Come and ask, answer or inform.
|Name : Mediator (20)||George William Blamey, James Woolridge|
|Name : Imperieuse (38)||Thomas John Cochrane (1789-1872), Thomas Cochrane (1775-1860)|
|Name : Contest (12)||John Gregory (d.1809)|
|Name : Growler (12)||Richard Crossman (d.1818)|
|Name : Martial (12)||Joseph Marrett|
|Name : Lyra (10)||William Bevians|
|Name : Aetna (8)||William Godfrey (d.1835)|
|Name : Sisters|
|Name : Adventure|
|Name : Agenoria|
|Name : Alicia|
|Name : Apollo|
|Name : Ceres|
|Name : George|
|Name : Harmony|
|Name : Hercules|
|Name : Mary|
|Name : Merchant|
|Name : Ocean|
|Name : Pomona|
|Name : Sally|
|Name : Sally|
|Name : Sophia|
|Name : Thomas|
|Name : Tiber|
|Name : Triptolemus|
|Name : William|
|Name : Zephyr|
On April 3rd, when Gambier was apprised of the Admiralty's selection of Cochrane by the letter brought by that officer, the fireships, some of the transports intended to be fitted as fireships, a large expected consignment of carcasses for 18-prs., and various promised combustibles had not reached the fleet. The Commander-in-Chief, however, ordered eight of the transports then with him, and, at Cochrane's suggestion, the Mediator, flute, to be prepared as fireships with such materials as the fleet could supply. Three explosion vessels were also equipped. On April 6th, the Aetna, having Mr. Congreve on board, anchored with the fleet; and on the 10th, the expected fireships, twelve in number, joined under convoy of the Beagle and Redpole, and in company with the transport Cleveland. The force to be employed was then practically complete. Captain Jacques Bergeret, dissatisfied with the behaviour of Willaumez when in presence of Commodore Beresford on February 21-23, had written to the Minister of Marine a letter which occasioned not only the recall of Willaumez, but also the super-session, or transfer to new commands, of Bergeret and some other captains. In place of Willaumez, Vice-Admiral Allemand hoisted his flag in the Ocean, on April 17th.
Allemand's orders were precise; and he must not be held responsible for what followed. The real responsibility for the disaster to the French squadron rests upon Napoleon, who gave the orders under which Allemand acted, and who cherished not only a general and invincible conviction of the security of a naval force well moored under batteries, but also a particular conviction of the safety of a fleet lying in Aix road. As early as June, 1805, he had written :
"You may quiet your apprehensions that the enemy will attempt something against Isle d'Aix. . . . Nothing can be more insane than the idea of attacking a French squadron at Isle d'Aix. I am annoyed to see you with such notions. . . . What on earth do you imagine is to be feared by a squadron of five ships of the line, with plenty of powder and supplies, well protected, and ready to fight, lying at Aix"
As was almost invariably the case when he expressed any opinion on naval subjects, Napoleon was wrong. On the other hand, it must be said in favour of MM. Willaumez and Allemand that they did what they could under the conditions by which they were bound. The French fleet was moored, with the ships' heads to the north-ward, in three lines, on a nearly north and south bearing, in the passage between the south end of Isle d'Aix and the western tail of the Palles shoal, which runs out north-westward from Isle Madame. The inner, or easterly line, lying in about six fathoms, consisted, counting from the north end, of the Elbe, 40, Tourville, 74, Aquilon, 74, Jemmapes, 74, Patriote, 74, and Tonnerre, 74, moored, at intervals of about ninety fathoms, each with one cable to the north-west and another to the south-east. The middle line, parallel with the former and about 250 yards to the westward of it, consisted, still counting from the northward, of the Calcutta, flute, 50, Cassard, 74, Begulus, 74, Ocean, 120, Varsovie, 80, .and Foudroyant, 80. These ships were moored in the same manner and with the same intervals between them as those of the inner line; but they were so stationed as to close the openings left by the inner line, and thus to form a double ligne endentee. The Calcutta bore due south, distant 640 yards, from a battery on the south point of Aix. The third, or western line, lay nearly parallel with the others, about 740 yards outside the middle one, and consisted, again counting from the north, of the Pallas, 40, Hortense, 40, and Indienne, 40. About 100 yards to the eastward of this third line was a very strong and firmly anchored boom of floated cables, half a mile in length. This boom seems to have been laid down without the knowledge of the British, and not to have been discovered by them until the moment of the attack. Protecting the boom and anchorage were several batteries, mounting, in all, at least thirty guns, chiefly long 36-prs., besides some heavy mortars. Most of the guns were on Isle d'Aix, where there were about two thousand troops, all of them, however, conscripts.
