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.
The frigate l’Egyptienne had begun life in 1779 as the French national frigate Railleuse. At some point she had been hired out to a cartel of Bordeaux merchants as a privateer. She was crewed with some 250 men and sent off to the Caribbean to harry British shipping. Privateers worked under a different set of rules that did a man o’ war. While the captain of a man o’ war might receive fame and honors by prevailing in a slugging match with an enemy warship, or, indeed, by striking his colors after a valiant defense against superior odds, the captain of a privateer avoided combat at all costs. His mission was to take prizes so the ship’s owners could make a profit and unlike a man o’ war which would be repaired in a naval dockyard, a privateer had to be repaired at the expense of the owner.
On March 23, 1804, HMS Osprey (18) under the command of Commander George Younghusband was cruising off the Windward Islands and spotted four strange sail. He altered course to investigate. Coming within hail, I have to admit that I never cease to be amazed at this means of identifying friend and foe, Younghusband ascertained that he was facing l’Egyptienne and three merchantmen she was escorting. This bit of information coming to him by way of a broadside l’Egyptienne fired in answer to his hail.
This set off a battle that lasted about an hour and twenty minutes at which time l’Egyptienne broke off the action and fled. Osprey pursued banging away with her 6-pounder chase guns but her rigging was so damaged that she was soon left behind. Osprey lost one man killed and 16 wounded, l’Egyptienne suffered 8 dead and 18 wounded.
Two days later l’Egyptienne encountered HMS Hippomenes (14) under the command of Commander Conway Shipley. l’Egyptienne was still damaged from her encounter with Osprey and tried to avoid combat. A chase ensued and after 54 hours, Shipley brought her within range of his French 8 pounder (equivalent to the long nine) chase guns. For the next three hours and twenty minutes Hippomenes kept l’Egyptienne under fire. When Hippomenes caught up and it was obvious that an exchange of broadsides would result, l’Egyptienne struck. The cost was one many lightly wounded on Hippomenes.
In all fairness, one understands why l’Egyptienne tried to break off the action with Osprey on the 23rd. It might not have been the best decision, once Osprey was within hail a fight was going to take place and once the fight began l’Egyptienne was no longer able to avoid being damaged by any means other than winning quickly, but it was defensible to one degree or another from a privateer’s standpoint.
When l’Egyptienne encounter Hippomenes the calculus had dramatically changed. She couldn’t outrun Hippomenes so a fight was inevitable. Even if l’Egyptienne had believed up until the first 8-pound (avoirdupois weight) ball whistled overhead that she could outrun Hippomenes, at that point she had to fight. The decision to strike to a significantly smaller vessel without a fight verges on the inexplicable… if once doesn’t consider that the French expected to lose as much as the British expected to win.