgians and others in places where they very early in the day showed the seam of their stocking to the enemy.’9 So marked was this sense of superiority, that there is a tendency almost towards messianism, a common belief that poor, benighted foreigners of one description or another would make excellent soldiers if only they were given British officers.
What impact did this mixture of jeers, smears and condescension have on inter-allied relations? It is difficult to believe that the scorn and contempt in which many British generals and diplomats held the rulers, statesmen and commanders whom they encountered was not perceived in at least some of the corridors of power. Here, for example, is the opinion to which Lord Minto gave voice on the subject of General Suvorov in a private letter to his wife written in Prague on 3 January 1800:
I am here to see Suvorov on business, and am not sorry for the opportunity of seeing one of whom one has heard so much and such extraordinary things. Indeed, it is impossible to say how extraordinary he is. There is but one word that can really express it. I must not on any account be quoted, but he is the most perfect Bedlamite that ever was allowed to be at large. I never saw anything so stark mad and, as it appears to me, so contemptible in every respect. To give you some little notion of his manners, I went by appointment to pay my first visit . . . After waiting a good while in an ante-chamber with some aides de camp, a door opened and a little old shrivelled creature in a pair of red breeches and his shirt for all clothing, bustled up to me, took me in his arms, and . . . made me a string of high-flown flummery compliments which he concluded by kissing me on both cheeks, and I am told that I was in luck that my mouth escaped. His shirt . . . was made of materials, and of a fashion, and was about as clean and white, as you may have seen on some labourers at home.10
And, to cite a second instance, we have a private letter written on 16 November of the same year by William Windham:
The aspect of affairs is not good . . . one emperor mad, another weak and pusillanimous; the King of Prussia governed by narrow, selfish and shortsighted counsels; no vigour, no energy, no greatness of plan but in the French, and they accordingly govern everything. Nothing is so clear to me as that a small portion of the soul of Mr Burke . . . would have rescued the world from this fate long ago.11
Britain’s representatives abroad were men of culture and breeding who were not generally in the habit of behaving with overt discourtesy (though if the admittedly hostile Lord Holland is to be believed, William Windham opened his career as British envoy to Tuscany ‘by horse-whipping in the public drive . . . M. Carletti, the chamberlain and favourite of the Grand Duke’).12 None the less it is clear that their prejudice towards the products of the ‘decayed’ absolutism of the eighteenth century could not be hidden. With the British throne currently in the hands of the increasingly erratic George III and all too soon set to pass into the hands of his drunken eldest son, however, such arrogance was hard to accept. As Charles James Fox remarked of the constant abuse of Bonaparte, ‘They should not throw stones whose houses are made of glass. The “crazy king, old mad George” would be just as polite, and, as wicked persons would say, rather better founded.’13 The British officer who wrote of ‘the sovereigns of Russia, Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Württemberg and a host of petty German powers’ becoming ‘wonderfully courageous and enthusiastically devoted to England a few hours after the battle of Waterloo’ was exaggerating.14 Yet it is clear that forging a great international coalition was always going to be an uphill struggle for the British. And if Britain frequently had as much to complain of in the conduct of Austria and her other allies as they did in the actions of the court of St James, it can only be observed that this misses the point: as matters stood in 1803, it really seemed that Britain needed Austria, Russia and Prussia far more than they needed her. In addition, when war broke out again it is important to remember that it was the British who had in the end provoked the crisis and Napoleon who could present himself as the injured party. Reinforced by the immediate publication by Paris of copious documentation which stressed the importance of Malta as Britain’s casus belli to the exclusion of everything else, there was therefore a belief that the mainspring of everything was British imperialism. Typical enough are the views of the Neapolitan commander, Roger de Damas:
England’s one desire . . . is to drag the whole continent into the fray. It is her great hope that the French conquests may rouse all the chief powers, and the temporary ruin of Naples is nothing to her if a general conflagration be the result of it. In war and politics, moreover, everything is a matter of compensation. If the French invade the kingdom of Naples, the English compensate themselves with Sicily, which their superior navy enables them to occupy more easily. Consequently, though the English may prefer Naples to be an independent monarchy when the war is over, it does not matter to them at all whether it be more or less in disorder while the war is going on, nor, at the end, whether one dynasty or another be reigning over it.15
Nor had the events of 1800 been forgotten. As Lord Holland remarked of the peace offensive that Napoleon had launched immediately after Brumaire, ‘That step made him popular in Europe; and if he was insincere in the offer, our haughty and offensive repulse gave him all the advantage which he could expect to derive from his insincerity. It removed from his government to that of England the reproach of continuing the war without necessity.’16 Particularly unfortunate was the fact that in 1803 Napoleon was ostensibly struggling to keep the peace until the very last minute: his last proposals, indeed, arrived in London on May. Well, then, might Castlereagh lament, ‘It will be difficult to convince the world that we are not fighting for Malta alone.’17
How these difficulties were resolved in favour of the British is something that we can postpone for the time being, though it should be noted that Pitt, at least, seems to have believed that a war between Britain and France would inevitably tend to the creation of an alliance against the latter. As Malmesbury wrote in his diary in April , the erstwhile prime minister hoped ‘that some one of the great continental powers might awake to a due sense of its honour and interests, and that in a future contest we might derive . . . that aid and co-operation that it was out of the question to look for . . . at this moment.’18 What cannot be postponed, by contrast, is a consideration of the balance of forces as they stood in May 1803, especially as this throws much light on Britain’s overwhelming need for allies. Taking Napoleon and his allies first of all, France had emerged from the Revolution immensely strengthened. With over 29 million inhabitants, she was second only to Russia in terms of population, and by far the most advanced state in continental Europe. Though political paralysis and widespread unrest had done much to nullify these advantages under the Directory, Napoleon had put an end to these disorders and was now in an excellent position to capitalize upon the very considerable financial and demographic resources at his disposal. Making full use of the military advances of the ancien régime and Revolution, he was in the process of building an army that in size and quality had no equals, consisting of 265 infantry battalions, 322 cavalry squadrons and 202 batteries of artillery, the whole amounting to perhaps 300,000 men. At the same time - in contrast to the situation elsewhere - replacements and reinforcements were little problem, for the entire male population was theoretically eligible for military service. Even at sea, if France’s immediate position was very weak - in 1803 Napoleon had only twenty-three ships-of-the-line ready for immediate service - her shipbuilding potential easily equalled that of Britain, while the design of her vessels was actually more advanced. In short, having already embarked upon a large-scale programme of naval construction, Napoleon could in the long term entertain serious hopes of naval supremacy.
Nor, of course, did France stand on her own. Holland, Genoa and the Italian Republic were all quickly forced to enter the war against Britain, and to place their armed forces at France’s disposal. The most important element here was the Dutch fleet, which in 1801 had fifteen ships-of-the-line, but in all three states high levels of population meant that the introduction of conscription could offer major advantages to the French. As we have seen, this step had been taken in the Italian Republic in August 1802, and by 1803 that state could field sixteen infantry battalions, eight squadrons of cavalry and thirteen batteries of artillery. By contrast, conscription remained a taboo subject in Holland, but even so the Batavian Republic could field twenty-eight battalions of infantry, twelve squadrons of cavalry and an unknown number of artillery batteries. As for Genoa, her contribution was essentially naval: in addition to putting her small fleet at France’s disposal, the Ligurian Republic had to guarantee the recruitment of 6,000 sailors. Nor was this an end to France’s demands: Holland had to provide transports for 62,000 men and 4,000 horses; Genoa to find large quantities of naval stores; and the Italian Republic to pay an annual subvention of million francs. Yet even this did not exhaust the list of support for France beyond her borders. Permitted to remain neutral, Switzerland was nevertheless in September 1803 forced to maintain the various Swiss units in the French army - some sixteen infantry battalions and four artillery batteries - at a strength of 16,000 men, for the duration of the war. Eager to stay out of the conflict, Spain secured this privilege at a cost of a monthly subsidy of 6 million francs. If she was forced to enter the war, however, Spain could in theory call upon an army of 130,000 men (153 infantry battalions, ninety-three cavalry squadrons, forty artillery batteries), a navy of thirty-two ships-of-the-line, and all the resources of her Latin American empire. And, last but not least, all of these states were forced to close their ports to British ships, Napoleon’s grand design for a continental blockade already being well under way. As yet unaffected by the trade embargo, there were also the middling states of southern Germany. All these states were for the most part in the process of a programme of state-building which brought with it a major increase in their efficiency - a development which also affected France’s formal satellites - and could be expected to lend France considerable military support in the event of a continental war. In 1805, for example, Bavaria could field twenty-eight infantry battalions, twenty-four cavalry squadrons and eleven artillery batteries, and Baden nine infantry battalions, seven squadrons of cavalry and two artillery batteries. And mention should also be made here of Denmark. Negligible as a land power - the Danish army had a mere thirty infantry battalions and thirty-six cavalry squadrons - even after the defeat of Copenhagen of 1801 Denmark retained a powerful fleet of twenty ships-of-the-line. Though she was currently neutral, her maritime interests remained such as to suggest that sooner or later she must come into conflict with the British, and so she too must, at least potentially, be placed in the French camp.
Of France’s various auxiliaries, few were in any sense ready to go to war. Of the Dutch, for example, Lord Malmesbury wrote, ‘Their fleet is left as it was at the peace: no new ships building or old ones fitting out.’19 As for the Spaniards, their navy was in dire straits: with the government’s finances in a state of collapse, all shipbuilding had come to an end in 1796, while a terrible epidemic of yellow fever that was currently assailing her Mediterranean coast was literally wiping out much of the manpower on which she relied to crew her fleet. Nor was the Spanish army in much better condition: run down in favour of the navy in the reign of Charles III (1759-88), it had since 1796 experienced a variety of attempts at reform, but these had come to nothing. ‘The means of recruiting this army are in general very slender,’ wrote the French diplomat, Bourgoing. Nor was the officer corps very impressive: ‘The obscure and monotonous life they lead, without any manoeuvres on a grand scale, and without any reviews, at length deadens all activity or leads to unworthy objects.’20 But notwithstanding all these deficiencies and supreme at sea though she was, Britain’s chances of making headway against such an array on her own were very limited. In Germany, George III was Elector of Hanover, but such benefit as might have accrued from this was nullified by the latter’s military weakness - it had only twenty-six infantry battalions, twelve cavalry squadrons and six artillery batteries - and strategic vulnerability. Though unrivalled in its training, seamanship and morale, the Royal Navy had been greatly reduced in size since 1801 (only thirty-four ships-of-the-line were actually in service, although a further seventy-seven were in reserve). As for the army, at some 130,000 men at full strength (115 battalions, 140 cavalry squadrons, forty batteries) it had, at the very least, plenty to occupy it. Needless to say, with her rapidly growing population and immense financial, commercial and industrial resources, Britain could in theory expect both to raise a much larger army and to expand the navy enormously. Also encouraging was a series of reforms currently being introduced to improve the army’s tactical efficiency. Nevertheless, with most of the German states whose troops had traditionally been hired to augment her forces now aligned with France, conscription a political impossibility, home defence a major priority, and transporting large numbers of troops to the Continent a serious logistical problem, she could not but look to foreign allies.
Britain could reasonably expect to count on Portugal and Naples, but neither were powerful states in military terms. Portugal could in theory field twenty-eight battalions of infantry, forty-eight squadrons of cavalry and thirty-two batteries of artillery, but in 1803 these numbered only 30,000 men, instead of the 50,000 they should have amounted to at full strength. As for Naples, details of the organization of the Bourbon army have not been located, but of its 24,000 men, only 10,000 could actually be mustered for service, while nothing had been done to prepare for a resumption of hostilities. To quote Damas, ‘Not a man was employed, not a redoubt was built, not a fortress was repaired.’21 In military terms, the only possible counter to French preponderance were the large professional armies of Austria, Prussia and Russia. At full strength they were impressive indeed. Thus, assuming that all her formations were complete, Austria could supposedly field over 300,000 men -255 infantry battalions, 322 cavalry squadrons, and 125 artillery batteries. For Russia the figures were even greater, amounting to perhaps 400,000 men, including her swarms of Cossacks - irregular horsemen recruited from the settler communities of the southern and eastern frontiers who paid for their land and personal freedom by means of military service. First-line regular units numbered 359 infantry battalions, 341 cavalry squadrons and 229 artillery batteries. Alone amongst the eastern powers, Russia was also a major naval power with fleets in the Baltic and the Black Sea that in 1805 amounted to forty-four ships-of-the-line, allowing her to overcome some of the limitations of her geographical isolation (needless to say, they also made a Russian alliance particularly attractive to Napoleon). As for Prussia, its 175 battalions, 156 squadrons and fifty batteries amounted to some 254,000 men. If Prussia came into the fray, moreover, there was a strong possibility that she would be assisted by the forces of a number of minor states such as Brunswick and Saxony whom geography placed in her sphere of influence rather than that of France. Of these, Brunswick had four battalions of infantry and four squadrons of cavalry, and Saxony thirty-two battalions of infantry, forty squadrons of cavalry and twelve batteries of artillery.
Of course, mere numbers were not everything: for a variety of reasons, the armies of the eastern powers were militarily inferior to the forces of Napoleon. In most textbooks, it is argued that this stemmed from the simple fact that France had gone through a political revolution that transformed her capacity to make war and, by extension, that in military terms the ancien régime remained just that - ancien. But this is an over-simplification. The tactical system used by the French army was certainly both flexible and highly effective, but the forces which had resisted the troops of the French Revolution had proved far more capable of dealing with it than they have generally been given credit for. Indeed, the Old Order was not at all the pushover of legend. To take the example of the reformed British army of 1803-15 : in almost every respect - organization, tactics, recruitment - this was a classic army of the eighteenth century, and yet it never lost a battle against the French. Nor is it really possible to argue that revolutionary ideology was of much account in the equation: France’s men may have been citizens, but that did not make them fight harder on the battlefield. What mattered was the introduction of universal conscription: French generals could risk battle more easily than their opponents and employ tactics that other armies would have found suicidal, and only on a few occasions did they fail to outnumber the enemy. On top of this, French armies were better articulated than their opponents in that their system of higher formations - brigades and divisions and, under Napoleon, corps - was more highly developed and could in consequence deliver a heavier punch on the battlefield.
Command, too, was important. The generals of the ancien régime were for the most part neither superannuated dodderers nor the products of gilded aristocratic youth, but rather tough professionals who often had substantial records of success. Many, indeed, were commanders of talent, and a few men of genius: one thinks here of Wellington, the Archduke Charles and, for all his oddities, Suvorov. But all too often they were operating with one hand tied behind their back thanks to the imposition of a variety of political controls. For example, in the summer of 1799 allied operations in Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany were disrupted disastrously by interference from both London and Vienna. Political control was often asserted from Paris, but generals were as often spurred on as they were held back, while they were more likely to defy their political masters. Nor should this last surprise us, for the French Revolution gave the French army access to new leadership cadres driven by a very different set of priorities than those that were the norm among their opponents. Few of the men concerned were the complete nobodies of legend: far from having sprung from poverty, they were for the most part the scions of solid professional or commercial families, or men who might well always have become officers in the French army but whose patents of nobility were not accompanied by the connections with the court that were necessary to achieve high rank. Many had already been soldiers in 1789: senior non-commissioned officers, junior officers from the provincial nobility (like Napoleon) and officiers de fortune who had come up from the ranks were all common. What all these men shared was the knowledge that under Louis XVI they would have been unlikely to make their name - that they would in the vast majority of cases have been condemned to a lifetime of obscurity, boredom and low pay. With the coming of the Revolution everything was transformed. All of a sudden anything was possible, and this bred a hunger for victory, an aggression and a vigour that was far less likely to be found in the ranks of their opponents. Thus, at Valmy the Duke of Brunswick chose not to fight in order to preserve his army, whereas for a Napoleon, a Hoche or a Moreau, there was far less need to worry about preserving the lives of soldiers who could always be replaced with fresh conscripts, and little sense in adopting a strategy whose goal was anything other than total victory (in the days of Robespierre and the Terror, indeed, their lives had literally depended on it). Equally, to the Duke of Brunswick, it mattered not a whit in personal terms whether he conquered northern France - come victory or defeat, he would still be the owner of great estates and a prominent position in society - whereas to Napoleon, his whole future lay in conquering northern Italy. And, of course, with Napoleon at the helm, all these advantages were multiplied a thousandfold: the same ruthlessness, the same ambition and the same drive headed not an army of 30,000 men, but a nation of 30 million.
Against Austria, Russia or Prussia alone then, France had a very good chance of victory. Indeed, even fighting together, any two of them were probably not up to defeating France. Thus Austria and Prussia had failed to worst the Republic in 1792 just as Austria and Russia had failed to do so in 1799. That said, there were scenarios that even France could not risk. In 1803 she was the most populous state in Europe, but the fact remained that France hardly dominated the Continent in demographic terms. Austria’s population has been estimated at 27 million, Prussia’s at .8 7million and European Russia’s at 37.5 million. If the diplomatic divisions that had so undermined the allied war effort were overcome - in other words, if Austria, Russia, Prussia all joined with Britain in making war on France - and if they agreed to subordinate everything else to the need to break the latter’s power, not least embracing French methods of mobilization and introducing measures of military reform to emulate the efficiency of the French army on campaign and on the battlefield, then Napoleon faced a grim prospect, the avoidance of which had to lie at the very heart of his strategy.
In 1803, ‘a grand coalition’ seemed a most remote prospect. ‘I do not venture,’ wrote Lord Hobart, ‘after all the disappointments that this country has met with, to hazard a speculation on foreign politics. The power and intrigue of France have so baffled all calculations that, although we must always look to a combination of the great powers . . . as calculated to be productive of the most salutary consequences, my mind is not sufficiently sanguine to reckon upon such an event until I see it absolutely accomplished.’22The detailed reasons for this we shall examine shortly, but one general issue that should be highlighted is that both Austria and Russia could easily be sidetracked into wars with other opponents. We come here to the Ottoman Empire: weak enough to present a tempting target, it was yet strong enough to put up a good fight if attacked. Under the reformist rule of Sultan Selim III (1789-1807), it had greatly improved its fighting power. In possession of a powerful and up-to-date Western-style battle fleet of twenty-two ships-of-the-line, with the aid of French experts Selim modernized his artillery and built up a new regular army. Organized and trained on Western lines, by 1806 this Nizam-i-Cedid had reached a strength of 24,000 men. However, effective though this force was, it was but a small component of an Ottoman array that was as enormous as it was ineffective. The heart of the regular army still consisted of the 196 2,000-to 3,000-strong regiments of janissaries, a force notoriously ill trained, undisciplined and unfit for war. Backing up these regular infantrymen were hordes of noble light cavalry, mercenary irregulars, and poorly trained peasant levies, but these troops were of even less use than the janissaries as well as being under the control of local satraps who might or might not be prepared to rally to Constantinople’s call. Ottoman armies were therefore no match for Western-style forces in open battle. In the words of a Polish exile who had fled to Constantinople, ‘The Turkish artillery received some improvement, but . . . nothing could be done with the cavalry.’23 Nevertheless, the empire’s amorphous political organization and sprawling nature made it a difficult foe to defeat and it remained an important factor in diplomatic calculations.
And it was not just the Ottomans who might distract Alexander I. At the other extreme of the Continent, there were Russia’s traditional enemies, the Swedes. With between seventy and eighty infantry battalions, sixty-six cavalry squadrons and seventy artillery batteries, Gustav IV could put a significant force into the field. Sweden’s geographical remoteness was countered by her powerful navy - twelve ships-of-the-line together with a large number of heavily armed galleys specially designed for amphibious operations in the shallow waters of the Baltic - and her possession of the important bridgehead of Swedish Pomerania. At best, of course, Sweden might be brought into a coalition against France: less of a maritime nation than Denmark, she was also relatively safe from French coercion. And, according to Addington, at least she was ‘most anti-French and coming towards us’.24 At the current moment, however, this seemed a forlorn hope, as Russia and Sweden had fallen out over a small island that stood in a river on the Finnish frontier and appeared to be on the brink of war. Alexander and a number of his senior advisers visited the site in person, while the language used by the Russians in particular was extremely severe, in part perhaps because the Russian government needed a foreign policy success in the wake of the German disaster of 1802. ‘Not being able to overcome the strong,’ wrote Czartoryski, ‘the chancellor attacked the weak.’25
Even if Sweden could be persuaded to join the British, the latter’s task was magnified by the fact that to strike at Napoleon and defend her own interests, London would have to adopt a series of measures that played straight into the First Consul’s hands. In the long term, the goal was a continental coalition, but in the short term this seemed quite unattainable, so much so that it could almost be set aside altogether. As Lord Castlereagh stated, ‘I think it unwise to risk what may continentally be called the last stake where there is neither vigour nor concert to oppose to the power of an enemy impregnable at home, and, in opinion, irresistible abroad.’26 Indeed, Addington at least believed that, even if a coalition could be formed, pressing for such a goal would be counter-productive: with matters in the state they were, the only result would be to hand Napoleon easy victories and delay the moment when success might be attained. This is not to say that coalition diplomacy was neglected altogether. On the contrary, Denmark and Sweden were contacted with hints of commercial concessions in return for a defensive alliance, while in July 1803 a simultaneous approach was made to both Austria and Russia, in which the former was wooed by concessions on the repayment of earlier British loans and the latter by the promise of a subsidy, not to mention a blatant attempt to appeal to Alexander’s well-known vanity:
The Emperor of Russia is placed in a situation which may enable him to render the most important services to Europe. It is in consequence of his interposition that Europe can alone expect that the cabinets of Vienna and Berlin should suspend their ancient jealousies . . . His Majesty trusts that the Emperor of Russia . . . will perceive that the only hopes of tranquillity for Europe must be derived from a combination of the great powers of the continent with His Imperial Majesty at their head.27
But nothing came of any of this, and all Britain could do in Europe was to adopt a waiting game. Impelled by sheer frustration and his desire for military glory, Napoleon would inevitably embark on a cross-Channel invasion. Yet this was something that Addington believed Britain could repel. She would, of course, have to strengthen her defences, rebuild the navy and greatly expand her land forces, but, provided these steps were taken, there was no reason to believe that a French invasion would be successful. As the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord St Vincent, put it in a speech to the House of Lords, ‘I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I only say that they will not come by sea.’28 Were Napoleon to fail in the invasion, then his prestige would suffer such a blow that the powers of Europe might be encouraged to roll back the frontiers of French power. Of course, there was always the chance that Napoleon might baulk at the prospect of an invasion, but then his prestige would also be damaged, and he might even be overthrown. To quote Lord Hobart, ‘I am inclined to credit the reports we receive from France of Bonaparte’s situation being rather precarious . . . Symptoms of dissatisfaction have shown themselves in the only quarter where they can be of importance, the army. The invasion of England is not so popular as might have been expected from the hope of pillage and plunder . . . and it is said that . . . they do not anticipate the probability of being drowned without sensations that are not quite comfortable.’29
In the circumstances, Britain’s strategy was not a bad one. But if a coalition was ruled out - and with it offensive operations on the Continent - the only targets available were economic, colonial or maritime ones, precisely the goals that had made Britain so unpopular in the Revolutionary War. France’s ports were therefore blockaded - a move that was soon extended to foreign harbours that fell under French control - and the navy hastily put back on a war footing (so hastily, in fact, that many of the ships that were dispatched to the Mediterranean under Lord Nelson had to have their proper rigging fitted while they were already at sea). Within six months, seventy-five ships-of-the-line and 114 frigates were in commission. At the same time, there was also a renewed offensive in the wider world. By the end of the year Santa Lucia, Tobago, Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo had all been captured, the remnants of General Leclerc’s army driven from St Domingue, and the Maratha Confederacy - France’s last source of native allies in India - shattered beyond repair by an offensive in the Deccan that produced victories for the future Duke of Wellington at Assaye and Argaum as well as other successes at Delhi and Laswari. All this was perfectly understandable: the captured colonies had been useful bases for both French commerce raiders and attacks on British islands; the colonial trade continued to be central to the British economy; and the Marathas were potentially a serious danger to British influence in India. But the fact remains, there was nothing to suggest a direct commitment to Europe: to all intents and purposes, Britain still seemed to be fighting the wars of the eighteenth century.
