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Napoleon Notes

History Notes > British and French History(1689 - Present) Notes

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Why could Napoleon neither defeat not compromise with Britain?
Shortly after receiving news of Horatio Nelson's victory at the Cape of Trafalgar in 1805, British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger is said to have exclaimed, 'England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example'. Sentiments such as these have helped contribute to an anachronistic historical belief that Britain was invulnerable during the period of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792 - 1815. It is true that Napoleon Bonaparte's successive designs for an invasion of Britain ignominiously and unequivocally failed; however it is also true that Britain was never in a position to overthrow the French Empire's grasp of continental Europe without the assistance of the eastern powers. In fact, Napoleon's imperialistic aspirations forced Britain into one of her the most monumental fiscal and military 'exertions' to date. Speaking proportionally, Britain's national debt was seven times higher in 1815 than in 1918. Ultimately it was Britain who financed the final destruction of the Napoleonic regime, but destruction mostly carried out by the continental coalition of Russia, Austria and Prussia. The years 1798 - 1815 do not represent a monolithic struggle between Napoleonic France and Great Britain but rather a large range of separate wars fought for different purposes and even a short period of peace (1802 - 1804). Longer-lasting peace itself between Britain and France was certainly possible; Napoleon could have compromised with Britain after the peace of Amiens in March 1802. As such, a great many eventualities could have arisen out of the Napoleonic Wars, not solely the story that unfolded at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The locus of this discussion should therefore centre upon the reasons why Napoleon could not defeat Britain and why Napoleon chose not to compromise with his great rival. Napoleon failed in his attempts to bring down the British nation most vividly because he could not destroy the Royal Navy. Although dominant on the high seas throughout the most part of the eighteenth century, the Royal Navy became regarded as omnipotent at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Only ten British ships were lost during the course of the wars. One historian claims the Royal Navy constituted 'the largest, longest, most complex and expensive project ever undertaken by the British state and society'. The French navy was left repeatedly embarrassed when it came into conflict with the Royal Navy and the latter's superiority is one of the distinctive elements of the entire Napoleonic period. The British had several vital advantages over the French. Deep and well stocked channel ports allowed a large number of ships to take shelter from the weather of the open sea. Conversely, Napoleon's principal port as he planned the invasion of southern England, Boulogne, infamously shallow, trapped French ships in deep mud at low tide. A powerful navy ensured the protection of colonial assets and crucial trading routes. Offensively, the blockading of French ports during the period left scars on the French economy that would remain into the twentieth century. Britain found herself in a position where she could dictate and enforce trading restrictions on smaller neutral countries. She demanded in 1807 that any country wanting to trade with Napoleon should pass through British ports and pay a 25% indemnity for the privilege. The destruction of the Danish navy at Copenhagen in the same year is a vivid example of what the Royal Navy was capable and prepared to do in order to defeat Napoleon. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 epitomises the preponderant position of Britain at sea during the period. Charles Esdaille has gone as far as to describe the British victory over the FrancoSpanish fleet as 'a foregone conclusion'. The ships under the command of the French commander Villeneuve outnumbered Nelson's fleet yet were comprehensively beaten. Because of the necessity of deploying vessels around the globe to protect her colonies, British fleets were often left outnumbered in battle. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy was a vastly superior fighting machine than the French or Spanish navies. In contrast to the French Navy Ministry, the Admiralty was headed by experienced seamen, some of which also sat in parliament; the Royal Navy was free from administrational interference. Furthermore, because British ships were at sea for the majority of their life span, crew experience in battle was far higher than the French. In time of war the French navy relied heavily upon large numbers of seamen with little or no training at all. Similarly, time at sea produced the exceptional tacticians of the Royal Navy that could bring about victory in the face of extreme adversity. Those who were martyred in service of King and country, Nelson being the most famous example, became cherished and idolised public icons. The control of ports such as

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