Contents Back Chapter VII Home Exmouth
Edward Pellew - By Parkinson, C. Northcote, London, 1934
CHAPTER VI - The Two Revolts
'It is surprising how at the bottom of our Politics we always found theology.' - Proudhon.
(139) IN the early years of warfare between England and the First Republic, each country contained an entire province in more or less open revolt, as well as a minority in sympathy with the enemy. Ireland was the province the English Government had to deal with; while the French Government had to combat the active disloyalty of a large district on the Atlantic coast, comprising Brittany and a coastal region to the south of it.
These two provinces were not only both in rebellion; they were both in rebellion for the same reason. The Irish revolted because the English were Protestants. The Bretons revolted because the French were Atheists. Each rebellion was essentially an assertion of Catholicism. The Irish Catholics were nevertheless perfectly willing to accept Atheist help against the Protestants; and the Breton Catholics were willing, with more reason, to accept Protestant help against the Atheists.
Willing, however, as the Irish were to co-operate with French Atheists in the extermination of the English, they had to wait for a considerable time before they had the opportunity. Irish agents had asked for French assistance as early as 1793, but it was not until 1796 that any help arrived. The Chouans did not have to wait quite so long. Neither of the two governments found the rebels in the enemy's camp very easy to assist, and both rebellions were crushed.
It was with these two revolts that the present chapter is concerned; with the part, that is to say, of Sir Edward Pellew in aiding the one revolt and in preventing the other. In this phase of the war it was the English who struck the first blow, and it was the French who counter-attacked after the English attempt had failed. Had the war been (140) a fencing bout, this episode would have been one of a lunge and parry, riposte and parry, and no advantage gained on either side. The two attacks were of so similar a nature that they form a single incident in the war, and ought properly to be so considered.
The province in rebellion against the French Government was coastal and contained the important naval base of Brest. It was chiefly with reference to Brest that the Revolutionary Government was anxious. In the early years of the war, the forces of the Revolution were too hotly engaged elsewhere to crush the local risings in Brittany. On the other hand, it was tolerably certain that the Chouans would never move very far from their own homes. So that the revolt might safely have been ignored altogether, had it not been for the danger in which Brest stood-the danger of sharing the fate of Toulon. It was not anticipated that the English would land in any force to assist the rebels. But it was exceedingly likely that some attempt would be made to destroy the ships and the arsenal at Brest. In 1793, therefore, troops were sent to secure Brest. New batteries were constructed which drove off the English cruisers from the outer roads; while other batteries were erected to defend Finisterre. For the time being, there were not enough troops to secure the province as a whole. The most that could be attempted was to prevent communication between the Chouans and the English cruisers which still haunted the coast.
This task of isolating the revolt was no easy one. The coast between Rochefort and Brest is not easy to patrol. It is fretted, in parts, and therefore long; and there are many islands affording a neutral ground where suspicious vessels could gather fish, milk, eggs, and information. The soldiers whose duty it was to watch this coast found that the people of the district knew nothing of liberty or equality, and so little of fraternity that they refused to sell fresh milk to Republicans. Émigrés and smugglers appeared to abound, and the local authorities were clearly on excellent terms with both. English frigates were perpetually on the coast. Their presence could be detected in two ways. One was to spend the evening concealed in the gorse bushes overlooking remote parts of the shore. The other, and preferable, way was to note the soft smell of Jamaica rum clinging to the cottages. Whether seen or smelt the English were everywhere apparent.
The attack which the scattered Republican garrisons (141) apprehended was not made until the end of June in 1795. It was a failure. Sir John Borlase Warren landed a body of émigrés at Quiberon. Rather less than a month later he succeeded in taking off the remainder still alive after their crushing defeat by the Republican General Hoche. Covered by the Channel fleet under Lord Bridport, Warren remained in the vicinity for some months. He was still there in October when the English troops arrived. As they were three months late for the battle, there was no alternative but to send them home again. Why there had to be a delay of another three months before this was done is not obvious.
For the time being the revolt in Brittany had been checked. But the Republicans were not strong enough to suppress it altogether. There were still several émigrés at large leading bodies of Chouans. And it became once more the object of the Republicans to cut these off from the coast. Sir John Borlase Warren returned to England with his frigate squadron in January 1796. And now, in the spring of that year, Pellew was sent to replace him and resume communications, if possible, with the Chouan generals known to be still in the field.
Pellew had returned to Falmouth at the end of January. He was still there on March 4th, when Sir John Borlase Warren sailed with his squadron of four frigates and a lugger to take up his station off Brest. His own squadron could not sail so soon. He had been already engaged for some days in conversation with various French gentlemen the Government sent to confer with him. He was not a stranger to the matter in hand, for he had played a small part in the Quiberon Expedition of the year before. His appearance on the Royalist coast at the end of August, 1795, had been fleeting and uneventful; nevertheless, it gave him some insight into the nature of the problem.
One of the worst mistakes of the previous year had been the inclusion with the Royalist force of a number of dubious volunteers from among the French prisoners in England. Lord Chatham, who was out of office, had not failed to point this out, after the event.
The catastrophe at Quiberon was most unfortunate indeed, and the businefs, as far as I can judge, seems to have been very ill managed by Mons'r de Puysaye. The conduct of ye regiments collected from the prisons was not unexpected by me. I am very glad I always resisted the taking any of that sort (142) into the Navy. I not only feared treachery of every sort, but wishing to keep the national character of ye two Countries as Distinct as pofsible, I considered it as a sort of degradation to us to incorporate Frenchmen into our service, and I did not like the idea of a British Seaman familiarising himself to ye sight of a Frenchman but as his Prisoner.
This mistake was not made again. The only Frenchmen Pellew took with him were a few pilots for the Breton coast and two or three noblemen to act as liaison officers. Troops there were to be none. The object was merely to land stores for the use of the Chouans. For this purpose the frigate Argo was loaded with arms and ammunition, and the squadron was increased by three chasse-marées and a number of flat-boats, in order to facilitate the landing of the stores. From the first there was some difficulty in allotting the stores to the different Chouan leaders. On March 7th, Pellew reported
. . . I have had frequent conversations with most of the confidential Gentlemen you have sent & I cannot help observing to you, that I perceive evident partiality among the whole of them for giving the Stores chiefly or the whole to General George . . . .
'General George,' whose name will recur in the story of this service Pellew attempted to perform, was Georges Cadoudal, a famous Chouan chief. The 'confidential gentlemen' were not, however, allowed to determine the distribution of the arms. Pellew set out with orders to distribute the stores fairly among the five armies of Chouans scattered between the Morbihan and La Vendée.
The squadron sailed on March 9th. It consisted of the frigates Argo, Amazon, La Concorde, La Revolutionnaire; the Duke of York lugger and the three chasse-marées; the whole led by the Indefatigable. Pellew was off Belle isle on the following day, and proceeded to work along the coast from La Croisic to a point abreast of Les Cardineaux. He arrived in Quiberon Bay on the night of the 12th and 'came too with the Best Bower in 11½ fath's & veered to a Cable, Isle de Hedic South & Isle de Houat West. Captured a French Brig laden with Salt from La Croisic to Bordeaux.' This prize he sent back to England with a report of his safe arrival.
Indefatigable, Quiberon 13th March 1996
. . . I arrived in this Bay last night with the squadron so per- (143) fectly undiscovered that I was able to push Mons. Verteuil and Mons. Tryon on shore immediately . . . .
Pellew's anxiety to remain undiscovered had a twofold origin. He did not wish to bring General Hoche to the landing-place. Still less did he wish to attract the attention of the French squadrons at L'Orient and Rochefort, one on either side of the part of the coast off which he was hovering. For there were four frigates and a ship of the line at the former port, four frigates and two sail of the line at the latter; a force more than sufficient to destroy the squadron he commanded. Even during his short visit to the Royalist coast in the previous autumn, Lord Spencer had warned him not to remain for long at any one anchorage; being 'very desirous' as he rather tactlessly put it, 'not to throw away your Force, especially as we are now in want of Frigates. . . ' But the risk was proportionately greater in 1796 as his stay on the coast was prolonged. While he was there Lord Spencer wrote
. . . Your situation on the Coast is undoubtedly of rather a delicate kind and I confefs I shall have great pleasure in hearing of your Return in safety.
The mission on which Pellew was engaged was as difficult as it was dangerous; it was of 'a delicate kind' in every sense. Events elsewhere had also rendered it futile. The truce with Austria had set at liberty entire armies of Republican troops which were by this time moving over to the west side of France. The policy of attempting to isolate the region in revolt was now at an end, and General Hoche was being reinforced so as to allow him to crush the rebellion.
Pellew had put two of his émigrés on shore during the night of March 12th-13th, in order to get into touch with General Georges Cadoudal. On the 14th, the Mayor of Houat was brought on board in the flat-boat. He bore a message from the general asking that all the stores might be landed on the island of Houat; also an assurance that they would afterwards be divided among the Chouan forces in the proportions intended by the English Government.
On the 15th the squadron accordingly made sail, in the evening, and anchored three miles NNE. of the island of Houat. That night the cutter and lugger, with the flat-boats, succeeded in landing a cargo of arms and stores and came off again at two in the morning. To the (144) Mayor of Houat was entrusted an invoice, but at the same time an officer was sent to converse with the Chouan general. 'It appeared to my officer' Pellew wrote 'that the exertions of the army relaxed the moment the Gen'1 received his 8,000 Dollars, when he expected 60,000; that he was much mortified appears from his letters . . . .' This was not a hopeful beginning to the mission. Worse was to follow. On the night of the 16th an attempt to land a further supply of stores failed - 'the Republicans having taken pofsefsion of the spot.' Three days later the stores were landed successfully at another point; and another load was landed on April 7th at a third part of the coast.
Meanwhile, in the time separating these various secret landings, the squadron wrought havoc among the merchant craft passing along from one French port to another. Nine vessels were taken or destroyed altogether - small and valueless brigs for the most part, some in ballast. The object in chasing them was, of course, to prevent their giving the alarm. But when, on the 20th of March, the squadron chased three corvettes off the Isle de Hedic, drove two of them up the Loire and failed to destroy the third, which had run aground under a battery on the shore, the opposite effect must have been produced. One use the prizes could be put to was the carrying of reports to England. The first of these was sent, as we have seen, on March 13th. Others followed, telling a tale of more or less complete failure. All attempts to communicate with the Chouan leaders other than Cadoudal and Scepeaux had been thwarted by Republican forces strongly posted along the coast. At the same time ugly rumours were heard of Royalist defeats inland. And, although the rumours might be exaggerated, the fact that Hoche's army had doubled in numbers since the cessation of hostilities on the Rhine was undoubted.
