THE WAR OF 1812 BEGINS
"Men of France, today we stand on the cusp of total victory! Centuries from now, your grandchildren will say of you that never since the days of Rome, the Millennium Empire, had the world seen such resplendent glory. Glory, gentlemen of France! Glory for you! Glory for me! Glory for France! And Glory Eternal to Caesar and to the Eternal Empire! Gloire à César! Vive César Napoléon!"
Napoleon Bonaparte had declared that this so-called War of 1812 would be the climax of his conquering career. This would be the true beginning of the Pax Napoleonica, an era of peace and stability he had promised in 1810. Everything begun at that riot a young artillery officer had quelled so many years before and all the deaths and lives ruined and all the blood and coin spent since would finally--supposedly--pay off. The annihilation of France's immortal foe, Jolly John Bull and his Cockney Cohorts, was supposedly at hand. Hostilities with England had never ceased, so some historians refer to this struggle as the Campaign of 1812. But this campaign rocked the entire world to its core and is considered the most important turning point in world, and especially American, history.
Britain, at this stage of the game, was completely and utterly bankrupt and an international pariah. It was running on fumes, and all of Europe knew it. Hardly any European power felt any remorse seeing the broken-down English Royal Family losing power. Spain was particularly smug, satisfied revenge was coming for the Armada's Destruction centuries before. Really, the English had repeatedly spat in the eyes of most of Napoleon's rivals in years past. Now, it was coming back to haunt them. Napoleon had long been regarded as a "whelp" and "impish boy-emperor," but the truth was that was how England had been viewed when it truly started flexing its muscles a century prior, facing down ancient regimes such as the Spanish Empire.
But Britain still had a large army. It was a blessing and a curse, as Britain's army was so large by this point that many soldiers were buying their own food and wearing homemade uniforms. The various territories and colonies under the British Crown were extremely far-flung, ranging from fairly safe locales such as Southern India to wildly volatile places like Jamaica and the Bahamas, which were barely fighting off repeated Franco-Georgian attacks. The need for manpower was huge. Britain came out with several improved ways of making cloth and ammunition (both of which were immediately stolen by her enemies), and also started using women and children in factories. Everyone was bracing itself for the "Invasion of Canada."
The deployment of so many troops to Canada, and the cost to equip them, was exactly what Napoleon had engineered the entire time, playing the greatest mind game in his life. The coast of England was still well fortified, of course, as William would never let his guard down so close to his own keep, but Ireland was drastically exposed. In fact, a good percentage of the troops shipped to Canada were shipped from the Emerald Isle. To top it off, Denmark, allied with France, had Iceland, which was a great place to hide French and her allies' ships on the backside of Britain. Indeed, Napoleon was planning his greatest offensive ever, but it was not upon Ireland, but upon Great Britain itself.
The combined Franco-Spanish-Russian Armada was to challenge the Royal Navy to do battle. Napoleon's master plan would not work unless William's ships were defeated then and there. Everything hinged upon this. The Armada would then barrage the English coast and feign an assault, with troops in smaller landing boats arriving to launch a diversionary attack on Truro, Cornwall. Meanwhile, a small fleet from Iceland would attack Scotland's coast, confusing the British even more as to where to expect the main landing. Had they been tricked, and a bizarre invasion was coming from Scotland? Or was that a diversion, with the Frogs in the English Channel being the real threat? The answer was neither: a huge Imperial pan-European invasion army would land at Cork, Waterford, and areas south of Dublin. The simmering Irish revolutionaries would take up arms once more and assist in the total takeover of Ireland. Joseph Bonaparte would take power as the puppet King of Ireland, answering directly to his brother the French Emperor. If necessary, assaults would be launched into Scotland across the Irish Sea. By that point, Wales, which had long had a pro-French underground movement, would be promised independence if it seceded. After all that, England would be forced to accept Napoleon's terms. No fantastic invasion of "the White Cliffs of Dover," with thousands of French soldiers scaling up on grapples and bludgeoning their way through England would be necessary. It would be a final, brutal extermination of Britain's power simply, and Napoleon bet everything on it succeeding to plan.
