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"The Campaign of Trafalgar": Chapter 1 Summary


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As a follow-up to this idea I posted, here is a summary of the first chapter...


(I'm not sure where or how to go with this, or what the interest level is -- feedback welcome.  For this first episode I've attempted to extract the most interesting passages so you don't have to read the whole thing.)



Chapter I, in which Corbett analyzes the large-scale aims of England and Russia during 1804...


Napoleon's "virtual annexation of Holland was what made a renewal of the war inevitable" after the Peace of Amiens.  Having a hostile power in control of the Dutch coast was unacceptable to England.


Therefore, England did not leave Malta as the Treaty of Amiens called for, and also decided...

... to strike at the Dutch colonies. It was a blow that could be dealt rapidly and was well calculated to teach any man but Napoleon the lesson he could never learn. It told him plainly that if France could find no room for England in the councils of Europe there would be no room for a French empire beyond the seas.



An aside about Addington's economic rationale for attacking the West Indies:


The captured islands were a hotbed of privateering and privateering was always the chief danger to our sea borne commerce Long experience had shown that it could not be dealt with effectually by pelagic operations alone.  

Addington's policy therefore has at least the justification not only of having dealt a direct blow at French commerce and therefore at her finance but also of having adopted the most effectual method of protecting our own.  

And be it remembered it was the retention of our financial position that eventually enabled us to beat Napoleon down; it was our sole hope of securing allies and furthermore our only possible means of offence for the moment was against French sea borne commerce.

It was a form of attack particularly embarrassing to a ruler like Napoleon whose chief aim in consenting to a peace had been to restore his finances and his fleet. It is therefore perhaps too narrow a judgment to condemn the West Indian operations out of hand merely because they seem to sin against the principle of concentration and were a form of war which of itself could never decide the issue.



When Pitt came to power, he had the intention of changing England's defensive strategy (i.e. preventing invasion) into an offensive strategy -- which required allies.   Corbett feels strongly that making the assumption that defense was Pitt's goal has meant that...

...the real teaching has been almost entirely buried in a mass of erroneous strategical deduction.





Alliance with Russia 


The reasons why Czar Alexander approached Pitt, and why the two countries could co-operate:


Napoleon was known to be cherishing a purpose to overrun the Ottoman Empire by way of Albania and Greece and for this reason Russia had maintained a small squadron and a military outpost in Corfu and the Ionian Islands.  We were as deeply concerned in Napoleon's design.  For us Turkey was but a step on the path to India and for this reason also we had clung in the face of the Treaty of Amiens to our hold on Malta. 


There was moreover another common interest at stake. It lay in Southern Italy which Napoleon was openly threatening and which he seemed bent on making the starting point of his Near Eastern enterprises. Russia had taken the Kingdom of Naples under her special protection and by a tradition as old as Cromwell the denying of the Two Sicilies to France had become as much a dominant note of our maritime policy as the integrity of the Low Countries had been from time immemorial.



The idea that was in the Czar's mind was to form with British assistance and above all with British subsidies a great defensive league with Austria, Prussia, and Sweden.





Corbett makes a point that these alliances are the key to understanding the events leading to the battle:


.. for in them lies the explanation of much naval strategy and in particular do they afford the key of Nelson's attitude to the Neapolitan question and the complex naval problem which it involved.  The actual situation at our point of contact with Russia turned upon the command of the Mediterranean and that depended on Nelson's power of controlling the Toulon fleet not necessarily of blockading it but as he preferred to say on 'holding it in check' till it could be met and destroyed.



Specifically, this lead to Nelson's emphasis on Sicily and Sardinia:


These were exactly Nelson's ideas. He was not of course blockading Toulon closely but endeavouring to watch the Toulon fleet in such a way that if it attempted to get to the eastward and endanger what it was his special province to defend it would certainly be brought to action.  


For this purpose Gibraltar and Malta were of little use.   As bases they were wrongly placed.  What was wanted was one that would enable him to retain continuously the only position that was interior to either line of operation the French might adopt whether westwards out of the Straits or eastwards against Naples and the Levant.   It was for this reason he always insisted that Sardinia and Sicily were the keys of the strategical situation.






