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HISTORY OF GREAT BRITAIN (from 1707)
 
 


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Napoleon against Britain: 1800-1802

The conflict between France and Britain, continuously at war since 1793, tends always towards stalemate. The two nations are evenly matched but have very different strengths. Britain has a much smaller population (11 million compared to 27 million in France in 1801). This disadvantage is offset by Britain's wealth (from a more developed economy and extensive overseas trade) and by the British superiority at sea. In 1803 France has 23 ships of the line; Britain has 34 in service and another 77 in reserve.

For these reasons the British contribution to any war against France in continental Europe is largely limited to providing funds for allied armies.
 









The naval clash between Britain and France is a strange one - not so much a sea war as a coast war. It is the permanent concern of the British navy, commanding the seas, to harm France and her allies by preventing any merchant ships other than those of Britain from reaching continental ports. And it is the permanent concern of the French armies, commanding the land, to prevent British vessels entering those same ports.

Third parties suffer as much as anyone from this form of economic warfare, particularly after Britain adopts the policy of seizing goods carried by the ships of neutral nations if they are destined for a harbour under blockade.
 







Indignation at this British policy, heightened by diplomatic pressure from Napoleon, prompts Russia, Sweden and Denmark to form in December 1800 a League of Armed Neutrality. They declare the Baltic ports out of bounds to British ships. The embargo is strengthened when the Danes seize Hamburg, the main harbour for British trade with the German states.

Britain responds by sending a naval fleet into the Baltic. The second-in-command is Nelson, who sails into shallow and well-defended waters in Copenhagen harbour. There is heavy fighting, during which the commander of the fleet flies the signal for Nelson to withdraw (this is the famous occasion when he puts the telescope to his blind eye).
 







Nelson destroys many of the ships in the harbour and damages the shore defences in this battle of Copenhagen (2 April 1801). His victory prompts the Danes to make peace in May. Sweden does so in the same month, and Russia follows suit in June.

By now, as after Campo Formio, Britain and France are the only two nations still at war. From the British point of view one affront still needs to be righted. In March 1801 a fleet is sent through the Mediterranean to help the Turks expel the French from Egypt. The French command in Cairo surrenders in June, followed by Alexandria in August.
 







Both sides are now exhausted. There have been tentative peace talks since February. Terms are agreed in October, putting an end to hostilities. The peace is signed in Amiens in March 1802.

Napoleon's negotiators do well for France. All overseas territories taken by Britain in the past nine years (including several West Indian islands) are returned into French hands. Similarly Minorca reverts to Spain and the Cape colony in South Africa to Holland. But Britain keeps Sri Lanka (taken from the Dutch) and Trinidad (previously Spanish). Egypt is to be Turkish again. Malta (taken by Napoleon in 1798 and by Britain in 1800) is to be restored to the Knights of St John.
 






The peace of Amiens: 1802-1803

Peace is eagerly greeted by Europeans starved of the pleasures of travel - particularly the British, cooped up in their island for years, who now flock across the Channel to enjoy once again the pleasures of Paris. But this is to prove only a breathing space. Nothing has been resolved in the long rivalry between Britain and France, and each government soon finds much to complain about in the behaviour of the other during the interlude of peace.

Napoleon annoys the British by failing to allow the spirit of harmony into the market place. His refusal to agree a commercial treaty means that British merchants are penalized by high tariffs in French and allied ports. They conclude that peace seems no more profitable than war.
 









Meanwhile Napoleon alarms the British government by his expansionist behaviour in regions not covered by the treaty - for example in his annexation of Piedmont in 1802, to bridge the gap between France and the Cisalpine republic.

Britain gives France more specific cause for complaint by not fulfilling the terms of the treaty of Amiens. It has been agreed that she will withdraw from Malta. Her failure to do so would be justified in modern eyes by the expressed views of the Maltese. Horrified at the prospect of the return of the Knights of St John, the local assembly passes a resolution inviting George III to become their sovereign on condition that he maintains the Roman Catholic faith in the island.
 







However, the wishes of local inhabitants carry little weight in diplomatic negotiations in the early 19th century. And Britain, remaining in possession of the island, is undoubtedly in violation of the treaty.

Napoleon complains but avoids pressing the issue to the brink of hostilities. It is likely that his long-term intentions towards Britain are not peaceful, but he is not yet ready for a renewal of war. He needs time, in particular, to build up his fleet. The same logic makes Britain prefer an early renewal of the conflict. For no very good reason, other than long-term self-interest, the British government declares war on France in May 1803.
 






