NAPOLEON’S LOST FLEET
Laura Foreman and Ellen Blue Phillips
This book was written by two journalists - not historians - and it shows. I have been reading books about Napoleon for over 45 years and I have heard of neither of them. Now I know why. This book is a great disappointment. Despite the title they talk much more about Nelson than Napoleon. They are very hostile to Napoleon from the start - calling him ‘Bonaparte’ throughout (always a dead giveaway) and denouncing him and criticizing him at every opportunity, whereas they call Nelson ‘the hero’ and pretend right was always on his side. Belated they give Napoleon credit for his part in the growth of Egyptology but then they try to say even his part in that was limited.
This is terrible character assassination - the authors have no conception of the massive beneficial effect Napoleon had on the history of Europe and the history of the world. They fail to place him amongst his peers - never once comparing him to the other rulers of the period. From the beginning they accuse him of being little more than a warmonger bent on bathing his hands in blood. It is pathetic, asinine and puerile, a one-dimensional study of someone they simply cannot understand.
Even to put Nelson in the same strapline as Napoleon is ridiculous. Napoleon pacified France and stopped thousands of Frenchmen from killing each other; he made peace with the Catholic Church and let French peasants keep the land they gained after the Revolution; he allowed hundreds of exiled nobles to come home; he introduced a national school system; stabilized the finances; had countless roads and bridges made - and he gave equal rights to all the Jews in his Empire - something no other ruler in European history had ever done.
What did Nelson do for anyone else? Everything Nelson did he did for himself no matter how he tried to wrap himself in the British flag. He was one of the most egocentric people ever to have lived. Even the far from modest Wellington thought Nelson was a bighead. He whined when his career periodically nosedived, felt very sorry for himself and scandalized society with his love life. He even disobeyed orders to remain with Emma Hamilton and his infatuation with her was partly the cause of his massacre of French prisoners and his brutal hanging of Admiral Caracciolo in Naples in 1799. Nelson was guilty of mass murder and so heartless he would not even allow the family to have the Admiral’s body after he had hanged him from the yardarm. Even the two journalists have to admit that Trafalgar did not change the political situation the way it has often been claimed. It was gold from the Bank of England that got Austria and Russia to attack France in 1805. (They obviously know nothing of the fact that in early 1805 Napoleon wrote to the Prince Regent asking for peace). How many Jews did Nelson save? Nelson was psychologically incapable of moderation or compromise unlike Napoleon who even offered Cadoudal a place in his army - a man who had tried to murder him. And he allowed all those émigrés back - many who had clearly been his former enemies. There is just no comparison between the two. Billions have heard of Napoleon and Alexander, precious few of Horatio.
The blurb calls the two authors ‘gifted storytellers’. And how! They quote Bourrienne ad nauseam - a man who was twice sacked for embezzlement by Napoleon and who simply cannot be trusted with anything he says. General John Elting spent over twenty years researching his magisterial Swords Around A Throne. This is what he says on the subject: ‘In preparing this book I have used original sources whenever possible but have ignored the alleged memoirs of Louis Bourrienne, Paul Barras, Clare de Remusat, Laure Permon, and Miot de Melito, which are mendacious and worthless.’ (p. 735).
This is what our ladies say of 1798: ‘Although the rest of Europe was only beginning to be aware of him, an extraordinary man would come to embody the threat of France - and relentlessly magnify it… With Egypt behind him, he would wage a kind of world war for fifteen years… Only the island of Britain, mistress of the seas, would implacably defy him.’ (p.25). No taking side there then!
England and France had been at war for decades, long before Napoleon was even born and our American journalists would be well advised to remember that one of the things that bankrupted France and helped presage the Revolution was the support give by her to the revolting American Colonies as they strove for independence. Without French help - especially that of De Grasse’s navy - Washington would have never had become the first President. But then - everything is Napoleon’s fault.
