Episode 51 - Pants Down on The Good Ship Naturist (French Week)
Updated: Apr 17
Sam's Episode Notes: The Baudin expedition AKA the Proposed French Invasion of Sydney
Today I've not got just one badass Frenchman, I've got a badass French expedition, which was actually quite possibly a badass and very obvious French espionage mission with a view to invading Australia. And it's funny not so much because the French were particularly good or bad, but because the British were so useless. It's called the Baudin expedition, and it sailed from 1800 to 1803.
In March 1800 Neapoleon was approached by a gang from the French National Society of Science and the Arts. Which is a bit of a catch all. Just 'the society for bloody everything' then.
These men, lead by an experienced sea trader and explorer, Nicolas Baudin, wanted permission and funding to go and explore and map the coast of New Holland, what we would now call Australia, to map it and bring back lots of exciting specimens and fun things, presumably, being French, things to put in your mouth or up your bottom.
Baudin was given his permission and set sail in October with two ships, fittingly named Geographe and Naturalist. Not to be confused with the Naturist, the ship famed for it's unusually large mast and hairy deck.
After six months in which everyone got very ill and they ran out of food – nothing unusual there, the expedition arrived in Australia and got to work. And by all counts it went very well, because unlike the British explorers we've talked about before, the French took these things seriously. They didn't bring a chest of drawers or a run distillery, they just bought lots of scientists led by a very competent and experienced. How boring. I mean this just isn't on is it, Tom. Firstly you pack light, then you put someone competent in charge. Then you get along with the natives? What kind of exploration is this?
Anyway, by the end of 1802 the expedition got to Port Jackson, modern day Sydney. At this point Britain and France were at peace, so the British were happy to have the company of some fellow European gentlemen to make up for the transported cockney and Irish prisoners they normally had for company. Having completed a successful voyage, the Naturalist was sent home packed with 2500 new species, and plenty of future food for the beseiged French in the form of emus and black swans as a specific gift for Napoleon's Josephine.
Meanwhile the British got on so well with the French they even sold them a replacement ship in exchange for a load of rum, gunpoweder, and £50.
Now, this all sounds very boring so far, doesn't it? I've been forced to make a dick joke and a derogatory comment about the French putting things up their bottoms to keep it interesting. But wait, Tom. Because there's two aspects to this which are much more fun. The first is a lovely bit of British incompetence. And the second is the real reason behind the expedition. So, let's do the British incompetence first.
Now, in 1801, knowing that the French would have their beady little frog eyes on his big old Isle-a-roo, the Governor of Australia, Philip Gidley King, sent out his official chief surveyor to explore and claim as much of South Australia as he could for King and Country. The chief surveyor was a 19 year old called Charles Grimes. So the deputy chief surveyor and assistant were probably just about old enough to draw a tree and colour in the lines of a map.
Anyway, when the French rolled up in Sydney King and Boudin had a whale of a time – so much so that Boudin had been allowed to stay for five months and buy a ship, King being absolutely, positively sure that it was only going to be used for science and not for invading or colonising because he liked Boudin.
Whilst this was going on, a drunk French officer had let slip over wine one night that they wanted to start a settlement in Van Deimans Land, what is now known as Tasmania – a place the British hadn't yet claimed. When news of this reached king, he panicked and decided that no matter how nice this particular Frenchman was, he didn't want him as a neighbour.
Unfortunately, if Australia was short of map makers and flag planters, it was REALLY short of sailors and colonisers. Australia had, at the time, one ship. They'd had two, but just sold one to the French. Called the Cumberland, it was tiny, just 40 feet long and 30 tons. And it didn't have a crew, so was captained by a 21 year-old midshipman called Charles Robbins. Now, for reference and if you haven't watched Hornblower or Master and Commander, a midshipman is the lowest ranking officer in the Royal Navy. You could achieve this rank at 12 years old.
And yet Robbins was promoted to acting lieutenant-commander, given this little ship along with 16 crew, including Grimes and a handful of Royal Marines, a gardener, presumably to plant a little raised bed around the flag, and told to bugger off and not come back until he'd gone and claimed Tasmania.
Sure enough, in December 1802 the little ship rocked up at Sea Elephant Bay to find those dastardly Frenchies already there. The British panicked, dashed ashore, pulled out a letter from King to Boudin saying, “this wasn't a very nice thing of you to do to a friend”, whipped out a union jack and tied it to a tree before the French had managed to get out a 'sacre bleu'!
Now, the Union Jack was quite a new flag at this point, and Robbins was quite a new sailor. So he made a total hash of it. Firstly, he flew the flag upside down, much to the amusement of the French. Secondly, he hadn't been storing it properly, and the French later commented that it looked like the crew had been using it to strain soup.
