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France and the defence of England
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The possible invasion of England

Battle between the French warship Droits de l’Homme and the frigates HMS Amazon and Indefatigable, 13 & 14 January 1797 – Courtesy of Wikipedia

On the 1st February 1793, the French declared war on Britain. The unrest fomented by the Revolution in France led to considerable anxiety in England affecting, for instance, the Navy in 1797, and introducing a number of Acts in response to actual or perceived public threats. Plans were hurriedly begun in 1796 to counter the French if they were to invade. We know of the ‘Plan de défence pour l’Angleterre en cas d’invasion’ from evidence at a time when Bonaparte’s successes in Europe suggested the return of a revolutionary government to France and, in 1798, the concern with the French landing troops in Ireland in order at least to support insurrection there and destabilise England.

In fact, the French had been considering plans for the invasion of England since 1780, with a number of alternative strategies based on their views of finding ships, crews, suitable and strategic landing sites, transportation, food, forage and funds for the 60,000 men considered necessary for the endeavour. For her part, England had been drawing up counter-measures since the previous year, 1779.

In a note written some time after the event, Mme de Cassini is mentioned as having been a focus for Royalists in England. The note, found in the possession of the French Directoire – who governed France between the 26th October 1795 and the 9th November 1799 – and in French translation, was at first considered to have been provided by an agent in England with access to a high level of government. Subsequently it was learned that it had been written by an émigré officer in the Condé army who had returned to France when the character of the revolution changed to a more conservative régime, a time generally referred to as the ‘Thermidorian Reaction’.

French forces landing at Carreg Gwastad, Pembrokeshire on 22 February 1797 – Courtesy of Wikipedia

It is possible that the individual was a naval officer, Hamilton, who had obtained information, perhaps via Mme de Cassini whom it was said to have had access to the papers of the Duke of Portland. Hamilton had taken considerable time to research the marine approaches to England but his efforts were rejected as Rodney’s success at the Battle of the Saintes and other issues prevented the French from making definitive plans to attack or safeguard their various interests in England, the West Indies and America. This lithograph illustrates the French landing at Carreg Gwastad Point near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire on 22 February 1797, where they surrendered two days later.

In 1796, and between July and October 1797, James Harris, Lord Malmesbury, was negotiating for peace unsuccessfully with the French Directoire in Paris and Lille. These negotiations proved to be abortive, the French believing the British to be insincere. Temporarily, peace was later established by the new Prime Minister, Addington, in March 1802 with the Treaty of Amiens, Pitt having resigned as Prime Minister in 1801 over the issue of Catholic Emancipation. Bear in mind that the Acts of Union – of Great Britain and Ireland – came into force on the 1st January 1801.

During this period the writer of the note, under the pretence of being a businessman, came to London in order to meet the Royalist émigrés and learn their views on developments in Luxembourg, and to gain an understanding of their hopes and expectations. In addition he was to discover what he could of the plans of the British government with regard to the possible invasion of England by France in the event of the failure of the Lille negotiations. It is thought that the note would have been written ‘no later than the end of 1796’, suggesting Mme de Cassini was in London prior to her later letters to William Windham.

The writer of the note produced for his new French masters unflattering portraits of British ministers, particularly of William Pitt, the Duke of Portland and William Windham, though treating Henry Dundas, Earl Spencer and William Grenville more favourably. Interestingly this group were among those who resigned in the ministerial crisis of February 1801, following the Act of Union 1800. The writer’s notes on the character of five of the leaders of the French émigrés were also less than favourable. On four of these – the Duc d’Harcourt, Duc de Bourbon, Comte de Blangy and the Bishop of Saint-Pol-de-Leon – he was scurrilous, but with regard to Mme de Cassini he described her as having taste and spirit while exerting considerable influence over the émigrés. He added, ‘I have her confidence’.

But above all, the writer went on to characterise the Baron de Nantia as being a traitor and scoundrel, ‘president of the organisation providing help to the émigrés and director or supervisor of all the Royalist observers whom Pitt bribes’. He claimed that the Baron de Nantia liaised with the Vendée – the counter-revolutionary insurrections in the west of France – as well as the Chouannerie – a Royalist uprising in many of the western départements of France, particularly in the provinces of Brittany and Maine – on behalf of the British government, together with Royalists within and outside Paris. Moreover, it appears that Baron de Nantia supervised those who were paid to spy on their Royalist compatriots and produce summaries of their observations to the British government. In so doing he described important émigrés such as the Comte d’Artois and the Comte d’Harcourt as being subservient to Mme de Cassini, the writer noting that, in this, Baron de Nantia was following only the interests of the government they betrayed.