On April 9th Pellew wrote to Lord Spencer reporting progress. This was immediately after what proved to be the final landing of arms, on the night of the 7th.
I wish it were in my power to inform your lordship that we had effected the purposes for which we were sent here completely, but I hope you will believe that no exertions on my part have been wanting. Surrounded on every side by enemies, and hourly expecting a superior squadron, your lordship will easily credit that if the operation depended upon us that my movements would have been rapid, and I can (145) assure you, my lord, that I have never allowed myself for a moment to lose sight of what were the intentions of his Majesty in sending us here. Our operation from being always carried on by night, and on the open coast, has been excessively difficult as well as dangerous both to ships and boats. Several of the latter have been lost, and the Argo very near it. The Republican troops, to a certainty, have been doubled in their numbers since the Austrian truce, and I fear also, a truth not to be concealed, that the Royalist parties in these provinces will be completely overturned in two months, if some powerful diversion is not made to draw off some part of the troops which are now upon them. General Charette has been completely beat ; his second in command, Monsieur de Robree, has seceded. The death of Stofflet has rendered his army inactive. Scepeaux writes me that he cannot move without quantities of money, arms and ammunition, for which he cannot come; and from General Puisaye I can get no answer to my messenger. Such is my situation at present. General George is vastly dissatisfied with the smallness of his sum of money, and having received more than his proportion of the stores is quite easy about the rest . . . .
[N.R.S. Vol. xlvi.]
The relations between Pellew and the Chouans, and especially General Georges Cadoudal, were distinctly strained. Pellew was, to begin with, entirely out of sympathy with them. His disapproval of the Republicans for being Republicans was almost equalled by his disapproval of the Chouans for being Catholics. He knew no language but his own, and he thoroughly disliked the service he was on. On the other hand, he had a dogged determination to carry out his orders. So that, when he found it impossible to give the other Chouan generals their proportion of the stores, he resolutely refused to allow Cadoudal and Scepeaux to take the whole. Cadoudal asked him to make a dump on the Isle of Houat - but Pellew refused to fall in with this plan. This may well have been a rather narrow interpretation of his orders. But subsequent events made his refusal appear to have been an extraordinary example of prescience. For the Republicans landed on the island shortly afterwards, deported all the inhabitants and planted a garrison there - very wisely, since it was there that the English cruisers usually watered. The part of the stores which thus escaped annexation by the enemy was taken back to England. The stores actually landed were as follows: To Cadoudal, 8,000 Dollars; to Viscount Puisaye, General Charette and General Stofflet, £5,000 each; to (146) General Scepeaux, 25,000 Dollars. The arms were 1,700 muskets, 40 carbines and 25 sabres; with one case of fusils and one case of pistols for the officers. The ammunition comprised 210 barrels of powder, 52 barrels of cartridges and 4 barrels of flints. There were, finally, 10 saddles and 100 bridles. More would have been landed, only Cadoudal failed to bring sufficient men to carry it.
This statement of the stores landed brings us to the question of why the squadron was not attacked by the French ships at L'Orient and at Rochefort. It is possible that these ships were only half manned, but it is probable that they would have stayed in port in any case. For the Republicans did not view Pellew's proceedings with any great alarm. That they knew where he was had they been anxious to find him, is certain. He was in the neighbourhood for roughly a month, and they must have been perfectly aware of his presence during the whole period. The chasing of ships into the Morbihan, the dismasting of the corvette at the mouth of the Loire, and the shots exchanged with the batteries, all these events were doubtless inevitable. But all this thundering of cannon up and down the coast can hardly have been compatible with any great degree of secrecy. The truth is that the Republicans knew he was landing arms, and wanted him to go on landing arms. They were just about to bring overwhelming forces to crush out the rebellion ; and they were tolerably certain that everything he landed would, sooner or later, fall into their own hands. After the failure of the Quiberon Expedition of 1795 they acquired, among other things, 150,000 pairs of shoes and clothing for 40,000 men. They hoped for similar good fortune in 1796.
On April 9th, Pellew sent the cutter and the chasse-marées back to England before making his final attempt to land powder for Charette. This may have led to a rumour spreading that the squadron had gone. For a French frigate called 'L'Unite, alias la Variante,' attempted to run from L'Orient to Rochefort - with the result that she ran into Pellew's squadron on its way northwards after the failure to land the powder in La Vendee. The French ship was sighted off Belle isle and immediately fled northwards before the squadron, intending to escape in the course of the night by an unseen change of course. Pellew, as night came on, signalled to the Revolutionnaire to cut the chase off from the land by standing on the opposite tack. This was the more necessary as the chase was nearing Brest. They were off the (147) Penmarcks when this signal was made. As night fell the frigates scattered, three of them badly out sailed, and the Indefatigable and Revolutionnaire on different tacks. But Pellew soon afterwards saw flashes to the NNW., which proved to be the Revolutionnaire in action. By the time he had come up with the chase, the fighting, such as there was, had ended; the French frigate had surrendered. Captain Durand Linois could not have fought for long in any case, as the English ship's broadside was nearly double the weight of his own; but his crew decided the matter by refusing to fight at all.
Pellew did not proceed straight to England after this action on the night of April 13th-14th, but cruised off Ushant until the 17th, then taking up a station off the Lizard. While there, on the 20th, at 9 a.m., he ' saw a strange sail on the Weather Quarter, made the private Sig'l but she did not answer it, the Lizard then bore NE. by E. ½ E. about 4 Leagues, tacked and made all sail in chase, leaving the Revolutionnaire and Argo to take charge of the Prize. The last two frigates were sent into Plymouth with the prize, the Argo probably because she was too slow, the Revolutionnaire possibly because she was too fast. The Indefatigable, Amazon, and Concorde then went in chase of the stranger.
' . . . .These 24 hours strong breezes & hazy, all sail set in chase, at 4 the Concorde & Amazon a great distance a stern, at 6 the chase hoisted French Colours. We hoisted the same, at ½ pt. 6 saw a Ship in the West stand'g to the South'd, at 9 lost sight of the Squadron, at ½ past 11 in Royals & Studding Sails ¾ pt 11 the chase hoisted French Colours (again), we hoisted English & gave 3 cheers, a.m. ½ pt 12 the chase began firing, at 1 our Gaff & Mizen topmast were shot away, at ½ past 2 she struck, proved La Virginie National French frigate of 44 guns & 339 men, four days out of Brest . . . .'
The Virginie was commanded by Captain Bergeret, who announced his misfortune in a letter which Pellew had copied and translated. It is here reproduced in full:
florial ye 4th, the 4th
year of the French Republic.
The Commander of the Virginie to the
Vice Admiral Villaret, Commander of
the Naval forces of the Republic, Brest.
I have but just time enough to acquaint you with the (148) disagreeable News of the taking of the Virginie by the English Raze Indefatigable and two other frigates belonging to the Squadron. I ought to keep quiet and wait, from those who will judge me my justification, if I am susceptible of it; but my Duty and my gratitude towards you obliged me to enter into particulars Concerning that event, which will, I think, prove the impofsibility I was in of preventing it.
At Break of day, the 1st Instant, the men sent to look out gave me notice of Nine Sails to the NE, which course I was making to have a Sight of the Lizard. I made more fail to reconnoitre them and at ½ after Eight, being distant from them about 2½ Leagues and near Eight leagues from the Coast, I was convinced that five of them were frigates; the wind blowing then a fresh gale from the SE, I was chaced, but not being to Windward of the Indefatigable that Ship being even to the Windward of the rest of the Enemies. I ran large to prevent his having that advantage over me. For the first hour his Chace was unsuccessful whilst in the mean time she Dropped the other frigates, but the wind experiencing a Change Succefsively in their direction and strength at 3.0 o'clock p.m. We were about half a League distant from the Indefatigable, being then as much favoured as he, we dropped him a little till the beginning of the Night, but my fore top Gallant yard being carried away at the same instant, he fetched me again, leaving the other frigates at a great distance. The great Moon light kept me in sight of him till 11 o'clock 55 Minutes when being in the impofsibility of shunning him, I fired upon him my Stern Chaces but soon coming up with me quarter Shot distance, he began to fire upon me, the wind being upon his quarter. Our first Broad Side did him a great deal of Damage which however did not prevent him to come yard arm to yard arm, and there by the quicknefs of his fire, he did me the greatest damage. The main Deckers are the only guns which I have been able to fire, after the first shots the Men quartered on the forecastle and Quarter deck left their situations and bid themselves except the Captains; being obliged to give those guns over, it is not without blows that I have been able to make them secure their guns. The main deck however has been well fought, the Indefatigable bearing up so as to put his Bowsprit into my Shrouds, I made the Motion to engage with the Wind ahead but either through Manoeuvre or Damage which he has sustained, he hove all aback and received in that position two broadsides which cut his gaff, his Mizen Top Mast and Crofsjack yard - and I immediately, favoured by the Smoke, bore up to get away, without being able to go more than 3 or four Cable lengths from him; he soon got to rights again and returned upon me with the greatest impetuosity. My heart bleeds to tell you that I was forced to take Muskets to (149) make use of them against the Top men and to send a Midshipman to strike them. I have been often left alone with the Officer charged with the Manoeuvre, forced to jump down and with the help of the Master at Arms and some other Masters, to haul on the Ropes. At a ¼ after 1, I lost my Mizen Mast and the Indefatigable bringing again his Bowsprit in my Shrouds, I once more lulled up in the wind on purpose to rake him by he bows which he prevented by hauling his wind - his sails being lefs damaged than the Virginie's who had then but her fore and fore top Sails up - he went ahead of me, which made me resolve to come to the Wind and by that means to Rake him by the Stern, when my main top mast fell acrofs the Main yard which with the Mizen Mast prevented me from firing but three guns. It was not for a long time in his power to fire upon us, he bore up to get at a greater distance to engage anew. I was myself obliged to use the hatchets to clear away the Wreck of the Masts which falling, the Deck was almost always of Service until two o'clock, when a frigate coming within a pistol Shot, without however firing but in such a position as rendered it impofsible for us to bring a single gun to bear upon him, the pieces of my fore and fore top Sails remaining not being sufficient to steer the frigate and the 3rd of the enemies coming up fast towards us, I stroke my Colours, not being able to defend myself any longer, having besides four feet in the hold. I thought at first to have lost a great many men but I could get sure but of the death of 13 and about 30 Wounded, 17 of whom dangerously; the loss of so few people might bespeak a wick resistance if the State in which the Virginie is did not prove the Contrary. I have however my Conscience as a Consolation, but I appear in a de-favourable light; my misfortune ought not to make me forget to mention honourably my officers, who without the least doubt were worth a better fate than that of falling into Captivity. The Midshipmen are commendable as well as the 1st Masters and part of the Ship's Company, who as well as myself had the discontent of feeing a great many others not imitate them. The Fore Mast is hardly able to keep up, and with all the reparation made to the Virginie and the finest weather in the world, she leaks at the rate of 36 Inches an hour. The Indefatigable besides the damage mentioned before lost her fore top Sail yard and her main top mast. She has kept almost whole her fore Sail and her Mizen only.