Having noted the arrival of the fireships in Basque road on April 10th, Vice-Admiral Allemand issued very careful directions for the conduct of the numerous boats and armed launches of his fleet, which he ordered, some to row guard at night, and others to lie near the boom, so as to be ready to board and tow away any vessels that might threaten the safety of his command. He also strengthened the garrison of Aix, caused his larger ships to strike their topmasts and send down their top-gallant masts, and directed his advanced frigates to be always prepared for getting under way at a moment's notice.
Early in the afternoon of April 11th, the Imperieuse moved in towards the enemy, and came to in nine fathoms, close to the north-east edge of the Boyart shoal, and about a mile and three-quarters from the nearest French frigate. The Aigle, Unicorn, and Pallas, anchored outside of her, in readiness to receive the crews of the fireships upon their return, and to render general assistance. The Whiting, King George, and Nimrod, fitted for throwing rockets, took station close to the tail of the Boyart. The AEtna, bomb, covered by the Indefatigable and Foxhound, placed herself north-west of Isle d'Aix, as near as possible in that direction to the fort on its southern extremity. The Emerald, Beagle, Doterel, Conflict, and Growler, were stationed off the east end of Aix to make a diversion; and the Redpole and Lyra, with lights hoisted, were anchored, one off the shoal running out to the north-west of Aix, and the other off the tail of the Boyart, so as to serve as guides during the attack. The British ships of the line, which had lain in Basque road, about six miles north-west from the enemy's fleet, unmoored with a view to co-operating if necessary; but, being in a strong tide-way, with a brisk north-west wind, they had to be moored again to prevent them from falling on board one another when the weather tide made. The fireships lay ready at anchor about a mile nearer to the enemy than the ships of the line.
It had been intended to chain together the fireships in divisions of four; but, owing to the strength of the wind, this idea was at the last moment abandoned, and the vessels were left to act independently. At 8.30 P.M., by which time it was very dark, all of them, including the Mediator, cut their cables and made sail, with a two-knot tide in their favour, in the direction of the enemy. Two of the three explosion vessels also proceeded, one of them having on board Captain Lord Cochrane and Lieutenant William Bissell, a volunteer. Both craft are believed to have been fired when within less than three-quarters of a mile from the enemy's line. The effect produced by them will be shown later. But several of the fireships were fired and abandoned when more than two miles from the nearest French ship; and they, in consequence, were simply thrown away. Five or six, however, including the Mediator, were most admirably handled. Cochrane's own explosion vessel, it should be mentioned, contained about one thousand five hundred barrels of powder, started into puncheons placed end upwards and jammed fast together with hawsers, wedges, and wet sand. Upon them were placed about three hundred and fifty fused shells, and many thousands of hand-grenades.
The Mediator, under the united impulses of wind and tide, broke the boom, and opened a passage for such other fireships as drove so far. Commander Wooldridge, in his anxiety to carry out his dangerous service satisfactorily, remained on board until the very last moment, and, with Lieutenants Nicholas Brent Clements and James Pearl, and a seaman, was actually blown out of the exploding ship, and so badly burnt that he never wholly recovered from his injuries. His gunner, Mr. James Segges, was killed. Of the people serving in the remaining fireships, Lieutenant William Flintoft (actg.) and a seaman died of fatigue, two other seamen were killed, and Master's Mates Richard Francis Jewers (Theseus) and John Conyers (Gibraltar) were badly scorched. Among the officers who, besides Commander Wooldridge, commanded fire-ships or explosion vessels, were Commanders Francis Newcombe and John Joyce, and Lieutenants John Cookesley (Gibraltar), Thomas Alexander (Resolution), John Cook Carpenter, Robert Hockings (Caledonia), Henry Jones (Ceesar), Henry Montresor (Revenge), Thomas Goldwyer Muston (Caledonia), Christopher Nixon, Thomas Percival, William Robert Smith (Theseus), and William West. Several of them experienced great difficulty and no small danger in regaining the advanced frigates.
