“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 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.
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 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.
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 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 gathered 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.
And so we move on and after walking through the gardens of the monument so did we, on towards our objective of Wimereux.