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The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars

Though attention this year has been focused on the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, the decisive blows that defeated Napoleon were landed at sea, says James Davey. 

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, J.M.W. Turner, 1823-4At first light on July 15th, 1815 the naval captain Frederick Lewis Maitland stood on the quarterdeck of HMS Bellerophon and watched a small French brig-of-war slowly approach. On any other day its appearance would have prompted him to prepare his ship for an easy capture, but today the guns stayed silent. As Maitland knew, the vessel contained a unique cargo: on board was Napoleon Bonaparte, until recently the Emperor of France and commander of its armies. One month earlier, Napoleon had fought and lost the Battle of Waterloo, after which he abdicated and retreated westwards to the port of Rochefort. Here he hoped to locate a ship to take him to America, but instead he found Maitland’s Bellerophon blocking his escape; not for the first time, his plans were thwarted by the Royal Navy. ‘Wherever wood can swim, there I am sure to find this flag of England’, a despondent Napoleon commented. Desperately short of options, he decided to surrender to Captain Maitland.

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