Yet even in distant India Britain was fighting Napoleon. In 1803 the Maratha Confederacy was in theory the most powerful polity on the Indian subcontinent, occupying, as it did, a huge expanse of territory stretching from the Punjab to the frontiers of Britain’s key ally, Hyderabad. But in practice the Confederacy was weaker than it appeared. The ruler of this empire was the hereditary prince of the state of Satar, but he had almost no authority, real power seemingly lying in the hands of a chief minister known as the Peshwa. Yet the Peshwa in turn was also all but impotent, for power was actually exercised by a large number of local rulers who paid lip service (and not much else) to his suzerainty. While some of these rulers were little more than petty robber-barons, others - Jeswunt Rao Holkar, Maharajah of Indore; Daulat Rao Scindia, Maharajah of Gwalior; the Rajah of Berah; the Gaikwar of Baroda - were immensely powerful. Holkar and Scindia, in particular, possessed not just the swarms of irregular cavalry that typified most Indian armies, but also large forces of modern artillery and European-trained infantry. Scindia, for example, could put into the field seventeen battalions of ‘Western’ infantry, nicknamed the ‘Immortals of the Deccan’. In consequence, the Maratha Confederacy was hardly a unified state. Great and small, all of the Maratha rajahs and maharajahs were engaged constantly in raiding and warfare between themselves, which meant that there was nothing that resembled a common foreign policy. Eager to advance their own interests, many of the minor rulers were actually signing so-called ‘subsidiary treaties’ with Britain (see below). Enthusiastically fostered by Wellesley, British penetration of the subcontinent seemed set to continue indefinitely.
In 1803, however, the picture was transformed as the Peshwa was deposed by Holkar and replaced by a puppet ruler. An imposing figure noted as a bold and courageous military commander, the new strong man threatened to bring all the Maratha Confederacy under his sway. To Britain’s alarm, in the summer of 1803 three French agents were captured at Poona with documents calling on both Holkar and Scindia to rise against the British and granting Scindia’s chief European adviser, a French mercenary named Perron, the rank of general in the French army. Meanwhile, having set out from Europe prior to the outbreak of hostilities with Britain, a small French fleet suddenly appeared off Pondicherry with a fresh garrison for this old French colonial possession. Finding the British in occupation of Pondicherry, the French withdrew to Mauritius, but there was clearly a need for action. To put an end to the growing threat, Wellesley immediately offered Holkar a subsidiary treaty, but the Maharajah was simply too powerful to be interested in surrendering his independence. Not surprisingly, then, Wellesley signed a treaty with the rightful Peshwa that in effect promised to restore him to power in exchange for the Maratha Confederacy becoming a satellite state. In acting in this fashion, Wellesley was not working as an agent of the British government. Though the Governor General was a political nominee - since the passage of the India Act of 1784, the East India Company had accepted that the decision as to who should hold the post should lie in the hands of the British government - Wellesley had not been sent out with an imperialist agenda. What is more, in going to war against Holkar and his allies, he was acting without the knowledge of London and against the wishes of the Board of Directors of the East India Company, who were only interested in commercial penetration rather than direct political control. After the fact, his successes were initially approved by the British government - ‘Nothing can have made a greater sensation than what they have done’, wrote his brother, Gerald Wellesley30 - but in large part this was simply because Wellesley was a Tory, because much of the fiercest denunciation of his policies came from the Whigs and, finally, because in 1803-4 the priority had to be preventing Napoleon from gaining a foothold in India. When the immediate crisis passed, the government abandoned its support for the Governor General, and made no attempt to sustain him against the revolt of the East India Company’s directors that finally brought him down in 1805. If successive administrations continued to be uninterested in expansion in India thereafter, this can perhaps be put down to wartime conditions: thanks to the gradual modernization of India’s armies, Wellesley’s wars had far outstripped in cost and scale those of earlier eras. Thus, in the First Mysorean War, the British had employed 10,000 men and been able to triumph over odds of some seven to one, whereas in the fourth such conflict - the final struggle against Tippu Tib - victory over a markedly weaker enemy had taken 50,000 men. Still worse, meanwhile, the lion’s share of the fighting now had to be undertaken by British regulars: at Assaye, Wellesley’s 13,500 men included just two regiments of British infantry and one of cavalry - some 2,200 men - and yet they accounted for 650 out of his 1,600 casualties. Given the situation in Europe, gaining fresh territory in India was therefore simply not a British objective. When Wellesley returned from India in 1805 he was given only the most grudging of thanks by parliament, cold-shouldered by many of his erstwhile allies and barely escaped impeachment at the hands of an old enemy who had secured a seat in the Commons.
The ‘making of British India’ for which Wellesley stood was, then, the work of one powerful and vigorous enthusiast, albeit one who had many adherents (most notably, Lord William Bentinck, who became Governor of Madras in 1803). The India Act of 1784 had stated unequivocally that wars of conquest were ‘measures repugnant to the wish, the honour and the policy of this nation’ and expressly prohibited the Governor General from waging military campaigns without the sanction of parliament except in self-defence (a very flimsy justification in the case of the Marathas: setting aside their incipient state of civil war, Holkar had initially shown a strong desire to keep the peace). The basis of this opposition to wars of aggression was reasonable enough: it was believed that the constant Indian warfare of the mid-eighteenth century had been the fruit of foreign intervention, and that, now the French had been all but ejected from the subcontinent, all the British had to do was to sit back and let the profits of trade flow into their coffers. From the beginning, however, Wellesley rejected this maxim. Indian rulers, he argued, were a militaristic caste, bent on war, from which it followed, first, that foreign intervention did not in itself encourage conflict, and, second, that the stability envisaged by the India Act was a chimera that was unlikely ever to be realized. What was needed instead was British control, for only British control could genuinely deliver the riches of empire. To implement this policy he had a wonderful excuse in the residual French presence, while the relatively easy conquests of the Fourth Mysorean War of 1799 stimulated his ambition for glory, which was, in its way, nearly as great as that exhibited by Napoleon (notoriously vain and self-indulgent, Wellesley was furious when a distinctly unenthusiastic government rewarded him not with an English peerage but with an Irish one). Unlike Napoleon, war was not central to his policy: his favoured device, the so-called ‘subsidiary treaty’ whereby Indian rulers accepted British overlordship in return for a guarantee of British protection, was just as acceptable when achieved by diplomacy as it was when it was achieved by battle. But he would brook no opposition, and adopted a ‘take it or leave it’ approach that was very reminiscent of the First Consul. And he was all too clearly a genuine imperialist and, in consequence, a great embarrassment in Europe. With Wellesley at the helm in India, how could Addington deny that Britain was in an expansionist mode? Nor was Wellesley the only colonial administrator with a penchant for aggression. In Ceylon the Dutch had confined themselves to a chain of ports around the coasts of the island, and left the interior to its own devices under the rule of the Kingdom of Kandy. When the British took over, however, the Governor, Frederick North, took exception to the independent stance affected by the Kandians and in February 1803 embarked on the conquest of the interior.
If expansion in India is difficult to attribute to the Addington government, it does have to bear full responsibility for another aspect of the British war effort that was just as damaging. No sooner had war begun than a French invasion threatened. Such warships as the French had in their own ports were made ready for sea; the squadron that had been sent to assist in the reduction of Toussaint L’Ouverture was summoned home; the programme of naval construction was accelerated; 160,000 men were concentrated on the Channel coast; a start was made on amassing a flotilla of invasion craft; a programme of improvements was begun at Calais and Boulogne; and finally Napoleon himself set out on an ostentatious tour of inspection of the Channel coast. In consequence, home defence was obviously a high priority. Part of the way forward here lay in the construction of coastal fortifications - hence Kent’s Royal Military Canal and the Martello towers that still dot Britain’s southern coasts - but Britain also required large numbers of fresh troops. It is difficult to imagine any British politician ever committing himself to the obvious course of conscription to the regular army. Traditional hostility to standing armies, concern for civil liberty and the sheer unpopularity of military service all rendered anything other than a few meaningless gestures unthinkable, and in consequence the government revived the Volunteer movement of the 1790s. As before, the result was that large numbers of men rushed to enlist in extravagantly uniformed units of cavalry and infantry that for the most part would have been of little use had the French actually crossed the Channel and were in any case available for home defence only. Of rather more use was the decision to expand the county militia by an additional 76,000 men (a move that was politically acceptable despite the fact that it involved conscription as the militia only served at home and was often embodied only on a part-time basis). But none of this increased the regular army: it was hoped that men recruited to the militia would get a taste for life with the colours and volunteer for service with a line unit, but it was several years before this system began to produce significant results. In general, then, the army had to rely on civilian volunteers, and in this it was singularly unsuccessful: between June and December 1803 the 360 recruiting parties sent out into the country raised the grand total of 3,481 men, or fewer than ten apiece. This was unsurprising: while the army paid a bounty for all recruits, far more money was available to anyone who would take up arms in the navy or sell themselves as a substitute for men called up to the militia. Thus the regular army remained very small: indeed, so miserable was the trickle of recruits that it actually declined by 13,000 men during the first nine months of the war. Yet without a strong regular army that could dispatch substantial forces of troops to the Continent, there was little chance of persuading potential foreign allies that they should take up arms alongside Britain.
The British were in a quandary. No means of raising a powerful army existed, nor was there any chance of securing a change in public perception of the armed forces. With the Volunteers as ubiquitous as they were full of bombast and self-confidence, even the threat of invasion was not sufficient to persuade the populace that more men were needed for the regulars, while the inflated tone of the propaganda that swamped the country hardly lessened ‘little Englander’ convictions that John Bull could thrash the French without the assistance of a troop of benighted continentals. So necessary was foreign aid, however, that increasingly it was Britain that was benighted. It helped a little that on 7 May 1804 Addington was replaced as prime minister by William Pitt: not only was the latter known as a man of action, but Addington was an unimpressive figure who was regularly jeered at in the House of Commons as a coward and caricatured as a small boy playing at soldiers. But in the end the return of Pitt made no difference, for the reality was that, despite his immense qualities as a war leader, he had no more to offer than Addington. To quote William Cobbett, ‘Mr Pitt’s system . . . is worn out . . . as well as with regard to military glory as with regard to domestic liberty.’31
In the end what saved Britain was that she was fighting an opponent who could be all but guaranteed sooner or later to antagonize the powers of Europe. Once again, then, we come to the personal influence of the First Consul, for in 1803 none but a Napoleon could have driven them to war. Let us begin with Austria. Here the chances of an alliance were zero. As the Austrian ambassador, Starhemberg, had told Addington, ‘We are a giant, but a giant exhausted, and we require time to regain our strength.’32 In part, the trouble was financial. Thanks in particular to the inability of the Habsburgs to draw with any degree of adequacy on Hungary, Austria’s resources were simply not sufficient to meet the demands of war against France. Meanwhile, Francis was unwilling to increase taxes for fear of internal unrest. The Turkish war of 1787-9 had already seen the introduction of paper currency in the form of bonds known as bankozettel - and in the course of the 1790s the total sum involved had steadily increased: indeed, between January 1799 and January1801 the amount in circulation actually doubled. From 1795 onwards depreciation therefore set in while prices began to rise alarmingly. Also on the rise was the national debt, which soared from 390 million gulden to 613 million gulden between 1792 and 1801. And finally, thanks to Lunéville, the central government had lost a considerable amount of tax revenue. Money, then, was short - so short, indeed, that the Ministry of Finance wanted greatly to cut the military budget - but this was not the only issue. In the campaigns of 1799-1800, the Austrian army had suffered heavy losses, but replacing the missing men would not be easy, especially as most of the Holy Roman Empire was now off limits to the Habsburg recruiting parties that had traditionally operated there (and in the process brought in large numbers of troops: prior to 1801 perhaps half the army’s volunteers had come from its territories). There was a system of conscription in existence, but this did not affect all of Francis’s domains - the Tyrol and Hungary, for example, were both exempt - and was by no means universal even where it was in operation. Yet increasing the number of men conscripted or broadening the basis on which they were taken would be likely to exacerbate social unrest: in the course of the War of the Second Coalition at least 27,000 men had fled their homes rather than face the draft, while desertion had reached epic proportions. Equally, extending conscription to Hungary and the Tyrol would only serve to cause a return of the troubles of 1789-90 (when both these provinces had almost risen in revolt).