Mme de Cassini was also said to have been used by Baron de Nantia as an involuntary accomplice in the stopping of English aid to the colonies, and that she was able to obtain information at any time, he said, through the offices of the Duke of Portland.

Eight days after arriving in England the writer was arrested at the Sablonière hotel in London’s Leicester Square on the orders of the Duke of Portland and, after nine days’ detention, was questioned by Pitt, Windham and the Duke. It appears that the Baron de Nantia had received information from Calais via Mme de Cassini suggesting the writer was not whom he appeared to be, and even though she is said to have thought the rumours false. By his own description he managed to maintain his business cover by appearing not to understand all that was put to him. Note that the writer was being interviewed by extremely senior members of the government. He was imprisoned for two months then transported at his own expense from Yarmouth to Cuxhaven in Lower Saxony, Germany. His subsequent fate is unknown other than that he wrote that he was going on to Paris.

It appears from the references to her that Mme de Cassini must have been one of the more important figures among the Royalist émigrés in that she had access to the key figures both in the British government as well as the Royalists. However, I have not been able to find much written about her intrigues and activities at that time other than that she was in England in February 1797 and in August and October 1797, as noted elsewhere. Whether this suggests she was living in England permanently at this time, or whether she moved into and out of the continent as did others, I am unable to say.

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Developments on the continent

Storming of the Tuileries – Courtesy of Wikimedia

Concerned by the rising support for Royalists, the 4th September 1797 saw the 18th Fructidor coup d’état by the Vicomte de Barras, Jean-François Rewbell and Louis Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux, with the addition of Philippe Merlin de Douai and Nicolas-Louis François de Neufchâteau to complete the revised five Directors of the Directoire. The coup d’état was carried out by Bonaparte’s General Pierre Augereau who was sent from Italy to support General Lazare Hoche, then commander of the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse, and to make the arrests. Following the coup, elections in forty-nine French départments were cancelled and forty deputies, taken from the two Councils with other men of note, arrested. Some of them, including Barthélemy, Pichegru, Willot, Ramel, Barbé-Marbois and Laffon de Ladebat were deported to a penal colony in Cayenne, French Guiana, travelling and held under cruel conditions.

I note from one source that it is likely Wickham was in Switzerland as he was given permission by George III to visit Frankfurt which he did, leaving Switzerland on the 9th November 1797. But this may have been due to the Directoire which, irritated by his activities, managed to have him returned to England in January 1798. It was here he received Pichegru and others whose escape had been organised from their prison in Guiana.

Resigning from his position as Superintendent of Aliens, Wickham was appointed Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. Here he was able to combine sources of information from the Foreign Office, Admiralty, War Office, Post Office and Home Office. This combining of internal and external intelligence services essentially made Wickham the head of Britain’s secret services.

Defeat of the rebels at Vinegar Hill – Courtesy of Wikimedia

Meanwhile the government was becoming increasingly concerned about the situation in Ireland where the United Irishmen and Scottish radicals sought closer links with France. The Irish rebellion of May 1798 had its conceptual origins in the American and French revolutions and, with British forces active elsewhere it must have seemed a propitious time to begin an uprising. The United Irishmen were formed of Irish Presbyterians who were joined by Catholics in wanting to see an Ireland free of the British and their Protestant support. In June the rebels were fortified by a small French contingent under General Humbert who landed in County Mayo to support the rebellion. But the British forces overwhelmed the rebels and brought the insurrection to an end by September 1798.

A four hundred livres assignat issued in 1792 – Courtesy of Wikimedia

In France, the Directoire was engaged in a continuous series of wars with a number of coalitions of its neighbouring states as well as with states further away. This led to economic difficulties with the Assignat, a paper monetary instrument issued by the National Assembly between 1789 and 1796, but depreciating and fomenting considerable public unrest mainly due to its being based on confiscated Catholic and Royal property. The Assignat was produced in relatively high values however, with the intent on its being used to purchase land, proved impractical in daily use.

The Directoire under Barras now fell into increasing disrepute through its corruption. This led to a coup d’état on the 18th June 1799, establishing the Consulate with Sieyès and Roger Ducos as the main directors. However, Bonaparte, on his return from Egypt in October 1799, carried out a coup d’état on the 18th Brumaire, 9th November 1799, establishing the new Consulate.

The Consulate was duly legalised by the Council of the Ancients on the 10th November 1799 and was headed by three Consuls – Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles-François Lebru. Napoleon gradually reinforced his position as First Consul and head of the triumvirate, emasculating both the other two Consuls as well as the Assemblies. This escalation of his powers lasted until the dissolution of the Consulate on the 18th May 1804, and the beginning of what is known as the Napoleonic Empire.

