Trafalgar's Other Admiral

2024 Young Or Golden Writer
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
Vice Admiral Sylvestre Villeneuve, prisoner of war after the battle of Trafalgar, must as a man of honour return to France to explain the disaster of Trafalgar to Napoleon, but circumstances force him to become a political shuttlecock between Britain and France.
First 10 Pages


Znaim, Moravia, 18 November 1805. A fortnight before the Battle of Austerlitz.

‘Sire, dispatches from Paris,' said Berthier as he came into the room.

Napoléon sighed and put down his fork. ‘Berthier, you know I'm trying to do as Dr Corvisart says for once and have dinner in peace. Can't the dispatches wait until I've finished?’

‘I think you might want to see this one now, Sire,’ said Berthier, handing him the topmost document. ‘It’s from the Minister of Marine.’

‘From Decrès? Oh, all right.’ Napoléon snatched the paper from his Chief of Staff. What could Decrès have to tell him that was so important?

The letter from his Minister of Marine had few words but to read them was like swallowing stones. It seemed that the combined Franco-Spanish fleet at Cadiz had engaged the British off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October and been decisively beaten. Many ships had been lost, and Admiral Villeneuve had surrendered himself and been taken prisoner. Decrès would send further details in due course, but he wanted His Majesty to have the news of the defeat without delay.

He put the letter down slowly and took a sip of wine. Berthier was looking at him with that anxious frown he wore daily as if it were part of his uniform. Poor Berthier. He must get around to smiling at him one day.

'Defeat,’ he said. ‘I do not like the word. In fact it is my least favourite word. What would you say, Berthier?’

‘It is not a word to my liking either, Sire.’

Napoléon grunted. To receive this news now, when he was straining every nerve to catch that old fox Kutuzov before he joined with Buxhöwden…

So that wretch Villeneuve had failed again. First the invasion of Britain that didn’t happen, now this battle.

‘We must hush this up,’ he said. ‘Not a word must appear in Le Moniteur or anywhere else. Tell Fouché to see to it.’

‘I will, but I am sure Monsieur Fouché will already be seeing to it, Sire,’ said Berthier.

‘Hm. True enough.’ That was the thing about his Minister of Police. By the time one had decided that a thing needed doing, Fouché had already done it. His ablest Minister. And for that reason, the most dangerous.

‘In any event, Le Moniteur will be full of the news of Ulm and Vienna for weeks,’ Berthier went on, ‘and soon we will be able to report the defeat of the Russians. Nobody will be looking for any other kind of news.’

It was on the tip of Napoléon's tongue to tell him to take back those last words. They must not offend the Gods of War by being presumptuous.

‘Well, when it comes down to it, we’ve lost some pieces of wood and some men,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘It's not as if the Cadiz fleet was doing anything critical, it was just ferrying some troops to Naples, that's all. Find me a secretary, I’ll dictate a reply to the Minister of Marine.’

‘Can it not wait until after you have finished eating, Sire?’

‘No, I’ll do it now,’ said Napoléon, pushing his plate of poulet away. ‘I seem to have lost my appetite.’

Napoléon’s letter was even shorter than that of the Minister of Marine: ‘I have received your letter concerning the combat at Cape Trafalgar. I shall await further details before forming an opinion on this affair.’ As he signed the letter he said, ‘Don’t go away, Berthier, I must write to Lannes and Murat.’

When Berthier had at last shut the door behind him, Napoléon went to the window and looked out. Was his lucky star shining? No, there were no stars at all. It had been cloudy today, so not surprising. But all the same, if only it had been shining… Damn Villeneuve. But he must not allow himself to think of this Trafalgar business as an omen.

Villeneuve a prisoner. Well, let him stay a prisoner until he rotted, he wasn’t worth exchanging even for a British midshipman. A man who surrenders is less than nothing. It would have been better for him if he’d been blown to pieces on his quarterdeck. Bah!

Let him, please God, never have to set eyes on Villeneuve again. Let him never have to hear a word either from him or about him. Maybe he would succumb to a malady brought on by the dreadful British weather.

Sleep did not come quickly that night, but it wasn’t the whereabouts of General Kutuzov that was the problem. It wasn’t even this latest disastrous news. It was the invasion of Britain. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. Boulogne: what a place to be stuck in, where you needed a greatcoat in August. Hour upon hour he’d stood there staring out to sea, muffled up to his ears, waiting and waiting for a sight of Villeneuve’s ships. Without them standing guard, the army of invasion’s boats couldn’t cross the Channel. He’d been practically eating his own hands with frustration, when all along, Villeneuve had given up on the invasion and slunk off to Cadiz.

And while all that was happening, to get a letter from his Minister of Marine that actually told him he was a fool in matters of the sea. As good as, anyway. Decrès, normally so courtly it made you want to slap his face just to get a reaction. If he thought he could protect one of his precious admirals that way, he was the one who was a fool. Did Decrès ever really have his heart in the invasion campaign, when it came down to it?

