The Napoleonic Wars: Naval Warfare


Figure 1.--.

The novels of C.S. Forester and his creation Cot. Horatio Hornblower have have helped create the popularimage of naval warefare during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was the dominant naval power of the 18th century. British naval power was an important factor in British defeat of the French in India. Even so, France was a rising naval pwer. It was the French fleet that made possible the American victory at Yorktown during the American Revolution. The naval fighting during the Napoleonic Wars was critical. {Mahan] The naval battles were not only to the outcome of the War, but to 19th and 20th century history. A French victory could have mean a blockade an isolation of Britain, perhaps even an invation. British naval supremecy made the Peninsular Campaign possible. Without the British fleet there would have been no blockade of French and other continental ports and thus less need for an invasion of Russia. The naval figting began during the French Revolution with the Battle of the Glorious First of June (1794). The fleet action in the Battle of the Nile (1798) resulted in the destruction of an entire French army, which Napoleon deserted. Nelson's climatic Battle if Trafalgur (1805) over the French and Spanish combined fleet gave Britain control of the seas for the rest of the century. It was the British ship Bellerophon intercepted Napoleon at sea after Waterloo as he attempted to flee to America (1815). [[Cordingly]

Importance

Napoleon more than any other French leader understood the need to destroy the British Royal Navy and gain control of the seas. It was his action against the British at Toulon that enabled a minor artillery officer only 24 years old to rise to prominance (1792-93). His artillery forced a Royal Navy squadron from Toulon and defeated the royalist revels the British were supporting. [Mostert] Napoleon smashed the armies of the great European states, including Austria, Prussia, Russia, as well as lesser powers. His great victory at Austrerliz (1806) devestated the combined Austrian and Russian armies. Francis I and Alexander I were humiliated. The following year he smashed the Prussians (1806). He then struck into Poland to engage the Russisans again. There he fought horific battles. After Freiland the Tsar's army was in ruin. Alexander and Napoleon negotisted a truce at Tildit (1807). Alexander joined Napoleon's Continentsal System against Britain. The only country that he could not dominate was Britain because of the Channel and tge Royal Navy. Napoleon's frustration was that the British did not have an army that ccould stand up to the French Grand Army. Napoleon said, "If I am master of the Channel for 6 hours, I am mater of the world." He was probably correct. But Nelson's great vicyory at Trafalgur had made that imposible. British sea power made it difficult for Npoleon to enforce the Continentsal System. After Napoleon sent French armies accross the Pyrineeds (1808). British command of the seas would make possible the Peninsular Campaigmn in Spain and eventuially forced Tsar Alexander to break his alliance with Nspoleon.

Interest

There is continuing interest in naval warfare during the Naoleonic era. The novels of C.S. Forester and his creation Cot. Horatio Hornblower have have helped create the popularimage of nacal warefare during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Royal Navy in the 18th Century

Britain was the dominant naval power of the 18th century. British naval power was an important factor in British defeat of the French in India. Even so, France was a rising naval power. It was the French fleet that made possible the American victory at Yorktown in the American Revolution.

Importance during the Napoleonic Wars

The naval fighting during the Napoleonic Wars was critical. [Mahan] The naval battles were not only vital to the outcome of the War, but to 19th and 20th century history. A French victory could have mean a blockade an isolation of Britain, perhaps even an invation. British naval supremecy made the Peninsular Campaign possible. Without the British fleet there would have been no blockade of French annd other continental ports and thus less need for an invasion of Russia.

The French Navy

While Napoleon understood the importance of defearingbthe Royal Navy, he never made the investments in French sea power that might have made such a defeat possible. The constant wars and massive French Army consumed vast resources. The Royal Navy maintained a substantial lead in both men-of-war and frigates throughout the Napoleonic Wars. The British had, however, wide responsibilities and could not always concentrate the Fleet in home waters like the French. Even so, even in engaments where thecFrench held the advantage, the British usually wmerged victorious. The British were better trained and their gunnery skills better. A major problem for the French was that that Robespoerre had sent some of country's best naval officers (many with aristocratic titles) to the guilotine during the Reign of Terror. [Mostert]

Naval Campaigns

The naval figting began during the French Revolution with the Battle of the Glorious First of June (1794). The fleet action in the Battle of the Nile (1798) resulted in the destruction of an entire French army, which Napoleon deserted. Nelson's climatic Battle if Trafalgur (1805) over the French and Spanish combined fleet gave Britain control of the seas for the rest of the century. It was the British ship Bellerophon intercepted Napoleon at sea after Waterloo as he attempted to flee to America (1815). [Cordingly]

Egypt (1798-1801)

