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.
1807 found Cochrane commanding the 38-gun HMS Impérieuse employed in the blockade of Rochefort. Cochrane, being Cochrane, was not content to beat back and forth. Rather he sought out every available opportunity to raid French shipping and the French coast.
On January 7, Impérieuse was passing by the anchorage at Arcachon Bay, pictured above, and spotted a small convoy, escorted by gunboats, anchored under the protection of a coastal fort. The French recognized Impérieuse and immediately took extraordinary measures to prevent the convoy from being cut out. The smaller craft were beached and the fort’s garrison took up protective positions on the beach to fend off any cutting out expedition Cochrane would inevitably be organizing.
Shoals kept Impérieuse from coming close inshore and the small fort contained four 36-pounders, two field guns, and a 13-inch mortar. Undeterred, in the early morning hours of January 8 Cochrane dispatched his marines and a large detachment of sailors under his first lieutenant, David Mapleton, to seize the fort rather than cut out the convoy.
The first the French knew of this unexpected turn of events was when the fort was stormed. Now the convoy could neither move forward, it’s way being blocked by Impérieuse nor could it stand fast as there was no longer a fort to protect it. The garrison guarding the convoy had the same dilemma. They were vulnerable to being defeated in detail and had to seek a defensible place.
In the end, the French sailors and soldiers decamped. Cochrane’s men burned seven ships and carried off five more as prizes. They also blew up the fort by firing its magazine and destroying the guns in the bargain.
Men like Cochrane, Hoste, and Broke represent a sea change, if you will, in the British navy. They are the leading edge of a generation of British naval officers who recognized the strategic initiative seapower bestowed upon a nation and understood, that in the final analysis, that the role of ships was to bring guns and marines into action at the decisive place and time.