Vice Admiral 

Pierre Charles 

Jean Baptiste Silvestre 

de Villeneuve

(1763-1806)

 

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It is possible to feel sympathy for some, as well as respect for others, of Nelson's opponents. With Pierre Villeneuve, the most famous of the opponents, this is a harder task. Unlike Gravina it is difficult to diagnose ability or courage. Unlike Fischer we cannot say he was beaten by his own limitations nor was he the victim of bad luck as in the case of Cordova. Villeneuve and his pride were the main reasons why Trafalgar was fought. 


            Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Silvestre de Villeneuve was born into an aristocratic family at Valensoles in Provence in 1763. He joined the French navy at the age of 15 and served as a garde de pavilIon under Suffren during the latter's campaign against the British in the Indian ocean between 1782-1783. With the outbreak of the revolution in France, Villeneuve did not follow the lead of many of his contemporaries and resign from the navy. In fact he supported the revolution, dropped the aristocratic "de" from his name and obtained his captaincy. In 1793 he met Napoleon for the first time and in 1796 was promoted to Rear Admiral. He commanded a squadron in the expedition in which it was planned to invade Ireland and in 1798 was junior flag officer in Brueys' fleet.  There he served with colleagues with whom he would have close connections later -Ganteaume (Brueys' chief of staff and commander at Brest during the Trafalgar campaign) and Decres (later the Naval Minister).
            

            At the Battle of the Nile Villeneuve commanded the 80 gun "Le Guillaume Tell" at the rear of the French line. He escaped from the battle with his ship undamaged accompanied by another ship of the line and 2 frigates. Napoleon referred to him at this time as a "lucky man" but Villeneuve was much criticised for failing to support the head of the French line and for fleeing the scene of the action. In what was to be characteristic he had perfectly plausible excuses. He blamed his dead commander Brueys who "had foreseen the case where he could call the van to the support of the centre or rear if these were attacked, but he had put down no article which would take the ships of the rear to the help of the vanguard, because the thing was impossible and he would have divided his squadron without being able to take any advantage from it". In other words because he had no orders specifically to do so Villeneuve did not attempt it. It is reckoned however that the French rear if it had attacked would have captured the "Culloden" and prevented other British ships entering the bay.


            Villeneuve lived to fight another day and built up a reputation as an able tactician. However he might have never fought against Nelson if it had not been due to two extraordinary pieces of bad luck for the French. Firstly Admiral Latouche-Treville the capable commander who had repulsed Nelson at Boulogne died from a heart attack during his command of the Toulon fleet on 14 August 1804. The question then arose of who would replace him. The second piece of bad luck was that more capable admirals were either appointed elsewhere or were out of favour. Vice Admiral Ganteaume was appointed to command of the Brest fleet following Napoleon's dismissal of Admiral Trugeut in the summer of 1804. The commander of the invasion flotilla, the very capable Admiral Eustace de Bruix was passed over, possibly because he had dared to oppose Napoleon in public. So it was that Villeneuve's friend Decres summoned Villeneuve to an interview and offered him promotion to Vice Admiral, the ribbon of a Grand Officier and explained the invasion plan to him provided he took command of the Toulon fleet. We have Decres own account of what happened. "The risks to be run did not of themselves seem to him insuperable; and in the end his advancement to the rank of Grand Officier and Vice Admiral seemed to make a new man of him. All thoughts of the difficulties attending the scheme seemed to be laid aside, effaced by the hopes of glory. He ended indeed by saying to me "I fall in with it entirely". On 19th December 1804 Villeneuve arrived at Toulon where he raised his flag over his new flagship the recently launched 80 gun "Bucentaure." Waiting for him were sealed orders which he duly promised "to execute to the letter".


            At first Villeneuve acted as his role demanded. He warned his captains that the worst consequences would befall them if they were not at their posts at the heat of battle. But then, as one of his officers remarked, his fear of Nelson got the better of him. Excuses were given to Paris as to why he could not sail and in each of these reports his fear of Nelson is apparent. Villeneuve seems to have been totally unhinged by Nelson's actions at the Nile and feared that when they met there would be another battle of annihilation. Following an attempt to leave harbour on 18th January 1805, which failed due to his ships suffering storm damage, Villeneuve on 22nd January wrote a letter to Decres resigning his commission - slightly over a month after taking command! "You will be so good to recall that I have not asked for command of this squadron. What is more, to the contrary, I have always sought a practical and useful career, as opposed to one filled with glory. I should like to point out to you that about all one can expect from a career in the French navy today is shame and confusion, and anyone who denies this I declare to be presumptuous, utterly blind and incapable of straight thinking".


