1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Villeneuve, Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Silvestre

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28
Villeneuve, Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Silvestre by David McDowall Hannay

VILLENEUVE, PIERRE CHARLES JEAN BAPTISTE SILVESTRE (1763–1806), French admiral, was born at Valensoles in Provence on the 31st of December 1763. He entered the French royal navy as a “garde du Pavilion.” Although he belonged to the corps of “noble” officers, who were the object of peculiar animosity to the Jacobins, he escaped the fate of the majority of his comrades, which was to be massacred, or driven into exile. He sympathized sincerely with the general aims of the Revolution, and had a full share of the Provençal fluency which enabled him to make a timely and impressive display of “civic” sentiments. In the dearth of trained officers he rose with what for the French navy was exceptional rapidity, though it would have caused no surprise in England in the case of an officer who had good interest. He was named post-captain in 1793, and rear-admiral in 1796. At the close of the year he was appointed to take part in the unsuccessful expedition to Ireland which reached Bantry Bay, but the ships which were to have come to Brest from Toulon with him arrived too late, and were forced to take refuge at L’Orient. He accompanied the expedition to Egypt, with his flag in the “Guillaume Tell” (86). She was the third ship from the rear of the French line at the battle of the Nile, and escaped from the general destruction in company with the “Généreux” (78). Villeneuve reached Malta on the 23rd of August. His conduct was severely blamed, and he defended himself by a specious letter to his colleague Blanquet-Duchayla on the 12th of November 1800, when he had returned to Paris. At the time, Napoleon approved of his action. In a letter written to him on the 21st of August 1798, three weeks after the battle, Napoleon says that the only reproach Villeneuve had to make against himself was that he had not retreated sooner, since the position taken by the French commander-in-chief had been forced and surrounded. When, however, the emperor after his fall dictated his account of the expedition to Egypt to General Bertrand at St Helena, he attributed the defeat at the Nile largely to the “bad conduct of Admiral Villeneuve.” In the interval Villeneuve had failed in the execution of the complicated scheme for the invasion of England in 1805. Napoleon must still have believed in the admiral’s capacity and good fortune, a qualification for which he had a great regard, when he selected him to succeed Latouche Tréville upon his death at Toulon in August 1804. The duty of the Toulon squadron was to draw Nelson to the West Indies, return rapidly, and in combination with other French and Spanish ships, to enter the Channel with an overwhelming force. It is quite obvious that Villeneuve had from the first no confidence in the success of an operation requiring for its execution an amazing combination of good luck and efficiency on the part of the squadrons concerned. He knew that the French were not efficient, and that their Spanish allies were in a far worse state than themselves. It required a very tart order from Napoleon to drive him out of Paris in October 1804. He took the command in November. On the 17th of January 1805 he left Toulon for the first time, but was driven back by a squall which dismasted some of his awkwardly handled ships. On the 3rd of March he was out again, and this time he headed Nelson by some weeks on a cruise to the West Indies. But Villeneuve’s success so far had not removed his fears. Though on taking up his command he had issued an order of the day in which he spoke boldly enough of the purpose of his cruise, and his determination to adhere to it, he was racked by fears of what might happen to the force entrusted to his care. For the details of the campaign see Trafalgar. In so far as the biography of Villeneuve is concerned, his behaviour during these trying months cannot escape condemnation. He had undertaken to carry out a plan of which he did not approve. Since he had not declined the task altogether, it was clearly his duty to execute his orders at all hazards. If he was defeated, as he almost certainly would have been, he could have left the responsibility for the disaster to rest on the shoulders of Napoleon who assigned him the task. But Villeneuve could not free himself from the conviction that it was his business to save his fleet even if he ruined the emperor’s plan of invasion. Thus after he returned to Europe and fought his confused action with Sir R. Calder off Ferrol on the 22nd of July 1805, he first hesitated, and then, in spite of vehement orders to come on, turned south to Cadiz. Napoleon’s habit of suggesting alternative courses to his lieutenants gave him a vague appearance of excuse for making for that port. But it was one which only a very weak man would have availed himself of, for all his instructions ought to have been read subject to the standing injunction to come on to the Channel—and in turning south to Cadiz, he was going in the opposite direction. His decision to leave Cadiz and give battle in October 1805, which led directly to the battle of Trafalgar, cannot be justified even on his own principles. He foresaw defeat to be inevitable, and yet he went out solely because he learnt from the Minister of Marine that another officer had been sent to supersede him. In fact he ran to meet the very destruction he had tried to avoid. No worse fate would have befallen him in the Channel than came upon him at Trafalgar, but it might have been incurred in a manly attempt to obey his orders. It was provoked in a spasm of wounded vanity. At Trafalgar he showed personal courage, but the helpless incapacity of the allies to manœuvre gave him no opportunity to influence the course of the battle. He was taken as a prisoner to England, but was soon released. Shortly after landing in France he committed suicide in an inn at Rennes, on the 22nd of April 1806. Among the other improbable crimes attributed to Napoleon by the fear and hatred of Europe, was the murder of Villeneuve, but there is not the faintest reason to doubt that the admiral died by his own hand.

The correspondence of Napoleon contains many references to Villeneuve. Accounts of the naval operations in which he was concerned will be found in James’s Naval History, Troude, in his Batailles navales de la France, vol. iii., publishes several of his letters and orders of the day.  (D. H.)