Making Virtue of Necessity

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.

We’ve previously examined the notion of the weather gage and remain convinced that it is more of a tool to ensure captains fight than having any real tactical advantage. In fact, with a large ship it is a disadvantage.

As to gunnery, novelists and contemporaneous chroniclers of events are universal in pooh-poohing the French tactic of concentrating fires on the sails and rigging of the opponent rather than the more manly British method of laying yardarm-to-yardarm and slugging it out.

It is hard to see this as much more than chauvinism. If we assume an equal level of skill on the part of the gun crews, firing at the sail and rigging produces the best mathematical model for success. The target presented by the sails and rigging is larger by orders of magnitude greater than that presented by the hull, a huge advantage with your firing platform is an unsteady deck. Plus misses have the virtue of still being able to hit the hull. When you aim at the hull, more of your misses will end up in the ocean than in the rigging.

Most of our fiction begins in the era of the French Revolutionary wars, after the professional leadership of the French Navy had largely taken the one-way ride in the tumbrel. The French artillery school which supplied gunners to the navy was disbanded and its students sent back to the fleet. Many of its graduates, suspected of Royalist sympathies, were purged.

What we are left with is a fairly unhandy navy that retains the tactics of its predecessor but lacks the skills to carry them out.


In the beginning of 1794, the French government contemplated sending out an expedition to India, to supply the Maruitius and Reunion with troops and munitions of war. Originally it was to have been commanded by Rear Admiral Kerguelen and consist of three 74-gun ships of the line, three 50-gun razees, and a number of transports.

Revolutionary France was not a hotbed of efficiency, some things do remain constants it would seem, and it wasn’t until March 4, 1796 that the mission got underway under the leadership of Rear Admiral Sercey. The expedition was much reduced, now consisting of four frigates and two corvettes. One of the frigates managed to run onto rocks near Aix as the fleet sortied and Sercey decided to continue the mission without it. He now had the Forte (44), Regeneree (36), Seine (en flute transport), and two corvettes. Three days out they encountered a severe gale in the Bay of Biscay and the two corvettes, Bonne-Citoyenne and Mutine, lost spars, fell behind, and ultimately became British prizes.

Not an auspicious beginning.

Sercey proceeded on his mission. He landed representatives of the Revolutionary government in Mauritius and Reunion to declare an end to slavery and had to quickly remove them for sake of their safety. He took several valuable prizes and made a general nuisance of himself. He also consolidated stray French warships into a squadron of six frigates: Forte (52), Seine (en flute), Vertu (40), and Cybele (40), Regeneree (36), and Prudente (36).

At 6 am on September 8, just off Sumatra, Sercey’s squadron encountered two British 74s, Arrogant and Victorious.

The two 74s were an easy match for Sercey’s ships. By 2:30 Sercey had verified that he was facing two ships of the line and decided to avoid a battle. A wise decision given the ship-to-ship match up and the difficulty Sercey would have in repairing any severely damaged ships. Arrogant and Victorious gave chase.

The chase continued over night, but by 6 am on September 9 it became obvious that the two British ships were going to catch up with the French squadron.They were nearly with gunshot of the last two frigates and were maneuvering to cut those two ships off. Sercey either had to see his squadron defeated in detail or offer battle. Sercey ordered the squadron to put about and formed a line astern windward of the two British ships.

At about 7:25 am Arrogant opened fire at a range of just over a cable. By 8:30 the two squadrons had passed by each other. One of the French frigates had lost its fore topsail yard and been severely knocked about. Arrogant tried to wear ship to close with the French. The winds were very light which would have made things difficult in the best of times. But these were not the best of times. Arrogant had lost:

her fore topsail yard,
the larboard arm of her main topsail yard,
her cross-jack yards,
the starboard arm of her spritsail yard,
her mizen topgallant mast,
her main topgallant mast,
her main yard, main mast, and bowsprit were heavily damaged,
all the larboard main rigging and stays were cut away,
her starboard braces and yard tackles were shot away,
her sails were shredded.

In short, Arrogant was unmanageable.

Now all six frigates concentrated on Victorious at a range of about a cable and a half, or 300 yards. All of her masts and yards were heavily damaged. Victorious attempted to rejoin Arrogant but in wearing ship three of the French frigates managed to rake her stern. Her captain was severely wounded and she received over 40 shots to the hull. A breeze sprang up which allowed Victorious to maneuver and at that point Sercey decided to cash in his chips and go home. The French squadron sailed away leaving two very crippled 74s behind. By 11:15 the French were out of range.

Out of a crew of 584, Arrogant lost one midshipman and 6 seamen killed and 27 seamen wounded. The Victorious, with the same complement, lost 15 seamen and two marines killed, her captain, one midshipman, 48 seamen, and seven marines wounded. A total of 24 dead, 84 wounded.

In this case the French tactic of shooting to disable and then closing in for the kill is demonstrated to be effective. Sercey was able to save his squadron from being destroyed piecemeal and to continue with his mission of commerce raiding. Though he lost more men and his ships were knocked about, they were able to retain their mobility and reduced the two superior British ships to rafts. Had he elected to fight it out, broadside to broadside, the two 74s would have taken his entire squadron.

Fiction has a way of making a virtue of necessity. British fighting instructions emphasized the weather gage because a captain with the weather gage could never claim he was unable to attack an enemy willing to stand and fight, the British Navy preached laying alongside the enemy at “half pistol shot” because the standard of gunnery was so abysmal that ships had to be at close range to hit the enemy.

These tactics, when combined with the strategic situation and the British Navy’s higher standard of seamanship and shiphandling, were effective. But they should not be viewed as these tactics being “right” and other tactics being “wrong.”

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Filed under Age of Sail, Naval Battles, Naval Fiction, Naval Gunnery, Naval Operations, Naval Tactics, Naval Weapons

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