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Article: A British agent at Tilset 1807

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Article: A British agent at Tilset 1807

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » February 18th, 2017, 3:04 pm

In this essay published in 1901, the author tries to establish how the British statesman George Canning obtained information regarding Napoleon and Czar Alexander’s agreement made at Tilsit, crucially concerning Napoleon’s reinforcement of the continental system blockading export of British goods, knowledge which enabled him to put into place a plan of retaliation. Was there a British spy hidden on the raft?

Article reprinted from “The English Historical Review” of October, 1901

In the foregoing article I dealt with the subject of Canning’s ulterior and highly statesmanlike aims in sending the British expedition to Copenhagen in the early autumn of the year 1807. I propose in the present article to discuss the very obscure question how he acquired the news as to the designs of Napoleon and the Czar Alexander, which were matured in their famous interviews at Tilsit on and after June 25th, 1807. It is hardly too much to say that no thoroughly satisfactory explanation has ever been advanced, and that which I am about to set forth is not quite complete and convincing. Nevertheless I think it will be found to be far more satisfactory than some of the conjectures that have been hazarded.
One of these is that a British spy hid himself somewhere on the raft on which the first interviews took place. But it is clear, from the accounts of the various memoir writers who have described that scene, that the first interview was somewhat hurriedly arranged, that the raft was either one of the ordinary Niemen rafts, or (as Lejeune affirms) was hastily put together by the French general Lariboisière (*2). In either case it is most unlikely that any inconvenient hiding-places would be left near to the central pavilion or tent, in which the Emperors met for confidential converse; and the story may be dismissed as the intervention of some busybody, or possibly of the British agent who furnished news to our Government, and then sought to invest it with a halo of romance that would double its importance. It was in vain that the Opposition in Parliament sought to compel Canning and other ministers to reveal the source of their information. They stoutly refused to tell the secret; and at the close of this article we shall see that Canning had every reason for keeping the extent of his information carefully concealed; for we have documentary proof that it was not so complete as could have been desired.
Then again it has been suggested that Talleyrand played Napoleon false and yielded up the secret to English agents. This is more than doubtful. Talleyrand was not so thoroughly trusted by Napoleon as to be taken into his secret at the first two conferences at Tilsit, and it was apparently at, or just after, these that our Government gained the news which led to the Copenhagen expedition. Lastly, it has been asserted by Dr. Bell, in his Life of Canning, that the decisive news came not from Tilsit but from Lisbon. According to this version the Prince Regent of Portugal secretly declared to the Prince of Wales that early in the month of May, 1807, Napoleon had most threateningly summoned the court of Lisbon and Copenhagen to side with him against England.
This seems to me incredible. It is true that the French Emperor was always putting secret pressure on those states to compel them to join his continental system and exclude British goods. But that month Napoleon was in too precarious a position in East Prussia to venture on any threat of immediate violence on the borders of Holstein, still less on those of Portugal, where had not as yet any means of extorting obedience. He was too good a diplomatist to attempt so much when he already had his hands full beyond the Vistula. He made his diplomatic coups after a great victory, not in a time of suspense and anxiety such as followed upon his sanguinary check at Eylau. Besides, if that report from Lisbon is correct, why was there no sign of urgent naval activity in our ports before Midsummer? Why was not a British squadron sent to protect Lisbon as well as to overawe Copenhagen? Why, finally, is there no mention of Napoleon’s threats to Portugal in our Foreign Office archives? I have examined our correspondence with Lisbon, and can testify that no great alarm was left there until after Napoleon’s return from Tilsit, when he bent his energies to the task there agreed upon of forcing Portugal and Denmark to declare against England? We may, therefore, dismiss the notion that our ministers gained their knowledge of this resolution through Lisbon as no more tenable than the story that some English spy has hidden on the raft at Tilsit and heard the momentous words of the Emperors.
In searching through our Foreign Office records for Russia, Prussia, and Denmark, I think that I have found a more trustworthy clue. We had at the headquarters of the Russian and Prussian sovereigns at or near Tilsit a group of distinguished officers – Lord Hutchinson, Sir Robert Wilson, and others – besides our ambassador to Russia, Lord Granville Leveson Gower. On the first news of an armistice between Russia and France they were treated with marked reserve and were kept at a distance from the Tilsit negotiations. But with them was a British agent, Mr. Mackenzie, who was left in a more favoured position near General Bennigsen, and seems to have used his opportunities to the best advantage. From his report, dated Thuload, 23rd June, 1807, to his chief, Leveson Gower, I give the following passages:
“My Lord, – Soon after Lord Hutchinson left this forlorn quarter, young Talleyrand made his appearance and accepted the General’s invitation to dinner. At first his stile (sic) of address was lofty, but lowered gradually as he found the temper of the company some tones higher than he had expected. Prince Lobanoff accompanied him to the other side in reply to his first question about the distance of the [Russian] force about to join the army. Duroc has been three times since at the head-quarters and received last night (as I am just informed) the Emperors ratification of the Armistice, which is not be annulled without a month’s previous notice… As Lord Hutchinson declined presenting me to General Bennigsen at the moment of his departure, and, wishing that some private friend of my own should undertake this office, Prince Troubetzkoi and Dr. Wylie offered immediately their assistance, and my reception was at once courteous and kind, and I receive, on presenting Count Woronzow’s letter, a general invitation to dinner, acceptable on more points than one, as the difficulty of procuring anything like bread is beyond conception. The formidable reinforcement of 30 000 men is arrived at Urianborg, but the disposition for continuing the struggle is not very lively here. The General declared yesterday he would undertake to beat the enemy again and again with 60 000 men, but no one replied. A French officer who accompanied Duroc observed to a Russian that all hands must now be wearied by the length and obstinacy of the campaign: if the rival Emperors wished for another let them fight together ! I am told the French soldiers saluted Prince Lobanoff with loud cries of vive la paix ! Accounts are received of six of the fourteen missing pieces of artillery having arrived on the Russian frontier with great numbers of the wounded, who it was supposed had fallen into the hands of the enemy, and likewise of 7000 deserters being on their way to their different corps. I propose setting out for Memel the day after tomorrow, and am, etc.,

