On 3 August 1805, Napoleon had arrived at Boulogne. Three days later he summoned his élite shock formation, the Imperial Guard. His deep hatred for the English then far transcended anything he felt for his other enemies. Day by day his stocky, impatient figure paced the coastal heights gazing in frustration at those famous white cliffs just visible in the distant haze, waiting impatiently for Admiral Villeneuve and the Combined Fleet to appear in the Channel. Today, as that narrow strip of water presents a rather less imposing obstacle, those white cliffs an altogether less alluring goal, it is hard to avoid the parallel between Napoleon and that other warlord of 135 summers later. Both had risen meteorically from lowly station to head a nation not their own, and to command, in a short space of time, the world’s most invincible land force; both were restlessly daemonic men of small stature and both were at the zenith of their power as a commander; it was almost the same time of year; the grand design was approximately similar; and each would end, in frustration, by turning his great war machine eastwards instead. For Hitler too, with Europe then at his feet, the omens for the grand project (which had occupied Napoleon’s fantasies intermittently over the previous seven years) had never seemed more propitious.
Experience had taught Napoleon that, even with the added strength of the Spaniards, there was still no prospect of his matching the Royal Navy, ship for ship. Therefore he would aim, as he had intended the previous year, to obtain local superiority in the Channel, just long enough for him to load and discharge on to British soil his overwhelming land force. To achieve this, in his third and final Grand Design issued on 22 March 1805, Napoleon ordered his scattered fleet to take to sea and make for the West Indies. By threatening British possessions there, and recalling how mistakenly Pitt had reacted to the threat in the previous decade, Napoleon reckoned he would draw Nelson and the main weight of the British battle fleets after him. Villeneuve and Ganteaume would then elude the British in the Caribbean, and double back with all speed (about 5½ knots) and force, to appear in the Channel in July with the Combined Fleet of nearly sixty battleships.
It was with considerable misgiving that Villeneuve, driven by fear on the one hand of his master, on the other hand of interception by Nelson’s blockaders, left Toulon for the Straits of Gibraltar. Already that January his fleet, with its inexperienced sailors and unbattleworthy tackle, had nearly met disaster when making a sortie in a storm. Nelson and the Mediterranean Fleet narrowly missed Villeneuve off Majorca; and then the French had disappeared, according to plan, into the Atlantic. Napoleon’s expectations also appeared to be fulfilled by Nelson following his quarry, westwards. Although he made the trip from Gibraltar to Barbados in the record time of little over three weeks, misled by faulty intelligence Nelson proved equally unable to overhaul the French in the West Indies. Obeying his orders, Villeneuve headed back eastwards for the Channel, but, pursuing him, Nelson was still able to make the return Atlantic crossing in a fortnight less than Villeneuve. What was even more fateful for Napoleon’s Grand Design, however, was that Barham and his admirals had not been taken in by the French fleet’s ‘deception play’. The Duc de Decrès, Napoleon’s able Minister of the Marine, had warned him that – whatever the crisis – the Royal Navy would never be enticed to disperse its effectives so as to leave the Western Approaches unguarded. It was a tradition that was to run through to the 1940s, and Decrès was to be proved right, Napoleon wrong. As if by radio communication, in an era when the fastest and farthest-reaching signal was the flag and the swift sloop, but in fact as a consequence of years of superlative training, the British admirals seemed to know instinctively what to do without waiting for orders from above. When Nelson left for the West Indies, reinforcements were mustered in readiness to bolster the Channel Fleet – just in case.
The danger, for Britain, remained extreme. The enemy had all but succeeded in concentrating a superior force at the decisive point. Nelson, still off Cadiz, beating northwards on the day that Napoleon had arrived at Boulogne (3 August), wrote gloomily in his diary, ‘I feel every moment of this foul wind.… I am dreadfully uneasy.’ In England the invasion alarms were sounding again; the Volunteers were on alert; Walter Scott galloped a hundred miles in a day to attend the muster of Dalkeith, while Sir John Moore’s men practised combating invaders breast-high in the sea. On 18 August, the Victory brought Nelson back to England on his final homecoming. After hunting Villeneuve for 14,000 miles with total lack of success, he had hardly expected a friendly reception; as it was, he was quite overcome by the affection and admiration he encountered everywhere. When he re-embarked less than a month later many were in tears, recorded Southey, and ‘knelt down before him and blessed him as he passed’. Returning to his weary ships, en route for Trafalgar, Nelson remarked simply to Hardy, ‘I had their huzzas before. I have their hearts now.’
