The French Navy During the Napoleonic Era

Detail of Battle of Grand Port: From left to right: French frigate Bellone, French frigate Minerve, Victor (background) and Ceylon, by Pierre-Julien Gilbert

While Jack and Stephen sometimes encounter enemies from other nations, the overwhelming villain of our beloved series is Napoleon Bonaparte acting through the French Navy. Of course, English antipathy towards the French dates back much farther than the Napoleonic Era, and that antipathy lead to a kind of Age of Sail naval arms race.

Anglo-French rivalry was fueled by the two nations’ desire to control colonial trade. The French government condemned the “oceanocrats” and claimed to be the defender of maritime freedom and the protector of neutral nations.

France was not really a maritime nation in the same as Britain or Spain, and her navy always took second place to the army. The major naval bases were Brest, Rochefort and Toulon. The French frigates were excellent, while their ships-of-the-line not so.

In 1690 Britain for the first time established a naval superiority over France. French ships typically fired their cannons on the upward roll of the ship, disabling their opponents but doing little damage to the enemy ships or their crews.

British and Dutch ships, by contrast, tended to use the opposite tactic of firing on the downward roll into the enemy hulls, causing a storm of flying splinters that killed and maimed the enemy gun crews.

Pre-revolutionary officers had been aristocratic, professional and well trained. The Revolution caused them to flee the country. Many ended up in Britain. Frequent gun practice while under sail gave the British Royal Navy’s gunners an advantage over the blocked French.

Another advantage was the new flintlock firing mechanisms that allowed for more accurate sighting on the cannon. The French gunners were less trained than the British ones and in battle they aimed at the rigging rather than the hulls of their opponents. It resulted that British casualties were often remarkably light compared with those of the French.

In 1804, Napoleon ordered Vice Admiral Villeneuve, now a stationed at Toulon, to escape from the British blockade, overcome the British fleet in the English Channel, and allow the planned invasion of Britain to take place. To draw off the British defences, Villeneuve was to sail to the West Indies, where it was planned that he would combine with the Spanish fleet and the French fleet from Brest, attack British possessions in the Caribbean, before returning across the Atlantic to destroy the British Channel squadrons and escort the Armée d’Angleterre from their camp at Boulogne to victory in England.

Inexperienced French crews and the difficulties of getting out of Cádiz meant that it took 2 days to get all ships out of port and in some kind of order. Villeneuve learned of the size of the British fleet, and turned back to Cádiz, but the combined fleets were intercepted by Nelson off Cape Trafalgar.

Nelson, though outnumbered, won the Battle of Trafalgar.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “His (Villeneuve’s) decision to leave Cádiz and give battle in October 1805, which led directly to the Battle of Trafalgar, cannot be justified even on his own principles. He foresaw defeat to be inevitable, and yet he went out solely because he learnt from the Minister of Marine that another officer had been sent to supersede him… It was provoked in a spasm of wounded vanity.”

“Trafalgar permanently crippled the Spanish navy, but the French soon recovered. Even as the English maneuvered to intercept Villeneuve, the Rochefort squadron put to sea in a long, destructive raid. Napoleon strengthened his Brest and Rochefort fleets, rebuilt the Toulon fleet, and began constructing a new one at Antwerp. Antwerp – a “pistol pointed at the heart of England” – was an ideal base for a cross-channel attack. The Boulogne flotilla was kept until 1811; Napoleon also made considerable efforts to develop an effective Italian navy, but without success. …

After Trafalgar, England continued its traditional policy of “subsidizing” (hiring) various Continental powers to do the land fighting, while her navy eliminated the enemy’s merchant fleet and seized his colones… Napoleon could campaign deep into Spain, Austria, and Russia, leaving his coasts lightly garrisoned by second-line troops, without much worry over a British invasion. (Esposito & Elting – A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars.)

This is interesting that already in 1813 the French navy was back at its pre-war strength.

“Although Napoleon ‘lost’ the war at sea effectively from 1805, his naval strategy against Great Britain remained surprisingly effective. … By keeping his surviving squadrons ready for sea (or capable of being rapidly made so) at Brest, Rochfort, or Toulon, he kept the Royal Navy at full stretch on blockade duties, and the task of hunting down a small French break-out force was incommensurately expensive in terms of vessels and effort.” – Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars

The French corsairs of the Napoleonic Wars enjoyed numerous successes against the British ships. Many captains made names for themselves – L’Hermitte, Leduc and Troude, for example. St. Malo, Nantes and Marseille were some of the premier corsair ports. Their activities caused a considerable panic in British commercial circles.

Courtesy of Napoleon China.

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