When they mention Josephine they of course take her part against Napoleon. The reason she liked her lover Hippolyte Charles was because he was: ‘a dashing young Hussar with a happy nature, who - unlike her nearly humorless husband - made her laugh.’ (p.39) So it was obviously Napoleon’s fault that she committed adultery only days after her marriage. Napoleon was head over heels in love with Josephine, he was utterly besotted - it was far more than she deserved. No wonder he was devastated and jealous of her infidelities. But this also reminds me of what H.G. Wells wrote in his The Outline Of History Volume Two: ‘It would be difficult to find a human being less likely to arouse affection… Laughter is one great difference between man and the lower animals, one method of our brotherhood, and there is no evidence that Napoleon ever laughed.’ (p.499). Leaving aside the fact that this was written by a balding pot-bellied middle aged man with a squeaky voice who was cheating on his wife with Rebecca West - who he treated abysmally too, (and he was another ‘great storyteller’) here are some answers to the lie that Napoleon never laughed: ‘Some horse-grenadiers came by with twelve fat pigs they had found; we charged them with our sabers and took all their pigs. The Emperor laughed. He divided them; six for us and six for the horse-grenadiers.’ Captain Coignet (p.123). ‘From our bivouac I could see the Emperor distinctly and he saw all our movements. By the light of the pine logs I shaved those of my comrades who needed it most. They each sat down on the rump of a dead horse, which had been there long enough for the intense cold to freeze it as hard as stone… Perched on top of his bundles of straw, the Emperor watched this strange spectacle, and burst into peals of laughter. (p. 141).
After Waterloo Napoleon was sent to the hellhole of Saint Helena in the midst of the vast South Atlantic. He had lost everything: his freedom; his empire; his wife; his son - and he would soon lose his health affected by the dismal climate and slowly poisoned with arsenic by Montholon. Yet this is what young Betsy (Lucia Elizabeth Abell) said about him when she met him on the island. First her alarm: ‘Most of the newspapers of the day described him as a demon; and all those of his own country who lived in England were of course his bitter enemies; and from these two sources alone we formed out opinion of him.’(Napoleon and Betsy p.47). But this is her account of when she played a game with him: ‘Not knowing the French term (if there be any) for blindman’s buff, I had explained before to the emperor the nature of the operation to be gone thorough. He laughed at my choice, and tried to persuade me to choose something else, but I was inexorable; and seeing his fate inevitable, he resigned himself to it with a good grace, proposing we should begin at once… Whether accidently, or by Napoleon’s contrivance, I know not, but I was the first victim, and the emperor, taking a cambric handkerchief out of his pocket, tied it tightly over my eyes, asking me, is I could see. “I cannot see you,” I replied; but a faint gleam of light did certainly escape through one corner, making my darkness a little less visible. Napoleon then taking his hat, waved it suddenly before my eyes, and the shadow and the wind it made, startling me, I drew back my head: “Ah, leetle monkee,” he exclaimed in English, “you can see pretty well.” (ps.67-68).
Napoleon loved children and was always very tolerant with them. The young midshipman George Home mentions this when he saw the Emperor on the Bellerophon in 1815 with the children of his companions in exile. Betsy says that at times it was as if he was a child himself. Napoleon never forgot the human touch and could cast away the pretensions of emperor at the drop of his hat.
Our literary lasses than describe Napoleon: ‘Silent, sullen, small, with stringy hair and an unhealthy yellow pallor, he was hardly noticed at first’. He was actually five feet six according to Captain Maitland on HMS Bellerophon who actually met him in the flesh. He was five feet two in French feet. A French foot was three-quarters of an inch longer than its English equivalent. This aspect of size had always been used to demean and dismiss Napoleon. He was actually taller than their one-armed saviour Admiral Nelson. But they of course are completely ignorant of this as they are of so many things.
On the way to Egypt Napoleon’s fleet took Malta. Many years before Napoleon was even born Clive of India established the British in a powerful position in the subcontinent and the British with their massive navy took more islands than anybody. But, of course, this was okay because they were not Napoleon. They do begrudgingly admit that as well as ‘falsely claiming that his attack had been provoked because the knights had supported French émigrés… he also freed knights’ galley slaves and reorganized the government, hospitals, churches, and monasteries.’ (p.61) Every time they parade the negative and give it flags and a marching band before suffering a peep of any good he might have done.
