Arthur cleared his throat and stared directly at the Secretary of State for War. ‘This is Britain’s darkest hour, my lord. We are fighting for our survival, against a tyrant and his hordes. We are not simply another one of Bonaparte’s enemies. We are the last hope of Europe. If we are defeated, then all other nations opposed to France will lose heart.’ He leaned forward. ‘That is why we must do everything we can to strengthen Britain’s power around the world. If Richard had not taken the bull by the horns and strengthened our hold on India, then we would have been forced to contest every inch of the ground with the French and their allies. It is my belief . . . my utter conviction . . . that Richard was justified in his policies, and it is nothing less than a scandal that his political foes are seeking to ruin him. If Bonaparte ever defeats Britain, it will be due as much to the misdirected efforts of envious Englishmen as to his armies.’
He sat back in his chair with a defiant expression. Lord Castlereagh’s lips were pressed into a thin line as he stared back. Neither man spoke for a moment, then Castlereagh rose from his chair.
‘We have said all that needs to be said for now, Wellesley. I sincerely hope that you will not live to regret your decision to stand by your brother.’
Arthur smiled. ‘The longer the war goes on, the less likely it is that I will live to regret any decision, my lord. A prospect that few politicians have to face, I’ll warrant. I bid you good day.’
Boulogne, August 1805
The encampment of the army tasked with invading Britain spread out for miles in all directions. From the top of the signal station Napoleon could make out row upon row of the shacks and shelters that his men had constructed across the countryside. Interspersed with the camps were the areas cleared for parade grounds, artillery parks, supply stockpiles and horse lines. Over a hundred thousand men were poised to board the invasion barges in ports along the coast.
Below the signal station the harbour was filled with clumsy flat-bottomed transports. According to the senior naval officer at the port, the vessels handled badly and were too exposed to the elements. His opinion was of little concern to Napoleon. As long as the barges were capable of crossing the channel to Britain that was all that was required of them. But before that crossing could be undertaken there was the small matter of clearing the path of the opposing fleet.
The wind suddenly howled round the signal station tower for a moment, threatening to dislodge Napoleon’s hat, and his hand flew up to hold the brim firmly until the gust had passed. He waited a moment to be sure, then raised his telescope and rested it on the edge of the wall that ran round the top of the tower. He slowly tracked across the choppy white-capped waves out over the sea until he found what he was looking for.
A British frigate was cruising along the coast in a languid fashion, under topsails in the strong breeze. A handful of tiny figures could be seen climbing the rigging to make adjustments to the trim of the canvas that bloomed from the highest spars. Napoleon watched the warship for a moment, as it gracefully went about and put in a tack away from the coast.The same ship had been patrolling the approaches to the harbour for months, in an unceasing routine that varied only minutely according to weather conditions. Napoleon shifted the direction of the telescope towards the horizon and after a short search found the neatly spaced line of white topsails of the rest of the blockading squadron.At least ten ships of the line stood watch over the French port, great towering slabs of oak pierced by two or three lines of gun ports. Between them those ships carried twice as many cannon as the army surrounding Napoleon, and of greater weight too. As the situation stood, if the invasion fleet attempted to cross the Channel in the face of the British navy it would be blown to pieces long before it reached the English coast.
The situation was about to change, Napoleon reflected with satisfaction as he straightened up and closed his telescope with a snap. For months now the scattered squadrons of the French navy had been breaking out of their ports and heading across the Atlantic to a secret rendezvous off the coast of Martinique. If all went according to plan, AdmiralVilleneuve would wait until he had forty ships of the line under his command. Then he would recross the ocean and fall upon the English Channel fleet with overwhelming force, and crush the enemy. Even if he failed to defeat them,Villeneuve would be able to clear the Channel for long enough to cover the invasion fleet.
Napoleon turned to his chief of staff. ‘Still no word then, Berthier?’
‘No, sire. Nothing in the morning despatches.’
‘No signals from Paris? Nothing relayed from the watch station at Ushant?’
‘I’m afraid not, sire.’
Admiral Villeneuve and his fleet were overdue. Napoleon turned to gaze out over the sprawl of shelters and tents of his army and slapped his thigh in frustration. A month earlier he had secretly quit Italy and travelled across France to be with the army by the time the French fleet appeared in the Channel. After his spectacular coronation in Milan he and his court had toured the great cities of northern Italy, moving from one civic reception to another, surrounded by cheering crowds who were delighted to be free of the iron fist of the Austrian empire. But all the time, Napoleon was thinking of his plans for the invasion of Britain. With luck, the enemy would think that he was still in Italy even as the army was boarding the transports, ready to cross the narrow channel under the protection of Admiral Villeneuve’s fleet.
But luck, it seemed, was against him, Napoleon mused. That timid fool Villeneuve had failed to carry out his orders so far. The admiral had been present at the Battle of the Nile when Nelson’s warships had annihilated the French fleet. Ever since thenVilleneuve had been in awe of the British navy. On several occasions in the past year Napoleon had been driven to frustration and rage by the admiral’s failure to put to sea, even when wind and numbers were on his side. It was only by directly threatening to dismiss Villeneuve that he had finally got his way. Napoleon pressed his lips together. Most of the navy’s senior officers had been purged during the revolution, and the weak-minded Villeneuve was one of the few that remained. Otherwise he would have been removed from his post long ago.
