France’s Military Structure – Louis XIV

France’s suffering in the Thirty Years’ War had been more financial than otherwise, since the war was not fought on its soil. Still, the superior performance of professionals had been proven and, after a bit of its own civil war, the government began taking serious measures to upgrade the military. This began at roughly the same time a new monarch came to the throne, Louis XIV. He had the assistance of two able administrators who completely reworked the nature of France’s military structure. In 1668 Michel le Tellier was appointed to the post of secretary of state for military affairs; he was aided and ultimately succeeded in this position by his son, Francois Michel Tellier, better known as the Marquis de Louvois, who orchestrated the transformation of the army into a truly royal force, and became the first great civilian minister of war in any country. One of his major accomplishments (though not completely fulfilled) was to address the corruption among army officers. It was not uncommon to list more manpower in one’s unit than actually existed, in order to be provided with more money and supplies. Limited inspection visits made this easy, even though it could prove dangerous in wartime when one expected to field an army of a certain size when such numbers did not exist. Further, having responsible soldiers (rather than the traditional prison recruits) became a priority. Advancement became possible through merit and not just birth or purchase of a commission.

Up-to-strength units received the best possible training and supplies. In order to accomplish the second item, the ministry developed a system of supply magazines. Regular food on campaign meant no need to pillage, which both maintained positive civil relations and gave soldiers fewer opportunities to leave camp, something that usually resulted in unmilitary activities and behavior. What Gustavus had tried to implement, regular food and pay, became established and successful policy under the French regime, which did much to expand the army significantly as well as increase the number of talented officers through the merit system. Other countries had to follow suit or be completely at France’s mercy.

The infantry made up about one-fourth of the French army. Foot soldiers were organized by the turn of the century into battalions of thirteen companies of 40–50 men each, armed with matchlocks or flintlocks. The transition from the older, heavier, less dependable weapon had not completely taken place by 1700. Indeed, in the French army it almost did not take place at all. For some reason King Louis XIV disliked flintlocks, even for a time ordering they be abandoned, but luckily for him cooler heads convinced him otherwise. The flintlock offered an increased rate of fire, two to three shots per minute as opposed to two shots in three minutes with the matchlock. Without the need to worry about a long, burning fuse, soldiers needed less space to reload, so they could be lined up in tighter formations, increasing the firepower. There was another area in which the French had not advanced, and that was their rejection of the paper cartridge, carrying both powder and ball. Most other European armies had adopted the paper cartridge used by Gustavus. The French continued to deploy their men in five or six ranks, better for resisting attacks but not designed to put as much lead in the air as fewer ranks would have allowed.

Two new things appeared among the French infantry under Louis XIV at the end of the seventeenth century. One was the socket bayonet invented by the fortification-engineering genius Sebastian Vauban, which led to the death of the pike. Earlier attempts at using bayonets resulted in the plug type, which was stuck in the barrel and therefore prevented the weapon from firing. A ring bayonet merely slipped over the barrel and easily fell off. Vauban’s device slipped over a lug that held the bayonet in place once it was rotated. With the bayonet’s ability to provide the sharp points that charging horses did not want to encounter, the pikeman was removed from the field by 1700. Thus, everyone on the line now had a musket, increasing firepower even more. The second was the introduction of the grenadiers, who along with their standard weaponry of flintlock, bayonet, sword, and hatchet carried 12–15 grenades. These were hollow iron shells filled with gunpowder, which had first appeared in the Middle Ages. In 1667 four men from each infantry company were trained in throwing grenades and termed “grenadiers”; four years later one company of grenadiers was assigned to each battalion. Physically large and strong, they became an elite soldiery designated for difficult assignments.

French cavalry was divided into three classes. Louis XIV’s time witnessed the introduction of cavalerie légère or light cavalry, which used to be the heavy cavalry. It was renamed because the new cavalrymen did not wear heavy armor as previously. In 1690 came the introduction of modern light cavalry, the hussars. The third class was the dragoons, or mounted infantry. Each carried a musket, pistol, saber, and shovel. The shovel meant that he could entrench himself just like regular infantry, but with his horse he could also be used in long-distance service such as transport escort. Regular cavalry were equipped with a sword with a three-foot straight blade, two flintlock pistols carried in saddle holsters, and a shorter musket called a carbine. Just as the grenadiers became elite infantry, Louis’s army introduced elite cavalrymen in the form of carabiniers who were given rifled carbines. In October 1690 they were formed into their own company. In late 1693 these companies were grouped into a new unit called Royal Carabiniers, 100 companies strong—a sort of elite reserve cavalry division.

In spite of the return of power tactics with the cavalry of Gustavus Adolphus’s Swedes, the French retained many of the older practices. The French cavalry was not used for shock, as Gustavus had used his, but as mobile musketeers. Just as in the older cavalry, they attacked in the caracole, using pistols or carbines. The main difference was that the horsemen now fired in volleys of three ranks, expanding their firepower somewhat. The French tended to mass their cavalry on the wings with the infantry arrayed in the center. Nothing special is indicated in the early seventeenth-century sources about French artillery, an interesting omission, since artillery became one of the French specialties by the middle of the eighteenth century.

As for French generals, the great ones by this time had passed on. Marshal Count Turenne was the class of his era and certainly Marlborough was glad to have served under his command and picked up some lessons. His immediate predecessor (and rival during the French civil wars) was Louis de Bourbon, the Prince de Condé, also known as “The Great Condé.” Both had risen to high command near the end of the Thirty Years War and had also fought in the various conflicts with the Dutch. The master of siege warfare, both offensive and defensive, was Sebastian Vauban, but he was far more an engineer and master of siegecraft than a combat commander. Still, Louis’s army was not without some talent, although his generals tend to be overshadowed by Marlborough and Eugene. Some, like the dukes of Tallard, Villeroi, and Bourgogne were political appointees with little to recommend them, but some, the duc de Villars and duc de Vendôme in particular, had real talent.

marquis de Louvois, (1641–1691)

Né François Le Tellier. Successor to his father, Michel Le Tellier, as principal military and strategic adviser to Louis XIV. He was the main transformer of the French Army into an instrument of royal authority and foreign policy. In part, he accomplished this by helping his father and Louis establish the Régiment du Roi in 1663 as a model for all French infantry regiments. He also founded the Royal-Artillerie in 1673 as a professional and concentrated artillery arm. These reforms had influence on military developments far beyond France

Following a pattern set by his father, with whom he understudied from 1662 to 1670, Louvois lobbied hard for bullying wars as the main basis of French foreign policy. He did so not least as a means of creating opportunities to concentrate more power and wealth in his own hands. He was centrally involved in reorganization of the French Army away from private regiments and mercenaries to a more professional officer corps and to regular units raised from the king’s subjects. He exercised such strict control over officers, however, that tactical and operational mediocrity was often the result. In logistics he found a calling, notably fully developing the magazine system left in rudimentary form by his father. Among Louvois’ more important innovations was to introduce portable ovens to bake bread during halt days while a French army was on the move. At the onset of the Dutch War (1672-1678), Louvois accumulated in forward magazines enough grain to provide the advancing armies with 200,000 rations per day for up to six months-an unheard of achievement in European warfare since the fall of Rome. This effort is widely regarded by historians as his finest. It ensured Louis XIV early military success that would not be replicated in later, longer wars fought without Louvois at his side. For this material accomplishment, regardless of Louvois’ many and deep moral flaws, he is properly regarded by historians as the first great civilian “minister of war.”

Louis XIV drilled himself as a form of childhood play, and continued to play at war as a man, and then as king. He believed that discipline, rather than bloody mayhem, was what won battles and insisted on constant drill, at least twice per week, even for garrison units. His regiments drilled through the winter and during the rare summers when they were not in the field. Early in his reign, Michel Le Tellier and Louvois helped Louis found a special regiment, the Régiment du Roi (1663), to model and demonstrate proper drill to the rest of the French Army. This regiment, and then all French drill, was overseen from 1667 by inspectors-general.

One of Louvois’ most crucial reforms was to institute musketry drill, upon discovering that many French infantrymen, especially peasant conscripts, went into battle not knowing how to load or discharge their main weapon. The French emphasis on drill thereafter grew so fierce that the intendant responsible for drill in the French Army, Colonel Jean Martinet, original colonel of the Régiment du Roi, became so infamous for fussy, even merciless insistence on the smallest detail of uniform discipline and drill that his name entered the universal military lexicon as a pejorative for inflexible drill instructors.

As for his moral failings, they were many and great. For instance, during Turenne’s march through the Palatinate in 1674, Louvois demanded that the harshest methods be used against German villagers who resisted by any means, or who refused to pay contributions. During the War of the Reunions (1683-1684), he again displayed a penchant for personal cruelty and brutality in punishing villagers. He once ordered fully 20 villages be bombarded and burned in retaliation for the loss of two French barns. Although he was patron to Vauban, the two disagreed about whether to use bombardment as an alternative to siege warfare. John A. Lynn, the leading modern historian of the French Army, maintains that Louvois took a savage approach to war and that, for him, bombardment of towns with mortars during the 1680s “became something of a blood lust.” Nor did his none-too-gentle master in Versailles voice any objection. In 1688 Louvois began to raise new provincial militia to supplement the regular regiments. These were gainfully employed when Louis started the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) that fall. Louvois planned the 1688-1689 devastation of the Palatinate (1688-1689) on a map, reveling yet again in the destruction of German towns and cities, and even individual chateaux. His death on July 16, 1691, removed from inner policy circles a baleful and brutish influence on Louis XIV, a monarch who needed little encouragement to indulge his own vices and a pronounced preference for war over diplomacy.

Spain 1808

Madrid surrenders to Napoleon.

In May 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte was truly at the pinnacle of his power. From September 1805 until June 1807 his forces had fanned out across the Continent driving all before them. But in the early months of 1808 the tempo of French aggression was raised to fresh levels. Two dynasties – the Bourbons of Naples and the Braganças – had already been driven from their thrones and a third had now been physically sequestered and forced to give up its rights. Not for nothing, then, did the Ottomans accord Napoleon the title of padishah – ‘King of kings’. Inherent in this situation, however, was an obvious danger. At Tilsit Napoleon had, or so it seemed on the surface, for a brief moment come to terms with reality. Driven by the dictates of the war against Britain, he had established a partnership with Russia. Part and parcel of this was an agreement in effect to share the domination of continental Europe between two ‘superpowers’, and this in turn offered France her only way forward. Allied with Russia, she could genuinely hope for a successful end to the war against Britain, while Russian cooperation also set clear limits to her war effort and removed the very real danger that she would end up having to force the blockade single-handed on the whole of an unwilling Continent. At the same time, caught between the mill-stones of France and Russia, Austria and Prussia would of necessity have to choose the path of submission. But in reality Tilsit was not all it seemed. Far from being an act of policy, it had simply been a useful shift that put an end to a campaign Napoleon had found very difficult to sustain and which had involved some of the worst fighting of his career. What it did not amount to was a recognition that there were limits beyond which the French ruler could not go. In the first place, the concept of sharing power was not one which the emperor accepted. As a master of manipulation, Napoleon had gulled Alexander by adopting the guise of friend and ally, but as a human being he was completely incapable of translating this play-acting into reality in the way that the settlement required. There was little prospect that the mixture of adulation and flattery that had brought emperor and tsar together at Tilsit would lead to a genuine partnership. Whether it was the treaty of Amiens or the treaty of Lunéville, settlements with France had always sooner or later foundered on the rock of Napoleon’s ambition, and now that ambition had been inflated to fresh heights. Tilsit was doomed, the only question being how long it would take for the breach with Russia to become manifest.

According to traditional British accounts of the Napoleonic Wars, if the French hegemony that had been established at Tilsit was eventually challenged, it was in large part because of the events that the overthrow of Charles IV and Ferdinand VII unleashed in Spain and Portugal. If Napoleon had believed that the Bourbons could be removed quietly, then he was sorely mistaken. On the contrary, sporadic disturbances in Spain, most notably a serious rising in Madrid on 2 May, forever after remembered as the Dos de Mayo, had by the beginning of June become a full-scale national uprising that was quickly seconded by a further revolt in Portugal. Of all the events of the French Wars, there is probably none that has been more misunderstood. Generally the revolts have been portrayed as the product of outraged patriotism, but this view is difficult to sustain. In both Spain and Portugal the risings were actually very murky affairs that reflected many of the tensions besetting the body politic. The various provincial risings – for there was no concerted national uprising as such – were engineered by a variety of dissident groups for their own purposes. In Spain, in particular, the insurrection’s leaders included disgruntled office-seekers, radicals eager to make a political revolution, prominent civilians resentful of the privileges of the military estate, discontented subaltern officers eager for promotion, conservative clerics horrified by Bourbon anti-clericalism, and members of the aristocracy opposed to the creeping advance of royal authority. As for the crowd, its motivation was as much material as it was ideological. There was intense loyalty to Ferdinand VII, but this stemmed not so much from who he was as from what he represented. As Godoy’s enemies had deliberately represented Ferdinand as a ruler who would as if by magic right all Spain’s ills, the populace believed he would rescue them from the terrible conditions that they were enduring. With the vast majority of those in political and military authority men who owed their prominence to Godoy, this persuaded the populace that Napoleon’s intervention was somehow the work of the favourite. Added to this was a general belief that the French were bent on killing the entire population: the Dos de Mayo, for example, was commonly believed to have been an unprovoked attack on the people of Madrid. From here it was but a short step to a great social convulsion. Those in authority were seen as traitors: it hardly assisted their cause that in most cases they had been urging the people to remain quiet and accept whatever Napoleon might decree. But they were also men of property and privilege, and this made the rising as much a jacquerie as a movement against the French.

The social and political background to the Peninsular War is a subject that the current author has pursued in depth elsewhere, so here we will confine ourselves to the military history of the conflict. The forces sent to Portugal were expelled by a British army under Sir Arthur Wellesley after a battle at Vimeiro (21 August 1808) and another contingent of almost 20,000 men commanded by General Dupont were forced to surrender at Bailén by a Spanish regular army commanded by Francisco Javier Castaños. Forced to draw back beyond the river Ebro, the invaders then received major reinforcements and Napoleon came to Spain to take charge of operations. The emperor, indeed, was furious: Bailén was an unparalleled blow to his prestige. What made the humiliation still greater was, first, that Dupont was a highly experienced commander who had won much acclaim in the campaign of 1805, and, second, that it came in the wake of a serious Spanish defeat at Medina de Río Seco in Old Castile that had encouraged hopes of an early end to the war. The very day Bailén was fought Napoleon was writing to Joseph, ‘There is nothing so extraordinary in you having to conquer your kingdom. Phillip V and Henry IV were obliged to conquer theirs, too. Be gay; do not let anything get you down; and do not doubt for an instant that things will work out better and be concluded more promptly than you think.’ A few days later, we find that the tone of his correspondence is very different: ‘Dupont has sullied our banners. What ineptitude! What baseness!’2 Needless to say, such a defeat could not go unavenged, and by the beginning of November a much reinforced Armée d’Espagne was poised to deal out brutal retribution under the leadership of Napoleon himself. There followed a whirlwind campaign which saw the Spaniards suffer major defeats at Espinosa de los Monteros, Gamonal, Tudela and Somosierra. With the Spanish armies in tatters, and the provisional government known as the Junta Central, that had been formed in the wake of the battle of Bailén, in flight for Seville, on 4 December the emperor recaptured Madrid. Meanwhile, the position had also been restored in Catalonia, where the French army of occupation had for the last few months been bottled up in Barcelona.