But it is very different when they turn to Nelson. They say that when he was fifteen and suffering from malaria; ‘he had a feverish vision that altered his life forever. A “radiant orb” beckoned to him, he later wrote, and “a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me, and presented my King and Country as my Patron. ‘Well, then,’ I exclaimed, ‘I will be a hero and, confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger.’ ” (p.84) These are actually the ravings of a self-obsessed lunatic who put himself at the centre of the universe throughout his life. They then add that he was a ‘young man of no more than average height.’ Nelson was about 5 feet four to five feet six according to the latest research, slightly smaller than Napoleon but there have not been two hundred years of propaganda describing him as a dwarf.
When the authors talk about the pressgang in England they remark that; ‘France drafted her seamen, but mass conscription in England in Horatio Nelson’s day was unthinkable, so protective were Britons of the individual liberties they had acquired over the centuries.’ This is risible. There was virtually a caste system in England as rigid as that in India at the time. The ordinary man had very few ‘rights’ whatsoever. In Volume Two of his Britannia’s Realm, Richard Woodman describes how the Royal Navy repeatedly pressed merchant seamen even when they were not supposed to. It was pointless pressing men who were not sailors - it had precious little to do with their supposed ‘liberties’. The Unitarians, a nonconformist religious sect of which William Hazlitt was a member, were persecuted for their beliefs and in 1819 at Peterloo mounted militia hacked down ordinary members of the public with their swords - including an ex-soldier who had fought for his country at Waterloo. The British governments under Pitt and Liverpool were notoriously repressive. Only the aristocrats and royalty mattered in the minds of the British Cabinet and Wellington was dead set against extending the franchise to ordinary people.
Of Nelson’s disastrous failure in 1797 during the raid on Tenerife, where he lost many of his men and his own arm, the writers ooze: ‘But the British saw in his frail, battle-ravaged, but still erect frame their own national image: gallantry against all odds. He was the living symbol of their pride and hope, and they took him to their hearts as they had no other hero.’ (p.107) They completely fail to mention that for most of his time as general, First Consul and then as Emperor, Napoleon was idolized by French peasants and virtually worshipped by his soldiers. One is inclined to think they are trying to yank the wool over our eyes. Their partisanship is excruciating.
But there is more to come. In 1798 they claim; ‘Napoleon had assembled a huge armada… Now friendless in Europe but for the tepid support of Portugal, vulnerable England had to discover where the blow was aimed. Her very survival might depend on it.’ (p.115) More unmitigated and melodramatic tosh. Napoleon was going to Egypt because he knew it was virtually impossible to attack England via the Channel because of the might of the British navy. An indirect campaign was the only option open to him.
Their most egregious attack upon Napoleon personally is made on page 120. The journalists describe how the British and French fleets in the Mediterranean got to within 30 miles of each other: ‘Had he known this, Nelson could easily have overtaken it and had in his gunsights not only the French fleet but also a thirty-thousand army - and Napoleon himself. Within a few days a blood-drenched future might have changed for Europe.’ In other words our illustrious hacks are saying that the responsibility for the whole of the French Revolution, and the fevered reaction of the divine right courts of Europe to an attack upon their rights and privileges, rest solely upon Napoleon’s shoulders. This is puerile drivel.