An owl hooted somewhere outside. Napoléon turned over and thumped the pillow. Villeneuve and Decrès, they were cronies. What one thought, the other wasn’t far from thinking.

He’d gambled on Villeneuve being too cowardly to obey the order to transport those troops to Naples, what with the British fleet blockading him. Admiral Rosily was supposed to give him the surprise of his life by arriving in Cadiz to take over the command, and handing him a summons to account for his conduct in Paris. Failing to obey the order to sail to Naples, on top of his failure to support the invasion of Britain – mere dismissal from the Navy would be too lenient. But Villeneuve didn't play his part, damn him.

Hm. He could rely on Fouché to censor any letters that Villeneuve might send from Britain, letters that didn’t confine themselves to how his chilblains were faring. Fouché would have the man watched, as a matter of course. And if he said anything untoward that might wing its way to France… Well. Fouché was expert at clipping wings.

Yes… With Fouché taking care of matters, wasn’t Villeneuve as good as dead? The combined fleet was defeated at Cape Trafalgar for one reason and one reason only: Villeneuve’s ineptness. As for the failure of the invasion plan, that was down to him too. Dead men don’t contradict.

Hm. Never mind the British weather, what if Villeneuve were to have an accident…


The Foreign Office, London, a few days before Christmas 1805

‘Ah, Graham, sit yourself down,’ said the Under Secretary. ‘On second thoughts, let’s stand close to the fire. Either the draughts in here are worse since yesterday or my bones have become suddenly older.’

Simon Graham reflected that Mr Ward’s bones might age more quickly still if there were not some better news soon from the Continent. These rumours that the Russians had defeated the French in battle: there was not a word that had so far been substantiated.

‘Good morning, Under Secretary,' he said, joining the other man by the fire. He held out his hands to the flames, but they were too feeble to give off much heat. ‘May I ask if his Lordship has sent more news from Bath?'

‘Indeed he has. I’m delighted to say that Mr Pitt’s been well enough to make favourable comments on the Ode.’

Simon Graham arranged his face into what he hoped was an interested smile. The Foreign Secretary had spent many hours in perfecting his Ode on the Victory of Trafalgar before going to Bath to wait on the Prime Minister.

It was as well that they didn't require specific instructions either from the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary for day-to-day operations. Simon Graham had been in his present position long enough to know that the fewer people who knew certain things the better, and those people did not always include Mr Pitt or Lord Mulgrave. What was he himself going to be asked to do now – consult with his contacts on ways of reinforcing the network of agents in France? It was imperative that they keep seeking opportunities to undermine Bonaparte.

But it was not that, or not only that:

‘This important new guest of ours,’ began Ward, ‘the French Admiral. What does the Admiralty have to say about him?’

‘They say he knows nothing of Bonaparte's future naval plans, according to Admiral Collingwood. Apparently Collingwood and his captains rather warmed to him – “a decent gentlemanlike cove”, is the general verdict, not one of those “posturing Frenchies”. And as a prisoner, he is careful, punctilious, anxious to comply with regulations. That is all of a piece with his reputation.’

‘A thinker rather than a doer, isn’t he?’

‘He thinks excellently and is a thorough seaman, from what I hear. As for taking appropriate action… Well, there was the Nile, and now Trafalgar. However, I lack the expertise to sit in judgement.’

‘We armchair sailors should remember our place, eh?’

Simon Graham smiled, and made that do for a reply.

‘Anyway, I think you ought to get to know him,’ Ward continued.

‘You think he might be of use to us? I have my doubts. All the signs are that he is a patriot.’

‘Well, like many of our émigré friends, he may be a patriot but not a Bonapartist. Find out what sort of man Villeneuve is, Graham.’ Ward shivered. ‘This damned fire needs some more coals.’ He strode to the door to the outer office and called to the clerks that the scuttle was nearly empty.

Simon Graham rubbed his hands together and held them again toward the dying fire. ‘If there proved to be ways in which Admiral Villeneuve could be of use, there might arise the question of his release.’

‘There might indeed. Keeping him cooped up over here might constrain his activities somewhat.’ Ward laughed, then looked thoughtful. ‘I don't know what my superiors would think about letting him go. In fact I think this conversation had better remain between us, Graham. Don't mention anything to the Foreign Secretary.’

‘I'll have to mention something to John Barrow at the Admiralty. I don't think I can approach Admiral Villeneuve behind his back.’

‘I suppose you are right. What with the Admiralty being responsible for prisoners of war, we don’t want to risk stepping on their toes. Have a word with Barrow and for that matter King at the Home Office, but tell them to keep the affair to themselves. If Villeneuve has nothing to offer, we can quietly drop it. By the by, I hear that there's a move afoot in rather high circles to offer him a house at Sonning-on-Thames for the duration of his parole. Though the final choice will be his. We are being magnanimous.’