By this time, however, the immediate threat to England had passed, though it was by no means apparent at the time. A brig carrying Nelson’s despatches, the Curieux, had sighted Villeneuve heading for the Bay of Biscay and reached London with this vital information on 9 July. Naval reinforcements were rushed to bottle up the Channel off Cape Finisterre. On 22 July Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Calder with fifteen battleships joined battle there with Villeneuve’s twenty. An elderly officer apparently concerned at his inferiority in numbers, Calder did not press the attack and – after an inconclusive action – Villeneuve was allowed to escape. Although Calder had only acted with a circumspection which would not have shamed Admiral Jellicoe at Jutland a century later, all England cried out for his blood and he returned to a court-martial and disgrace. Nevertheless, the Battle of Finisterre was enough to have a decisive influence upon Villeneuve’s subsequent moves. In sharp contrast to Nelson’s forces, after the summer’s arduous sailing Villeneuve’s ships were in poor shape, his crews reduced by scurvy and dysentery and those of his Spanish allies verging on mutiny. ‘Our condition’, he reported to Decrès, ‘is frightful.’ He personally had also never held much faith in Napoleon’s invasion scheme. Thus, after the brush with Calder, instead of continuing northwards, Villeneuve retired nervously into Ferrol. On 13 August he sailed southwards again, for the greater safety of Cadiz, where he was promptly sealed in again by Nelson’s returning fleet, ultimately to be driven out to his doom off Trafalgar two months later.
Meanwhile, unaware of what had happened to Villeneuve, Napoleon was pursuing his plans to their climax at Boulogne. One hundred thousand men were drawn up on parade in a single line along the shore, an awe-inspiring spectacle. But time was not standing still. Napoleon – well informed by spies – was aware of the ponderously mounting threat of the land forces of Austria and Russia, combined under Pitt’s Third Coalition. Yet he still considered that he had time to invade England, then return to deal Austria a crippling blow. Back and forth across the cliffs he strode, waiting impotently for the change of wind (which would never, in any event, bring Villeneuve). Reproachfully he wrote, on 13 August, to his Empress, absent at a spa:
It is not often one hears from you. You forget your friends, which is wrong. I did not know that the waters of Plombières had the same effect as those of Lethe. It seems to me that it was drinking these same Plombières waters that once made you say, ‘Ah, Bonaparte, if ever I die, who will there be to love you?’ That was a very long time ago, wasn’t it? Everything passes, beauty, wit, sentiment, even the sun, all but one thing that is endless; the good I wish you, your happiness. I cannot be more loving even if you laugh at me for my pains. Goodbye, dear friend. I had the English cruisers attacked yesterday; everything passed off well.…
Summer would not last for ever. The letter to Josephine coincided with fresh orders to Villeneuve to hasten with all forces to the Channel, Napoleon being unaware that it was also the same day that Villeneuve was setting his sails in the opposite direction, for Cadiz. Uncertainty about Villeneuve’s movements threw Napoleon into a terrible rage. Grossly calling the unhappy admiral a ‘Jean-Foûtre’, he accused him of little short of cowardice and treason, charges which drove Villeneuve to despair and, later, to suicide. The three days, 18–20 August, marked the period of Napoleon’s highest expectations for the Channel crossing, although he was constantly receiving fresh warnings from Foreign Minister Talleyrand of Austria’s warlike preparations to his rear. On 22 August, still ignorant of Villeneuve’s true movements (of which the latter had not dared inform him), Napoleon wrote again to him at Brest, commanding; ‘Sail, do not lose a moment, and with my squadrons reunited enter the Channel. England is ours. We are ready and embarked. Appear for twenty-four hours, and all will be ended.…’
It was perhaps significant of Napoleon’s own waning confidence that the six hours’ mastery of the Channel he had required of Admiral Latouche-Tréville the previous year had grown to twenty-four by August 1805. On 23 August a letter to Talleyrand reveals his restless thoughts already beginning to move elsewhere. If Villeneuve were suddenly (and magically) to appear, then there would still be time to launch the invasion; otherwise ‘I shall raise my camp and march on Vienna.’ An abject letter from Decrès assured him that Villeneuve had sailed to Cadiz, and urged him to regard this as a decree of Fate and cut his losses. ‘It is a misery for me’, he lamented, ‘to know the trade of the sea, for this knowledge wins no confidence nor produces any effect on Your Majesty’s plans.’ For several days longer, Napoleon remained in a state of indecision, intolerable to his nature. Then, abruptly, he set to preparing orders for the new operations. On 26 August he instructed his chief staff officer, Marshal Berthier, to move the Army of Boulogne against Austria. On 5 September, amid early-autumn sunshine after a long, cold summer a captured schooner revealed to England the joyous news that the enemy had marched out of Boulogne, ‘because of a new war with Russia’. England was saved.
