Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain was almost doomed to fail from the beginning. Napoleon’s misplaced understanding of naval expertise and naval warfare, combined with a fleet severely limited in its capabilities through years of neglect, placed his desire to allow a crossing of the Channel relying on ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, rather than driven by a focused and realistic policy. Napoleon argued he needed ‘but 72 hours’ control of the Channel, and he also believed he could have taken London within three days of landing, yet the weakness of French naval power by the early 1800s severely limited any capacity of a successful invasion of England. Napoleon’s innate inability to accept the limitations placed upon the French navy, and the differences needed for an invasion by sea, provided the British with ample opportunity to destroy the memories of the previously successful French fleet that so embarrassed Britain during the American War of Independence. Napoleon’s desire to invade Britain in 1803 was not a new idea. Napoleon had been appointed to the command of an invasion force as early as 1797, but this force had never launched due to misgivings aired by Napoleon against it in early 1798. The renewal in hostilities after the breakdown of Amiens in 1803 fell at a time when Napoleon had reached almost the height of his power within France, and an invasion of England could be directed under his complete control, ordering resources and necessary manpower where he felt it was needed.
Reasons for the failure of the French invasion attempts vary. The growing gap between the quality of the French and British naval forces underpin the inevitable failure of a future French invasion attempt. Jeremy Black has highlighted the continued lack of investment in French naval forces from the time of the Revolution as a major aspect of the inevitable defeat by Britain on the seas. Continued naval defeats at the hands of the British reduced the numbers of experienced French sailors and the availability of vessels, and sapped morale, all of which proved fatal by the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The terminal decline of the French navy in the years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars prevented significant threats to Britain from achieving success.
The limitations of French naval power
Roger Knight’s chapter in ’Trafalgar in History’ presents a firm argument as to the marked superiority the British had around the time of Trafalgar, and that this was not purely down to numbers – ‘In terms of numbers of ships on active service, it was…a [close] run thing.’ The state of the French navy in the early 1800s is an important aspect of the lack of feasibility in a successful invasion of England. Knight states that in the past 20 years, the ‘first area of broad agreement [among historians] is that the French Navy was no longer at the peak of condition or performance that it reached in the middle of the American Revolutionary War, and that the Spanish Navy had similarly declined.’ ‘The French navy had never recovered from the havoc wrought by the Revolution’ so that by 1803, it was in a state of disrepair, with only 13 out of 42 ships of the line capable of active service. This had led the British to ‘quickly [take] command of the seas’ and blockade the French fleet in harbour. The blockade of the French fleet within harbour led to an inability to effectively train crews on the high seas, reducing their battle readiness and general seamanship skills. This lead to a paradoxical effect: the longer that the French navy went without being able to train properly, the more ineffectual it became and the less likely it would be able to fight the British who were anchored outside French harbours. We must discuss each aspect of the French limitations in turn.
In terms of numbers of ships, the Imperial navy suffered a decline throughout the 1790s and early 1800s. Successive defeats had seen the ‘French Mediterranean fleet…to a large extent annihilated’ whilst in 1797, the Spanish and Dutch suffered decisive defeats at Cape St. Vincent and Camperdown, which saw them lose 4 and 7 ships of the line respectively. There was also an inability by the Directorate, then Napoleon, to invest in the fleet to help replenish the French loss of 11 ships of the line at the battle of the Nile in 1798. The defeat at Trafalgar, as well as the loss of a further two Spanish line of battle before the central engagement of the battle, further reduced both the French and Spanish naval forces, and Horne has claimed that this meant that ‘ultimate victory would henceforth always elude [Napoleon].’ Horne is wrong to state this, for Trafalgar did not end the Napoleonic threat to Britain, it merely stalled further threat for the immediate future. By the time Villeneuve met Nelson outside of Cadiz, Napoleon was already marching east with his Grand Army to meet the Austro-Russian forces of the Third Coalition.
