Serious preparations for invasion began again in France in 1801. In March of that year Napoleon ordered the most comprehensive survey yet of the capacity of the Channel ports, especially Boulogne. He wanted to know how long it would take to assemble a hundred gunboats, how many could leave Boulogne on a single tide, and what numbers of men could be carried in the transports. The answers did not represent good staffwork: they represented rather what the First Consul wanted to hear. According to the scenario presented to him, more than six hundred vessels, ranging from five to twenty tons, could easily transport 30,000 men from Boulogne. Fired with this promising estimate, Napoleon ordered a fresh invasion flotilla to be made ready. There would be twelve divisions to the flotilla: three each in Picardy (Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk), Normandy (Dieppe, Le Havre and Cherbourg), Brittany (St Malo, Brest, Morlaix-Roscoff) and the Low Countries (Flushing, Ostend and Nieuport).

The Admiralty in London was sufficiently alarmed by these preparations to launch a preemptive strike against Boulogne. On 24 August 1801 Nelson bombarded the French flotilla (in the roads outside the harbour) non-stop for sixteen hours. The action was unsuccessful and little damage was done to Bonaparte’s craft. Eleven days later Nelson returned to the attack with a fleet of thirty ships and a number of small boats. A daring night assault on the flotilla fell foul of French alertness. In the darkness, and with a half-tide running, the English marauders became separated and did not arrive at the target at the same moment. As with muffled oars they drew near to the French ships lying off the harbour, they came under heavy fire from French marines on the heights of Boulogne. In a short time they sustained 172 casualties as against French losses of 10 killed and 30 wounded.

Both sides claimed a moral victory. Nelson felt that his raid had removed Boulogne as a possible springboard for invasion and that any attempt would now be made from Flushing and the Flanders ports where ships were not within reach of seaborne attack. He suggested an amphibious expedition with 5,000 troops to knock out Flushing, but this was vetoed by Lord St Vincent at the Admiralty, to Nelson’s great and ill-concealed anger.

Napoleon for his part was impressed with the good showing of his men and was confirmed in his opinion that Boulogne was the best mustering point for the invasion flotilla. The danger of invasion was now clear for all in England to see. However, various militia acts had added nearly 150,000 putative defenders to the 95,000 foot and 15,000 cavalry of the regular army.

The Peace of Amiens provided a breathing space of just over a year, but in 1803 Britain was again at war with Napoleon, this time single-handed. Since Napoleon no longer had Austria or other European powers to worry about and could now concentrate on the conquest of England to the exclusion of any other aim, invasion plans were resumed, but this time on a scale far exceeding previous attempts. As the gunboats and sloops prepared for the 1798 and 1801 flotillas had either rotted away or were in a poor state of repair, an entirely new armada had to be constructed.

The essence of Napoleon’s new enterprise was that two huge flotillas would be assembled, one at Dunkirk, the other at Cherbourg, both to be fitted out pari passu. The Dunkirk flotilla was to consist of 100 sloops and 320 gunboats; that at Cherbourg was to contain twenty sloops and eighty gunboats. Many different types of boat were to be used. First, there were the prames, sailing barges one hundred feet from bow to stern, rigged like a corvette and armed with twelve 24-pounders. Then there was the chaloupe canonnière, rigged on the lines of a brig, smaller than the prames and armed with three 24-pounders and an 8-inch howitzer. Bâteaux canonniers were used for transporting horses, ammunition and artillery. These were three-masters, resembling a fishing smack, with stables in the hold, a 24-pounder in the bow and a howitzer at the stern. There were péniches, converted trading vessels and fishing smacks. Finally, there were sixty-foot sloops, propelled by lug-sails and oars and used exclusively for troop transport; the same role was taken by their smaller relation the caiques.

Each of the four main types of vessel had drawbacks. The péniches and bâteaux canonniers were not heavily enough armed, the chaloupe canonnière was unwieldy and difficult to manoeuvre, while the prames lacked the stability to withstand a heavy sea. The differential cost of the types of vessels can be seen from some instructive prices: 70,000 francs (about £2,800 at then equivalent prices) for a prame, 35,000 francs for the chaloupe canonnière, 18,000-23,000 francs for the bateaux canonniers, 12,000-15,000 francs for the péniches, 8,000-9,000 francs for the pinnaces.