We here see that a British agent was a welcome guest at the table of the Russian commander-in-chef up to the very day on which the famous interview took place on the raft; and he announces that he will leave for Memel, the port for Tilsit, on that day. He is in close touch with the Russian general, who is smarting under the slights to which his master subjected him after his blundering at Friedland. He hears the first news that there is an armistice for at least a month. What more natural than that he should glean some precious hints from the malcontent commander on June 25th? Bennigsen would be certain to know as soon as any one whether his master intended to come to terms with France. Though the Czar disliked Bennigsen, and, indeed, soon described him to Savary as a possible traitor, yet the general must have known whether it was to be war or peace. Moreover, it is certain that Mackenzie left for Memel on June 25th, and that they forthwith set out for London. His letter quoted above was enclosed with Leveson Gower’s despatch of June 26th, 1807, from Memel, which was received by our Foreign Office on July 16th.
In our Danish archives I also find that Mr. Garlike, British ambassador at Copenhagen, forwarded to London by the overland route through Tönning an important letter dated Memel, June 26th, which concludes thus:
“On the morning of the 14th an action commenced which lasted until 7o’clock in the evening, when we were completely beaten with a loss of between 20 000 and 30 000 men. We were forced to retire in great confusion over the Pregel and then over the Memel River at Tilsit, where we passed on the 19th, having been first joined by Generals Lestocq and Kamenskoi. On the whole we lost near 40 000 men. After the army had passed the Memel General Bennigsen sent Prince Lobanoff to Bonaparte to propose an armistice, which has been agreed to; and yesterday an interview took place at Tilsit on a pont volant in the middle of the river between Bonaparte and the emperor of Russia. They separated in the most amicable terms. As soon as the negotiations began Lord Hutchinson left the army.

I have italicised the words we, because their repeated use shows that the writer was a Russian officer who had taken part in the battle of Friedland, where no Prussians were engaged. He was probably in the pay of our agents, and sent off this information so promptly that his despatch, quoted above, reached our Foreign Office on the same day as Mackenzie’s letter, viz., July 16th.

