Modern history



IN 1804 PITT WAS RECALLED TO POWER. FEVERISHLY HE FLUNG himself into the work of reorganising England’s war effort. Since the renewal of war Britain had found herself alone against Napoleon, and for two years she maintained the struggle single-handed during one of the most critical periods in her history. Pitt’s exertions eventually resulted in the creation of another coalition with Austria and Russia. But this took time. The French had for the moment cowed the Continent into a passive acceptance of their mastery. The opportunity was now at hand to concentrate the whole weight of the armed forces of France against the stubborn Islanders. Elaborate plans went forward to bring about their subjugation. An enormous army was organised and concentrated at the Channel ports for the invasion of England. A fleet of flat-bottomed boats was built to bring two hundred thousand men across the Channel to what seemed inevitable success. At the crest of his hopes Napoleon had himself crowned by the Pope as Emperor of the French. One thing alone was lacking to his designs—command of the sea. It was essential to obtain naval control of the Channel before embarking upon such an enterprise. As before and since in her history, the Royal Navy alone seemed to stand between the Island and national destruction. Its tasks were manifold. Day in, day out, winter and summer, British fleets kept blockade of the French naval bases of Brest and Rochefort on the Atlantic coast and Toulon in the Mediterranean. At all costs a junction of the main French fleets must be prevented. The seas must be kept free for the trade and commerce upon which Britain’s strength depended. Such French squadrons as occasionally escaped must be hunted down and sunk, or driven back to port. The Western Approaches to the English Channel must infallibly be guarded against French intrusion. Here was the rallying point for the far-flung British fleets when danger of invasion threatened the Island, and here lay the main naval force under Admiral Cornwallis. As the American historian Admiral Mahan has said, “It was these distant storm-beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked which stood between it and the dominion of the world.”

In May 1803 Nelson had returned to the Mediterranean to resume command of his fleet. Here the fate of his country might be decided. It was his task to contain the French fleet in Toulon and stop it from raiding Sicily and the Eastern Mediterranean, or sailing into the Atlantic, whence it might lift the blockade of Rochefort and Brest, force the Channel, and co-operate with the armada from Boulogne. Nelson was well aware of the grim significance of the moment, and all his brilliance as a commander was employed on creating a first-class machine. The crews were reorganised, the ships refitted under dangerous and difficult circumstances. He had no secure base from which to watch Toulon. Gibraltar and Malta were both too far away, and Minorca had been given back to Spain at the Treaty of Amiens. Provisions had to be brought from the coast towns of Sardinia and Spain, and when water ran out he was forced each time to raise the blockade and move his whole force into Sardinian harbours. He was not even superior in numbers to the main French fleet in Toulon harbour. Under such circumstances a literal hemming in of the French was impossible. Nelson’s burning desire was to lure them out and fight them. Annihilation was his policy. He kept a screen of frigates watching Toulon, and himself with his battleships lay off Sardinia, alert for interception. Twice in the course of two years the French attempted a sortie, but retired. Throughout this time Nelson never set foot on shore. The constant nightmare in his mind revolved round the direction in which the French would make. For Sicily and Egypt? Or Spain and the Atlantic? He had to cover all escape routes.