An inability and unwillingness to divert resources to the replenishment of both ageing vessels and vessels lost in battle allowed the British to overturn any advantage that France had gained, by attaining the navies of both the Dutch and Spanish, in terms of ship numbers. The persistent British blockade of the ports under Napoleon’s command in the years between 1803 and 1805 subsequently prevented the scattered Napoleonic squadrons from forming into a stronger singular body, preventing any attempted crossing of the Channel from having naval numerical superiority. Had Villeneuve evaded Nelson in 1805, there remained the problems of encountering the 44 ships under Cornwallis in the Channel, as well as the potential emergence of the North Sea and Baltic fleets.
Emphasis has also been placed in the inferiority of the French navy’s ship quality by revisionist scholars such as Knight. ‘Both the French and Spanish navies had…for different reasons [been] starved of funds from 1790’ and this lack of investment had jeopardised both navies’ abilities to man and maintain effective standing units. Lee has reinforced the argument of Knight about an ingrained naval weakness amongst the French fleet, emphasising that their vessels ‘were poorly rigged and quite incapable of resisting the stress of a strong gale.’ Down to a ‘combination of second-rate equipment, poorly rigged and canvassed vessels and lacklustre crews’, the French fleet was incapable of maintaining any significant presence against the Royal Navy at sea, and the times that they did present any potential for threat, we see a series of significant defeats for their forces. Furthermore, we can see the inadequate state of the French navy in the fact that, on the resumption of hostilities in 1803, as stated previously, only thirteen out of France’s forty-two ships of the line were capable of active service. Napoleon would have done well to put his focus into maintaining the fleet he already held before attempting to lay plans for an assault against Britain.
In terms of naval tactics, the French and British navies differed in their style of battle. Martin van Greveld argues that the difference in fighting tactics of the two combatants gave the British a marked superiority; the British relied on entering ‘battle with the wind at their backs…, which enabled them to bear down on an enemy’, whereas the French tended to enter battle facing into the wind, allowing for an easier line of escape should efforts fall short. Grevald also argues that the difference in gunnery tactics – with the British focusing on battering an enemy hull whilst the French looked to dismast an enemy and destroy her rigging – combined with French reliance in small arms fire against an enemy deck whilst the British focused upon artillery fire, meant that the Royal Navy ‘were usually able to emerge as victors, despite the fact that many of their ships were smaller, slower, and less well-designed.’ The marked superiority in British naval tactics during this period, combined with the ingrained inferiority of French vessels by 1805, meant that the chances of a successful invasion attempt were slim.
It is highly unlikely that any landing upon the British Isles would have been more than likely a debacle. History provides us with a series of examples as to the importance of maintaining regional naval supremacy in order to prevent an invasion force from becoming a lost force. Even had Napoleon’s grandiose plan to avoid the British fleets of Nelson and Cornwallis, eventually his forces would have had to face either one of these fleets, or more worryingly, the prospect of facing a combination of the two fleets.
In a rather excellent article, David Thomson has argued the feasibility of a French invasion fleet assisted by steam driven vessels designed by Robert Fulton. The access to Fulton’s inventions, and his plan for a steam-powered assault on the British Isles, were known to Bonaparte, and in many ways the potential for success using said plan seems great. Had the French possessed steam driven vessels capable of transporting the invasion flotilla across the Channel they may well have found it easier to avoid the Royal Navy, launching without the need for favourable winds, and land Napoleon’s troops without much naval resistance. However, Thomson argues that, despite this at first seeming a potential advantage had Napoleon taken up Fulton’s plans, use of these steam vessels ‘might have guided Napoleon Bonaparte straight into the jaws of ruin.’ His reasoning for this statement lies on the fact that the steam engines available to use on the designated vessels were by no means powerful enough to give the French a significant advantage over the Royal Navy vessels. With the steam ships that were planned, Bonaparte would have still needed relatively calm seas, and unfavourable winds on the British part, without which ‘with one breath of wind the British frigates would have been among the steamboats like wolves among a flock of sheep.’ The idea of an invasion fleet supported by steam-driven vessels was a more than feasible concept, had Napoleon grasped it when Fulton dangled his plans in front of him. Yet, as Thomson argues, the chances of success were low, for the need to avoid the British navy for the matter of hours needed to transport the forces were only the beginning of the troubles – the ability to continually supply the invasion forces overseas, against a superior naval power, could not be guaranteed. Furthermore, this returns us to the point that, regardless of the success of the initial landings and ferrying of troops across the channel by avoiding the Royal Navy, the impending Third Coalition could have then attacked and invaded France itself whilst Napoleon’s ‘Army of England’ were cut off overseas. Thomson is right in stating that had Napoleon taken up the option of using Fulton’s ideas to invade England, ‘Napoleon…would have been driven from power in 1805 instead of 1815’.