I will never forget this misfortune of mine but my existence would be an easy sacrifice if I had not to fear the lofs of your Esteem and that of my bread.
I am etc etc
People will not easily be persuaded that for all the damage suffered by the Indefatigable she has but one man wounded.
(150) That Raze Mounts
- 26 - 24-pounders
14 - 12-pounders
6 - Long Carronades, 42-pounders - shots of which most damaged me.
The action with the Virginie was not, in any sense, an equal fight. Apart from the presence of the other two English frigates, the French ship was inferior in weight to the Indefatigable. Her broadside was only 342 lb. as compared with her opponent's 522 lb. Under the circumstances, Bergeret fought magnificently. He was an able officer, a martinet, and thoroughly unpopular. He was 'noted for extreme violence and impatience.' It says a great deal for him as a disciplinarian that as many as half his men were more frightened of him than of the enemy.
The Virginie was a fine frigate, and almost as fast as the Indefatigable. Like other French frigates she carried too many men, having a dozen more than her larger and more heavily armed opponent. After this run of 168 miles in fifteen hours, Pellew must have been satisfied with his ship's speed. Lord Spencer's wish that 'you may find your new Masts perfectly to your Mind' was certainly fulfilled.
At the moment, the taking of L'Unite and Virginie had, for Pellew, a special significance. He was returning home after a partial failure which might be attributed to his own lack of enthusiasm for the task. Consequently he must have been glad not to return empty-handed. Even after the taking of the first of these two prizes - but before the capture of the second - his report to Lord Spencer was apologetic in tone:
[N.R.S. Vol. xlvi.]
Much as I am mortified in returning without effecting completely every part of my instructions, yet I derive consolation from knowing that our endeavours were unceasing, and that the failure is not to be attributed to us but to the unlooked for events which have taken place since we left England in the Royalist armies; and very much do I fear, my lord, that all our hopes of their affairs being retrieved will be ill-founded. By some officers on board La Unite, which we have captured, I am led to believe that Charette is certainly killed. In this officer, I fear, we have lost the fairest character among them, and I cannot but lament the death of a man in every way respectable. These officers inform me that they viewed with indifference our landing the Royalist supplies, as the Austrian (151) truce had afforded them ample time to reduce them, and I believe their distresses to be very great. By a man, who came to us from Isle d'Yeu, there was no doubt entertained of Charette's complete defeat. I therefore thought it unnecessary to stay longer upon the coast, and the day after we left it, we were so lucky as to capture the frigate La Unite of thirty-eight guns . . . . The cause of so faint a resistance from the enemy was occasioned by the ship's company refusing to fight. Many of them were Royalists, and driven on board only a few days before. . . . .
I am, my lord
Your most faithfully devoted
20th April 1796
After the taking of a second frigate, further apology was hardly necessary.
On April 24th, the Concorde was ordered to tow the Virginie into Plymouth, while Pellew himself put into Falmouth on the evening of the same day. He was not there for long, but followed his prize to Plymouth on the 27th, in order to refit. The Amazon and Revolutionnaire accompanied him for the same purpose.
It was while his ship was refitting in Barn Pool that the Corporation of Plymouth decided to give him the freedom of the borough in recognition of his saving of the crew of the Dutton. On May 24th the ceremony took place.
This morning the Mayor and Court of Aldermen met at the Guildhall and swore in Sir Edward Pellew, Bart., as Freeman of this ancient Borough. The bells of both churches rang on the occasion, and at four o'clock Sir Edward Pellew gave a grand dinner at the Pope's Head to the Mayor and Court of Aldermen in honour of being admitted Freeman. The dinner was served up in the first style of elegance, and the wines were of the first quality. Several loyal and constitutional toasts were given, and the day ended with the uttermost harmony and festivity.
The wines seem always to have been of the first quality in those days. It is pleasing, however, to reflect that the festivity did not disturb the harmony of this civic occasion. Perhaps Dr. Hawker's Meet Morsels for Hungry Souls had something to do with this. Perhaps, for that matter, Dr. Hawker was present in person. Whatever the reason, harmony triumphed.
During this stay at Plymouth Lady Pellew had come to (152) live there while her husband's ship was refitting. She and Sir Edward had as their guest at this time Captain Bergeret, who was on his parole. He and his captor became lifelong friends during this visit. While the Pellews' guest, one of the sons wrote: 'He used to escort my mother about with great politenefs, which on one occasion almost brought him into trouble, my mother having thoughtlefsly allowed him to accompany her into the Gun Wharf when she paid a morning visit to the Commifs'rs Lady. This was a flagrant Breach of the Regulations, and very nearly occasioned the forfeiture of his Parole. One of the forbidden sights of the Gun Wharf at that time was the alteration of the Indefatigable's carronade slides then in progress - the carronades which had 'most injured' the Virginie.
Bergeret was shortly afterwards sent back to France on parole, as an exchange for Sir Sidney Smith. But the French Government were in no haste to part with Sir Sidney Smith, whom they had just captured. Nor were the French admirals particularly glad to see Bergeret. On the French side he had been the hero of the 'retreat of Admiral Cornwallis.' Consequently, as the hope of the French navy, his capture and the loss of his frigate had been a great disappointment. He was accordingly sent back to England.
Pellew's stay at Plymouth was not prolonged. On the very day of the dinner at the Pope's Head, the Indefatigable moved to Cawsand Bay. With the Amazon, she was in Carreg Road by May 26th. The Concorde and Phoebe were already there, and the Revolutionnaire arrived on the following day. These ships, with the Duke of York lugger, formed the squadron which sailed on June 7th, under Pellew's command, to cruise between Ushant and the Lizard. Five days later, two French national brigs were taken, one by the Amazon, the other by the Indefatigable. These vessels were four days out of Brest and were first sighted when eleven leagues off Ushant. The squadron escorted the prizes to Falmouth on the following day, but without actually entering the road or waiting longer than was necessary to allow Pellew to report his proceedings to Lord Spencer.
Indefatigable, off Falmouth 13th June 1796
I returned with the squadron off Falmouth merely to land 170 prisoners taken out of two copper'd brig corvettes who left Brest on Thursday last to cruise in company for six weeks. (153) We luckily fell in with them off Ushant, and it is a great pleasure to me to prevent the abundant mischief such little spiteful rascals are calculated to commit upon our trade . . . . The intelligence I procured from them confirms what I reported to their lordships a few days since on the examination of an American brig, i.e. 18 or 19 sail of the line are getting forward in repairs and fitting; 7 of them have sails bent, but cannot get men, none of them having above 200. Whenever men are sent on board they immediately desert, and so discontented are the officers also from getting no pay that they connive at their escape. These brigs have had ten crews in six weeks from desertion . . . .
I have the honour to be etc
[N.R.S. Vol. xlvi.]
Six months before this letter was written, Lord Chatham had written to Pellew commenting on the relaxation of the French efforts at sea. ' From what you observed in Brest, and from all that has pafsed this summer,' he had written, 'the Naval exertions of the French appear to be much subdued; and their principal attention seems turned to ye interior.' At the time he wrote this was not far from the truth. Apart from the sending forth of 'little spiteful rascals' the French Government had at that time no immediate naval plans. But the preparations now to be seen in progress at Brest indicated a change in policy. It became the object of the Admiralty to discover what the French intended to do - an object which was never attained until the French plan had, in fact, been carried out.
After this short visit to Falmouth Pellew's squadron returned to its station off Ushant. Nothing of importance occurred during the next few weeks; and, apart from another call at Falmouth at the end of July, the squadron remained pretty constantly on its station. Admirals Colpoys and Gardner were in the vicinity with their squadrons in August, and, on the 20th of that month, Gardner sent Pellew to reconnoitre Brest again. He was able to obtain but little information in that way. But he learnt from a Danish ketch, less than a fortnight previously, that there were eighteen or twenty sail of the line at Brest, including two three-deckers, and some ten frigates and corvettes. There were no transports, and no exceptional number of troops in the vicinity. The ships were still but half manned, and there was a great shortage of seamen in the port. At the same time, however, he gathered from another neutral (154) vessel that there was a 'strong imprefs ' at Bordeaux 'in which they seized the Sailors of all Nations supposed to send round to the fleet' - that is to say, to Brest. It was clear that something was afoot. And the Admiralty's instinct was sound in making particular inquiries as to the number of troops in the neighbourhood.
When Pellew returned to Falmouth at the end of August, he left Sir John Borlase Warren to take his place off Ushant. His stay in port lasted until Warren arrived, in the middle of September. It was on his coming into port that he first heard of the appointment of Captain Hunt to command the Virginie. The letter he wrote to Earl Spencer on that occasion is worthy of quotation in full.
It was not until my return to Port that I received the Mortification of knowing that you had actually disposed of La Virginie to Capt. Hunt - I could never bring myself to renounce (notwithstanding my apprehensions) the expectation of Your Lordships considering my pretensions to that favour for my Brother paramount to any claim Capt'n Hunt had to offer: to have urged your Lordship farther upon the subject - when justice seemed so strong - would have been as inconsistent with Politenefs, as I should have felt it degrading to Myself, conscious the reputation of Capturing La Virginie could not be given to Capt'n Hunt with her Command; We have all lived long enough My Lord to see the fruits of one Man's labour often bestowed on Another, and that both the Credit and Reward of Actions have been frequently given to the Spectators.
