Napoleonic French Navy II


Battle of Grand Port. On 22-24 August 1810, a British squadron of 4 frigates entered the bay of Grand Port to eliminate a French fleet of 2 frigates, 1 corvette and a captured East Indiaman. Historically, this is the only clear naval victory the French could claim during the Napoleonic Wars. It is the only naval victory to be engraved on the Arc the Triomphe. From left to right: Bellone, Minerve, Victor (background) and Ceylon, detail from Combat de Grand Port, by Pierre Julien Gilbert

There was a significant gap in frigates, the type of intermediate-size warship that helped train future captains for the larger ships of the line. France had 20 frigates, while Britain had 197, of which 128 were at sea. In view of this discrepancy in naval forces, it was impossible for France to hope to defeat Britain at sea. Ganteaume observed that it was foolish to think that the British would abandon their watch on the Pas de Calais (from whence an invasion would have to originate)-a true enough statement, but one that lost him the command of the Toulon fleet. In a similar vein, in 1805 Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve declared that he would never be able to reach the English Channel with the combined Franco-Spanish forces that Napoleon ordered him to concentrate there. Napoleon would therefore have to take the risk of a landing in Britain without the protection of all his warships. The efforts made to effect a landing were real and extensive: A flotilla of hundreds of small vessels was built along the Channel coast. The cost exceeded 250 million francs, but those funds contributed also toward building up the port of Boulogne and a network of coastal fortifications. Napoleon conceived several invasion plans, but he continued to hesitate, waiting for the right moment, which he believed might be in any season except winter. The alliance with Spain provided additional ships for France, yet at the same time, in the summer of 1805, Napoleon rightly suspected that Austria was preparing to form a new coalition against him.

Thus, the Boulogne flotilla became first a stratagem to entice Britain to sue for peace, then a ruse to hide the preparations of the Grande Armée for a winter campaign that would end with the victories at Ulm and Austerlitz. In August 1805, with the army at Boulogne ready to march against Austria and the priority of operations shifted to land, Napoleon abandoned his interest in the fate of Villeneuve’s fleet. The ensuing defeat at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 thus seemed to France to be totally pointless, both tactically and strategically.

Napoleon nevertheless sought to maintain ties with his few remaining colonies. The naval squadrons under admirals Leissegues and Jean Willaumez were provisioned and sent to Santo Domingo (the eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola, ceded by Spain in 1795) and to the Antilles in 1806, while Allemand was sent to the Indian Ocean in 1808. On 23 February 1809 the navy landed troops on Corfu in the Ionian Islands and Admiral Pierre Dumanoir Le Pelley’s squadron successfully escorted a troop convoy from Toulon to Barcelona. On balance, however, the navy’s capabilities had been seriously impeded by Trafalgar, and from 1805 to 1810 the French lost twenty ships of the line and fifty frigates. Vice Admiral Denis Decres, with Napoleon’s support, undertook the administrative reorganization of the navy and actively saw to the improvement of the naval arsenals at Cherbourg, Antwerp, and Flushing. He also launched a program of naval construction at all the major dockyards, as well as at Antwerp, Venice, Genoa, and La Spezzia. By 1815 French naval strength had increased to 70 ships of the line, though even this figure could not compare with the impressive British total of more than 200.

As a result of shortages, notably of seasoned wood and tar, the ships suffered from numerous defects, including wood rot caused by the use of insufficiently dried timber. Moreover, as a result of the blockade of its ports, the navy continued to suffer from a chronic lack of well-trained crews and officers. Napoleon was quite aware of this, so he employed the strategy of a “fleet in being”-maintaining a naval force sufficiently large to keep the Royal Navy ever vigilant and requiring constant manpower and financial resources, yet never actually sending a substantial French fleet into battle when the prospect of victory remained unrealistic.

The reconstruction of the French Navy was also disrupted by a serious shortage of trained sailors. International trade and fishing off Newfoundland, both of which served as means of training merchant sailors who could then serve in the navy, came to a standstill as a result of British naval supremacy. In 1811 Marseilles had only nine seagoing ships. With thousands of men idle in French ports, on 2 August 1808 Napoleon created fifty battalions of marines and twenty-five naval battalions. Each battalion was equivalent to the crew of a 74-gun ship of the line. Not including the officers, the crew consisted of 450 men, both able seamen and new recruits drawn from line infantry regiments, plus marines.

As under the ancien régime, the marines helped maneuver the ships, fired their muskets from the topmasts, hurled grenades, and had charge of maintaining discipline aboard ship. This training remained sound in principle, but the British blockade prevented proper training at sea. In September 1810 these battalions took on the name of “crew.” In March 1813 the naval battalions were disbanded, and the majority of the men were integrated into the army. In the face of the Royal Navy, Napoleon never took the initiative and failed to show much persistence, instead always sacrificing his navy to his fundamentally land-based continental strategy.

The strategy of blockade was very costly to Britain, but it succeeded in preventing the rebuilding and recovery of the French Navy after Trafalgar. By bottling up their opponent’s ships, moreover, the British were able to support their Allies who confronted France on land: Austria, Prussia, Russia, Spain, Portugal, and others. As is well known, it was in Spain and subsequently in Russia that Napoleon lost his best commanders and his best troops.

References and further reading Chartrand, René. 1990. Napoleon’s Sea Soldiers. London: Osprey. Cormack, William S. 1995. Revolution and Political Conflict in the French Navy, 1789-1794. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crowdy, Terry. 2005. French Warship Crews, 1789-1815: From the French Revolution to Trafalgar. Oxford: Osprey. Dupont, Maurice. 1991. L’amiral Decres et Napoléon. Paris: Economica. Gardiner, Robert. 2003. Warships of the Napoleonic Era. London: Chatham. Henry, Chris. 2004. Napoleonic Naval Armaments, 1792-1815. Oxford: Osprey. Jenkins, Ernest H. 1973. A History of the French Navy from Its Beginnings to the Present Day. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. Lecene, Paul. 1885. Les marins de la république et de l’empire, 1793-1815. Paris: Librairie Centrale. Monaque, Rémi. 2000. Latouche-Tréville, l’amiral qui défiait Nelson. Paris: Kronos. Parkinson, C. Northcote. 1954. War in the Eastern Seas. London: Ruskin House. Six, Georges. 1934. Dictionnaire biographique des généraux et amiraux français de la Révolution et de l’empire. 2 vols. Paris: Saffroy. 382 French Navy

1 thought on “Napoleonic French Navy II

  1. I really enjoyed this series of articles – any plans to look at other Navies of the period? The Royal Navy rightfully gets a lot of the attention but many other nations sent out their wooden ships and iron men too.



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