On May 1, 1812, the Armada joined up and challenged the Royal Navy, under Nelson's successor Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, 1st Baron Collingwood. It was another seemingly pro-French "Act of God" that the British had just suffered a terrible storm three days prior which had damaged many vessels. Suchet's words about "God being French" rang true once more, claimed the Empire. Over the next grueling two and a half days of battle, dozens if not hundreds of ships sank to the bottom of the ocean in what one historian labeled "Armageddon on the Atlantic." It was the final test of British strength. Early in the morning of May 3, Collingwood stood on the deck of his flagship the HMS Morpeth surveying the enemy's movements. A Russian frigate, the Nevsky, appeared suddenly alongside the Morpeth, its approach having been hidden by morning mist and battle smoke from guns and the many burning ships. The Russians opened fire with canister shot, obliterating many of the sailors and officers on deck like sitting ducks, followed by chain shot, destroying the main boom of the Morpeth. The large log fell directly on Collingwood, breaking his spine (paralyzing him) and removing him from the battle. The Russians kept the barrage up for an hour, sustaining much damage themselves. However, finally a solid barrage hit the powder storage of the British ship, sinking it. Collingwood was accepted as a prisoner as his officers brought him over to the Nevsky in a lifeboat. With cheers of "Ooh-rah! Ooh-rah!" the Russian sailors on deck of the Nevsky waved their fists in the air as the Royal Navy's flagship sank below the waves, fiery bits of sail, wood, and corpses floating on the red-stained water of the English Channel.
Collingwood had had a good chance at winning despite the storm damage received before the battle, but with him gone--and news that King William had supposedly collapsed in London following a mental fit--the morale of the Royal Navy was destroyed. At noon, some two hours after the Morpeth was destroyed, Commander Hickory Godfrey Hoover surrendered, having witnessed the annihilation of most of his fleet. It was a bloody, hard-won victory, and the French, Russians, and the other allies had suffered huge losses. Russia had lost half their ships. The entire fleet from Italy was sleeping with the fishes. But as soon as the British survivors--including Collingwood--were escorted back to France and word sent to Paris, the Armada continued on to barrage the English Coast and send fire ships (captured English vessels beyond repair) up the Thames. They might not have a triumphal assault on Buckingham Palace, but they were going to make sure they psychologically traumatized the entire English population. They would know fear. They would see the wrath of Caesar, who had they had so long opposed, come floating straight into their capital city.
At that point, a small fleet of Dutch ships landed at Truro, Cornwall, and set up shop. The bizarre landing made the British believe this strange assault was going to try to break Cornwall away and set it up as a puppet state. The British soldiers at Cornwall were led by incompetent General Wilbur Whiteham. He so bungled the counter-assault on the city that French Marshal Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, 1st Marquis of Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, said that "God has put a hex on England this day. What damage storms have done to the English cause, their own incompetence has done more." Saint-Cyr actually requested allowance to press the assault inland, to take all of Cornwall, because he had the British forces routing, their morale broken. Instead, he was instructed to await reinforcements as Napoleon feared a general mustering of the British population if the attack went any further.
Up to the north, an uncoordinated battle was being fought by shocked and unprepared Scottish sailors against the small Franco-Danish fleet that had arrived from Iceland. Neither side knew for sure what had happened on the Channel yet, and they especially had no idea the British Navy had been defeated. Instead the Allied ships simply trusted they had defeated the Royal Navy and pressed the attack according to schedule. The French and Danes were defeated, but the Scots thoroughly shaken. They immediately called up forces from deeper inside Scotland, which infuriated the British Command when they needed troops to send down to Truro and London. The French laughed gleefully at their enemies hysterical amount of bad luck and poor decisions as the real invasion army hit Cork and Crosshaven. Then they stopped laughing. The bloodbath had begun.
There were not as many British troops in Ireland as there should have been, since so many were in Canada, but the fighting was still very intense. Ballycotton and Ardmore were absolute bloodbaths, with thousands dead and wounded. It was the bloodiest fighting of the entire Napoleonic Era. General Arthur Wellesley, a native Irishman, was in command of the Army of Ireland, and he was determined to hold the line. Royal ships at Rosslare Harbor, on the south-eastern corner of Ireland, put up a good fight but were sunk by the French, Spanish, and Russians.