Napolon made a serious error in 1798. He decided that if he seized Egypt, at the time a British protectorate, he could disrupt the supply line of the British Empire. He proceeded to invade Egypt. At the time Egypt underv a British protectorate was ruled by the Mamelukes. They were the descedents of slaves who became soldiers and then warlords in Egypt. After initial victories the Egyptian campign proved a disaster. A romantic aura surronded the campaign and France and Britain were swept with an interest in archeology and Egyptology. Napoleon enlisted 167 scholars to acoompany the military. While Napoleon was engaging the Mamelukes with considerable success, Lord Nelson was searing for the French fleet and the opportunity to engage it. Nelson defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile fought in Aboukir Bay (1799). [Meyerson] This isolated the French army. Napoleon soon found himself engaged not only with the Mamelukes, but the British and Ottomons as well. In the end, Napoleon abandoned his army and eluded the British fleet to get back to France. When Napoleon arrived back in France, he found the governent about to collapse. Napoleon seized control of the government. Some historians look on this as the end of the French Revolution. Meanwhile in Egypt the French forces were forced to surrender (1801). As part of the surrender they were forced to hand over the Egyptian trasures and antiquities many of which can now be found in London museums today. One of those was the Rosetta Stone which proved to be the key to deciphering ancient Egyption hieroglyphics.

Rival Blockades

For severl years land engagements ceased. France was now increasingly dominant on the Continent, but the British refused to sue for peace. The Royal Navy, except for only a brief period, instituted and maintained a tight commercial blockade on France and ports under French influence. Neutrals like the Americans and Danish which attempted to trade with the French were attacked. Lord Nelson attacked the Danish fleet anchored at Copenhagen. The British also burned Washington. The Russian fleet may have been next, but the anti-British Tsar Paul (1796-1801) was assasinated and his son Alexander I (1801-25) was more amenable to dealing with the British. While the British maintained their blockade, Naoleon instiuted the Continentl System to prevent trade with Britain. It was during this time of economic warfare that Naoleon decided to sell Louisiana to America including the critcal port of New Orleans (1803). The British supported countries like Portugal which defied the Continental System.

Trafalgar (1805)

Napoleon dearly wanted to invade Britain. To do so, he needed command of the Channel. Napoleon ordered the Brest (Atlantic) and Toulon (Mediterranean) fleets to join in preparation for a campaign aimed at seizing control of the vital English Channel. The combined fleet sailed into Cadiz joining with the Spanish fleet while the Royal Navy other Admiral Horatio Nelson concentrated its forces around the port. The combined fleets posed a serious challenge to the British. Nelson devised an innovative strategy, risky strategy for the battle that would take place at Cape Trafalgar. The British fleet was outnumbered. Instead of the expected massive battle in a standard line battle, Nelson lead the British fleet straight into the French and Spanish line. Nelson in Victory led one of the two lines of British ships--exposing himself to enemy fire. The resulting battle uterly destroyed the French and Spanish fleets. They lost 22 ships and 10,000 men. The British did not lose even a single ship. [Mostert] It was one of the most decisive naval engagements in history and there would not be a serious challenge to British naval dominance for a century. Nelson was killed by a French sniper.

Peninsular War, (1807-14)

The French in 1807 began to give increasing attention to the Iberian Peninsula where Britain had an ally in Portugal that helped it circumvent Napoleon's Continental System. It soon became the "Spanish Ulcer". The British becuase of he Royal Navy were able to maintain Wellibgton's Army and support Portuguese and Spanish forces. The Peninsular War has a huge impact on Napoleon. While he and his Grand Armeť was eventually defeated in Russia, historians believe that Napoleon lost nearly 240,000 men in Spain and Portugal. Wellington's losses in cotrastv were only abouy 35,000. [Roberts] For nearly a decade, the only place in Europe where armies could stand against the French wre Wellington's British troops and Soanish and Portuguese allies. After this fierce bloodletting, attention in 1812 shifted to Russia.

Comparison of Forces

Unlike many errors, the Royal Navy did not prevail in the Napoleonic Wars because of a clear technological superiority. In fact, the French ships were graceful and often faster than the British ships. It appears to have bee more a matter of superior discipline. This was an observation of Napoleon who spoke with the capatain of the Bellerophon, the Royal Navy ship that intercepoted him as he tried to flee to America. (At the time America was at war with Britain.) "What I admire most in your ship is the extreme silenceand orderly conduct of your men; on board a French ship, everyone calls out and gives orders, and they gabble like so many geese." [Cordingly]

Sources

Cordingly, David. The Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon--The Biography of a Ship of theLine, 1782-1836 (Bloomsbury, 2003), 355p.

Mahamn, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (1892).

Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor (Ballantine, 2004), 271p.

Mostert, Noel. The Line Upon a Wind: TheGreat War at Sea (1793-1815).






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Created: October 30, 2003
Last updated: 3:45 AM 4/30/2009