            If this was bad more was to follow. "It is my most ardent wish that the Emperor decide not to commit any of his squadrons to the hazard of these events, for if he does the French flag will be seriously compromised. In reality it is utterly impossible for us to defeat the enemy when both sides are equal, indeed they will beat us when they are a third weaker than we are. Under no circumstances do I intend to become the laughing stock of Europe by being involved in further disasters". Villeneuve blamed the crews for their lack of experience and the Naval Prefect at Toulon for the poor quality of supplies. There is truth in this, the crews had been blockaded in Toulon and could not practice naval exercises. Rear Admiral Missiessy at Rochefort complained about the substandard quality of ropes canvas and timber but neither untrained crews nor a lack of good supplies prevented Missiessy from breaking out of the blockade at Rochefort and sailing across the Atlantic. Villeneuve lacked the determination of a fighting leader. Napoleon could be forgiven for writing to the commander of the troops on board the fleet "I really believe your Admiral does not know how to command. The separation of a few vessels was nothing at all. We would have to renounce ever putting to sea, even during the finest weather, if we were always worried about losing a few ships".


            Readers may wonder why Villeneuve was not replaced. The truth is that Decres had no-one to replace him that had not offended Napoleon. Also, it is important to remember that Villeneuve was not the most senior naval commander in the operation. True his task was to escape from Toulon and with the Spanish fleet sail to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. There he would land his troops but it was also here that his independence of command would end. At Martinique he would be joined by the Rochefort squadron under Rear Admiral Missiessy and by the stronger Brest fleet under Vice Admiral Ganteaume and it was Ganteaume who would be in overall command. This combined fleet of 40 ships would defeat the English vessels in the Channel and shepherd the invasion flotilla over to invade England. Consequently Ganteaume, a much more fighting admiral than Villeneuve, had to remain in command of the 20 ships of the line and 5 frigates at Brest and Villeneuve in command of the 11 ships of the line and 6 frigates at Toulon.


            On 30th March having written a letter to Decres in which he said "I pray that the future will treat me more kindly" (!!) Villeneuve escaped from Toulon. On 10th April he left Cadiz and on 26th May the Spanish and French squadrons joined each other at Martinique. Once there Villeneuve waited for the arrival of the Brest fleet and waited and waited. Pleas from the French commander at Martinique and orders from the Emperor for Villeneuve to land troops to increase the garrisons at Martinique and Gaudeloupe and then to capture nearby British possessions were ignored although the 128 British sailors in possession of the islet of Diamond Rock were forced to surrender! Eventually Villeneuve was forced by the army commanders on board to begin offensive operations against the British islands Napoleon had ordered him to stay in the Caribbean until 22nd June so there was still time. However on 7th June having captured a British merchant convoy Villeneuve learnt that Nelson had arrived at Barbados. The old phobia returned. On 11th June Villeneuve gave order for his 20 strong fleet to return to Europe and was in such a hurry to do so that he did not land the 12000 troops he had brought from Europe for the protection of the French islands. Well could one of Napoleon's best generals, Reille, write "It seems that we have some information about Nelson having arrived in the Antilles with 10 or 12 ships and that the Admiral intends to avoid any fight with them. Time will tell what the results of this prudent planning will achieve. We have been masters of the sea for three weeks but have only captured a single islet".


            On 22nd July just over one hundred miles from El Ferrol the combined fleet of 20 ships met Sir Robert Calder's fleet of 15 ships of the line and 2 frigates in battle. The battle was fought in fog. Villeneuve manoeuvred his fleet well but the Spanish took the brunt of the fight and lost two ships. Both Calder and Villeneuve refused to renew the action on the next 3 days blaming continuing fog and contrary winds. Some of Villeneuve's officers, particularly Admiral Magon, believed the action could have been continued and respect for Villeneuve from both the French and Spanish officers reached new depths. Villeneuve did not give full details in his report to Napoleon of his failure in the West Indies or the events of this battle. On Ist August Villeneuve arrive at La Coruna. He received orders to proceed to Brest and Boulogne as planned. However acting on a false report from a passing neutral merchantman that an overpowering British force was close ahead, instead of investigating Villeneuve turned round and sailed to safety in Cadiz arriving on 21st August. By doing so he made any further attempt to launch the invasion quite impossible. He also left an angry Napoleon waiting for him on the cliffs at Boulogne


            It has been stated (Schom etc) that Villeneuve was by now suffering from the effects of a nervous breakdown. As Decres himself wrote "This Villeneuve business is heart breaking for me. I went on my first naval campaign with him, and with him I share twenty five years of ties and friendship. I do not believe it is a question of cowardice, but rather, simply of his having lost his head". Napoleon was more forthright writing to Decres "I beg of you not to mention a word to me about such an humiliating business, nor remind me of the very existence of that miserable coward".