By October 1803 French Minister of Marine Decrès, one of Napoleon's most trusted lieutenants, reported the flotilla in possession of 1,367 vessels of all types. All major embarkation ports had been improved by deepening, and military camps established along the Channel coast from Ghent to St Malo. The greatest concentration was at Boulogne: 150,000 veterans and new recruits were congregated at the port, which became both the headquarters of the enterprise against England and the nursery of the Grand Army. The problems of launching an invasion from this port, which had so taxed the duc de Richelieu in 1745-46, were to be solved by building a breakwater and sluice, so that three hundred vessels could be got to sea on a single tide.

At this stage of the two-year-long threat to England Napoleon was still in hopes that the invasion flotilla could be got across the Channel to its beachhead without the support of a covering fleet. The crossing of the prames and other craft was predicated on the likelihood of smooth, windless days in the summer, when the British ships would be becalmed, or on fog in the winter. Napoleon had not at this stage grasped that a flotilla employing perhaps 200,000 men, with simultaneous embarkations along a 200-mile coastline, would face only disaster if it put to sea in dense fog, for cooperation, coordination and conjunction were thereby made impossible. But the First Consul was a quick learner. He very soon realised that he would somehow have to gain at least temporary command of the Channel.

From July 1803 onwards invasion fever was rampant on both sides of the Channel. In France large sums of money were raised by subscription to cover the cost of the flotillas. The Church tried hard to stir up the martial spirit of the faithful. French Jewry showed its patriotism when the Chief Rabbi ordered prayers to be said for forty days for the host going forth to smite Amalek. Napoleon himself, a master of propaganda and the theatrical touch, arranged for the Bayeux tapestry to be taken on tour to remind the people of what a French expeditionary force had achieved before.

By the autumn of 1803 Bonaparte had established his headquarters in the chateau of Pont-de-Briques just outside Boulogne. On 10 September he issued his revised orders for the invasion. There were to be 76,798 infantry employed in the enterprise, plus 11,640 cavalry, 3,780 artillerymen, 3,780 waggoners and 17,467 non-combatants. Because even the enlarged Boulogne harbour did not suffice for this host, the smaller boats were to sail from Etaples, Ambleteuse, Wimereux and Calais.

In England meanwhile the most sustained efforts were being made to thwart the invaders. One fleet under Admiral Cornwallis cruised off Brest. Another squadron under Admiral Keith lay between the Downs and Selsey Bill on the English coast. Behind these, lying close to on the English coast, was a further screen of light squadrons to intercept any enemy forces that slipped past the front line. A large force of cutters and gunboats, anchored off Dungeness, were to carry out constant surveillance of the French ports, especially Boulogne. Smaller detachments would be based at Yarmouth to watch the Dutch coast and the North Sea. In sum, then, there were three main battle fleets deployed for England’s defence. Admiral Cornwallis, in command of the Channel fleet, patrolled the area from Rochefort to Brest. Admiral Lord Keith, commander in the Downs, had to safeguard the North Sea and act as back-up to the defending flotilla. And in the Mediterranean the commander-in-chief was England’s greatest naval hero. Lord Nelson, at this stage a discontented Nelson who considered the Mediterranean station the most crucial one and resented the larger fleet allowed by the Admiralty to Cornwallis off Brest.

On land a Defence Act had emulated the French levée en masse by raising huge numbers of volunteers. Their task was to harass and wear down the enemy if he landed, conducting ceaseless guerrilla warfare. The French were to be denied the means of living off the land by the burning of all corn and other crops as soon as they disembarked. Farmers would be given chits to indemnify them for losses, and these tickets were redeemable once the war was over.

On the coast fire beacons were to be used to signal the approach of the French flotilla. Eight wagonloads of furze or faggots topped with four tar barrels were to be set alight so as to produce a powerful flame at night. By day a huge quantity of wet hay would be fired to produce smoke. Seventy-four martello towers were erected around the coast. Sometimes described as massive inverted flowerpots, these two-storied towers were circular, the diameter being about forty feet at the base and thirty feet at the top, with a height of thirty feet. Their brick walls were nine feet thick on the seaward side and six feet on the landward. The bomb-proof flat roof was surrounded by a breastwork four feet high and housed a swivel gun and two howitzers. The lower floor served as a powder magazine.