On the 7th February 1800 a public national referendum on a new constitution was held. It confirmed Napoleon as First Consul and the effective leader of the French nation. His popularity increased with military victories and increasing acquisition of lands. On the 2nd August 1802 a second national referendum was held confirming Napoleon as consul à vie – the first Consul for Life. This was followed on the 2nd December 1804 by his being crowned Emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris by Pope Pius VII.

France’s war with Austria was brought to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Lunéville on the 9th February 1801, and ceding part of Italy to France – though war was to break out again in 1805.

Following difficult and protracted negotiations, the next year saw the Treaty of Amiens signed with Britain on the 25th March 1802. This period of peace lasted only a year but initially was extremely well received by the British public. The latter part of the year saw many English taking the opportunity of the lifting of hostilities to visit France, particularly Paris, while some of the French émigrés felt they were now able to return to France.

more to be written…

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William Windham

William Windham – courtesy of Wikimedia

Born in London on the 14th May 1750, William Windham was educated at Eton and the universities of Glasgow and Oxford. He entered Parliament on the 5th April 1784 as the member for Norwich where his family was based. His early support of the American colonists then engaged in their War of Independence was paralleled by initial interest in the activities of the Revolution in France though he compared it with the British parliamentary system which was based on election by the people.

Windham spent three weeks in France in August and September 1789, returning to Paris in September 1791 where he witnessed the introduction of the new constitution at the National Assembly, but being critical of its humiliation of King Louis XVI as well as the principle of parliamentary reform. At that time he foresaw nothing of the violence that was to come.

His dislike of parliamentary reform and the displacing of the Royalty saw him support the short-lived war in the Vendée region of France, which lasted from March to December 1793. This uprising was pro-Catholic and Royalty, perhaps due to the relatively settled character of the region and its resident nobility. However, the insurrection was put down with considerable savagery, enhancing the concerns of those in England viewing trends in Europe.

War against France was declared on the 9th February 1793 following the execution of Louis XVI on the 21st January 1793. On the 17th June 1793, the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, offered Windham the position of Secretary at War which he accepted until resigning on the 7th February 1801 on the issue of Catholic emancipation. His Royalist sympathies saw him obtaining a degree of support for French emigrées and the Quiberon expedition, but his activities to restore the Bourbons and support the Royalists was not met with universal Cabinet support and dwindled with the intransigence he found there.

Nevertheless he continued to meet with and advance the Royalist cause as best he could. His meetings with Madame de Cassini would be seen to be a part of this work but, probably more importantly, he also met Pichegru in May 1798 who, with others had escaped from their prison in Guiana.

On the 7th February 1801, along with Pitt, Windham resigned in reaction to George III’s veto of Catholic emancipation in the King’s belief it would violate his coronation oath.

The Peace of Amiens was signed on the 25th March 1802 putting an end to the French Revolutionary wars with France.

William Windham died on the 4th June 1810 following complications from an operation to remove a tumour that developed after a fall. He was thought brilliant by many, but considered to be too far right a Whig to be effective in politics.

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William Wickham

Detail of the front page of the 1793 Aliens Act

Revolutionary activities in France, coinciding with the American War of Independence, increased concerns in Britain for its own stability. The anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780 – responding to the Papist Act of 1778 which relaxed official discrimination against Catholics – resulted in hundreds of deaths and, due to these and other anxieties of the middle- and upper-classes, a number of attempts were made in Parliament to form a policing organisation.

It is not surprising that Britain was attempting to develop better safety with a need for intelligence both inside its borders as well as outside them. The failure of the Police Bill of 1785 saw the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 which was followed with the Aliens Act in 1793, a temporary measure that was increasingly unused, the Aliens Office closing with the Registration of Aliens Act 1836. The purpose of the Act was to ensure that every foreigner entering the country would be registered.

The Middlesex Justices Act not only created a system of magistrates, but a small supporting police force. This latter was, in essence, seen as a guard against civil insurrection, but also an organisation designed to keep an eye on increasing French intelligence activities within Britain that were thought to be associated with certain London clubs.

William Wickham – courtesy of Wikimedia

One of the magistrates appointed as an integral element of the Bill was William Wickham, born the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Wickham of Cottingley, West Yorkshire on the 11th November 1761. He was first a student at Harrow and then a scholarship student at Christ Church, Oxford where he graduated with a B.A. in 1782. From there he went on to Geneva where he gained a degree in law at its university in 1786 and in the same year was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. It was in Geneva that he met his future wife, the daughter of a professor of mathematics. They were married on the 10th August 1788 at Geneva Cathedral.