Napoleon’s claim to be able to subjugate Britain in 1805, establish a new regime or impose a favourable peace settlement on Britain, then return to the mainland without Villeneuve and his fleet facing a number of British fleets and being able to provide cover for his triumphant return are almost laughable. Had the proposed invasion landing succeeded, Napoleon does not seem to have taken into account the potential for a British fleet – whether Cornwallis’, Nelson’s, or even a combination of the two – to have rounded on the covering French fleet, defeated it, and cut Napoleon and his invasion army off from the Continent. Although obvious a French army led by Napoleon on British soil was a threat to the British, the impending Third Coalition would have faced an unorganised resistance in French territory, with the possibility of sweeping into France unopposed by Bonaparte, and without the cream of the French army to deal with. It is therefore logical to suggest that had Bonaparte succeeded in crossing the Channel, the inevitability of his army becoming cut off from the mainland could have ended Napoleonic France much earlier than 1815.
The influence of morale is a significant factor that must not be disregarded in this discussion. ‘Confidence is a vital military resource, and victory both brought it to Britain and denied it to France’. The successive naval defeats at the hands of the British throughout the revolutionary period both sapped the French of experienced sailors in battle fatalities and POWs, and resulted in losses of pride and memories of naval success gained at the expense of the British during the early 1780s. The combination of a severe morale drain gained from years of naval failure, with an inability to give new recruits experience at sea due to naval blockade, reduced the French naval forces into a state of resignation under British superiority. Lee uses Villeneuve’s claim that ‘even if Nelson’s squadrons were a third weaker than those of the French, still the British would win’ to emphasise that by the mid-1800s there was a persistent belief in all areas of the French navy that there was a undermining view held that British naval supremacy could not be undone by French challenge.
Ingram is right in claiming that Trafalgar ‘did not in itself make England safe from invasion’ , and the significance often placed on its role in the defeat of Napoleon is extremely over-emphasised. Napoleonic France did not end for another decade, and the potential for military threats against Britain remained. Yet, ‘the elimination of the French fleet was to be a most important factor of the European conflict: it condemned Napoleon to an inability to attack Britain except in continental Europe’, resulting in grave implications for the potential of a French victory in the wider conflict of Europe.
Post-Trafalgar failure
The potential for an invasion of Britain, still in the offering despite defeat at Trafalgar, was ended by the winter of 1807. The reasoning behind 1807 being the important year of the destruction of the invasion threat is down to the events at the Treaty of Tilsit. By the terms of Tilsit, Napoleon and Alexander of Russia established an alliance of cooperation against Britain. Napoleon furthermore planned the forcing of adherence to his Continental Blockade and use of the navies of the Kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Portugal, in a policy that threatened the British position in Europe. The destruction of his fleet at Trafalgar was a mere hiccup in his desire to attack Britain by military means, and it is possible to go as far as saying that due to the state of the French navy by 1805, the best chance Napoleon ever had of gaining naval mastery of the channel for his invasion flotilla rested upon acquiring the navies of the remaining neutral maritime powers of Europe. Had Napoleon succeeded in gaining Danish and Swedish naval support, he would have gained 29 ships of the line to add to the remnants of the Franco-Spanish fleet. These forces, combined with the 20 ships of the line of the Russian Baltic fleet, would have allowed Napoleon to once again threaten Britain with invasion.