The substance of my letter will convince Your Lordship that I deem La Virginie given to Capt'n Hunt on the Consideration of his superior Services, and in this light I have much to lament the impofsibility I feel in acquiescing in Your Lordships sentiments - had weight of Interest only made it convenient to your arrangements I had flattered myself with deserving so much of Your Lordships confidence that you would have entrusted me with a Circumstance that would have been as inviolably sacred in my keeping as in your own; the pretensions I found to your Notice have grown out of long and Zealous Service, much of it established before Capt'n Hunt had made his debut upon the public Stage over which he glides with so much rapidity and ease. I feel it to be an ungracious Office to draw the portrait of any Mans services, but I feel also an indignant honesty of heart which at present prevents (and I hope ever will prevent) me from concealing my sentiments, trusting that what is not intended in disrespect to Your Lord (155) ship will thro' your liberality not be received with displeasure. It is on this consideration only that I am induced to addrefs you once more on the subject of request, trusting you will reconcile this hardship by considering me entitled to the favour I have long solicited from you, of having my Brother attached to the Squadron in which I serve. I am, My Lord, with all pofsible Respect
Your Lordships Most Devoted
and most ob't Ser't
Pellew always wrote well when he was angry. His style improved as his indignation rose. This letter has something of the eloquence and dignity of Dr. Johnson's letter to Lord Chesterfield. But it is well to observe that his loftiest manner was reserved for the occasions on which he was most unreasonable. His grievance, in this instance, was entirely unreal. Captain Hunt had not captured La Virginie; but then, neither had Israel Pellew. The one brother's pretensions could not be transferred to the other in this way. It is, again, oddly characteristic of Edward Pellew that he could not conceive of a command as anything but a 'favour,' to be obtained by interest or as a reward for past services. The possibility that Lord Spencer should consider fitness for the work as a deciding factor in the filling of appointments never entered his head. Spencer was an able and tactful man with many very unreasonable officers to deal with. He replied soothingly, vaguely, resisting the temptation to make any obvious retort. He did not even hint at Israel's incompetence. Events replied for him in some three weeks' time.
By his brother's incessant agitation, Israel had been appointed to a 32-gun frigate, the Amphion in April 1795. On September 22nd that ship blew up at her moorings at Plymouth. Israel was not killed - although nearly all his men were - and a court martial acquitted him. The acquittal may have been justified. But at the same time Lord Spencer was very probably glad that it was not La Virginie that had been blown up. When it is stated that his next ship mutinied, the crew putting him on shore; and that the ship he had after that was almost wrecked in the Bahamas, it may be assumed that Spencer felt no remorse for having refused to give La Virginie to the victim of so remarkable a series of coincidences.
Pellew sailed again from Falmouth on the 17th, with a squadron of five frigates including his own; the (156) Revolutionnaire Jason, Amazon, Phoebe, and the Duke of York lugger. The treaty between France and Spain had been ratified five days before, but Pellew had probably heard nothing of it at the time he sailed. He proceeded to his usual station off Ushant. But he had hardly reached that cruising ground before the Dover cutter brought him news and orders from Falmouth. An embargo had been laid on all Spanish shipping, and he was to sail at once for the coast of Spain. The Indefatigable had not taken a prize of any sort for nearly three months - only neutrals were to be found on the French coast - but half a dozen prizes were made in the region of Corunna before Pellew returned to the Channel. The Indefatigable was at Plymouth refitting during the first half of November, and it was not until the beginning of December that Pellew returned to his station off Ushant. Meanwhile, the preparations at Brest were nearing completion.
The failure of the Quiberon Expedition of 1795 has been described. This failure led to the stamping out of the Royalist Insurrection in the following year, as troops could be spared from other quarters to reinforce Hoche's army in Brittany. Success in Germany and Italy, the truce with Austria and the alliance with Spain - all these events made it increasingly possible for the French Government to plan some blow against England in 1796. Naval success was no longer hoped for. But there was an entire army in Brittany unemployed since the overthrow of the attempted counter-revolution, and there was no reason why Hoche should not take this army to Ireland; no reason, at any rate, more substantial than a large expanse of water with an English squadron floating on it. In essence, the plan had much to commend it. An Irish Rebellion with a French army on which to rally would have kept England thoroughly occupied for a considerable time. The French would, it is true, have found the alliance more difficult to maintain than they had expected. The scheme would have been a diversion rather than an invasion. But it would have been a successful diversion. And, as a retort to the English intrigues with the Chouans, it would have been highly appropriate. Its failure was accidental, not inevitable.
It has already been hinted that the difficulty attending the transference of the Republican army from Brittany to Ireland lay in the unfortunate expanse of water separating those two provinces. This theme requires elaboration. It was not the intention of the French to clear a passage to (157) Ireland. It was their object to avoid any fighting at sea. They relied on deceiving the English blockade, landing the troops, and returning to Brest without encountering naval opposition. Now this programme was not altogether impossible. The mischief was that it was more or less impossible in summer. The Brest fleet might put to sea, if it would, in January, and run no risk of a collision with the Channel fleet. It had done so in the winter of 1794-5. On the other hand, the reason the Channel fleet had for staying at Spithead was as good a reason for the Brest fleet staying at Brest. The dilemma was inherent in the nature of things. The gales which drove off the blockaders made it dangerous for the blockaded to put to sea. Monson, the naval expert of the early seventeenth century, had remarked on it. 'We must consider that such winds as serve to bring them for England make a secure road upon that coast to ride in. And such winds as are dangerous to keep that shore make it impossible for the French to put out of harbour.' In this instance, however, it was rather the velocity than the direction of the wind which had to be considered. The words of the eighteenth-century expert Kempenfelt are therefore still more to the purpose: 'But suppose the enemy should put to sea with their fleet - a thing much to be wished for by us. Let us act wiser, and keep ours in port; leave them to the mercy of long nights and hard gales. They'll do more in favour of you than your fleet can. A large fleet never tacks or wears when it blows hard in a dark night without risking damage.' Finally, as a practical illustration of the danger attending winter cruises, it may be recalled that the Brest fleet lost five sail of the line by putting to sea in the winter of 1794-5; two more than they lost by fighting Lord Bridport in June of the latter year. As Collingwood put it, rocks and tides 'have more of danger in them than a battle once a week.'
Despite the risk of bad weather, the French resolved to send Hoche to Ireland in the autumn of 1796, after the Channel fleet had returned to port. There would then be no chance of a collision with the enemy, and there was always a possibility of fine weather, even in winter. This choice was unfortunate, in that the winter of that year turned out to be exceptionally unfavourable.
'The autumn Of 1796 was very stormy; the sea, even when there was no wind, roared sullenly; strange birds sought shelter in the crevices of the rocks along the shore, and shoals (158) of fish were driven by instinct to seek refuge up the rivers of Brittany . . . . '
The atmosphere at Brest seems, in fact, to have been anything but cheerful. Preparations for the coming expedition had been in progress for months past. But the difficulty in manning the ships had added to the danger by imposing a delay. It was winter before the expedition could leave port. To set against this, the French Government had been completely successful in concealing the destination of the fleet - even from those about to sail with it. Hoche's troops had concentrated at Brest by this time, and their presence gave the English Government some clue as to what the French intended to do. But, to the end, Ireland remained as one of several possible destinations. The truth was never ascertained in time. It was, however, suspected, and to some extent provided against.
The arrangements were as follow: Pellew was to watch Brest with his squadron of heavy frigates well inshore. Vice-Admiral Sir John Colpoys, with ten or twelve sail of the line, was stationed off Ushant - superseding Rear-Admiral Thompson there at the end of October. There was also, in the autumn, a squadron of seven sail of the line at sea, under Sir Roger Curtis; but this returned to St. Helens in November. The main body of the Channel fleet was at Spithead under Lord Bridport. The final arrangement, as winter came on, was thus one of a frigate squadron, supported by a small squadron of ships of the line, cruising off Brest, and the Grand Fleet at Spithead, ready to act as occasion required. Before discussing the merits of this disposition, it will be well to enumerate and describe the French force it was designed to thwart. For this purpose it is necessary to return to Pellew, whose business it was to obtain information of this kind.
It was on December 4th that Pellew reappeared off Ushant. He had with him the Amazon, Phoebe, and the Lugger; and the Revolutionnaire joined him a few days later. Other frigates, which were the connecting files between him and Colpoys, were occasionally under his orders. On the 9th, he reconnoitred Brest and counted '18 sail of the line, besides Frigates, in the outer road.' This meant very little, apart from showing that there were not less than that number. For this force in the outer road prevented him seeing what there was inside the harbour itself. But two days later he had more important information to give to Colpoys.
(159) On that day, the 11th, he 'heard several Guns from the NW. at 8 a.m., saw 8 strange sail to windw'd, made all sail in chase, proved to be 5 line of Battle ships and 3 frigates standing in for Brest with French Colours hoisted.' Pellew kept clear of this squadron and instantly sent to inform Colpoys, whose ships were just in sight. He knew what ships these were that had slipped into Brest, and he knew what this concentration meant. These ships were Richery's division from the Isle d'Aix. Their arrival showed that the Brest fleet was soon to sail. A detachment came out from Brest to chase him off at the time Richery's division joined, but he stayed to count them and then sent Colpoys an estimate of the total force of the enemy. Of the ships of the line, he stated, sixteen appeared ready for sea, with topgallant yards across - two of them being three-deckers. There were eight frigates and three store ships. Richery's squadron of five sail of the line, three frigates, and two luggers, had to be added to the above numbers.
Colpoys replied on the same night.
London, at Sea
11th - 12th December, 1796
DEAR SIR EDWARD
I very highly approve of the whole of your proceedings. It is a sad business - Richery having tricked us all in the manner he has done. Pray direct Triumph and Phaeton to join me forthwith, and do you keep in shore of us - but withal within sight of signal . . . .
I am very sincerely
Your obedient humble servant
To SIR EDWARD PELLEW.
[N.R.S. Vol. xlvi.]
It was indeed a sad business. The more so in that Villaret, who commanded at Brest, detailed Richery to prevent further reconnaissance on Pellew's part. On the 12th he was chased off the port by four sail of French ships. By the 15th, the need for sending successive messages to England and to Colpoys had deprived him of his entire squadron. But the Duke of York lugger and La Revolutionnaire joined again, and he again reconnoitred Brest on the 16th. Six ships came out to chase him off, but they were too late to prevent him finding out all he wanted to know. He reported to Colpoys that there were twenty-six to twenty-nine Ships of War in Brest, including 'One line of Battle (160) ship and five Frigates which always anchor in Bertheaume Bay' - these were the ships which had got under weigh to pursue him.
. . . The remaining 20 or 23 were at anchor in the Bay of Camaret, the flood was just made, and it appeared to me that about 4 or 5 large ships were working up the pafsage to Brest again, the others had Topsail yards hoisted - as if intending to weigh but that I cannot answer for; they are, however, now at anchor riding Flood with jibs up, whether they intended going to Sea or came out to alarm us off that a Convoy might come through the Bec du Raz - I know not . . . .