In the centre of the web sat Napoleon, and the elaborate scheme for the final blow against England was slowly woven. But the vital instrument in his hand was brittle. The French Navy had suffered a crushing blow in the days of the Revolution. With the breakdown of the finances the existing ships had fallen into disrepair and for some time no further additions were made to the Fleet. The officer class had been almost wiped out on the guillotine. Discipline was bad and the French Navy in no state to play a decisive rôle. But strenuous efforts at recovery were made by Napoleon’s Minister of Marine. New French commanders distinguished themselves in commerce-raiding upon the oceans. In May 1804 the Emperor had confided the Toulon fleet to Admiral Villeneuve, an excellent seaman, who realised that his ships, except for the luck of circumstance, could only play a defensive part. Napoleon would brook no obstacles, and a complicated series of feints was worked out to deceive the British agents who swarmed into France to gather such information as they could. Spain was dragged into his schemes, her Fleet being a necessary adjunct to the main plan. In the early months of 1805 Napoleon made his final arrangements. Over ninety thousand assault troops, picked and trained, lay in the camps round Boulogne. The French Channel ports were not constructed to take battleships, and the French fleets in the Atlantic and Mediterranean harbours must be concentrated elsewhere to gain command of the Channel. The Emperor fixed upon the West Indies. Here, after breaking the Mediterranean and Atlantic blockades, and drawing off the British Fleet, as he thought, into the waters of the Western Atlantic, his ships were ordered to gather. The combined French and Spanish fleets would then unite with Ganteaume, the admiral of the Brest squadron, double back to Europe, sail up the Channel, and assure the crossing from Boulogne. The scheme was brilliant on paper, but it took no account of the state of the French ships, and it ignored the vital strategy of concentration always pursued by British admirals when the enemy was at large.

Nelson was lying in wait off the Sardinian coastline in April 1805 when news reached him that Villeneuve was at sea, having slipped out of Toulon on the dark night of March 30, sailing, as Nelson did not yet know, in a westerly direction with eleven ships of the line and eight frigates. The fox was out and the chase began. Fortune seemed against Nelson. His frigates lost touch with Villeneuve, and he had first to make sure that the French were not running for Sicily and the Near East. This done, he headed for Gibraltar. Fierce westerly gales prevented him reaching the Straits until May 4, when he learnt that Villeneuve had passed through to Cadiz more than three weeks before. Six Spanish battleships had come out to join him, and the long voyage across the Atlantic began. Nelson, picking up scattered reports from frigates and merchantmen, pieced together the French design. All his qualities were now displayed to the full. Out of perplexing, obscure, and conflicting reports he had fathomed the French plan. There was no evidence to show that Villeneuve had gone to the north, and there could hardly be any reason for his sailing south along the West African coast. Therefore on May 11 Nelson made the momentous decision to sail westwards himself. He had ten ships of the line to follow seventeen of the enemy. The passage was uneventful. In stately procession at an average rate of five and a half knots the English pursued their quarry, and a game of hide-and-seek followed among the West Indian islands. Villeneuve and his Spanish allies reached Martinique on May 14. Nelson made landfall at Barbados on June 4. False intelligence led him to miss Villeneuve in the Caribbean seas. Meanwhile news of his arrival alarmed the French admiral, who was promptly out again in the Atlantic by June 8, heading east. On the 12th Nelson lay off Antigua, where Villeneuve had lain only four days earlier. He again had to make a crucial decision. Was he right in believing that the French were making for Europe? As he wrote in a dispatch, “So far from being infallible, like the Pope, I believe my opinions to be very fallible, and therefore I may be mistaken that the enemy’s fleet has gone to Europe; but I cannot think myself otherwise, notwithstanding the variety of opinions which a number of good people have formed.”


Before leaving the islands Nelson sent a fast sloop back to England with dispatches, and on June 19 it passed Villeneuve’s fleet, noting his course and position. The commander of the sloop saw that Villeneuve was heading north-eastwards for the Bay of Biscay, and raced home, reaching Plymouth on July 8. Lord Barham, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, aged seventy-eight and with a lifetime’s naval experience, at once realised what was happening. Nelson was sailing rapidly eastwards after Villeneuve, believing he would catch him at Cadiz and head him off the Straits, while the French fleet was making steadily on a more northerly course in the direction of Cape Finisterre. Villeneuve intended to release the Franco-Spanish squadron blockaded at Ferrol, and, thus reinforced, join with Ganteaume from Brest. But Ganteaume, in spite of peremptory orders from Napoleon, failed to break out. Admiral Cornwallis’s fleet in the Western Approaches kept him in port. Meanwhile, on orders from Barham at the Admiralty, Admiral Calder intercepted Villeneuve off Finisterre, and here in late July the campaign of Trafalgar opened. Calder’s action was indecisive, and the French took refuge in Ferrol.