Napier, who fought with Wellington against the French in Spain, states in his massive account of the campaign that the war was basically about ‘privilege’ - that the courts of Europe were terrified that the nascent ideas of democracy and human rights might spread to their own countries. This was why the British Government did not even deign to reply to Napoleon’s peace offerings in early 1805. And it was why the Allies ignored Napoleon’s plea for peace after his return to France from Elba. Napoleon did not want a war in 1815. The Allies not only wanted a war they wanted to blame Napoleon personally and so they proscribed him as an ogre and terror who had to be eliminated at all costs. Most of the so-called Napoleonic Wars were started by the British. France was attacked in 1805 by the Austrians and Russians in the pay of the Bank of England; Napoleon was attacked by the Prussians in 1806, the Russians in 1807, the Austrians in 1809 and the Allies in 1815 - in wars mostly funded by the British. Without the machinations of the ultra-reactionary, elitist, aristocratic, oligarchic and corrupt British Government - who repeatedly tried to assassinate Napoleon - there would have been a very good chance for peace once the land based monarchies had come to terms with the French Revolution. The English historian Walter Runciman states that had the arrogant British Cabinet reacted favorably to Napoleon’s peace-feelers there could have been peace between the two countries. But of course there could not be peace because the terrified divine right courts personalized the French Revolution in Napoleon himself.
But our two journalists have not the historical knowledge to see this.
In Egypt itself Napoleon found the situation much different to what he had expected. Talleyrand had assured him that the Turks in Constantinople could be won over - but then Talleyrand did absolutely nothing to bring this to fruition. Thus Napoleon decided to attack the Ottoman army in Syria before they attacked him. Then in 1799 occurred the event that is counted as the blackest mark against Napoleon. As General Michel Franceschi states: ‘On March 3 at Jaffa, matters began to become serious. Conforming to local custom, Bonaparte sent an emissary to the military commandant to offer to spare the lives of the garrison in exchange for its immediate surrender. In case of refusal, the French would not grant quarter. This was the merciless and unique rule in force during the war.’ (p.45) It was in fact standard practice throughout Europe at the time as it had been for centuries. However, instead of complying, the messenger’s head was cut off and displayed on the ramparts of the fortress. Franchesci adds: ‘This barbarous provocation was obviously not of a nature to encourage mercy. Matters were displayed in stark simplicity: there would be no quarter on either side.’
Recalling how French stragglers had been butchered and the hundreds of soldiers killed in the Cairo insurrection, the French responded in kind and there was awful slaughter. The same thing was later to happen in Spain - horrors on one side lead to horrors from the other. Francheschi says that: ‘At least the officers attempted to limit and block the more extreme actions, conforming to Bonaparte’s instructions. Among many others General Robin did not hesitate, at the risk of his life, to take his sabre to his own soldiers in order to halt such debaucheries.’ (ps. 45-46) He goes on: ‘The last to resist had taken refuge in the citadel, their fate already sealed by their previous refusal to capitulate. Just before they would have been destroyed, Bonaparte nonetheless sent Eugene de Beauharnais and another aide de camp, Crozier, “to calm as much as possible the furor of the soldiers.” As soon as these two were recognized by their distinctive insignia, the besieged asked to surrender to them, on condition that their lives should be spared. Listening only to their better nature, and in defiance of the death sentence implicitly pronounced against the combatants, these two officers accepted their surrender and conducted them to the French camp./ This was an appalling misunderstanding! Bonaparte had sent his aides solely to save the women, children, and old people and not to make an exception concerning combatants.’
An attempt to quell the slaughter had left Napoleon in an impossible situation. If he allowed the combatants to live it would be taken as a sign of weakness and encourage even more fanatical resistance in the future. And there was simply not enough food for the 2,500-3,000 mainly Albanian prisoners. Furthermore, about 300 of them had already been paroled once and yet rejoined the conflict in defiance of the usual convention. If he let them go they would either die in the desert or else rejoin the enemy army. It was a terrible dilemma. Under the circumstances Napoleon was extremely reluctant to decide their fate by himself so he held three councils of war with his senior officers before the final decision was made. Thus: ‘Bonaparte was forced to execute them in cold blood, fulfilling a death sentence that would have been applied without moral dilemma if it had occurred in the heat of action.’ (p. 46)
This is rightly discussed in every English history book - a bloody massacre in time of war. What is seldom even mentioned is that in 1807 the British navy attacked neutral Copenhagen and murdered 2,000 civilians in their beds, using Congreve rockets, weapons of mass destruction, for the first occasion against ordinary members of the public. And at the same time Wellington was slaughtering clog-wearing neutral Danish militia. Why is this unconscionable action, prompted by Canning, not likewise decried at every opportunity? If anything it was worse because it was a cold-blooded pre-planned atrocity against a neutral civilian population.