According to the French accounts, the fireships and explosion vessels did little actual damage. One of them blew up at the boom, within about 120 yards of the Indienne, but did her no injury. Ten minutes afterwards, another one blew up, also at the boom, and also close to the Indienne. This, likewise, did little harm, beyond covering the frigate with a shower of sparks and small fragments. A few minutes later the boom was broken by the Mediator; and she and her advancing consorts were at once fired at by the entire French fleet, the enemy seeming to take little pains to avoid hitting his own advanced frigates, which, possibly for that reason, soon cut their cables. The Hortense made sail, and, passing to windward of some of the fireships, threw several broadsides into them, ere, with her consorts, she sought refuge behind the lines of heavier ships. The Regulus and Ocean were presently grappled by fireships; and, although both vessels almost miraculously escaped from immediate destruction, the British onslaught threw the French into such confusion that they not only cut their cables, but also began to foul one another. The Regulus, for example, ran on board the Tourville: and the Ocean, having grounded, was collided with by the Tonnerre and Patriote. By midnight, in short, all the French ships in Aix road, except the Foudroyant and Cassard, were aground, several of them being, in addition, considerably damaged. James, summarising from French accounts, thus describes the position of the stranded ships:
"The Ocean lay in the mud at the distance of a full half-mile to the E.S.E. of the anchorage in Aix road. Having on board, in common with the other ships, a quantity of provisions for the supply of the colony to which she had been destined, the Ocean was very deep, drawing not less, perhaps, than 28 or 29 feet. Hence she grounded while still in a part of Aix road, and not on the Palles shoal. ... At about 500 yards to the S.W. of the Ocean, upon a rocky bed named Charenton, lay the Varsovie and Aquilon, and close to them, but upon somewhat better ground, the Regulm and Jemmapes. The Tonnerre, with her head to the S.E., lay on a hard bottom about 200 yards to the eastward of the rock of Pontra, and bore N.W. of Isle Madame, situated on the S.W. side of the entrance to the Charente, and N.E. of the isle of Enette, which forms the northern extremity of the opposite side of the same river. . . . She had already bilged. ... At some distance to the S.W. of the Tonnerre, nearly on the extremity of the Palles in that direction, and close to the wreck of the Jean Hart, lay the Calcutta, with her head to the S.E. . . . The Patriote and Touroille lay on the mud off Isle Madame, and at no great distance from the channel of the Charente. With respect to the four frigates, the Indiennc, lay about three-quarters of a mile to the eastward of the Ocean, upon the mud off Pointe de l'Eguille, near Enette isle. The Elbe and Hortense lay upon the Fontenelles, and the Pa/las upon the mud off the little fort of Barques, just at the entrance of the Charente."
Although, therefore, Cochrane's night assault had destroyed no vessel of the enemy, it had reduced nearly the whole of his ships to a state of comparative helplessness and impotence, and had left them at the mercy of a new and different species of attack, if promptly made. When, on the morning of April 12th, the state of affairs had been noted on board the Imperieuse, her Captain made the following telegraphic signals to the Caledonia, which was then twelve miles from the grounded ships:
At 5.48 A.M. ' Half the fleet can destroy the enemy. Seven on shore."
At 6.40 A.M. " Eleven on shore."
At 7.40 A.M. " Only two afloat."
At 9.30 A.M. " Enemy preparing to heave off."
Upon getting the last of these signals, Lord Gambier telegraphed to his fleet to "prepare with sheet and spare anchors out of stern ports, and springs ready"; and a few minutes later he signalled to weigh, though he postponed weighing until about 10.45 A.M., in the meantime summoning all the Captains on board the flagship. At 11.30 A.M., the fleet re-anchored in about twelve fathoms, three miles from Aix flagstaff, and still six miles from the grounded French. The Admiral deemed it unwise to run any unnecessary risk, seeing that, in his view, the object sought had already been practically attained. But he directed the AEtna, covered by the Insolent, Conflict, and Growler to take up a position from which to throw shells over the stranded vessels; and he ordered Captain John Bligh, in the Valiant, with the Bellona, Revenge, and the frigates and sloops, to anchor as close as possible to the Boyart, so as to support the brigs and the bomb. Bligh and his division consequently brought up a mile nearer to the enemy than the remainder of the ships of the line. These dispositions induced the Foudroyant and Cassard to cut and make sail for the Charente; but, in endeavouring to enter the river, both vessels grounded nearly opposite the Chateau Le Fouras. Before high water, the Ocean, Patriote, Regulus, and Jemmapes, having floated, also moved towards the mouth of the river, and piled up on the mud there.