Other defences included a contingency plan for flooding the flat parts of Kent and Sussex and the isolation by a canal of Romney Marsh, thought to be a likely French landfall. The one rumoured defence arrangement with a thoroughly modern (and appropriately sinister) ring turned out to be apocryphal. This was germ warfare. At one stage, in March 1804, an alarming canard swept through the encampment of the Grand Army at Boulogne that the British had thrown bales of cotton carrying a plague virus on to the beaches around Boulogne.

By now Napoleon had become convinced that the weak French navy would have to offer some challenge to Nelson, Cornwallis and the other English admirals if he was ever to get his men across the Channel. The scale of his problems can be seen when it is realised that Napoleon had no more than thirty-two ships of the line to throw against the British. On paper his Dutch allies had a further sixteen men o’ war, but only six of these were of modern construction and another six were in Indian waters. By contrast the Royal Navy had no less than fifty-two ships of the line. At the major French naval ports the British had a superiority of 28 per cent in sail of the line, 30 per cent in frigates, and an amazing 60 per cent in cutters and small vessels. To try to redress the balance Napoleon once again toyed with the United Irishmen and the idea of an insurrection of Ireland.

In August 1803 a scheme was hatched for sending up to 20,000 troops to Ireland under the escort of some warships from Brest and Rochefort, combining this with a northabout thrust from the Texel, either to Ireland or Scotland. But the failure of Emmet's coup in Ireland plus the tightness of the British blockade scotched that initiative.

By the end of 1803 none of the French hopes for an early crossing had materialised. The flotilla had proved too unseaworthy for a winter crossing. The movement of shipping from the outer ports to the concentration area was proving more difficult than anyone had foreseen, and the few sorties had been mauled either by the weather or by the Royal Navy. Moreover, a calculation of winds and tides simply increased the uncertainty surrounding the flotilla, for the projected time for a Channel crossing varied from anywhere between six hours and three days because of the many imponderables. The most depressing statistic thrown up by Napoleon’s staffwork projected a time-scale of not less than six days for the entire flotilla to get out to sea. The operation could not be pressed on piecemeal, for the flotilla had to move along the Channel in a single body. During these six days the enterprise had to be uninterrupted either by the enemy or the weather.

Such freedom from interruption would have been regarded as a forlorn, utopian hope by a much lesser captain than Napoleon. It is not surprising that in January 1804 Bonaparte ordered the projected descent on England postponed. His disappointment was acute: 100,000 troops were massed on the coast, and he had even chosen the boat, Le Prince de Galles, in which he intended to cross the Channel in person. But he had not abandoned his ultimate aims. In March 1804 he wrote to his ambassador at Constantinople: ‘In the present position of Europe all my thoughts are directed towards England . . . nearly 120,000 men and 3,000 boats . . . only await a favourable wind to plant the imperial eagle on the Tower of London.’

1804 saw Napoleon occupied with other matters: his own coronation as Emperor of the French and the execution of the due d'Enghien were the most dramatic events. Yet there was no slackening in the enterprise of England. Both sides girded themselves for the clash that was universally regarded as inevitable. By 1804, despite a few minority voices among his advisers Napoleon had totally abandoned the idea of trying to evade the Royal Navy by taking advantage of fog or darkness in the winter. He was now convinced of two things: the attempt had to be made in the summer; and the French fleet had to be used to achieve temporary superiority in the Channel.

By now there was certainly no shortage of craft in the flotilla. There were 1,800 vessels in Boulogne, Wimereux, Etaples and Ambleteuse in July 1804. The only barrier was England’s ‘wooden walls’. ‘Let us be masters of the Straits for six hours and we shall be masters of the world,’ Napoleon lamented in the same month. His naval strategy this time was to send out a combination of squadrons from Toulon and Rochefort, effecting a junction off Cadiz, where they could count on the benevolent neutrality of the Spanish. Then, fetching a wide compass into the Atlantic, the combined French fleet would swing into the Channel and sweep away the British light craft, opening the way for the transports. At Brest meanwhile the proposed Irish expedition would be embarked in order to tie Cornwallis’s fleet down outside the port. This was the vital part of the plan, for only thus could the combined Toulon/Rochefort fleet move into the unguarded Channel approaches. La Touche Tréville, Bonaparte's best admiral would be commanding the Toulon fleet, and Villeneuve the five ships of the line at Rochefort. While Ganteaume at Brest distracted Cornwallis, the Toulon/Rochefort squadron of sixteen ships of the line would race to Boulogne to cover the crossing of the Army of England, now strong.