            The plans were now changed - Napoleon now had to deal with a coalition raised against him of England, Austria and Russia. On 16th September the combined fleet was ordered to return to the Mediterranean to disembark the troops at Naples and seize enemy shipping and now Napoleon ordered Villeneuve to be replaced. On 2Oth September Decres wrote to Villeneuve that Admiral Rosily would take command. Villeneuve was to return to Paris to account for his actions. News of the new plan reached Villeneuve on 28th September, long before news of his replacement which Decres ordered Rosily to carry with him.


            In Cadiz meanwhile Gravina and Villeneuve made frantic efforts to get the fleet ready for sea. Villeneuve called a Council of War and showed his poor man management skills by insulting his Spanish allies claiming "it is not the barometer but certain person's courage that is falling" when objections against sailing were made due to bad weather conditions. He had to be reproved by Gravina but got his own back by writing to Decres that "the Spaniards were quite incapable of meeting the enemy". A week of bad weather then intervened. Villeneuve took the opportunity of meeting with his officers to explain how he felt Nelson would fight the battle and what he proposed to do to counter it. His foretelling of Nelson's plan was surprisingly accurate.


            "The enemy will not limit their tactics to forming the usual battle line parallel to ours.. (rather) they will endeavour to surround our rearguard, and cross through in order better to envelop and defeat us, carrying away those of our vessels they will have isolated".


   As for his plans, Villeneuve proposed the following:


 1) The French and Spanish ships were to be intermingled. In this he was following the principle adopted by Admirals D'Orvilliers and De Guichen who commanded combined French and Spanish fleets in the American War.
2) The fleet to be divided into two. The main body of 21 sail would form the main battle squadron. The remaining 12 ships would be a "Squadron of Observation" under Gravina and Magon. This separate squadron could act independently, or take post with the main body of the fleet, as circumstances required. It would be able to reinforce any part of the battle squadron line that might be hard pressed; to parry a threatened blow, or to strike a counter stroke. This was also not a new principle, having been used by D'Orvilliers and De Guichen. I suspect that Villeneuve calculated the number of ships in this squadron on the basis this was the number he felt he had in excess of Nelson's. In this he was mistaken and he jettisoned this concept when he found out.
3) Apart from the above, and adherence to the standard fleet regulations, Villeneuve relied on his captains to win the battle by their ships outperforming the British fleet. Given his own track record and the captains' views of their crews there was little hope of this! Still, commanders such as Magon and Lucas took measures to further train their crews in boarding tactics. They did not have much time to do this for on Friday 18th October Villeneuve gave the order to sail.


Villeneuve's reasons for doing so were entirely personal - he had heard that he was to be replaced but also that the actual order would not be received from Admiral Rosily for a few days. This was due to the Admiral's carriage needing to be repaired which prevented him from getting to Cadiz. In a last ditch attempt to save his career Villeneuve determined to sail before Rosily arrived. He justified his reasons to Gravina as being an improvement in weather conditions and that Nelson had reduced his force by sending ships to Gibraltar. What he did not know was that other ships had joined Nelson.


            Cadiz was not an easy port to clear for all these ships. Departure started on 19th October. It was not until 3pm on 20th October that Villeneuve had his fleet outside the harbour and arranged in the order he wanted. At 11 pm he ordered the fleet to form a single battle line for during the night and at about 6am on the 21st October to resume its pre-night time formation. Villeneuve now received the news that the British fleet was larger than expected. He now altered his instructions and at 7am ordered the fleet to reform a single line of battle. With experienced crews this might have been achieved. With inexperienced crews it could not be easily executed. Gaps occurred in the line. These were exacerbated by the order Villeneuve gave at 5am to wear together ie turn back to Cadiz. More confusion, inexperienced crews and changeable winds resulted after 2 hours in a crescent formation with gaps in the line and ships two or three deep. The squadron of observation simply became the rear and the main plank of Villeneuve's strategy was lost. The bunching up of various ships, luckily for Villeneuve, would help him in the battle ahead.


