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The Napoleon Series > Government > Governments and Politics

Friends and Enemies: The Underground War between Great Britain and France, 1793-1802

By Christopher John Gibbs

This is a history of failure. Of incompetence, self-interest, inconsequence, disappointment and cruel twists of fate. So why bother? Perhaps because we cannot appreciate 'winners' without fully understanding the nature of their defeated adversaries. Because even in failure there is much to admire and study, courageous acts driven by honour, conviction, skill and daring, like brave Hector facing invincible Achilles before the walls of Troy. Perhaps because by analysing the errors of the past we can avoid them in the future. Because 'losers' too can have a vital impact on the course of history. The second 'hundred years' war' between France and Great Britain had already been raging intermittently for some 90 years when the French Revolution exploded in France. The war that eventually broke out between Britain and the new French Republic in 1793 was to take on new and significant dimensions. The old conflict between rival monarchies was reshaped by the emergence of the Republic which undermined many of the old 18th Century notions of conflict, diplomacy and power. Political and social ideology came to the forefront as both countries were rent by internal divisions and challenges to the authority of the governments. In this volatile environment there was considerable scope for espionage and underground activities, as each country sought to exploit and co-operate with the disaffected citizens and subjects of the other to discover and disrupt their plans, exacerbate their weaknesses, win the war and bring about desired political changes. These efforts proved exceedingly difficult to undertake successfully but they were a fascinating and vital aspect of the contest between France and Britain, republican and royalist, governing and rebel.

While the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars raged for twenty-three years (1792-1815) and involved all the major states of Europe in espionage and covert actions, I have chosen to focus on Britain, France and Ireland in 1793-1802. This is because clandestine activity had a particularly unique place in the struggles between and within those countries. The distinct period between the commencement of hostilities in February 1793 and the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 was one of the most dynamic and significant in the history of espionage and covert actions in modern Western Europe and ideologies and forces at work in the countries concerned necessitated new and enhanced methods of domestic rule, security, surveillance and investigation.[1]    

The purpose of this thesis is to analyse the various aspects of intelligence and clandestine operations in this period in order to determine and understand their nature, the response they engendered, the factors that influenced their success or failure, and the impact they had on the societies of France, Britain and Ireland and the course of this crucial period of history in Western Europe. The focus throughout is on the agents and their methods.[2] The basic structure is as follows: we will begin with an analysis of clandestine operations throughout our period, exploring the composition, context and aims of the primary participants and governments involved; the means and methods of agents and information collection; the analysis of information and the process by which it is turned into intelligence 'product'; and the undertaking of covert actions. The second chapter will analyse domestic security and counter-intelligence operations. This will be followed by a case study exploring one particular clandestine operation of this period – the attempt by the Anglo-Royalists to secure a monarchist majority in the French parliaments and provincial administrations via the elections of Germinal Year V, with the intention of securing sufficient political, military and popular support to carry out a coup d'état against the Directory in order to restore the monarchy. We will analyse the various aspects of intelligence and clandestine operations associated with this agenda. Finally we will close with some reflections and conclusions on the outcomes of clandestine operations; the nature and efficacy of the techniques and methods employed by agents, spymasters and security services; and the impact these activities had on the social, political and military history of this period and the future of intelligence operations.  The Appendix contains a list of the major clandestine and security organisations that operated in France, Britain and Ireland during this period. It details their areas of operation, leaders, members, agents and key contacts. It is intended to assist the reader in understanding the composition and allegiance of the various organisations and agents referred to in the text.

It is not my intention in this work to make a moral judgment on whether the motives, methods and actions of the various clandestine organisations and operators discussed here were appropriate and reasonable in the circumstances. Rather as they progress through this study I would encourage the reader to consider four factors: the justice and motives of a particular cause; the considerations, care and reasoning that went into the planning and undertaking of particular operations; the advisability of a particular course of action in the relevant circumstances; and the consequences of that course of action. With these considerations in mind I shall leave it to the reader to draw their own moral conclusions.