With matters in this situation, it seemed entirely possible that the French would go on to overrun the entire Peninsula and end the war. All possibility of this, however, was precluded by a last-minute intervention in the campaign on the part of the British. Having cleared the French from Portugal, the British expeditionary force had advanced into Spain under the command of Sir John Moore (Wellesley had returned to England following a furious controversy over the surrender terms agreed in the wake of Vimeiro). For various reasons it had taken a long time for it to get ready for action, and for a while it looked as if Moore would have no option but to withdraw into Portugal. Eventually, however, Moore resolved on an offensive against the French forces guarding Napoleon’s communications in Old Castile under the command of Marshal Soult. As this brought the full weight of the French armies in northern Spain against his 20,000 men, he was soon forced to retreat to the coast of Galicia in search of rescue by the Royal Navy. But so many troops were pulled after him that the French had effectively to abandon their plans for the immediate conquest of southern Spain. As for Moore and his army, almost all the troops were rescued after a rearguard action at La Coruña on 16 January 1809, but their commander was mortally wounded by a cannon ball at the moment of victory. Though his conduct of the campaign is open to much criticism, his sacrifice was not in vain. As an early French chronicler of the conflict admitted, ‘The movement against Soult . . . forced Bonaparte to delay the execution of his designs against Andalucía and Portugal. There was not a soldier to defend the passes of the Sierra Morena, and there were but few English left in Portugal.’

For the student of Napoleon, there is much to ponder in these events. The fact that many of the French troops sent to Spain in the course of the winter of 1807 were second-line units of the poorest quality speaks volumes for the extraordinary overconfidence with which the emperor embarked on the overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons. At the same time his decision to throw almost every man he had into the pursuit of Sir John Moore suggests a want of judgement of another sort: the British forces were so far from Madrid that to have caught them was almost impossible, particularly in the depths of an icy Castilian winter.

Whatever the implications of Napoleon’s conduct, the campaign of November 1808 to January 1809 set the pattern of operations for the whole of the next year. The French controlled most of central and northern Spain, together with a separate area around Barcelona, while Spanish armies held southern Catalonia, the Levante, Andalucía and Extremadura. As for Portugal, she too was in allied hands with a British garrison in Lisbon and such few troops as the Portuguese could muster deployed to protect Elvas, Almeida and Oporto. Called away from Spain by the growing fears of the new war with Austria, Napoleon had left instructions for his commanders – most notably, Soult, Ney and Victor – to crush allied resistance by a series of powerful offensives, but this plan quickly foundered. The Spanish armies defending Andalucía proved unexpectedly aggressive; the British reinforced their presence in Portugal and, once again commanded by a rehabilitated Sir Arthur Wellesley, repelled a French invasion; the province of Galicia rose in revolt; and the cities of Zaragoza and Gerona both put up desperate resistance when they were attacked. By the summer the initiative had passed to the Allies, and the rest of the year was dominated by two major attempts to recover Madrid. Of these, the first – an Anglo-Spanish offensive from the west and south – led merely to stalemate, a major triumph at Talavera on 28 July being deprived of all effect by serious divisions in the allied command and the fortuitous arrival of massive French reinforcements. The second offensive, however, led to disaster. In the wake of Talavera, Wellesley – now Lord Wellington – refused to engage in any further operations in Spain, and pulled his men back to the Portuguese frontier. In consequence, the offensive was the work of the Spaniards alone. Operating on exterior lines from the north-west, the west and the south in terrain that greatly favoured the vastly superior French cavalry, they had no chance, and were routed at the battles of Ocaña and Alba de Tormes with terrible losses. For the French it was a moment of triumph.

The defeat of the main Spanish field armies and the British decision to concentrate on the defence of Portugal opened a new phase in the conflict. So serious had been the Spanish losses in the campaigns of 1809 that there was little left to put into the line. Nor could these losses be made up: though generous, British supplies of arms and uniforms were insufficient to the task of equipping whole new armies from scratch while resistance to conscription among the populace had reached enormous heights, the war never having been the popular crusade of legend. Meanwhile, with the new Austrian war fought and won (see below), Napoleon was pouring large numbers of fresh troops into Spain, and so the initiative passed back to the French. With the Spaniards further emasculated by the outbreak of revolution in Latin America – by now their chief source of revenue – the next two years saw constant French advances. City after city fell into the invaders’ hands while the Spaniards lost more and more of such troops and resources as remained to them. By late 1811 all that was left of Patriot Spain was Galicia, the Levante and the blockaded island city of Cádiz, which had in 1810 become the new capital. Penned up inside Portugal, the British, meanwhile, could do nothing to arrest the march of French conquest. In the end, indeed, it is clear that Napoleon’s commanders could have completely crushed resistance in Spain and then marched against Portugal in such overwhelming force that even Wellington could not have overcome them, despite the masterly defensive strategy whose details we shall examine shortly. All that was needed was for the French armies in the Peninsula to receive a constant stream of replacements and reinforcements. Thanks to the impending invasion of Russia, however, the supply of men dried up in 1812, the Armée d’Espagne even being stripped of a number of troops. As could be expected, the French forces suddenly found themselves badly over-extended, and all the more so as Napoleon insisted that they continue with the offensive against Valencia launched in the autumn of 1811. As General Suchet, the commander of the French forces in Aragón and Catalonia, put it, ‘The emperor was all impatience at Paris.’

The events of the autumn of 1811 are worth a moment of extra consideration in the context of a discussion of the international relations of Napoleonic Europe. At this point it is clear the French were winning the war in Spain and Portugal. As fortress after fortress was taken and army after army shattered, it became ever more clear that sooner or later Spanish resistance was likely to collapse altogether. In large parts of the country, the famous guerrillas – in reality a mixture of bandit gangs; bands of levies, volunteers, deserters and liberated prisoners of war organized into semi-regular fighting forces by a variety of army officers and charismatic civilian adventurers; and flying columns of regular troops – continued to plague the French, but it is by no means clear that they could have survived indefinitely. In 1811 and 1812 successive British thrusts across the Portuguese frontier forced the French to concentrate their forces and allowed the guerrillas to run amok, but for the whole of 1811 Wellington was never able to advance very far into Spain. With the battered Spanish armies also incapable of any great feat of arms, the invaders put considerable resources into the war in the interior, while the experience of southern Italy suggested that they were entirely capable of dealing with popular insurrection. As we have already seen, in the wake of the French invasion of Naples in 1806 a serious revolt had broken out in the province of Calabria. Under the leadership of a variety of local chieftains, bands of irregulars had taken to the hills. What followed was a bloody and savage war, but the Calabrian insurgents were even less engaged by issues of ideology or nationalism than the Spaniards, while they also did not enjoy the same degree of regular assistance: occasional descents on the coast à la Maida were no substitute for the support afforded by the presence in Spain of substantial allied field armies. It is, then, no surprise that by 1810 the war in Calabria had been put down, thereby establishing beyond doubt the French army’s ability to develop effective anti-guerrilla strategies.

Victory in the Iberian Peninsula, then, was by no means an impossibility for Napoleon. The last Spanish forces could be subdued; the last Spanish fortresses beaten; and the last Spanish guerrillas hunted down. After that, there would remain Portugal, but it was doubtful whether Wellington would be able to hold out alone, and even if he could there was always the issue of support for the war in Britain. It was perhaps inevitable that the retreat of Sir John Moore, the inability to translate victory at Talavera into further advances and the withdrawal into Portugal produced outbreaks of what Wellington referred to as ‘croaking’ among the Whigs. For a long time figures such as Grey and Grenville refused point-blank to accept there was any chance of victory in the Peninsula and condemned it as a futile struggle. In addition, the more radical of the so-called ‘friends of peace’ were furious at what they perceived as Spain’s continued domination by the Church and the aristocracy. To them, indeed, the war was not only futile but indefensible: to resist Napoleon when he was seeking to invade Britain was one thing, but Copenhagen and the British expeditions to Latin America suggested that the struggle had become one of aggression and even expansion. So long as things went relatively well, the opposition leaders had little hope of winning the support of the independent MPs who were the key to gaining victory in the House of Commons. In the first half of 1810, in fact, repeated attempts to defeat the government were all firmly quashed. Nor is this surprising, for the Whigs had nothing credible to offer in their criticism of the war. In 1808 he Whigs had temporarily rallied to the cause of resistance as Britain was seemingly no longer fighting as the ally of despotism, but rather of a people united in its determination to defend its independence abroad and secure its liberty at home. Yet in Spain even British commanders who were favourable to the Whigs like Sir John Moore discovered that the crusade in which observers like Sheridan or Lord Holland took such a delight was a chimera, while every attempt to criticize Wellington foundered on the unpalatable fact that the Spaniards could not be relied upon. But unable in practice to come up with any alternative scheme for the prosecution of the war, in almost every Commons debate on the subject the Whigs ended up humiliated and discredited.

Yet the collapse of the Spanish cause would almost certainly have changed matters in this respect. Not only would it have spurred the opponents of the war to fresh efforts, but there were limits even to what the government, now headed by Spencer Perceval, could accept. By the end of 1810 Britain’s ability to bear the cost of the war was clearly faltering, and it was only with some difficulty that Wellington had persuaded the Cabinet to give him the resources he required to take the offensive in the spring of 1811. Indeed, such were London’s financial worries that there were serious proposals for his forces to be reduced. With the hope of victory gone – the Anglo-Portuguese army could not have fought the war single-handed – the Perceval administration would have quite probably given up even its commitment to the defence of Portugal.

Setting aside the government’s deficiencies – on the surface it was hardly an impressive body – what makes this even more likely is the economic context. After two years of renewed confidence and growth in part brought about by the greatly improved access Britain now enjoyed to the Latin American market, in 1811 there was a serious economic slump. The causes were complex, but essentially a poor harvest coincided with a change in Napoleon’s operation of the Continental Blockade: that in effect legalized the importation of British goods and badly hit the many speculators who had been profiting from the wholesale smuggling trade that had grown up since 1806. With this, in turn, came a great wave of bankruptcies and a significant upturn in unemployment. It may also be significant that 1811 saw the peak of the enclosure movement in the countryside and, by extension, an increase in migration to the towns, just at a moment when house-building – one of the trades most suited to absorb large numbers of unskilled labourers – was at a low ebb through the cumulative effect of years of high taxation. Distress was acute, and its expression assumed forms that were much more frightening than the ‘peace petitioning’ of 1807. General unrest and rioting spread across key industrial areas of the country, and this was underpinned by much criticism of the war, and, in particular, the Orders-in-Council, which were, entirely wrongly, held responsible for the slump in trade. Nor were these measures just hated by the handloom weavers and framework knitters who were at the heart of the unrest. On the contrary, by 1811 the Orders-in-Council were the subject of an extremely vociferous campaign on the part of the many commercial interests who also felt that they stood in their way. So great was the pressure that in June 1812 the government, which had the previous month been taken over by Lord Liverpool, was forced to capitulate, while 1813 saw a further move towards free trade with the publication of revisions to the East India Company’s charter. And, finally, there was the issue of political reform. Stimulated first by the major scandal that broke in 1809 concerning allegations that the Duke of York’s mistress had intervened in army promotions in return for bribes and then by the government’s foolish attempt to quash discussion of the abortive expedition sent to Holland in 1809, several motions were introduced in the House of Commons calling for the reform of parliament, and, while these were defeated, the number of votes they received was by no means inconsiderable. Even put together, all this did not amount to a revolutionary crisis, but the collapse of resistance in Spain would have provoked a storm that neither Perceval nor Liverpool would have found it easy to ride out. Would they, indeed, have been willing even to make the attempt? The chief enthusiast for the continuation of the Peninsular War at all costs was Wellington’s brother, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Wellesley, but he was both notoriously lazy and extremely arrogant and could therefore hardly be said to have had the confidence of his colleagues.

British commitment to the Peninsula was not a given, therefore, but for the time being Wellington’s army fought on. Indeed, its achievements were considerable. Particular attention should be paid here to Wellington’s defence of Portugal in 1810-11. In accordance with France’s resumption of the offensive in the Peninsula in , the summer of that year saw some 65,000 men under Marshal Masséna move across the Portuguese frontier and besiege the fortress of Almeida. This fell very rapidly thanks to the chance explosion of its main powder magazine, and the French moved on towards Lisbon. Wellington had anticipated such a move and put together a comprehensive plan of defence. From the beginning the countryside in the path of the invaders would be devastated and the French forces harassed by the irregular home guard known as the ordenança. If possible, the French would then be brought to battle and forced to retreat, to which end the Portuguese army had been completely rebuilt under the direction of Sir William Beresford and the main routes towards Lisbon blocked by field works at a number of obvious defensive positions. Failing that, the countryside would continue to be devastated, while the Anglo-Portuguese army fell back on Lisbon, along with the bulk of the civilian population. Waiting for them would be probably the greatest single engineering feat in the entire Napoleonic era in the form of the so-called Lines of Torres Vedras, an impenetrable belt of fortifications stretching from one side of the peninsula on which Lisbon was built to the other. Whether this plan would have sufficed to hold off the French had they ever unleashed the sort of massive offensive that would have followed the final conquest of Spain is unclear – Wellington certainly had his doubts – but against the 65,000 men brought by Masséna, it was more than adequate. Despite the defenders achieving complete success on the battlefield itself, an attempt to turn the French back at Buçaco failed due to the marshal’s discovery of an unguarded track around Wellington’s northern front. But when the French reached the Lines of Torres Vedras they found that they could go no further. In this situation Masséna did his best, but through Wellington’s scorched earth policy his supplies collapsed and in March 1811 he abandoned his headquarters at Santarem and fell back on the Spanish frontier.

However, clearing Masséna from Portugal was one thing, and invading Spain quite another. For the whole of 1811, indeed, the situation on the Portuguese frontier was a stalemate. Authorized by the British government to enter Spain once more, Wellington soon found that this was easier said than done. The crucial border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had been greatly strengthened by the French and every attempt to besiege them was met by massive French counteroffensives, as at Albuera and Fuentes de Oñoro. Repelled though these were, they cost Wellington heavy losses and dissuaded him from marching too far into Spain, while progress was in any case rendered still more difficult by a lack of adequate siege cannon. Of course, the French were in no better state. Twice, indeed, they refused battle rather than attack Wellington in powerful defensive positions inside Portugal, while an attempt on Elvas or Almeida (now back in allied hands again) would have been out of the question. Yet until the end of 1811 the British remained able to exert only the most marginal influence on the situation in Spain, the only thing that changed this situation being Napoleon’s insistence on continual attacks in the Peninsula at the same time as he was massing his armies for the invasion of Russia. By stripping its defenders of troops, this completely destabilized the position on the Portuguese frontier. Seeing his chance, Wellington struck across the border and was quickly able to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, win a major victory at Salamanca and liberate Madrid. Thanks to a variety of problems, of which by far the greatest was the de facto collapse of government and society in Spain, in November 1812 Wellington was again forced to retreat to Portugal. But the French were never fully able to recover and were further weakened by the withdrawal of still more troops in the early months of 1813. Aided by the continued attempts of 1813 the French to hold more territory than they could garrison, in May 1813 Wellington was therefore able to launch a fresh offensive that led to the defeat of King Joseph’s main field forces at Vitoria on 21 June. Bitter fighting continued in the Pyrenees, with the French vainly trying to relieve the besieged fortresses of San Sebastián and Pamplona, but they were repelled at Sorauren and San Marcial, while in October 1813 Wellington invaded France and, after several fierce battles, established himself in an unassailable position south of Bayonne. Though French troops stayed in part of Catalonia until the end of hostilities in April of the following year, to all intents and purposes the Peninsular War was over.