This was a turbulent time across the Channel with King Louis XVI being executed in January 1793. From his appointment in 1793 as a stipendiary magistrate Wickham undertook secret work for the government at the behest of Lord Grenville in his position as Foreign Secretary. While many in government maintained informers or spies this is now regarded, in effect, as the beginning the British Secret Service. The Aliens Act was followed in the next year, 1794, with Wickham being appointed Superintendent of Aliens by the Duke of Portland, the Home Secretary. It was evident that the British government was increasingly concerned by the rising unrest and instability witnessed in France and the countries it bordered.

Although Wickham had been appointed Superintendent of Aliens, his previous experience in Switzerland saw him sent there in an attempt to investigate the veracity of a suggestion from a French source that a peace settlement might be found, and to develop this as best he might. It was there he spent some time, reporting back to London. Switzerland at that time was considered to be an ideal location for the raising of forces against France, as well as being well placed on its flank should there be any attack on France from its south coast. This placed Wickham in a slightly better position from other magistrates with a government intent on dealing with the problems at hand.

Token of Louis-Charles at the age of ten – Courtesy of Wikimedia

However, this initiative was immediately halted with the death of Louis-Charles, titular Louis XVII, at the age of ten in the Temple prison in Paris, on the 8th June 1795. Although Wickham had settled into Swiss life, first as Chargé d’Affaires and then, in 1795, as Minister Plenipotentiary, his remit was supposed to be restricted to matters in the Low Countries and not in France – though it was evident that, in order to be able to carry out this work, he had to take account of what was happening in France.

This work was complex with travel restricted and communications taking weeks to move between London and Switzerland. It was also complicated by the vacillations of the Prince de Condé. Suspicious by nature he found it difficult to commit himself in writing and found himself, unknowingly, advised by double agents in dealing with General Pichegru and others. Despite this and other difficulties, by mid-1795 a considerable intelligence network had been established connecting all the Royalist interests and the associated military elements around France on land and sea.

Nevertheless, there was continuing disaffection, the manoeuvering of individuals acting out of self-interest or weakness, and some important defeats of Royalist forces. The result of this was that the insurrection centring on the Midi that Wickham had envisaged, proved impossible to bring about. One of the important factors in this was a poorly considered declaration made by Louis XVIII – brother of Louis XVI, titular head following the death of his young nephew Louis-Charles – which alienated potential supporters and hardened the resolve of those who realised they would be executed if defeated. This suited the British as they were working towards a solution focussed on a constitutional, rather than an absolute monarchy.

Meanwhile in England, a network of French and Irish agents had been established, directed from France, with the intent of fomenting insurrection. There was considerable concern that border control should have been more effective but, equally important, there was also the possibility of a French invasion. In April and May of 1797 there were a series of naval mutinies thought to have been fomented by French agents, but as likely to have been due to problems of pay and conditions for ordinary sailors.

The machinations required by all involved in the problems of Europe proved increasingly wearing for Wickham. His health suffered and, by the turn of the century he was worn out. He was not alone in this as other members of the government squabbled, drank immoderately and some even committing suicide. Returning to England, Wickham tendered his resignation at the end of 1800 anticipating a continuation of work in the foreign service, preferably as Governor of Malta – though he was also involved in the problems in Ireland where he had sympathy for the Catholics. But the delicate negotiations with France now placed him in a difficult position because of his espionage work on the continent.

However, Wickham was able to continue his career in government, moving away from the problems in France, but to the related difficulties the United Kingdom was facing in Ireland. With the transition of the Chief Secretary for Ireland to the Speaker’s chair, that Irish post became vacant. This was offered and accepted by Wickham along with, on the 13th January 1802, his appointment as a Privy Councillor which he saw as a recognition by the King of his work on the continent.

At the heart of the difficulties facing him was the difference of opinion as to how Ireland might be brought into the United Kingdom. Some saw this as the addition of another county, but Wickham realised, with others, the sensitivities of the Irish and the difficulties associated with short and long term control. The Act of Union, which came into effect on the 1st January 1801, had created bitterness on both sides of the Irish Sea and Wickham’s concern to move forward with religious reforms was contrary to government policy.

more to be written…

The trial of Robert Emmet – Courtesy of Wikipedia

While the Irish rebellion of May 1798 had been focussed on the Irish government, the Irish rebellion of 1803 was raised against the now British administration of Ireland. It was a brief affair. Following a degree of preparation the previous year, it began in the centre of Dublin on the 23rd July 1803 and focussed on Dublin Castle. Led by Robert Emmet it was almost immediately called off when Emmet witnessed the brutality of some of the rebels – ones over whom he had no control – in the main fighting on Thomas Street. He escaped but, with others, was caught a month later and hanged on Thomas Street on the 20th September 1803.

