The lack of offensive spirit on the part of France in the naval operations of the great war was the logical outcome of long adherence to radically unsound principles. In March, 1781, Barras can write to the Minister of Marine: 'Il est de principe de guerre qu'on doit risquer beaucoup pour defendre ses propres positions, et ties pen pour attaquer celles des ennemis.' The policy is well summed up by a recent French naval historian as I disdain of the enemy's fleet, geographical or commercial objectives, terror of risks, absence of pursuit, direct coast defence' (Castex).
The outbreak of the French Revolution reduced the French navy to chaos. For many of the brilliant professional officers there was left no choice between exile and the scaffold. It seemed that the very efficiency which dated from the institutions of pre-revolutionary France was itself a crime in 1789 Loud-voiced sentiments of liberty and patriotism now did duty for the discipline and training which Choiseul 1 had designed and in great measure had achieved. Both officers and men, who knew these qualities to be indispensable, would no longer sully reputation and honour by remaining to serve with men ‘who had for guide no other principle than that of Nature and a heart truly French.'
Good gunnery and seamanship disappeared with the trained men. The manning of the ships was a perpetual problem; the condition of the men on board was very miserable; and the ships themselves were ill-found and short of spare sails and rigging.
Napoleon was powerless, at short notice, to galvanise his navy into life and vigour, though he often refused to accept the doleful reports of his subordinates.
The following letters well illustrate the Blockade of Brest as it appeared from the French side.
(a) Caffarelli 2 to Decres.3 (N.R.S. xiv, p. 56.)
Brest, 11 messidor, year xi (30 June, 1803).
Our coasts are fortified, it is true, but without troops to defend them, or their number is so small that they do it badly. The general commanding in Finistere begs for at least 2000 men to be sent him. I have asked for at least 1000 more, for our armaments are incomplete, as also our coast detachments.
Our division of four ships cannot put to sea. Its presence in the Goulet would attract the English fleet, and the slightest accident to the ships would involve the certain loss of those which suffered in an action. Accordingly our incapacity for making great efforts permits our enemies to attempt all the small enterprises they can; it is only with diffidence and circumspection that our vessels can sail.
This state of things is distressing, citizen minister.
(b) Same to Same. (N.R.S. xiv, p. 81.)
Brest, 6 thermidor, year xi (25 July, 1803).
The English are constantly on our coasts; some vessels off Ushant, four or five anchor in the day at the. Black Rocks, a frigate and a corvette remain under sail at Douarnenez, a corvette and a cutter come right up to the entrance of the Goulet and cruise there constantly. Their boats make descents on the neighbouring islands, where there are no troops; they also go to the coast at a distance from frequented places, and their crews can gather such intelligence as it is possible to extract by intimidation or less direct methods.
1 Chief Minister of Louis XV, 1758-70; Foreign Minister, 1758-61; Minister of War and of Marine, 1761-66; Minister of War and of Foreign Affairs, 1766-70.
2 Naval Prefect at Brest.
3 Minister of Marine.
An inhabitant of the island of Beniguet has sent me a report, dated the 3rd, which reached me today: the English have landed in arms on Beniguet; they demanded whether there was not, at Conquet, a convoy composed of fifteen luggers coming from the north, and with what they were laden. He replied that he knew nothing about it. They said that they expected to find a further ten ships in this port, in all twenty-five. An English officer has made a bet with this man's wife that before long they will have carried off some of them; the bet was ten louis against one of her cows.
Never, in the last war, did I see such a surrender of Finistere. Brest and the fleet then offered far greater resources for attack or for continuous defence.
Napoleon to Ganteaume. (N.R.S. xxi, p. .59.)
Aix-la-Chapelle, Sept. 6th, 1804
Vice-Admiral Ganteaume, Commander-in-Chief of the Brest fleet, I have received your letter of August 27th. I have given orders for the 1273 men wanting to make up the complement of your squadron to be placed at your disposal, viz.: 200 men of the Marine Artillery, 600 dockyard conscripts, and 500 men from infantry of the line. So the Patriote is in the roadstead at last! With 21 ships, I hope that you will be in a position to do something.