French Campaigns in North Africa 1855 – 93

The French in West Africa. French incursions followed the paths of the Senegal and Niger rivers, greatly easing the problems of transport and logistics.

From his base at St. Louis, Governor Faidherbe moved his forces incrementally inland, taking advantage of the Senegal River for transport and access to the interior. The first action occurred in 1855, when French – commanded troops thrust far up the Senegal and established a fort at Medine; Faidherbe then secured the lower reaches of the Senegal with a series of forts. The French push inland raised the suspicions of Tokolor ruler al – Hajj Umar, who proclaimed an anti – European jihad. A plan for the conquest of the Niger Valley was revived in 1876. In 1878 a French force destroyed the Tokolor fort at Saboucire. Their goal was the Niger River, to which they carried dismantled gunboats while planning for a railroad link. They built a fort at Kita in 1880. After suppressing rebellions, the advance continued in 1886 with the capture of several Tokolor centres. The final stage was the seizure of Timbuktu in 1893.

West Africa

Both France and Britain were interested in West Africa for reasons that certainly had more to do with European rivalries and national pride than with trade. In the seventeenth century, the French established a trading post named St Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River. St Louis became a major slaving port, but by the 1820s the slave trade had been outlawed and entrepreneurs had to search for other trade goods. This soon brought them into conflict with the inland Tukolor Empire, which controlled the Senegal River to the bend of the Niger.

In 1852, the French Government authorized a drive towards the interior, the aim of which was to control inland trade to the exclusion of Berber and African middlemen. The commander of St Louis, General Louis Faidherbe (1818-1889), was left with a nearly free hand. In 1854, he began to establish forts along the Senegal River, which could be provisioned by boat and could control and protect shipping. The French offensive coincided with a major jihad in the Tukolor Empire under the leadership of al-Hajj Umar (1797-1864). The jihad’s primary enemy was animists, but a religious agenda soon became mixed up with fighting the French too.

French Outposts

By 1855, the French had established a fort at Medine, above the highest navigable point on the Senegal River, deep in Tukolor territory. In April 1857, Umar placed Medine under siege. When word of this act reached Governor Faidherbe, he set out to relieve the place in an expedition that is a model of riverine warfare in this period. Faidherbe packed 500 men into two armed steamboats. The vessels sailed upriver until they grounded, whereupon he lightened the steamers by disembarking the troops and marched them overland to rejoin the boats outside of Medine. A combination of an infantry charge and the steamboats’ cannonade drove the Tukolor forces from the fortress. This was a common pattern. A steamboat with its shallow draught could penetrate far upriver, carrying troops and supplies. Above all, steamboats could easily transport cannon and even early machine guns that would have been impossible to convey by land.

Perhaps the French in West Africa made so much use of riverboats because officers of the French Navy were so closely engaged in the colonial movement. During the Second Empire, it was French naval officers who got France embroiled in Indochina. In the Third Republic, it was above all the navy that promoted expansion in Africa, often by ignoring its civilian superiors.

A second French thrust into West Africa began in 1876, when the marine colonel Louis-Alexandre Briere de l’lsle (1827-1896) became governor of Senegal. His plan to establish a French West African empire was based on the ability to move men and materiel swiftly to problem spots, a plan that utilized both river shipping and railways.

In the 1870s and 1880s, both the British and the French pushed to control the Niger River, administrators in each country fearing that the other would take advantage of the decline of the Tukolor Empire. In the event, it was the French who first succeeded in opening the Niger River. French troops seized the fortress of Murgula on the Niger. They then carried a gunboat overland in pieces, reassembled it and launched it on the river. In 1891, the French added 95mm (3-7in) siege guns to their armament. These weapons were able to fire shells with the new high explosive melinite. This latest innovation could devastate the cities of West Africa.

The last stage of the French conquest of Western Sudan was the capture of Timbuktu in 1893- The city had declined sharply from its golden age but was still a formidable obstacle. In the event, the seizure of the city was a race between naval and marine forces. A marine colonel, Etienne Bonnier, proceeded against the city with two columns. Unwilling to share his glory, he ordered the two gunboats with the expedition, Mage and Niger, to remain at the anchorage at Mopti on the Niger. But Lieutenant Boiteux, who commanded the vessels, was eager for glory, too. Boiteux ignored his orders and sailed upriver to Timbuktu. The first troops in the city, on 16 December 1893, were a detachment of 19 sailors, who were welcomed as liberators. The army columns, rushing upriver in a fleet of canoes, reached the city later.

The Scramble for Africa

British and French competition for the Niger River valley led to a series of bitter territorial disputes. In the mid-1880s, the two nations decided on peaceable negotiation to divide West Africa between them. But the other European powers protested. The result was the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85, which shared out much of Africa among the predatory imperial powers. However, an important point at the conference was that a nation could not claim inland territories without proof of effective occupation of the interior. The effect was to make gunboats on the rivers, and naval forces in general, more essential than ever.

Western naval forces were engaged in warfare through most of Africa, even in the absence of water. The reason was simple: navies contained large numbers of skilled artillerymen, since a warship was a large-scale floating battery. Navies were also quicker to adopt machine guns than were armies, because the weapons were heavy and difficult to transport on land, besides the fact that ships provided a fixed platform from which to fire. Thus, navies often provided special brigades to join army advances into Africa’s interior. For example, sailors formed a rocket corps in the Second Ashanti War (1873-74) and manned machine guns in Sudan in the 1880s. Sailors and their large ship guns were also a major contributor to victory against the Boers in 1899-1902. Thanks to the steam-driven gunboat, it was possible to accomplish extraordinary advances on the rivers of Africa, travelling into regions hitherto deemed impenetrable.

The Congo region was particularly inaccessible, thanks to a lethal mixture of swamps, rainforests and diseases. Welsh explorer Henry Stanley (1841-1904) was sent there in the late 1870s to negotiate treaties and establish a series of military posts for the Belgian king, Leopold II. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, the European powers granted Leopold an enormous independent state, if he could conquer it. The royal administrators put in place did so by controlling the Congo’s complex river system, creating a large fleet of river-going steamboats by the simple expedient of carrying gunboats overland. Stanley launched the first steamboat on the Congo in 1881; it had been carried overland about 400km (250 miles) in small, individually numbered pieces. Once reassembled, a gunboat could continue upriver 1450km (900 miles), to Stanley Falls, beyond which the Congo was navigable for another 800km (500 miles). Leopold’s Congo Free State developed a very expensive river fleet, using 90 per cent of the capital invested in the territory in the period from 1887 to 1896.

Mastery of the rivers allowed the Belgian controlled forces to move troops quickly. This mobility was decisive in the so-called Arab Wars of the 1890s, a very bloody series of engagements between the Congo Free State and Swahili slave traders. It proved easy for the Free State’s river fleet to reach the main Arab towns of Nyangwe and Kasongo.

More examples can easily be presented, especially from the 1880s and 1890s, when a new class of shallow-draught armoured gunboat was developed. The light cruisers and gunboats of the German Navy made it possible to establish German control in Cameroon and Tanganyika. In the 1890s, when British forces penetrated the Niger Delta region (southern Nigeria), naval vessels bombarded villages as well as providing necessary transport. The 1892 French invasion of Dahomey was greatly assisted by the gunboat Topaz, which steamed up the Oueme River parallel to the army’s advance. Even Portugal, in its conquest of Mozambique during the 1890s, made significant use of gunboats along the Incomati and Zambezi rivers.

Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War I

If Britain and France refrained from challenging Italy and Germany in Spain, this was not because they were blind to the threat to their strategic interests;  it was because they feared that a general war in Western Europe, whether they won or lost, could only redound to the benefit of Russia.

In a policy summary drafted by Gladwyn Jebb, private secretary to Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office since January 1938, and based partly on the papers of William Strang, head of the Central Departmentall three men supporters of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain Jebb observed that the objection to collective security was that it would “provoke war in which defeat would be disastrous and victory hardly less so.”

At a session, on 15 March 1938, of the Comité Permanent de la Défense Nationale, Edouard Daladier, the French minister of defense, stated that “one would have to be blind not to see that intervention in Spain would start a general war.” As to what he envisioned by a general war was expressed by him apocalyptically three months later, when, as the reader will recall, he told Count von Welczech, the German ambassador: “[The] catastrophic frightfulness of a modern war would surpass all that humanity had ever seen, and would mean the utter destruction of European civilization. Into the battle zones, devastated and denuded of men, Cossack and Mongol hordes would then pour, bringing to Europe a new ‘Culture.’ ”          

Hence, the nonintervention policy of Britain and France during the Civil War was determined not only by their hostility to the social revolution and by later Communist domination, of which they were fully informed through their diplomatic and secret agents, but by the fear that a general war would bring in its wake the enthronement of Communism in the whole of Europe. Consequently, no effort at dissimulation or persuasion, no attempt by successive Spanish governments to curb or roll back the revolution could have affected Anglo-French policy.

We have seen that the policy of appeasement of Germany was pursued with greater vigor from the time Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin in the premiership in May 1937 and that the new prime minister perceived the Soviet Union as the major long-term threat to British interests and the Western world. For this reason, a political settlement with Germany was the cornerstone of Chamberlain’s policy, and it was visionary to believe that Britain would come to the aid of Republican Spain at the risk of a war in Western Europe. 

That some members of the PCE in the spring of 1938 had begun to question the assumption that Britain and France would eventually be drawn into the conflict, but such doubts, inadmissible in Communist circles, had to be squelched if morale were to be sustained, particularly at the battlefronts. “I never for a moment believed that the Spanish government would get real help from Britain and France,” Ralph Bates, the British author and assistant commissar of the Fifteenth International Brigade, wrote in 1940 after he had severed his connections with the Communists. He was “tremendously censured,” he said, by the English representative of the Communist party in Madrid for dealing with the problem, even implicitly, in the brigade organ Volunteer for Liberty of which he was editor and was ”charged with exposing the boys to the possibility of this thought coming up in their minds.” “In so far as we damped down the revolution in Spain,” he added, “in the interests of collective security, then we miscalculated. I feel compelled to face that fact. Not all our soft-pedalling won [Britain and France] to our side. Might we have got more out of the CNT and FAI if we had not soft-pedalled so much?”          

The extent to which Chamberlain and his supporters were prepared to pursue the appeasement of Germany is evident from a conversation that Lord Halifax held with Adolf Hitler on 19 November 1937. At that time, Halifax was Lord Privy Seal and later, as foreign secretary, formed part of Chamberlain’s “Inner Cabinet” with Sir Samuel Hoare and Sir John Simon. According to a German foreign ministry memorandum, Halifax recognized that Hitler “had not only performed great services in Germany” but also had been able “by preventing the entry of Communism into his own country, to bar its passage further West.” Halifax stated that on the English side “it was not necessarily thought that the status quo must be maintained under all circumstances.” He then spoke of “possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. England was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course of peaceful evolution and that methods should be avoided which might cause far-reaching disturbances [i.e., war in Western Europe].” Since Austria was the gateway to Czechoslovakia, and Danzig the key to Poland, these remarks must have encouraged Hitler to believe that his territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe would encounter scant opposition.    

“Halifax’s remarks,” writes the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, “if they had any practical sense, were an invitation to Hitler to promote German nationalist agitation in Danzig, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; an assurance also that this agitation would not be opposed from without.” 10 Hitler also received similar assurances from the French government. “[I] was amazed to note,” Franz von Papen, the German ambassador in Austria, told Hitler on 10 November 1937 after a visit to Paris, “that, like [foreign minister] Bonnet, Premier [Camille Chautemps] considered a reorientation of French policy in Central Europe as entirely open to discussion. . . .[He], too, had no objection to a marked extension of German influence in Austria obtained through evolutionary means.” And, on 4 December, in a letter to state secretary von Weizsäcker, the head of the political department in the German foreign ministry, von Papen stated: “I found it very interesting to note that neither Bonnet nor Chautemps raised any objections to an evolutionary extension of German influence . . . in Czechoslovakia, on the basis of a reorganization into a nation of nationalities.”        

In pursuit of his appeasement policy, Chamberlain removed Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, the most forceful exponent of anti-German opinion in the Foreign Office, and assigned him to the newly created post of “Chief Diplomatic Adviser,” where, according to the earl of Birkenhead, “he found himself trapped in a gilded cage” and where he “ceased to exert any effective influence on foreign affairs.” Commenting in a letter to his sister on all the months Stanley Baldwin had “wasted in futile attempts” to push Vansittart out of the Foreign Office, Chamberlain remarked: “[It] is amusing to record that I have done it in three days. . . . I am afraid his instincts were all against my policy. . . . I suspect that in Rome and Berlin the rejoicings will be loud and deep.”            

The way was now open for a more vigorous pursuit of appeasement by circumventing the Foreign Office, which, according to Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s intimate colleague and chief diplomatic adviser, represented an obstruction to the prime minister’s policy of coming to terms with the dictators. “The old-established machine of the Foreign Office,” wrote Lord Templewood (Sir Samuel Hoare), in his published memoir of the period, “did not seem to [Chamberlain] to move quickly enough for the crisis that threatened Europe.” More expressive of Hoare’s true attitude toward the Foreign Office was the candid letter he sent to Neville Chamberlain on 17 March 1937, shortly before Stanley Baldwin’s resignation from the premiership. After suggesting that Chamberlain should not copy “Baldwin’s slipshod, happy-go-lucky quietism” he continued: “Do not let anything irrevocable or badly compromising happen in foreign politics until you are in control. I say this because I am convinced that the FO [Foreign Office] is so much biased against Germany (and Italy and Japan) that unconsciously and almost continuously they are making impossible any sort of reconciliation. I believe myself that when once you are Prime Minister it will be possible greatly to change the European atmosphere.”         

On 3 March 1938, the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, who bypassed the regular Foreign Office channels and plied the prime minister directly with letters and visits, told Hitler that the aim of British policy was “to establish the basis for a genuine and cordial friendship with Germany.” Lord Halifax, Henderson added, had already admitted that changes in Europe could be considered “quite possible,” provided they were the product of “higher reason” rather than “the free play of forces.” This policy was certainly not one that Henderson “had worked out for himself,” as William N. Medlicott affirms in his preface to volume 18 of Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, second series, in a “revisionist” interpretation of appeasement. As British historians Keith Middlemas and Ian Colvin have pointed out, Henderson was a disciple of Chamberlain’s and one of the principal exponents of his policy. Medlicott’s assertion is all the more remarkable in that he quotes Henderson’s own testimony from the latter’s memoir Failure of a Mission, in which the former ambassador states: “Both Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Baldwin, whom I had seen earlier, agreed that I should do my utmost to work with Hitler and the Nazi Party as the existing government of Germany. . . . Mr. Chamberlain outlined to me his views on general policy towards Germany, and I think I may honestly say that to the last and bitter end I followed the general line which he set me, all the more easily and faithfully since it corresponded so closely with my private conception of the service I could best render in Germany to my own country.”  

