Learning From History: It’s an Option

Somebody's cartoon, showing French invasion of England by tunnel, balloons and kites. (1805, 1803, or around 1792)
(From Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)

From 1803 to 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte was defending France from the United Kingdom, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, Naples, Sicily and Sweden. Or being thwarted in his dreams of conquest.

At any rate, tens of thousands of dead bodies later, European politics had changed a tad.

But not, arguably, all that much. Wars of the Coalition got up to at least number six. And a century after that, what we call World War I started.

Napoleon had planned on invading England during the War of the Third Coalition. He’d prepared a fleet, but decided that a trial run in the English channel would be a good idea.

I gather that at least part of the fleet sank and a fair number of sailors died.

Seems that Napoleon had considered sending troops across the Channel in balloons; but thought about it, and realized that the wind might change direction.

That picture’s someone’s idea of a French invasion of England. It would have been an impressive operation, with troops arriving by ship, balloon, tunnel and — I think those are kites, over at the right.

The picture was published in England, France, or somewhere else, in 1805, 1803 or maybe around 1792.1

Plans, Dreams

Somebody's cartoon, showing French invasion of England by tunnel, balloons and kites. (1805, 1803, or around 1792)
(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Albert Mathieu-Favier’s proposed coach service under the English Channel. (1802))

A French mining engineer, Albert Mathieu-Favier, thought that a tunnel under the English Channel would be a good idea. And he’d worked out most of the necessary details.

Horse-drawn coaches would travel through an upper tunnel, while a lower one would collect groundwater. I’m not sure how he planned on removing the water.

Anyway, folks riding in those coaches would travel by the light of oil lamps, with a breath of fresh air in mid-Channel. Mathieu-Favier’s plan included an artificial island with stables, where horses would be changed.2

It sounds like a well-thought-out plan, including ventilation shafts to give horses, drivers and passengers a fighting chance of survival.

Mathieu-Favier’s tunnel was never built, Napoleon didn’t use balloon-borne troops, and a tunnel under the English Channel remained a dream.

National Security and a Railroad that Wasn’t Finished

Friedrich Graetz's 'The Lion can not face the crowing of the Cock,' an American view of the Channel Tunnel Scare from the American humor magazine Puck. (January 1, 1885)
(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The French are coming! The French are coming! (1885))

Or, for some, a nightmare.

Sir Edward Watkin had a business interest in British railways, and thought a tunnel connecting England and France was a good idea.

Garnet Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, and Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, thought such a tunnel would be a threat to national security. And Queen Victoria didn’t like it.

Meanwhile, Sir Edward Watkin had started digging at Shakespeare Cliff between Folkestone and Dover.

Almost two kilometers later, Parliament told Sir E. W. to stop, which he did. Thereby saving England from invasion. Or putting a spoke in the wheels of commerce.

Either way, work on a Channel tunnel began, again, in the late 1970s. The tunnel — tunnels, actually, and that’s another topic — opened for business in the early 1990s.

And, so far at least, French troops haven’t poured through the Eurotunnel Folkestone Terminal, between Cheriton and Newington, where Danton Pinch used to be.3

Remembering the Past: Makes Sense to Me

An artist's impression of the 'Fête de la Raison/Festival of Reason' at Notre Dame, Paris, during the French Revolution. (1793) From Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.I spent most of this week learning how I could fix some technical issues, make A Catholic Citizen in America more secure — and afford the process.

As a result, I didn’t have much time left for writing this thing.

So I found a few fun facts about the Channel Tunnel, Napoleon, and British politics; started writing and hoped I’d think of something to tie it all together.

Ideally, I’d have experienced a ‘eureka’ moment, and you’d be reading my profound and pithy perception.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, I’ll repeat what I’ve said before.

I think we can learn from history, but that we don’t have to do so.

And I think remembering that history is more than just a chronicle of wars, assassinations, political meltdowns and disasters — natural and otherwise — is more than just a good idea. It’s what makes history something other than a glum-fest.

That’s why I don’t and won’t hop on whatever doom and gloom bandwagon is passing by.

My attitude is more like what Durant and Santayana said, than the more familiar Hegel “…never learned anything…” quote.

“Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts — between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. … History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”
(Will Durant, As quoted in “The Gentle Philosopher” (2006) by John Little at Will Durant Foundation)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
(“The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress,” George Santayana (1905-1906))

“What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
(“Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” Georg Hegel (ca. 1830s) Introduction, as translated by H. B. Nisbet (1975))

I’ve talked about this before, and why I spent most of this week not writing:


1 Napoleon’s invasion that didn’t happen:

2 Chunnel, Tunnel sous la Manche, whatever it’s called:

3 A hamlet, two Englishmen and a rail terminal:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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