Thirdly, he hadn't bought a script with him to claim the land properly and wasn't much of a public speaker, so just mumbled some words about naming it King island on behalf of Governor King and for the King. And finally, and most embarrassingly, he tried to order the three marines to fire a ceremonial volley to formalise the claim, but realised he'd forgotten to bring any gunpowder from the ship. So he had to borrow some from the French, which he then fired worryingly close above their heads.
Bear in mind the French thought this was absolutely hilarious – they had over 100 men to Robbins 17, and their ship the Geographe was ten times the size. Baudin told Robbins not to worry, the French never had any intention of colonising a country already inhabited by savages. Which is about the worst thing you could say to a Brit. The French then left and went about annoying the British by naming everywhere after French things, whilst Grimes ran along behind them renaming everything in a suitably British way.
They did eventually have quite a good explore of Tasmania, though, once the French had buggered off home. Once Boudin had stopped laughing, he did write a letter to King calling him a massive child who needed to take better care of his flags.And now on to the invasion, Tom – or at least the proposed invasion.
Because the Boudin expedition wasn't just scientific, oh no. It was a detailed map of the defences and strategic value of Australia and Port Jackson – presented to French authorities in Mauritius and Paris with a view to capturing or destroying the colony.
There were two reports written up by members of the expedition suggesting an invasion. The most important one was by a geographer called François Auguste Péron, who saw Australia as a major threat to Spanish South America which needed to be crushed. His report wasn't fully discovered or translated until 1998. He wrote to the Governor of Ile de France, now Mauritius, that they were sent by Napoleon himself to draw up invasion plans: “All our natural history researches, extolled with so much ostentation by the government, were merely a pretext for its enterprise.”
He also claimed to be quite the spy, writing: “I was able to gain the confidence of the governor, his secretary, the lieutenant governor, of most of the civil and military officers, the colonial doctors, the protestant ministers and the nature of my work, my double title of doctor and naturalist, made me less suspect and allowed me to ask a mass of questions, which coming from anyone else would have been badly received. I have visited most parts of the colony, I have visited the flocks, the countryside, questioned the farmers etc, to obtain exact information which may be useful to the interests of my country.”
Although he later rowed this back a little, claiming just to have been a keen amateur. You know, just passing time planning invasions, as you do.
And his plan was pretty dastardly. It involved shipping a force of 1800 men in a French fleet to Australia, sailing a few dozen miles south of the major shipping routes to avoid detection.
After a six month voyage, which would have been absolute hell, they would sail around the south of Australia, capturing any British settlements on the way and sinking any ships to avoid alerting the authorities, and bringing any transported labourers, especially Irish dissidents, onboard to provide intelligence. They would then sneak up on Sydney at night near, quote: “a malt house belonging to a man named Smith”. Which seems oddly specific. He believed from his conversations with the local guards and militia that they would have no stomach for a fight, and would surrender without bloodshed. He knew that most of the Irish prisoners in Sydney hated the British, so much so that their main job would be to avoid a massacre of the colonial masters, most of whom he wanted to keep in place in order to keep the colony running. Nevertheless he also suggested bringing 2000 extra guns to form an Irish colonial army. The captured British would be shipped home and exchanged for French prisoners, political prisoners in Sydney would be released and everyone else would be given shortened sentences to win them over, and no one would die. Once the war was over, the return of the colony could be negotiated to great French advantage, so long as the Irish troops were protected. Very honourable of him.
And Tom, it very nearly happened. In 1810 Napoleon ordered that Ile de France, or Mauritius, plan for an invasion of New South Wales. And a British ship, the Broxbornebury, reported seeing, or seeing reports of, three or four French Frigates heading for Australia, though bad weather had sunk a couple and dispersed the rest. So who knows. Maybe the weather was just against the French and the Australians could now be eating cane toads and speaking with a terrible accent. We'll never know.
Righty tighty toe, I started this week’s research by looking into French awards and orders for bravery. From this I narrowed my search down to a few highly decorated Frenchmen with colourful histories, one of whom I will talk about today.
To start with, here are a few of my favourite French orders, medals and decorations that I discovered:
· Order of Academic Palms; 1808 under Napoleon
o Why distinguish the palm from the rest of the hand? Very weird. Perhaps for people with stoooopid fingers, but academic palms
· Honour medal for penitentiary administration
o Very exciting, presumably, prison guards
· Insignia for wounded civilians
o About 1.7 million French deaths , 1.4 military deaths
o WW2; 267,000 civilian deaths, 218,000 military deaths
§ Switzerland; 1.
o Compared to the USSR; 25 million deaths (military and civilian)
§ China 15 million
§ Germany 8 million
§ Switzerland; 100.
