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VILLENEUVE, Pierre-Charles

(1763-1806), French Admiral

Born in Valensole (Alpes de Haute-Provences) on the last day of the year, into a noble Provençal family, Villeneuve entered the French Navy as an 'aspirant-garde' in July 1778. After seeing action the West Indies, he ended his participation in the American war in Destin and the frigate Blonde. He was then to serve in the Mediterranean in the frigate Alceste (1787-88). He did not emigrate at the Revolution and in February 1793 became captain. Although removed from the navy in because of he was a noble in the following November, he nevertheless was brought back into the service at the same rank in May 1795. In 1796 he became a rear-admiral and commander of five ships in the Mediterranean. He was to have acted as support for the invasion of Ireland, but was blockaded out of Brest by the British fleet and had to retire to Lorient. At the Battle of the Nile he was divisional commander, but his ship, Guillaume Tell, remained inert during the battle and brought no assistance to commander Bruix. Taking over command from the deceased Bruix, Villeneuve retired from the battle with two ships and two frigates, retreating to Malta where he was captured when the island capitulated in September 1800, only to be released soon afterwards. Commander of the ships at Tarentum in April 1801, and later in charge of a division at Rochefort (1803), Villeneueve was promoted to Vice-Admiral in May 1804, becoming commander of the Toulon squadron in Bucentaure on the death of Latouche-Tréville. He thus found himself in charge of the great strategic manoeuvres of the summer of 1805, namely the race to the West Indies and back in an attempt to trick Nelson and the British fleet, in the attempt to clear the channel for a French invasion of Britain. Villeneuve left Toulon on 30 March, 1805, reached Martinique on 14 May, turned back towards Europe on 9 June, fought an inconclusive off Cape Finistere against Calder on 22 July, and then (instead of heading for the channel) retreated to Cadiz, into which he was blockaded by Nelson. Submerged by orders from  Napoleon (and guessing that he was soon to be replaced in his position - in fact by Rosily), he made a sortie on 21 October, where he was caught by Nelson's squadron, bringing about the Battle of Trafalgar. The results were catastrophic for the allied French and Spanish navies, both in terms of men killed and ships lost. Villeneuve was taken prisoner and freed on parole in April 1806. He committed suicide in an inn in Rennes on 22 April, 1806, stabbing himself six times in the chest. He was a good sailor and well educated but possessed none of the qualities of a good leader. He was weak, indecisive, lacking in confidence either in himself or in the ships and men under his control, crushed by his responsibilities, and beset by dreadful forebodings, but worse still who had to face an opponent who had all the qualities he lacked.
Based on the entry 'Villeneuve', in Dictionnaire Napoléon, ed. J. Tulard, Paris: Fayard, 1999. With permission.


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