This study relies on a wide variety of sources. As far as possible I have attempted to allow the voices of the past to speak for themselves, or at least to incorporate their insights and opinions into my analysis. Unfortunately many of the relevant primary documents lie unpublished in archives in Britain, Ireland and France. However I have happily been able to examine the correspondence and memoirs of some active agents and statesmen like William Wickham, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Sir Sidney Smith, Paul Barras and Viscount Castlereagh, and to have had access to some excellent secondary sources which contain and refer to useful primary material, such as Fryer's Republic or Restoration in France? which contains extensive extracts of communications between Wickham and his senior agent and collaborator Antoine d'André. Wickham's Correspondence provides us with an excellent insight into the mind and methods of not only this unique spymaster and covert operator but also his principal correspondent and director, the British Foreign Minister Lord Grenville. Castlereagh's Memoirs and Correspondence provides us with a contemporary perspective from the side of the government, as the then Chief Secretary for Ireland and his associates strove to monitor and break up the operations of Irish and British radicals. Barras' Memoirs were written years after the events they depict, by a man of notoriously questionable morals determined to defend his reputation. They must therefore be treated with care but they do give us important details on the workings of the French Directory. Particularly relevant to this study is Barras' description of events leading up to the coup d'état of 18 Fructidor Year V and his interaction with the police and his own clandestine contacts. Tone's Life is invaluable in seeking to gain an understanding of the life, mind and motivations of a late 18th Century agent and rebel.

Numerous secondary works have been consulted, some with a narrow focus on specific agents, areas and clandestine operations, and others detailing the wider socio-political context. Most of the former focus primarily on the operations themselves, with only Sparrow's Secret Service paying particular attention to the craft and methods of agents and analysts.[3] Along the way, I will also occasionally refer to modern intelligence analysts for guidance, particularly the American experts Allen Dulles and Abram Shulsky.[4]   



[1] The struggle between Great Britain and Republican France of 1793-1802 was a quite different character to that between Britain and Imperial France which followed it in 1803-1815. The second phase of the war was a rather more straightforward affair between two competing nations, with the French royalists and British and Irish radicals playing a far more minor role in proceedings.   

[2] Those wishing to read more about the political, military and social history of Western Europe in this period can consult the myriad works that address these matters. I refer those particularly interested in the clandestine operations of the British, French and Irish to the works of Colin Duckworth, Michael Durey, Marianne Elliott, W. R. Fryer, Jacques Godechot, Sir John Hall, Maurice Hutt, Oliver Knox, Harvey Mitchell, Elizabeth Sparrow, Paul Weber and Roger Wells detailed in my bibliography.

[3] See Paul, vicomte de Barras, Memoirs of Barras, Member of the Directorate, Volume II, ed. G. Duruy, translated by C. E. Roche, London, Osgood, McIlvaine & Co., 1895, and Memoirs of Barras, Member of the Directorate, Volume III, ed. G. Duruy, translated by C. E. Roche, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1896; John Barrow, The Life and Correspondence of Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith, G. C. B., Volume I, London, Richard Bentley, 1848; Richard Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, Memoirs and Correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh, Second Marquess of Londonderry, Volume I, ed. C. Vane, Marquess of Londonderry, London, Henry Colburn, 1848; W. R. Fryer, Republic or Restoration in France? 1794-7: The Politics of French Royalism, with particular reference to the activities of A. B. J. d'André, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1965; Edward Howard, Memoirs of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, K.C.B., &c., Volume I, London, Richard Bentley, 1839; Elizabeth Sparrow, Secret Service: British Agents in France 1792-1815, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 1999; Theobald Wolfe Tone, Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Compiled and arranged by William Theobald Wolfe Tone, ed. T. Bartlett, Dublin, The Lilliput Press, 1998; William Wickham, The Correspondence of the Right Honourable William Wickham from the Year 1794, 2 vols, ed. W. Wickham, London, Richard Bentley, 1870.

[4] See Allen Dulles, The Craft of Intelligence, New York, Harper & Row, 1963; Abram N. Shulsky, Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence, Washington D.C., Brassey's (US), Inc., 1991. I have also consulted William J. Daugherty, 'The role of covert action', L. K. Johnson (ed.), Handbook of Intelligence Studies, London, Routledge, 2007, pp. 279-288; John Hollister Hedley, 'Analysis for strategic intelligence', Handbook of Intelligence Studies, pp. 211-226; Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage, 2nd Ed., New York, Random House, 2004; Mark Stout, 'Émigré intelligence reporting: Sifting fact from fiction', Handbook of Intelligence Studies, pp. 253-268.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2011


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