In 1798, Boulogne became the centre of Revolutionary France’s efforts to invade Britain.
In response, the Abbé Ratel and Sir Sidney Smith organised a network of French royalists to keep watch around the port and provide early warning of any invasion. Reports were sent to England through fishermen recruited by Ratel.
In 1803, when war resumed, this network was reactivated. But there were problems from the outset owing to the reluctance of politicians to reveal the nature of the secret operations to disapproving naval officers.
After various disasters, the Boulogne communications had to be rerouted through Le Tréport. There, they shared the route with royalist agents seeking to assassinate Napoleon and restore the Bourbon monarchy. The discovery of this plot led to the unravelling of the entire network and the escape of the principal French agents to Germany and Britain.
The capture of their papers by the French, and the existence of duplicates in London, makes it possible to reconstruct and verify the story in amazing detail.
Tim Clayton is a historian specialising in military history and propaganda of the late-18th and early-19th centuries.