The war at sea: 1803-1805


For two years, after the resumption of hostilities in May 1803, Britain is the only nation at war with France. Napoleon returns to the scheme of 1798 for an invasion across the Channel, but now on a much more elaborate scale.

In ports from Brest to Antwerp he gathers a fleet of nearly 2000 craft for the transport of men, horses and artillery. During 1803 he assembles what later becomes known as the Grand Army, amounting to some 150,000 men bivouacked (so as to remain inconspicuous) in four widely separated camps but ready to converge at any moment on Boulogne for embarkation. Meanwhile the British, well aware of the threat, are dotting their south coast with the circular fortifications known as Martello towers.
 










Napoleon's initial plan is for his fleet to launch on a single tide and to cross the Channel unobserved, perhaps under cover of fog, and so escape the attentions of the British navy. But this is impractical for such large numbers. He needs a fleet capable of protecting the invading force.

In December 1804 Napoleon persuades Spain to join him in war against Britain, thus acquiring the support of the Spanish navy. His strategy is now to divert the British fleet, or at least part of it, from guard duty in the Channel.
 







The result, during 1805, is a game of maritime cat and mouse - with French and British squadrons criss-crossing the Atlantic, between the West Indies and the European coast, in an attempt to second-guess and outwit each other. With the primitive communications of the day, it is difficult even for allied fleets to achieve an intended rendezvous in distant waters. Inevitably Napoleon's somewhat elaborate plans go adrift.

In August the combined French and Spanish fleet, under the command of Villeneuve, withdraws to Cadiz. But the port is already under observation by three British ships of the line. Word is urgently sent for reinforcements. At the end of September Nelson arrives to take command.
 







On October 19 Villeneuve sails from Cadiz, intending to head south and enter the Mediterranean. He has thirty-three ships of the line. Nelson shadows his movement from several miles out to sea, keeping his twenty-seven ships of the line out of sight and receiving information by signal from his frigates.

Nelson closes in, off Cape Trafalgar, on the morning of October 21. The battle begins just before noon. Five hours later some nineteen French and Spanish ships have surrendered or been destroyed, with no British losses. But Nelson himself is dead, mortally wounded on the deck of the Victory by a sniper firing from the topmast of the Redoutable.
 







Trafalgar confirms Britain's reputation at sea and has the effect of preventing the French fleet from playing any major part in the remaining years of the war - though Napoleon keeps ships of the line in readiness in French harbours, putting Britain to the considerable expense of mounting permanent blockades.

In his struggle with Britain, Napoleon now reverts to the longer-term strategy of sealing the continent against British goods in the policy which becomes known as the Continental System. But meanwhile others of his old enemies are up in arms again, and he is back in his element - on the battlefields of Europe.
 






The Continental System: 1806-1807

The purpose of Napoleon's Continental System is to ruin Britain's economy by preventing British goods from reaching any market in continental Europe. It is not, as it would be in modern warfare, an attempt to starve an island enemy into submission.

Educated in the 18th-century mercantilist school of economics, Napoleon believes that nations thrive primarily through wealth earned abroad. He therefore allows surplus French corn to be sold to Britain in 1809 and 1810, even though a shortage is already causing his enemy grave difficulty in high bread prices. Nevertheless a complete blockage of British exports would in itself be extremely damaging if it could be made watertight.
 









Napoleon begins to build his system when he is wintering in Berlin after defeating the Prussians at Jena. In November 1806 he issues the Berlin decree, denying the ports of France and her allies to any ship sailing from Britain or a British colony.

This proves insufficient, since it fails to prevent a neutral ship from bringing in British goods. At Fontainebleau in October 1807, and in Milan a month later, Napoleon adds extra clauses: all colonial goods entering a port will be regarded as British unless producing some other certificate of origin; and any ship submitting to British orders in council, or sailing from or to Britain, will be regarded as a lawful prize if seized at sea.
 







The orders in council, issued in January and November 1807, are Britain's response to the decrees that put in place the Continental System. In them the British government states that any port closed by this system is now considered under blockade; and that any vessel trading into such a port must first receive a licence from Britain, paying customs of 20% or more on its cargo. The effect of these measures and counter-measures is particularly damaging to neutral ships, which now risk being apprehended at sea by the British and in port by the French.

Meanwhile, from Napoleon's point of view, the immediate practical problem is to ensure that every European nation with a coastline joins his scheme.
 