Napoleon’s decision to march east in 1805, and abandon (forever, as it was to turn out) his dream of leading a victorious army through the streets of London, looks to have been extraordinarily precipitate. But historians continue to argue over whether he did seriously intend to invade England in 1805. Among other indications, however, the arrival of both the Imperial Guard and the cavalry suggest that it was more than a bluff. Equally, shortage of horses, and the far-from-complete marching array of the French Army when ordered to about-turn, indicate that there was little premeditation about his change of plan. Could an invasion have succeeded? Given the overall superiority of the Royal Navy in seamanship, if not in ships, it would have been a highly risky operation. But if Villeneuve had arrived in the Channel according to the Grand Design, and if the Third Coalition had not begun to menace France’s back door, the risk might have seemed an acceptable one to the arch-gambler that Napoleon was. On the other hand, Arthur Bryant may not have been wrong in his estimation that ‘Only the prudence or timidity of his admiral had saved his fleet from a fate as awful as that of the Spanish Armada.’ As it was, his abandonment of the much vaunted invasion project constituted perhaps the most serious strategic reverse in Napoleon’s career up to that time; therefore, all the more did he who lived on success need a stunning victory elsewhere. Had the invasion aborted, however, as Thiers remarks, it would:
at least have exposed him to a sort of ridicule, and would have exhibited him to the eyes of Europe as in a real state of impotence in opposition to England. The continental coalition, furnishing him with a field of battle which he needed … drew him most seasonably from an indecisive and unpleasant situation.
Thus there was little doubt that, to some extent, Napoleon was himself relieved by what his despondent Minister of the Marine termed a ‘decree of Fate’; certainly the new course of action imposed on him came as the most welcome kind of relief after all the months of frustrated inactivity facing out across the Channel. A brave new world of military possibilities in his own element (which, indubitably, the sea was not) opened itself to Napoleon – now, at last, the supreme warlord of France. ‘For the first time,’ says Thiers, ‘… he was free, free as Caesar and Alexander had been.… All Europe was open to his combinations.’
As it was to evolve, Napoleon’s new plan of operations indeed seemed hardly less audacious than the one he had just abandoned. For six unbroken hours he dictated it to Daru, Lieutenant-General of the Army. The fact that he should have utilized so eminent a dignitary as a mere scribe denoted the extreme secrecy with which Napoleon prepared his campaign; for secrecy was absolutely essential to its success. Thus only Daru and Berthier – Napoleon’s Minister of War and chief staff officer – were kept privy to the master-plan.