The French fleet sailed that night. But before following their adventures it is necessary to consider the problem confronting Colpoys, and still more necessary to discuss the solution Lord Spencer had found for the problem which had confronted him at an earlier period of the year. The problem, namely, of how to dispose his forces in such a way as to confound the unknown designs of the French Government.
The disposition arrived at in the autumn of 1796 has been described already. It consisted of a squadron of ten or twelve sail of the line stationed off Ushant, with a frigate squadron inshore 'but withall within sight of signal,' and the rest of the Channel fleet at Spithead. Now, when the numbers of the Brest fleet are considered, it is apparent that those responsible for the direction of the war had formed to themselves no very clear conception of what they were trying to do. Apart from the possibility of reinforcements reaching Brest from other French ports, it was known that the sail of the line in that port numbered about twenty. This being so what can have been the object of setting ten or twelve ships to watch the harbour mouth ? Either Colpoys was to fight or he was not. There is no half-way house between fighting and not fighting. But if he was to fight, why had he only a dozen ships at most ? And if he was not to fight, why was he there at all ? His force has been called a 'squadron of observation.' But if observation was all that was required, there was no need for Colpoys to be there. One ship can observe as well as a squadron, and frigates could observe better than ships of the line. Any observation necessary might have been left, and in fact was left, to Pellew. This, then, must be the first conclusion to be drawn from the English naval disposition; that the force blockading Brest was at once too strong and (161) too weak. If there was to be a battle, there were not enough ships; if there was not, there were too many.
The next conclusion must be that the Channel fleet had no business to be at Spithead. This is not to say that the fleet should have been at sea. The policy of allowing the French to cruise in December, if they liked it, was perfectly sound. It merely required carrying out in full. That the fleet should be in port was altogether desirable. But it should not have been in that port, if it was required to sail at a moment's notice. For it was riot always possible to sail from Portsmouth. Had the Government been certain that the French expedition was destined for Bantry Bay, the stationing of the Channel fleet would have been a simple matter; Bantry Bay would have been the obvious place for it. In a state of uncertainty, Torbay or Falmouth would have answered very well. As things turned out, however, no harm resulted from this faulty disposition of the Channel fleet. The damage was done by having the wrong men in command. For this Lord Spencer can hardly be held responsible. But in the art of placing forces where the enemy least desires to find them, which is called strategy, he seems to have failed.
The officers chiefly responsible for allowing the French to escape on this occasion were Lord Bridport and Sir John Colpoys. The latter was placed, as we have seen, in a difficult position. It is sufficient to say that he failed to make the best of it. Of the former several word-portraits exist, of which the best, written by Pellew, will be found on a later page. For the present 'rather penurious and very rich ' and 'supposed to be cautious' may serve to indicate his character. He had few admirers.
Under the circumstances, it is difficult to conceive what Colpoys's instructions can have been. It may be supposed that they were vague. They may have been drawn up on the well-known principle - 'In the concoction of official papers, verbose ambiguity to be studiously sought.' It would have been difficult to frame any instructions more ambiguous than the force he commanded. The attempt may, however, have been made; with the final result that Colpoys acted as he saw fit. He decided, at any rate, that his squadron was not intended to fight. One fiery subordinate thought otherwise. From Pellew he received an offer to take a place in the line between two three-deckers. The reply was not encouraging. Colpoys thanked Pellew for the offer, but stated that he would have no occasion for (162) his services in that way, as a drawn battle might be fatal to England at that period of the war. It was perhaps fortunate that this far-sighted attitude was not general in the navy. The one stroke of wisdom amidst all these blunders was the placing of Pellew in his proper place - near the enemy.
If Colpoys was anxious to avoid battle, he can hardly have been less bellicose than his opponents. It has been stated on an earlier page that the army intended for the invasion of Ireland had concentrated at Brest in the autumn, but that the expedition was delayed until the winter by the difficulty in manning the ships. Another difficulty was a shortage of ships which were sufficiently seaworthy for cruising in winter. It was intended to land the troops in Ireland and return at once; while a part of the fleet was to proceed directly to the East Indies; immediately after the landing, that is to say. But the shortage of ships made it necessary to bring to Brest the ships from other ports - which could not be done while the English fleet was still at sea. This imposed further delay. When therefore, Richery slipped into Brest, Roche decided he could wait no longer, even though a detachment from Toulon had not arrived.
The fleet which actually set sail was much less numerous than the English expected. A number of the ships of the line which Pellew had counted in Brest were not fit for service. No less than three of the detachment Richery brought were found useless. So that only seventeen sailed with the expedition. With these were thirteen frigates, six corvettes and eight unarmed vessels. The troops on board amounted to about eighteen thousand, with artillery and horses and stores. The soldiers were not, for the most part in transports; they were chiefly carried in the ships of the line and frigates. Roche commanded the army, and Vice-Admiral Morard de Galles had superseded Villaret in the command of the fleet. Bantry Bay was the principal rendezvous, and it was there that the landing was to be made. Should that prove impossible the troops were to be landed at the mouth of the Shannon.
The chief reason the French had for wishing to sail at once, the moment after Richery arrived, was the prevalence of west winds at that time of year. There happened to be an east wind on the 11th, and troops were at once embarked on the only two useful sail of the line which Richery had brought. The entire fleet weighed on the 15th and moored in Camaret Bay, where the final arrangements were completed. The two commanders-in-chief embarked, (163) for some reason, in a frigate; and the two officers next in command embarked in another. There was, of course, a theory current among naval officers that a commander-in-chief could direct a battle better from a frigate, as not being embroiled in it himself. The theory broke down because a single-decked ship had no accommodation for an admiral as well as a captain. The discomfort of two commanders-in-chief on one frigate must have been intense. And as the admiral had strict orders not to risk a battle, the point of this self-sacrifice is not apparent.
When Pellew reconnoitred Brest in the forenoon of the 16th, the French fleet was in Camaret Bay, ready to start. The ships which drove him off were the advance guard of the expedition, charged with the duty of making a reconnaissance while preventing Pellew from making one. In the middle of the day these ships sighted Colpoys off Ushant. Indeed, they were so vigilant that they not only saw all that was to be seen, but also saw a great deal that was not there. They reported sighting a fleet of thirty sail where there may have been rather over half that number. But numbers mattered not at all, for Morard de Galles merely wished to know where the English fleet was in order that he might go in another direction. Since Colpoys was seen in a north-westerly direction, the French admiral decided to head for the Passage du Raz, which would take him to the south-west. As the wind was easterly, or south-easterly, and tending to blow Colpoys to the north-west; and as the fleet was to sail after dark, it was hoped to be out of sight before daylight on the 17th. Morard de Galles intended then to sail forty leagues to the westward before making for Ireland, leaving the English frigates to report their ignorance of the direction in which he had sailed.
By 4 p.m., when it was already getting dark, the entire French fleet was under way. The weather was bad and the sky overcast, so that darkness fell quickly. This, and a variation in the wind, led Morard de Galles to doubt whether it was either necessary or wise to attempt the Passage du Raz. He first of all sent the Nestor, commanded by Durand Linois, to find out whether the passage was practicable ; and then, probably before hearing any report from Linois, he decided that the darkness made the precaution needless, and at five-thirty he made the signal to run before the wind for the open sea.
This decision was perfectly sound but with such a fleet it should have been reached earlier. A veteran fleet (164) might have altered course at night without much confusion. But the crews of the Brest fleet were ill-trained and raw, so that the fleet was incapable of performing the simplest evolution in daylight. There had been considerable confusion when the signal for line of convoy had been made that afternoon. But this signal, by cannon shots and after dark, produced chaos. No great damage was done to the ships because every vessel carried a Breton pilot who knew where he was and where the rocks were. But the pilots could only save the ships from destruction. They could not save the fleet from dispersal. They could not say where the admiral was or what the other ships were doing. The result was that the fleet scattered.
Before returning to the history of Pellew's part in this affair, it must be explained that he knew very little of what the French were doing, apart from what he could see from his own masthead. It was only just before the French sailed that he learnt, from fishermen, that the Brest fleet carried an army. In the report of Richery's arrival which he sent to the Admiralty on the 12th, by the Amazon, his ignorance on this point is clear.
[N.R.S. Vol. xlvi.]
. . . There is now in Brest 21 sail of the line appearing ready for sea, 2 of them three-deckers, and 2 other three-deckers with yards and topmasts down. I have no reason to believe that there are any transports or troops more than common. We were so near in as to be fired at from both sides of the Goulette and could most distinctly see everything in the port. The ships appear all clean painted as if newly fitted . . . . How much it is to be regretted that this squadron could not be intercepted, and more so that our blocking fleet could not lay in Douarnenez Bay, the finest and the safest that can be imagined - no possible escape from Brest if this post were occupied, but I believe so desirable an object will never be attained.
Even after he knew about the troops, he rejected Ireland as a possible objective - the possibility hardly occurred to him.
After Pellew had made his reconnaissance on the morning of the 16th, and had seen his lugger reach Colpoys with his report, he continued to hover round Brest, expecting Colpoys to join him on hearing that the French were apparently about to sail. Only the Revolutionnaire, commanded by his old friend Frank Cole, was with the Indefatigable. And at three-thirty, as soon as he was sure that the French were (165) under way, Pellew sent Cole to inform Colpoys that the enemy was out. He himself stayed to find out which way they were going. As it grew darker he worked up nearer to the French admiral, so that, when Morard de Galles decided not to attempt the Passage du Raz, the Indefatigable was within half-gunshot of him. The signal for the change in course was made by cannon shots and rockets; and it
PLAN TO ILLUSTRATE THE BANTRY BAY CAMPAIGN
was repeated by a corvette which the French admiral sent to inform the ships in the rear of the alteration in his plans. Unfortunately, at the time he was making the signal, one of his ships of the line struck a rock. A large proportion of the fleet had failed to grasp his intention and was already proceeding through the Passage du Raz, and the ship which was wrecked was one of these. The ship was a 74, the Seduisant, and the rock was the Grand-Stevenet near the entrance to the passage. Those on board this vessel at (166) once fired signals of distress. These had the effect of confusing the signals the admiral was trying to make.
