UPDATE: Excellent comment below that takes a bit of a different tack on this engagement.
It is difficult to read the history of the war at sea during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars and not have that phrase constantly cross your mind. Over and over the ships of the British navy attempt extraordinary deeds and succeed. Many times they do so because of courage and daring. Often they succeed because the French, whether on ships or manning coastal defenses, seem to be defeated before the battle is joined.
Take for instance the case of the 36-gun 12-pounder frigate l’Egyptienne.
I decided to do one more Lord Cochrane piece before moving on to something else. This episode predates The Boats of HMS Impérieuse by a year. At the time Cochrane was commanding the 32-gun 12-pounder frigate HMS Pallas with a crew of about 220 and was part of a British squadron blockading the port of Bordeaux. Cochrane had made a habit of raiding deep up the Gironde estuary and had a crew well drilled in small boat work. Cochrane had even had a galley constructed to his own specifications for the express purpose of cutting out enemy shipping and raiding coastal installations.
On April 5, 1806, Pallas was anchored just off the Cordouan light, pictured above, at the mouth of the Gironde. Cochrane received word from local informants that two French corvettes were anchored some 20 miles farther up the river and naturally decided to cut them out.
The plan was equal parts simplicity and audacity.
The Napoleonic Wars encompassed theaters of operations throughout the world. The main theaters shifted over time but some theaters were destined to remain strategic backwaters. The Adriatic was one of those.
The Venetian Republic had ceased to exist when it was overrun by the troops of Revolutionary France in 1797. Ceded to Austria under the treaty that ended the War of the First Coalition, Venice was an Austrian province until 1805. When the Treaty of Pressburg was signed, in the aftermath of disastrous defeats at the hands of the French at Ulm and Austerlitz and the collapse of the Third Coalition, Venice was stripped from Austrian control and became part of Napoleon’s short lived Kingdom of Italy.
While the Adriatic was of little strategic import to the British it was an important source of naval stores for France and so raiding commerce in the Adriatic became a priority for the British Navy. Continue reading
A method of warfare that extended in prehistory came to an end around 3pm on October 20, 1827 at Navarino Bay on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula. It was a one-sided fight, much more in the tradition of Ulundi and Omdurman than Trafalgar or Camperdown, with a fairly modern fleet of British, French, and Russian ships (10 ships of the line, 10 frigates, and 6 below rates) taking on an obsolescent fleet of the Ottoman Empire (2 ships of the line, 17 frigates, and 39 below rates). Continue reading
Battle of Copenhagen
1801 set stage for one of the saddest events in the two decades of war that began with the declaration of war against Revolutionary France by the First Coalition and ended at Waterloo: the Battle of Copenhagen fought between the Baltic fleet of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and the Danish fleet and forts defending Copenhagen on April 2, Maundy or Holy Thursday, 1801.
The British Navy during the Age of Sail produced more than it’s share of exemplary combat commanders.
One of those was certainly Vice Admiral Sir Richard Goodwin Keats. A man of whom Nelson wrote, “I esteem his person alone as being equal to one French 74…”
Keats proved he was equal to much more than a French 74 in the aftermath of the Battle of Algeciras.
Let’s face it. When it comes to nautical fiction we are all Anglophiles. The major fictional heroes of the Age of Sail are British. Alexander Kent is probably one of the few authors who have managed to sell books in the United States in which Americans are the enemy.
There are undoubtedly novels out there in which a French naval officer is the hero, but I’ve just not encountered them.
Just because our fiction in Anglophile, it doesn’t mean we should accept the prejudices held by the British Navy as being accurate.
In fiction, two of these prejudices have acquired the level of articles of faith. The first is the supremacy of the weather gage, the second is the superiority of aiming at the hull of the opponent, “‘twixt wind and water,” rather than the rigging.
Let’s look at them.
Captain Henry Trollope with the moratlly wounded Marine Captain Henry Ludlow Strangeways on the deck of HMS Glatton
We’ve observed on several occasions that many of the incidents in novels set during the Age of Sail are heavily influenced by actual events. In most cases, the novel’s protagonist expands on the accomplishments of the actual character. In Ramages’s Diamond
, Lord Ramage manages to turn the battery later known as HMS Fort Diamond
into a combat multiplier that enables his mini-squadron consisting of his frigate, a prize frigate, and a prize sloop to snap up a French convoy and its escorts.
Alexander Kent, on the other hand, perhaps feeling that the actual event was too improbable, actually downplays Nelson’s use of one Spanish ship of the line as a bridge to board and take a second, larger Spanish ship of the line and has Richard Bolitho use a friendly brig as a bridge to board and take a French frigate.
Every once in a while, though, the novel’s protagonist makes out worse than the actual character.
Success breeds complacency. Few things are more devastating to an effective military than a long period without significant challenge. The US Army discovered this brutal lesson in Korea. The British Navy discovered this in the War of 1812.
By 1812 England had been at war nearly constantly for nearly 40 years. While British arms on land weren’t always victorious, indeed they suffered more than their share of debacles, the Navy had establish an estimable record of success against all odds and had achieved not only tactical supremacy but psychological ascendancy over it’s European foes.
This invulnerability was shattered in July 1812 when the USS Constitution beat the HMS Guerriere to a shambles in a 35-minute engagement that left 21 British sailors dead and 57 wounded. This was followed by the loss of HMS Macedonian in October and of HMS Java in December. To a Navy and a public used to victories in single ship engagements, this was an earth shattering development.
The pattern continued until June 1, 1813 just outside Boston Harbor.
Captain Edward Riou
Earlier I noted how many, if not most, of the actions described in naval fiction actually have deep roots in the history of the Age of Sail. In that initial essay I pointed out how Richard Bolitho’s action in To Glory We Steer of boarding an enemy ship by using another ship as a bridge was actually less remarkable than the historical event, Captain Horatio Nelson of the 74-gun HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent using the 80-gun San Nicholas as a bridge to board and take the 112-gun San Josef.
I came across another instance in this description of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novel, Desolation Island.