In this connection, it is worth quoting from a memorandum by Henderson to the Foreign Office, dated 10 May 1937, in which he stated: “[Eastern Europe] is neither definitely settled for all time nor is it a vital British interest, and the German is certainly more civilized than the Slav, and in the end, if properly handled, also less potentially dangerous to British interestsone might even go so far as to assert that it is not even just to endeavour to prevent Germany from completing her unity or from being prepared for war against the Slav, provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it.”    

On 10 March 1938, two days before Hitler’s annexation of Austria, German foreign minister von Ribbentrop reported to Hitler during a visit to London that Lord Halifax had told him that “Chamberlain and he, Lord Halifax, were determined to reach an understanding with Germany” and that in advocating this policy “Chamberlain had assumed a great responsibility in the eyes of the British people and a great risk as well.” Ribbentrop then stated: “Germany wished to be and had to be strong. . . .Germany must be armed for defense against Soviet Russian attacks. . . . The Führer did not wish to request aid at the outset from the great Western Powers, if some day the steamroller of world revolution should be set in motion against Germany.” At this point Lord Halifax interjected that “England was well aware of Germany’s strength and that she had no objection to it whatever.” Then Ribbentrop continued: “Germany wished to obtain the right of self-determination for the 10 million Germans living on her eastern border, i.e., in Austria and Czechoslovakia. . . . In this connection . . . the Führer had been pleased when Lord Halifax had shown understanding for that, too, at Berchtesgaden and when he had declared that the status quo in Eastern Europe could not be maintained unconditionally forever.” The next day, Ribbentrop reported that Chamberlain had “very emphatically requested” that he inform the Führer of “his most sincere wish for an understanding with Germany.”

Hitler’s annexation of Austria had no effect in London it had, in fact, been regarded as inevitable and Chamberlain pursued his appeasement of Germany with unruffled self-assurance. Nevertheless, it was essential that Hitler achieve his next territorial objective by peaceful means lest Great Britain be drawn into a European conflict through France’s treaty obligations. On 22 May, during the mounting crisis over Czechoslovakia, Lord Halifax instructed Nevile Henderson to inform Ribbentrop of this dangerous contingency: “If a resort is had to forcible measures, it is quite impossible for me or for him to foretell the results that may follow, and I would beg him not to count on this country’s being able to stand aside if from any precipitate action there should start a European conflagration. Only those will benefit from such a catastrophe who wish to see the destruction of European civilization.” At the beginning of September, there was mutual understanding. Theodor Kordt, the German chargé d’affaires in London, reported to ambassador Dirksen on a conversation with Chamberlain and Sir Horace Wilson: “The conversation took place in an exceedingly friendly atmosphere. [Wilson] was visibly moved (as far as an Englishman can betray such feelings at all) when at the end he shook my hand and said: ‘If we two, Great Britain and Germany, come to agreement regarding the settlement of the Czech problem, we shall simply brush aside the resistance that France or Czechoslovakia herself may offer to the decision.” At the end of the month there followed the Munich settlement, the result of British pressure on Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory.

By now, it must have been obvious to Stalin that the policy of collective security that he had indefatigably pursued since the USSR joined the League of Nations in 1934 in the hope of warding off the German threat might fail and that the slender hope that Britain and France would risk a conflict over Spain was fading. He therefore renewed his interest in the possibility of negotiating a nonaggression pact with Hitler in order to divert German military might against the West. We have already seen that quite early in the Civil War, his trade representative David Kandelaki had initiated negotiations for an agreement with Germany but that these tentative efforts had been rebuffed by Hitler. In fact, it was not until after the overthrow of Juan Negrín on 6 March 1939, that Stalin finally gave up all hope of involving Britain and France in a war with Germany over the Spanish conflict and revived his plans for a compact with Hitler.   

At this stage it is important to anticipate the course of events in Spain and even to probe the diplomatic intrigues among the European powers beyond the close of the Spanish Civil War, in order fully to appreciate the perilous game being played and the real concerns of British policymakers during the war itself.            

In his report to the eighteenth congress of the Soviet Communist party on 10 March 1939, Stalin inveighed against Britain and France for encouraging Germany to embroil herself in a war with the Soviet Union, in which “they would appear on the scene with fresh strength . . . to dictate conditions to the enfeebled belligerents” precisely the role of arbiter that Stalin had reserved for the Soviet Union should the Spanish Civil War develop into a Western European conflict and for the first time he threw out the first open hint of his desire for a rapprochement with Germany. “Marshal Stalin in March 1939,” testified the former Reich foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, during his trial at Nuremberg, “delivered a speech in which he made certain hints of his desire to have better relations with Germany. I had submitted this speech to Adolf Hitler and asked him whether we should not try to find out whether this suggestion had something real behind it. Hitler was at first reluctant, but later on he became more receptive to this idea. Negotiations for a commercial treaty were under way, and during these negotiations, with the Führer’s permission, I took soundings in Moscow as to the possibility of a definite bridge between National Socialism and Bolshevism and whether the interests of the two countries could not at least be made to harmonize.”

The extremely cautious manner in which both sides broached the question of a political settlement from the time of Stalin’s speech, as revealed by documents found in the archives of the German foreign office, stemmed no doubt from the fact that each side feared that the other might use any concrete proposal for a political agreement to strengthen its own bargaining position vis-à-vis Britain and France. In fact, up to 30 May 1939, less than three months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact (in August) and the Secret Protocol that touched off the German attack on Poland and World War II, these documents indicate that matters had not gone beyond vague soundings. On that date state secretary Weizsäcker wired the German embassy in Moscow: “Contrary to the policy previously planned we have now decided to undertake definite negotiations with the Soviet Union.”

Although Stalin did not open formal negotiations with Hitler until the middle of 1939, he was not backward during the Spanish Civil Warapart from the overtures made by Kandelakiin letting Hitler know that it would be to Germany’s advantage to have him as a partner rather than an enemy. This is borne out by the testimony of Alexander Orlov: “The fourth line of Soviet intelligence,” he wrote, “is so-called Misinformation. . . . Misinformation is not just lying for the sake of lying; it is expected to serve as a subtle means of inducing another government to do what the Kremlin wants it to do. . . . During the Spanish Civil War . . . the Misinformation desk was ordered to introduce into the channels of the German military intelligence service information that the Soviet planes fighting in Spain were not of the latest design and that Russia had in her arsenal thousands of newer planes, of the second and third generation, possessing much greater speed and a higher ceiling. This was not true. Russia had given Spain the best and the newest she had (though in insufficient quantities). This misleading information greatly impressed the German High Command. . . . Evidently, Stalin wanted to impress on Hitler that the Soviet Union was much stronger and better armed than he thought and that it would be wiser for Germany to have Russia as a partner rather than an opponent.”

Four months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact in August, Walter Krivitsky claimed that Stalin’s foreign policy in the Western world was predicated upon a profound contempt for the “weakling” democratic nations and that his international policy had been a series of maneuvers whose sole purpose was to place him in a favorable position for a deal with Hitler. This is by no means certain, for Stalin could not rely entirely on a problematical agreement with Hitler on which to base his foreign policy. For this reason, he was careful to keep open his other option of collective security in the hope that the Western powers would eventually confront Hitler, whether in Spain or Czechoslovakia, and deflect German aggression away from Russia’s borders. It was because Stalin held open both these options that even after the loss of Catalonia in February 1939 he still hoped, as we shall see later, that Britain and France might reverse their policy of neutrality and instructed the Spanish politburo to continue the struggle in the fading expectation that the latent antagonisms in the West would finally burst into flame.

Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War II

It would be false to convey the impression that only Stalin, Negrín, and the Spanish Communists placed their hopes of victory in the Civil War in the eventual outbreak of a European conflict, for these hopes were also entertained, as we have seen, by some leaders of the CNT. They were also entertained for some time by certain prominent Socialists. Referring to the occupation of the Basque provinces and Asturias by General Franco in the summer and autumn of 1937, Wenceslao Carrillo, a supporter of Largo Caballero and director general of security in his government, wrote: “Nevertheless, the hope of victory that the Communist party and the Negrín government held out to us, based on the possibility of world war, had not disappeared. Neither France nor England, they argued, can consent to an out-and-out triumph of fascism in Spain because that would put them in a critical position in the Mediterranean. As I am ready to tell the whole truth, I refuse to conceal the fact that, in the beginning, I too shared this belief. . . . But I did not think of profiting from war; nor was I in the service of interests other than those of my country.”

On the other hand, President Azaña, like Julián Besteiro, the right-wing Socialist, who hoped for a negotiated settlement, frowned on the prospect of a European conflict. In reply to Juan-Simeón Vidarte, a member of the Socialist executive and a Negrín supporter, Azaña once stated: “I already know that there is someone among you who believes that the just cause of the Republic would be saved by a world war. That war would be a catastrophe of inconceivable dimensions and it is not right for us to seek salvation in the martyrdom of millions of human beings. . . . I see that you are infected by the Negrín thesis. . . . Suppose that at the end of the war Communism were implanted in Western Europe just as it was implanted in Eastern Europe at the end of the last war. To the majority of Republicans and, I suppose, Socialists that solution would be repugnant.”       

If the hope that a general conflict would eventually erupt was disappointed, this was not because those who determined policy in Britain and France contemplated lightly the extension of Italo-German power in the Mediterranean; it was because the purview of their foreign policy went beyond the Spanish problem and embraced the whole of Europe. If Britain and France refused to challenge Germany in Spain; if, moreover, they sacrificed the independence of Austria and Czechoslovakia; if, finally, Neville Chamberlain, as will be seen shortly, secretly proposed before being outmaneuvered by the Hitler-Stalin pacta political settlement with Germany that would free Britain from her guarantee to Poland, it was because they knew that the frustration of German aims at this stage, even if it did not lead to war, would weaken the Nazi regime and enhance Russia’s influence on the continent. Above all, those who molded policy in Britain and France wished to avoid war in the West until Germany had weakened herself in the East. To have resisted Germany before she had blunted her teeth on Russian soil would have left the Soviet Union arbiter of the continent, infinitely more powerful than if she had to bear the main burden of the fighting.  

Of course, in the long run, Britain and France could no more have desired Germany to obtain a complete mastery over the greater part of Europe than they could Russia. They wished for the domination of neither. Of this, German leaders were supremely conscious. Hence, if, after the occupation of Poland, Germany invaded Belgium, France, and the Netherlands before attacking the Soviet Union, this was because the subjection of Western Europe and the control of its coastline were, in the German mind, indispensable prerequisites for war on the Soviet Union; for although Britain and France might encourage German ambitions in Eastern Europe, Germany could not feel certain that once she was involved in an exhausting struggle on Soviet soil, these powers would not attempt to restore the balance in their favor. Undoubtedly the conviction that Germany would attack the West before assailing Russia lay at the root of some of the opposition in Britain and France to the policy of giving Germany a free hand in Eastern Europe.

Although the direction of the German thrust seemed unmistakable, there is evidence that both the British and French leaders were not unmindful of the danger that appeasement might backfire and that Germany might march west instead of east. On 1 November 1938, one month after the Munich agreement, Lord Halifax, in a letter to Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador in Paris, outlined his thoughts: “Henceforward, we must count with German predominance in Central Europe. . . . In these conditions, it seems to me that Great Britain and France have to uphold their predominant position in Western Europe by the maintenance of such armed strength as would render any attack upon them hazardous. . . . It is one thing to allow German expansion in Central Europe, which to my mind is a normal and natural thing, but we must be able to resist German expansion in Western Europe or else our whole position is undermined.”              

The possibility that Germany might attack Western Europe before marching East was conveyed to Halifax by Sir G. Ogilvie-Forbes, the British chargé d’affaires in Berlin, in a dispatch dated 6 December 1938. There was a school of thought, he stated, that believed that “Herr Hitler will not risk a Russian adventure until he has made quite certain that his western flank will not be attacked while he is operating in the east, and that consequently his first task will be to liquidate France and England, before British rearmament is ready.” Equally disturbing was a report by William Strang, Halifax’s assistant undersecretary of state, dated 18 January 1939, in which he referred to “reports we have had of Hitler’s intention to attack in the West this Spring. . . . Germany cannot conduct a war on two fronts in present circumstances, and material conditions will make it easier for her to operate in the West than in the East.”

That French leaders were aware of the dangers is also evident. In a letter to French foreign minister Georges Bonnet on 19 March 1939, a few days after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the French ambassador in Moscow, Robert Coulondre, stated that the Nazi leaders saw two ways open to them: “Either to proceed without intermission in the subjugation of east and south-east Europe” or to “attack France and Britain before these two Powers have, with American help, caught up with German armaments. . . . This second possibility is not at present the more probable. But we must reckon with the risk of seeing Germany engaged in such an undertaking.”              

The general assumption, however, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939 was that Hitler’s next move would be against Poland. But despite Chamberlain’s treaty guarantees to defend Polish independence guarantees hastily given under pressure from the parliamentary Opposition and the aroused state of British public opinion he did what he could to evade his commitments. This is clear from the meticulously documented study by the British historians Martín Gilbert and Richard Gott of British treaty obligations to Poland, of the subsequent efforts to wriggle out of them, and the eight-month “phoney” war, during which Chamberlain still hoped for an Anglo-German agreement that would avert war in Western Europe. It is also clear from the secret proposals that Sir Horace Wilson, his chief collaborator and adviser, made to Helmut Wohlthat, Hermann Goering’s emissary in London, in mid-July 1939, and the conversations a few days later between Wilson and Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador to London.     

These “back-stair negotiations,” as the British historian Sir Lewis Namier called them, in which the prime minister “unwisely engaged” without the knowledge of the Foreign Office, were the zenith of the appeasement policy. Wilson’s proposals were recorded by von Dirksen in a long memorandum written after the outbreak of war, which was found on his estate at Gröditzberg by the Soviet army, and also in a shorter “strictly secret” report dated 21 July 1939 drawn up at the time of his ambassadorship. The authenticity of the proposals is beyond doubt, not only because Dirksen later confirmed them in every important detail in a work published in London in 1951, but because Wohlthat himself refers to them in his report to Goering. Moreover, Wilson’s proposals (which quite naturally he concealed from the Foreign Office) have never been challenged by a single British historian. Although conveniently ignored by many historians (for example, William N. Medlicott, Robert Skidelsky, and Simon Newman) in their revisionist assessments of Chamberlain’s foreign policy, they have been accepted without question by others, notably, Ian Colvin, Sir Lewis Namier, and A. J. P. Taylor. Nevertheless, they have not been accorded the significance they deserve.        