Giving his ill-health as a reason for giving up his post – earlier it had been suggested that he might resign for the honourable reason of a conflict of interests with his friend, Lord William Grenville – Wickham tendered his resignation as Chief Secretary for Ireland in January 1804.

Combined with his illness, and the political ascendancy of William Pitt, Wickham felt increasingly unable to carry out his government functions.

more to be written…

Wickham retired in 1807 and lived out a quiet life in relatively straitened circumstances. He maintained a friendship with Lord Greville but his latter years were spent visiting friends in England and Switzerland and often passing winter in the south of France. But these years were marked by illness and depression. His wife died in April 1836 in Geneva, and he died four years later in Brighton on the 22nd October 1840.

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Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith

Engraving of Sir William Sidney Smith, artist Allen, engraver, West, published October 1796

I can’t tell who made it, but a note in a different hand on one of the letters from Mme de Cassini to William Windham of the 2nd October 1797 states that Sir Sidney Smith was in the Bastille at that time. This was a mistake, in fact he was incarcerated in the Temple prison. However, I believe this note may be significant in suggesting a reason for Mme de Cassini’s visit to William Windham. He is certainly mentioned in one of the four letters: with apologies for the translation…

The welcome, Sir, which you have wanted to give me while I had the honour to see you and the recommendation of Sir Sidney, encourages me to beg of you again to allow me to come and see you and give me your orders… There is much talk about Sir Sydney, perhaps too much. I very much hope that at least what I have heard will come about… For in his way of thinking I expect that he must fervently wish to recover his liberty. I may be able perhaps to have some news of him, if I have a safe way of getting a letter to Paris.

Born on the 21st June 1764, William Sidney Smith joined the British navy in 1777, seeing action at the battles of Cape Saint Vincent, Chesapeake and the Saintes, but was demobilised on half-pay and the rank of Captain following the Treaty of Paris on the 3rd September 1783. He then spent some time travelling in France, learning to speak perfect French. For two years, under the guise of being a traveller, he observed the development of the harbour at Cherbourg, reporting to the Admiralty that, when completed, the French port would have a similar capability as Portsmouth, Britain’s main military port. Suspected of spying he left in 1787 via Spain, moving to Tangiers in the anticipation of future conflict there.

This was a time when there was considerable activity by Barbary pirates who ranged all over the Mediterranean and Atlantic, taking goods as well as slaves from shipping and land bases in Europe and even Iceland and America. The British government had not yet come to terms with the settlement of the problems created by these activities originating as they did some way from England, and when their more immediate problems were America and Europe. Interestingly, in semi-retirement, Smith campaigned for the release of Christian slaves from captivity in Barbary north Africa.

At this time, Sultan Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah was attempting to amend his economic policies from those relating to the collection of taxes and a standing army, to one based on maritime trade. To further this policy, the Sultan wished to allow American ships into his ports. Smith’s recommendations to change British policy and strengthen control of the Straits of Gibraltar were not acted upon and, in the apparent lack of interest, he accepted an invitation in 1790 from the King of Sweden to advise in his naval war against Russia, in fact leading successful naval operations against it. Regrettably six British naval officers were killed fighting on the side of the Russians which earned Smith a degree of enmity though, at the request of King Gustavus III of Sweden, George III invested him a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Sword, an additional cause for jealousy.

Smith returned to London in May 1792 and was directed to join his younger brother, the chargé d’affaires in Constantinople, where he was able to provide intelligence to Britain at a time when Napoleon was about to move into the region. There he recruited a crew and joined the British Mediterranean fleet as a volunteer, carrying out a mission to burn the general stores in Toulon and set fire to French ships there. This operation was only a partial success, the result of which left him unpopular with Nelson and others.

In January 1795, and returned again to London, Smith was given command of a small flotilla in the Channel, sailing on HMS ‘Diamond’. In July of that year Smith occupied the islands of St. Marcouf off the Normandy coast with the intention of blockading Le Havre and assisting migrants leaving France. Despite his skills in carrying out this operation, an unfortunate change of wind direction in the estuary enabled the French to capture Captain Smith and others.

The Abbaye prison, Paris – illustration in the public domain

Sir Sidney was imprisoned for two years, first being placed in the prison de l’Abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, the scene of notorious massacres in September 1792. After two months Sir Sidney was moved to the Temple prison, a more secure building where the King and Queen had previously been held. Although captured in combat, he was held and threatened with execution as a spy, probably in order that the French would enjoy a better bargaining position with the British.

