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

333 Missing Villeneuve off Ferrol


To

realize the immense importance of this decision we must picture to ourselves the state of affairs just before this time.

Nelson, delayed by contrary winds and dogged by temporary ill-luck, had made for Gibraltar, whence, finding that no French ships had passed the straits, he doubled back in hot haste northwards, and there is clear proof that his speedy return to the coast of Spain spread dismay in official circles at Paris. "This unexpected union of forces undoubtedly renders every scheme of invasion impracticable for the present," wrote Talleyrand to Napoleon on August 2nd, 1805.[333] Missing Villeneuve off Ferrol, Nelson joined Cornwallis off Ushant on the very day when the French admiral decided to make for Cadiz. Passing on to Portsmouth, the hero now enjoyed a few days of well-earned repose, until the nation called on him for his final effort.

Meanwhile Napoleon had arrived on August 3rd at Boulogne, where he reviewed a line of soldiery nine miles long. The sight might well arouse his hopes of assured victory. He had ground for hoping that Villeneuve would soon be in the Channel. Not until August 8th did he receive news of the fight with Calder, and he took pains to parade it as an English defeat. He therefore trusted that, in the spirit of his orders to Villeneuve dated July the 26th, that admiral would sail to Cadiz, gather up other French and Spanish ships, and return to Ferrol and Brest with a mighty

force of some sixty sail of the line:

"I count on your zeal for my service, on your love for the fatherland, on your hatred of this Power which for forty generations has oppressed us, and which a little daring and perseverance on your part will for ever reduce to the rank of the small Powers: 150,000 soldiers ... and the crews complete are embarked on 2,000 craft of the flotilla, which, despite the English cruisers, forms a long line of broadsides from Etaples to Cape Grisnez. Your voyage, and it alone, makes us without any doubt masters of England."

Austria and Russia were already marshalling their forces for the war of the Third Coalition. Yet, though menaced by those Powers, to whom he had recently offered the most flagrant provocations, this astonishing man was intent only on the ruin of England, and secretly derided their preparations. "You need not" (so he wrote to Eugene, Viceroy of Italy) "contradict the newspaper rumours of war, but make fun of them.... Austria's actions are probably the result of fear."--Thus, even when the eastern horizon lowered threateningly with clouds, he continued to pace the cliffs of Boulogne, or gallop restlessly along the strand, straining his gaze westward to catch the first glimpse of his armada. That horizon was never to be flecked with Villeneuve's sails: they were at this time furled in the harbour of Cadiz.

Unmeasured abuse has been showered upon Villeneuve for his retreat to that harbour. But it must be remembered that in both of Napoleon's last orders to him, those of July 16th and 26th, he was required to sail to Cadiz under certain conditions. In the first order prescribing alternative ways of gaining the mastery of the Channel, that step was recommended solely as a last alternative in case of misfortune: he was directed not to enter the long and difficult inlet of Ferrol, but, after collecting the squadron there, to cast anchor at Cadiz. In the order of July 26th he was charged positively to repair to Cadiz: "My intention is that you rally at Cadiz the Spanish ships there, disembark your sick, and, without stopping there more than four days at most, again set sail, return to Ferrol, etc." Villeneuve seems not to have received these last orders, but he alludes to those of July 16th.[334]


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