This was a moment of supreme danger for England. But the question was as always how to ride the tiger. How could La Touche Tréville avoid Nelson’s fleet blockading Toulon? In June Nelson drew his blockading ships away, hoping to tempt the French out to seaborne combat. La Touche Tréville ventured out, but after four leagues’ sailing and a slight skirmish with Nelson’s advance guard, and having seen the sails of the main body of the English fleet, he returned to port. Two months later he was dead. He was succeeded as French Admiral of the Fleet by Villeneuve, but Villeneuve, as he later proved, was merely Grouchy to La Touche Tréville’s Hoche.

The combination of the death of his finest admiral and Nelson’s unceasing vigilance in the Mediterranean thwarted Napoleon’s first grand naval deception. In September the new emperor turned back to the hardy perennial of perplexed French invaders: a descent on Ireland. In September he wrote to Vice-Admiral Ganteaume at Brest that this project was definitely decided on, and that 16,000 troops under Marshall Angereau were to be embarked in the shipping Ganteaume had there. The fleet was to leave Brest, make a wide sweep into the Atlantic, approach the north of Ireland from the westward, and land at Lough Swilly or environs. Then two alternatives were open to Ganteaume. He was to take his course back to Cherbourg to ascertain the situation at Boulogne. If all was ready and the wind favoured the crossing of the Grand Army, he was to fall on the British blockading flotilla. If not, he was to pass through the Straits of Dover to Texel, join the seven Dutch ships of the line waiting with transports and 25,000 men and convey this force to Lough Swilly so as to form the second wave of a huge French invasion. Napoleon thought that one of these two options was certain to succeed: in which case he would either have armies in both England and Ireland or a massive force of 40,000 to achieve the permanent conquest of Ireland.

But even this was to be only part of a great strategic naval movement. The Toulon and Rochefort fleets were to sail in separate divisions for the West Indies under the respective commands of Villeneuve and Rear-Admiral Missiessy. The Toulon fleet’s mission was to recapture Surinam and the Dutch colonies and to take reinforcements to Santo Domingo. In mid-Atlantic it would detach a small contingent of ships with 1,500 men to capture St Helena (irony!) and so cut the East Indies trade route. The Rochefort squadron was to capture Dominica and St Lucia, then reinforce the French position at Martinique and Guadeloupe before proceeding to ravage Jamaica and other British islands.

The idea was that if the Rochefort and Toulon fleets could get to sea and stand away for the West Indies, the British would have to detach some thirty ships to deal with this threat. This would weaken the Brest blockade, enabling Ganteaume to slip out for the Irish venture. As a crowning achievement Villeneuve and Missiessy were to link up and return to Europe before the English had realised what was happening. Their immediate object once in European waters would be to raise the blockade on the adjacent harbours of Ferrol and Corunna. The significance of the last move was that open war between England and Spain (hitherto France’s covert ally) was imminent; it actually broke out in December 1804.

The essence of these plans was conveyed to London by the British secret service – so easily indeed that Napoleon has sometimes been suspected of feeding ‘disinformation’, inducing the British to believe that the enterprise of England was still his priority, whereas (so the thesis goes) the emperor had already decided that hopes of crossing the Channel were chimerical and that he would therefore concentrate on conquests in the West Indies. This is a view that merits further consideration.

Accurate knowledge of Napoleon’s strategy was one thing; control of the weather quite another. On 11 January 1805 the Rochefort fleet evaded its windbound blockaders and a week later Villeneuve too escaped from Toulon while Nelson’s ships were watering in Sardinia. Despite crowding on sail, Nelson was unable to catch up with or even locate the enemy. Even the normally sanguine Nelson felt genuine alarm at this point. But Villeneuve, though momentarily outwitting the British, had already been defeated by the weather. After a terrible battering by a gale in the Gulf of Lyons, Villeneuve turned tail and crept back into Toulon. When he heard of Villeneuve’s humiliating failure, Napoleon flew into a rage. His letters in February 1805 convey some of his indignation and frustration:

What is to be done with admirals who allow their spirits to sink and determine to hasten home at the first damage they may receive? ... A few topmasts carried away, some casualties in a gale of wind are everyday occurrences. Two days of fine weather ought to have cheered up the crews and put everything to rights. But the greatest evil of our navy is that the men who command it are unused to all the risks of command.