‘Sonning-on-Thames? My elder daughter is about to take a house there in order to help some friends with a domestic difficulty. She is likely to be there for a number of months.’

Ward’s eyes lit up. ‘Ah, excellent. Mrs Sutherland, as I recall, has a talent for hospitality. It would be the most natural thing in the world for her to show kindness to a captured admiral, would it not?’

‘It would, and it would be the most natural thing in the world for my wife and me to visit her. The Admiralty might do well to encourage Admiral Villeneuve to accept the house in Sonning. I’ll mention it when I speak to Barrow.’

‘Villeneuve may not need much persuading. I’m told the house is far more desirable than his present billet in Hampshire, and large enough for the retinue he has with him. Well, I won't keep you, Graham. You're a busy man.’

By the time Simon Graham reached his office he had a plan. Sarah would be in Sonning-on-Thames by the end of the month. He and Constance could visit in January, at the time of Lord Nelson's funeral. He wouldn't be missed here; it would be all but impossible to get any business done, as London would be in a ferment. And while Constance might enjoy the bustle, he himself would have no objection to being away for a few days.

He picked up a pen and began to sharpen it, a habit with him when he was thinking. He would write to Sarah and tell her he'd heard that Admiral Villeneuve might well be coming to Sonning. He could trust her to do the necessary without his having to ask.

‘Find out what sort of man Villeneuve is,’ Ward had said. A profoundly unhappy one, according to the Admiralty. But he might be unhappier still if he had done what Bonaparte wanted and sailed to the Channel instead of falling back on Cadiz. To find that the invasion army you had come to protect had marched east because your leader had changed his mind: that would be vexing, to say the least. Assuming you could fight your way past Cornwallis at Ushant and get into the Channel at all.

‘This will be a waste of time, I am sure,' said John Barrow. ‘I would be amazed if the Admiral were champing at the bit to help us topple Bonaparte. Still, we will not object to your spending a few days in Sonning, Graham.’

John King was chewing his lip. He was finding it hard to concede that the Foreign Office should be taking the lead rather than the Home Office, Simon Graham guessed. It was the Home Office that was responsible for the surveillance of French people in this country, through its agents in the Alien Office. But at last King said, 'You will of course keep us fully informed, Graham.’

‘Thank you, King, and I emphasise that all I shall be doing at first is having one or two casual social chats with the Admiral – on the offchance that he might be worth closer acquaintance. However, if you think it might be politic to keep an eye on him – discreetly…’ King was evidently itching to be involved, and perhaps his people could be useful.

‘It can't do any harm,' said King immediately. 'I’ll tell the Alien Office to place a couple of men down there to watch what he does and who he talks to. You never know, it's not impossible that this Villeneuve might want to make contact.’

‘Sonning-on-Thames had better prepare itself for an influx of agents as well as prisoners of war,’ said Barrow.

A quiet little place on the River Thames, so Sarah had said. Not far from Reading, but she expected to be more out of the way there than if she had stayed at home among the hills and vales of Wiltshire.

She was usually right. Whether she would be in this case remained to be seen.


Sonning-on-Thames, Berkshire, 31 December 1805

Flames shooting up against the night sky. His ears ringing from a sound like the roaring of a thousand angry beasts. Which ship, which ship? Impossible to tell, but it’s a ship that’s in the thick of it. He must do something! He shouts for attention but no one hears, there is no man on this deck but him. There is a knife stuck in the quarterdeck rail, and he pulls it out – it’s one of his own silver table knives. How did it come to be there? He struggles toward the nearest hatchway but there is something holding him back, some enormous force holding him down, and it is such an effort! He drops to the deck and crawls, the knife between his teeth, inching forward slowly, so slowly, far too slowly. But he must get there, he must go below to the hawse holes, he must cut through the anchor cables with this knife and release his ship to go to the rescue. And then comes the lookout’s cry: 'It's L’Orient!'

It's L’Orient it's L’Orient it’s L’Orient…

L’Orient? Is it his friend’s ship, is Casabianca caught up in all that? He must reach the anchor cables, he must cut them, he must save Casabianca, but he can't move, the enormous force is pinning him to the deck…

Ah. He’s awake again. There are the bedclothes almost on the floor, here is the air around him, this bone-chillingly cold English air, and here he is in the midst, awake, inexorably awake. L’Orient afire, yet again! Night after night – why? The Battle of the Nile was more than seven long grinding years ago. If he must fight battles in his dreams, why not this other battle little more than two months ago?

He must see Bonaparte. There is no avoiding it. He must explain, in terms that even Bonaparte can understand, how he lost a fleet at Trafalgar, why he did what he did. He must get away from here. Somehow, somehow.