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Imprints of an Emperor - Napoleon's Atlantic coast legacy

Imprints of an Emperor - Napoleon's Atlantic coast legacy

In 2015, the bicentennial year of Napoléon’s exile, we looked at the enduring legacy he left on the Atlantic coast, and the events which led to his enforced departure from French soil.

As countless politicians have discovered, history is not always kind to those who have helped shape a nation’s destiny. Others, however, have been more fortunate. Almost two centuries after his death in exile, Napoléon Bonaparte continues to inspire widespread respect, not merely in France but throughout the world, the list of his admirers encompassing names as diverse as Victor Hugo, Bill Gates, Stanley Kubrick and General Pinochet. This would no doubt have pleased the Emperor greatly, since from the outset much of his personal motivation seems to have been the result of a determination to be remembered posthumously. As he put it, somewhat poetically: “I live for posterity; death is nothing, but to live defeated and without glory is to die every day.”


From time to time he was also clearly preoccupied with the ever present threat of seaborne attack upon the French coastline, particularly the long-vulnerable Atlantic coast. The area assumed huge strategic importance from 1666, when French Naval Secretary Jean-Baptiste Colbert convinced Louis XIV to finance construction of a new naval arsenal to redress the navy’s worrying lack of fighting vessels. His carefully selected location was a sheltered spot just inland from the mouth of the Charente, particularly since fortifications were already in place on nearby promontories and islands. Just seven years later Rochefort had acquired a population of around 20,000, its naval dockyard was launching heavily armed warships and the vast construction site was still expanding. In time it would become France’s (and Europe’s) biggest military port, and a prime target for longstanding enemies like the British.


Not surprisingly, the events of the Revolution in 1792-99 inflamed tensions to a new level, as the Royal Navy repeatedly tested French resolve. Clearly this could not be allowed to continue, so between 1801 and 1815 Napoleon ordered major updates to the defensive capabilities of the Arsenal de Rochefort, the Charente estuary, the Île d’Aix and even the diminutive Île Madame. The underlying intention was to create a co-ordinated ‘ceinture de feu’ or ‘belt of firepower’.
The Île d’Aix (whose harbour had been raided by the English in 1757) figured high among his priorities for attention. Aware of its continued vulnerability, Napoléon ordered reinforcement of the Fort de la Rade citadel and the construction of Fort Liédot, not merely to better protect the island, but more importantly to provide cross firepower with that from the Fort des Saumonards on the Île d Oléron, thereby preventing ships of the Royal Navy from entering the waters between them known as the Pertuis of Antioch. However, early-19th century cannon still had insufficient range to provide the vital overlap, so it would be necessary to create a defensive installation in midstream between the two.


In 1801 Napoléon therefore took a fresh look at an idea proposed in 1692 (and subsequently discounted as financially unworkable) by French military engineer Vauban. This time pressing issues of national security outgunned mere financial considerations, and result was the audacious Fort Boyard, named after the sandbank on which it sits.
On August 5, 1808 the Emperor visited the Île d’Aix to inspect progress on the fortification works he had ordered two years previously, and approved the construction of a residence for the Commanding General. His visit resulted in much of the island’s present built environment. After leaving the Island he stopped off at Fort Boyard, whose painfully slow construction had begun four years previously in May 1804, before returning to Rochefort. In April the following year the London press announced an attack on the French fleet, in what has since become known as the Battle of the Île d’Aix. The Royal Navy’s controversial tactics (involving fireships and vessels filled with explosives) resulted in a humiliating defeat for France, an event which accelerated fortification works on the island and at the Fort Enet, sited beside a slender peninsula west of Fouras known as the Pointe de la Fumée.

On December 2 1804 Napoléon had been proclaimed Emperor in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, in a ceremony designed to evoke all the pomp and spectacle of a Royal Coronation. In August 1808, after having deposed the King of Spain (and installing in his place his own brother Joseph) Napoléon travelled from Bayonne to Rochefort, where he and Empress Joséphine were accommodated close to the Arsenal at the former Préfecture Maritime, today the Hôtel de Commandement, for three days.

Architect plans Fort Boyard

His fortunes were reversed, however, and following defeats in Russia (1812) and Germany (1813) France would
witness the Emperor’s abdication at Fontainebleau. In May 1814 he began an 11-month period of exile on Elba, over which he had been granted sovereignty. March the following year saw his return, marching on Paris with his loyal troops after Louis XIII had fled to Ghent. This time his triumph would be short lived, for the Emperor’s ill-fated campaign to invade Belgium would end at Waterloo, and again compel him to abdicate.

Maison-Empereur-Île d’Aix

By the summer of 1815 Napoléon was being pressured by a coalition government to leave France, or risk becoming a prisoner of the Bourbons, Prussians or Austrians. He therefore left Paris and returned to Rochefort on July 3, where the frigates Saale and Méduse had been prepared to take him to his preferred destination, the United States. While awaiting the necessary documents which would allow him safe passage through an English naval blockade off the island he crossed from Fouras to the Île d’Aix. Once again he inspected the island’s fortifications and on 12 July installed himself and a 70-strong retinue in the residence of the Commanding General. Three days later, with no prospect of passage to America being granted, he had no option but to surrender to the British aboard HMS Bellerophon, handing himself and a letter for the attention of the Prince Regent George IV saying: “My political career ended, I am to make my home with the British people and I place myself under the protection of its laws...”.
His wish would not be realised, however. Bellerophon was ordered to sail with the Emperor aboard to Plymouth harbour, where for two weeks British authorities pondered Napoléon’s fate. On 31 July their decision was conveyed to Napoléon: he would be exiled on the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, accompanied by three officers, his surgeon and twelve of his servants. He would never again set foot on French soil.

Fort de la Rade ramparts, Île d’Aix