By the end of 1807 Denmark, Russia, Prussia and Austria have done so. Sweden, an ally of Britain's from the start of the Third Coalition, refuses to comply - so, as planned at Tilsit, she is invaded by Russia (in February 1808).

Securing the Baltic may be left to Russia, but the Iberian peninsula is clearly France's own responsibility. Spain is a feeble ally of France, usually acting only under compulsion. Portugal is at best a neutral nation with a soft spot for Britain. This unsatisfactory situation tempts Napoleon into an undertaking which harms his cause in the Iberian peninsula, and becomes one of the factors in his ultimate downfall.
 






Vimeiro to Corunna: 1808-1809

The Peninsular War of 1808-14 looms large in British history for two reasons: it is the only significant involvement of British troops on land in the Napoleonic wars until the final campaign of 1815; and it is the stage on which the duke of Wellington rises to prominence as a national figure. Nevertheless in the broader picture of the European war it is little more than a sideshow, affecting the final result only because it ties up French troops whom Napoleon would dearly like to use elsewhere.

The war is provoked by Napoleon's invasion of Portugal in 1807 and by the subsequent French capture of Madrid in March 1808.
 









A British army lands in Portugal on 1 August 1808 under the command of Wellington (at the time plain Sir Arthur Wellesley), who wins a decisive victory over the French at Vimeiro, near Lisbon. Wellington is prevented from pursuing and further damaging the French army on the command of Hew Dalrymple, an officer senior to him who arrives just after the battle to take charge of the campaign.

By an agreement made at Sintra on August 31, Dalrymple allows the French army to withdraw from Portugal. The advantage is that the British can liberate Lisbon without further conflict. But an affronted Wellington returns home to resume a career in British politics.
 







Meanwhile Spanish forces are engaging the French in northern Spain. In October John Moore, newly in command of the British army in Portugal, marches north to assist them. The French situation in Spain appears so critical that Napoleon himself arrives (on November 6) to take charge of the campaign.

By late December Moore's army, near Burgos, is in danger of being surrounded. Moore beats a hasty retreat of some 250 miles through snowclad mountains to Corunna (or La CoruÑa). A French army arrives there shortly before the British fleet sent to evacuate the troops. Moore himself dies in January 1809 in the rearguard action to cover the embarkation, but his army escapes safely back to England.
 






Wellington in the ascendant: 1809-1814

In spite of the reverse suffered at Corunna, the British government undertakes a new campaign in Portugal. Wellington, who has won the only victory there so far, is returned to his command. He reaches Lisbon in April 1809 to find that the French have again pressed south into Portugal, against dwindling Portuguese and Spanish opposition, and have captured Oporto.

Wellington's campaign of 1809 includes successful sorties northwards in Portugal and an ambitious march to the east against Madrid. This ends with a hard fought battle on July 27 at Talavera, where Wellington holds off strong French assaults and is able to withdraw, relatively undamaged, to Portugal.
 









It is clear that the British position in the peninsula is tenuous. Wellington's response to this fact is the most imaginative strategic move of the Peninsular War. He turns the region north of Lisbon into a gigantic fortress by building the lines of Torres Vedras - a continuous fortification stretching twenty-five miles from the Atlantic coast through Torres Vedras to the broad Tagus river.

With British naval power protecting the port of Lisbon, there is now a large territory behind these impenetrable lines in which Wellington's army has a secure base in which it can be reliably supplied from the sea.
 







Campaigns in subsequent years involve prolonged fighting over the fortified towns between Portugal and Madrid; both Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz are eventually taken by Wellington in 1812. Later in that year he wins a significant victory at Salamanca and briefly occupies Madrid.

The decisive campaign comes in 1813, when Wellington moves north from Portugal and meets the army of Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte (technically at this stage king of Spain) at Vitoria on June 21. Wellington captures the entire French artillery train, of some 150 guns, and all the baggage - including Joseph's impressive collection of art, which now graces Apsley House (Wellington's residence in London).
 







Further successful operations in northern Spain allow Wellington to cross the border into France in October - the first enemy army on French soil since the campaign of 1792-3.

Wellington's succession of titles, acquired during the Peninsular War, provide an intriguing vignette of how to progress through the English peerage. After Talavera in 1809 Sir Arthur Wellesley is made Viscount Wellington; after the fall of Ciudad Rodgrio in 1812 he becomes an earl and later that year, after Salamanca, a marquess. When peace is agreed, in May 1814, the final rung is achieved. It is the duke of Wellington who attends the congress of Vienna as Britain's representative, and returns in a hurry for Waterloo.
 






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