Espionage During the Napoleonic Wars

By Alexander Ioffe

Detail from Carte des environs de Metz avec ses projets, 1742, smuggled out of France by Robert Clifford during the Peace of Amiens. McMaster University Rare Map Collection no. 9147


“As they talked Stephen observed that she showed no reserve of any kind towards him; she spoke as to an old friend… He was glad of it… but he was surprised. She was after all an intelligence-agent (though not a very good one) and he had, in the naval phrase, ‘stuffed her up’ with false information of a singularly lethal nature: and as far as he could tell, this stratagem had borne fruit in the form of a trail of dead or discredited spies.” – The Fortune of War

Stephen Maturin, along with being a physician and naturalist, is also one of England’s most valued intelligence agents. His covert activities figure prominently in many of his adventures with Jack Aubrey, and in the world of the series they have a great impact on events at an international level. But how prevalent was spying during the Napoleonic Wars, and did it have any effect on the outcome of the conflicts? Alexandr Ioffe has some brilliant insights on these points.

Espionage During the Napoleonic Wars
By Alexandr Ioffe

The Napoleonic wars pitted France, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, against a number of countries in Europe from 1797 through 1815. At different times during this period, Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, and the Neapolitan Kingdom all waged war against France in various coalitions. The main rivals in this struggle were Great Britain and France. During this time, the methods of intelligence gathering, espionage, and counterespionage did not differ so much from modern methods, apart from the differences in technological progress. Compared to other periods, however, espionage was a much more intense activity during the Napoleonic wars. This rise in espionage activity resulted mainly from revolutionary events in France and the following French emigration, which was in turn, used by Britain to achieve their own goals.

France had one unsurpassed master of intrigue in the famous person of Joseph Fouché, who spied rampantly on his social and professional contacts alike. Fouché remained as permanent minister of police during four consecutive regimes: directory, consulate, empire, and the restored monarchy.

During this period, Switzerland became a place of intensive intelligence activity by Britain, mostly against France. In 1794 the new charge d’affaire of Great Britain was the newly arrived William Wickham (1761–1840), for whom his diplomatic work in Bern was a cover. Wickham’s main activity was to collect information about France and to lead various royalist organizations, which acted inside France as well as abroad. In particular, Wickham organized invasions of royalist armies into France, one of which was the Quiberon Bay invasion of 1795; the effort failed within one month. Both Wickham’s agents and those of the royalist organizations actively participated for almost three years in different conspiracies against France, but in 1797, many of those involved were arrested. Wickham was forced to leave Switzerland in 1798, but the successive charge d’affaire continued the same activity.

British espionage against the Italian Army of France was also well organized. Here, the main figures were Count d’Antreg, one of the organizers of the royalist underground, and the British diplomat Francis Drake. D’Antreg received information from the generals of the French army, such as key information about the Egyptian expedition of Bonaparte. D’Antreg was arrested in 1797 by the French in Venice and was scheduled for extradition to France, but was first granted an audience with Napoleon. After gaining Napoleon’s favor, d’Antreg was released on his word of honor. He was then quickly aided in an escape to Switzerland.

British intelligence agents pursued Napoleon and his army during the Egypt expedition, and even attempted to organize the general’s assassination. One well-known attempt was organized by one of the top officers of the British intelligence service. A fellow officer named Foure was married to one of Napoleon’s mistresses; the plan called for Madame Foure to carry out the assassination during one of her dalliances with Napoleon. Foure eventually refused his mission, and the plan was not executed.

Another attempt to assassinate Napoleon was made on December 24, 1800. The First Consul Napoleon was required to be present at a performance in the Paris Grande Opera. When Napoleon’s carriage rushed along Saint Nicolas Street, an explosion resounded. Napoleon did not suffer; his carriage was driving too quickly, but the power of the explosion was such that almost 50 people were killed or wounded and 46 neighboring houses were damaged. The source was a barrel of gunpowder laced with shrapnel that was hidden in a harnessed wagon at the roadside. At first, the Jacobins were accused of the attempt, and some were executed. But those who headed the investigation quickly determined that it was the work of royalists through whom was apparent “the hand of London.”