By 7 p.m. Pellew, still escorting the French flagship, thought that it was time for him to confound the confusion still further. He began to fire guns and send up rockets himself. What Morard de Galles made of this does not seem to be known, but there was no fighting between his ship and the Indefatigable. The two frigates ran close together, neither molesting the other. A meaningless cannonade accompanied by a firework display could convey nothing to the minds of the officers commanding the French ships. There were four ships altogether making signals, and the vessels in the rear had nothing to direct them but a confused uproar dimly heard through the noise of the breakers. Not that the officers would have taken much notice of signals in any case - they were all busy avoiding shipwreck. At eight-thirty Pellew decided to join Colpoys. He had by that time seen some of the French ships haul round the Saints, and concluded that they were bound southward. He reached this conclusion all the more readily in that it confirmed his own theory that Lisbon was the destination of the expedition. But, apart from any theories on the subject he was perfectly justified in following the French no further. Having sent Colpoys the news that the enemy was about to sail - and seen the message delivered - and then sent to inform him that the enemy had sailed, it was proper to conclude that the vice-admiral was coming to join him. He may have had private doubts as to whether Colpoys intended to do his duty but it would have been improper to act on the assumption that his senior officer would run away as soon as he knew that the enemy was at sea. He accordingly made sail for the rendezvous, the quarter in which Colpoys was last seen. Losing sight of the enemy at nine, he made the signals necessary to attract the vice-admiral's attention. There was no answering flare. Colpoys was not on his usual cruising ground. He had gone.
When day came on the 17th the weather was dull and foggy. But the lugger appeared at once. Her commander, Mr. Sparrow, had delivered his message to Colpoys at 11 a.m. on the 16th and had been trying to rejoin Pellew ever since. He had no idea where Colpoys might be. By 9 a.m. the Revolutionnaire had rejoined also. Cole reported, to his friend's horror, that he had been unable to find Colpoys on the previous evening and had neither seen nor heard anything of him since. The first thing to do was to (167) inform the Admiralty, and the lugger was soon bound for Falmouth with dispatches. Pellew entrusted two letters to her commander, one being his official report, the other a private letter to Lord Spencer. The report to the Admiralty ran as follows
I have only now time to say that I attended the French fleet consisting in all of 41 or 43 Sail round the SW end of the Saints, at 8 o'clock last night they haul'd close round & they appeared to steer about SW, but it was very dark, so that their exact course could not be obtained. I dispatched my lugger to the Vice Admiral yesterday morning by Day Break, his letter was put on board the Marlborough by 11 a.m. I only said that a Report should follow by La Revolutionnaire at night. At 4 p.m. I dispatched her to say the fleet was out and that I should attend them through the Passage du Raz and join the Admiral round the west of the Saints in the morning. They gave up that intention and kept close along the North side of the Saints and haul'd close round it. At 8 I made Sail for the Admiral's rendezvous, but unfortunately have not yet been able to meet him. I spoke the Revolutionnaire at 9 a.m.- she had been equally unsuccefsful.
The Van of the Enemy's fleet consisted of 9 fail of the line, preceded by 6 frigates, the rear I could not dearly distinguish, but there appeared to be 5 or 6 Sail of the line among them; our ships both counted from 26 to 29 ships of war, two or three large Store ships and about 10 small Ships & Brigs.
As the ships are all here seeking the Admiral upon his rendezvous, it is my intention, if I do not find him before 8, to proceed with all pofsible dispatch after the Enemy's fleet to Cape Finisterre & Lisbon but should I meet them before I shall watch them in their course and be guided by circumstances; but should they go to Lisbon it is of infinite importance for that Court to be informed of their approach.
I have not time to give my reasons at large to their Lordships for this conduct, I trust implicitly to their Lordships' Candor for believing me actuated by every motive of honour & disinterested zeal. I this moment dispatch the Lugger to Falmouth, believing it also as of much importance that their Lordships should know the French Fleet are out.
I have the honour to be
Your most obedient humble servant
E. NEPEAN Esq.
In his letter to Lord Spencer there is a hint of criticism of Colpoys's conduct, although he had at this time no idea of what that officer had actually done.
[ N.R.S. Vol. xlvi.]
(168) MY LORD
Since my letter by the Amazon of the 11th instant, I must in a great measure refer you to the copies of my letters to Admiral Colpoys. After the arrival of Richery I was chased off every day by a squadron of 6 ships, which made it very difficult to reconnoitre the port, and which indeed, by the enclosed letter from the Admiral he did not intend I should, as your lordship will there see that I was not to be out of sight of his signals. However, a blowing day made me luckier. The squadron in Bertheaume had to unwillingly remain at anchor. I therefore worked up with my three ships towards them and they suffered me to approach near enough to see the fleet getting under way to make sail. When the fleet approached the advanced squadron in Bertheaume Road they also weighed and chased me off. I then dispatched the Phoebe to the vice-admiral, to leagues west of Ushant. Would to Heaven I could have got him nearer; the miserable moments I now feel would have been spared.
At daybreak yesterday, after having worked to windward all night, keeping sight of the French squadron, I despatched my lugger to the admiral with my report and that I was then proceeding to determine if the fleet had left the port or not and that I would send him my last report by La Revolutionnaire. By three in the afternoon I made them all at anchor in Camaret Bay and Bertheaume, but it was not possible to count them; and just as I had closed my letter No. 2, I saw them all again under way coming out. I then added to my letter a postscript informing the admiral that we counted in all 36 sail, and that I had clear sight of 9 ships of the line forming the van . . . . I sent a verbal message by Captain Cole saying that I would certainly go thro' the Passage du Raz with them if they attempted after dark that passage, and in the morning I would go round the west end of the Saints and look for him on his rendezvous, which I entreated might [be] correctly kept; and if the fleet came down the Bay to the northward of the Saints that after seeing them round I would repair to him.
This latter circumstance happen'd. The night look'd threatening and after the leading ships, of which I kept abreast, approached close to the Passage, they bore along the north side of the Saints very close, as your lordship will perceive by the traverse of my motions, and by eight o'clock 16 or 18 sail had haul'd round the end of the bank to the southwest. I then pursued the routes marked down in the enclosed traverse for the admiral, and it grieves me to the heart to say that I have not yet met his fleet. If I could have found him at midnight the happiest effects might have followed. I have just now fallen in with my lugger, who put his letter on board (169) the Marlborough at 11 a.m. yesterday the 16th. The Revolutionnaire, tho' dispatched at four o'clock (before dark last night), I have this morning spoken equally unfortunate. The weather is hazy with small rain, wind at SE. to SSW. Our diligence shall never cease till we find him; God grant it may be soon. If I do not meet him to-day, among a thousand perplexities and difficulties I shall give the French fleet only 24 hours' start from last night and shape my course for Cape Finisterre and so on to Lisbon to alarm that Court, as I conjecture by their hauling to the SW they may be going there . . . .
God knows, my lord, if I shall be doing right, but left in a wilderness of conjecture I can only say that the sacrifice of my life would be easy if it served my gracious King and my country. I have left sufficient look-out for the Admiral, and the absence of my ships can be nothing to the mischief which may ensue from this fleet at Lisbon. I trust myself to you, my Lord, upon this perhaps the most important crisis of my life. My motives are pure and disinterested; I must leave them to your mercy, and subscribe myself with all possible respect,
Your lordship's most devoted servant,
Before evening on the day on which this was written the wind had backed round to S. and SSW. As this was unfavourable for a voyage to Lisbon, Pellew thought that the French fleet was unlikely to reach its supposed destination; and he therefore decided not to follow it but to continue his search for Colpoys. He traversed the vicinity of Ushant upon every point of the compass and fired guns and burnt blue lights at night. As there was still no sign of the admiral, Pellew began to hope that Colpoys had gone southward in pursuit of the French. On the following day, the 18th, the Amazon appeared, and he decided to return to Falmouth in the expectation of hearing news of Colpoys there. The Revolutionnaire was left to watch for the admiral, while the Amazon and Indefatigable sailed together for Falmouth.
All this time Pellew was in a fever of anxiety. The lack of any information was sheer torture to him. He felt that a great deal depended on him - that it was, in short, 'the most important crisis' of his life. In this he was mistaken. His dispatch to the Admiralty of the 17th, which arrived on the 20th, was the only service it was at this time ill his power to render. He could do no more and no more was expected of him. His efforts and anxiety were needless; and, (170) although his conduct was very creditable, the part he played turned out to be unimportant. Events were shaping themselves without him.
Pellew reached Falmouth on the 19th, after calling at the admiral's rendezvous off the Lizard, and at once wrote dispatches to the Admiralty, reporting and explaining his proceedings. He heard no news of any kind at Falmouth and remained for days in a state of suspense. In his report to the Admiralty he enlarged on the facts given in his report of the 17th, and ended by giving his reasons for supposing that the French expedition was bound for Portugal. First of all, he argued, the Directory had avowed their intention of striking at Portugal; and the fact that the English Government was preparing to send reinforcements there was a proof that they believed this report. Then there was very little occasion for the French to attack the colonies, as there was a probability of a peace upon the basis of compensation. On the other hand, the army of 20,000 the French were reported to have on board, and the fleet conveying it, were both too small for an attack on England or Ireland. Finally, the attempt to sail through the Passage du Raz indicated that their destination was to the southward.
At the same time as he sent this official letter to the Admiralty, he wrote, as before, a private letter to the First Lord
20th December 1796 10 A.M.
By this opportunity I have stated to the Board the motives which have actuated my conduct upon the recent transactions off Brest.
The moment Richery's squadron arrived I foresaw the immediate execution of some pre-determined plan and this it was that determined me to keep very dose to the port even in contradiction to the Admiral's commands expressed in the letter I now enclose. (i.e. Colpoys' letter of the 11th - 12th) I expressed my wishes to him by Captain Barlow that he would allow 2 or 3 of his line-of-battle ships to work up to me, that I might by their presence get nearer to reconnoitre, particularly to keep the advanced squadron at Bertheaume at rest, who now daily chased me out as far as Ushant. The Admiral thought that Richery's arrival made it more necessary to concentrate his fleet, which he call'd into close order. However, I bless God that he received from me the very earliest information of their first motion. I am also full of hopes that Captain Cole has found him, in which case there was nothing (171) left to communicate . . . . I flatter myself, and don't see how it can be other-ways, that the Admiral is gone to the southward and to westward. We have so often cross'd his track that it is impossible he could be there, and I have returned here, blowing a gale of wind, to gather information and take a new departure immediately.
The Gales have been such as I think will most likely separate the French fleet . . . .
I have nothing left to explain to your lordship . . . but I have to return my best thanks for the appointment of Mr. Bell. I fear I shall go out of my senses if I do not get a better assistant to second me than Mr. Thomson, and yet a more worthy man does not exist . . . .