Logically enough, this financial and military weakness was reflected in a change of atmosphere in Vienna. As we have seen, the Habsburg regime had never been the most enthusiastic of France’s opponents. Neither Francis nor his leading military commander, the Archduke Charles, were at all enamoured of war, and both were inclined to gather round them figures who were not inclined to challenge their perceptions: the emperor’s highly influential ‘Cabinet secretary’, Franz von Colloredo, for example, was notoriously timid and indecisive. At the same time there was much dislike of the British alliance, and especially of William Pitt, who was perceived as being unnecessarily forceful and abrasive. And, finally, Francis was also increasingly mistrustful of the Archduke Charles, who had in 1801 been appointed head of the new Ministry of War and Marine and was currently pushing through a major programme of military reform, the effect of this being to put the emperor in mind of the Thirty Years War when the power of the throne had temporarily been eclipsed by powerful commanders such as Wallenstein. Until now, Austria had been held to her course by the forceful Thugut, but he was now gone, and his replacement, Count Ludwig Cobenzl, was much more ambiguous in his attitude towards the struggle. ‘I knew well’, wrote Lord Malmesbury, ‘that Cobenzl was in his heart French, that he had been brought up to admire and fear them, and that, whether a Bourbon or a Bonaparte, this sentiment in his mind would remain the same.’33 This typical piece of British contempt for foreigners was far too sweeping: the Austrian chancellor was determined to restore the Habsburgs’ fortunes by, first, addressing the state’s internal problems, and, second, standing up to France. Indeed, by 1804 he had fallen out with the Archduke Charles on account of the latter’s endless pessimism. But it is perfectly true that Cobenzl was much impressed both by France’s military power and Napoleon’s personal capacities - he had, after all, headed the Austrian delegation at both Campo Formio and Lunéville - and that he was unwilling to risk a war until Austria was ready for action, something that in his eyes would not be the case for another ten years. If he began to press for an alliance with Russia in 1803 , it was not because he wanted to march on Paris but because he wanted to find a means of stopping Paris from marching on him. Here and there the odd fiery spirit could be found who favoured war, one such being the fanatically anti-French propagandist, Friedrich von Gentz, and another Baron Karl von Mack, a vain and incompetent officer who had suffered military humiliation in 1798 and was now thirsting for an opportunity to restore his reputation. But even had he wanted to, the chancellor could not have provided the leadership needed by a war party: ‘Although he shone in the salon,’ wrote Metternich, ‘Cobenzl was not the man to lead a cabinet.’34
Even in the wake of the murder of the Duc d’Enghien (discussed below), Cobenzl would not move. As the British ambassador to Vienna, Arthur Paget, wrote of an unsuccessful attempt to get Cobenzl to agree to an alliance in April 1804 :
The Vice-Chancellor contended that any such concert would be a direct violation of their system of neutrality from which the emperor would not easily be brought; that it was a wise system not to talk before the means of supporting your language were proved to exist; that this country was not in a situation to go to war; that, although their present situation was unquestionably a bad one . . . it was not desperate, and that, by endeavouring to improve it a worse might, and probably would, succeed; that the French had 100,000 men in Italy; that their whole force now upon the coast might at a moment be equally turned on this country; that the Austrian army was at this moment upon the peace establishment, etc., etc. . . . These and similar arguments was I doomed to the pain of listening to . . . I never witnessed the display of so much ignorance, weakness and pusillanimity on the part of any individual calling himself a statesman.35
This was, needless to say, grossly unkind to Cobenzl. But in 1803 the fact remains that all the British could hope for from Vienna was that Austria might be prepared to enter another coalition with them when the circumstances were right - but this did not seem likely for a very long time. Francis II, the Archduke Charles, Cobenzl and Colloredo all agreed that war could only be considered after a long process of internal reform. The most obvious policy was simply to revive the bureaucratic absolutism of Joseph II to eradicate provincial and noble privilege, and mobilize the resources of all Francis’s dominions. But this was something that the emperor simply would not do. Temperamentally averse to interfering with the rights of his subjects, he also dared not risk a repeat of the turmoil of 1789-90. Reform, then, was inclined to be both gradualist and piecemeal. Denied the empire-wide system of conscription he wanted, for example, Charles had to content himself with reducing the length of service owed by men who volunteered for the army in the hope that this would produce more recruits. In the same way, a variety of fiscal reforms were introduced - there was, for example, a considerable rise in import duties - but the perquisites of the nobility were left untouched. Far from provinces such as Hungary being stripped of their privileges, Francis was forced to turn to them cap in hand. By means of its largely noble triennial Diet, Hungary had the right to set its own levels of taxation and conscription. In 1796 (the last occasion on which it had met) the Diet had rallied to the Habsburg cause and voted a subsidy of 4.4 million gulden, the dispatch of large quantities of supplies and an increase of 5,000 in the number of soldiers sent by Hungary to the regular army. This last move brought her quota up to 52,000 men, but as all the recruits concerned were volunteers, in practice this total was never met. In 1802, the Diet was summoned again after a break in 1799. Asked for 2 million gulden, the deputies agreed to grant Vienna less than half this figure, and would only make limited concessions on the issue of recruits for the army. To say that no progress was made in these years towards a revived Austria was unfair - the Archduke Charles did achieve a significant degree of reform in the field of the empire’s administration - but so slow was the rate of change that Britain was clearly going to have a long time to wait. Even as late as 6 August 1805, Minto was writing in his diary, ‘I hear that Austria has declared positively she will take no part in any confederacy against France, and assigns her total want of means as the motive of this conduct. I am sorry for it, thinking a continental war the only chance of terminating our difficulties, though even that chance may not be good. But the longer it is delayed, the worse prospect of success there will be as Bonaparte will increase his strength every year, and resistance may come at last when it is too late.’36
So much, then, for Austria. What, though, of Prussia? Once again, not much could be expected. Still wedded to the principle of neutrality, Prussia was regarded with great scorn by the Addington government. As Malmesbury confided to his diary on 14 June 1803, ‘Lord Hawkesbury with me by his own appointment at seven . . . Speaking of Prussia, he said nothing could be more feeble and pusillanimous than the king and his ministers.’37 In a general sense, Hawkesbury was not far wrong: Prussian policy in respect of Napoleon at this point could not have been more pacific. However, it was not a question of cowardice. When absolutely pushed to it, Frederick William was not afraid to act: deeply convinced of his duty to protect Prussia’s foreign trade, he had been anything but backward with regard to joining the League of Armed Neutrality in 1801. But all the arguments that had kept the king out of the War of the Second Coalition had greatly intensified since 1800: Prussia had done extremely well out of the reform of the Holy Roman Empire, while the debate on the need for military reform was now raging more loudly than ever. And to these points had been added new ones. In the first place, there was much admiration of Napoleon, who it was assumed was putting all to rights in France. And, in the second, though fearful of France in the long term - as he told the Swedish ambassador, ‘We will be the last to be eaten: that is the limit of Prussia’s advantage’38 - Haugwitz was at the moment more concerned with Vienna than Paris. The Austrians having shown a strong desire to challenge certain aspects of the new territorial dispensation in Germany - in August 1802 Austrian troops had gone so far as temporarily to occupy the district of Passau in an attempt to deny it to Bavaria - his current goal was an alliance with France and Russia that would cow Francis and his advisers into complete submission and at the same time contain Napoleon. Nor was the army any more committed to a war against France. A few generals, including, not least, the future hero of Waterloo, Gebhard von Blücher, were increasingly concerned at the growth in French power, while plenty of officers were spoiling for a fight. To quote the general staff officer, Carl von Muffling, ‘There were at that time in the Prussian army from the generals to the ensigns, hotheads without number, and those who were not so by nature assumed a passionate, coarse manner, fancying that it belonged to the military profession.’39 But, again, these ‘hotheads without number’ had other targets than Napoleon: while some looked to a war with Austria, others, like the founder of the newly formed general staff, Christian von Massenbach, wanted to expand Prussia’s gains in Poland at the expense of Russia. And, precisely because they had other targets, no strong party emerged in favour of war with France, the result being that nothing stood in the way of continued Prussian neutrality. More than that, indeed, Frederick William was positively fawning in his attempts to ensure Napoleon’s continued favour, and the only action that he took to protect Prussia’s interests as hostilities approached was to beg the First Consul not to invade Hanover.
All this left just Russia as a possible ally for the British, but in reality she, too, was not much of a staff to lean upon. As Lord Malmesbury wrote, ‘On Wednesday 27 April , with Vorontzov [i.e. the Russian ambassador] for two hours; he communicated to me several dispatches . . . The result of them struck me that Russia was now what she has ever been since she had held . . . a place among the greater powers of Europe - cajoling them all and courting flattery from them all, but certainly never meaning to take an active part on behalf of any of them . . . I fear we here rely too much on Russia: she will give us advice, but not assistance.’40 This seemed true enough at the time that it was written: although the new Foreign Minister, Count Alexander Vorontzov - the elder brother, it will be recalled, of the ambassador to London, who was Semyon Vorontzov - was friendlier to Britain than any of his predecessors, he was little inclined to become involved in the troubles of central Europe and anxious to avoid a breach between Britain and France. It did not help that as the winter of 1802-3 drew to a close Napoleon made a determined attempt to calm Russian feelings. His hints at a partition of the Ottoman Empire were dropped, for example, while for the first time mention was made of compensation for the King of Piedmont. Far from backing the British, on the very eve of war the Russian government suddenly announced that it would instead mediate between the combatants and provide a garrison for Malta. Meanwhile the desperate attempts of Addington and Hawkesbury to secure an alliance were met by the not very helpful response that Russia could not move unless Austria did so first, the fact being that there was otherwise no way that a Russian army could actually get to grips with the French. In any case, this was hardly an enticing appeal. The reign of Paul I had badly disrupted the military, which had been torn apart by a purge of the ‘easterners’ who had dominated it in the reign of Catherine II, and it would be some time before a happy medium was restored to its ranks. And, finally, setting aside the issue of what might happen if it came to a fight, there were plenty of Russians who hated Britain: in Paris, for example, the diehard republican Bertrand Barère, found that the new newspaper he had established to stir up popular feelings against Britain - it was called The Anti-British Journal - was eagerly snapped up by officials of the Russian embassy.
