December 5 1814: Napoleon and Naval Matters

On December 5 1814, Neil Campbell writes about a conversation that takes place when Napoleon meets Captain Adye, who had served on board of Lord Nelson’s ship at the battle of Aboukir.

Dec. 5. To-day I presented, at an interview with Napoleon, Captain Adye, commanding H.M.S.  Partridge on the Elba station.

Captain Adye having informed Napoleon that he had served on board of Lord Nelson’s ship at the battle of Aboukir, he at once entered minutely into the details of that action. As I have perceived in many similar conversations upon naval matters, Napoleon has no idea of the hazard incident to movements upon a coast, nor of the difficulties occasioned by winds and tides, but judges of changes of position in the case of ships as he would with  regard to troops upon land. He said that Admiral Brueys expected Lord Nelson’s attack would have been on his left, but he ought to have made sail instead of waiting for it at anchor. In a book of Regulations and Instructions for the French Navy there is a plan of a fleet at anchor, with another attacking in the same way as Nelson. It was singular enough that at L’Orient, while he was on board Admiral Brueys’ ship, the latter showed him this very plan, and pointed out the disadvantages a fleet would labour under, in waiting for an attack in such a position, instead of getting under weigh. Captain Adye said that Admiral Brueys could not well expect that Lord Nelson’s attack should have taken place before the following morn ing, and that, as far as he recollected, the wind would not allow of his getting under weigh when the attack was about to begin.

Napoleon spoke of Sir Robert Calder’s action, and blamed Villeneuve for not attacking the British on the second day. Instead of losing time by putting his vessels into order and arranging their numbers, he ought to have borne down to the attack in any order. I remarked that if the French lost two ships on the preceding day, while the British had only one out of action, the former of course were comparatively less able to engage on the next day. He said those two ships were taken by manoeuvre and accident, not by force. If the British Admiral had confidence in his own strength, why did he not attack on the second day, and prevent the French from going into Vigo ? I replied that the British Admiral was to leeward, and it depended upon the French to attack : this they made a show of doing, but never came down. The Admiral had another object in view, and could not follow the French fleet to the coast, where he would also have had to encounter the fleet then in Ferrol. He said that was only an excuse, advanced from national pride, for the Admiral ran away during the night of the 23rd (July, 1805).

He lamented deeply the conduct of Villeneuve in disobeying his orders in various ways during the cruise, so as to occasion an improper and unnecessary loss of time in the West Indies, and in going to Cadiz instead of up the Channel, where he was anxiously awaiting him, in order that he might cross over with his flotilla. He explained his plan of deceiving us, by mounting guns on the transports, as if he intended to force his passage across. He would have landed either in Kent or, if possible, on the right bank of the Thames, so as to turn all the defences of towers, canal, &c., made by Mr. Pitt. This danger must always hang over England. An invasion is perfectly practicable whenever France can assemble a larger army than England, and at the same time obtain, for a week or ten days, the command of the Channel with her fleet. On this account the formation of the port of Cherbourg is a serious consideration for England. Our possessions are so extensive, that we must have fleets to guard each of them, and to watch the movements which may be directed against them. While engaged in this, it is easy to mislead so great a proportion of the British navy, that the French must infallibly obtain that superiority in the Channel which is required for a time, in order to effect the invasion. However, he himself foresaw that, if his preparations were not put into execution, it would have the effect of making England a military as well as a naval Power, by rousing the spirit and energies of the whole people, and causing them to form both armed associations and a great army. In the event it had proved so, for it was this which gave both the impulse and the materials for the British army, as particularly shown in Spain.

I told him it was often doubted in England whether he intended to accompany the first body of troops who were to attempt the invasion, and hoped he would excuse my asking him the question. He told me, Certainly, he meant to command it in person. The whole would have left Boulogne together, and disembarked as quickly and as much in company as they could. But if the wind admitted of it, he should prefer landing in or near the Thames so as to turn all the defences constructed by Mr. Pitt rather than on the coast of Kent. No British force could be collected in sufficient numbers to oppose him. His subsequent measures, in case of success, must depend upon circumstances, but he should certainly have separated Ireland from Great Britain, and success he considered certain.

At first there was a brig placed by Admiral Lord Exmouth upon the Elba station, to act in concert with me. But, upon his departure, Admiral Hallo weU directed this vessel never to remain longer than twenty-four hours at Elba, for fear of causing jealousy to other Powers. On my making a representation to the latter, a partial relaxation of the order was allowed, in case of a positive necessity and direct application on my part.

For some time past the ‘ Partridge ‘ has been under orders to be in readiness to accompany a Sicilian frigate from Leghorn to Sicily, as soon as the Prince Leopold of Sicily should arrive there from Vienna. As this would leave me without means of communication, I have this day written to Rear-Admiral Penrose, now commanding in the Mediterranean, as follows :

‘Porto Ferrajo, Isle of Elba: December 5, 1814.

‘ Sir, I avail myself of the first opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of your letter dated November 21, and to express my thanks for your offers of assistance to the objects of my mission.

‘ I beg leave to assure you, that every circumstance connected with the isle of Elba, and which appears to me in the smallest degree interesting to you as Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s fleet in the Mediterranean, shall be regularly transmitted.

‘ I presume you are in possession of my correspondence with Lord Exmouth and Rear-Admiral Hallowell, by which you will perceive that I submitted to the latter the inconvenience which might arise to the interests of His Majesty’s Government from the restrictions which he had placed upon the man-of-war employed here, subsequently
to the departure of Lord Exmouth, and the intention of withdrawing her entirely to accompany the Sicilian frigate, neither of which circumstances can have entered into the
calculation of His Majesty’s Government according to my instructions.

‘ I beg leave to submit to your consideration my representations to that effect, and am supported in the same opinion by that of His Majesty’s Minister at the Court of Florence particularly until the proceedings of the Con gress and the affairs of Italy are finally settled, and especially those of Naples.

* Notwithstanding these surmises, I hope I shall not excite your apprehensions ; but it is necessary to be prepared for possibilities. A thousand reports and conjectures are afloat as to an understanding between Napoleon and Murat. I have no reason myself, however, to believe that the enmity which existed between them has yet been removed, and the alarming apprehensions circulated respecting Napoleon arise from old guns, shot, and shell shaving been sent from the dismantled fort of Longono to sell at Civita Vecchia.

* It is impossible for me to advert further to all the reports which have been circulated, even by persons in public situations in Italy. The correspondence which I have had with Captain Adye, and which I presume he has ‘ transmitted to you, arose more from these prevailing rumours than from any belief of my own in the circumstances to which I requested liis attention, by means of a memorandum to that effect.

‘It is with great satisfaction that I avail myself of this occasion to express to you that cordial and zealous co operation which I received from Captain Adye in the execution of our united duties.


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