Engraving of Sir Sidney Smith. Imprisoned in the Abbaye Paris, artist Philippe Auguste Hennequin, engraver, Maria Cosway, published 17 July 1797

However, he escaped on the 24th April 1798, together with John Wesley Wright – a midshipman from the ‘Diamond’ and who acted as his secretary in prison – in an operation planned by the British secret services, travelling via Rouen to Le Havre, and arriving in London on the 6th May, according to William Windham’s diary. The Temple prison had become a State prison in 1796, having previously housed King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1792 until their execution the following year.

In the context of the letters from Mme de Cassini to William Windham, mentioned above, it is interesting to note that Smith also corresponded with Windham from his prison. Bearing in mind that he was ‘detenu au secret’ and that correspondence was forbidden, at least five letters passed between them, unopened. Writing on the 6th October 1796, Sir Sidney began his letter:

My letter of July 23 was written, I confess, without much hope of its reaching you. Judge then of my surprise and satisfaction at receiving an acknowledgement of it in your letter of September 9. How a letter of that nature can have passed the jaws of all the cerberuses and the Eyes of all the Arguses by which I am surrounded, so as to arrive into the innermost recess of this Tomb with the seal unbroken is matter of mystery to me. It is useless and would be impolitic to enquire into that too much. Your ability in contriving to find such able and faithfull agents calls forth my admiration, at the same time that the warmth of your expressions respecting the interest that is taken in my situation, commands my most lively gratitude. May I beg of you to convey these sentiments likewise to those you allude to as taking part in the general wish for my safety and welfare.

William Windham responded to Smith on the 5th November 1796, giving him news about the taking of a Dutch squadron and his views on the Austrians as well as hoping that Lord Malmesbury, the Ambassador to Paris, might help his predicament, and that correspondence might be allowed. This secret correspondence appears to have been effective. Windham recorded in his diary of the 17th November that he had received a letter from Sir Sidney dated the 9th November and delivered by a M. Duverne.

Sir Sidney was treated strictly, being moved from the responsibility of the French Minister of War to that of the Minister of the Interior. Furthermore it was argued that he could not be exchanged, as was the practice, because he was not recognised to be a prisoner of war, having held no commission from the British Government when he had burnt the French ships at Toulon.

He continued to argue with his captors, exchanging letters with them and apparently enjoying some sympathy from French officers coming into contact with him. At the same time the British government sent Lord Malmesbury and Henry Swinburne – the latter who had travelled extensively across Europe, producing illustrated books on his travels in Spain and the Two Sicilies – to negotiate his, and others’ release, but to no effect.

A month after Sir Sidney escaped, Windham recorded in a letter of the 17th May 1798 to Lord Grenville, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Windham’s cousin, that Smith had spoken with Lord Grenville about the parlous state of the Royalists in France. Windham argued that relatively small funding would help tie up French forces in Brittany and La Vendée, and that foreign groupings allied against France should use the Royalists. Bear in mind that Grenville supported war on land as opposed to war at sea, the preferred approach by Henry Dundas, Secretary for War under William Pitt.

There is considerable correspondence to and from Windham at this time relating to the Royalists and their use in the fight against revolutionary France.

On the 1st July 1798, Napoleon had landed in Egypt and the British government were concerned for the security of British interests in the Indian sub-continent. Napoleon was, however, land-locked with the destruction of his fleet at the battle of Aboukir Bay on the 1st August 1798. In order to make progress in Egypt, as well as to advance his position with those running France, Napoleon implemented a strategy based on the gaining and dissemination of information both locally and in France.

Smith was rewarded for his escape from Paris with command of HMS ‘Tigris’, an eighty-gun, Duquesne class vessel captured from the French. On the 3rd October 1798 by order of an ‘Instrument of Full Power’ he was given autonomous military and political capability under the command of Admiral Vincent in the Mediterranean, an appointment which caused considerable irritation to Nelson who didn’t want to work with such a junior officer.

To some extent this posting might be explained by the skills Smith had demonstrated so far, but they were also seen to be related to family connections, the Prime Minister, William Pitt being his cousin, Lady Grenville, wife of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, his aunt and, particularly useful, his brother being the chargé d’ffaires in Constantinople.

It is also significant that he took on board with him seven French speakers whom he had come to know when imprisoned in Paris and who were familiar with espionage and the use of propaganda. Their names were disguised within the roster for the Royal Marines and Smith’s intent was to use them in dealing with French propaganda as well as hoping to spread dissension among French troops.

