The English Channel is one of history’s most formidable barriers. Peter Moore looks back to the nineteenth century, when it stood between Britain and the great army of Napoleon Bonaparte
Having a sense of history is not a gift that is common to everybody. But for those that do, there is little to compare with the emotional tug of staring out at the English Channel.
At its shortest point this thin strip of silvery water measures no more than 21 miles across, but it’s a distance that has proved just enough to keep some of Europe’s most despicable tyrants off the green fields of England.
It did for Adolf Hitler in 1940 and 135 years before, just as crucially, it did for the Le Petit Corporal, Napoleon Bonaparte.
In the early years of the 19th Century, Napoleon’s grip on Europe was total. He was the first of the dictators with more power at his fingertip than even Louis XVI had enjoyed two decades before.
With brilliance and ruthlessness he had led the French Republic on an enormous campaign of European expansion, and by the early 1800s all that lay between him and the greatest empire that Europe had known since the time of the Romans was the conquest of Britain.
The sheer size of Napoleon’s forces was awesome. At his disposal was something like 1,400 landing craft and some 115,000 men – most of them based in a tight circle of training camps around the coastal port of Boulogne.
In a custom-built pavilion, far above the town, Napoleon brooded. He only needed a spell of suitable weather and he would be able to attack.
‘Eight hours of night in favourable weather,’ he declared, ‘will decide the fate of the universe.’
With characteristic ruthlessness he told his staff that it was irrelevant if 20,000 men were drowned as they crossed. ‘One loses that in battle every day,’ he reasoned.
As Napoleon waited like a python, ready to strike at the heart of England, the Prime Minister William Pitt hastily drew out defensive plans. A series of coastal beacons were to be set ablaze in the event of a French arrival and hundreds of thousands of military volunteers were set on the highest alert.
Throughout the years 1803, 1804 and 1805, the British were held in thrall.
History likes to record that Napoleon’s invasion did not materialise because of Nelson’s devastating but tragic victory at Trafalgar. Whilst this is true, we shouldn’t forget that it was the English Channel that stood like a wall about Britain for the three years before.
We should remember this. For the all the cities, the national parks, the lakes and the lochs that comprise Great Britain, we should always be mindful of the role that the English Channel has played in preserving our way of life.
And thinking of Napoleon and his fruitless quest to cross the straits is enough to inspire a sharp pang of triumphalism in any of us. Catching the 17.16 to Calais might sound a touch dull and prosaic, but what Bonaparte would have done for a fine vessel like the Pride of Dover doesn’t really bare thinking about.
So here’s to The Channel! Far more important to the British than all the tea in the world.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons