The peace between Napoleonic France and Britain didn’t last long. By 1803, hostility had built up to the point where Napoleon began planning for another war. But how to attack in the face of British naval power? ‘If we are masters of the Channel for six hours, we are masters of the world,’ he said.
The answer had been lurking at the back of his mind ever since Albert Mathieu-Favier approached him with a design for a tunnel under the English Channel (La Manche, from the French side). Napoleon had loved the idea, as he loved all bold ideas, but the original planned tunnel for peacetime commercial traffic was no longer relevant. However, an invasion tunnel had become very relevant indeed!
Napoleon created a special demi-brigade of troops to do the digging, starting secretly in the woods near Boulogne. The diggers worked in shifts, day and night, using simple picks and shovels, with trolleys on tracks to carry the dirt away. Under Mathieu-Favier’s supervision, they made steady progress throughout 1803, and by 1804 were approaching the English coast—one hundred metres down.
Napoleon kept them digging at a rising incline until they were three-quarters of a kilometre inland, by-passing the English coastal defences. He gathered his main army near Boulogne and feigned moves to combine the French and Spanish fleets, knowing that the British would expect an invasion by sea. The last 250 metres of the tunnel were dug very cautiously and quietly; the final ten metres were dug in a rush. The French had no idea exactly where the tunnel would emerge—in the middle of an onion field, as it turned out, near the Kentish village of West Hougham. On the night of September 14th, 1804, the ground caved in and blue-jacketed French soldiers streamed out of the hole.
A prompt British response could have cut off the invasion that night, or at any time during the following day. The tunnel was only wide enough for two infantrymen abreast, and no more than 400 French soldiers stood on English soil by daybreak. By nightfall of September 15th, however, their numbers had grown to 4,000 and the chance to counter-attack had passed. The French took control of the area around West Hougham, spreading their perimeter to a distance of five kilometres.
On the morning of September 16th, Napoleon himself appeared, to rousing cheers from his troops. His strategy was to secure the South-East of England between Sittingbourne and Rye, while he built up his forces. He achieved this goal over the next six days, while his opponents continued to dither. Having control of the coastline on either side of the Channel, he was able to ship horses and cannon across under cover of night, evading the English naval blockade. When the English finally concentrated their army for a counter-attack, they were totally routed at the Battle of Dartford (September 30th).
Meanwhile, the working-class people of London had been greatly excited by news of the arrival of a revolutionary army. Napoleon used French spies and secret supporters to inflame anti-government sentiment and spread promises of liberté, égalité, fraternité. There were great celebrations and demonstrations on the streets of London after the Battle of Dartford.
It wasn’t a revolution, but the government, outraged and terrified by this show of unpatriotic feeling, made it into one. They ordered the defeated and humiliated troops from Staplehurst to turn their muskets on the populace, and the resulting deaths sparked a mass uprising. The spirit of revolution soon flared in other towns too, from the old ports of Bristol and Hull to the new industrial centres of Birmingham and Manchester.
The government, under William Pitt the Younger, moved further and further to the right, attempting to negotiate with Napoleon whilst crushing their own English workers. These muddled tactics played into Napoleon’s hands. He took London without a fight and the British line retreated 200 kilometres to the north.
At this crucial moment, news from the continent turned everything upside down. Austria and Russia had again declared war on France, and the Austrian army under Archduke Charles was already marching along the upper Danube towards the Rhine. Napoleon had no choice but to rush back across the Channel to meet the new threat, leaving General Marmont and General Murat to continue the invasion.
Although the élite of the Imperial Guard were in England, there was no shortage of French troops still stationed across Europe. Napoleon advanced by forced marches across the principalities of southern Germany, turned the flank of the Austrians and compelled them to retreat towards Vienna. He then swung against the Prussians, who had just added their weight to the coalition, and dealt them a crushing defeat at Gotha. Then south again, to split the Austrians from the Russians, now slowly advancing towards the Moravian Gap. He eliminated each of his opponents in turn, until Austria and Prussia sued for peace in 1806, Russia in 1807.
It was too late for him to save the situation in England, however. Marmont and Murat had fallen out and failed to make the most of their opportunities; the English working-classes were more interested in their own revolution than in fighting alongside the invaders; and the British discovered in Arthur Wellesley a general who could more than match the French is tactical nous and all-round military competence.
Wellesley surrounded and laid siege to the rebellious northern towns, then, at the Battle of Crawley (Oxfordshire), defeated a mass force of Londoners marching to the relief of Birmingham. The government had no plan for dealing with the fifty thousand workers who surrendered at Crawley, so herded them into a great fenced camp on the outskirts of Banbury.
Meanwhile. Wellesley feinted a direct advance on London, but secretly conveyed the majority of his army across the Thames, downriver from the city. Sweeping along the line of the Medway, he cut off the French lines of communication. Marmont and Murat prepared to defend London, but Wellesley had other plans. Turning east instead of west, he led his forces towards the mouth of the tunnel in Kent. With no further invading troops marching through, the tunnel exit was feebly guarded; Wellesley took control, sent in sappers and flooded the whole length of the underground shaft (February, 1806).
The psychological effect on the invaders was profound. Knowing themselves permanently cut off from their own country took all the heart out of them. The fighting that continued over the next two years was mainly a mopping up operation. Napoleon, at the height of his dominance in Europe, was powerless to save the situation in Britain. Murat was killed in a desperate last-ditch defence in 1807; Marmont surrendered with the remaining French troops at the Surrender of Aylesham in 1808.
Napoleon laughed off the defeat. ‘Let that nation of shopkeepers go on with their shopkeeping,’ he said. ‘I shall come calling on them again.’ But he never did.
In Britain, the mood became more and more reactionary. The urban working-classes who had ‘betrayed’ their country were now treated as war criminals. The government rounded them up, along with all possible sympathisers, and locked them away in a dozen camps similar to Banbury. As the war dragged on through another 35 years, the prisoners became the forgotten people. Children were born in the camps who had never known freedom in the outside world.
However, the rapid industrialisation of England under pressure of war required an ever-increasing workforce, and factory owners were soon crying out for labour. The government saw a way to make the camps pay for themselves by hiring out prisoners to work as slaves, under the supervision of troops of armed public officers (the first police force). Attempted rebellions were put down cruelly and ruthlessly, as in the three Manchester Massacres of 1838. It was around the time of the Manchester Massacres that the term ‘Filthies’ first came into popular use.