On the other hand, the total lack of secrecy of the Allies presented Napoleon’s excellent intelligence service with as clear a picture of their intentions as if Napoleon himself ‘had been present at the military conferences of M. de Winzingerode, the Austrian Chief-of-Staff, at Vienna’. A great mass of 300,000 men (with more to follow) was mobilizing against him. Heading from south to north there was first of all Archduke Charles facing across the River Adige in northern Italy with some 100,000 troops. Next was Archduke Ferdinand, with roughly another hundred thousand, heading westward for Bavaria and already on the River Inn. Dividing the two archdukes, however, was the great mountain massif of the Tyrol, with its few viable and easily blocked passes, held by a small linking force under Archduke John. Then, far away to the east were three ponderously moving Russian armies totalling another 100,000. Under Kutuzov and Buxhöwden, two were already on the borders of Austrian Galicia and clearly intending to join up with Archduke Ferdinand. Finally, further north, there was Bennigsen’s army sitting on the eastern frontier of Prussia so as to exert pressure on its wavering king, Frederick William III, and with the (rather distant) ambition of awaiting Swedish and English reinforcements to move through Pomerania on Hanover and Holland.
Thus there would be three main Allied efforts developing across the continent of Europe: south, centre and north. All this was evident to Napoleon. It was equally evident that the gravest threat to France would come in the centre, once Ferdinand was joined by the Russians. His extraordinary intuition, aided by a comprehension of the rigid traditionalism of the Austrian military mind and its passion for fortresses, led Napoleon to calculate that Ferdinand would aim to establish himself in the Bavarian stronghold of Ulm on the Upper Danube Valley (a favourite standby of past Austrian tacticians). There he would wait for the Russians, then thrust into the French flank at Strasbourg with crushingly superior forces. With what was to prove uncanny accuracy, Napoleon predicted the positions the Austrians and Russians would reach several weeks ahead, and the routes they would take.
Above all, however, his genius for the coup d’oeil immediately revealed to him the essential flaw in the Allied strategy. The enemy forces were widely dispersed over Europe. Because of the obstacle of the Tyrolean Alps, the Austrian archdukes would have extreme difficulty in supporting each other. But what most attracted his gaze was the immense distance that separated Ferdinand, pressing on aggressively westwards towards Ulm, and the slow-moving Russians coming up behind him at a snail’s pace. They must inevitably be several weeks’ march apart. (Kutuzov had in fact already started ten days later than reckoned; it appears, unbelievably, that one of the problems of the Allied timetable was the unallowed-for fact that the Russians were still using the Julian Calendar, which was twelve days behind that of their Western confederates!)
Here lay the key to Napoleon’s hopes. He could reckon that at Boulogne he was closer to Ulm than was Kutuzov. If he could but move quickly enough he could isolate Ferdinand from his allies, and smash him before the Russians arrived, then hasten eastwards toward Vienna, to deal with Kutuzov. The campaign would be decided by two battles of annihilation in the Danube Valley. Everything would depend on speed – and this was a predominantly Napoleonic quality.
In a series of staccato orders, letters and decrees, the Emperor poured forth his campaign plan to the overworked Daru. Napoleon once claimed, ‘I never had a plan of operations.’ It was quite untrue. He was, recalls Baron Jomini (the Swiss military historian, the Liddell Hart of the era):
in reality his own Chief of the Staff; holding in his hand a pair of compasses … bent, nay, often lying over his map, on which the positions of his army corps and the supposed positions of the enemy were marked by pins of different colours, he arranged his own movements with a certainty of which we can scarcely form a just idea.…
Aided by an elaborate card-index system, every detail, down to regimental level, came out of this one voluminous mind. Once when Napoleon came across a unit that had got lost during the approach march to the Rhine, he was able to inform its astonished officer, without consulting any orders, of the whereabouts of its division, and where it would be on the next three nights, throwing in for good measure a résumé of its commander’s military record.
The essential component of Napoleon’s strategy was that the Austrians at Ulm must not be attacked frontally; otherwise they might simply fall back on their Russian allies advancing from the east. ‘My only fear’, he confided later to Talleyrand, ‘is that we shall scare them too much.…’ The Austrians would expect him to approach, conventionally, from the west via the Black Forest; so, instead, he would swing his armies southwards through Germany to throw an unbreakable barrier across the Danube downstream from Ulm, then roll up the enemy from the rear. Marlborough had followed roughly the same route, to Blenheim, a century earlier with 40,000 men; but to transport an army five times as big with all their cannon and impedimenta from Boulogne (500 miles as the crow flies) in an epoch when the fastest speed was that of his slowest grenadier’s feet, and still take the enemy by surprise, presupposed no mean feat.