The journalists return to the attack on page 162 stating that: ‘Well aware of the value of status and income, he formed his own aristocracy as well. Leading it were his own quarrelsome and avaricious siblings, for in true Corsican fashion, Napoleon trusted only his family.’ In fact Napoleon allowed the émigrés to return as part of the healing process after the Revolution. He wanted to try and restore some sort of normality to the country and as already mentioned, aristocrats were the norm in the rest of Europe. As for his own brothers and sisters, as Walter Runciman has said, they were much better rulers than the appalling reactionary specimens in charge in England, Russia, Prussia, Austria and Naples. The Prince Regent for one was an womanizing alcoholic and drug addict who spent millions upon his own palaces and pleasures and held the ordinary British subject in utter contempt.
The hacks are in full flow on page 164 stating fallaciously that in 1812 the French army was abandoned: ‘Their emperor left them behind to dash for Paris, fearing for his throne.’ Bourgogne states that their were British spies amongst the retreating French army and that most of the men realized once they had returned to Vilna that there was little more Napoleon could do there and that it was in the best interests of everyone for him to return to the French capital. In the words of Sergeant Bourgogne: ‘Many of the foreigners took advantage of this circumstance to blame the Emperor, but the step he took was a perfectly natural one, as, owing to Malet’s conspiracy, his presence was necessary in France, not only for the administration, but to organize a new army.’ (p.159)
Despite their view that Nelson was virtually Christ’s Second Coming, on page 170 they are forced to mention his private little massacre at Naples in 1799: ‘Nelson annulled the terms of the truce. In so doing, he callously overrode a fellow officer’s word of honor and also opened the door for a grisly series of executions. The hangings went on for days.’ Unlike their treatment of Napoleon where they get their retaliation in first, criticizing him copiously before acknowledging that he did any good at all, with Nelson they wait 170 pages before describing his egomania and brutality. On page 172 they also admit people: ‘were even more disgusted by the cold disdain that he displayed, even in public, toward his wife, a woman who had never wronged him in any way.’ They are far more lenient in their account of Josephine who, despite being a good time had by all, was worshipped by a love struck Napoleon who treated her with kindness and gave her millions of francs even after he had divorced her. But of course they don’t mention that.
At the end of the book there are four full pages in a chapter entitled The Immortal Memory about Nelson’s funeral, two full pages about Emma Hamilton and a mere paragraph about Napoleon’s sad demise upon Saint Helena. Throughout this book the two journalists portray Napoleon in a bad light and try to make Nelson shine like some weird one-armed supernova with a halo to boot. Napoleon did do good things for other countries and for other people: Nelson did everything for himself. Their bibliography is also very sparse, especially in relation to Napoleon. The only saving grace about this book are the pictures and images, but the one thing it isn’t is objective history.
© 2016 John Tarttelin (M.A. History)
A Souladream Production
1. Abell Lucia Elizabeth Napoleon and Betsy (Fonthill Media Limited 2012 UK)
2. Bourgogne Adrien The Retreat From Moscow Translated by J.W. Fortescue (London The Folio Society 1985)
3. Coignet Jean-Roch Captain Coignet (Leonaur UK 2007)
4. Elting Colonel John R. Swords Around A Throne (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1989)
5. Foreman Laura and Phillips Ellen Blue Napoleon’s Lost Fleet (Discovery Books, London 1999)
6. Franceschi General Michel Bonaparte in Egypt (International Napoleonic Society, Montreal 2006)
7. Franceschi General Michel & Weider Ben The Wars Against Napoleon (Savas Beatie, New York 2008)
8. Home George Memoirs of an Aristocrat And Reminiscences of the Emperor Napoleon (Forgotten Books 2012)
9. Tarttelin John The Real Napoleon: The Untold Story (Amazon, Createspace 2013)
10. Woodman Richard Britannia’s Realm Volume Two In Support Of The State: 1763-1815 (The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire 2009)