But what evidence had Canning that the volte-face of the Czar portended pressure on Denmark to compel her to shut the Baltic against us? Here our Danish archives supply the materials. Mr. Garlike, British ambassador at Copenhagen, had for several weeks been reporting to Downing Street the covert hostility of the Danes to us and their subservience to Napoleon. He had also noted with alarm the threatening increase of French and allied troops (especially Spaniards and Dutch) near the frontiers of Holstein. Ostensibly they were menacing the left flank of the Anglo-Swedish force under the King of Sweden and Lord Cathcart, about to co-operate in the neighbourhood of Stralsund. But he suspected that they would, at the first favourable opportunity, be marched into Holstein, in order to compel The Prince Royal of Denmark to declare the Baltic a mare clausum, and prevent the arrival of reinforcement for Cathcart.

The English envoy therefore pressed the Danish minister, Count Bernstorff, to declare that his government would repel by force any attempt of the French to occupy Holstein. Bernstorff denied that any pressure was being exerted on Denmark by France; but we now know from Napoleon’s Correspondance that he had pressed her to declare the Baltic a mare clausum, and was exceedingly annoyed at her allowing Cathcart’s expedition to sail through the Sound, and thus violate her seas (*4). Garlike evidently took Bernstorff’s denial as a diplomatic device; and on much fear of a French military occupation; “the danger still remains, and too many precautions cannot be taken against it”. This despatch also reached Downing Street on July 16th (*5).

Thus on the same day Canning received from Mackenzie, from the unknown Russian officer, and from our ambassador at Copenhagen warnings that our only remaining powerful ally, the Czar, had come to terms with Napoleon, with an effusive display that portended a Franco-Russian alliance, while the movements of Napoleon’s troops on the borders of Holstein were evidently designed to drive Denmark into open hostility to England. Her leanings had of late been so notoriously favourable to France that in the Russo-Prussian treaty of Bartenstein (April, 1807), to which we were accessories, the courts of St Petersburg and Berlin had proposed to use force to compel her to join the coalition against France.

It should be remembered by those who denounce Great Britain’s violation of international law at Copenhagen that those governments had been the first to propose it, should it be deemed necessary. Of its necessity under present circumstances Canning could have no doubt. The defection of the Czar from the coalition, the practical certainty that Napoleon and he would now compel Denmark to shut the Baltic against British reinforcements to Cathcart, were dangers that had to be instantly faced. We have proof that Canning lost not a moment. On that same day he drew up secret instructions for Brooke Taylor, who was to proceed forthwith to Copenhagen and replace Garlike, that envoy being moved on to Memel, as though it were an ordinary exchange. In reality Canning desired to have an ambassador at Copenhagen who knew his innermost mind in regard to the new and threatening situation. Brooke Taylor was to proceed at once to the Danish court and demand an explicit statement as to its future policy towards us. A powerful British fleet would be sent at once to the Sound of the defence of Sweden and of our reinforcements proceeding to Stralsund, as well as for the protection of British commerce in the Baltic. But the new envoy was also to avow that this menacing step was taken in order to assure the friendly neutrality of Denmark and her resistance to any military pressure exerted by France. The last part of these instructions deserves quotation.
“However willing his Britannic Majesty may be to give every credit to the declaration of the Danish Minister that the attempt by France to occupy Holstein would be considered as an act of war and resisted accordingly, it cannot but be evident that the presence of a British fleet in the Baltic may be of great use in giving countenance and support to such a determination on the part of Denmark… But for this purpose it is requisite that the fleet of Great Britain should be decidedly superior to that of Denmark that it should be so. Her safety is to be found, under the present circumstances of the world, only in a balance of opposite dangers. For it is not to be disguised that the influence which France has acquired from recent events over the north of Europe might, unless balanced and controlled by the naval power of Great Britain, leave to Denmark no other option than that of complaisance with the demands of Bonaparte, however extravagant in their nature or repugnant to the feelings and interests of the Danish Government” (*6).

