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

In case Gantheaume did not join Villeneuve at Martinique


Diverse

judgments have been passed on this, the last and grandest of Napoleon's naval combinations. On the one hand, it is urged that, as the French fleets had seen no active service, a long voyage was necessary to impart experience and efficiency before matters were brought to the touch in the Straits of Dover; and as Britain and France both regarded their West Indian islands as their most valued possessions, a voyage thither would be certain to draw British sails in eager pursuit. Finally, those islands dotted over a thousand miles of sea presented a labyrinth wherein it would be easy for the French to elude Nelson's cruisers.

On the other hand, it may be urged that the success of the plan depended on too many _ifs_. Assuming that the Toulon and Brest squadrons escaped the blockaders, their subsequent movements would most probably be reported by some swift frigate off Gibraltar or Ferrol. The chance of our divining the French plans was surely as great as that Gantheaume and Villeneuve would unite in the West Indies, ravage the British possessions, and return in undiminished force. The English fleets, after weary months of blockade, were adepts at scouting; their wings covered with ease a vast space, their frigates rapidly signalled news to the flagship, and their concentration was swift and decisive. Prompt to note every varying puff of wind, they bade fair to overhaul their enemies when the chase began in earnest, and when once the battle was joined,

numbers counted for little: the English crews, inured to fights on the ocean, might be trusted to overwhelm the foe by their superior experience and discipline, hampered as the French now were by the lumbering and defective warships of Spain.

Napoleon, indeed, amply discounted the chances of failure of his ultimate design, the command of the Channel. The ostensible aims of the expedition were colonial. The French fleets were to take on board 11,908 soldiers, of whom three-fourths were destined for the West Indies; and, in case Gantheaume did not join Villeneuve at Martinique, the latter was ordered, after waiting forty days, to set sail for the Canaries, there to intercept the English convoys bound for Brazil and the East Indies.

In the spring and summer of 1805 Napoleon's correspondence supplies copious proof of the ideas and plans that passed through his brain. After firmly founding the new Empire, he journeyed into Piedmont, thence to Milan for his coronation as King of Italy, and finally to Genoa. In this absence of three months from Paris (April-July) many lengthy letters to Decres attest the alternations of his hopes and fears. He now keeps the possibility of failure always before him: his letters no longer breathe the crude confidence of 1803: and while facing the chances of failure in the West Indies, his thoughts swing back to the Orient:

"According to all the news that I receive, five or six thousand men in the [East] Indies would ruin the English Company. Supposing that our [West] Indian expedition is not fully successful, and I cannot reach the grand end which will demolish all the rest, I think we must arrange the [East] Indian expedition for September. We have now greater resources for it than some time ago."[332]


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