War

Controlling the seas

Boats beside a man-of-war, about 1796Boats beside a man-of-war, circa 1796, by J M W Turner © Tate, London 2005The French domination of Europe severely limited British trade opportunities, as Britain's economic strength was founded on trade. It was vital for the Royal Navy to protect links to the colonies in the West Indies, where the sugar produced by slave labour was a highly profitable commodity; with India, where cotton and tea were grown; and with the Baltic, a vital source of naval stores.

The Navy also regularly disrupted enemy supply lines, preventing France from enjoying the full fruits of her conquests.

The French considered British domination of the oceans as an affront to liberty. They condemned the British as 'oceanocrats' and presented themselves as the defenders of maritime freedom for the benefit of other nations.

Descent into war >>

  • Controlling the seas
  • Descent into war
  • The Nile campaign
  • The hero of the Nile
  • Egyptomania
  • Realizing power
  • The Battle of Marengo

Boats beside a man-of-war, about 1796Boats beside a man-of-war, circa 1796, by J M W Turner © Tate, London 2005The French domination of Europe severely limited British trade opportunities, as Britain's economic strength was founded on trade. It was vital for the Royal Navy to protect links to the colonies in the West Indies, where the sugar produced by slave labour was a highly profitable commodity; with India, where cotton and tea were grown; and with the Baltic, a vital source of naval stores.

The Navy also regularly disrupted enemy supply lines, preventing France from enjoying the full fruits of her conquests.

The French considered British domination of the oceans as an affront to liberty. They condemned the British as 'oceanocrats' and presented themselves as the defenders of maritime freedom for the benefit of other nations.

Descent into war >>

French Republican banner captured during the Glorious First of June, 1794French Republican banner captured during the Glorious First of June, 1794. Repro ID D5481  In November 1792, the National Convention issued a decree offering 'assistance to all peoples who want to recover their liberty' with the aid of the Revolutionary armies.

But France misjudged the political situation. By 1793, war had broken out across the continent.

The French Revolutionary armies lived off the countryside and needed continuous territorial expansion to sustain them. The momentum of the Revolution depended on war and the war needed the Revolution.

Britain saw the expansion of Revolutionary power into the Low Countries as a threat and declared war on France in February 1793. The Royal Navy was Britain's main defensive force against invasion. Its first major action against the French was in 1794, in a battle known as the 'Glorious First of June'.

In unsettled times, radical activity spread throughout Britain, and all signs of unrest were seen as signals of potential revolution. For example, some argued that the Nore Mutiny (1797) was evidence of radical sympathies penetrating the Royal Navy.

The Nile campaign >>

Extirpation of the Plagues of Egypt (Destruction of Revolutionary Crocodiles)Extirpation of the Plagues of Egypt; - Destruction of Revolutionary Crocodiles; - or - The British Hero cleansing ye mouth of ye Nile (caricature), by James Gillray, H. Himphrey. Published 6 October 1798. Repro ID: PAF3893 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonNapoleon and his fleet sailed for Egypt on 19 May 1798. He planned to conquer the country before a possible advance to India.

The British knew that the French were mounting a major expedition but they did not know its purpose. Nelson's task was to find this fleet and destroy it. He spent two months searching the Mediterranean. On 1 August 1798, he finally found the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, at the mouth of the Nile. Napoleon had already captured Alexandria and Cairo.

Horatio Nelson, 1807Horatio Nelson, 1807, by William Beechey. Reproduced with the kind permission of The Worshipful Company of Drapers of which Nelson was an illustrious memberNelson decided to attack immediately. At 17.30, he signalled to his ships to form a battle line. As the head of the French line was anchored too far from the shore, the Goliath could slip around the leading ship and attack from the unprepared side.

Others followed: the assault was devastating. The British took or destroyed 11 of the 13 French ships of the line. Napoleon's army was isolated in Egypt and the balance of power in the Mediterranean had been reversed in Britain's favour.