            There has been much discussion why Villeneuve turned back. Was he making a run for the safety of Cadiz or had he realised that because of the light breeze it was impossible to reach the Straits of Gibraltar without a battle and it might be better to have Cadiz harbour under the lee for ships crippled in actIon to find a ready shelter? We do not know. Villeneuve's account does not help us.
            At 11.30 Villeneuve ran up the general signal "Open Fire" and before the smoke obscured the "Bucentaure" from view sent his last signal "Every ship which is not in action is not at its post, and must take station to bring herself as speedily as possible under fire".
            In the battle which followed Nelson aimed to take out his opposite number's ship and pass under the stern of the "Bucentaure." Despite the efforts of Magendie, captain of the flagship, and Lucas of the "Redoutable" the "Victory" and "Neptune" broke the line. At 1 pm Hardy ordered one of the carronades mounted in the forecastle to be fired through the "Bucentaure's" stern windows. Broadsides followed and the "Bucentaure" was seen to heel. At 1.45pm the "Neptune" brought down bother the "Bucentaure's" main and mizzen masts. The "Leviathan" and "Conqueror" poured broadsides into the flagship. By 4.15pm the "Bucentaure's" position was quite hopeless. As Magendie wrote "All rigging gone, entirely dismasted, having lost all the men on the upper decks, the battery of 24 pounders left totally dismounted and unmanned by the dead and wounded, the starboard guns covered by the falling rigging, spars and timber, with close to 450 casualties and no longer even being in a state to defend ourselves...surrounded by 5 enemy ships, with no help in sight...Admiral Villeneuve had no choice but to put an end to this, to prevent the useless killing of any more brave people, which he then did after three and a quarter hours of fighting, after first throwing the debris of the Imperial eagle into the sea along with the ship's signals".
    It was ironical that the one officer on the "Bucentaure" not injured was Villeneuve! He had stayed on the quarterdeck throughout the engagement. He had ordered, although belatedly, Dumanoir to return to help the centre and, when all hope was lost on the 'Bucentaure," had tried to transfer to another ship. Unfortunately the "Bucentaure's" boats had been destroyed and no other ship responded to his signals for assistance. His flag captain wrote that Villeneuve complained bitterly that Fate had spared his life; that amid the slaughter all round there seemed not to be one bullet for him. For what was going to happen later it was indeed a pity.


            After the battle Villeneuve was taken as a prisoner of war to England. Fremantle found him "a very pleasant and gentlemanlike man" and Collingwood wrote "He has nothing in his manners of the offensive vapouring and boasting which we, perhaps too often, attribute to Frenchmen". On 15th November aboard the "Euryalus" Villeneuve wrote his despatch to Decres. He attributed the British victory to having more powerful ships, heavier armaments and better trained men. Surprisingly for him he did not blame anyone. "So much courage and devotion merited a better fate, but the moment has not yet come for France to celebrate successes on seas as she has been able to do with regard to her victories on the continent. As for myself Monseigneur, overwhelmed by the extent of my misfortune and the responsibility for so great a disaster, I desire only, and as soon as possible, to offer at the feet of His Majesty either the justification of my conduct, or a victim to be sacrificed, not to the honour of the flag, which I venture to affirm has remained intact, but to the shades of those who may have perished through my imprudence, want of caution, or
forgetfulness of certain of my duties".
            Villeneuve was released in April 1806 and stayed at the Hotel de Patrie in Rennes awaiting orders. On 22nd April he was found dead in bed with 6 knife wounds in his chest. Murder or suicide? The Prefect recorded a verdict of "Death from self afflicted wounds" and the body of the ill fated admiral was buried at night, without military honours. For a man who had sacrificed the lives of 4,400 French and Spanish sailors and the wounding of 2,500 others simply to avoid the humiliation of being superseded in command such an obscure internment might be deemed only fair..
 Sources
 Fraser E,
"The Enemy at Trafalgar"
 Howard D, "Trafalgar The Nelson Touch"
 Lyon D, "Sea Battles in Close up - the Age of Nelson"
 Schom A, "Trafalgar - Countdown to battle:
 Tracy N, "Nelson's battles - the art of victory in the age of sail"
 Tunstall B, "Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail"