Northern France, Napoleon Bonaparte and La Colonne de la Grande Armée

La Colonne de la Grande Armée

“Thou shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” – Exodus 20:17 – ‘The Old Testament’

La Colonne de la Grande Armée

Today our plan was to visit the coastal town of Wimereux but on the way we passed once more through Boulogne-Sur-Mer and stopped first of all at La Colonne de la Grande Armée which is a monument constructed in the 1840s and is a fifty-three metre-high column topped with a statue of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. (Nelson’s column, by the way, in Trafalgar Square in London is shorter at forty-six metres high).

It marks the location of the base camp where Napoleon  assembled an army of eighty thousand men all reeking of garlic, impatient, snarling and ready to invade England.  It was initially intended to commemorate a successful invasion, but this proved to be rather premature and as he didn’t quite manage that it now commemorates instead the first distribution of the Imperial Légion d’honneur. 

Originally, when it was first completed, the statue had looked out over the Channel towards England, the land Napoleon had confidently expected to conquer but after the Second World War, the French government turned the statue of Napoleon round to face inland, as a mark of respect to the British allies in the war and as a symbolic gesture that never again would France break one of the ten commandments and covet its neighbours property.

Boulogne 01

This of course was a rather obvious place to plan an invasion of England because the English Channel is only twenty-five miles or so wide at this point so provides the quickest route across. Perhaps that is why they built the channel tunnel here? So it is not surprising that many invasions started here or were intended to start here.

La Colonne de la Grande Armée

Invasions of England…

In the course of his Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice, in 55 and 54 BC on both occasions from somewhere near Boulogne and almost a hundred years later the emperor Claudius used this town as his base for the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 in search of tin.

William the Conqueror set off from just a few miles south of here in 1066 in search of the English throne and the French invaded twice during the middle ages in search of causing mischief, first in 1215 as part of the Baron’s War against King John and then 1326 by Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer, neither of which enterprise was especially successful.

In 1701 with the the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession  French support for the Jacobites led in 1708 to James Stuart, the Old Pretender, sailing from Dunkirk with six-thousand French troops but this didn’t work out as planned either.

Napoleon’s invasion plans…

Napoleon Bonaparte should have taken note of all these previous failures but from 1803 to 1805 a new army of two hundred thousand men, known as the Armée des côtes de l’Océan (Army of the Ocean Coasts) or the Armée de l’Angleterre (Army of England), was assembled and trained at camps at Boulogne, Bruges and Monreuil (probably still near the sea at that time).  A large flotilla of invasion barges was built in the Channel ports along the coasts of France and the Netherlands from Etaples to Flushing and gathered together at Boulogne in anticipation of the invasion of the ‘Nation of Shopkeepers’.


Napoleon also seriously considered using a fleet of troop-carrying balloons as part of his proposed invasion force and appointed Marie Madeline Sophie Blanchard as an air service chief, though she advised that the proposed aerial invasion would fail because of the unfavourable winds.

Interestingly these invasion preparations were financed by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, whereby France ceded her huge North American territories to the United States in return for a payment of sixty million French francs ($11,250,000) and the entire amount was then squandered on the projected invasion. Ironically, the United States had partly funded the purchase by means of a loan from Baring Brothers – an English bank!

When it became obvious to Napoleon that the planned invasion was unlikely to succeed he eventually dismantled his army and sent it east instead to take part in the Austrian, Prussian and eventually the catastrophic Russian campaign of 1812.

Lessons from History…

But people do not learn the lessons of history!  I studied history at University and many people scoffed and said that this was a waste of time but history I find always comes in useful and it is important not to ignore it because if one thing is true then it is that – ‘what goes around, comes around’ and one hundred and fifty years later Adolf Hitler tried it again in operation Sea Lion and again it failed and again he sent his troops off to Russia to a similar spectacular defeat.

Another from my collection of lead soldiers…



37 responses to “Northern France, Napoleon Bonaparte and La Colonne de la Grande Armée

  1. Very ironic indeed that circular financing arrangement of the Louisiana Purchase. Imagine if Napoleon might have succeeded and England in essence financed its own invasion. History can be so bizarre at times.