The Emperor was not far from the truth. Villeneuve’s cringing, self-justifying apology for his actions contrasts with the eupeptic account Nelson gave the Admiralty at the same time of how his ships had ridden out the selfsame storms. That his ships had suffered less damage than Villeneuve’s only added strength to Napoleon’s point: that the tradition of the ‘Senior Service’ in England meant that both ships and men had to be of the finest. There had never been a similar tradition in France.

In 1805 Napoleon made his final, and in some ways most energetic yet, attempt to gain temporary superiority at sea, with command in the Channel long enough for the Grand Army to cross. The one ace he (notionally) held was his new Spanish ally. The 1805 plan was a refinement of the previous year’s strategy. Assuming that Villeneuve could this time escape from Toulon properly and get out into the Atlantic, he was to call at Cadiz to pick up the six Spanish ships of the line under Admiral Gravina. The combined fleet should then proceed to Martinique to join up with Missiessy. Meanwhile the Brest squadron would again attempt to get clear and link up with the fifteen warships at Ferrol under Rear-Admiral Goundon. Instead of Ireland, the destination this year was to be the West Indies. Linking up with the other two fleets in Martinique, the ships of the line from Brest would thus complete a mighty armada. With fifty-nine battleships and all the major naval personalities of France and Spain together in one body so that misunderstandings could not arise, Napoleon’s seaborne host could credibly hope to sweep all before it, cross the Atlantic and appear off Boulogne to set the seal on a triumphant enterprise.

At first all went well. The British run of luck seemed to have ended. Villeneuve managed to get to Cadiz in April and set course for the New World. Sir John Orde, stationed off Cadiz, failed to take appropriate action, and Nelson was left without any clear intelligence of the enemy. Moreover, he read French intentions incorrectly, guessing that their targets would be a relief of the blockade of Brest followed by a landing in Ireland.

Only in May did Nelson receive accurate intelligence of Villeneuve's movements and alter course for the West Indies. Napoleon, believing Nelson had been successfully decoyed, was jubilant. His euphoria at the beginning of June was boundless; he was now certain that England’s downfall was more a matter of weeks than of months. On 9 June 1805 he wrote:

If England is aware of the serious game she is playing, she will raise the blockade of Brest; but I know not in truth what kind of precaution will protect her from the terrible chance she runs. A nation is very foolish, when it has no fortifications and no army, to lay itself open to seeing an army of 100,000 veteran troops land on its shores. This is the masterpiece of the flotilla. It costs a great deal of money but it is necessary for us to be masters of the sea for six hours only, and England will have ceased to exist.

Meanwhile Nelson had arrived in Barbados in early June. Staying in the islands just long enough to convince Nelson he was really in the hemisphere, Villeneuve promptly doubled back to Europe. His position seemed healthy, but already things had started to go wrong for the French. The junction with the Spanish at Cadiz and the cruise to Martinique had proceeded with clockwork precision, but once there Villeneuve waited in vain for Missiessy. Predictably, the Brest-Rochefort hook-up had foundered. Ganteaume had not been able to break Cornwallis’s blockade at Brest. Even worse, Missiessy and the Rochefort squadron had actually reached the West Indies, taken the island of Dominica, and then promptly returned to Europe, against all reason and contrary to orders, before the date set for the rendezvous with Villeneuve – an exploit for which he was justifiably dismissed by Napoleon. In exasperation Bonaparte sent orders to Villenueve not to wait more than a month in the West Indies. If Ganteaume had not appeared by then, Villeneuve was to return to Europe to try to break Cornwallis’s stranglehold on Brest.

Following these orders, Villeneuve found himself on 19 July 1805 off Cape Finisterre, running in the teeth of a violent gale. The tempest was followed by a dense fog, which hid from Villeneuve the fact that a British fleet under Sir Robert Calder was heading straight for him, with orders to prevent the intended junction with Ganteaume.

