Introduction to the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. 5

Author(s) : KERAUTRET Michel, MADEC Gabriel
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In honour of the release in November 2008 of Volume 5 of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte, offers you a translation of the volume's introduction.

Boulogne, Trafalgar, Austerlitz

The fifth volume of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte contains 1,764 letters dating from the period 1 January to 31 December 1805. This coverage of a single year in fact marks a departure from previous releases. But what a year! 1805 presents us with three striking events from Napoleonic history: Boulogne, Trafalgar and Austerlitz. The year also witnessed a new coalition, the third counting from 1792. Once again it was instigated by Britain, this time seeking to stave off the threat of invasion. Russia, and then Austria, became England's continental allies, forcing Napoleon to turn his attention back to mainland Europe. Although not yet evident at the time, this lurch back towards the continent would be irreversible, helped in no small part by the result at Trafalgar. 1805 would prove to be decisive for the history of Napoleon.

More than 35 % of the letters present in this volume did not figure in the Correspondance published during the Second Empire, and one quarter of them was not published in any of what we have described as the reference monographs. In addition, through the collections made available to us, we were able to compare more than a third of the letters published here with their originals; that is to say, with the dispatches and not the copies or drafts.(1)

An examination of the list of recipients reveals general themes for the letters in this fifth volume of the Correspondance générale. The overwhelmingly most important (783 or 44 % of the letters in the volume) is that related to the military and war, both on sea and land. Napoleon considered absolutely every single issue, from high-level strategy (notably maritime) to what appears to be the most trivial detail, such as the provision of boots for his soldiers. Berthier is once again the principal recipient (301 letters), but this should be considered in light of the fact that he held concurrently the positions of War Minister and Major Général des camps, before becoming Major Général de la Grande Armée. After Berthier comes Decrès, the Naval minister, who received 190 letters.

Foreign and diplomatic policy is the subject of 381 letters (nearly 22 % of the total), 244 of which are addressed directly to the foreign heads of state. It should be noted, nevertheless, that the majority (106 letters) were sent to the viceroy of Italy, as Napoleon sought to direct Eugène de Beauharnais's government in Milan by “remote control”.(2) The remainder is divided between a multitude of home affairs and the workings of government, namely, financial issues, the police (115 letters addressed to Fouché), justice, civil engineering and even forest damage.

In 1805, Napoleon pursued (as he himself declared) only two major projects: the invasion of England and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. The military campaign on the continent was only to be undertaken because of the failure of the former and because of the success of the latter, which in fact led to the creation of the continental coalition.

At the start of the year, the Emperor of the French had nevertheless made a point of announcing to certain European rulers his openness to peace. The sincerity of these declarations is up for debate. But be that as it may, he took the opportunity in the New Year to write to George III and Francis II. To the former he offered peace, and to the latter he declared his intention to give up his personal claims to Italy, and to create an independent kingdom, separate from France, under the rule of his brother Joseph. Other rulers received less amenable letters: Maria Carolina of Naples was ordered to break ties with the English and the Russians or be faced with the loss of her kingdom, whilst Charles IV was asked to begin payment of the Spanish war contribution and to mobilise his navy for the common cause.

This indeed was the nub of the question. Defeating England had become priority number one, and in that respect Napoleon had high hopes for the Spanish navy. During the first few months of the year, he devoted himself entirely to maritime strategy, and his attention was absorbed by it all the more in that he believed that he had nothing to fear on the continent from Russia or Austria – notwithstanding the false alarm in January on the Venetian frontier. Boulogne thus became the Empire's second capital.(3) There, Napoleon assembled a large force and submitted it to an intensive training regime, while at the same time, Pitt's government across the Channel took the threat seriously and organised meticulously the island's defence, both on land and at sea.

Napoleon's difficulty always lay in crossing the Channel with his army. In order to secure himself the necessary time and freedom to complete the crossing, he put together a new, somewhat overcomplicated naval strategy. The goal was to confound and confuse the enemy by assembling the combined Franco-Spanish navy in the French West Indies and then bringing it back – “like a dart” – to the Channel to provide cover for the landing fleet. This ambitious project, based on surprise and speed, was extremely risky given the natural variability of weather and sea conditions. Although potentially brilliant, the plan nevertheless required technical and human capacities, especially bold leaders, which Napoleon lacked. In short, and at the risk of drawing a caricature, his strategy was to organise a boat race with the enemy rather than a naval battle.(4) Napoleon's constant thought was to get his boats out without engaging them in combat. It should be noted that Nelson – obsessed by Egypt – was taken in at first, and that it took the chance-meeting of the combined fleet and an enemy brig in the middle of the Atlantic for Napoleon's grand design to be revealed. At Trafalgar on 21 October, the consequences would prove to be appalling.

