The French Wars

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Title] The French Wars: Britain was at war with France, apart from a couple of brief interludes, from 1792 to 1815.

[Sub-title] Napoleonic: Although the adjective ‘Napoleonic’ is often used to describe the whole period of the French wars, the usage is in some respects misleading. The early stages of the wars, in which Napoleon Bonaparte (1760-1821) made his name as a soldier, are often called the French Revolutionary Wars to distinguish them from the later stages when Bonaparte was Emperor of France (1804-1815) and, for many years, led his country as a brilliantly successful war leader.

[Lines 1-2] Newhaven/Dieppe, Folkstone/Boulogne, Dover/Calais: the English and French ports marking the principal crossing points of the English Channel.

[Line 9] Bireme: a galley with two banks of oars;
brigantine, cutter, sloop, varieties of fast sailing ships.

[Line 10] Cog: an early merchant ship;

carrack: a large rather cumbersome trading vessel with square rigging;
galleon: an improved version of the carrack, faster and more manoeuvrable;
poop: the raised deck in the stern of large ships.

[Line 11] Hoy: a small coastal vessel;
caravel: a small trading ship;
ketch: a two-masted sailing ship;
corvettes: flush-decked warships.

[Line 12] regatta: a gathering of yachts and rowing boats for sporting competitions;
from Ramsgate to Brest: from the southeast of England to the northwest of France, in other words the whole of the English Channel.

[Line 13] the galleys of Caesar: the oared fighting ships used by Caesar to invade Britain;
the squadrons of Sluys: a small fleet of warships like those engaged in the naval battle between England and France at the harbour of Sluys, on the coast of Flanders, in 1340.

[Line 14] Nelson’s crack frigates: heavily armed fast warships of the kind used so effectively by Admiral Nelson in the French Wars.

[Line 15] high Seventy-fours: tall warships carrying seventy-four guns.

[Line 16] Deal luggers: light sailing vessels often used for smuggling and fishing based at Deal, a port on the South East coast of England;
chasse-marée: a French word for a coasting vessel that works the tides.

[Line 16] ooze: the soft fine mud on the bed of the English Channel.

[Line 18] honey-combed: cracked and pitted.

[Line 18] skeleton crews This is a schoolboy jest by the poet. A “skeleton crew” would normally be a crew reduced to just a few men. Here they are literal skeletons.  [D.H.]

[Line 20] packet: the abbreviation commonly used for a packet-boat, which carried some passengers and goods but mainly the mail, in this case ‘cross-channel’ between England and France.

[Lines 21-24] Then the poor sea-sick passengers … blood-thirsty wars: The French and the English are still crossing and criss-crossing the Channel, but as tourists rather than soldiers or sailor. The battles they now have to face are against sea-sickness and the customs officers who are preventing them from bringing in any illegal goods. Kipling had long been fascinated by smuggling. See especially his poems “A Smugglers’ Song” in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and “Poor Honest Men” in Rewards and Fairies (1910).

[P. K.]
©Peter Keating 2003 All rights reserved