A momentary gap in the fog revealed Villeneuve to Calder when the fleets had actually passed each other in the murk. Calder signalled to engage. A four-and-a-half-hour pounding battle ensued. Both sides claimed a victory. Villeneuve put in to Ferrol, effecting a junction there with the Spanish fleet and bringing his strength up to twenty-nine ships of the line. Allemand, Missiessy’s successor, was meanwhile vainly searching for Villeneuve, so that all available French firepower could be brought to bear on the Brest blockade. If the whole Franco-Spanish fleet could be quickly united, there was still time for the French to force passage up the Channel to cover the crossing of the invasion flotilla while Nelson was still in mid-Atlantic. It was a moment for swift and decisive action. While Nelson was still far from the scene of action, the combined allied fleet had both numerical superiority and a great psychological advantage over Cornwallis.

Yet Villeneuve showed himself to be the Grouchy of the sea. Despite express, peremptory and unambiguous orders from Napoleon, Villeneuve remained inertly at Ferrol, having his ships repaired and repainted. His incompetence and defeatism were nowhere better demonstrated. He even had the effrontery to rationalise his refusal to heed the emperor’s orders by complaining that French naval tactics were obsolete. When Villeneuve did finally get under way on 13 August, he capped his achievements hitherto by mistaking a handful of frigates for the main British squadron. Shirking from trying conclusions with them. Villeneuve turned away south. Yet at this precise moment, because of an error by Cornwallis, there were only seventeen Royal Navy ships of the line at Brest. Seventeen, in other words, to dispute the entrance to the Channel. Small wonder the emperor exclaimed in despair: ‘What a chance has Villeneuve lost!'

The final chapter in Villeneuve’s saga of ineptitude came when he entered Cadiz and allowed thirty-five allied ships of the line to be bottled up by Admiral Collingwood with just three warships. Never had the psychological advantage the Royal Navy enjoyed over the French been so stunningly illustrated.

At Boulogne, where Napoleon waited impatiently, conditions for an invasion had never looked so favourable. Nearly twelve hundred boats lay ready in Boulogne harbour and another eleven hundred at nearby ports. By now the naval commissars had done their work so well that there were more boats than soldiers to fill them. All was now ready for the achievement of the impossible dream.

Then, on 23 August, came the bombshell. Early that day Napoleon wrote that in his imagination he could see the tricolour fluttering over the Tower of London. Suddenly the dispatch from Villeneuve arrived, announcing that he had entered Cadiz. By all accounts Napoleon for the first time completely lost control of himself in an outburst of violent, unprecedented rage. Later that night he wrote in sick frustration: ‘What a navy! What sacrifices for nothing! All hope is gone! Villeneuve, instead of entering the Channel, has taken refuge in Cadiz. It is all over. He will be blockaded there!’

Slowly the emperor allowed himself to accept that all chance of an invasion was now gone. By the end of August the camp at Boulogne had been disbanded and the Army of England marched away to fight the Austrians. The great victories of Ulm and Austerlitz were to follow but they could not compensate for the debacle of the English project. On the English side Nelson’s towering victory at Trafalgar on 21 October gave the coup de grâce to Villeneuve, but all thoughts of an invasion of England had already been laid aside. For the rest of the Napoleonic wars there was no longer a danger of French descents on the British Isles. Napoleon turned to economic blockade – the Continental System – as his only weapon against indomitable England.

Given the two-year crisis over the proposed invasion of Britain from 1803 to 1805, and the consolidation of that experience in later literature (especially by Thomas Hardy in The Dynasts and The Trumpet Major), it may seem astonishing that there have always been those who regarded Napoleon’s English enterprise as a large-scale feint. The problem of gauging the seriousness of invaders’ intentions once their invasion enterprises have been called off is always a complex one. The high point of obfuscation is reached with Hitler’s ‘Operation Sea Lion’. There are always those historians who are prepared to argue positivistically that a failed invasion enterprise is ipso facto proof that the said enterprise was always a feint.