August was to be the lynchpin for 1805. On 2 August, Napoleon once again left Saint-Cloud for Boulogne, to lead the invasion that had been months in preparation. And yet, little by little, he began to get a measure of the risks involved, including the threat of a new coalition which up to that point he had consciously ignored. Faced with Villeneuve's repeated climb-downs and Ganteaume's fleet blockaded at Brest, Napoleon was forced to admit that his naval strategy was heading down a blind-alley. At the same time, the Austrian threat was building on the Bavarian border. And so the Emperor performed the spectacular volte-face, the “pirouette” which was suddenly to transform the Channel and North Sea camps into the “Grande Armée”.(5) Initially supposed to “row” for the English coast,(7) the army was in the end to march, or rather sprint, to the very edge of the continent, symbolically consolidating the Empire at Austerlitz, on the day of its first imperial anniversary. During the summer and autumn of 1805, the Napoleonic army, formed at Boulogne, was to prove irresistible. On the other hand, irreducible Albion was to seize mastery of the seas at Trafalgar, massively confirming the defeat at the Battle of the Nile (Aboukir).
August 1805 also saw the beginning of a serious financial crisis that rendered France vulnerable to additional threats. Desprez, the régent of the Banque de France, the financiers Ouvrard and Vanlerberghe and the receivers general would all be implicated, as well as Roger, secretary to Treasury minister, Barbé-Marbois. And the bankers (Récamier, Hervas, Bastide, Bérard, Delon, Deville, the Michel brothers, etc.) were to fall one after the other. It was not until his return to Paris in January 1806 that Napoleon could restore order to the country's finances.

The summer and autumn of 1805 would also be characterised by intense diplomatic activity (137 letters to Talleyrand and other ambassadors).(8) First of all, France signed a series of treaties of alliance with the principal south German states, Baden, Bavaria and Württemberg, in return for promised territorial expansion. The “joint victory” would lead to a second wave of treaties with these allies, while Prussia would have no choice but to join their ranks as well (Treaty of Schönbrunn, 15 December 1805). The third coalition was in tatters: Alexander, having not treated, was to return home discountenanced, whilst Austria, isolated, resigned herself to accepting the Treaty of Preßburg (26 December 1805) which relieved her of Venetia, Dalmatia, the Tyrol and the Vorarlberg as well as a smattering of possessions in Germany, leaving her excluded from the Italian peninsula and from Germany.

The “sun of Austerlitz” was in fact the dawn of the Grand Empire. On 30 December, on the Tribunat's suggestion, Napoleon accepted the title “Napoleon the Great.” The next morning, the fate of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was sealed: the armies of Masséna and Gouvion Saint-Cyr marched on Naples. Napoleon followed up the threat that he had made on 2 January to Maria Carolina: the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had but a few days to live. Joseph, before becoming its king, was to rise exceedingly rapidly through the ranks, going from simple colonel of the 4e de ligne at Boulogne to commander in chief of the army of Naples with the titles of Général de Division and Lieutenant de l'Empire. Finally, Masséna saw himself seconded to Joseph, an act which would not pass without causing one or two problems for the “enfant cheri de la victoire”. The continent of Europe was about to take on a new look.

(Tr. and ed. H.D.W.)


(1) We would like to thank at this point everyone who has worked with us in the completion of this volume, notably Alain Pillepich, Jacques Garnier, Jacques Macé, Michelle Masson, Patrick Le Carvèse, as well as the curators at the Archives nationales, the Archives du ministère des Affaires étrangères and at the Service historique de la Défense. That is without forgetting, of course, Elodie Lerner and François Houdecek, who as always have ensured the continuity of this enterprise with the same skill and devotion as the previous volumes.
(2) See annexe, study by Alain Pillepich on Napoleon's Italian policy in 1805.
(3) See annexe, study by Fernand Beaucour.
(4) See annexe, full study by Admiral Rémi Monaque.
(5) See annexe, study by Gabriel Madec.
(6) See introduction by François Houdecek in previous volume.
(7) See Michel Kerautret, Les Grands Traités de l'Empire (1804-1810), Paris, Nouveau Monde/Fondation Napoléon, 2004.

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