While not directly related to the Spanish Civil War, the Dirksen memoranda shed more light than any other documents on the mainspring of appeasement to divert German aggression eastward and illustrate how far Chamberlain was prepared to go in order to reach a political settlement with Germany in order to preserve peace in Western Europe. Therefore they are particularly relevant to the Civil War since they demonstrate the futility of Stalin’s efforts to provoke a conflagration in Western Europe by involving Britain and France in the Spanish conflict and are the clearest proof of the inevitable failure of his attempts to influence Western governments by distorting the true nature of the revolution.

In the longer of the two documents, Dirksen testifies:         

When Herr [Helmut] Wohlthat [emissary of Goering] was in London for the whaling negotiations in July [1939], Wilson [Sir Horace Wilson] invited him for a talk, and, consulting prepared notes, outlined a program for a comprehensive adjustment of Anglo-German relations. . . . 

In the political sphere, a non-aggression pact was contemplated, in which aggression would be renounced in principle. The underlying purpose of this treaty was to make it possible for the British gradually to disembarrass themselves of their commitments towards Poland, on the ground that they had by this treaty secured Germany’s renunciation of methods of aggression. . . .             

The importance of Wilson’s proposals was demonstrated by the fact that Wilson invited Wohlthat to have them confirmed by Chamberlain personally, whose room was not far from Wilson’s. Wohlthat, however, declined this in order not to prejudice the unofficial character of his mission. . . .           

In order to avoid all publicity, I visited Wilson at his home on August 3 [one month before Hitler’s invasion of Poland] and we had a conversation which lasted nearly two hours. . . . Again Wilson affirmed, and in a clearer form than he had done to Wohlthat, that the conclusion of an Anglo-German entente would practically render Britain’s guarantee policy nugatory. Agreement with Germany would enable Britain to extricate herself from her predicament in regard to Poland on the ground that the non-aggression pact protected Poland from German attack; England would thus be relieved of her commitments. Then Poland, so to speak, would be left to face Germany alone.   

Sir Horace Wilson, on my insistence, also touched on the question of how the negotiations were to be conducted in face of the inflamed state of British public opinion [resulting from Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in March 1939]. . . . He admitted quite frankly that by taking this step Chamberlain was incurring a great risk and laying himself open to the danger of a fall. But with skill and strict secrecy, the reefs could be avoided. . . .         

The tragic and paramount thing about the rise of the new Anglo-German war was that Germany demanded an equal place with Britain as a world power and that Britain was in principle prepared to concede. But whereas Germany demanded immediate, complete and unequivocal satisfaction of her demand, Britain although she was ready to renounce her eastern commitments, and there with her encirclement policy, as well as to allow Germany a predominant position in east and south-east Europe and to discuss genuine world political partnership with Germany wanted this to be done only by way of negotiation and a gradual revision of British policy. This change could be effected in a period of months, but not of days or weeks. 

A. J. P. Taylor, one of the few British historians who have ventured to mention Sir Horace Wilson’s proposals, writes: “Wilson produced a memorandum on 10 Downing Street notepaper, which, not surprisingly, has disappeared from the British records. This proposed an Anglo-German treaty of non-aggression and non-interference. . . . A pact of this kind ‘would enable Britain to rid herself of her commitments vis-à-vis Poland.’ . . . [It] is inconceivable that these proposals were made without Chamberlain’s knowledge or approval.”         

Although Wilson’s proposals met with no response in Berlin and were “simply thrown into the wastepaper basket,” as von Dirksen put it, undoubtedly because Hitler, impatient to dispose of the Polish problem before the onset of winter, favored a pact with Stalin that offered immediate territorial gains rather than a pact with Britain that would have required a long period of uncertain negotiations in view of the inflamed state of British opinion they were the culminating effort, the final desperate gamble of the British government to direct Germany’s course away from Western Europe.    

Oddly enough, A. J. P. Taylor questions whether the British and French governments intended that Nazi Germany should destroy the “Bolshevik menace.” “This was the Soviet suspicion, both at the time and later. There is little evidence of it in the official record, or even outside it. British and French statesmen were far too distracted by the German problem to consider what would happen when Germany had become the dominant Power in Eastern Europe. Of course they preferred that Germany should march east not west, if she marched at all. But their object was to prevent war, not to prepare one; and they sincerely believed at any rate Chamberlain believed that Hitler would be content and pacific if his claims were met.” If this be so, then the policy of the British government of encouraging German rearmament from the beginning of 1935, of conniving at the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, of forcing Czechoslovakia to submit to German demands in 1938, and of secretly attempting to negotiate a settlement with Germany at the expense of Poland in July 1939, makes positively no sense and becomes a succession of moronic moves in the perilous diplomatic game being played by Britain and Russia in the prewar years. It is impossible to believe that there was no strategic thinking behind Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement and that he did not take into account what might happen once Germany became predominant in Eastern Europe and established a common border with Russia. 

The British military expert Liddell Hart acknowledges in his History of the Second World War with reference to the strategic situation after the German invasion of Poland that “the best hope [of Britain and France] now that Germany and Russia faced each other on a common border, was that friction would develop between these two mutually distrustful confederates and draw Hitler’s explosive force eastward, instead of westward.” Although Liddell Hart does not relate this hope to any prewar strategy, it is unimaginable, given the massive evidence presented, that British and French leaders long before the outbreak of World War II “were far too distracted by the German problem [as A. J. P. Taylor puts it] to consider what would happen when Germany had become the dominant Power in Eastern Europe” and a common border between Germany and the Soviet Union had been established.           

Of course it would be idle to suggest that in the prewar years British leaders in pursuit of their policy of appeasement were not influenced to some degree by other considerations than the fear that a Western European conflagration would redound to Russia’s benefit. Among these considerations, according to the earl of Birkenhead, were the conclusions of the chiefs of staff in their report to the Committee of Imperial Defense in the late summer of 1938 that Great Britain was not ready for war and that she could not fight a war on three fronts German, Italian, and Japanese without powerful allies. “[Chamberlain and Halifax],” Lord Birkenhead affirms, “were apprehensive of the situation in the Far East, of what action Japan might take there if Great Britain became involved in a war with Germany in the West; and they were at all times uneasily conscious of America’s neutrality and of the unpalatable fact that no help could be looked for from that quarter in case of trouble. The British Government was also alarmed about the attitude of the Dominions to involvement in war. South Africa had decided to remain neutral, should it come; the Australian Labour Party were against intervention and there was grave doubt whether [Prime Minister] Mackenzie King could bring the Canadian people into war.” Furthermore, the British historian Charles L. Mowat states that since World War I the policy of the dominions had been one of no commitments “and certainly they were not going to be bound by Britain’s commitments. . . . [They] naturally opposed involvement in war and rejoiced that appeasement was keeping the threat of war at a distance.” But all these considerations, although used by various historians to explain the policy of appeasement, pale before the single most important consideration: the deep-rooted fear of Russia.      

That the wells of appeasement lay in this fear of Russia, in the conviction that Nazi Germany was a barrier against the spread of Communism, and that a war in Western Europe could only benefit the Soviet Union by extending her power and influence has been amply demonstrated in this and other chapters. But these cardinal elements in the policy of appeasement have been underrated or almost totally ignored by the British historical establishment.     

There are two reasons for this failure by British historians to come to terms with their country’s diplomatic past. Firstly, there is the accepted tradition not to attribute to their government Machiavellian designs against a foreign power. Hence, no matter how patriotic or realistic Chamberlain and his supporters may have felt themselves to be in attempting to spare Western Europe the ravages of war and revolution, they should not be accused of conspiring to pit one totalitarian power against the other. “Of course,” writes Robert Skidelsky, the British neorevisionist historian, “there were a number of groups in Britain who . . . advocated the bargain that Hitler must always have hoped for ‘a German deal with the British Empire at the expense of the Soviet Union.’ But such cynicism (or realism) was foreign to the British Establishment.” Secondly, because of the ideological divide between East and West, no establishment historian (despite Stalin’s own Machiavellian aims) wishes to play into the hands of the Soviet Union by acknowledging Britain’s share of responsibility for the rebirth of German militarism and the calamity of the Second World War.        

This failure to expose the main roots of appeasement is unfortunate not only for the historiography of this crucial period in world history, but for those seeking a true understanding of the Spanish Civil War and Revolution and of the reason why Stalin’s democratic camouflage in Spain was doomed to failure.

Battle of Vigo Bay, (12 October 1702)

Naval battle of the 1701-1714 War of the Spanish Succession.

En route back to England after an unsuccessful attempt to seize Cadiz, the Anglo-Dutch fleet under Admiral Sir George Rooke, carrying troops under command of General James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, attacked the Spanish silver fleet with its French naval escort under Admiral François de Rousselet, Marquis de Chateaurenault, anchored behind a protective boom and defended by fortifications at Vigo Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean on the northwestern coast of Spain’s Pontevedra Province.

The silver fleet had sailed from Veracruz, Mexico, with a cargo of silver valued at 13,639,230 pesos. At a contemporary exchange rate of about three pesos to the pound sterling, this equaled £4.5 million. Calling at Havana, where Chateaurenault and his naval escort joined together, the combined fleet of 22 Spanish vessels and 34 French vessels sailed on 24 July 1702. The English and Dutch forces had intelligence of this movement and attempted to intercept the fleet. At Cadiz, the silver fleet’s normal port, Rooke remained on the lookout while Sir Cloudesley Shovell tried intercepting the vessels at sea. Unknown to the allies, Chateaurenault safely anchored his convoy in Vigo Bay on 23 September 1702. Captain Thomas Hardy in the Pembroke heard the news when he called at Lagos Bay, Portugal, and immediately reported it to Rooke, earning Hardy a knighthood and a £1,000-pound reward.

Arriving off Vigo on 22 October, Rooke landed Ormonde’s troops and with Dutch Lieutenant Admiral Philips van Almonde divided the 15 English and 10 Dutch ships into seven squadrons, each headed by a Dutch or English flag officer. On 23 October, the squadrons commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas Hopsonn and Vice Admiral Philips van der Goes approached the narrow entrance of the bay, while the large ships bombarded the fortifications in support of Ormonde’s troops. Captain Andrew Leake in the Torbay broke the boom, for which he and Hopsonn were knighted. Allied forces took the forts and 18 French warships, of which five were incorporated into the Royal Navy and one into the Dutch navy. The remainder were burned.

Shovell’s squadron arrived on 27 October after the main action and stayed behind after Rooke’s departure to manage the final phase. Most of the silver had already been off-loaded and the Spanish treasury recorded the largest amount of silver ever obtained from America in one year: 6,994,293 pesos. Spain contributed 2.2 million of this to the French war effort and soon replaced its lost warships. The allies, however, acquired a sum of silver valued at about £14,000. Modern scholarship has yet to account for the remainder.

François Louis de Rousselet, Marquis de Chateaurenault


French admiral during the wars of Louis XIV. Born at Chateaurenault on 22 September 1637, Chateaurenault, like many young men of his class, favored a military career. He joined the French army in 1658 as a musketeer. The expansion of the Royal French Navy under Minister of Marine Jean Baptiste Colbert offered numerous opportunities to young officers, and Chateaurenault transferred to the naval service in 1661. He proved to be a capable, if somewhat difficult, officer. In the short span of only five years, Chateaurenault advanced to captain.

Chateaurenault saw his first action in the Mediterranean against Barbary pirates. In 1677 and 1678 he commanded small squadrons during fighting between France and Holland. His forces obtained the only two French naval victories during those years.

In 1688 when the War of the Grand Alliance began, Chateaurenault commanded the French fleet at Brest and led the squadron transporting soldiers to Ireland in support of the deposed James II. Chateaurenault also escorted a convoy of 3,000 troops to Bantry Bay in 1689. On 11 May, as the troops were disembarking, an English fleet attacked. Despite poor maneuvering by his captains, Chateaurenault in the Ardent was able to drive the English fleet out to sea. The action was indecisive, but Chateaurenault had accomplished his mission of providing soldiers and stores for James II, and his ships returned safely to Brest.

In June 1690 Chateaurenault led the van division of the combined French fleet under Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville. On 10 July the opposing Anglo-Dutch fleet attacked off Beachy Head. Chateaurenault was able to double the attacking Dutch ships and he contributed decisively to the defeat of the Allies.

In 1701 upon Tourville’s death, Chateaurenault succeeded him as vice admiral of France. In 1702, during the War of the Spanish Succession, he received the delicate task of protecting the annual Spanish treasure fleet from Anglo-Dutch forces. King Louis XIV’s secret orders instructed him to bring the Spanish fleet into a French port, a difficult task given that some Spanish officers were serving aboard French ships.

Chateaurenault managed to elude a powerful Allied fleet and bring the treasure fleet into Vigo. Believing he would soon be attacked, Chateaurenault ordered the harbor fortified. On 22 October 1702, an Allied fleet under Sir George Rooke broke through the defensive boom. Every ship in the harbor was captured or destroyed, and an enormous amount of treasure was lost. Chateaurenault was not blamed for the defeat and was elevated to marshal of France in 1703. However, he never again commanded at sea. He died at Paris on 15 November 1716

Sir George Rooke

 (c. 1650-1709)

English admiral. Born about 1650, George Rooke was commissioned in 1672. He first served in the London, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Edward Spragge, and followed Spragge to the Prince Royal, fighting in her at both the 28 May and 4 June 1673 Battles of Schooneveld and the 11 August 1673 Battle of the Texel. After the latter engagement, Rooke earned praise for bringing the damaged ship home. He served with Sir John Narbrough in the Mediterranean from 1678 to 1679, then under Arthur Herbert, First Earl of Torrington, at Tangier, from 1680 to 1681. Commanding the Deptford, he fought in the 1 May 1689 Battle of Bantry Bay. Promoted to rear admiral in 1690, he was in the Duchess at the 30 June 1690 Battle of Beachy Head. Promoted to vice admiral, he served as extra commissioner of the Navy Board from 1692 to 1694.

Rooke fought in the 19 May 1692 Battle of Barfleur under Edward Russell, Earl of Orford, then pursued the French into the Bay of La Hogue, burning 12 French ships of the line. Knighted in 1693, he escorted the 400-ship Smyrna convoy toward the Mediterranean until the French intercepted it at Lagos Bay, taking or destroying 92 ships and scattering the remainder.

Rooke became Admiralty commissioner during 1694-1702 and commander in chief, Mediterranean, from 1695 to 1696. He was appointed admiral of the fleet in 1696 and was elected to Parliament for Portsmouth, serving from 1698 to 1705. In 1700 he commanded the Anglo-Dutch-Swedish Squadron off Copenhagen at the opening of the Great Northern War. He served on the Lord High Admiral’s Council during 1702-1705 and commanded the unsuccessful Anglo-Dutch expedition to Cadiz in 1702, attacking the Spanish galleons at Vigo Bay on his return on 12 October. In 1704 he led the allied attack on Gibraltar and commanded the Anglo-Dutch Fleet in the 13 August 1704 Battle of Vélez-Malaga. Rooke resigned for health reasons in 1705 and died in Canterbury on 24 January 1709.