‘Well then,’ Napoleon rounded on Berthier, ‘I’m returning to headquarters for the rest of the morning. Are the preparations for this afternoon’s review complete?’
‘Admiral Bruix assures me that all will proceed as planned, weather permitting.’
‘Weather permitting?’ Napoleon glanced out to sea. ‘Surely the admiral is not afraid of a few waves?’
Berthier shrugged.‘He says that there may be a gale brewing up, sire, in which case it would be dangerous for the transports and gunboats to put to sea.’
The anticipation and tension of waiting for Villeneuve to arrive had added to Napoleon’s exhaustion after the journey from Milan, and he snapped back irritably to his chief of staff. ‘The review will take place. I order it. I will not let a little breeze make a coward of the admiral.You tell him that!’
‘A little breeze?’ Berthier glanced out to sea where long grey rollers were sweeping in from the ocean. He bit his lip, and when he turned back and saw the dark expression on the Emperor’s face he swallowed nervously. ‘Yes, sire. I will tell him at once.’
The wind continued to grow in strength during the rest of the morning and by noon there was a gale blowing in over the coast, moaning as it whipped across the tiles of the inn that served as the imperial headquarters. Napoleon sat at a large table strewn with maps marking the positions of the invasion army and the routes they would take once they landed in Britain. But his mind was not on the details before him. He was deep in thought over the latest news he had received from Paris.
Talleyrand’s report told of the continuing preparations for war by Austria and Russia.The Tsar had apparently vowed to put an end to the ‘monstrous regime of revolutionary France’. There was some good news, however. Talleyrand had managed to buy Prussian neutrality by offering them Hanover. King Frederick William was only too pleased at having won a new land without having had to fight a war. Napoleon smiled to himself. Clearly the man had no scruples, and, more importantly, no courage. Indeed, the main threat to French interests at the Prussian court was not the King but his wife, Louise, who hated France with all her passion.
‘The only real man in the whole of Prussia,’ Napoleon mused.
Berthier looked up from the end of the table where he was copying Napoleon’s orders in a fair hand for distribution to the small staff of secretaries. ‘Sire?’
‘It was nothing.’ Napoleon flicked his hand dismissively, glanced at the clock against the wall and then stood up abruptly. ‘Is Admiral Bruix ready?’
Berthier shrugged. ‘He has not sent word yet, sire.’
‘Then find him and bring him to me at once. I want the review to commence within the hour. I will brook no further delay. Tell him.’
Berthier nodded, scribbled down the order and left the room in search of an orderly to carry the message to the admiral. Napoleon crossed to the window and looked out at the harbour. Down on the quay stood the men of the division waiting to be rowed out to their vessels. He had ordered Bruix to demonstrate the landing procedure with thirty barges. Once the men were aboard, the flotilla would pass along the shore while Napoleon and his staff watched their progress from a specially erected pavilion. After that the men would demonstrate a landing on the shore. It would be a useful experience for all concerned and Napoleon was looking forward to analysing the procedures to see if he could suggest any improvements.That would put Bruix and the other naval officers in their place, he reflected, and give his subordinates one more example of their Emperor’s omniscience.
A sudden patter of rain against the glass drew Napoleon’s attention back to the weather. Overhead a thick band of cloud had blotted out the last patch of blue sky and a fresh gust of wind hurled the rain against the window with a sharp rattle.A moment later the view of the harbour had dissolved in the blur of water running down the window panes.
There was a rap on the door and Napoleon turned away from the window. ‘Yes?’
Berthier entered, followed by Admiral Bruix and two of his senior officers. The small party approached Napoleon and bowed their heads respectfully.
‘I assume that everything is in hand for the review?’ said Napoleon.
The admiral seemed to wince before he replied.‘Sire, it is not safe to proceed.’
Bruix gestured towards the rain-lashed window. ‘There’s a gale blowing. It would not be safe. I have given orders for the review to be cancelled.’
‘You do not give the orders here, Admiral. I do. And I ordered you to prepare the review.’
‘But, sire, in this weather it would be madness.’The instant the word was uttered Bruix realised his mistake and hurriedly tried to conceal the error in a rush of explanations. ‘The boats ferrying the men out to the barges could be swamped. The vessels are already overloaded with supplies and equipment. The moment they try to tack out to sea they might be blown on to the shore.’
‘Could be? Might be?’ Napoleon snapped. ‘Where is your courage, Admiral? Where is your determination to see your orders through? Have you no sense of duty?’
Admiral Bruix’s face coloured at the attack on his integrity. ‘I know my duty, sire. It is my duty to preserve the men and vessels under my command so that they are fit and ready to do battle with the enemy. As such, it is my decision to delay the review until the weather improves.’
‘I see,’ Napoleon replied icily. ‘Then it is my decision to dismiss you from your post, with immediate effect.’
‘What?’ Admiral Bruix’s eyes widened in astonishment.‘You can’t do that.’
‘It is done. Berthier?’
‘Inform the naval ministry at once. And then see that Monsieur Bruix is removed from our presence and sent home.’
Napoleon swept his gaze away from the hapless admiral and fixed it on the nearest of the other naval officers. ‘You.What is your name?’
‘Vice-Admiral Chaloncy, sire.’
‘Well then, you will take command of the naval forces in the harbour, and give orders for the review to continue.’