Perceiving that the enemy was thus gradually placing himself out of reach of attack, Lord Cochrane, at 1 P.M., adopted the bold course of getting under way in the Imperieuse, and dropping down, without orders, towards the French. He made for the vessels which were still aground upon the Palles shoal, and, with the deliberate purpose of forcing his chief's hand, hoisted in succession the following signals:
At 1.30 P.M. No. 405. " The enemy's ships are getting under sail."
At 1.40 P.M. No. 378. " The enemy is superior to the chasing ship."
At 1.45 P.M. No. 364. " The ship is in distress, and requires to be assisted immediately."
By 2 P.M. the Imperieuse had so anchored, with a spring, as to bring her starboard broadside to bear upon the Calcutta's starboard quarter, and to be able to fire with her starboard forecastle and bow-guns at the Varsovie and Aquilon. Cochrane soon observed that the 24 and 18-pr. carronades of the Insolent, Conflict, and Growler, and even the heavier carronades of the Beagle, were producing no visible effect. He therefore desired to order the brigs to approach closer. On the other hand, he was quite satisfied with the position of the Aetna; and, as the signal which would have served part of his purpose would have made no distinction between the brigs and the bomb, he adopted the rather brusque, but perfectly effective expedient of firing his main-deck guns at or near the former, which, understanding the hint, dropped into better stations. Not until after 2 P.M. did Lord Gambier adopt any measures for supporting the Imperieuse. He then sent the Indefatigable, followed by the remaining frigates and small craft, to Cochrane's assistance; and at 2.30 P.M. he also ordered the Valiant and Revenge to proceed towards her. But, as the wind was light and the tide was ebbing, these vessels made but slow progress, and not until about 3.20 P.M. were the Indefatigable and her consorts cheered by the Imperieuse as they neared her. Just at that time, Cochrane sent a boat to take possession of the Calcutta, which had ceased firing and was being abandoned by her people. One by one the Aigle, Emerald, Unicorn, Valiant, Revenge and Pallas, joined Cochrane and Rodd, and anchored in a semi-circle, with springs, around the grounded French ships, upon which they opened a heavy fire, while the Beagle most gallantly ran still closer in and placed herself under the stern of the Aquilon. At 5.30 P.M., the Varsovie and Aquilon struck. At nearly the same moment, the Theseus, from the fleet, joined the attacking squadron. At 6 P.M., the Tonnerre was fired and abandoned by her crew, and at 7.30 P.M. she blew up. At 8.30 P.M., the Calcutta, which had probably been fired by the British boarding party without orders, also exploded.
There remained in more or less assailable positions the Ocean, Cassard, Regulus, Jemmapes, Tourville, and Indienne; but the British had, unfortunately, expended all their regular fireships; and but a single bomb, the Aetna, was then present. Three transports were hurriedly converted into fireships, and at 5.30 P.M., Stopford, in the Caesar, weighed with them and some launches fitted as rocket-boats, and stood towards Aix road under a heavy fire from the Aix and Oleron batteries. At 7.40 P.M., the Caesar grounded on or near the tail of the Boyart, and was delayed until 10.30 P.M., when she floated. Ere that hour, the Revenge, with all the frigates and brigs except the Imperieuse, had anchored in the Maumusson passage between the Boyart and Palles shoals. The fireships were delayed as well, until, at 2 A.M. on the 13th, the wind, after some chopping about, settled in the south-west. This enabled the Cccsar to leave Aix road again and to anchor in Little Basque road; but it also prevented, for the moment, the employment of the fireships, which had been entrusted to Captain John Bligh. That officer, therefore, contented himself with setting fire to the Varsovie and Aquilon. The burning vessels were mistaken by some of the uncaptured French craft for British fireships, and were accordingly fired at; and the Tourville's people were so alarmed at what seemed to be a fresh attack, that they incontinently abandoned their ship after ineffectually setting her on fire. They subsequently returned to her when they found that she had been neither burnt nor taken possession of.