HMS Tigre before Acre

Sidney Smith arrived at Constantinople on the 26th December 1798, aware that Britain had no ground troops to move against Napoleon, and the knowledge that Britain saw the way forward by coming to an accommodation with the Ottoman empire. Largely due to his initiatives and activities, Smith defeated the French siege artillery at the Turkish held city of Acre, lifting the siege on the 20th May 1799. Napoleon returned to France, hence relieving the British of their concern for French interests in the Indian sub-continent.

On the 12th February 1806 Smith was again writing to William Windham, this time noting that he had accepted Nelson’s offer of an off-shore Mediterranean squadron which he was commanding from HMS Pompée, a French Téméraire class 74 gun ship-of-the-line which fled to the British in 1793 with the attack on Toulon. Essentially the letter appears to show Smith looking for action and complaining of those who were happy to take a more sedentary approach to their duties. This attitude was soon to get him into trouble as, on the 9th September Windham, now Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, wrote to Lord Grenville, now First Lord of the Treasury, the following private letter:

I certainly have every reason to agree with you in the wish of making the censure on Sir Sidney Smith as mild as possible, nor would I on any account urge you to a decision on the subject before you have given yourself time to consider the papers before us, which, I am sorry to say, are such as to have impressed my mind with the absolute necessity, on grounds of public duty; of our expressing a decided, tho’ mild, disapprobation of the following points:
1. His having, without the concurrence of the King’s Minister in Sicily, accepted a commission from that Government.
2. His having taken upon himself the command or direction (call it which we will) of an insurrection in Calabria destined to co-operate with a body of British troops under the command of a British General, in whom that direction ought, as far as it was fit to be assumed by any British officer, exclusively to have been vested. And,
3rdly, this issuing and acting under the proclamation of the Court of Sicily, such as we have actually received, and are not therefore at liberty to doubt of its existence, or of its having been directly remonstrated against by the King’s Minister in Sicily.
All these facts appear to be but too well established by Elliot’s letter to Fox, by the copy of Sir Sidney’s letters inclosed in that to Fox, and by the copy of the proclamation itself, transmitted to Lord Howick by Lord Collingwood.
But the censure may certainly be so worded as to attach only on the facts supposing them to be such as they now appear. In point of form, there can, I think, be no doubt that this, which is matter of general and political direction, ought to issue from the Secretary of State thro’ the Admiralty, and not from the latter in the first instance.

Despite the foregoing, Sir Sidney was raised to the rank of Vice-Admiral on the 31st July 1810 though he didn’t raise his flag until the summer of 1812 when he was appointed second in command of the Mediterranean fleet under Sir Edward Pellew, later Lord Exmouth.

Because of his services following the Battle of Waterloo and his safeguarding the return of Louis XVIII to Paris, Smith was rewarded with the British KCB in 1815 and, in 1838, the GCB. He attained the rank of Admiral on the 19th July 1821. Regrettably he was considered difficult to work with and arrogant, characteristics which made him unpopular in an increasingly bureaucratic navy.

The signature of Sir Sidney Smith

Because of the British government’s tardy repayment of expenses due to him, and the threat of being imprisoned for debt if he settled in England, Sir Sidney Smith went to live in Paris, taking with him his wife, Caroline, the widow of Sir George Berriman Rumbold, British minister to Hamburg. Smith married her in October 1810 and they had three daughters and a son. He died in Paris at the age of seventy-six on the 26th May 1840, and is buried in the largest Parisian cemetery – Cimetière du Père Lachaise.

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John Wesley Wright

A portrait of John Wesley Wright

This was an interesting time in both England and France with spies being run into and out of both countries and both their borders leaking badly. In fact instructions were given by the British government to those guarding the Channel ports that all the ‘Italian mirror makers and French picture framers’ were to be rounded up and imprisoned… In the middle of all this, the British secret service’s counter-revolutionary plans collapsed in France in September 1797.

John Wesley Wright, born in Minorca in 1769, was a captain in the British navy who carried secret agents into and out of revolutionary and Napoleonic France on his small, quarter-deck brig, HMS ‘Vencejo’, captured from the Spanish in 1799. One such group was landed on the 30th August 1803 and comprised Georges Cadoudal and his fellow Chouans and, on the 16th January 1804, General Charles Pichegru was landed, all these being involved in the plot to overthrow the Consulate. Incidentally, it was the Prince de Condé who brought General Pichegru into this operation.