The fact that no renewed invasion attempt came about in 1807 can be attributed toward three factors: Firstly, the pre-emptive attack by Britain on Copenhagen in September 1807 that prevented a Napoleonic acquisition of the Danish fleet; secondly, the failure of French forces to reach Lisbon in time to prevent the escape of the Portuguese fleet; and finally, the decision by Napoleon to replace the Spanish monarch with his own brother, which removed the remainder of the Spanish fleet from his grasp. These three factors will be looked at in turn, enabling one to understand why a military threat to Britain never came about after 1805.
Copenhagen, 1807
The major, and most controversial, of actions that threatened British interests after Tilsit was the potential of the Danish fleet being obtained by Napoleon’s forces. ‘The Danish navy remained a force to be reckoned with’ even after the defeat at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 , and the potential for French possession of it caused fear in Britain. Debate is rife amongst scholars as to the rights and wrongs of the British attack on Copenhagen in international law, but the focus here in upon the influence this event had on the French threat to Britain. Scholarship on the subject of the 1807 attack on Copenhagen has very much discussed the aspects of fear present in Britain at the potential French acquisition of the Danish fleet. Carl Kulsrud describes ‘the suspicion of [the Anti-Napoleonic States] that Denmark was yielding unnecessarily to Napoleon’ and discusses a long process of Danish actions that increasingly raised British suspicion of Denmark leaning towards Napoleonic France, leaving the strategically important straits into the Baltic in Napoleonic control.
Furthermore, Munch-Peterson has argued at length in ‘Defying Napoleon’ that there was persistent fear within Britain that the Danish would follow Russia in joining the French sphere of influence, both extending the Continental Blockade into the Baltic, and the acquisition of the Danish fleet, which would significantly increase the potential of a renewed invasion attempt. As mentioned above, Napoleon intended to force Denmark into his camp and to declare war on Britain, or face war with France, and this left her in a precarious position. The pre-emptive attack by the British in August and September 1807 prevented the threat posed by Napoleon’s desire to obtain the Danish fleet, but forced the Danes into the French camp. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the action, it was important that the French were prevented from obtaining the fleet, and this action indeed reduced the potential renewal of further invasion attempts and/or the prevention of much needed naval supplies being gained from the Baltic due to a strong Napoleonic naval presence.
The attack on Copenhagen provoked controversial debate within contemporary Britain, but with hindsight, one can argue that the potential acquisition of the Danish fleet by Napoleon would have reopened a potential of invasion. A combined Russo-Danish fleet would have presented a challenge to the small British Baltic squadron, and, if sailed toward the Channel, would have been able to hit Admiral Cornwallis’ Channel fleet in the flank as it blockaded the French channel ports. The major influence of the desire to bring Denmark into the Napoleonic European structure focused mainly upon the desire to plug the Baltic hole that had appeared in Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, but the importance of the potential naval threat to Britain had Napoleon succeeded in bringing the Danish navy into his camp should not be underestimated. Muir in particular discusses the significance that this potential threat had on British policy. Muir maintains that the British action against Denmark ‘established British domination of the Baltic for the rest of the war, for both Russia and Sweden were anxious to avoid any serious hostility with Britain at sea.’ The importance of the events at Copenhagen are therefore serious. The decision to mount a pre-emptive attack against a neutral strong maritime power that was edging toward the Napoleonic camp was decisive in preventing any renewed invasion threat. Chandler believes that the attack on Copenhagen allowed the Royal Navy a means to demonstrate its power, and it indeed did, whilst further strengthening the Royal Navy by the acquisition of more ships of the line. The attack also had the secondary effect of forcing Russia to reconsider her potential of attacking Britain at sea. After Copenhagen, the Anglo-Russian naval war in the Baltic ‘remained a low-key affair’ as ‘neither side felt an interest in pushing matters to extremities’.
Tilsit has more than often been overlooked in the terms of the threat that its treaties posed to Britain, but they must be taken into consideration in any discussion of Napoleonic threat to her. It brought Russia into an alliance with France, and if Britain rejected terms of mediation between her and France, would plunge Russia into the struggle against Britain. When this happened, it put into Napoleon’s grasp control of the Russian Mediterranean and Baltic fleets – a powerful tool in which to threaten British naval dominance. By the terms of Tilsit, both Russia and France were to compel Denmark, Sweden and Portugal to close their ports to British shipping, and to declare war on Britain. This possibility presented an even greater threat to Britain than perhaps that with which Trafalgar has often been attributed to have prevented – a combination of the Russian, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish and remnants of the Franco-Spanish fleets, which would threaten British naval supremacy, as well as a cutting off from the Baltic naval supplies that the Royal Navy depended on. Despite the reluctance of full blown maritime warfare in the Baltic as previously discussed, the potential for a regenerated invasion threat to Britain was serious had the Tilsit policies succeeded.
However, Napoleon’s next move, his decision to invade Portugal, damaged France more than the intended aim to damage British commerce. The lack of urgency of his forces in the campaign against Portugal allowed the Portuguese royal family to flee to Brazil with their navy intact, and his subsequent decision to depose the Spanish monarchy embroiled the French in the Peninsular War (the reasons for which will be discussed in the next chapter). ‘Due to the Peninsular War, Napoleon lost the Spanish navy, and the six French ships of the line sheltering in Cadiz and Vigo surrendered to the Spanish in 1808.’ These continual failures, and losses in ships, damaged France’s abilities to damage the British militarily, and furthermore, opened up gaping holes in his Continental Blockade, as well as enabling a British expeditionary force to land in Portugal and fight an active land campaign that was to drain French resources for the next 6 years. Napoleon’s desperation to re-find a naval threat to British interests in fact damaged more his own position and, combined with the significance of the actions of Copenhagen, destroyed any remaining hope of future direct action against Britain in the short to medium term.
Ingram is right in claiming that Trafalgar ‘did not in itself make England safe from invasion’ , but his further argument that ‘as soon as the British destroyed one of his battle fleets, Napoleon built another or acquired it by conquest’ holds untrue. The statement may read correct if put that Napoleon tried to build another or acquire by conquest, which indeed he did, but his efforts as shown in this chapter fell on jagged rocks, preventing an invasion force from attempting to land on the shores of Britain. Further, the combination of the destruction of Danish naval power at Copenhagen alongside the failure to obtain the Portuguese fleet when invading Portugal withheld significant naval potential from Napoleon, and left him relying on indirect means of attack to threaten Britain.
This chapter has shown that there was more than enough potential for Napoleon to threaten Britain from direct invasion, but the capabilities alluded him, due in part to the years of British naval growth coinciding with dangerous levels of neglect to French naval forces from each and every French government between the outbreak of Revolution and Napoleon’s invasion attempts. Furthermore, his inability to grasp the problems posed by both logistical and supply troubles, which would have been laid bare had his force been able to make the landing by evading the Royal Navy, were tantamount to a debacle taking place that could easily have resulted in the destruction of the Napoleonic Empire a decade before it eventually fell in 1815. Although it is unquestionable that Napoleon indeed intended to invade Britain, the ability to provide the requirements to make such an attempt viable were never realised. Naval supremacy of the Channel would always have been needed for more than just the few hours that Napoleon envisioned, and without making either substantial gains in ship numbers and quality, or without gaining a significant naval victory over a major British fleet in battle, the required supremacy was not an achievable aim during the Napoleonic Wars. Even had Napoleon made available all the requirements needed to establish a significant naval challenge to Britain, the lack of experienced sailors, as well as the continued naval blockade of French ports by the Royal Navy, prevented the French from making even the slightest dent in the growing void between the maritime capabilities of the two combatants.

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