The end to Britain’s isolation was therefore going to be some time coming. Come it did, but before we examine how this occurred, we must turn to an episode in the Mediterranean that is of some significance for the wider march of international relations. European affairs were suddenly invaded by a new player in the form of the United States. By 1800 Britain’s old colonies ranked second only to Britain in terms of international trade, and their substantial merchant fleet operated from Norway to the Cape of Good Hope. In the Mediterranean, however, the Americans, like many other small powers, had a major problem in the shape of the so-called ‘barbary corsairs’. Crewing fast galleys and operating with the sanction of the rulers of such cities as Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli (all of whom were theoretically vassals of the Ottoman Empire), these pirates were an ever-present danger in the sea lanes of the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean alike. The French Wars had made matters significantly worse, for the British, French and Spaniards, alike had more pressing things to do than chase the corsairs. Much affected by this, the Americans at first attempted to negotiate free passage for their ships by a series of bribes: in 1795, for example, it was agreed that Algiers should receive a lump sum of $642,500, a sloop and an annual tribute of $21,600. However, outrages of various sorts continued, and in February 1801 President Jefferson responded by declaring war on Tripoli and sending a small naval force to the Mediterranean. For over two years little happened: the American squadron was too small to achieve much and cutbacks in the naval budget meant that it could not easily be reinforced. Not until September did the fighting hot up, and even then it was a sporadic affair of raids and coastal bombardments that eventually petered out with a compromise peace that was signed on 4 June 1805 . In most respects, then, the American war against Tripoli was little more than a sideshow. Yet for all that, it was not unimportant. Setting aside the inconvenience it caused to Britain - Tripoli was an important source of food and drinking water for British ships operating in the Mediterranean - the war put Europe on notice that the United States would not just adopt a policy of passive defence, but if necessary reach out across the Atlantic. For the time being the priority was defence, such naval construction that took place therefore revolving around the launch of a number of gunboats that could only be used with any safety in the bays and estuaries of the southern and eastern coast. But just as Britain could hope that Napoleon would sooner or later drive one or other of the powers into an alliance with London, so the French ruler could hope that Britain would sooner or later drive the United States into a fresh war in the defence of her commerce.
Keeping in mind these non-European factors, let us now return to events in Europe. From the very beginning Napoleon had followed a course of action that could not but destabilize the neutrality that reigned east of the Rhine. Thus, practically his first move in the conflict had been to defy convention by accompanying the outbreak of war with the seizure not just of all those British merchantmen and British cargoes caught in French ports, but also some 10,000 British nationals who found themselves on French soil. More importantly, determined to hit Britain wherever he could, within a matter of days Napoleon had sent his troops into Hanover (which capitulated without resistance, though much of its army escaped by sea to Britain where it became the nucleus of the so-called ‘King’s German Legion’). And, finally, in order to cut off British trade, and, in the latter case, to further his designs in the Mediterranean, the north German coast and the Neapolitan ports of Taranto, Otranto and Brindisi - all of them situated in the hugely sensitive region of Apulia - were also occupied by French soldiers. All this unsettled the powers of Europe. With French troops lining the North Sea from Holland to Denmark, Austria, Prussia and Russia alike had good reason to fear for their commercial interests, while Napoleon had contrived simultaneously to trample Prussian pretensions in northern Germany underfoot; revive the threat posed by the invasion of Egypt to Russia’s interests in the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans; and mount a head-on challenge to Alexander I’s dynastic diplomacy in Germany. As even Napoleon’s Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché, admitted, ‘There had never been, till then, an example of such violence against the rights of nations.’41
Yet it was not just Napoleon who was inflaming the situation: another figure that is of particular interest here is Prince Adam Czartoryski. Born in 1770, Czartoryski was a Polish nobleman who stemmed from a family associated with the reform movement that had in the 1780s and early 1790s striven desperately to reconstitute the power of the Polish state. In 1795 he was sent to the Russian court by his parents as a pledge of their submission and good faith, and there he soon made the acquaintance of the future Alexander I. Fuelled by a common interest in many of the ideas of the Enlightenment and a shared sense of romantic benevolence, a warm friendship grew up between the two young men, and when Alexander came to the throne it was only natural that Czartoryski should have become a member of the so-called ‘unofficial committee’. In this body the prince played a major role, but far more important here are his views on foreign affairs. Appointed Deputy Foreign Minister under Vorontzov in September 1802, he was for the next three years the dominant influence on Alexander. The cause closest to Czartoryski’s heart was that of Polish independence: for him the eclipse of Poland was a disaster of the first order, and one made even worse by his having taken no part in the desperate and unavailing last stand of 1794-5. As he recalled of himself and his younger brother, ‘Love of the fatherland, its glory, its institutions and its liberties, had been instilled in us by our studies, and by everything we had seen or heard around us. As can be imagined, that sentiment, to which we aspired with our whole being, was accompanied by an invincible aversion towards all those who had contributed to the ruin of our beloved country.’42 Next to this he loathed Napoleon as a social upstart, a despot and a danger to peace and order. As he wrote in his memoirs:
All those who had let themselves be carried away by enthusiasm in the first moments of the French Revolution had seen Bonaparte as the hero of liberalism: he seemed to them to be destined by providence to secure the triumph of the cause of justice, and to overthrow by great actions and immense victories the obstacles without number that reality presented to the desires of the oppressed nations . . . Any hope, any belief, that this would be the case was swept away as soon as Bonaparte was placed at the head of affairs in France. His every word, his every action, showed that he only understood the power of the bayonet . . . He ceased to be the champion of justice and the hope of oppressed peoples. By abandoning these claims - the central pillar of the Republic, for all its vice and insanity - Bonaparte rejoined the ranks of the ambitious and of the ordinary sovereigns of Europe, showing himself to be a man of immense talent, but one who had no respect for the rights of the person and who wished only to subordinate everything to his caprice . . . It was as if Hercules had quitted the path of duty in favour of using his strength to subjugate the world for his own profit . . . Thus, with him in power, such was his ambition and his injustice that they overshadowed all the other ambitions, all the other injustices, that assailed humanity: viewed in the light of the sinister and devouring flames that blazed around his head, they paled into insignificance.43
Yet Czartoryski was no mere beau sabreur committed to nothing more than some desperate Polish revolt, or, for that matter, some romantic counter-revolutionary crusade. If Poland was to be free, he realized, it would have to be with the sanction of Russia, and what better way was there for him to win this sanction than by playing on Alexander’s naïve idealism and interest in political reform? Poland, then, would be restored as a sovereign kingdom and given a liberal constitution, but she would remain tied to Russia through the provision of a Russian monarch in the person of Alexander’s brother, Constantine. But Czartoryski did not stop with Poland. Sincerely devoted to his version of the cause of freedom, he also saw that Alexander would be more likely to back his ideas if they were broadened out from Poland alone (though he took care to represent a free Poland as a state that would out of gratitude and self-interest alike for ever after rally to the defence of Russia). In addition to restoring Poland, he believed that Russia should also press for the establishment of free states elsewhere. There should be a Greek state, a South Slav state, and a Danubian (i.e. Romanian) state - all of them, of course, under the protection of Russia - while Italy, Germany, the Low Countries and Switzerland were all to be organized as national federations. All this was linked in with a general plan for order and stability. According to Czartoryski’s grand design, even under Napoleon France was not an irrevocable enemy, nor still less a country whose form of government was to be decided by the force of foreign arms. On the contrary, she was to enjoy her natural frontiers and be allowed to govern herself as she chose. That said, she was to be allowed to cause no more trouble: headed by Russia and Britain (whom Czartoryski saw as natural partners), the Polish prince’s ‘Europe of the peoples’ would stand firm against French aggression. But it was not just France that would be stopped from going to war: as all the historic nationalities of Europe would be satisfied with their lot, none would wish to fight each other. By the same token, as all the peoples of Europe would be free, political strife, too, would disappear, leaving international Jacobinism with no scope for its machinations. So bizarre was this scheme that it is difficult to know what to say about it, not the least of its many problems being that it took no account whatsoever of the enormous difficulties presented by Austria (a kingdom of Hungary was no problem, but what of the rest of the empire?). At the same time, the Polish grandee’s plans meant war with Prussia whom he wanted at all costs to drive from her acquisitions in Pomerania. Reduced to practicalities, in exchange for granting a semi-independent Poland, what Alexander was being offered was hegemony in Eastern Europe, the destruction of Russia’s chief great-power rivals, control of the European elements of the Ottoman Empire (which Czartoryski clearly believed was doomed), and the chance to play the benevolent reformer which had proved so elusive in his own dominions. And for all this the war of 1803 provided the perfect opportunity: join with Britain against France, Czartoryski was saying, and Alexander would find the world at his feet.
However, Czartoryski or no Czartoryski, neither Russia nor anyone else responded to Napoleon’s aggressive demeanour by taking up arms. On the contrary, though the Russian ambassador to Paris, Morkov, had, in Lady Holland’s words, for months been ‘scurvily treated by Bonaparte, who seems to make a point of saying offensive things to him’,44 Alexander responded to the conflict in a manner that was pacific in the extreme, the peace terms that he put forward in response to Napoleon’s last-minute request for mediation actually representing a slight advance on Amiens. As for Austria and Prussia, the former kept quiet, and the latter did no more than dispatch a special envoy to Paris with a very polite request for an explanation of the occupation of Hanover. The diplomat concerned, Johann von Lombard, was both an admirer of Napoleon and a long-term proponent of an alliance with France, so a sustained ‘charm offensive’ was more than sufficient to reassure him, while the pill was further sweetened by proposals for an alliance that seemed to offer the hope of guarantees against both Austria and Russia. However, though welcomed in Berlin, these friendly overtures were not good enough for Frederick William. Good relations with France were all very well in themselves, but an alliance with Paris alone carried with it the risk that Prussia might be forced to take sides in a general European war, and this the Prussian king did not want at all. There then emerged a plan whereby Prussia would ally herself with both France and Russia, but this proved to be a non-starter: Alexander might not have wanted war with France at this stage, but he no longer saw her as a trustworthy partner either, while Napoleon was unwilling to come to terms with a state that had sufficient independence to have attempted to force a compromise peace upon him. At risk of standing alone, Prussia now did the only thing possible and turned back to France; the winter of 1803-4 was then taken up with intensive attempts to secure an agreement with Napoleon even though doing so implied the acceptance of French intervention in Prussia’s hitherto sacrosanct sphere of influence in northern Germany.
Not even the most aggressive action on the part of Napoleon was enough to push the eastern powers into war with France, then: indeed, the potential crisis arising from the occupation of Hanover and Apulia had seemingly fizzled out. But this seems only to have encouraged Napoleon to push his luck still further. First of all, we have his reaction to the arrival of the Russian peace proposals in July 1803. Shortly after the outbreak of war, the French ruler had assured Morkov that he would respond favourably to Russian mediation: providing that Britain evacuated Malta and that Malta then received a Russian garrison, he would let the British have Lampedusa, evacuate the Batavian Republic, Switzerland and Naples, and give the King of Piedmont the territory Russia wanted him to have in Italy. These terms, in fact, were not very different from those which eventually arrived from St Petersburg, but by the time they came in, the situation had changed: Napoleon had defied the courts of Europe with impunity over Hanover and Apulia and now felt little need to be conciliatory. Nor, indeed, could he be conciliatory, for to do so would have been a blow to the image on which he was so dependent. The Russian peace terms were in consequence rejected out of hand as being even worse than those that had been proposed by Britain, while, to cover his tracks the First Consul fell upon Morkov at a state dinner at the Tuileries, and accused him in the most violent of language of both spying and being in league with emigré conspirators. Not surprisingly, there followed a sharp exchange of correspondence, and the end result was that the ambassador left Paris for home: he claimed, indeed, that he was in fear of being poisoned. Much angered, Alexander responded by trying to pressurize both Prussia and Austria into a defensive alliance and raising the possibility of an alliance with Britain. With rumours circulating of either an impending French invasion of the Greek mainland or a French-inspired revolt in the Peloponnese, the Russians also strengthened their position in the eastern Mediterranean by reinforcing the small Russian garrison that had been left in the Ionian islands and restoring friendly relations with the independent Christian principality of Montenegro, which had been disrupted for the past two years by intrigues in the court of its prince-bishop ruler, Peter Negos. As Czartoryski observed, ‘For once the laughs were not on the side of the First Consul.’45
By the end of 1803, then, relations between Napoleon and the central figure in any future coalition had started to unravel. As yet, however, there was little sign that Russia was willing actively to take up arms: indeed, her approaches to Britain, Austria and Prussia had all essentially been designed to get them to do all the necessary fighting and keep the bulk of the Russian army out of harm’s way. Opinion in St Petersburg was deeply divided. Czartoryski and Vorontzov favoured war, but Alexander opposed the anti-Prussian aspects of the former’s policies and distrusted the British nearly as much as his father had done, while plenty of observers could be found who wanted Russia to have no truck at all with the affairs of the West. And if Czartoryski wanted war with France and Prussia, he did not want Britain to acquire a share in the future of the Ottoman Empire. To push Russia over the brink, something more was needed, and, Napoleon being Napoleon, this was soon forthcoming.