Thus, for speed and secrecy (and in conformity with his axiom of ‘separate to live, gather to fight’), Napoleon split his forces into seven ‘streams’. From the north Bernadotte, already stationed in Hanover, would push almost due south, through Würzburg. Next to him, Marmont’s corps from Holland was to cross the Rhine by Mainz, and then wheel south; on his right came Davout, then Soult, rated as ‘the most skilful at moving large masses of troops’ of any European commander, and with the largest force (41,000), Ney and Lannes, later famous names of the Empire – all performing a similar manoeuvre at intervals lower down the Rhine. Finally, Augereau, hurrying all the way from Brittany, would constitute the army reserve. Ahead of them all was to hasten the world’s most formidable cavalry force, 22,000 strong, under the impetuous and dashing Murat, with the task of providing a screen to hide Napoleon’s true design. Once across the Rhine, Murat would move ostentatiously through the Black Forest. He departed immediately to reconnoitre the way himself, under the nom de guerre of ‘Colonel Beaumont’. On 25 August, General Bertrand was despatched to Bavaria to make notes of all he saw, particularly the Danube crossings in the area around Donauwörth; and then to study the terrain all the way to Vienna. ‘Everywhere his language is to be pacific,’ ordered Napoleon; ‘he will speak of the invasion of England as imminent.…’
In fact, only a minimal covering force consisting of the third battalions of a few regiments was to be left on the Channel in the role of guard against any English diversionary raids. As part of the grand deception plan, Napoleon himself would remain at Boulogne to the very last; rigorous censorship was applied, with post offices occupied and newspapers muzzled. To all but the handful conversant with the plan, Napoleon declared that he was sending only a defensive contingent of 30,000 men to the Rhine: and Talleyrand was instructed to spin out negotiations with the Russians and Austrians as long as possible.
Finally, down in Italy with only 50,000 men, Napoleon’s most reliable tactician, Masséna, was instructed to pin down Archduke Charles’ vastly superior army by adopting a defensively aggressive stance.
Already on 27 August the great machine, nearly 200,000 men strong – or roughly half of all the effectives of the Empire – began its immense march. By any standard the plan was one of the most brilliantly conceived, and speedily executed, of all time. There was little time left in the campaigning season. However, of the many risks it entailed there hovered one above all others: Prussia. As with the two great encirclement strategies by which Germany nearly defeated France in 1914, and did succeed in 1940, Napoleon’s plan depended on an infringement of neutrality. The Blitzkrieg-speed marches of Bernadotte and Marmont could not be made without traversing the Prussian state of Ansbach. Napoleon told Talleyrand to soften Prussia’s indignation by offering her Hanover as a sop. Talleyrand was thrown into despair; as he once sighed, ‘the most difficult person with whom Napoleon’s Foreign Minister had to negotiate was Napoleon himself’. Opposed to the new war in the first place, he had admitted to the Prussian Minister in Paris that if he were able to prevent it ‘he would consider such an action the most glorious event in his tenure of office’; now, by marching through Ansbach, it seemed inevitable that the nation of Frederick the Great must sooner or later range itself with the rest of Napoleon’s enemies.
To Napoleon it was a calculated risk; if he violated Prussian territory to inflict a terrible blow upon the Allies it would probably serve to frighten the hesitant Prussians on to his side. In fact Prussia was outraged; the following year she would declare war on Napoleon, but too late; and it would only lead her to defeat at Jena. Had Prussia fought at once, Napoleon might have been defeated in 1805; as it was, though only Hardy’s ‘Spirit of the Years’ could then have seen the prospects of Blücher and Waterloo shimmering in the distance, Napoleon’s act of arrogance was to contribute to his ultimate downfall.
The Army of England now became designated the Grande Armée, heading for eastern Europe and the unknown instead of Kent and London. After all the months of intensive training put in while waiting at Boulogne, it was, in the Emperor’s own view, ‘the finest army that has ever existed’. Indeed, his confidence that it could execute so phenomenally taxing a manoeuvre seemed indicative of its quality.