A balance of opposite dangers: such is the phrase in which Canning summed up his policy towards Denmark. But the news from the Baltic soon convinced him that the balance of power in that sea would not be preserved by any mere naval demonstration. On July 22nd he wrote to Brooke Taylor a “most secret” despatch.
“Foreign Office”
“Sir, -Intelligence reached me yesterday, directly from Tilsit, that at an interview which took place between the Emperor of Russia and Bonaparte on the 24th or 25th of the last month the latter brought forward a proposal for a maritime league against Great Britain, to which the accession of Denmark was represented by Bonaparte to be as certain as it was essential. The emperor of Russia is described as having neither accepted nor refused this proposal… Bu the confidence with which Bonaparte spoke of the accession of Denmark to such a league, coupled with other circumstances and particulars of intelligence which have reached this country, makes it absolutely necessary that His Majesty should receive from the court of Denmark some distinct and satisfactory assurances either that no such proposition has been made to that court by France, or that, having been made, it has been rejected, and some sufficient security that, if made or repeated, it will meet with the same reception. I am therefore commanded by His Majesty to direct you to demand a conference with the Danish minister, and to request, in a firm but amicable manner, a direct and official answer upon these important points”.

The “sufficient security” which Canning claimed was the Danish fleet. He accompanied this despatch with the draft of a secret Anglo-Danish treaty which was at once to be proposed to that Court. It stipulated that, as it was indispensable for the safety of Great Britain that the Danish fleet must be placed beyond reach of a French attack, it should be handed over to us, to be kept in pledge, until the end of the war between England and France, and that, if handed over to us, we would pay Denmark £ 100 000 for every year that it should be held in pledge. At a somewhat later date Canning proposed the formation of an Anglo-Scandinavian alliance which would array the forces of England, Denmark, and Sweden against the aggressions of the two Emperors. But his scheme fell though, owing to the events described in the previous article. The Danish fleet was thereupon seized by force, and Sweden finally succumbed to the attacks of Russia and Denmark.

With these later events we are not here concerned. What I have striven to show, from official sources, is the trustworthiness of the information which led to the Copenhagen expedition. It was not, as the Danes asserted, based on idle gossip. It resulted from inquiries made by Mr Mackenzie at Tilsit in the Russian headquarters at the beginning of the Emperors’ interviews. His letter, quoted above, decided Canning to despatch a fleet and a special envoy to Copenhagen; and there is good reason to think that it was Mackenzie’s interview with Canning on July 21st that led to the demand for the deposit of the Danish fleet. The wording of Caning’s despatch last quoted bespeaks a personal interview rather than the receipt of a written communication. We know from Garlike’s despatch of July 18th (*7) that Mackenzie passed through Copenhagen on his way to London via Tönning about July 10th. With ordinary good luck as to weather he would reach London by July 21st. There is no definite proof of this; but the circumstantial evidence as to Mackenzie’s arrival at London with oral news from Tilsit is fairly complete.

Canning was most careful to conceal the source of his information, and to invest it with a greater importance than it really possessed. Some of his ardent supporters claimed that he knew the tenor of the secret articles of the treaty of Tilsit before he gave orders for the taking possession of the Danish fleet. This can be refuted from our archives. As late as August 4th, 1807 -that is, one month after the signature of that treaty – he charged Leveson Gower to seek to discover the terms of the treaty, and whether there were any secret articles. Now it was in the secret articles, or rather in the secret Franco-Russian treaty of alliance of the same date, that the two Emperors finally agreed to summon Denmark and Portugal to declare against England. Thus, at the time when Cathcart and Wellesley were off Elsinore, Canning did not know of the existence of the article which is now seen to be the final justification of his conduct. But if his knowledge was incomplete it was sufficient to prompt him to vigorous action. He knew through Mackenzie the general purport of the Emperors’ plans at Tilsit; and it is clear that our agent drew his information from the quarters whence it was likely to leak out the soonest – namely, from the malcontent Russian commander Bennigsen and his entourage.
(*1) Reprinted from “The English Historical Review” of October, 1901.
(*2) Lejeune states that he made a sketch of the whole scene which was afterwards engraved. Unfortunately no copy of it is in the British Museum.
(*3) In a note sent to “The English Historical Review” of January, 1902, Mr. Oscar Browning states that he has been assured by General R. Mackenzie, R.A., that his grandfather was concealed on the raft at Tilsit, and brought the important news of the Emperor's secrets to London. I must still beg leave to doubt whether he did not gain the news in a less romantic way, as suggested in this article.
(*4) Letter to Bernadotte, August 2nd, 1807; also that of July 31st, to Talleyrand.
(*5) Foreign Office Records, Denmark, No. 52.
(*6) Foreign Office Records, Denmark, No 53.
(*7) Foreign Office Records, Denmark, No. 52.

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