Nelson meanwhile had reached Cadiz on July 18. There he found Collingwood on guard, but no sign of the enemy. Realising that Villeneuve must have gone north, Nelson replenished his fleet in Morocco and sailed for home waters on the 23rd. On the same day Napoleon arrived at Boulogne. The crisis was at hand and the outlying squadrons of the Royal Navy instinctively gathered at the mouth of the Channel for the defence of the Island. Calder joined Cornwallis off Brest on August 14, and on the next day Nelson arrived with twelve more ships, bringing the main fleet up to a total of nearly forty ships of the line. Thus was the sea-barrier concentrated against the French. Nelson went on alone with his flagship, the Victory, to Portsmouth. In the following days the campaign reached its climax. Villeneuve sailed again from Ferrol on August 13 in an attempt to join Ganteaume and enter the English Channel, for Napoleon still believed that the British fleets were dispersed and that the moment had come for invasion. On August 21 Ganteaume was observed to be leaving harbour, but Cornwallis closed in with his whole force and the French turned back. Meanwhile Villeneuve, having edged out into the Atlantic, had changed his mind. Well aware of the shortcomings of his ill-trained fleet, desperately short of supplies, and with many sick on board, he had abandoned the great venture on August 15 and was already speeding south to Cadiz. The threat of invasion was over.

Early in September dispatches reached London telling that Villeneuve had gone south. Nelson, summoned from his home at Merton, was at once ordered to resume his command. “I hold myself ready to go forth whenever I am desired,” he wrote, “although God knows I want rest.” Amid scenes of enthusiasm he rejoined the Victory at Portsmouth and sailed on September 15. All England realised that her fate now lay in the hands of this frail man. A fortnight later he joined the fleet off Cadiz, now numbering twenty-seven ships of the line. “We have only one great object in view,” he wrote to Collingwood, “that of annihilating our enemies.” His object was to starve the enemy fleet, now concentrated in Cadiz harbour, and force it out into the open sea and to battle. This involved patrolling the whole adjacent coast. He organised his own ships into blockading squadrons. His energy and inspiration roused the spirit of his captains to the highest pitch. To them he outlined a new and daring plan of battle. He intended to ignore the Admiralty’s “Fighting Instructions.” To gain a decisive victory, he was resolved to abandon the old formal line of battle, running parallel to the enemy’s fleet. He would break Villeneuve’s line, when it came out of port, by sailing at right angles boldly into it with two main divisions. While the enemy van was thus cut off and out of touch his centre and rear would be destroyed. After his conference with his captains Nelson wrote, “All approved. It was new, it was singular, it was simple. It must succeed.” In a mood of intense exhilaration the fleet prepared for the ordeal ahead. Meanwhile Villeneuve had received orders to sail for Naples in support of Napoleon’s new military plans. After learning that he was about to be superseded, he resolved to obey before his successor could arrive. On the morning of October 19 a frigate signalled to Nelson’s flagship, “Enemy has their topsail yards hoisted,” and some time later, “Enemy ships are coming out of port.” On receiving these messages Nelson led his fleet to the southeast to cut off the enemy from the Straits and force them to fight in the open sea. At daybreak on the 21st he saw from the quarterdeck of the Victory the battle line of the enemy, consisting of an advance squadron of twelve Spanish ships under Admiral Gravina and twenty-one French ships of the line under Villeneuve. It was seven months since the escape from Toulon, and the first time that Nelson had seen his foes since war had begun again in 1803.