The hero of the Nile >>

Nelson wounded at the Nile, 1 August 1798Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805, attributed to Guy Head, circa 1800. Repro ID: BHC2903 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection News of Nelson's destruction of the French fleet was greeted with euphoria in Britain. He was created 'Baron Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe' by the King on 6 November 1798.

Life Mask of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805Life Mask of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805, circa 1800. Repro ID: D6591_1 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (Nelson-Ward Collection) Exhausted by the battle, Nelson sailed to Naples, where his ships could be repaired. A forehead wound from the battle caused him great pain, but in Naples he was nursed back to health at the home of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy, and his wife, Emma. While in Naples, Nelson unwisely became embroiled in local politics. His role in the suppression of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic in June 1799 was controversial. The King of Naples made him Duke of Bronte in gratitude for his services, a title of which he was immensely proud.

Nelson left Naples with the Hamiltons in July 1800, returning to England via Austria, Saxony, Prussia and Hamburg. His relationship with Emma had become intimate and she was already pregnant with his child.

Egyptomania >>

Napoleon's Egyptian-style cloak or burnous, early-19th centuryNapoleon's Egyptian-style cloak or burnous, early-19th century, taken from his carriage after the Battle of Waterloo. The Royal Collection © 2005, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II While western Europe had been fascinated with ancient Egypt for centuries, the events of 1798 reignited a vogue for Egyptian-inspired design on both sides of the English Channel.

In France, people avidly followed the work of the scholarly expedition that had accompanied Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. Voyages dans la basse et la haute Égypte – the account published by its leader, Dominique-Vivant Denon – became a best-seller in both French and English.

In Britain, 'Egyptomania' was intensified by Nelson's victory at the Nile. Motifs such as crocodiles appeared on pottery, furniture and jewellery.

This craze had a competitive edge. When the Egyptian campaign ended in French defeat in 1801, many of the antiquities uncovered by Napoleon's scholars – including the famous Rosetta Stone – were surrendered to British troops. Instead of becoming part of the French national collection, these treasures were proudly installed in the British Museum.

Realizing power >>

Model of 'La Muiron' which Napoleon commissioned for his studyModel of 'La Muiron' which Napoleon commissioned for his study. This is a model of the ship on which Napoleon returned from Egypt © Musée national de la Marine Napoleon returned to France, landing in Fréjus on 9 October 1799. His timing was fortunate. Sièyes, a member of the five-man governing Directory, had recognized that the constitution was failing and that strong leadership was urgently needed. Napoleon was still popular, despite his retreat from Egypt, and Sièyes enlisted his military support for a coup.

On 9 and 10 November, the Directory, elected councils and the existing constitution were abolished. Napoleon was installed as First Consul and the two other newly-appointed Consuls were soon relegated to advisory roles. He took sole responsibility for creating the new constitution.

The Battle of Marengo >>

Uniform of Division General worn by Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo, 1800Uniform of Division General worn by Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo, 1800
© Paris - Museé de l'Armee / P Segielte 
Following his stay at Naples, Nelson returned overland to England with the Hamiltons. Meanwhile, Napoleon was planning a major confrontation with the Austrians in Italy. He marched his troops across the St Bernard Pass, forcing the Austrians to turn northwards to fight.

Napoleon misjudged the Austrian army's intentions. He divided his troops and sent several forward units to provoke a confrontation.

He wanted to attack first, before the Austrians could unite their scattered forces. But on 14 June 1800, the French were attacked by surprise on the plain of Marengo in the Piedmont. They were heavily outnumbered but, thanks to the timely intervention of Generals Desaix and Kellermann, Napoleon snatched a victory.

This success reinforced Napoleon's position after his coup d'état of November 1799 and strengthened his control over foreign policy. With peace negotiations with Austria successfully concluded in February 1801, Britain became Napoleon's sole opponent.

Peace >>