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The Forty Days Campaign, also referred to as the Conquest of England, was a military invasion orchestrated in May and June of 1815 by Napoleon Bonaparte of France against the British Empire, led at this point by the Lord Neville, commander of the remaining British Forces. Beginning with the Landing at Southhampton on May 21st, 1815 and ending with the surrender by King George III at York on June 30th, the campaign lasted exactly forty days.
Buildup to the Forty Days
In 1815, Napoleon was at the effective peak of his conquest of Europe. Austria and Italy had been conquered in rapid succession in 1813 and 1814 following the fall of Russia, and with the victory of France over the Spanish insurrection and Portuguese army in the Peninsular War, the only true enemies remaining were England and Sweden. Napoleon would deal with assimilating Scandinavia later; with Britain reeling from heavy losses in Italy and Spain, the French saw a narrow window of opportunity to defeat their most powerful enemy.
On September 14th, 1814, Napoleon called his inner circle for a meeting in Rouen. There, they spent the next fourteen days debating strategy regarding what was to be the greatest sea invasion in history, as Napoleon envisioned it. The arguments about the strategy for assaulting coastal England revolved around three key points: where to land the invasion force, how to coordinate troop movements once across the English Channel to move as effectively as possible, and how to move materiel safely and swiftly across the Channel during and after the initial landing, in regards to the powerful British Navy.
The general plan suggested by General David Savalier at the Rouen conference was the outline all other strategic plans would be based off of - sabotage throughout the winter of shipyards, the implementation of spies along the coastline, and to land the forces in three days, in waves, up and down the English Channel. Savalier's plan called for 300,000 soldiers to be moved in three days. It also called for the quick movement of the main force, to be landed between the Isle of Wight and Dover, towards London while the tail end of the invasion force would secure the Cornwall Peninsula in order to help move supplies across the Channel. The eastern flank of the army would secure the area around Dover and Hastings so that a secondary army, made up of 35,000 Dutch and German volunteers, could assault from Amsterdam two days after the initial force had landed.
There was a degree of disarray amongst Napoleon's younger generals Robert Legrange and Ricardo Murburrien. Both products of the campaigns in Russia and Austria, they believed that a single decisive victory over the British between the coastline and London would be required to cut the British army in half. They're plan called for the establishment of forces on the coastline before any moves could be made northwards, fearing that they would be stranded without supplies.
Napoleon finally agreed to Savalier's estimates of troop requirements, calling up 175,000 reserves and mobilizing 150,000 additional forces in northern France for what was promised to be a swift campaign. Napoleon also pointed out to his generals that the goal of the campaign was to remove Britain's ability to wage war, not to conquer the island, for fear of insurrection and rebellion. The French were on the brink of finally realizing their ancient hope of demilitarizing their hated enemy and removing England from concerns on the European continent.
Landing at Southampton, May 21st-22nd, 1815
On the morning of May 20th, 1815, French forces assembled along the Norman coastline for the day, organizing themselves onto ships. The supplies would be arriving from further down the coast. Early in the morning of May 21st, 1815, the ships crossed the English Channel to Southampton, where 50,000 French soldiers were deposited on the beach in the first infantry wave along five miles of beachhead. They quickly overran the city under the command of Pascal Giles, and moved north of the city. 75,000 additional French soldiers arrived twenty miles west of the city and set up camp at Tolt House. 20,000 French soldiers swept through the Isle of Wight throughout the day. The French force in England stood now at 145,000 soldiers.
On May 22nd, the second wave arrived, this time to considerable opposition, at Portsmouth. The invasion force of 45,000 managed to establish itself successfully after a long day of fighting up and down the beach, in which 2,000 British soldiers were killed and 560 French soldiers perished. Down the coast, 80,000 soldiers, the largest contingent of the invasion army, landed at Brighton and quickly found themselves at the southern flank of a British army headed towards Southampton, where Napoleon himself was to arrive the next day. General Murburrien, in charge of these soldiers, had to make judgment quickly as he fought off a small defense force.
Battle of Hastings, May 25th-27th, 1815
The Battle of Hastings is celebrated in the French Empire as one of the greatest military victories of the Imperial War - in England, however, it is given little regard as a defeat and historians around the world consider it a victory that did not, in fact, determine the outcome of the Forty Days Campaign, and in fact a battle which had muddled results and no clear victor.