At 5 A.M., by signal from Stopford, Bligh, with the Valiant, Theseus, 'Revenge, Indefatigable, Unicorn, Aigle and Emerald, got under way in order to proceed to Little Basque road. The Imperieuse was at that time on her way to anchor in the Maumusson passage; and, passing within hail of the Indefatigable, Cochrane proposed to Captain Rodd to go with him and attack the Ocean. Rodd, however, declined, on the grounds that his ship had a shot through her main topmast, and drew too much water for the service, and that, being in the immediate presence of two senior Captains, he could not act without orders. Cochrane dropped anchor in the Maumusson passage at 6 A.M., and, half-an-hour later, was hailed by the Pallas, then under sail to follow Bligh to Basque road. Captain Seymour asked whether or not he should remain, and Cochrane desired him to do so, unless he had received contrary orders. For a fresh attack Cochrane thus retained with the Imperieuse the Pallas as well as the Beagle, the gunbrigs, the Aetna, and the small craft.
The fresh attack was ordered at 8 A.M., which was as early as the tide suited. Cochrane sent the brigs and the bomb to reduce the nearest of the French ships which were aground in the mouth of the Charente, but was unable to follow them with the frigates, there not being sufficient depth of water. At 11 A.M., the Beagle, Aetna, Conflict, Contest, Encounter, Fervent, Growler, Whiting, Nimrod and King George, anchored, and opened fire on the Ocean, Begulus, and Indlenne. The Beagle, which gallantly posted herself on the Ocean's stern and quarter in barely more water than sufficed to float her, fought hotly for five hours, and suffered much more severely than any of her consorts, although none of the British vessels is noted as having lost any men. 2 At 4 P.M., owing to the falling water, the flotilla had to weigh, and work back to its anchorage, leaving the Ocean and Eegulus busily engaged in preparing to push further up the river at the next rise of tide.
During the engagement, the Doterel, Foxhound, Redpole, and two rocket-boats from Basque road, joined Cochrane in the Maumusson passage. They brought to him two letters from Lord Gambier. One, a public one, ordered Cochrane to make an attempt upon the Ocean with the bomb and the rocket-vessels, but expressed doubt as to the attempt being successful. It also ordered Cochrane to proceed to Basque road so soon as the tide should turn. The other, a private one, beginning " My dear Lord," deprecated any action that would, by attempting impossibilities, jeopardise the brilliant effect of what Cochrane had already accomplished, and urged Cochrane to join the flag as soon as possible. Cochrane replied: " I have just received your Lordship's letter. We can destroy the enemy's ships on shore; of which I hope you will approve." In his evidence at the subsequent court-martial, Cochrane declared that, at " about four or five o'clock in the afternoon," or at about the time when he received the letters, it was reported to him that the Caledonia had made the Imperieuse's signal of recall, and that he replied telegraphically that the enemy could be destroyed; but it is more than doubtful whether the signal of recall was made.
Early on the 14th, the Tourville and the Ocean got afloat, and pushed further up the river; but both of them ultimately grounded again near Le Fouras. The Patriote, Hortense, Elbe and Pallas, were more successful, and entered the Charente so far as to be beyond danger of further attack. That day, Lord Cochrane, in compliance with a signal from Lord Gambier, handed over the command of the Aix flotilla to Captain George Wolfe, of the Aigle, and proceeded with the Imperieuse to Basque road, whence, on the 15th, he sailed for England, carrying home Captain Sir Harry Burrard Neale, with the Admiral's dispatches. At about 3.30 P.M. on the 14th, the Aetna and brigs again attacked the ships that were still aground outside the mouth of the river; but they appear to have done little damage, and they did not prevent the Jemmapes, during the firing, from getting off and entering the Charente. On the following days, moreover, the Ocean, Cassard, Foudroyant and Tourville, thanks to the prolonged exertions of their people, were moved to positions of safety, and the Indienne was burnt by her crew; so that only the Regulus, on the mud off Le Fouras, remained assailable. On the 19th, the Thunder, bomb, arrived, and on the 20th, covered by the gun-brigs, she went to the attack of the French 74; but she quickly split her 13-in. mortar, and had to desist. Other vain attempts were made to destroy the Regulus, which, however, succeeded, on the 29th, in getting afloat and rejoining her consorts before Rochefort. There being nothing more to be done, Lord Gambier, on the same day, sailed for England.
