The maritime aspect of grand strategy was always one of Napoleon’s weaknesses

Sunday, March 17th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsOn March 3, 1795, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), Napoleon set sail from Marseilles with 15 ships, 1,174 guns and 16,900 men to recapture Corsica from Paoli and the British:

His expedition was soon scattered by a British squadron of fifteen ships with fewer guns and half the number of men. Two French ships were captured. Napoleon wasn’t held responsible for the reverse, but neither did this quintessential landlubber learn the lessons of attempting to put to sea against a similarly sized but far more skilfully deployed force of the Royal Navy. Between 1793 and 1797, the French would lose 125 warships to Britain’s 38, including 35 capital vessels (ships-of-the-line) to Britain’s 11, most of the latter the result of fire, accidents and storms rather than French attack. The maritime aspect of grand strategy was always one of Napoleon’s weaknesses: in all his long list of victories, none was at sea.


  1. Bruce says:

    The British Navy was a side effect of the British merchant fleet, which was huge. And half the British merchant fleet 1750 was built in the American colonies. After we seceded, a lot of British ships of the line were built in India. Just getting across the Atlantic, or back from India, gave a good shakedown cruise. These were pros. The French spent the Napoleonic wasrs putting out from port to face pros.

  2. T. Beholder says:

    Bruce says, “The British Navy was a side effect of the British merchant fleet, which was huge.”

    Count Ernst Reventlow had the opposite notion, and he backed it with a whole book, The Vampire of the Continent.

  3. Bruce says:

    Bought ‘The Vampire’ on T. Beholder’s recommendation. WWI agitprop is wildly better than any political stuff since. I recommend Ford Maddox Ford’s ‘Between St Denis and St George’ to anyone.

  4. T. Beholder says:


    As to Napoleon, he did learn. He understood he cannot contest the seas head-on, so the next thing he tried was to weaken the Brits (specifically including their Navy) indirectly, via their economical colonies.

    Why do you think he went to Russia of all places? Because so much hemp and timber went to England from Russia, it redefined local economy and internal politics.

    Hence genuine popularity of monarchy in Russia: the common interest of the crown and the peasants was to stop the land-owning aristocracy running the place as an attachment to British economy. Hence assassination of Pavel I after he made a move to tax these exports hard, and eventually tariff wars and reforms of Alexander II.

    Going for a symbolic objective (Moscow) was a less sensible idea, of course.

    Likewise, Napoleon’s strange dances with Americans had a simple reason: the Southern States were a big British supplier (mainly of cotton). Hence industrial North attaching the issue of slavery to American Civil War: they wanted to crush the export economy of South, reduce its import, open the market for themselves. Hence Napoleon’s attempts both to interfere with the American trade (capturing ships!) and to work with those American colonists who tried to divorce their economy from England.

  5. Bruce says:

    Read ‘The Vampire of the Continent’ on Beholder’s recommendation. Reminded me of ‘The German Talks Back’, a book Morgenthau got published after WWII and Heinlein thought should be read. An annoyed German’s potted history of England up to 1916, England being evil, plutocratic, and miraculously good at ridiculous propaganda.

    The British Isles spent 1500-1850 as a perfectly-placed pirate base against Western Europe, the Brits took advantage, ‘The Vampire’ gets that right.

    Claims the Brits for assassinated the Tsar who tried to stay neutral in the Napoleonic Wars. Could be.

    British economic interests won the Napoleonic Wars bigly, he’s right there. Blucher’s remark that what was won by the sword was lost by the pen at the Congress of Vienna. Certainly the Brits let the French back up real quick after Waterloo.

    Blames perfid Albion for the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Hmm.

    Claims the British wanted to invade Germany through Belgium. I think the Brits knew they didn’t have the numbers.

    Blames perfid Albion for splitting Norway from Sweden. Huh.

    Wants to invade India (1916) by sending an army down the Turkish railroads to knock over Suez, then march East! Yes! Anyway, a great help for TE Lawrence budget requests.

    Haldane, pre-WWI British War Minister, popular in Germany for translating Schopenhauer, appears as a fiendish Brit due to his ‘Haldane Mission’ seeking detente with Germany. JBS Haldane’s uncle.

    A good source for alt-history. Probably about as accurate as ‘Our Island Story’- style British histories of the period. William H McnNiel’s view of nation-states as macroparasites on humans kept coming to mind as I read.

  6. Bruce says:

    Just noticed from Wiki the author of ‘Vampire’ was a Nazi. Huh. Mildly surprised. It’s not like reading Ludendorff. In hindsight I remember the use of ‘Chosen People’ to describe how the author thinks the Brits think of themselves.

Leave a Reply