We come here to the so-called ‘tragedy of Vincennes’. On 20 March 1804 the Duc d’Enghien, a distant connection of the French royal family, was kidnapped from his country retreat in neutral Baden and executed after a summary trial on suspicion of involvement in a royalist conspiracy. According to the Napoleonic legend, this was a necessary act of statecraft and by no means a step that the French ruler embarked on lightly. ‘After the sentence had been executed,’ wrote a young Belgian nobleman who was shortly to become a senior official at the Napoleonic court, ‘as soon as the emperor heard of it at Malmaison, he was observed to be troubled, preoccupied, sunk in thought . . . walking up and down his apartment, his hands at his back, his head bent. And thus he remained a long time, absorbed in contemplation.’46 Other observers were less convinced. Now unhappily married to Napoleon’s brother Louis, Hortense de Beauharnais had a very different impression. ‘I remain convinced, from the knowledge that I have of Napoleon’s character . . . that he never felt the need to justify himself. As doubt was not something which he ever acknowledged, his view, I am sure, was “I did the thing; therefore I had the right to do it.” ’47 At the same time, as she observed, the execution bestowed certain political advantages on Napoleon: ‘From that moment all those who had rallied to the Revolution attached themselves to the First Consul. “He will not be a Monk,” they said. “Herewith the proof. One can count on him.” ’48 And that Napoleon was aware of this, there was no doubt. Indeed, according to Pasquier, it was precisely for this reason that he had the duke executed. As the future Prefect of Police wrote, ‘Bonaparte . . . let it be known . . . that he wanted . . . to inspire all those who had attached themselves to his fortune with the confidence that all chance of a reconciliation between himself and the house of Bourbon had disappeared.’49
And it was not just statecraft. In fairness to Napoleon, as revealed by a series of arrests in the winter of 1803-4, there really was a plot to overthrow the First Consul in that the chouan leader, Georges Cadoudal, and the repentant radical, General Pichegru, who had been banished following the coup of 18 Fructidor in 1797, had been trying to persuade the victor of Hohenlinden, General Moreau, to mount a coup. The main figures in the plot were soon dealt with - Cadoudal and Pichegru were sentenced to death and Moreau banished - but their interrogation had produced rumours of some Bourbon prince coming to lead the revolt. With the unfortunate Enghien just over the frontier, the conclusion was obvious. As Napoleon himself remarked, ‘The Duc d’Enghien was a conspirator just like any other, and it was necessary to treat him as any other might be treated.’50 The observer is still, however, left with the feeling that what moved Napoleon was in the end little more than a desire to flex his muscles. With the war at a standstill, he was suddenly presented with an opportunity to lash out and deliver a mighty blow that would serve to remind Europe of his power. To turn around the words of Hortense de Beauharnais, the thing could be done, and so Napoleon did it. And there is, as ever, the question of the First Consul’s ambition, both Bourrienne and Staël hinting very strongly that Enghien’s death was engineered as a means of paving the way for his elevation to the throne. Thus, ‘Napoleon would not confess the real cause of the death of the Duc d’Enghien, but inexorable history will relate that he was proclaimed emperor three months after his assassination.’51 Still more damning was the blunt manner in which he summed up the affair for Josephine and Claire de Rémusat: ‘From time to time it is no bad thing to show who is master.’52
Whatever the reasons for the execution, there can be no doubt as to its impact. In the famous words of Joseph Fouché, ‘It was worse than a crime: it was an error.’53 Though in receipt of a British pension, Enghien was not in arms when he was taken, but rather was living quietly in neutral territory, while he was never given anything even remotely approaching a fair trial. In Napoleon’s household even, there was much grief: news of the execution produced a noisy scene between Josephine and her husband, whilst Eugène de Beauharnais later wrote, ‘I was very upset on account of the respect and attachment in which I held the First Consul: it seemed to me that his glory had been sullied.’54 What of the execution’s impact outside France? Amongst the intellectual community, the First Consul’s reputation as a hero of justice and reform took a serious blow - it was at this point that Beethoven famously scratched out the original dedication to the ‘Eroica’ symphony - and it is clear that there was widespread shock. In the words of one observer, ‘The assassination of the unhappy Duc d’Enghien proved, even to the admirers of Napoleon, of what terrible excesses ambition could render him capable. All Europe shuddered with horror at that deed by which the most sacred rights were violated.’55 Connected with the ruling house of Baden by marriage, Gustav IV of Sweden called for an immediate crusade against Napoleon, and was so upset by the affair that he became increasingly obsessed with the belief that the French ruler was the beast of the Apocalypse. Though effectively a French satellite, Duke Frederick of Württemberg accused Napoleon of violating international law. And as for Russia, in Czartoryski’s words, ‘This event produced the strongest impression on Alexander and the rest of the imperial family; far from hiding this, this was expressed without constraint.’56 Acting in his role as guarantor of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, Alexander I protested at the violation of Baden’s neutrality and demanded an explanation of Napoleon’s actions, while he also enjoined the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire to register its own protest. The court went into mourning and the tsar openly snubbed the French ambassador, Hédouville, at a court levee that was held the day after the news arrived in St Petersburg. The First Consul, however, was unmoved: Sweden was ignored; the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire bullied into submission; and Alexander rebuffed with a stinging dispatch in which Napoleon pointedly inquired whether the tsar would not have seized the murderers of his father if he had discovered that they were in hiding in some town just outside his own frontiers. With the French ambassador withdrawn for good measure, there could be but one response: the Russian chargé d’affaires in Paris was instructed to ask for his passports, while troops began to be massed in Poland and Galicia. It was a key moment: though war was still not inevitable, from now on Alexander was committed to curbing Napoleon’s power.
If Napoleon was serious in his desire to avoid a war with Russia, now was the moment to adopt a policy of moderation. On the contrary, on 18 May 1804 there came the declaration that France was henceforth a hereditary empire. For apologists for the French ruler, this step is easy enough to explain. Napoleon himself was anxious to ensure the permanency of his regime, while the French people were in favour of the change and even beginning to demand it. At the same time, the step was not so very great: after all, had not Rome continued to call itself a republic even when it had long been ruled by the caesars? But all this was so much casuistry: the growing clamour for the First Consul to become emperor was all too clearly manufactured by the administration - the plebiscite held to ratify the establishment of the empire in the autumn was little short of farce - while the mere fact of making the regime hereditary was not enough to scotch royalist conspiracy: aside from anything else, Napoleon and Josephine had yet to produce an heir. Once again what mattered was naked ambition: the First Consul wanted to be a ruler as other rulers, to enjoy the trappings of monarchy and, perhaps above all, to break down yet another of the barriers that hemmed him in. To quote Thibaudeau, ‘Each time that the question of securing the power of the executive was mooted, the word heredity came to the front, and for the last six months it had been openly talked about in society. Every day people wondered when the First Consul was going to complete the “stability” of his government. The discovery of the conspiracy of [Cadoudal] and Pichegru furnished an excellent pretext to carry out the execution of a plan which had been maturing for the past three years.’57 Also instructive, meanwhile, is Napoleon’s own comment on the change: ‘The people and the army are for me: anyone who did not know how to seize the throne in such a situation would be a real fool.’58
With French power as unrivalled as it was, the impact of this pronouncement should not be underestimated. That the Bourbons had been replaced by a new dynasty was not in itself a problem: very few statesmen were so committed to the cause of legitimism that they wanted Louis XVIII and nothing else. The issue was rather the imperial title, which suggested that the erstwhile First Consul was laying claim to the mantle of Charlemagne and, beyond him, the Roman Empire. Secure in her northern bailiwick, an area that had never fallen under the suzerainty of either the Caesars or Charlemagne, Prussia could respond to the change with equanimity and recognized Napoleon’s new title without demur. But for Austria and Russia it was a different matter. For both powers, the new dispensation threatened to exclude them from Germany, while neither the Habsburgs nor the Romanovs were happy about granting equal status to the Bonapartes. In consequence, Austria dragged her feet over the issue of recognition and, despite threats of war, did not give way until she had secured a promise that Francis would be acknowledged as hereditary emperor of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire granted precedence over France. As for Russia, she joined with Sweden in refusing Napoleon her recognition while at the same time putting pressure on Turkey to follow this example. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the tsar and his advisers began to work for a new coalition that would drive Napoleon back at least to the limits agreed at Lunéville and Amiens, obtaining for this purpose the promise of substantial British subsidies. Meanwhile an ultimatum was sent to Napoleon demanding that he evacuate Hanover and Naples, and the French ruler’s refusal to comply led Russia to break off diplomatic relations once and for all in September 1804. And, last but not least, Czartoryski moderated his hostility to Prussia: the territories of Thorn and Posen would be restored to a Russian-controlled Poland, certainly, but Potsdam would now be compensated with further lands in western Germany.
With a Franco-Russian rupture now a fact, it would appear that a wider conflict was inevitable. However, even now there were other complications. In October 1804, for example, Britain had shocked European opinion by launching a surprise attack on a defenceless Spanish treasure fleet on the grounds that she had been covertly aiding France and might as well be forced openly to enter the war. Prepared, seemingly gratuitously, to extend her problems by going to war against Spain, Britain further irritated the Russians by making difficulties over assisting them against the French in the Adriatic: a naval squadron, it seemed, would be no difficulty, but even so few as 10,000 men would take many months to assemble. Nor would Britain pay out the money that Russia wanted: ‘Pitt’s gold’ would be in evidence, certainly, but only in limited quantities. With other problems occurring over the question of Malta, which Alexander was determined to claim for himself, having previously been ceded its sovereignty by the Knights of St John, the year drew to a close with an Anglo-Russian alliance seemingly out of reach, despite the fact that Alexander had dispatched a special envoy to London in the person of his friend and confidant, Nicolai Novosiltsev. As for the other partners who would be necessary - and it should be reiterated that Alexander was not prepared to send in his forces unless Austria moved as well - only Sweden was prepared to go to war. Despite clear evidence that Napoleon was planning the formation of a new German confederation that would finally overthrow the Holy Roman Empire, all that Austria would agree to was a defensive alliance that would come into play in the case of further French aggression in Egypt, the Balkans, Italy or Germany. As for Prussia, fears that Napoleon might launch a surprise attack were countered by suspicions of Russia and Sweden, the most that Frederick William was prepared to offer being an agreement to resist any French advance across the Prussian frontier provided that he was sent a Russian auxiliary force of at least 40,000 men.
Given Czartoryski’s foreign policy, the growth of hostility to France in St Petersburg might appear a mere pretext for the annexation of fresh territory in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In this respect Serbia offers a very useful test case. In February 1804 a major revolt broke out in the Ottoman pashalik of Belgrade under the leadership of a local chieftain named Djordje Petrovic (or to use the name by which he is invariably known, Karadjordje). Initially, this was no nationalist convulsion. National feeling among the populace was very weak, if not non-existent, and many of the inhabitants had to be coerced into taking arms. The goal of the revolt was not independence, but rather autonomy on the lines granted to the Ionian islands (despite governing themselves, they in theory acknowledged the sovereignty of the Sultan in Constantinople). Indeed, the greatest loyalty was expressed with regard to the person of Selim III, the chief goal of the insurgents being rather to break the power of the oppressive Turkish landlord class - thechiftliks - and, still more so, the undisciplined bands of marauders known as yamaks into which the janissaries that garrisoned the region had deteriorated. Nor was a desire to support the rule, and even strengthen the authority, of Constantinople surprising: under Selim III, who had been on the throne since 1789, fears that the Balkans might otherwise revolt had led to a great push for reform that for ten years had made a real difference to the Serbian position. Recently, however, things had got much worse: following Napoleon’s attack on Egypt, the Sultan’s need for the support of every man he could raise had led him to abandon his attempts to protect the Serbs. Meanwhile, the yamaks had murdered Selim’s governor, the sensible and moderate Hajji Mustafa, and replaced him with their own man, while at the same time venting years of suppressed frustration on the populace and its leaders, the clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the tribal chieftains known as the knezes. Hence the revolt of 1804: desperate to save their heads, priests and chieftains banded together and established an assembly at the town of Orasac, while irregular levies attacked the yamaks and exacted a terrible vengeance.