References Kamen, Henry. “The Destruction of the Spanish Silver Fleet at Vigo in 1702.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 39 (1966): 165-173. Veenendaal, Augustus J., Jr. De Briefwisseling van Anthonie Heinsius, 1702-1720. Vol. 1, 1702. The Hague: Institute for Netherlands History, 1976. Calman-Maison, J. J. R. La Marechal de Chateau-Renault. Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1903. Jenkins, Ernest H. A History of the French Navy: From Its Beginnings to the Present Day. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1973. Symcox, Geoffrey. The Crisis of French Sea Power, 1688-1697. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974. References Hattendorf, John B. “Sir George Rooke and Sir Cloudesley Shovell (c. 1650-1709) and (1659-1707).” In Precursors of Nelson: British Admirals of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Peter Le Fevre and Richard Harding, 42-77. London: Chatham Publishing, 2000. Hattendorf, John B., ed. The Journal of Sir George Rooke, 1700-1704. Publications of the Navy Records Society. London: Navy Records Society.

Ships of the White Cockade I

And it is further enacted. That from and after the 1st August 1747 no man or boy within Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as officers and soldiers in the King’s forces, shall on any pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the cloaths commonly called highland cloaths, that is to say, the plaid, philabeg or little kilt, trowse, shoulder-belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaids or stuff shall be used for great-coats, or for upper coats; and if any such persons shall, after said 1st August, wear or put on the aforesaid garments, or any part of them, every such person so offending, being convicted thereof by the mouth of one or more witnesses, before any court of judiciary, or any one or more Justices of the Peace for the shire or stewartry, or judge ordinary of the place where such offence shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without bail, during six months and no longer; and being convicted of a second offence, before the court of judiciary or the circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of his Majesty’s plantations beyond the sea, for seven years.’

The Act of Prescription, 1745

‘Jacobite’, deriving from the latin Jacobus (James), was the name given to the supporters of the exiled James II after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. When Queen Anne, last of James II’s daughters died, the Stewart dynasty was replaced by dour Hanoverians who were, if little else, at least Protestant.

Though the series of land battles which occurred in the course of the abortive risings of 1715, 1719 and 1745–17461 have come to define popular understanding of the doomed crusade that was the Jacobite cause, naval power and events at sea are equally important. It was never expected that a rebellion in Scotland, relying to a very large extent upon the broadswords of the Tory clans, could unseat a Whig dominated Hanoverian government in London. It was rather intended that raising the standard north of the border would trigger a series of uprisings south of it and that the whole would be supported by the French landing quantities of arms and men. Though support from Versailles remained often as fickle as the weather cock and was at all times subject to the expediencies of the greater game in Europe, serious attempts at major French intervention did occur. These, inevitably, were opposed by the British Royal Navy.


By the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, the Royal Navy had established its place as the world’s most powerful fleet, having, in 1714, some 131 ‘ships of the line’ in service. This description came into being as a consequence of evolving naval tactics, whereby the opposing fleets manoeuvred in line against each other. By mid century, the British fleet had a total of 339 vessels under sail, though most of the recent additions were of smaller ‘rates’. The Georgian Navy was its country’s largest employer and its largest undertaking. The vast dockyards of Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth were teeming with armies of shipwrights, artisans and labourers. By the time of the Forty-Five, the ‘rates’ were defined as follows:

• First-rate: a three-decker with a poop-royal, 100 guns, 178 feet on the gun deck and an individual figurehead

• Second-rate: a three-decker with 90 guns, 170 feet on the gun deck, individual figurehead

• Third-rate of 80 guns: three-decker, 165 feet on the gun deck, lion figurehead (in common with all the lesser rates below

• Third-rate of 70 guns: two-decker, 160 feet on the gun deck

• Third-rate of 60 guns: two-decker, 150 feet on the gun deck

• Fourth-rate: two-decker with 50 guns, 144 feet on the gun deck

• Fifth-rate: two-decker with 40 guns, 133 feet on the gun deck

• Sixth-rate: two-decker with 24 guns with most of the ordnance on the upper deck and oars on the gun deck; 113 feet in length.

Blockade work and patrolling the sea lochs and islands of the west coast was not work for ships of the line. Fourth-rates with 50 guns were being phased out, no longer able to take their place in the line and were mostly gone by 1760. Fifth-rates, the forties, forty-fours and large frigates (frigate being now a ship of two decks which carried between 20 and 50 guns on the upper deck, quarterdeck and fo’c’sle) began to encounter heavy French frigates during the ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’ (1739), and the weakness of this smallest class of two-deckers became apparent. It was difficult, if not impossible to work the lower gun decks in heavy seas and they made heavy sailers when contrasted with similar ships that had all of their main armament on the one deck. French vessels were of superior design. Embuscade, taken by the RN in 1746, mounted 28 12-pounders on her top deck, ten 6-pounders on the quarterdeck and two in the fo’c’sle. As she had no gun ports on the lower deck, this could ride on or below the waterline, while the upper deck had a freeboard of around 8 feet. Despite the weight of the great guns she sailed well, having a length of 132 feet 6 inches and being 36 feet in the beam.


For the demanding task of patrolling long sea lochs and the myriad islands of the west, sloops were an ideal choice. Such vessels encompassed all that mounted a score of guns or fewer, the larger being ship-rigged and frigate-built. Those constructed in the opening years of the eighteenth century were of a type with stepped deck in ships and brig-rigged. Later craft carried their ordnance on an open deck with platforms for stowage in the hold. Some of these gun-vessels were of a similar length to a small frigate, nearly 120 feet in length, and latterly might have ‘carronades’ – on-board howitzers invented in 1752 by the Scots firm Carron – to augment their firepower.

Day to day the work of the sloop or gun-vessel was undramatic and unglamorous, the routine of patrolling and landing. Some masters, like the notorious Captain Fergusson, behaved like privateers, treating Islesmen and their women as cattle. Rarely was the tedium enlivened by action. Battles such as that which took place in Loch nan Uamh were very rare. This does not, however, diminish the importance of vigilant sea power during the Jacobite Wars. All French or Spanish aid, be this men and/or materiel, had to come by sea. Any bridgehead the Tory clans might purchase for an invader would have to be backed up by amphibious operation. In 1745–1746 an early naval encounter, that between HMS Lyon and L’Elisabeth, was to severely damage Prince Charles Edward’s ability to raise his standard. Throughout the period of his rebellion, the ships of the Royal Navy maintained an effective blockade. Naval action denied him men, money and equipment.


In 1708, the French sponsored a serious intervention on behalf of ‘James III’, son of deposed James II, known as the ‘Chevalier St George’ or, by his enemies, ‘The Old Pretender’. This coincided with the ebb of French fortunes in the War of Spanish Succession, having been battered by Marlborough’s repeated and bloodily successful assaults. French Admiral Forbin was appointed to lead an invasion fleet with 5,000 troops crammed into transports. Despite an active British naval presence maintained by Byng, James urged the Frenchman to hazard the blockade, and the flotilla slipped out of Dunkirk unchallenged under the cover of a providential fog. A landing of sorts was made along the Firth of Forth, but Forbin’s fears of an RN presence struck deep. The expedition slunk back across the Channel without firing a shot.

Seven years later, the Fifteen proceeded without direct French intervention; John Erskine, Earl of Mar, dubbed ‘Bobbing John’ by his innumerable opponents raised the ‘Restoration’ standard on 6 September. On 13 November, his forces, the strongest the Jacobites were to field, clashed with Argyll’s inferior numbers at Sheriffmuir. The battle proved both confused and indecisive, but Mar could ill afford a draw and a subsidiary rising of Northumbrian Jacobites ended in ignominy at Preston. His rising, which had swelled mighty dangerous at the outset, again faded into failure. Four years later, James’s supporters were ready for another try. It was anticipated that the Duke of Ormonde would lead a descent upon the south-west of England, while George Keith, tenth Earl Marischal, would command a Highland diversion. The affair was sponsored not by the French but by Spain, smarting from the hurt of Byng’s victory off Cape Passaro. Ormonde’s volunteers were to be conveyed in an impressive armada, which did set sail from Cadiz but was shattered and dispersed by storms before even reaching Corunna, where the duke and his battalions awaited.

Keith’s far less impressive squadron, which transported scarcely more than 300 Spanish foot, did make landfall at Eilean Donan Castle, by the mouth of Loch Duich, on 2 April 1719. It was not an auspicious beginning, marred by uncertainties and the bickering of Jacobite officers. Though the Royal Navy had failed to intercept the landing, the garrison of Eilean Donan was compelled under threat of naval bombardment to surrender, and these together with the Jacobites’ supplies fell into government hands. As a stark warning, ships then pounded the ancient tower into rubble. On land, matters were scarcely more promising. An extended and untidy skirmish was fought at Glenshiel on 10 June. In consequence, this brief flickering of the Stewart flame was again soon extinguished. After this it would have seemed to most that the Jacobite cause was now relegated to a historical footnote, but its final, dramatic and quixotic flourish was yet to occur. As before, it was the shifting chiaroscuro of European alliances and conflicts that was to provide a final opportunity:

We are, in this instant, alarmed with the old ministerial cry of France and the Pretender; of armies and transports, incog. At Dunkirk; of invincible armadas from Brest . . . either true or false. If true; how will our all sufficient statesman excuse himself from having treated France as a contemptible power, from which so little was to be feared, that we had nothing to do, but to draw the sword, and carve out his dominions into what shreds and fritters we pleased? Where was the intelligence which ought to be the fruit of all those mighty sums, which are said to be annually expended in secret service? How can he keep himself in countenance for having embroiled us in his rash and ridiculous measures abroad and thereby draw upon us this shocking insult at home? That the French were able to put a formidable squadron of ships to sea is now self-evident; that till the very instant, almost of their sailing, we were ignorant alike of their strength and their preparations, seems to be highly probable . . . the affair of Dettingen might have convinced us that she would not stand upon ceremonies when revenge was in her power.

Old England (the opposition London newspaper)

This extract from the anti-Whig paper Old England reflects a reaction to the crisis of 1744, calling for the recall of British troops from Flanders. Jacobite bogeymen, as the foil of France, continued to exert considerable influence. The last, desperately flawed champion of the cause was poised in the wings, ready to make his dramatic entrance. Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Silvester Severino Maria Stuart had been born, amidst rejoicing, in Rome on 31 December 1720 and grew to young manhood in those arid, despairing years of exile. His mother, Clementina Sobieski, was descended from the great Jan Sobieski whose magnificent Polish Winged Hussars had driven off the Turkish besiegers of Vienna in 1683. It was said that, on the night of his birth, a new bright star appeared in the firmament, and certainly the guns of Fort St Angelo roared a celebratory cannonade.

His mother died young, at only 33, and was buried in St Peter’s, where her tomb became something of a shrine. The prince had been brought up in the sure conviction he was, after his father, the rightful king of both England and Scotland but the empty years gave little hint of any prospect of restoration. The defeat at Dettingen in 1743 humiliated Louis XV to the degree he was prepared to dust off the faded relic of Jacobitism and reconsider its worth as a medium of revenge. His minister, Fleury, habitually a paragon of caution, had died and reports from French spies appeared to be encouraging. By November, the king was writing to both James and Philip V of Spain advising of his renewed support. In this he appeared most earnest.


The expedition was to be commanded by no lesser general than Marshall de Saxe, who would lead just over 10,000 bayonets. This invasion force would target the south coast (Maldon was the preferred landing) and then march directly on London. Initially, the English Jacobites requested a second, lesser expedition to bolster the Tory clans, who would rise simultaneously. This element did not proceed, but Saxe’s 10,000, should they succeed in crossing the Channel, would almost have parity of numbers with the troops the Hanoverians could muster in the south of England. The Scottish military establishment, fewer than 3,000 strong, was minuscule. There was a suggestion that the invaders rely on small boats, but the Marshal wanted men-o’-war as ushers for his vulnerable transports.

The naval aspect would involve the Brest squadron taking station by the Isle of Wight to block the inevitable British riposte. Sir John Norris commanded the home fleet, at anchor in Spithead. If he got past their blockade, the French were to engage while a handful of warships shepherded transports towards the Thames Estuary. Winter weather delayed the fleet’s embarkation during January 1744, and it was not until early the next month that the ships raised anchor. By now, British intelligence had divined that Charles Edward had slipped out of Italy and was believed to be in France. The threat of imminent invasion hung in the air and yet the government was clearly confident the Royal Navy could see off any attempt. Nonetheless, a further 6,000 Dutch troops were to be put on standby. Some confusion now arose as to the destination of the supposed invasion fleet. Was there to be an attempt on Ireland? Charles Edward had arrived safely, despite the Navy’s best efforts, in Paris by 8 February. His intermeddling was, at this stage, in fact unsolicited, perhaps even unwelcome. The French were aware that his presence would only serve as a banner advertisement for any forthcoming attempt.

British agents had meanwhile disbursed a hefty bribe to gain sight of French plans; additional army units from Holland were now requested. The upshot of this security leak was that the French blamed the failure, unfairly, upon Charles Edward, on account of his precipitate action, which served to ensure they would think twice before involving him too deeply in their future counsels. Parliament was quick to affirm the members’ undying loyalty to George – the old spectre of Popish Plot and rising was paraded. Despite this, there was no vast outpouring of pro-Hanoverian sentiment in the country.

By late February, the two fleets were in sight of each other off Dungeness, but strong winds scattered both before battle could be joined and the French tacked back towards Brest. More bad weather struck at Dunkirk, damaging transports and ruining supplies. Saxe began to fret, as he had neither warships nor pilots (the latter promised by the English sympathisers). Once again, the weather showed a strongly Hanoverian shift: early in March a further great storm did yet more damage to the transports riding at Dunkirk. Saxe now wrote to Charles advising the invasion had been cancelled. The Forty-Four was over before it began, and the government in Britain scented deliverance. Largely forgotten by his French hosts after the abandonment of the expedition, Charles had resided for a while in Gravelines, maintained if ignored by Louis XV, who would not grant him an audience. In the spring, he moved to the outskirts of Paris, from where he wrote to his father:

The situation I am in is very particular, for nobody nose where I am or what is become of me, so that I am entirely burried as to the publick, and can’t but say that it is a very great constrent upon me, for I am obliged very often not to stur out of my room for fier of some bodys noing my face. I very often think that you would laugh very hartily if you saw me going about with a single servant bying fish and other things and squabling for a peney more or less. I hope your Majesty will be thoroughly persuaded, that no constrent or trouble whatsoever either of minde or body, wil ever stoppe me in going on with my duty, in doing any thing that I think can tend to your service or your Glory.

It is only natural that such a frustrating relegation to pensioner status on the sidelines would jibe with a young man of dash and fire, especially when he has been keyed up for great events. Charles certainly had charm and charisma, physical courage and stamina. He lacked experience, any real knowledge of the military art and the ability to cope with adversity. If the projected invasion had proved a fiasco, this did not diminish its value to France in terms of diverting British attention from the European theatre and in creating a scare that might promote a redistribution of resources. In the bigger game the Forty-Four thereby served a purpose. This was of no value to the Jacobites, though a definite gain for France and her allies. Robert Trevor, British ambassador at The Hague felt that:

. . . perhaps this uneasiness is all that France at present aims at; and that if she could augment it enough to make us weaken Flanders, she would strike a home blow on that side . . . I have no idea of an invasion, though the news from Dunkirk and all along that coast are suspicious.