Your sortie has struck the English with great terror. They know well that, having all the seas to defend, a squadron escaping from Brest could do them incalculable harm; and, if you could carry in Brumaire 16,000 men and 500 horses to Ireland, the result would be fatal to our enemies. Tell me if you think you can be ready, and what are the probabilities of success. See the Irish General, O'Connor, and discuss with him the possible landing-places. I quite realise that a sortie, like that which you have made, demands favourable circumstances which do not present themselves every day; but I do not understand why your ships do not get under way every day to manoeuvre in the roadstead. What possible danger is there in doing that? The fops of the squadron could laugh and gibe at their great expeditions; it would be none the less true that, in these continual exercises, you would give your squadron a deportment and experience of the greatest value, and you would have done everything which depends on you. I do not know the roadstead of Brest well enough to know if a squadron of five ships could manoeuvre there, and at your signal put itself in battle order for the different evolutions: if that is practicable, why isn't it done? I have caused these manoeuvres to be carried out by the Boulogne flotilla, with excellent results, and it is still doing them; it is an object of encouragement and of instruction the advantage of which no one can deny. We must not look for what we lack; I cannot perform miracles; but we must do what is possible. I have enough experience of the sea to know that, if one were only to weigh anchor, unfurl the sails, and come to an anchor again - I say more, if one were to do no more than clear for action, the result would always be very advantageous. Be frank: how many ships have you which clear for action well? The hammocks are badly stowed, everything is not prepared as it should be; in short, nothing is unimportant for success. Why do you not make, every week at least, the signal to clear for action, and why do you not then visit the ships and see how badly it can be carried out? I will go further: I think that mere practice in signals is useful, and accustoms all the ships to repeat them with the proper smartness and experience. I repeat that these exercises will be laughed at, but none the less the effect will be that the staffs of the ships will get to know the signals well, and will remove the obstacles which are often found in the way of their prompt hoisting and repetition. When the English knew that you were in Camaret Bay, the opinion of the sailors in England was that you were unassailable.
I have no more flag-officers. I should like to make some rear-admirals, but I want to choose the most promising, without regard to seniority. Send me a list of a dozen officers worthy of being made rear-admirals, having the qualities necessary to deserve promotion, and above all still in the vigour of life.
Ganteaume's Instructions, March 24, 1805 (N.R.S. XXI, p. 215.)
(Telegraphic-Ganteaume to Napoleon.)
The fleet is ready and can set sail tomorrow evening, but there are fifteen English ships in the Iroise, and it is impossible to leave without risking an action.
Success is not doubtful. I await your Majesty's commands.
(Telegraphic-Napoleon to Ganteaume.)
To be transmitted immediately by the telegraph.
A naval victory at this juncture would lead to nothing.
Have but one aim, that of accomplishing your mission.
Leave port without an action.
He who is to join you has started. Napoleon.
Napoleon to Ganteaume. (N.R.S. XXI, p. 349.)
Boulogne Camp, 22nd August, 1805
Vice-Admiral Villeneuve got under way from Ferrol on August 10th, but did not actually leave until the 14th, in order to join you at Brest. From what I can gather from his despatches, it seems to me that he means to go through the Raz. It also seems to me that he is doubtful if, after his junction with you, he will not spend several days revictualling at Brest. I have already informed you, by telegraph, of my intention that you should not allow him to lose a single day, in order that, profiting by the superiority which 50 ships of the line give me, you should immediately put to sea to reach your destination and to enter the Channel with all your forces. I count upon your talents, your firmness, and your character at this all-important juncture. Set out and come here. We shall have avenged six centuries of insults and of shame. Never will my sailors and soldiers have exposed their lives for a grander object. Napoleon
^ back to top ^