  2. You’re back in France?


  3. The opening quote made me smile! He certainly had notions beyond his stature. Interesting about his statue being turned around.
    I’m just about to burst into a rousing rendition of Rule Britannia! No, perhaps it’s too early in the morning. Don’t want to wake the neighbours. 🙂


  4. I should perhaps tell the wider world – including likeitiz – that you are NEVER where we think you are.
    I too was once under the illusion that you were beating out the words on an old typewriter in a mossie-infested one star hotel room in some God-forsaken place like a true War Correspondent (the only WC in the room!). Yet all the time you were one mile away from my home here in Grimsby, living off the fat of the land in your palatial quarters at Petcher Towers, and writing out the words there at leisure!
    Did I feel cheated? Not remotely! For one thing you gave your impressions time to marinate in your head, and thus gave us a more roundly considered view.
    My advice to likeitiz and others who think these postings of yours are hot-off-the-press, is this: see it as a version of time lapsed photography, and then it all falls into place beautifully.
    And talking of the “beautiful”: you never cease to amaze me and EDUCATE me. This piece from you is no exception, Andrew.
    I had – OF COURSE – often thought of the parallels between Napoleon and Hitler vis-a-vis switching from a British invasion to a Russian one, but genuinely had no knowledge of the Barings Bank loan for the Louisiana purchase!
    For this priceless little gem, I am in your debt.
    Not for the first time, methinks …

    Dai Woosnam
    Grimsby, UK


    • Thanks Dai.

      I would like to do the war correspondent type posts but I think Kim would get irritated by late night key board tapping.

      As we discussed before my research reveals that very often real travel writers finish their work retrospectively whilst trying to give the impression of being spontaneous.

      I am back home now so will take you up on the lunch offer when it is convenient.



  5. What an excellent post, Andrew. Bravo!
    Staying in front of the French column near Russian village Borodino I was thinking: what a stupid life? He killed so many people… What for? What is the result? Nothing. Empire has not survived. All was in vain.


  6. Oh this Napoleon! And the wars between the British and the French. 100 years…And the Louisiana. The only good thing left from all that are, you are right, the monuments. And great blog posts.


  7. Thank you for dropping my blog, Andrew. Glad to meet another train buff with an eye for history!


  8. Love this history lesson! I didn’t take an interest in my youth but have grown to understand its significance. To move forward we must understand the past. Now, if we could just stop repeating it….. 🙂


  9. ‘8000 men reeking of garlic’ …you know as I read your posts I am awaiting these hilarious tidbits you sneak in. Great perspective on the monument shot. By the way don’t tell Nelson he’s shorter. 🙂


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  11. Pingback: Napoleon Bonaparte and La Colonne de la Grande Armée | Have Bag, Will Travel

  12. I’m with you on the lessons of history. If only today’s world leaders could learn. I hadn’t known about Napoleon’s column.


  13. Fascinating piece of history. Amazing that mankind never seems to learn from mistakes.


  14. Thanks for the history lesson, Andrew! I didn’t realize there was a connection between the Louisiana Purchase and Napoleon’s plan to invade your country, let alone the purchase was made in part with a loan from a British bank! (Our two countries have a confusing and interesting relationship in the early years of our independence…!)

    I live in a part of the US that was in that purchase, and remember growing up thinking I could have been speaking French instead of English, had that transaction not taken place.

    I also remember thinking how short sighted it was for the French to sell that territory and lucky for the US, at the time a weak new republic barely able to defend itself. Today’s history lesson helps connect the dots and makes some sense of why the French gave up the North American territory for a very favorable price.

    Even the little detail about which direction Napoleon faced till after WWII is fascinating. Your country and France have had a long and interesting connection, too. France, of course, was a major help to the American English colonies when they fought for independence, but I seriously doubt the French helped because they, a decadent monarchy at the time, valued freedom for the colonies so much as fostering an economic and prestige blow to your country. (Proxy wars of the 20th and 21st Century continue that tradition.)

    I agree, Andrew. History is valuable for the lessons it can teach…if leaders pay attention!


  15. I think the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse is in a museum in London. Does that sound right to you, or am I totally off track?


  16. Pingback: On This Day – Napoleon Bonaparte and La Colonne de la Grande Armée | Have Bag, Will Travel

  17. Another great History lesson Andrew. It is good that the statue was not damaged during WWI WWII and BLM . I am enjoying your recycling efforts.


  18. Well. I thought I was up to speed on Franco-British history but this had passed me by. Great story, well told. Thanks! Now which was does Nelson’s Column face? Firmly with its back to Europe, presumably. Or if it doesn’t, sadly it soon will.


  19. I appreciate the history lesson! May I ask, how many pieces in your lead soldier collection? More photos?


  20. . . . and, I’m sure future wannabe rulers of the world will again contemplate multi-fronts campaigns. The thing is, eventually, one of them will succeed.


  21. Interesting facts

    Liked by 1 person

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