Yet another attempt on Napoleon was undertaken by royalists (again supported from London) in 1803 to 1804, but it was stopped by Fouche’s police. Fouche identified the plotters using his “Chouan’s Geography,” an elementary data base (card-index) compiled in his ministry containing detailed information about 1000 active royalists. The French word chouan is associated with royalty, or in this case, royalists.

Britain also actively collected all possible information about France during the Napoleonic period. For this purpose they used (in addition to traditional methods) various royalist organizations (in particular the “Correspondence,” which mainly collected intelligence data). Smugglers, and fishers, and the inhabitants of Jersey Island were also actively recruited, especially during the continental blockade, for contact between Britain and the continent, as well as for espionage. One of these Jersey inhabitants, a British agent, was able to make 184 spying trips from Jersey to France before he was eventually captured by the French and executed in 1808.

Led by Fouche, the French used counterespionage and organized the assassinations of unwelcome persons, or at the least, discredited them. One example is the brilliantly executed operation directed against the British diplomat Francis Drake. The French agent Mehde de la Touch was sent to London, where with great difficulty he was able to gain the confidence of top British authorities. De la Touch was able to persuade them that he represented a Jacobin committee that wanted to overthrow Napoleon. De la Touch was put in contact with Drake, at that time the ambassador in Munich, Bavaria, and using Drake, the phony committee was able to swindle large amounts of money from the British government. After a long period of such activity, the French published this information in the French press, Drake was discredited, and was forced to flee from Munich.

Napoleon himself was also actively interested in espionage. Among Napoleon’s secret agents, the most successful was the Alsatian Charles Schulmeister, a trader from Strasbourg. Schulmeister brilliantly infiltrated the Austrian army, including its intelligence service, and by collecting vital information from and disseminating misinformation to the Austrian military commanders, ensured Napoleon’s victory in Austria.

The year 1805 marked the beginning of Napoleon’s war with Austria and Russia. Schulmeister was sent to Vienna with the mission to discern the character and plans of General Karl von Mack, commander of the Austrian Army on the Danube. Schulmeister gained the confidence of those in the aristocratic circles of Vienna and was soon introduced to General Mack. Schulmeister then persuaded Mack that he represented a royalist opposition, showing him secret data about the French army, given to him according to Napoleon’s order, and false documents about his own Hungarian aristocratic origin. Soon Schulmeister was completely trusted by Mack and, incredibly, was designated chief of intelligence in General Mack’s army. Schulmeister immediately informed Napoleon about Mack’s plans, and Napoleon, in turn, ordered the printing of false newspapers and letters detailing the unrest in the French army. Mack swallowed the bait. He assumed that France was close to an uprising, and believed the information that Napoleon’s troops were retreating from the front line on the Rhine River. He began to pursue the French. Most likely Mack was surprised when he collided with the “retreated” corps of French General Ney, and then discovered French troops at his flanks and back. The army of the gullible general was surrounded in Uhlm, and all that was left to do was to surrender. Napoleon then gained one of his most famous victories at the battle of Austerlitz, captured Vienna, and installed Schulmeister as its chief of police.

Napoleon soon required the further services of Schulmeister in Germany, where the operative set up an effective spy cluster that provided Napoleon, for a while, with valuable information from adversaries to the East. Schulmeister was awarded wealth for his efforts, but longed for the Legion of Honor, which Napoleon never bestowed, claiming, “gold is the only suitable reward for spies.” After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile, Schulmeister was arrested, and bought his freedom with his fortune. Years later and nearly penniless, Schulmeister sold tobacco at a stand in Strasbourg and regaled customers with stories of espionage during the Napoleonic wars.

Further Reading

Dallas, Gregor. The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001.

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Age of Napoleon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Hollins, David. “The Hidden Hand: Espionage and Napoleon.” Osprey Military Journal Issue 2.2, Osprey Publishing (December 30,2002).

Sparrow, Elizabeth. Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792–1815. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1999.

Courtesy of Alexandr Ioffe and Espionage Information.

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