[N.R.S. Vol. xlvi.]
On the 21st Pellew sailed again with the Amazon and the Duke of York lugger in company. He went 'with a cheerful heart,' persuaded that Colpoys had been 'sufficiently informed upon the sailing of the enemy's fleet;' and that he was therefore in hot pursuit of them. It seems essential at this point to explain how mistaken Pellew was.
The French fleet was not, of course, bound to the southward at all. The direction it took on leaving Brest was a mere detour to avoid the blockading squadron. The plan was to sail westwards for a certain distance and then alter course and steer to make Mizen Head. And the plan was fairly exactly carried out. Where the expedition failed was in this, that the fleet had split into fragments on leaving port and never succeeded in concentrating again. Nearly all the ships reached their destination; but they did not arrive at the same time. Even this, however, need not have been fatal. The underlying cause of the expedition's failure was the English superiority at sea which made the French set out in winter. By so doing they avoided an encounter with the English at the risk of encountering bad weather instead. They had ill luck, too, in that the weather was exceptionally bad. On January 5th, 1797, Pellew wrote: 'We have experienced a Continued Gale of wind for this fortnight past such as I have seldom met with, . . . ' From so experienced a seaman this tribute to the violence of the weather means a great deal.
The history of the expedition to Bantry Bay is, briefly, this. In the course of December 17th and 18th, 1796, the greater part of the fleet came together under the flag of Admiral Bouvet. When Mizen Head was made, on the 21st, all but seven vessels were present. Among the seven, (172) however, was the Fraternité, the frigate which carried Morard de Galles, Hoche, and Bruix, who was the moving spirit of the whole force. The fleet came into Bantry Bay, therefore without either the naval or the military commander-in-chief. While the senior officers present were trying to decide what to do, and were about to effect a landing; and while the men about to land were regarding, without much enthusiasm, the desolate scene before them, the wind increased to a gale and many of the ships only saved themselves by cutting their cables. The fleet was again dispersed, and Bouvet, unable to find many of the ships, had to give up the attempt. Other fragments of the fleet arrived independently at Bantry Bay and returned to Brest on finding no other ships at the rendezvous. Most of the fleet was back at Brest by January 14th. Half a dozen vessels were taken by the English, and half a dozen were wrecked. No forces had been landed in Ireland. The expedition had failed utterly.
More remarkable than the failure of the French to help the Irish on this occasion is the failure of the English to help themselves. Apart from a few stragglers which happened to fall into the hands of English cruisers, the French lost nothing to the enemy. They sailed unopposed to Ireland and returned unhindered to France. The reasons why this was allowed to happen are to be found in the extraordinary conduct of Lord Bridport and Sir John Colpoys.
Pellew sent his lugger to Falmouth with news of the Brest fleet being out on December 17th, the morning after Morard de Galles put to sea. His dispatch reached the Admiralty on the 20th. As it did so, Pellew came into Falmouth himself; and, on the same day, Bouvet was approaching the Irish coast with the greater part of the fleet which had sailed on the 16th. By the 22nd, at latest, Lord Bridport had information from the Admiralty of the enemy being at sea. Bouvet had by that time come to anchor in Bantry Bay. On the 25th - still four days before the French decided to abandon the enterprise - Bridport was under way. Now this delay of two or three days may well be accounted for. It would be fair to say that other admirals would have put to sea sooner. But any blame attached to this delay fades into insignificance when his next proceedings are followed with attention.
When the news reached him, Lord Bridport had his fleet in two divisions, one at Spithead, the other at St. Helen's, his flagship being with the former division. On the 25th (173) it was blowing a gale from the east. When Bridport attempted to sail he tried to work up to St. Helen's with the Spithead division - instead of ordering the St. Helen's division to run down to Spithead. The result was that four of his ships were injured by collision and a fifth ran aground. Owing to the repairs these ships required - and to Bridport's determination not to sail without them - the fleet did not leave port until January 3rd, 1797. Bouvet had come into Brest two days before.
This is not the place for an inquiry into Bridport's conduct. It is enough to say that no man of ordinary understanding, no man who intended to fight, would have attempted to take the fleet out to windward when it was perfectly easy to run through the Needles. His behaviour was like that of a man who refuses to pursue the burglar by the front door, which is open, and insists on trying to leave the house by a heavily barred window on the opposite side. In such a case the suspicion is bound to arise that his eccentricity is connected with a desire that the burglar should escape.
The conduct of Sir John Colpoys was as add as that of his chief. He was stationed outside an enemy harbour with a force presumably designed to annoy the enemy. Although roughly equal in strength to the enemy's fleet which actually sailed, his force was admittedly inferior to the force the enemy was believed to possess. On December 11th the officer in command of his inshore squadron reported the arrival at the blockaded port of a reinforcement. This made it clear to every one - that is to say, to every one else - that the enemy was about to sail. On the 15th it was reported to him that the enemy appeared to be ready to sail. On the 16th he heard that the enemy had 'Topsail yards hoisted - as if intending to weigh,' and that another report would reach him before dark. When the frigate bearing this last report reached the rendezvous, Colpoys had gone.
The official statement on the subject was to the effect that he had been blown off his station by an easterly gale. And next day certainly found him well to leeward of it. But, if it had been impossible for him to remain at his rendezvous, why did such good seamen as Cole and Pellew fully expect to find him there ? And if he was unable to remain at his post, how was it that Pellew found it perfectly easy to remain on his ? Why should the Indefatigable and Revolutionnaire find no difficulty in cruising for days on the (174) very ground from which Colpoys had been driven, and which he was apparently unable to regain ?
It will be remembered that Pellew left the Revolutionnaire to continue the search for Colpoys after he himself had returned to Falmouth. Cole at last fell in with him on the 22nd. But after chasing into L'Orient the French division from Toulon - for which Morard de Galles and Hoche had decided not to wait - Colpoys considered his duty done and returned to Spithead. Again, it is not to the present purpose to hold a court martial on a long-defunct admiral. It must suffice to say that the affair gave him no very enviable reputation among the seamen; and that the ill-odour in which he lived, combined with a similar suspicion of Bridport, had a great deal to do with the mutiny at Spithead which was shortly to take place.
Colpoys, Vice-Admiral of the blue,
Gave order to fire on the 'London' ship's crew;
While the enemy of Britain was ploughing the sea,
He, like a base coward, let them get away
When the French and their transports sailed for Bantry Bay.
It may be possible to frame some theory by which Colpoys might be acquitted from the imputation of cowardice. But it is clear that the story of his being unable to remain at his post was not believed by the seamen of the fleet in which he served. That notoriously credulous corps, the marines, may have believed him. The sailors did not.
Few men increased their reputations in what may be termed the Bantry Bay Campaign. Even Pellew, owing to his unfortunate conviction that the French were bound for Portugal, would not have increased his but for the accident which enabled him to fight one of his most famous actions at the very time that Lord Spencer must have been losing patience with him.
Pellew sailed again from Falmouth on December 21st with the Amazon and the Duke of York lugger. Still without information as to the course taken by the French fleet - which had already reached Ireland - and still clinging to his own theory on the subject, he went southward. After cruising for some days off Ushant and Finisterre, he went down the coast as far as Corunna. He was off Cape Ortegal on January 5th when he wrote again to the Admiralty, regretting his inability to supply any information concerning Colpoys or the Brest fleet. (175)
. . . I have not since my departure from Falmouth . . .fallen in with any vefsel which could afford me the least knowledge of Admiral Colpoys fleet . . . .
This message was more likely to annoy than interest the Admiralty. It showed that he was cruising far to the south, miles from the latitude in which his frigates might have been useful. The whereabouts of the Brest fleet had been discovered long before. And Colpoys had been at Spithead for nearly a week. But although the first part of this cruise was futile enough, the finish crowned the whole.
After capturing two prizes on the Spanish coast, Pellew sailed for England, and on January 12th the Indefatigable and Amazon were proceeding up the French coast towards Ushant. Although unaware of recent events, Pellew was now approaching the region where stragglers were still to be found on their way back to Brest. He arrived in time to stop one of them from reaching that port.
On January 13th, 1797, the Indefatigable and Amazon were in latitude 47, 30 N., some fifty leagues south-west of Ushant. Forty-five minutes after noon, a sail was discovered on the starboard bow, going in the same direction. She was apparently a very large ship 'steering under easy sail for France.' The English frigates were inshore of her and to leeward. They made sail at once to cut her off.
The wind was then at West blowing hard, with thick hazy Weather. I instantly made the signal to the Amazon for a General Chase & follow'd it by the signal that the Chase was an Enemy.
The enemy was a French ship of the line of 74 guns. Her captain, Commodore Lacrosse, knew who his pursuer was as soon as the Indefatigable was sighted. He told an English prisoner that it was Sir Edward Pellew's squadron, and added 'that he would not yield to any two English frigates, but would sooner sink his ship with every soul on board.' The Indefatigable had for long been a familiar sight to the inhabitants of Brest, and Pellew was as well known by reputation in France as in England. But, seeing that Lacrosse knew that he had only frigates to deal with, it may seem remarkable that he should resolve not to yield to them. For under circumstances of a more normal kind a ship of the line was not only able to sink a frigate with one broadside, but almost invariably disdained to do so. But this French ship was labouring under peculiar (176) difficulties, which will be noticed in due course. Lacrosse wished to avoid fighting altogether and did his best to escape.
Pellew had no idea what sort of ship he was chasing. Indeed, he never found out until long afterwards. At 2 p.m. the Indefatigable set reefed steering sails and began to leave the Amazon behind. An hour later the Amazon was three or four miles astern and the Indefatigable was gaining rapidly on the enemy, whose steering sails were carried away as soon as set. At ten minutes to four Pellew beat to quarters and cleared for action. He was now near enough to see his opponent clearly and observed that she was 'steering very wild.' Meanwhile the French had prepared for action. On opening their lower ports, however, they found that the water poured in and instantly shut them again. Lacrosse had probably anticipated this. His ship was built as an experiment to a new design. She was longer and lower in the water than most ships and had no poop. So low in the water was her lower deck that rough weather prevented her from using her lower deck guns. In this situation, and crowded with the troops she had taken to Ireland and back, some seven hundred at least, she was not very formidable except at close quarters.