We have, then, a revolt in the Balkans, but do we also have Russian imperialism? Evidently not. Prior to 1804 the Russians had almost no contact with the Serbs of the Ottoman Empire, and they returned a non-committal but on the whole rather discouraging answer to a delegation that had travelled to St Petersburg with the news that an insurrection was brewing. When revolt actually broke out, moreover, the Russian position was at first one of neutrality: the commander of the Russian forces on the Adriatic coast refused to supply the rebels with arms, while the Foreign Ministry declared the affair to be of no interest to Russia, characterizing it as merely one more of the incessant disturbances that plagued the Ottoman Empire. Still more interestingly, proposals emanating from the Serbian exiles who had a century before fled to the Habsburg-controlled Vojvodina for a South Slav union of the sort put forward by Czartoryski were simply ignored. Czartoryski aside, neither pan-slavism nor imperialism marked Russian policy in the Balkans: the aim was neither to conquer the area, nor to partition it with France, but rather to prop up the Ottoman Empire as a dependent state that would keep the southern approaches to Russia in friendly hands. Since 1799, indeed, St Petersburg had been allied to Constantinople, and, greatly alarmed by French designs on the Balkans, the Russians were at this time trying to strengthen their military ties with Selim III.
With matters in this state Napoleon played straight into the hands of his opponents. The coronation ceremony held in Paris on 2 December 1804 greatly reinforced the fears that his assumption of the imperial title had already summoned up. The crown was a laurel wreath in the style of those associated with the caesars, and the robe was not only the purple of imperial Rome but also emblazoned with the bee, a creature that had a thousand years before been the badge of Charlemagne. Presiding over the ceremony was Pope Pius VII, whose presence Napoleon at one and the same time required as a means of legitimizing his rule, expressing the supremacy of the temporal power and reinforcing his claim to the mantle of Charlemagne, who had himself been crowned by Pope Leo III over a millennium before. If Pius was treated with scant courtesy by Napoleon, this generated little concern: Pius had been elected at a conclave held in Venice in the very midst of the allied victories of 1799 and had spent the first few months of his papacy as a de facto prisoner of the Austrians, who coveted large parts of his domains and were no friends of ultramontanism. But few could miss the significance of the new emperor’s actions, while still more grim was the symbolism of the new regimental standards awarded to the French army in a dramatic parade on the Champ de Mars: in place of a spearhead, the pole was now topped by a bronze eagle on the lines of that carried by the Roman legions. And all the time international law continued to be trampled upon: on 25 October the British minister in Hamburg, Sir George Rumbold, was arrested as a spy by a detachment of French troops, subjected to considerable ill treatment, transported to Paris and imprisoned in the Temple prison, where, as he later told the Earl of Malmesbury, his ‘first idea . . . was that he was to perish by secret means, and that, in order to attribute to him suicide, they would forge papers ... to demonstrate the state of despondency he was under’.59
‘This fresh violation of the rights of nations,’ wrote Fouché, ‘roused the whole of Europe.’60 Yet, despite all this, as 1805 dawned a new coalition was still far away. On 11 April Britain and Russia admittedly succeeded in concluding a treaty of alliance that committed Russia to war unless Napoleon agreed to conform to Amiens and Lunéville, and laid down the aim of excluding the French from Holland, Switzerland and northern Italy. This was the work of Novosiltsev, but when the terms reached St Petersburg there was great dissatisfaction. Hampered by contradictory instructions, the Russian envoy had been completely outmanoeuvred. The issue of Malta remained unresolved; the proposed subsidy-£1.25 million per annum for every 100,000 men deployed by the Russians - was nowhere near what Alexander expected; there was no mention of the freedom of the seas; and it was intimated that both Austria and Prussia would receive extensive territorial gains as part of the eventual European peace settlement. In consequence, the treaty for some time remained unratified. But Alexander’s displeasure was not the only problem. The alliance, it was agreed, would only come into force in the event of Austria going to war; more than that, Russia would not have to take up arms until Vienna had been at war for at least four months. But this meant that the whole negotiation was null and void, for Austria had no intention of taking part in an offensive war, and still less so one in which she would clearly be expected to do the bulk of the fighting. For the time being, then, there was neither a treaty, nor an alliance nor even friendship: at few moments in the Napoleonic Wars, indeed, were Anglo-Russian relations to hit such a low point. And - not that it mattered very much without Russian involvement - Gustav IV’s eagerness for a crusade against France had been greatly dissipated by fears for Swedish Pomerania, the last remnant of the once great Swedish empire on the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic. Thus Sweden would participate in a war, certainly, but she would neither act without Russia nor move her army beyond the Pomeranian frontier.
It is difficult to see where the Third Coalition would have been without Napoleon. At the start of the year there had been some sign that the French ruler was still at least prepared to pay lip-service to moderation. Rumbold was released within a matter of days thanks to the intercession of Frederick William III, and on January the new emperor had sent a further letter to George III lamenting France’s continued war with Britain and inviting him to make peace. Much in the style of the similar communication of December 1799, this missive - which offered nothing in the way of concessions - was primarily designed to embarrass Pitt, but the mere fact that it was written suggests some recognition of the need to play the peacemaker. Within a matter of months, however, the gauntlet was flung down once again. In May 1805 Napoleon descended on Milan and crowned himself King of Italy amidst yet more pomp and ceremony. As yet the only territories affected were those of the erstwhile Italian Republic, which now became the Kingdom of Italy, and Napoleon did not take up the reins of government in person, but instead installed his stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, as viceroy. This was meagre reassurance, however, for the French ruler’s new title clearly implied a claim to the whole of the Italian peninsula. And, if this was not enough, in early June Napoleon suddenly announced the annexation of Genoa - the Ligurian Republic - Parma and Piacenza, and appropriated Lucca as a principality for his younger sister, Elise. This was just too much. In response, Britain and Russia resolved their differences and ratified the treaty of 11 April. This, of course, left Austria, but she was not far behind and was now prepared to take the offensive. Even Francis II and the Archduke Charles could not tolerate French control of the whole of Italy, and the belief was growing in Vienna that Napoleon was contemplating a direct attack on the Habsburgs. At the same time, for once real support was on offer in the form of a one-off bonus of a further £1,666,000, an annual subsidy of £4 million and a Russian expeditionary force of 75,000 men (support, incidentally, that was not likely to be on offer indefinitely: the Russians, in particular, made it very clear that, unless the army they had massed on the frontiers of Galicia was set in motion very soon, it would have to be withdrawn). The choice was either to join a grand alliance now or fight alone later. Nor was Austria the only new recruit. Having blown hot and cold on the issue of war for the previous year, Gustav IV of Sweden now agreed to put 12,000 troops into the field in exchange for the enormous subsidy of £150,000 per year, plus further one-off payments amounting to £112,500.
Why had Napoleon acted as he did at this crucial moment? Setting aside his own explanation that as emperor he could hardly be president of a republic, one argument is that he always wanted to turn east, and was therefore eager to create a pretext for such a move by forcing the eastern powers into the open. A war in central Europe was certainly a possibility in Napoleon’s mind as early as the summer of 1804, while it later suited him to claim that Austria was always the real target of his war effort. As Metternich wrote:
In one of my longer conversations with Napoleon in the journey to Cambrai, whither I accompanied the emperor in 1810, the conversation turned upon the great military preparations he had made in the years 1803-1805 at Boulogne. I frankly confessed to him that even at that time I could not regard these offensive measures as directed against England. ‘You were very right,’ replied the emperor, smiling. ‘Never would I have been such a fool as to make a descent upon England, unless indeed a revolution had taken place within that country. The army assembled at Boulogne was always an army against Austria. I could not place it anywhere else without giving offence, and, being obliged to form it somewhere, I did so at Boulogne, where I could while collecting it also disquiet England. The very day of an insurrection in England, I should have sent over a detachment of my army to support the insurrection, [but] I should not the less have fallen on you.’61
But this is less than convincing: aside from anything else, the argument is simply too convenient for the emperor. Nor is it helpful to explain the imposition of French rule in the Italian Republic in rational terms relating to reform or political control: so slavish was the devotion of Melzi and his fellows to France that the emperor’s assumption of the throne made little difference. Once again, then, one is reduced to the personal dimension: Napoleon wanted simply to augment his own glory and, in particular, reinforce his links with Charlemagne, who had himself worn the iron crown that was placed on Napoleon’s head in Milan.
None of this means, however, that Napoleon was overly concerned at the prospect of war with Austria and Russia. Thus, by the summer of 1805, all was not well with the ‘Army of England’. Getting across the Channel had always presented problems, and on 20 July 1804 a sudden squall that sprang up in the midst of a grand review of its barges, sloops and pontoons not only left 2,000 men dead, but convinced many observers that success was out of the question. But not Napoleon: he spent most of the year that followed devising ways and means of concentrating a vast naval force that could descend on the Channel and clear the way for invasion. At first these schemes all came to grief, but in March 1805 the Toulon fleet of Admiral Pierre Villeneuve managed to slip out of port and, after a long voyage, reach the West Indies. However, a rendezvous with a small squadron that had escaped from Rochefort went wrong, while the Brest fleet of Admiral Honoré Ganteaume failed to break out at all. At the point that Napoleon made his great démarche in Italy, Villeneuve was still at large, and there was some faint hope that he might link up with the Spanish squadron in El Ferrol and raise the blockade of Brest. However, whether even the emperor believed such a scenario to be possible must be open to doubt: one of the reasons why Ganteaume never escaped from Brest was that he had received orders from Napoleon that he should on no account attempt directly to confront the British ships on patrol outside. And at the same time one can sense compulsion pure and simple: faced by the growing evidence that Napoleon intended to transform the Italian Republic into a monarchy, Austria had responded by indicating that she had no objections to such a course provided that France’s Milanese satellite remained independent. But accepting such a limitation would have implied that other powers had a say in what Napoleon could and could not do. And to this there was but one answer: the Italian Republic would not just become a kingdom, but also a kingdom ruled by the emperor and all but surrounded by French territory.
Whatever the reason for Napoleon’s actions, there is no doubt that by them he single-handedly created the Third Coalition. Yet, great though the sense of shock was, Europe was still not completely united against him. Opportunistic as ever, Prussia weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of empire and coalition, and in fact put out feelers to both camps. From Russia there came nothing more than the offer of a triple alliance with Austria and Russia that would guarantee Germany against any further French encroachment, whether political or military, but the French response was very different: to obtain a Prussian alliance, Napoleon was prepared not just to promise Frederick William that he would be given Hanover with the coming of peace, but also to hand that state over to Prussian occupation straight away, while at the same time guaranteeing the integrity of Germany and Switzerland. With Russia becoming ever more menacing - news arrived not only of Russian troops massing on the frontier, but also that a pro-Russian insurrection was being stirred up in Prussian Poland - Potsdam veered very much in the direction of Paris: if Napoleon engaged in any more serious acts of aggression in Germany or anywhere else, argued Frederick William’s new chief minister, Karl August von Hardenberg, then Prussia should probably join Britain and Russia, but, unless and until that proved the case, she should seek to retain the emperor’s friendship.