Prior to his capture by the French with Sir Sidney Smith at Le Havre in 1796, John Wesley Wright and Sir Sidney served together for two years on HMS ‘Diamond’, Wright serving on her as a midshipman. Wright, serving now as a Lieutenant on HMS ‘Tigre’, was also present at the siege of Acre, between the 18th March and 20th May 1799.

Engraving of HMS Vencejo at Quiberon Bay by Bailey, made 1815 – with the permission of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

It is notable that there were petty intrigues and serious tantrums as various British naval officers felt or found themselves out-manoeuvred by events, particularly with respect to John Wesley Wright and his use of naval craft in his attempts to land anti-Napoleonic interests on the French coast. Wright was wounded and captured again by the French on the 8th May 1804, this time at Quiberon Bay on the north-west coast of France where he held out against superior odds for six weeks, but was taken when his ship, HMS Vencejo, was becalmed. He was returned to the Temple prison in Paris. The British government attempted to have him freed, a second motion being made on 11th July according to William Windham’s diary but the French, perhaps smarting from his earlier escape, accused him of conspiracy and other transgressions rather than treating him as a legitimate prisoner of war, and refused to free or exchange him arguing that no French officer would accept the dishonour of exchange with him.

Although there were plans being made to assist his escape, he was found dead in his cell in the Temple on the morning of the 4th Brumaire – the 25th October 1805, at the age of 36. He was buried on the 27th October 1805. I have also seen his death reported as being the 28th October 1805 and can’t say now, which is correct. There seem to be a number of different causes given for his death. It is said that he was found in his cell with his throat deeply cut by a razor found closed in his hand. It should, of course, have been discovered in the daily search of his cell. But the memoirs of Sir Sidney Smith state that he was shot after a mock trial, it previously being believed that he had been strangled by an individual who attended both Wright and Pichegru in the Temple. General Pichegru had been garrotted in the prison, some of the other captured conspirators having escaped death by Napoleon’s concern for the rising tide of defections in his northern troops. Whatever the cause of his death, the French claimed he killed himself; the British, and others believed he was murdered. The rationale for this is based on Smith’s discussions with the wife of the Gaoler of the Temple and others, the official records together with an examination of over two hundred papers Wright had written in the Temple, which showed him to have been positive in his outlook and, as was very important in those days, to behave properly and set a good example.

The Latin inscription on his tomb at Père La Chaise cemetery in Paris, was written by Sir Sidney Smith:

HERE LIES INHUMED
JOHN WESLEY WRIGHT,
BY BIRTH AN ENGLISHMAN,
CAPTAIN IN THE BRITISH NAVY
Distinguished both among his own Countrymen and Foreigners
For skill and courage;
To whom,
Of those things which lead to the summit of glory,
Nothing was wanting but opportunity:
His ancestors, whose virtues he inherited,
He honoured by his deeds.
Quick in apprehending his orders,
Active and bold in the execution of them;
In success modest,
In adverse circumstances firm,
In doubtful enterprises, wise and prudent.
Awhile successful in his career;
At length assailed by adverse winds, and on an hostile shore,
He was captured;
And being soon after brought to Paris,
Was confined in the prison called the Temple,
‘Infamous for midnight murders’,
And placed in the most rigid custody:
But in bonds,
And suffering severities still more oppressive,
His fortitude of mind and fidelity to his country
Remained unshaken.
A short time after,
He was found in the morning with his throat cut.
And dead in his bed:
He died the 28th October, 1805, aged 36.
To be lamented by his Country,
Avenged by his God!

It is difficult to characterise the maneouvrings of the various interests within the British and French governments. The French, for their part, were concerned to identify those working against their interests, and many were imprisoned and tortured in attempts to learn who were ranged against Napoleon and French interests. They were also unsuccessful in their attempts to find the links between the British and royalists who, appalled by the self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon, wished to reintroduce monarchy to France. British diplomacy and their links with the conspirators was severely compromised, a state that redounded on its interests world-wide.

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Military and cartographic issues

As will be obvious from what has gone before, while putting together these notes on the Babaud and Masson families, I have come across a number of individuals who were military officers in both the French armies and navy. It is notable that the French military were significantly better advanced both in military science as well as in the use of cartography – the latter admirably developed by the Cassini family – than the British. The interaction of military movement and cartography go hand in hand and, in this area, the French held significant advantages which were not countered by the British for some time, in fact until the early years of the nineteenth century.

A second issue is that there were a significant number of French Catholics serving in the French military at the beginning of the French Revolution. The majority of these would have been French, of course, but there were also a significant number of foreign soldiers, among them British officers. Some of these Catholics found themselves unable to support Revolutionary France and gave their skills and experience to the British, an extremely useful asset at this period of European history.

more to be written…



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