The British fleet lay about ten miles west of the enemy, to the windward, and at six in the morning Nelson signalled his ships to steer east-north-east for the attack in the two columns he had planned. The enemy turned northwards on seeing the advancing squadrons, and Nelson pressed on with every sail set. The clumsy seamanship of his men convinced Villeneuve that flight was impossible, and he hove to in a long sagging line to await Nelson’s attack. The English admiral turned to one of his officers. “They have put a good face on it, but I will give them such a dressing as they have never had before.” Nelson signalled to Collingwood, who was at the head of the southern column in the Royal Sovereign, “I intend to pass through the van of the enemy’s line, to prevent him getting into Cadiz.” Nelson went down to his cabin to compose a prayer. “May the Great God whom I worship grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory. . . . For myself, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully.” The fleets were drawing nearer and nearer. Another signal was run up upon the Victory, “England expects every man will do his duty.” When Collingwood saw the flutter he remarked testily, “I wish Nelson would stop signalling, as we all know well enough what we have to do,” but when the message was reported to him cheers broke out from the ships in his line. A deathly silence fell upon the fleet as the ships drew nearer. Each captain marked down his adversary, and within a few minutes the two English columns thundered into action. The roar of broadsides, the crashing of masts, the rattle of musketry at point-blank range rent the air. The Victory smashed through between Villeneuve’s flagship, the Bucentaure, and the Redoutable. The three ships remained locked together, raking each other with broadsides. Nelson was pacing as if on parade on his quarterdeck when at 1.15 PM he was shot from the mast-head of the Redoutable by a bullet in the shoulder. His backbone was broken, and he was carried below amid the thunder of the Victory’s guns. The battle was still raging. By the afternoon of October 21, 1805, eighteen of the enemy ships had surrendered and the remainder were in full retreat. Eleven entered Cadiz, but four more were captured off the coast of Spain. In the log of the Victory occurs the passage, “Partial firing continued until 4.30, when a victory having been reported to the right Hon. Lord Viscount Nelson, K.B. and Commander-in-Chief, he then died of his wound.”

The victory was complete and final. The British Fleet, under her most superb commander, like him had done its duty.


Napoleon meanwhile was attracted to other fields. When Villeneuve that summer failed to break through into the Channel the Emperor made a sudden change of plan. He determined to strike at the European coalition raised against him by Pitt’s diplomacy and subsidies. In August 1805 the camp at Boulogne broke up, and the French troops set out on their long march to the Danube.

The campaign that followed wrecked Pitt’s hopes and schemes. In the month of Trafalgar the Austrian General Mack surrendered at Ulm. Austria and Russia were broken at the Battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon’s star had once more triumphed, and for England all was to do again. About this time the Prime Minister gave audience to a young general home from India. In forthright terms this officer noted his opinion of Pitt. “The fault of his character,” he wrote, “is being too sanguine. . . . He conceives a project and then imagines it is done.” This severe but not inaccurate judgment was formed by one who was to have many dealings with the armies of the French Emperor. His name was Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington.

A personal sorrow now darkened Pitt’s life. The House of Commons by the casting vote of the Speaker resolved to impeach his close colleague and lifelong companion, Henry Dundas, now Lord Melville, for maladministration in the Admiralty and for the peculations of certain of his subordinates. The decisive speech against Dundas was made by none other than Wilberforce. The scene in the House of Commons was poignant. Pitt’s eyes filled with tears as he listened to Wilberforce attacking his other greatest friend. After the adverse decision the Opposition crowded round him “to see how Pitt took it”; but, encircled by his supporters, he was led from the House. It was this disgrace, rather than the news of Austerlitz, which finally broke the spirit and energy of the Prime Minister. In January 1806 he died. Wilberforce has written a valediction for his friend:

The time and circumstances of his death were peculiarly affecting. I really never remember any event producing so much apparent feeling. . . . For a clear and comprehensive view of the most complicated subject in all its relations; for the fairness of mind which disposes a man to follow out, and when overtaken to recognise, the truth; for magnanimity which made him ready to change his measures when he thought the good of the country required it, though he knew he should be charged with inconsistency on account of the change; for willingness to give a fair hearing to all that could be urged against his own opinions, and to listen to the suggestions of men whose understanding he knew to be inferior to his own; for personal purity, disinterestedness, integrity, and love of his country, I have never known his equal.

“In an age,” runs the inscription on his monument in Guildhall, “when the contagion of ideals threatened to dissolve the forms of civil society he rallied the loyal, the sober-minded, and the good around the venerable structure of the English monarchy.” This is a fitting epitaph.

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