Murburrien pushed his army from Brighton through pockets of armies for two days following his initial fight at Brighton, using a Scorched Earth policy to destroy everything in his path. He arrived five miles north of Hastings on the eve of May 24th, seeing British forces making camp only two miles north. Murburrien saw a large hill in the middle of the battlefield that he ordered a mass of his men to assault. The British guards present were dispersed and the French controlled the battlefield effectively from there on out.
The British assaulted the hill the next day to no avail. Murburrien would eventually break their flank with cavalry and send them north, where he routed the remnants of the army two days later in bloody fighting. The French lost 15,000 men and the British 23,000 - hardly victorious numbers for a French army in a foreign land. Still, an army intended to intercept Napoleon had been turned away, and Murburrien helped establish a French presence in Kent and Sussex for the next two weeks with his army, creating an easy place for French supplies to arrive safely.
There are arguments among historians and military experts alike about how significant the French victory at Hastings truly was. A hastily-assembled British force of 50,000 heading to Southampton was clearly not prepared to face a hungry French army nearly twice their size, even on their home turf. Napoleon's tacticians had studied the terrain of southern England for months and were fully prepared to enter a war on English soil for several months. Murburrien's contribution at Hastings was to eliminate an early threat to the critical establishment of forces and supplies in hostile territory, despite sustaining significant losses.
France celebrates Hastings as one of its twelve greatest military achievements, alongside Jena, Marengo, Wagram and Petrograd. In England, the Fall of London and the Surrender of York are considered far more embarrassing episodes to end the devastating Imperial Wars. The British also had little time to prepare for the invasion - King George III believed that Napoleon's goal was to secure his vast new territories with his spread-thin armies, not attack England herself. That judgment was shown to be false at Hastings, and there may lie the significance; it was at this moment that the British realized, too late, that Napoleon's assault on their homeland had begun.
Napoleon and Savalier Push North, May 24th-June 1st
On May 24th, the third and fourth waves of the 325,000 strong French invasion force had finally arrived and assembled along the English coastline in several corps that would move north and east simultaneously towards London and Birmingham. The move north through the countryside was bloody and destructive; 37,000 French soldiers perished between May 26th and June 1st as they neared central England. British soldiers fell by the thousands during some of the bloodiest days of the war, and farms and armories were stripped and burned. As Lord Tate of England said, "Nowhere else in Europe did Napoleon lay waste in such manner, but Napoleon sought to conquer the rest of Europe, and only a fool destroys what he seeks to have." Napoleon was not in England to take it. He was in England to permanently devastate the country.
The key to the push lay in the ability to move quickly without stopping or getting worn down by British forces. The bloodshed was massive as the French army barreled through the countryside, but England was starting to regain her wits. Armies based in the remnants of old European allies were quickly recalled to the motherland only days before the Battle of Hastings ended, and by June 1st the first contingents of British soldiers were ready to return home.
Critical to the Forty Days Campaign was a battle in Belgium at Waterloo, on June 1st. A massive British force was defeated soundly by French general Francois d'Epitante, who with the help of Belgian and Dutch volunteers won a decisive battle, thus giving Napoleon even more time to establish himself on English soil.
Battle of Carthill and Fall of Birmingham, June 2nd-12th
Savalier's army arrived first into central England, flanking London from the west. However, the major city of Birmingham was a ripe target for the French army, one that could be strategically used to control the campaign once heavy fighting began in London - which, remembering his experience in Moscow, Petrograd and Vienna, Napoleon anticipated. Savalier broke off from Napoleon with 110,000 men towards Birmingham on June 2nd to fulfill this strategic necessity.
All that lay between Savalier and Birmingham was the small town of Carthill, forty-six miles from Birmingham itself. The problem with Carthill, however, was that a British army of 125,000 men had been hastily assembled there to stop Napoleon's fairly obvious plan - Carthill was directly between Birmingham and London and was a strategic point from which the British could protect the capital and central country.
On the morning of June 4th, Savalier threw his main force against the British fortifications at Carthill. For a whole day, the French lines buckled but did not break, and thousands perished on either side. Finally, during heavy artillery fire and a cavalry flanking maneuver by Pascal Giles, the British flank collapsed and the French overran Carthill on June 5th.