* In the Channel, the task was still to prevent French troops from crossing.  This was done with a "swarm of sloops and gun-vessels" meaning that the French would need battleships to get their troops across:


Napoleon, it is true, believed as others had believed before him that it might be possible to break that hold by surprise by the sudden intrusion of a battle squadron from a distance. Cornwallis he assumed could easily be evaded for he would be held fast to Brest by the exigencies of the blockade.

This belief was due to a failure to understand the function of our Western Squadron as Norris and Anson had laid it down more than half a century before. 


Napoleon regarded it as many do to this day as a squadron blockading Brest whereas it was in reality a squadron holding the approaches to the Channel for all purposes of home and trade defence. The blockade of Brest was incidental as were the blockades of Rochefort and Ferrol and in no circumstances of reasonable war risk could a serious hostile squadron enter or even approach the Channel until the Western Squadron had been brought to action and defeated.


With his (never-quite-ready) invasion plan thwarted and with the threat of Austria joining Russia and Britain, Napoleon induced Spain to become a French ally in order to distract English attention.  Pitt responded by ordering the seizure, if possible, of Spain's treasure ships from South America.   When this occurred in November 1804, Spain declared active war.  This allowed France to have a fleet nearly the strength of the British -- counting Dutch, Spanish and French ships of the line together.


At this point the diplomatic alliance between Pitt and the Czar was hung up on the issue of the British leaving Malta, while Napoleon expected to use Spanish ships to distract the British Navy from continental coasts with a naval presence and attacks in the Indies.



Conclusion to Chapter I


Here then was the great new factor of the changed war policy which influenced it from the outset. The British fleet was no longer to be used merely for maritime operations. England bound herself to use it in furthering a vast continental war. Should Austria alone join the league the main active theatre for our fleet and army must be on the Italian coasts and in the Eastern Mediterranean where Nelson had long been clamouring for military action. If Prussia joined we should be forced to act in the North Sea and the Baltic where we already had secured a footing at Riigen and Stralsund.




The second new factor was that henceforth the war was to be what strategists call "an offensive return". It was the realisation of the spirit which Pitt had inherited from his father and of the advice with which Dumouriez had concluded the famous project of defence presented to the British Government about the time Pitt had come to power. "It is time," he said, "to cut the thread which holds the sword of Buonaparte suspended over England... Nought is more perilous than perpetual defensive nor offers a vaster field for attacks of all kind whether near or remote on the part of a foe."




To approach the Trafalgar campaign without these two factors clearly in view is to misconceive it from end to end. To judge it as a defensive campaign, to regard Trafalgar as having been fought purely for the security of these British Islands, is to misjudge the men who designed it and above all the men who fought it with such sure and lucid comprehension.


For them, from first to last, the great idea was not how to avoid defeat but how to inflict it.  England had found herself again.  [..] To think of her as only bent on her own security is to lose the whole grandeur of the theme; to misinterpret the bold confidence with which her seamen took risks apparently reckless.


The lack of clear grasp as to how the great campaign was conceived has led lesser men in a later age to brand those strokes of genius as blunders of ignorant men.  It is time such things should cease.

Let us rather, in tracing the broad sweep and subtle interlocking of their moves, humbly sit at the feet of the giants who dared to make them. So may we learn what men, inspired by a living naval tradition and ripened with the maturity of long war experience, could achieve by right understanding by instructed fearlessness of risk and by intelligent submission to the central idea on which the great war plan was designed.



Questions I had in reading this chapter

(apologies for sounding like a high-school teacher -- that's just the way they came out.)


* What is the French point of view?   Why care about England at all?  Were Napoleon's actions really driven by economic and import issues?   


* Did Napoleon really plan to invade, or is the only conclusion we can draw from the fact that he didn't manage it -- that he never meant to?  That it was a grand diversion?


* What are the "erroneous strategical deductions" that Corbett complains about?  (These are discussed in later chapters.)


* Is the question of Malta important?   Pitt felt it was, Nelson didn't -- though he likely wouldn't give it up either without a better option available.



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