· It kinda highlights the ferociousness of the Swiss army penknife and the value of precision time keeping. Or just the value of being a nation of Jewish Gold hoarding cowards.
· Honour medal for Indirect Taxation
o Don’t get this one. Sneaky ways to tax people?
§ Why’s my brie square? Oh there’s a tax on round cheese containers
§ Why’s my baguette 8 feet long? Oh baguettes are now taxed per unit, so we’ve just made a unit much bigger.
§ Why am I paying all these new taxes on my savings? Oh it’s because your Swiss and nobody likes clog wearing, muesli enjoying, mountain yoodling yellow bellied Toblerone masitcator.
· Medal of Mines
o France’s only dig your own medal medal
· Honour medal for work
o Christ, is it that much of a novelty for people to work in Spain?
o Surprisingly a Spaniard has never won that award.
· Order of the Broom Cod
o Presumably a fish that enjoyed sweeping; 1234!
· Order of the Porcupine
o 1394; no hedgehogs allowed!
· Order of the Hop
o For craft beer nonces
o Or people with one leg
Right, my main topic now! The highly decorated French war hero Marcel Bruno Bigeard (not big ears, although he has rather large lugs, face like the Ryder Cup) and no he didn’t have a mate called noddy.
He started his military career in 1936 as a regular soldier and finished it in 1976 as a Lieutenant General, which translates roughly as lieutenant general in English.
At the start of the Second World War he was stationed along the Maginot Line that the Nazis creatively walked around, because it didn’t extend through Belgium.
He ended up a prison of war for 18 months and then managed to escape to Senegal of all places! He fought in Africa for a while and then ended up with the Free French Forces (the government in exile during the Second World War led by the famous Charles De Gaulle).
All through the Second World War he managed to get regular promotions. Towards the end of the war he was parachuted into France and led numerous missions that led him to receiving British awards for gallantry.
After the war Bigears spent time in Indochina where France was trying reassert its dominance over its colonies in what turned out to be the First Indochina War (which ran from 1946 to 1954). This is very much the precursor to the Vietnam War. This is where the story of Bigears really takes off.
Notably in 1952 he led his parachute battalion on an operation which ended with them being surround by Vietnamese troops and outnumbered 10 to 1. He managed to breakout of the encirclement and lead his men back to a French base.
Bigears was famous for his physical fitness and willingness to do everything expected of his regular troops. He was very critical of other senior military figures with their tummies and laziness.
"It is possible, it will be done. And if it is impossible, it will still be done"
Despite a heroic last stand at Dien Bien Phu, which an historian has likened to the Spartans at Thermopoylea, at the end of the First Indochina War. Bigears was captured and made a prisoner of war. His physical fitness stood him in good stead when the Vietnamese death marched the French forces to a POW camp. Around 4000 of the 10000 French captures survived this. He was released 4 months later.
Next, in 1956, Bigears found himself in Algeria where he was fighting the Algerian National Liberation Front who wanted Algerian Independence. Early on Bigears survived 3 bullets to the chest, one during a fight and 2 as part of an assassination attempt.
The Algerian War was brutal with both sides responsible for atrocities. The FLN basically adopted terror tactics and bombed public places loosely targeting French-Algerians, particularly Muslim French Algerians, they were also particularly fond of killing people with the Algerian Smile, cutting the throat of their victims, ripping out their tongues and leaving them to bleed to death.
The French, Bigears being a prominent figure in their forces, decided to meet brutality with brutality. Curfews were put in place with violent enforcement; people would be shot and left to rot in the streets. Torture was also prevalent; the French liked to electrocute suspects’s genitals. Thousands of native Algerians went missing. It is rumoured that Bigears ordered them to be dropped from planes into the ocean to drown. Weirdly, when one of the FLN leaders was captured, Bigeard ensured that he was treated with huge respect. On the whole, the French tactics in Algeria proved to be very unpopular with the French and Algeria was eventually given its independence.
Through the 60s and the 70s he was stationed in various places and he continued to demonstrated his idiosyncrasies that made him so popular with his men, and so unpopular with his superiors. As an example, he was almost drowned and eaten by sharks, simultaneously, when he parachuted into meet some new men under his command and was blown into the Indian Ocean (he was aiming for Madagascar!).
He went onto work in politics, his reputation confused. On the one hand, an incredibly strong, resilient and successful military leader, on the other, someone willing to condone torture. He died in 2010 and was buried with full military honours. Aged 94. “I do not accept the medals anymore“because they are starting to fall on my shoes.”