Another state playing a double game was Naples. At first sight this is somewhat surprising. Unlike Frederick William III, Ferdinand IV did not enjoy good relations with Napoleon. Setting aside the fact that he regarded him as an upstart and a ‘Jacobin’, he had recently been faced by a demand that the commander of the Neapolitan army, Roger de Damas, should immediately be dismissed as an enemy of France, or, in other words, an emigré. For good measure, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina were also accused of planning a new war. Now, as it happened, Damas was not an emigré - he had been in the service of first Russia and then Naples since 1786- and the queen attempted to keep the peace by writing a personal letter to Napoleon in which she sought to calm his fears. The sequel, however, was all too predictable:
The style of the queen’s letter was firm, dignified and friendly, and she had no doubt that, unless Bonaparte were seeking for a pretext to break the peace, he would adopt a more reasonable and cordial tone . . . But this hope was short-lived: Bonaparte’s answer . . . was full of rancour and arrogance. He laid all the troubles of the past at her door, and made her responsible for all that was yet to come, and he ended with . . . some impertinent fatherly advice to the effect that she would do well to be careful lest she should fall victim to her own actions and be reduced to begging for assistance at the courts of her kinsfolk . . . These were his final and least harsh expressions. The queen shed torrents of tears as she was reading this fatal letter, and, if it had the effect of increasing her bitterness and hatred towards this man, who could wonder?62
To reinforce this message, Napoleon proceeded to rattle his sabre: in the midst of the carnival celebrations for 1805, an ultimatum was received from the commander of the French forces in Naples, Marshal Gouvion St Cyr, announcing that he would march on the capital unless both Damas and Elliot, the British ambassador, left the country within three days. In the end a compromise was negotiated - Elliot was allowed to stay and Damas was removed from command of the army and sent to Sicily - but it was clear that for Napoleon the affair constituted unfinished business: for example, a Neapolitan nobleman who attended the festivities surrounding the emperor’s coronation as King of Italy was treated to a violent tirade ‘that culminated in an unseemly and unbridled attack upon the queen’.63
All this was very alarming, but the way forward was less than clear. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina feared and hated Napoleon and longed for his defeat, but with the country partially occupied by French troops they could at best play a double game. On the one hand Napoleon was offered the promise of neutrality if only he would respect Naples’s independence, while on the other secret approaches were made to Russia which on September produced what looked like an agreement to go to war. In exchange for the immediate dispatch of an Anglo-Russian expeditionary force, Naples would resist both any increase in the French forces stationed on her territory and any expansion of the zone in which they were deployed. Yet the dissimulation continued: above all, it was not made clear what ‘resistance’ actually meant. In the event, the answer proved to be ‘not very much’. Almost before the ink on the agreement with Russia had time to dry, Napoleon decided to reinforce St Cyr with an extra 6,000 troops; the Neapolitan response to this was not even to protest, let alone take up arms, but rather to sign a treaty of alliance with France that committed Naples to closing her ports to British ships and defending her territory against any foreign incursions.
Although the Neapolitan government had clearly not wanted to take this step - the king had to be bullied into signing the treaty by his ministers, and hastened to tell the Russian ambassador that he considered it null and void - there was a subtext. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina did not feel in danger just from France, but also from Britain. In the midst of the quarrels that beset Anglo-Russian relations in the easy summer of 1805, the Russian ambassador to Naples had informed the king that the British were planning to seize Sicily. Strictly speaking, this was true enough: in March 1805 Sir James Craig was given 8,000 men and directed to occupy Sicily should Naples join Napoleon or experience a complete French takeover. But this was only part of the story: Craig was informed that the very strong preference of the British government was that he should occupy Sicily with the permission of Ferdinand IV. And, beyond that, it was not ruled out that the British expeditionary force should engage in operations on the mainland in support of the Neapolitans in company with the Russian troops currently occupying the Ionian islands. But with plenty of observers in the Neapolitan court only too ready to believe the worst of Britain, the damage could not be undone. Setting aside the unfortunate impact which the affair had on Anglo-Russian cooperation in the Mediterranean, the Neapolitan government excluded Elliot from the negotiations that led to the September pact and ever afterwards adopted an air of suspicion and hostility. The tangled story of Anglo-Sicilian relations is something to which we will return, but for the time being let us simply cite the recollections of one of Craig’s staff officers, Sir Henry Bunbury. When the British eventually arrived at Messina, they were kept waiting in the harbour for four weeks before they were given permission to disembark, and the governor ‘allowed us just what he could not refuse to allies [and] threw everything in our way that he could without giving open offence’; as for the queen, further incensed by the eventual abandonment of the mainland without a fight, she is described as ‘boiling with rage against the . . . English, whom she seized every occasion of stigmatizing by the most insane abuse’.64
Prussia and Naples aside, however, by the middle of August 1805 the Third Coalition was taking shape. Britain, Austria, Russia and Sweden all stood together, and also hoped to win the support of Naples and, just possibly, although it now seemed most unlikely, Prussia. As summer drifted into autumn, so Alexander also pursued the possibility of bringing in both Denmark and Turkey. What, though, did the new league stand for? British observers have generally tended to seize upon a famous memoir written by William Pitt for the Russian government in January 1804. Billed as a plan for the reconstruction of Europe, this specified that ideally the French should evacuate the Low Countries, Italy and Germany and accept frontiers based on those of 1792 (there was never any suggestion that the erstwhile papal enclaves of Avignon and Orange should be taken away). The United Provinces, Switzerland, Tuscany, Modena and Piedmont were all to be restored as independent states, while the United Provinces, Piedmont, Austria and Prussia were all to receive substantial new territories. The United Provinces would be given all of Belgium north of a line stretching from Antwerp to Maastricht; Piedmont given Genoa and western Lombardy; Austria the so-called ‘Legations’ (i.e. the district centred on Bologna and Ferrara that constituted the northernmost province of the Papal States) and what was left of Lombardy; and Prussia the southern part of the Austrian Netherlands, Luxembourg and the left bank of the Rhine. As for the resultant settlement, it would be guaranteed by Britain and Russia, bolstered by a new code of international law, and further stiffened by German and Italian defence unions of which the respective kingpins would be Prussia and Austria. Albeit at the cost of the frontiers of 1789- for many minor states would either be stripped of some of their land or erased altogether - France would be shut in by an expanded Piedmont backed up by Austria in the south and an expanded United Provinces backed up by Prussia in the north. Even better, meanwhile, Pitt’s plan did away with the need for total victory. With a proper cordon sanitaire in place along her frontiers, the Allies could rest easy as to what should be done with France herself: while Pitt considered the restoration of the Bourbons to be desirable and believed, indeed, that this object should be promoted, he did not see it as necessarily a fundamental principle of allied policy and, by extension, was prepared to allow Napoleon to remain on the throne.
This scheme, it can be argued, was in essence a conversion of the vague, misty and ill-thought-out views that Alexander I brought to the coalition into a practical design for the future well-being of Europe. As expressed by the instructions issued to his special emissary, Novosiltsev, in the autumn of 1804, the tsar’s plans were certainly open to question. While there was clearly much common ground - the restoration of the United Provinces, Piedmont and Switzerland, and the evacuation of Germany and Italy - Alexander wanted much else. Where Pitt envisaged the restoration of a modified form of the Holy Roman Empire, Alexander wanted the ‘third Germany’ to become a national federation; where Pitt had little interest in the details of the political settlement to pertain in each state, Alexander believed that it was essential to intervene in this respect; where Pitt looked on the whole to states that were historic units, Alexander harboured dreams of a Europe built on national units and natural frontiers; and, finally, while Pitt did not look beyond a treaty by which the new dispensation could be guaranteed, Alexander wanted a new system of collective security and a code of international law. Inherent to all this were certain ideas which the British were inclined to regard not just as harmlessly idealistic, but dangerous and even hostile. Thus in the new Europe it would not only be France that would be placed under constraint, but also Britain, for the tsar wanted her to agree to a general freedom of the seas and envisaged concessions on other fronts as well. Much of this Pitt dodged: his memorandum said nothing about maritime commerce, nothing about Britain’s colonial gains, nothing about Malta (whose surrender had not been mentioned by Novosiltsev, but certainly tied in with the spirit of the tsar’s ideas) and nothing about Alexander’s ‘brave new world’. With regard to the Low Countries, the British Prime Minister also failed to put forward the far more logical course of action represented by giving Prussia the United Provinces rather than the Austrian Netherlands, and making the latter a buffer state ruled, say, by the House of Orange: to have done so would have been to risk transforming Prussia into a dangerous naval rival. To cement the alliance, Pitt was therefore in the end forced to meet Alexander halfway: Britain would give up all her colonial conquests, open up the question of neutral rights to discussion after the war, and consider evacuating Malta in exchange for Menorca. But the Anglo-Russian treaty of 11 April 1805- the central pillar of the Third Coalition - contained none of this; all that Pitt agreed to was that the peoples of Switzerland and the United Provinces should be allowed to determine their own mode of government, that the King of Piedmont should be encouraged to grant his subjects a constitution, and that the powers of Europe should consider the possibility of establishing some form of ‘league of nations’ when peace was restored.
Was this scheme really the framework of a new order? Hardly. There were, of course, many superficial resemblances to the Vienna settlement of 1815, and all the more so as the treaty of 11 April backed away from some of the odder features of Pitt’s schemes (such as, for example, the idea that most of Belgium should be given to Prussia). But in practice Alexander’s vision of a new Europe went by the board. If the West was to be ruled by a new model of territorial arrangement in which military and strategic considerations were allowed to outweigh the demands of legitimism, in the East all was much as before. Thus, even if this was cloaked in some instances by the desire to restore a Polish state, powerful elements within the Russian government wanted fresh territory in Poland, and this meant that Austria and Prussia must be compensated in their turn. And, if special interests operated in the case of Russia, so they did in the case of Britain, except that here the goal was not territorial gain but security from invasion and the right to rule the sea. Nor was this an end to the differences that marked the two settlements. As Paul Schroeder has pointed out, in essence what we have here is an attempt by Britain and Russia, first, simply to impose their own agenda on the rest of Europe, and, second, to get more or less powerful auxiliaries - the Austrians, the Prussians, the Neapolitans, the Swedes and the Danes - to do the bulk of the fighting for them (of the 400,000 men who were originally to be committed to the alliance, only 115,000 were Russian and fewer than 20,000 British). Hence his belief that the treaty of
11 April 1805 was not progressive at all, but rather backward-looking and thoroughly eighteenth-century.
So how did war actually break out? On 8 August 1805 Austria finally acceded to the Third Coalition, and less than a month later sent a large army under General Mack across the frontier into Bavaria. The ‘War of the Third Coalition’ had begun. In just two years, Napoleon had converted an Anglo-French war into one involving the whole of Europe. In May 1803 Britain had not only stood alone, but had been regarded by the rest of Europe with hostility and suspicion. By 1805, of the great powers only Prussia remained outside her embrace. Far from buying foreign support with ‘Pitt’s gold’, Britain had had little to do with this result, the chief pressure for the formation of the Third Coalition having come from Russia. Just as the events of 1802-3 revealed to Britain that she had no option but to stand firm against Napoleon, so those of 1804-5 showed Alexander I that he too had to fight. And why was this the case? The answer was simply ‘Napoleon’. Warned by Fouché that his conduct could not but provoke a wider war, the emperor’s response was: ‘I must have battles and triumphs.’65 The same observer recalled, ‘One day, upon my objecting to him that he could not make war against England and against all Europe, he replied, “I may fail by sea, but not by land; besides, I shall be able to strike the blow before the old coalition machines are ready. The people of the old school understand nothing about it, and . . . have neither activity nor decision . . . I do not fear old Europe.” ’66 Beyond this there was yet another problem. To quote Claire de Rémusat, an observer who was very close to him at this period, ‘The greatest error of Bonaparte, an error that stemmed from his very character, was that he did not measure his conduct by anything other than success . . . His innate pride could not support the idea of a defeat of any sort.’67 The emperor could not accept that there were limits, whether military, political, diplomatic or moral, to what he could do, and over and over again rammed home this same message. Madame de Rémusat, it will be objected, was a witness hostile to the emperor, and therefore hardly someone to be trusted. But precisely the same idea may be found in the words of men who remained loyal admirers of Napoleon to the death. Commenting on the campaigns of 1805-7 , for example, Lavallette wrote, ‘It was not those two years of triumphant battles that suggested to the emperor the idea of conquering Europe in order to become its master . . . This idea arose naturally out of his own genius and character, for these terrible world-conquerors all belong to the same family: the first everywhere, or death.’68