by Bill Doughty
Acts of valor were commonplace in the days of sailing ships, conquest and experimental new techniques of warfare in the early 1800s. So were acts of terror and subversion.
A European perspective of those events and an amazing beginning for modern military techniques and weaponry can be found in the pages of Tom Pocock’s The Terror Before Trafalgar: Nelson, Napoleon, and the Secret War.
The late historian shows that for Britain, at least, the War of 1812 began in 1801 when the mighty British navy was challenged by Napoleon Bonaparte and France, assisted by the Spanish fleet.
Other countries or territories drawn into the conflict or directly affected by it included Denmark, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Italy and Egypt, according to Pocock. Even Sweden, Peru and Jamaica were impacted.
In fact, a case can be made that the Napoleonic Wars were the first world war.
The Battle of Trafalgar, death of Lord Nelson (told in painful detail in this book), and rise of Robert Fulton’s experiments certainly marked the beginning of the end of ancient warfare and military customs. The savagery of the guillotine, also described in great detail, and the finery of national leaders’ costumes were on their way to becoming historic artifacts.
Read Pocock’s description of Napoleon Bonaparte on the day of his coronation as Emperor of France by Pope Pius VII.
“The Emperor was dressed in crimson velvet, embroidered with gold and silver, in lace, white silk stockings, white velvet slippers embroidered in gold; he wore a diamond-encrusted sword and carried the sceptre of Charlemagne and the Bourbons’ symbolic Hand of Justice. He had become a glittering pantomime figure...”
Other parallels from the early 1800s to world wars more than a century later: Napoleon/Hitler, shifting European alliances, assault landing crafts (catamarans with ramps), similar battle/invasion plans, and the spotty success of torpedoes at the beginning of the war.
Pocock profiles American inventor Robert Fulton as friend of Thomas Paine who first sought to develop a submarine for France before working with the British navy to deploy the first submarine and torpedoes, known as “carcasses,” “coffers” and “hogsheads.”
“The two-ton ‘coffer’ was the largest, twenty-one feet long, boat-shaped, with wedge-like bow and stern; wooden, but caulked, lead-lined and covered with tarred canvas, it was packed with forty barrels of gunpowder. The coffer was ballasted so that its deck was flush with the surface and fitted with a buoyed grappling hook to catch the mooring cable of an enemy ship...”
Fulton and fellow inventors Sir Sidney Smith and Charles Rogier were under-appreciated for their innovative machines and experiments, called “infernals,” which often had less-than-perfect results. The European military hierarchy, only a generation removed from those who were shocked at the guerilla tactics of the colonists, spoke out strongly against the SEALs-like attacks at night with torpedoes and mines.
Others, like Rear Adm. Home Popham, had the view that “battles in the future may be fought under water: our invincible ships of the line may give place to horrible and unknown structures, our frigates to catamarans, our pilots to divers, our hardy, dauntless tars to submarine assassins, coffers, rockets, catamarans, infernals...”
Published in 2002 by the Naval Institute Press, The Terror Before Trafalgar is understandably linked to the events of 9/11.
With a fascinating cast of characters, including wives, lovers (like Lord Nelson's married mistress Lady Emma Hamilton), soldiers and spies, Pocock shows how espionage and terror influenced -- or failed to influence events. A cart of explosives was used in an attempt to kill Napoleon and Josephine (Fail). Catholic insurrections in Ireland were planned as a diversion timed to allow France to invade across the Channel (Fail). Plots of assassination were hatched in Egypt against the British sovereignty and coup attempts were launched in Paris (Fail and Fail).
Speaking of “fails”....
British impressment, capturing suspected British citizens who were sometimes Americans, became necessary in the early 1800s to fill the ranks of the British navy. The issue led directly to the War of 1812. At the same time, Napoleon knew he could not hold territory on the other side of the Atlantic while he tried to wage war in Europe and eastward, with his sights on India. He sold the Louisiana Territory -- the whole Mississippi valley, from the Rio Grande to the Rocky Mountains, New Orleans to Canada -- to the United States, in what would become known as the Louisiana Purchase, for $15M -- a win for Thomas Jefferson and the United States but a huge loss for Napoleon and France.
According to Pocock:
“Ironically, Bonaparte had sought war but was not ready for it, while the British had hoped for peace and were ready to fight.”
France dominated the land war, but Britain controlled the seas, successfully defending the homeland. The British navy proved that a commitment to maintaining peace must be tied to a readiness for war.