1805 - Napoléon's ignorance of Lord Nelson's movements


 
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Naval History of Great Britain - Vol III
1805 Lord Nelson and M. Villeneuve 335

people who fight, at immense disadvantage, without any adequate object. My object is partly gained. If we meet them, we shall find them not less than 18, I rather think 20, sail of the line ; and therefore do not be surprised if I should not fall on them immediately. We won't part without a battle. I think they will be glad to let me alone, if I will let them alone ; which I will do, either till we approach the shores of Europe, or they give me an advantage too tempting to be resisted. " * And yet the two writers, from whose work this extract is taken, seldom indulge in their own remarks without making a perfect braggadocio of their hero. Mr. Southey is nearly as bad as Messieurs Clarke and M'Arthur. Much, indeed, has the memory of this great man suffered by the overweening zeal of his biographers.

On the very day, June 9th, on which Lord Nelson arrived off the island of Grenada, Napoléon, writing from Milan, says: " Je suis d'opinion, cependant, que Nelson est encore dans les mers d'Europe. Le sentiment le plus naturel est qu'il devrait être rentré en Angleterre pour se ravitailler et verser ses équipages sur d'autres bâtimens ; car ses vaisseaux ont besoin d'entrer dans le bassin, et son escadre peut être considérée comme étant en très-mauvaix état. " † The latter part of this statement was true enough, but Napoléon did not seemingly reflect what might be done by such a man as Nelson. The velocity, as well as the direction, of the British admiral's movements had quite outstripped the French emperor's calculations.

That M. Villeneuve was not, in reality, with 18 sail of the line running from 11, is natural to suppose ; and yet many persons, both in France and England, have thought otherwise. Nor, indeed, could the French admiral's departure from Martinique have had any possible reference to the arrival of the British admiral at Barbadoes, owing to the simple fact, that the two occurrences took place on the same day. M. Villeneuve's instructions, as well as we can collect what they were from the mass of orders and counter-orders which issued on the subject, may afford us some clue to the French admiral's proceedings.

In the published correspondence between the Emperor Napoléon and his minister of marine, a break occurs of nearly seven months, from September 29, 1804, to April 14, 1805. As, in the interim, the Toulon fleet had twice sailed, and the last time had got fairly to sea, this hiatus happens rather inopportunely. Coupling the April and September instructions, however, we may gather, that M. Villeneuve was neither to detach ships to take St.-Helena, nor, with the aid of the Rochefort squadron himself to capture Surinam and the other Dutch colonies in the Antilles; ‡ but that, on being joined by the Spaniards, he was

* Clarke and M'Arthur, vol. ii., p. 413.

† Précis des Evènemens, tome xi., p 267.

See p. 241.

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