For the French, it could be argued that their success in diverting British attention allowed them to seize, and thereafter to retain, the strategic initiative in Flanders. This they did not relinquish for the remainder of the war, and their gains placed them in a strong position when the time came to negotiate peace terms. Most eighteenth-century military operations tended to be relatively limited in their objectives. France was not at home with the hazards of amphibious operations. As the century progressed it would be the British who became masters of the combined operation. France’s involvement with the Jacobites, therefore, could be viewed as both cynical and opportunistic. However, the shades of Jacobite hopes for an actual landing would inform thinking during the Forty-Five, would influence the decisions of men of large estate in throwing in their lot with Charles Edward and would lead to their utter ruin in his cause.

Louis was certainly not overly impressed by his royal guest. Prince Charles Edward’s request for 3,000 foot to support a bid for Scotland, lodged in October 1744, produced no response. Undeterred, he went ahead seeking to finance his war chest from private sources. In this he enjoyed some success. He was able to tap into the web of finance and banking contacts managed by a band of Scottish and Irish expatriate entrepreneurs. Some of these had shipping interests in Nantes and St Malo. Their willingness was not entirely philanthropic. Obviously if the great gamble now being planned came off, rewards would be substantial. Probably the most influential of this affluent clique of émigrés was Antoine Walsh of Nantes. A former officer in the French service, grown wealthy on the proceeds of slavery, he had been introduced to the prince by Lord Clare, commanding the Irish Brigade. The French administration was, outwardly, keeping its distance from Charles Edward while, at the same time, opening doors and greasing wheels.

Leipzig: Battle of the Nations

Johann Peter Krafft (1780-1856)-‘victory declaration after the battle of Leipzig, 1813’-oil on canvas-1813   Berlin-Deutsches Historiches Museum. The Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations, was fought between Napoleon and the three Allied armies that had been approaching the city for several days: the Army of Bohemia (Feldmarschall Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg), the Army of Silesia (General Gebhard Lebrecht von Blücher), and the Army of the North (former French marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, now Crown Prince of Sweden). Napoleon suffered a major defeat, which decided the campaign in Germany. He then fell back from Saxony to France.

Battle of Leipzig, October 16 actions.

Battle of Leipzig, 18 October actions.

The prospect of the coming campaign in Russia had ‘cast a gloom over society in general’, wrote Laure Junot, the frivolous Duchess of Abrantès, in her Mémoires.

It was in vain that the emperor ordered balls, fêtes and quadrilles. Marie Louise was surrounded by young and beautiful women who were commanded by Napoleon to exert every nerve to render her gay; but these ladies had brothers, fathers, husbands and lovers, so that the joys of the court were forced pleasures, and not joys springing from the heart.…

As the campaign got under way, Paris had:

presented a curious but melancholy spectacle. Husbands, sons, brothers and lovers were departing to join the army; while wives, mothers, sisters and mistresses, either remained at home to weep, or sought amusement in Italy, Switzerland or the various watering-places of France.

Laure herself had taken off to Aix-en-Savoie, with her four-year-old son (christened Napoleon), to be diverted by boating with Talma on Lac Bourget, by listening to the great actor recite from The Tempest in the midst of a storm, drenched with water, then by embarking on an affair with the Marquis de Balincourt as her husband struggled with the Russians and increasing madness. On 20 December 1812, she recalled, ‘the cannon of the Invalides announced to the city of Paris that the Emperor had returned’. Three days later, lovesick and now abandoned by Balincourt, she tried to take an overdose of laudanum. In January, Junot returned; instead of the dashing, handsome young Governor of Paris who had left her a few months previously, ‘there appeared a coarsened, aged man, walking with difficulty, bent and supported by a stick, dressed carelessly in a shabby greatcoat’. He was ‘in a strange state,’ Laure found; ‘often in a condition of somnolence during the day, the night brought him no sleep. He so strong, so much master of himself, wept like a child.’

During the brief time he spent in Paris that grim winter, one colonel found his family and friends:

in general terror-stricken. The famous 29th Bulletin had informed France abruptly that the Grande Armée had been destroyed. The Emperor was invincible no longer. The campaign of 1813 was about to open.… people were shocked to see the Emperor entertaining at the Tuileries. It was an insult to public grief and revealed a cruel sensitivity to the victims. I shall always remember one of those dismal balls, at which I felt as if I were dancing on graves.

It spoke volumes for the mood in Paris, in the army and in France as a whole as the full horror of the Russian débâcle was brought home by survivors like Junot. One is reminded, in a different context, of the mood of Berlin as the Soviet colossus began to close in on the city in 1944. In the words of Mademoiselle Avrillon, who was in charge of the Empress’s jewellery, ‘we were all the more terrified … because for 20 years so many uninterrupted successes made us think reverses impossible’. The consternation produced by Napoleon’s Bulletin reporting the destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia was ‘impossible to describe’.3 Constant recorded that it was:

The first time that Paris saw him come back from a campaign without bringing with him a fresh peace which the glory of his arms had won. On this occasion, all those persons who looked upon Josephine as the Emperor’s talisman and the guardian of his fortunes, did not fail to note that the Russian campaign was the first which had been undertaken by the Emperor since his marriage with Marie Louise.

There was a strong, unvoiced sense that Moscow heralded, as Talleyrand expressed it, ‘the beginning of the end, and … the end itself could not be far distant’. As soon as Napoleon showed himself in Paris, however, in the words of Duff Cooper, ‘Once more and for the last time treason hung its head, criticism sank to a whisper, and conspiracy crept underground.’ In despair, Napoleon called on Talleyrand yet again. Coldly, he was rejected with the words, ‘I am not acquainted with your affairs.’ Enraged, Napoleon threatened to have him shot, or hanged. Talleyrand riposted in his usual restrained, whimsical manner, ‘The Emperor is charming this morning.’ Then he despatched a secret letter to Louis XVIII, who was waiting patiently in the wings in England for the summons that seemed bound to come, now sooner rather than later.

Napoleon deliberately took to appearing more and more frequently in public, taking part in shoots even more often than before. To Duroc he remarked,

It behoves me to bestir myself and show myself everywhere. So that the papers may mention this, since those stupid English newspapers say every day that I am ill and can’t move.… Wait a bit! I will soon show them that I am as sound in body as I am in mind.

Despite his grave occupations, he never lost sight of his dream to make Paris the handsomest city in the world. Now he talked about building an embassy for the Italian Minister and a palace for the infant King of Rome on the Heights of Chaillot. In one of his few political successes, he began 1813 by attempting to make peace with the Pope with a new Concordat.

The balance sheet that confronted the Emperor as 1813 began could hardly have been more discouraging. He had inflicted an estimated 250,000 casualties on the Russians; but, out of the more than 600,000 troops that had crossed the Niemen in June 1812, only a broken 93,000 straggled home; out of 1,300 cannon, only 250 had returned. Even more serious, and irreplaceable in the long run, was his loss of some 180,000 horses. They provided the eyes and ears of his intelligence, the superb cutting edge of his heavy cavalry – as well as the prime movers of his artillery and supplies. In this one disastrous campaign, seven years of efforts since the joint triumphs of Austerlitz and Jena had been thrown away. The limits of the French Empire returned to what they had been before Tilsit. And now the Russian success was emboldening vanquished nations like Austria and Prussia (nominal, but unwilling, allies of Napoleon during the Russian Campaign) to raise their heads above the parapet once again. Already, under leaders like Yorck, Blücher, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, Prussia had undergone a miraculous, and historic, transformation, of its army and of its whole society, which in the ensuing century the world at large would come to rue. Other more or less unwilling allies like Bavaria and Saxony, and neutrals like Sweden, were just waiting for the right moment to align themselves against France.

Many historians have analysed the causes of Napoleon’s decisive defeat in Russia: he should never have left the war in Spain unsettled at his rear (as Hitler, in 1941, had turned his back on an undefeated Britain); he had not prepared for a winter campaign (but it was the summer heat as much as the winter cold that had defeated him); and of course he should never have gone to Moscow. As Hitler in his turn found out, the unending spaces of Russia were just too great for one man to exercise control over the massive armies involved – even with the vastly more sophisticated communications of the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Napoleon’s conduct of the campaign, the indecisions and procrastinations, the retreat from reality, suggested that he was no longer the man of Austerlitz and Jena, or even of Wagram. Almost certainly he had been saved by the ineptitude and the lethargy of the Russian commanders.

By early spring of 1813, the Russian juggernaut in the east had moved steadily westwards until it was approaching Prussian territory and menacing the German provinces allied to France. The Duchy of Warsaw, the tragic dream of a free Poland for which Marie Walewska and so many heroic Polish soldiers had given themselves since 1806, disappeared once again into the Tsarist maw – not to reappear for more than a century. Marie herself once again took the road to Paris. During the Russian Campaign, Prussia’s Frederick William III had been bullied into supplying a corps of 20,000 men to join the Grande Armée; barely two-thirds of them survived. In the last days of 1812 General Yorck had signed a secret treaty with Russia, the famous (or infamous, from Napoleon’s point of view) Convention of Tauroggen, whereby the Prussian forces moved from a state of nominal alliance with France to one of hostile neutrality – which would soon enough lead to war. The weak Prussian King, whom Napoleon had so humiliated at Tilsit in 1807, hesitated before plunging his country into another contest with Napoleon. But he was carried away by the groundswell of nationalism among young Germans, who, fired by secret societies like the Tugendbund (literally the ‘League of Virtue’), were sick of being overrun by the French, as the German states had been since the wars of Louis XIV. Frederick William was further galvanized by his hawkish Queen, and by Generals Yorck, Bülow and Blücher (now recovered from the mental breakdown that had afflicted him six years previously). On the edge of revolt, in late February of 1813 Prussia in secrecy signed the Convention of Kalitsch with Russia, promising to enter the war, and being promised in return the restoration of her 1806 frontiers. For the forthcoming campaign, the Russians guaranteed to deploy a force 150,000 strong. Although, after Jena, Prussia had agreed to limit her forces to only 42,000 men, the work of secret rearmament in fact enabled her eventually to send 80,000 to join the Allies in 1813.

Tauroggen was to herald the German War of Liberation, otherwise known as the Battle of the Nations, which by the end of 1813 would inflict decisive defeat on Napoleon, as well as letting out of the bottle the genie of German nationalism. (Yet, without those liberated Prussians at Waterloo, Wellington would never have won.)

As the New Year dawned, about all that stood in the way of the resurgent Allied forces were a few scattered French-held fortresses like Danzig, Stettin and Glogau-on-the-Oder and a miscellany of fewer than 50,000 troops under Eugène de Beauharnais, the admirable son of Josephine, and Napoleon’s stepson, who had taken over command from his rather less admirable brother-in-law, Murat. (Murat had hastened back to the pleasanter climate of his Neapolitan kingdom as soon as he decently could after the retreat from Moscow.) Nevertheless, reworking the miracle which only he could achieve, Napoleon somehow managed to create a brilliant new army out of the wreckage of 1812, and a new strategy. In fact, three more times, in each successive year and after each major defeat, Napoleon would repeat that miracle. Only he, backed by the residual fervour of France’s revolutionary mystique, could have done it. Setting himself a staggering target of 656,000 men, he mustered 120,000 half-trained conscripts, drew 80,000 from the National Guard and called up 100,000 more who had escaped service between 1809 and 1812. Troops were pulled out of Spain (although the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ still continued to eat up over 175,000 of his most seasoned troops in a losing struggle). ‘France is one vast workship,’ recorded Caulaincourt.

The entire French nation overlooked his reverses and vied with one another in displaying zeal and devotion … It was a personal triumph for the Emperor, who with amazing energy directed all the resources of which his genius was capable into organizing the great national endeavour. Things seemed to come into existence as if by magic.…

What a man!

Where his enemies (Britain in particular) erred in their failure to standardize, Napoleon’s achievement in the earlier years of settling on standard calibres of field gun had greatly aided him. By mid-August, he would be able to count on the support of no fewer than 1,300 cannon, replenishing the losses of the Russian Campaign. Yet it could never be the same Grande Armée. It was gravely deficient in trained officers; even more seriously, the cavalry would never recover from its shortage of horses.


The allied plan for 1813 was to advance on a broad front, with widely separated columns, clearing Prussia of the French and striking for Dresden, the capital of Napoleon’s principal remaining German ally, Saxony. In the north, an embittered Bernadotte – never forgetting his public humiliation by Napoleon at Wagram – had thrown in his lot with the Allies, and was building up a force in Swedish Pomerania, preparing (cautiously, as always) to move southwards. Meanwhile false threats of a British landing lured the French into abandoning the useful port of Hamburg. With his forces concentrating in the Magdeburg area, Napoleon’s plan – grandiose and highly ambitious – was to push the Allies back over the Elbe and strike for Berlin, then to relieve his beleaguered fortresses still holding out east of the Oder and on the Vistula. In his aim of seizing an enemy capital and dividing the Allied armies before they could concentrate, there were echoes of Austerlitz. Once again, Napoleon showed himself capable of moving with astonishing speed; once again, he was aided by procrastinatory squabbles among the Allies. (Old Kutuzov, too, demoted from supreme command but still at the head of the main Russian army directed on Dresden, was a dying man.) He was in any case sorely limited by his lack of effectives. By April they were still far below the figure of 300,000, the minimum he reckoned essential to carrying out his objectives. In cavalry, he could muster only 8,000 against the Allies’ 24,000. He was also to prove over-optimistic in his reliance on his Saxon and Bavarian allies.

Characteristically, however, he decided to press an attack in mid-April before the Allies could concentrate on the Elbe. At 4 a.m. on 15 April 1813, he left St Cloud; the next day, at midnight, he was at Mainz on the other side of the Rhine. Disagreements over command in the Allied camp after the death of Kutuzov (he had died three weeks before) were offset by the handicap inflicted on Napoleon by virtue of the tactical intelligence denied him by his acute shortage of light cavalry. Nevertheless, at Lützen near Leipzig, west of the Elbe, he won a costly minor victory on 2 May – a Wagram rather than an Austerlitz. To his deep sorrow, there he lost Marshal Bessières, the son of a surgeon, who had been with him ever since Rivoli in 1796, the genius of the Guard who had led the famous charge at Austerlitz, and who had proved both one of his most dependable supporters and one of his few genuine friends. ‘Bessières lived like Bayard; he died like Turenne,’ pronounced Napoleon. According to Marmont, ‘This was probably the day, of his whole career, on which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.… He exposed himself constantly, leading the defeated men of [Ney’s] III Corps back to the charge.’ Both sides lost about 20,000 men; on the Allied side, Blücher’s Chief-of-Staff, Scharnhorst – the reformer of the Prussian Army, and often regarded as the epitome of German nationalism – was mortally wounded; Blücher himself was wounded, and the less tenacious Yorck took over the Prussian forces. The ferocity of the fighting at Lützen caused Napoleon to remark gloomily, ‘These animals have learnt something.’ The most valuable thing they had learnt was not to be taken by surprise by Napoleonic tactics.