According to this viewpoint when applied to the events of 1803-5, Napoleon always realised that the invasion of Britain was an impossible dream. Sceptics cite the words of the Prussian ambassador in May 1804 that the emperor wanted war on the continent, that he wanted to be rid of Boulogne and the hopeless invasion scheme. His real object, according to this view, was to gather together an immense army for use against Austria and Russia. Moreover, it is alleged, he never abandoned his Italian ambitions and pursued them by diplomacy in the years 1801-5 pari passu with his overt warlike preparations against England. And if Napoleon’s aim was truly the invasion of England, would he really have irritated the continental powers to the point where they were likely, had the emperor crossed the Channel, to launch themselves on France’s undefended flank? The particular points of irritation were supposed to have been that offered to Russia by Napoleon’s occupation of Taranto in 1803 (as this collided with Russian naval ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean) and to Austria by making the Cisalpine republic a kingdom with himself as king (in defiance of the Treaty of Luneville).

To some extent the argument about the seriousness of Napoleon’s invasion project of 1803-5 dissolves into a more technical argument about the emperor’s ultimate aims. For some historians of the first Bonaparte (Lefebvre, Masson, Bignon, Thieu), Britain was always Napoleon’s primary enemy. He never lost sight of the fact that the principal barrier to his ambitions was envious Albion. It therefore follows a priori that Napoleon’s invasion plans must have been serious. But still another group of reputable historians hold that Napoleon, like Hitler after him, always perceived Russia as his one really important enemy.

There are even those who maintain that it was neither Russia nor England nor again Austria or Italy that engaged his ultimate interest. According to the historian Emile Bourgeois, 1798 had already revealed Napoleon’s real hand. His true ambition lay in eastern conquest, in the absorption of Egypt and Turkey, already perceived as the ‘sick man of Europe’.

Nor does the debate end merely with historians of the First Empire. The two most eminent Napoleonic invasion theorists differ on the crucial question of the seriousness of the emperor’s intentions towards England. Desbrières inclined to the feint theory on the grounds that there are strange discrepancies and oversights in Bonaparte’s plans and in the overall strategy. But the doyen of sea power theorists, Alfred Mahan, countered with the assertion that Napoleon's plans from 1803 to 1805 were ‘profoundly conceived and laboriously prepared.’

The emperor’s own pronouncements do not help us to resolve the argument. Like the Bible, his oeuvre can be plundered for statements that support either side in the debate. Possibly the significant factor here is that all his ‘pro-feint’ pronouncements come in the period up to Waterloo. In exile on St Helena Napoleon always asserted stoutly that his invasion projects were seriously intended. Again and again he referred to Chatham as his initial aim (after landfall between Margate and Deal and not, as expected, on the south coast) and London as the ultimate objective. The most plausible interpretation of all this is that in the period up to Waterloo, when he wished to sustain the myth of his military infallibility, Napoleon rationalised his failure at Boulogne by pretending that the troops assembled there had never been intended for England but were always designed to be launched against Austria. The attractions of this form of post hoc argument are obvious. The nursery of the invincible Grand Army had been Boulogne. Therefore, the argument runs, it had always been assembled there for just one purpose: continental conquest. This explanation both saved the emperor's face and gave a machiavellian twist to what was really confusion and failure.

However, it is surely now clear beyond serious argument that the invasion threat of 1803-5 was a genuine one. The point the ‘feint’ theorists have not truly addressed themselves to is this. Even if Napoleon had been willing to spend millions of francs assembling 2,500 invasion craft and 100,000 troops in and around Boulogne to hoodwink his enemies – and the sheer scale of the operation already makes this a proposition that takes some swallowing – why did he need to agonise about whether or not he needed covering fleet action? The alleged feint to deceive the European powers would have worked perfectly well without ordering Villeneuve, Ganteaume and the others to the West Indies to draw off the defending squadrons. On the feint theory we have to imagine Napoleon as the greatest actor (as opposed to histrionic) of all time. When news of Villeneuve’s putting in to Cadiz is received, the emperor flies into a terrifying rage now that he realises all hope of invading England is over. On the feint theory we have to regard this as the cheap thespian trick of a charlatan. And the argument can be posed in another way. What if Ganteaume and Villeneuve had entered the Channel with the full allied fleet, outnumbering Cornwallis while Nelson was far away in the Atlantic? If Napoleon was indulging in an ingenious feint, would not his bluff have been called in the most dramatic fashion when Villeneuve’s combined fleet appeared off Boulogne?

We shall have occasion later to refer to the oft-noticed points of comparison between Napoleon and Hitler. All that can be said at this stage is that in the matter of the invasion of England the comparison does not hold. There was nothing half-hearted or ambivalent about Napoleon’s design on these islands in 1803-5.


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