I’ve noted on a couple of occasions that I’m reluctant to cover the careers of well know figures such as Nelson because they have been covered in such detail that I can’t add anything new to the discussion while on the other hand there is constellation of lesser known, and indeed forgotten, officers which I can write about.
Unfortunately, because of the tie in this blog has with historical fiction set during the Age of Sail one well known naval officer will be the subject of several stories in the future. That officer is, of course, Lord Thomas Cochrane. We’ve previously written on one of Cochrane’s most famous exploits, the capture of the 32-gun frigate El Gamo while commanding the 14-gun HMS Speedy. While that incident made Cochrane’s reputation as a bold and enterprising commander, what is often overlooked is the fact that he was also a skilled practitioner of amphibious warfare. Continue reading
This photo shows the coastal road at Villasar de Mar, a bit north of Barcelona, where the squadron operating under the command of Captain Edward Codrington caught and mauled a French infantry division on the march, a story told below.
“Port a point. Steady!”
The ship crept through the water; not a sound from the crew, standing tense at their guns — only the faint sweet music of the breeze in the rigging, and the lapping of the water overside. Now they were level with the infantry column, a long dense mass of blue-coated and white-breeched soldiers, stepping out manfully, a little unreal in the haze of dust. Above the blue coats could be seen the white lines of their faces — every face was turned towards the pretty white-sailed ship creeping over the blue-enamel water. It was a welcome diversion in a weary march, during a war when every day demanded its march. Gerard was giving no orders for a change of elevation at the moment — here the road ran level for a half a mile, fifty feet above the sea. Hornblower put his silver whistle to his lips. Gerard had seen the gesture. Before Hornblower could blow, the centre main-deck gun had exploded, and a moment later the whole broadside followed with a hideous crash. The Sutherland heeled to the recoil, and the white, bitter-tasting smoke came billowing up.
“God, look at that!” exclaimed Bush.
The forty-one balls from the Sutherland’s broadside and cannonades had swept the road from side to side. Fifty yards of the column had been cut to fragments. Whole files had been swept away; the survivors stood dazed and stupid. The gun trucks roared as the guns were run out again, and the Sutherland lurched once more at the second broadside. There was another gap in the column now, just behind the first.
This, of course, is from C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novel, Ship of the Line, and is a graphic depiction of what a ship of the line could do to ground troops under the right combination of circumstances. Hornblower’s actions are fiction, could this happen in real life? Continue reading
HMS Zebra providing covering fire to Commander Robert Faulknor at Fort Louis, Martinique
We’ve mentioned a few times that the writers of naval fiction set during the Age of Sail have an immense amount of material available to them that only needs minor adjustments to read as fiction.
For instance, the HMS Cockerel, an Alan Lewrie novel by Dewey Lambdin, there is an interesting scene set at the end of the novel. The setting is a dinner aboard the flagship of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. Lieutenant Lewrie is fresh from the siege of Toulon where he managed to capture a French corvette. The corvette is named San Culotte (in real life a 118-gun first rate) and Lewrie jokes about how it will have to be renamed as it would quickly be known as the “Bare Assed” by British sailors. Hood is amused and renames the Sans Culotte the HMS Jester in honor of Lewrie’s wit and appoints him into her as commander.
Following the loss of Toulon to the French Army, the British Navy fell back towards Italy. Part of the strategy required Corsica to be wrested from French control. The British Navy contributed men and artillery toward the effort. One of th most energetic officers in the operation was Captain Horatio Hornblower.
On 10 July 1794 while conducting siege operations against Calvi, a French cannonball struck the merlon of the battery from which Nelson was observing the British bombardment. The stone splintered, some of it striking Nelson in the right eye. The medical certificate from the surgeon reads:
These are to Certify that Captain Horatio Nelson of his Majesty’s Ship Agamemnon, now serving on Shore at the Siege of Calvi, was on the 10th day of July last, wounded in the face and right eye, much injured by stones or splinters, struck by shot from the Enemy. There were several small lacerations about the face; and his eye so materially injured, that in my opinion, he will never recover the perfect use of it again.
Surgeon to the Forces in
Calvi, August 12th, 1794.
There is an interesting account of Nelson’s actions during this campaign here.
During wars of the Age of Sail merchantmen of all nations had to run a gauntlet of privateers. English ships in the West Indies and coming down Channel had to constantly on the lookout for the swift, heavily manned ships carrying letters of marque.
Privateers were a commercial venture and commerce only pays if you are alive at the end of the day. They trod that fine line between daring and recklessness, picked their victims carefully, and similarly broke off their attacks if they met stiff resistance. One must presume that in most cases a privateer would prevail once it had chosen its prey.
But sometimes not.
As we’ve noted before, one of the advantages of writing fiction set during the Age of Sail is that the real events are often so much more exciting than any mere novelist could conceive of.
Take for instance the case of HMS The Fort Diamond (pictured above), probably the only geographical feature to ever be classified as a warship, which directly (in the case of Dudley Pope’s Lord Ramage novel, Ramage’s Diamond) and indirectly (C. S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower novel Lieutenant Hornblower) makes an appearance in nautical fiction.
The real story is more amazing.
The major theme of The King’s Privateer is piracy in the East Indies. While the novel introduces the element of the French positioning themselves as a prelude to the next round of warfare, the fact remains that piracy was endemic in those waters. And when Europeans encountered pirates it was not in the form of a single ship manned by buccaneers such as they might encounter in American or African waters but rather in the form of some dozen or so fast moving proas (pictured above) manned by several hundred warriors.
Fort Belgica, Banda Neira
The global reach afforded Britain by way of its dominance of the sea meant that no part of the enemy’s territory that was within reach of the sea was safe. When this mobility was coupled with the dash and daring we associate with the Royal Navy, it meant relatively small forces could have a disparate impact.
Such was the case of the British capture of Banda and Fort Belgica (pictured above) on August 9, 1810.
What does this have to do with the Age of Sail?