Given Napoleon’s crippling shortage of cavalry, there could be no serious pursuit of the defeated enemy. This was unfortunate for Napoleon; the squabbling Allies were in far worse disarray than he could see, the Prussians wanting to withdraw northwards, to cover Berlin, the Russians eastwards towards Breslau and Warsaw. Tsar Alexander had nominated Wittgenstein to succeed Kutuzov as supreme commander. Aged forty-four, he was the youngest of the Allied commanders – and not 100 per cent Russian. Blücher, the Prussian, had agreed to his appointment, but the Russian, Miloradevich, the veteran of Austerlitz and the 1812 campaign, objected. As a result Alexander himself assumed nominal command, with disastrous results.

Napoleon advanced across the Elbe, on 21 May winning at Bautzen, east of Dresden, another battle of furious intensity. By this time he had managed to concentrate 115,000 men to Wittgenstein’s 96,000. Soult was charged with attempting a repeat of his historic success at Austerlitz’s Pratzen Heights, breaking through the enemy centre while Ney enveloped them from the left. Ney, however, partly as a result of confusing orders from Napoleon, made a dismal mess of things, robbing the French of what might otherwise have been a copybook Napoleonic victory. Again, each side lost approximately 20,000 men, Napoleon’s only trophies a few wrecked cannon and wounded prisoners. As well as the shortage of cavalry (Ney’s excuse for failing to pursue), defeat at Bautzen reflected sorely the absence of his better commanders – especially Lannes, killed at Aspern–Essling in 1809; Davout, who had been sent off on a worthless diversion towards Hamburg; and Masséna, battling Wellington in Spain.

Napoleon had suffered another particularly grievous personal loss. Duroc – who had recently predicted his own end – died in agony in his Emperor’s arms, after being disembowelled by a cannon-ball. Napoleon had rushed to his bedside, afterwards sitting for an hour with his head bowed in misery. ‘Poor fellow!’ an old Guardsman was heard to remark; ‘he’s lost one of his children.’ For a while, demoralizing rumours were rife that it was the Emperor, not Duroc, transported in the coffin.

What might have resulted in a decisive victory, which would deter Austria from entering the war, ended yet again in only a modest one, bringing the spring campaign to a close with both sides in a state of exhaustion. With 90,000 of his men – in addition to battle casualties – listed sick, time was now emphatically not on Napoleon’s side. He had outrun his supply system, and his lines of communication were constantly menaced by Cossacks and German partisans. On 2 June, he was forced to agree to an armistice – explaining it in terms of ‘my shortage of cavalry, which prevents me from striking great blows, and the hostile attitude of Austria’. On 15 June, the British paymaster gave Russia and Prussia £2 million to carry on the war, and Austria £500,000 to join it. Six days later came news of Wellington’s victory at Vitoria in Spain. It brought to an end brother Joseph’s kingship and took the British uncomfortably close to France’s own back-door at Bayonne – less than a hundred miles’ distant. On 7 July, Bernadotte finally came off his fence and began moving with 100,000 men towards Berlin. Playing for time in a cunning game of diplomacy, and exploiting France’s growing urge for peace, the wily Metternich offered Napoleon peace terms that he would be quite unable to accept. According to Metternich, this provoked ‘a series of professions of friendship alternating with the most violent of outbursts’. A furious Napoleon declared, ‘You want nothing else but the dismemberment of the French Empire,’ refusing – as Hitler was to do once forced on to the defensive – to cede ‘an inch of land’.

Meanwhile, lapsing into his final bout of madness, Junot died, clamouring for peace. His death seemed somehow symbolic of how time was running out. Now, during the seven weeks’ armistice, Austria was assembling an army, the Army of Bohemia, under Prince Schwarzenberg, some 200,000 strong, marching northwards from Prague to join the Allies. In vain, and mistakenly, had Napoleon hoped that his dynastic marriage to the Austrian Marie Louise might have neutralized his new father-in-law. On 12 August a self-righteous Austria declared war. By mid-August a terrifying, and unprecedented grand total of 800,000 Allied troops faced Napoleon far from his base, on the upper reaches of the Elbe. By scraping every depot for reserves, the French Emperor was able astonishingly to confront this massive force with 700,000 of his own, though many were conscripts of poor quality.

Now, for the first time, Napoleon had to fight simultaneously the armies of Russia, Austria and Prussia – and the Swedish forces of the renegade Bernadotte, with Wellington closing in on the Pyrenees. Still unable to agree on any joint strategy, the Allies – respectful of Napoleon’s menace in a pitched battle – fell back on the next best thing: the ‘Trachtenberg Plan’, whereby any army attacked by Napoleon would retire, refusing battle, while the others closed in on his flank and communications, like a pack of hounds bringing down a powerful stag. This was designed to prevent any army being destroyed in detail. As always, however, Napoleon moved his formations so fast as to threaten to negate the Trachtenberg compact; yet it was a form of attrition which, at last, was to prove successful.

Trying to retrieve his original blueprint of April, Napoleon’s plan was to strike for Berlin, capture the Prussian capital and head off Bernadotte’s approaching army before it could link up with the Allies in the south. But logistics and the political considerations of keeping in the fight his chief surviving German ally, war-ravaged Saxony, forced him into an essentially defensive battle, with his main force fortifying an armed camp around the old and beautiful Saxon capital of Dresden. His marshals were increasingly restive about his scheme to advance on Berlin. At about this time, he suffered yet another personal blow in the defection of the brilliant Swiss strategist and (later) military historian, Baron Jomini – the éminence grise of Ney, who was often rash when left on his own. Reputedly the last officer to leave Russian soil, for his heroic conduct during the retreat from Moscow the previous year Ney had received from Napoleon the sobriquet ‘the bravest of the brave’ and had been proclaimed Prince of Moscow. But the strains of the Russian campaign, and wounds both there and at Lützen – followed by the defection of Jomini – progressively told on him. His battle conduct would henceforth suffer greatly (notably at Waterloo), and within a matter of days he would blunder clumsily, and foolishly, into a trap laid for him by his former colleague, Bernadotte.

At Dresden, on 26 and 27 August, though prey to an unusual degree of vacillation, Napoleon won yet another victory – this time at the expense of Schwarzenberg. He was aided by a fortuitous cannon-ball, which narrowly missed the Tsar but mortally wounded another renegade French General, Jean-Victor Moreau, standing at his side. The French camp took heart from this, as a sign of divine retribution; the Allies were discouraged in proportion. During the battle, the valet, Constant, found Napoleon ‘in a most deplorable state. He had been in the saddle since 6 that morning. It had rained incessantly and he was drenched through. Even his top boots were full of water, which must have dripped off his great coat.…’ But, once again, in the thick of the battle he seemed to be untouchable. Murat, back from Naples, struck a brilliant cavalry blow at the Austrians, but was not strong enough to pursue and trap them in retreat. In fact, by overreaching themselves the French suffered an unprecedented disaster. On 30 August, Vandamme, a bold commander keen to win his marshal’s baton, allowed himself to be cut off unexpectedly at Kulm, twenty-five miles south of Dresden, by the Prussian Kleist, who suddenly appeared out of the hills behind him. After a fierce fight, Vandamme, outnumbered in a proportion of 3:5, was forced to surrender together with 13,000 men. In the north, Macdonald of Wagram fame, through mishandling of his corps, had been badly mauled by Blücher.

With only 120,000 French facing 170,000 of the enemy, Napoleon had triumphed at Dresden with losses (apart from Vandamme) of barely 10,000 to the Allies’ 38,000. His handling of the battle showed him at the top of his old form, but he was, disquietingly, let down badly by the failure of his subordinates (such as Vandamme) elsewhere. Here the Trachtenberg compact had borne fruit. Thus Dresden, observes David Chandler, ‘joined Lützen and Bautzen on the growing list of practically valueless French victories’.9 Now the big test, the Allies’ great opportunity, was about to come.


Dresden had gone some way to re-establishing the myth of Napoleonic invincibility, but the surrender of Vandamme gave the Allies a much needed emotional uplift. Shortage of supplies was rapidly reducing the French forces to starvation level, with the basic bread ration cut from twenty-eight ounces to eight, as the ravages of war in Saxony (once the richest of the German states) rendered foraging unprofitable, if not impossible. By the beginning of September, Napoleon could count on no more than 260,000 tired and hungry men, and about half the number of cannon he had at the beginning of the campaign in the spring. His plan to drive on Berlin was once more aborted, this time by the hole in his ranks caused by Vandamme’s and Macdonald’s débâcles and by the general reluctance of his commanders. Instead, in breach of his fundamental principle of concentration, he despatched Ney towards Berlin with an under-strength detachment of 60,000 men, while keeping his main force at Dresden. On 6 September, Ney suffering from the loss of his genius, Jomini, and from the shortage of cavalry intelligence that now increasingly beset the whole Grande Armée, blundered foolishly into a trap laid for him by Bernadotte, at Dennewitz, less than fifty miles south-west of Berlin. He suffered 10,000 casualties, to 7,000 of the former fellow general whom he had never held in high esteem.

Meanwhile, at Dresden Napoleon was in a serious dilemma. To stay there, with the Allied armies converging, would place him in great jeopardy, but to quit the city would almost certainly mean the defection of his last remaining German ally, the King of Saxony. Weighing up the military against the political, he dithered disastrously for several days. With Blücher continuing to evade all attempts to bring him to battle, on 7 October Napoleon set off north-westwards for what he considered to be the safer stronghold of Leipzig, leaving behind in Dresden two of his best corps, under St Cyr and Lobau. It was a decision that has been rated ‘probably the most fateful one of the entire campaign’. His attempts to threaten the enemy capital, Berlin, and to manoeuvre against his rear, had both failed. On 13 October, Blücher, the stubborn old Prussian who detested retreat, Napoleon and Bernadotte in about equal measure, wrote to the Tsar that the three armies were now so close together ‘that a simultaneous attack, against the point where the enemy has concentrated its forces, might be undertaken’.

Three days later, in the greatest concentration of force ever seen in the Napoleonic Wars, the Allies – moving in from every direction, the Russians from the south-east, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians from the south-west and Blücher’s Prussians (plus, more slowly, Bernadotte’s Swedes) from the north – finally cornered Napoleon outside the city of Leipzig. It was barely a day’s march from the battlefield of Jena, where the French Emperor had scored his crushing victory over the Prussians just seven years previously to the day. Later, with hindsight, Marmont described the French position as being ‘at the bottom of a funnel’. In what justly came to be called the Battle of the Nations, 200,000 hungry and battle-weary French with 900 cannon faced well over 300,000 Allied troops and 1,500 guns. Such numbers had never been seen before on a European battlefield. There ensued two days of a grim slogging battle, of an unprecedented intensity. At one point on the first day Murat’s heavy cavalry broke through, all but reaching the Tsar’s command post – which could have won the day for Napoleon. But, without the reserves to follow up, the exhausted cuirassiers were driven off by the Tsar’s ‘heavies’.

The battle ended roughly in a draw, with Napoleon having sustained some 25,000 casualties to approximately 30,000 of the Allies. But, as more and more Allied reinforcements approached, the odds became heavily loaded against the French. Instead of beating an orderly retreat from Leipzig on 17 October, whereby he could have saved at least part of his army, Napoleon, hoping for some heaven-sent miracle such as had bailed him out so often in the past, made the fatal mistake of delaying to the 18th. On the 17th, the allies moved in in what the American historians Esposito and Elting have described as ‘a heads-down, go-and-get-killed, concentric attack’. By nightfall, total, irretrievable defeat faced Napoleon. The only thing which was to save him from annihilation was the leisurely performance of Bernadotte, anxious to spare his own raw Swedes and behaving much as he had when fighting for Napoleon.

At this last, and finally decisive, battle of the brutal 1813 campaign, the French artillery fired off some 200,000 rounds; the Allies lost probably as many as 54,000 killed and wounded, while French battle casualties approached 40,000, with a further 30,000 captured during the retreat on the 19th. Many were drowned when panicky engineers prematurely blew a bridge, crowded with troops, over the River Elster. Among those tragically lost was the brave Prince Poniatowski. He and his fellow Poles had fought magnificently during the battle, and he had just been made a marshal, the first of his countrymen to receive his baton. He tried to swim the river on his horse, but, exhausted from four wounds, he failed to make it.

The death of the much loved Poniatowski marked the end of Poland’s brave hopes in Napoleon. Leipzig equally marked the end of Napoleon’s empire east of the Rhine. The Bavarians had already changed sides, and were supplying the victorious Allies with a force under General Wrede (who had fought alongside Napoleon at Wagram). Now the Saxons, deserted by Napoleon, their country ravaged by war, left his camp; not much more than half-a-century later, in a war of revenge for all the humiliations inflicted by the French, they would be invading France hand in hand with the Prussians, whose triumph at Leipzig would herald their emergence as the leading power in Germany.

In this second bitter winter of defeat, the French retreat across Germany was hardly less grim than that of 1812. ‘The numbers of corpses and dead horses increased every day,’ recorded an Allied observer:

Thousands of soldiers, sinking from hunger and fatigue, remained behind, unable to reach a hospital. The woods for several miles round were full of stragglers and worn-out and sick soldiers. Guns, wagons were found everywhere.…

It could have been an account of the German retreat from the Falaise Gap in August 1944. Almost 400,000 of Napoleon’s troops had been lost, or cut off in isolated garrisons from Danzig to Dresden; only about 80,000 effectives, plus some 40,000 stragglers, limped back across the Rhine. That Napoleon escaped at all was probably thanks to Bernadotte’s dismal failure to reach Leipzig in time, and to the Allies’ own exhaustion. By November, Schwarzenberg’s command was reduced to only 150,000 men – ‘ragged, worn out, wracked by typhus and dysentery’ – their lines of communication impossibly extended. Only their enfeeblement staved off an immediate invasion of France.

Less than three weeks after the catastrophe at Leipzig, Napoleon was back at St Cloud, once again leaving his defeated troops behind, to ask for fresh armies. He had been absent from Paris 209 days, compared with 224 in 1812, and only 124 for the Ulm–Austerlitz Campaign of 1905. If it had not been plain after Moscow, the writing on the wall should have been crystal clear after Leipzig. From the capture of Allied correspondence just before the battle was engaged, Napoleon had learnt enough about enemy intentions to realize that only a decisive military victory could save him. Yet France, after twenty-five years of almost constant war, was physically, financially and emotionally drained. Back in Paris, hatred for Napoleon was spreading, as many subversive groups – Royalists, Jacobins and ‘liberals’ – conspired with increasing impunity. The 1813 campaign had revealed that many of the leading marshals (not unlike Hermann Goering after 1940) had grown soft after being showered with titles and riches; Clarke, the Minister of War, had made such a muddle as to suggest something worse than mere incompetence; Berthier, the once indispensable ‘Emperor’s wife’, was very sick; in a grave waste of talent, Davout had been left behind, out of the Battle of the Nations, and stuck in Hamburg. Repeated failures in 1813 proved that the cavalry, the key to so many past battles and campaigns, had still not recovered from its losses in Russia – indeed, it would barely do so by Waterloo. Though only the inefficiency of the Allies had saved Napoleon in 1813, and would come close to doing so in 1814, he failed to understand that the driving impulse of nationalism was now no longer an exclusively French asset. In the words of General J. F. C. Fuller, for Napoleon the battle of Leipzig had been ‘a second Trafalgar, this time on land; his initiative had gone’.