The Irish Sea became a huge battlefield. Several marshals, generals, and admirals tried to coordinate the massive assault from a select number of ships. It was almost impossible. Meanwhile, Catholic priests were assembling their congregations in France, praying for "God Almighty to smite the British devils." Napoleon himself was up for days at a time, drinking heavily just to get through sleepless nights and bloodshot days at the planning tables.
Wellesley finally fell back to Killarney with his officer staff and his personal regiments. The rest he spread out, attempting to create an impenetrable wall "from Kenmare to Wicklow." This worked for the time being, but revolutionary Irish militias were forming in Derry, Donegal, Monaghan, and multiple other locations behind his lines. The Allies were trying to strike rapidly, and when Marshal Ney arrived to take command on land, he made an immediate thrust at Clonmel with several thousand Imperial troops, including some Russian horse regiments that utterly terrified the British. With the hero Ney at the command, morale soared and the Allies pressed the attack.
In late May, just three weeks after the decisive Battle of the Channel, William realized the entire plan all along had been to invade Ireland. They tried to recall some Canadian troops, but it was too late, and several regiments were sunk by an allied American fleet around Nova Scotia. Wellesley had been forced to start fighting on both his front and rear, against the French and Irish respectively. He forced his way into Limerick to set up a new headquarters. London instructed him to make his stand there while Scottish General Thomas Graham tried to fight his way in from Scotland and take Derry from the rebels. Captured Irish fighters faced no mercy and were executed as traitors on the spot by the British Army.
Despite huge losses, the Allied army was still confident of a decisive breakthrough. Private Jean-Paul Christophe Nicolas Napoleon Sarkozy, in an example of the spirit of the time, wrote in his diary (on a page dated June 18th, 1812) that, "Victory is so close I can almost taste it. All the other men in my regiment say the same. They say Marshal Ney is preparing to take Thurles and Newcastle West, and if he does that, Wellesley will be trapped like the rat he is."
The French, under the daring and dashing but trigger-happy Ney, were defeated and pushed back on June 25, after Ney attempted such a breakthrough. Thomas Graham was not given enough men to use the momentum to take Derry, however, as London insisted on fortifying the national capital and plugging up the Cornwall Front before Saint-Cyr invaded Wales, which was beginning to show a desire for independence as people realized Britain simply couldn't keep up their defensive war forever.
King William was in the pits of a health crisis, and no one was left to inspire the public to fight on. Defeat started seeming inevitable, until an anonymous songwriter created a tune that raised morale throughout the country and became a battlefield anthem for the Redcoats.
I give you a toast, ladies and gentlemen.
I give you a toast, ladies and gentlemen.
May this fair dear land we love so well
In dignity and freedom dwell.
Though worlds may change and go awry
While there is still one voice to cry
There'll always be an England
While there's a country lane,
Wherever there's a cottage small
Beside a field of grain.
There'll always be an England
While there's a busy street,
Wherever there's a turning wheel,
A million marching feet.
Red, white and blue; what does it mean to you?
Surely you're proud, shout it aloud,
The Scots too, we can depend on you.
Freedom remains. These are the chains
No Frog King can break.
There'll always be an England,
And England shall be free
If England means as much to you
As England means to me.
Wellesley handed Ney a dual defeat at the Battles of Cashel and Callan. After that, though, he had no choice but to abandon Limerick and head toward Derry to join Graham on a siege of that rebellious city.
Napoleon was, however, quite pleased. Everything was going more or less to plan. The Allies might have been losing battles, but they were winning the war. He still had enough troops to keep his mainland European territory in check. He also did not really worry about other Europeans attacking since Britain and her formerly seemingly endless coffers couldn't offer support for any more coalitions to overthrow the French Empire.
The thing the emperor did not realize, though, was that British people were among the most stubborn on earth. The French Empire was about to enter a war against the corner newspaper boy and local miller. A resistance movement of sorts had already cropped up among loyalists in southern Ireland, and There Will Always be an England was being sung in the streets of England and Canada. If the British were chased into Scotland, a total war of attrition would be waged. It was about to get really ugly, and a number of future developments would end up having large and quite unforeseen, even unimaginable, consequences in the years to come.