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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

To resume our description of the Boulogne flotilla


But,

to resume our description of the Boulogne flotilla, it may be of interest to give some hitherto unpublished details about the flat-bottomed boats, and then to pass in brief review Napoleon's plans for assuring a temporary command of the Channel.

It is clear that he at first relied almost solely on the flotilla. After one of his visits to Boulogne, he wrote on November 23rd, 1803, to Admiral Gantheaume that he would soon have on the northern coast 1,300 flat-bottomed boats able to carry 100,000 men, while the Dutch flotilla would transport 60,000. "Do you think it will take us to the English coast? Eight hours of darkness which favour us would decide the fate of the universe." There is no mention of any convoying fleet: the First Consul evidently believed that the flotilla could beat off any attack at sea. This letter offers a signal proof of his inability, at least at that time, to understand the risks of naval warfare. But though his precise and logical mind seems then to have been incapable of fully realizing the conditions of war on the fickle, troublous, and tide-swept Channel, his admirals urgently warned him against trusting to shallow, flat-bottomed boats to beat the enemy out at sea; for though these _praams_ in their coasting trips repelled the attacks of British cruisers, which dared not come into shallow waters, it did not follow that they would have the same success in mid-Channel, far away from coast defences and amidst choppy waves

that must render the guns of keelless boats wellnigh useless.[320]

The present writer, after going through the reports of our admiral stationed in the Downs, is convinced that our seamen felt a supreme contempt for the flat-bottomed boats when at sea. After the capture of one of them, by an English gun-brig, Admiral Montagu reported, November 23rd, 1803:

"It is impossible to suppose for an instant that anything effective can be produced by such miserable tools, equally ill-calculated for the grand essentials in a maritime formation, battle and speed: that floored as this wretched vessel is, she cannot hug the wind, but must drift bodily to leeward, which indeed was the cause of her capture; for, having got a little to leeward of Boulogne Bay, it was impossible to get back and she was necessitated to steer large for Calais. On the score of battle, she has one long 18-pounder, without breeching or tackle, traversing on a slide, which can only be fired stem on. The 8-pounder is mounted aft, but is a fixture: so that literally, if one of our small boats was to lay alongside there would be nothing but musketry to resist, and those [_sic_] placed in the hands of poor wretches weakened by the effect of seasickness, exemplified when this gun-boat was captured--the soldiers having retreated to the hold, incapable of any energy or manly exertion.... In short, Sir, these vessels in my mind are completely contemptible and ridiculous, and I therefore conclude that the numbers collected at Boulogne are to keep our attention on the _qui vive_, and to gloss over the real attack meditated from other points."

The vessel which provoked the contempt of our admiral was not one of the smallest class: she was 58-1/3 ft. long, 14-1/2 ft. wide, drew 3 ft. forward and 4 ft. aft: her sides rose 3 ft. above the water, and her capacity was 35 tons. The secret intelligence of the Admiralty for the years 1804 and 1805 also shows that Dutch sailors were equally convinced of the unseaworthiness of these craft: Admiral Verhuell plainly told the French Emperor that, however flatterers might try to persuade him of the feasibility of the expedition, "nothing but disgrace could be expected." The same volume (No. 426) contains a report of the capture of two of the larger class of French _chaloupes_ off Cape La Hogue. Among the prisoners was a young French royalist named La Bourdonnais: when forced by the conscription to enter Napoleon's service, he chose to serve with the _chaloupes_ "because of his conviction that all these flotillas were nothing but bugbears and would never attempt the invasion so much talked of and in which so few persons really believe." The same was the opinion of the veteran General Dumouriez, who, now an exile in England, drew up for our Government a long report on the proposed invasion and the means of thwarting it. The reports of our spies also prove that all experienced seamen on the Continent declared Napoleon's project to be either a ruse or a foolhardy venture.


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