There can be no question that the affair of Aix road was mismanaged both by the Admiralty at home and by the Admiral on the spot. Until the arrival of the Thunder, Gambier had only a single bomb-vessel with him. He ought to have been supplied with half-a-dozen. The British gun-brigs of that day almost invariably carried 18-pr. carronades instead of long guns. Gambier had five brigs [Encounter, Conflict, Contest, Fervent and Growler] of the 12-18-pr. carronade class; but the Admiralty should have known that, for attacking a squadron posted and defended as that of M. Allemand was, light carronades were of little use. Small craft carrying either long guns or 68-pr. (8 in.) carronades should have been sent. As for Gambier, he surely did not employ to the best advantage such force as he had. He despatched the Ccesar and Revenge to Aix road, while he kept in inactivity in Basque road the Bellona and Resolution, which drew less water than either. He did not send the Doterel and Foxhound, with their 32-pr. carronades, to Cochrane until the 13th. He might, had he known how, have carried all his 74's, and possibly even his 80's, into Aix road, and, silencing the batteries, have destroyed the French at their anchors.
Cochrane, who was firmly of opinion that Gambier had not done all that lay in his power against the enemy, intimated to the First Lord that, from his seat in Parliament, he would oppose the passage of any vote of thanks to the Admiral. Apprised of this, Gambier demanded a court-martial; and, on July 26th, he was duly tried at Portsmouth. The proceedings lasted until August 4th. The charge was
"That Admiral the Right Honourable Lord Gambier, on the 12th of April, the enemy's ships being then on shore, and the signal having been made that they could be destroyed, did, for a considerable time, neglect or delay taking effectual measures for destroying them."
And the sentence was that the court considered that the charge had not been proved, but "that his Lordship's conduct on that occasion, as well as his general conduct and proceedings as Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet in Basque road, between the 17th day of March and the 29th day of April, 1809, was marked by zeal, judgment, ability, and an anxious attention to the welfare of his Majesty's service, and did adjudge him to be most honourably acquitted."
Gambier was, accordingly, most honourably acquitted. He was fortunate. James points out with truth that several members of
the court, notably Admiral Sir Roger Curtis, the president, and Admiral William Young, showed strong partiality in favour of the accused; and that Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland, of the Emerald, who was known to hold strong opinions concerning the Admiral's conduct, was one of the only two Aix Captains who were not called as witnesses. Napoleon's opinion, as expressed to O'Meara, was that Cochrane might and would have carried the French ships out, had the British Admiral supported him as he ought to have done; and that the French admiral was a fool, but that the British one was every bit as bad.
Lord Gambier eventually received the thanks of both Houses, though in neither were the members unanimous. Votes of thanks to the other officers, and to the seamen and Royal Marines concerned, passed unopposed, though the thanks were given as well to those who lay in Basque road and did nothing, as to those who went through the boom in the fireships. Gambier received no other recognition. Cochrane, however, had been promptly created a K.B. He is the only officer, except Jervis, who, as a Post-Captain, ever attained to that high distinction. Numerous other subordinate officers who had specially distinguished themselves received a step in rank.
The affair of Aix road led to courts-martial in France as well as in England. Captain Clement de La Bonciere, of the Tonnerre, was acquitted on a charge of misconduct; but Captain Charles Nicolas Lacaille, of the Tourville, was cashiered, deprived of his cross of the Legion of Honour, and imprisoned for two years. Captain Guillaume Marcellin Proteau, of the Indienne, was condemned to three months' confinement; and Captain Jean Baptiste Lafon, of the Calcutta, was sentenced to be shot, and was duly executed on September 9th. It may be that these officers were to blame; but it should be recollected that when a squadron of sea-going ships does as M. Allemand's command did, and, as it were, entrenches itself to await attack behind a boom in a practically open roadstead, it invites disaster. If, moreover, M. Willaumez had been less cautious than he was, and had fought Commodore Beresford in February, Cochrane might have been deprived of the opportunity which he used so well in April. A great naval commander never loses an occasion to attack when the conditions are favourable to him; and, if he be driven to bay, he takes care to assume the offensive.