. . . at 4 p.m. the Indefatigable had gain'd sufficiently upon the Chase for me to distinguish very clearly that she had two tiers of Guns with her lower Deck Ports shut, she had no poop, & according to my judgment she was a French ship en Razée, at ¼ before 5 I observ'd with considerable regret that she had carried away her fore & main topmasts. The Indefatigable at the same time lost her Steering sail Booms, the ship at this time was going 11 or 12 knots, blowing very hard & a great sea. I foresaw from this that the Escape of the Enemy under her lower Masts only, in a stormy night of 14 hours Continuation, should her defence prove obstinate was very pofsible and I believed as a ship of large force that she would be induced to persevere in her Refistance from the Expectation that we should be apprehensive of entangling ourselves upon a lee shore with the wind dead upon it. The instant she lost her topmasts I reduc'd my sails to close reef'd topsails & at 15 minutes before 6 we brought the Enemy to close action . . . .
At the time the action began, when the Indefatigable hoisted English colours with three cheers and her opponent hoisted 'French Colours,' the Amazon was seven or eight miles astern. At six-thirty the French ship nearly succeeded in running the Indefatigable on board, her bowsprit passing (177) over Pellew's taffrail and striking the spanker boom. After this attempt had failed the Indefatigable shot ahead.
By this time the slackening of the pace brought about by the French ship losing her top-masts and the Indefatigable having her topgallants handed and her topsails close reefed had allowed the Amazon to come up.
. . . at this moment the Amazon appear'd aftern & gallantly supplied our place but the eagernefs of Capt'n Reynolds to second his friend had brought him up under a prefs of sail & after a well supported & close fire for a little time, he unavoidably shot ahead also. The Enemy, who had nearly effected running me on board, appear'd to be much larger than the Indefatigable & from her very heavy fire of musketry I believe was very full of men, & this fire was continued until the end of the action with great vivacity, altho he frequently defended both sides of his ship at once.
With her seven hundred or eight hundred soldiers and her lower deck useless, muskets were the one thing of which the French had plenty. As for guns, the Indefatigable alone had probably a heavier broadside.
As soon as we had replaced some necefsary rigging & the Amazon had reduced her sail, we commenced a second attack, placing ourselves, after some raking broadsides, upon each quarter & this attack, often within Pistol shot was by both ships unremitted for above 5 hours, when we sheer'd off to secure our Masts . . . .
This second attack, begun after the Indefatigable had rove new braces and other ropes, commenced at twenty minutes past eight, the Indefatigable placing herself on the French ship's starboard quarter, the Amazon on the larboard. The two frigates sheered off at 2 a.m., one of the Frenchman's shot having carried away the main top-mast crosstrees and cut all the larboard shrouds. It took nearly an hour to reeve two hawsers round the mast-head, cut away the main topgallant yard, reeve new mizen topsail sheets, hoist the topsail and reeve new braces. The drum beat to quarters again at two fifty-five. The fight recommenced at ten minutes past three, both frigates attacking at once. During the next hour the French ship appeared to be steering wildly owing to her mizen-mast being shot away at this time and her 'fore and main yards flying about.' She had long since run short of ammunition and had been (I78) firing shells instead of shot without much effect. The Indefatigable's ammunition apparently held out, although her wadding did not, so that her crew had to cut up a cable to make wads in the course of the night.
All these hours the three ships had been approaching the French coast. It was a dark night, not moonless but overcast, and nobody knew exactly where they were. Navigation had been the weak point of the Indefatigable in that the first lieutenant, Mr. Thomson, seems to have known little about it. It was probably this that had nearly driven Pellew out of his senses as he put it; and this must certainly have been the reason of his asking for Mr. Bell as second lieutenant, for Bell was a promoted master. It was impossible, however, to do more than place Bell on the forecastle in the hope that he would see the shore before the ship struck it. Pellew had also a certain confidence that the French officers knew where they were going. In this he was wrong. The French were too busy fighting their ship to give the matter a thought. Besides, they had no more chance of taking an observation than he had. And as for knowledge of the coast Pellew probably knew more about it than they. Both ships had pilots on board, the Indefatigable having a Breton Royalist.
. . . altho she was running for her own Ports, yet the Confidence I felt in my knowledge of the Coast of France forbade me to listen for a moment to any suggestions of danger there-from. I placed also some considerable reliance that her Commander would not voluntarily sacrifice his Ship and his crew by running her for a dangerous part of the Coast and I promis'd myself to see the day before we should have run down our distance, but in fact every Creature was too earnestly and too hardly at Work to attend exactly to the run of the Ship. I believe 10 hours of more severe fatigue was scarcely ever experienced. The sea was high, the People on the main Deck were up to their middles in Water, some Guns broke their Breechings four times over, and some drew the ring-bolts from the sides, many of them repeatedly drawn immediately after loading. All our masts were much wounded, the Main-top-mast completely unrigg'd, and sav'd only by uncommon alacrity . . . .
At twenty minutes past four, the moon appeared just long enough to enable Mr. Bell to catch a glimpse of land ahead, and he had hardly run aft to report before the breakers were visible to all. Pellew ceased fire and prepared to haul to the northward. He was not particularly anxious, (179) confident that he was in the Bay of Brest. Fortunately the old Chouan pilot knew better and shouted: "Non, non, Mon Capitaine - the oder way;" and Pellew accordingly hauled to the southward. He burnt blue lights and sent up rockets to warn the Amazon, and in ten minutes had lost sight of her. An hour later he was surprised to see breakers on the lee bow and instantly wore to the northward. At seven o'clock land was made on the weather bow and breakers seen close to leeward. Pellew now knew that he was embayed on a lee shore, in as dangerous a position as any man could wish to avoid. He was still puzzled as to his whereabouts - although not in doubt as to what he had to do. He wore ship to the southward. It was growing lighter now, and in ten minutes he saw the French ship dismasted and 'laying on her Broadside, the surf breaking over her.' She was on a sand-bank, about a mile to leeward - totally wrecked. Luckily, the wind veered a little to the northward, and Pellew realized that he was in 'Hodierne Bay' at about the same time as this shift of wind allowed him to escape from it. He weathered the Penmarcks by three-quarters of a mile 'by the blefsing of God' and began his voyage home. Of the Amazon he saw no sign. He assumed that she too had escaped.
The Indefatigable, 'Considerable damaged in Hull Masts and Rigging,' and 'making a great deal of water' limped into Falmouth on the 18th, and proceeded to Plymouth for repairs on the 24th. Besides his official letter, he wrote privately to Lord Spencer. After mentioning for the first time his growing anxiety on account of hearing no new news of the Amazon, he went on:
. . . I fear your lordship will think me rather imprudent on this occasion, but what can be done if an enemy's coast is always to frighten us and give them protection as safely as their ports ? If Lord Hawke had no fears from a lee shore with a large fleet under his charge, could I for a moment think of two inconsiderable frigates ? I was anxious to tow this nondescript to England; for indeed, my lord, I cannot tell you what she was. All those about me believe her a ship-of-the-line without a poop . . . I have great doubt if any person can be saved; the surf was tremendous and beating quite over them. I have placed him on the chart about 3 or 4 miles to the southward of Audierne Town. She must have suffered prodigiously; our expenses alone was above 100 barrels of powder. I never experienced such fatigue. The ship was full of water, the cockpit half-leg deep, and the surgeon (180) absolutely obliged to tie himself and patient to the stanchions to perform an amputation . . . .
[N.R.S. Vol. xlvi.]
If Pellew's description of his opponent was modest and cautious in the extreme, his demands for reward were very much the reverse. First he wanted his first lieutenant to be made commander; probably this was partly due to his desire to be rid of him. Then he wanted the whole crew to be rewarded by making the Indefatigable a fourth-rate, which would mean an increase of pay for all the officers and petty officers. Within a few days a yet more outrageous demand followed. Only the first of these requests was granted.
20th Jan. 1797
DEAR SIR EDWARD
I take the earliest opportunity of congratulating you on your very gallant Action in Audierne Bay and I most sincerely hope that Capt. Reynolds Arrival before you receive this letter will allow of your communicating my congratulations to him also . . . .
The Ship you engaged we conjecture to be Les Droits de 1'Homme mounting 80 Guns on two Decks and without a Poop. She was one of the Expedition to Ireland and I do not know of any other Ship of the Line which they now have that would answer the Description.
The Expedient you suggest respecting the Rate of your Ship will I fear not be in my power, as it will not be thought right in any Instance to deviate so much from the usual Regulation of the Service; if it were proper on any occasion, I trust you will do me the justice to believe that there is no one for whom I had rather transgrefs a Rule than you.
Believe me, Dear Sir Ed:
etc etc SPENCER
A few days later Pellew heard that the Amazon had gone ashore not far from where Les Droits de L'Homme had struck, and a little sooner. Her captain and crew were safe, but were, of course, prisoners. He wrote to inform Lord Spencer, strenuously asking that Reynolds should be exchanged at once at any cost. Spencer replied diplomatically.
DEAR SIR EDWARD.
I am much obliged to you for your letter of the 23rd conveying the welcome Intelligence of the safety of your brave (181) Companions. As to the Frigate, though I regret the lofs of her, that is a consideration of far lefs importance than the lives of the People.
I think it will turn out as I conjectured about the French Ship, and that she will prove to be Les Droits de 1'Homme, and if so, you have the Credit of having beaten an 80 gun Ship with two Frigates, an exploit which has not I believe ever before graced our naval Annals.
Believe me Dear Sir with great Truth
your very faithful
Adm'ty 25 Jan.
SIR E. PELLEW Bart.
Pellew's reply was not diplomatic.
Plym'th Jan'y 37, 1797.
I have to regret that my late applications to your Lordship should have proved so unfortunate and I shall not cease to lament the barrier which prevents the return of my valued friend to his disconsolate family. It would ill become me, My Lord, to combat your opinion upon any point especially when the subject is involved in a Matter of Policy. I must console myself therefore, in the hope that some auspicious event may speedily operate to liberate my friend and his Companions from Captivity. Your Lordship can not but be sensible that had I felt lefs Disinterested upon the late occasion I sh'd have dropped all other Considerations to have attended to the wants of my family. The Rank to which Your Lordships kindnefs hath exalted me hath unavoidably induced a train of expences to which my present fortune is inadequate, under the Idea therefore of another promotion of flag Officers I might have been silent and looked forward to your Lordships patronage with the pleasing hope of obtaining the Colonelcy of Marines but I have studiously avoided every presumption of this Nature, rather depending upon Your Lordships bounty to bestow, than any pretensions to expect such favours.
I am etc etc
Lord Spencer's answer to this letter may have been, again, diplomatic. But there is no record of his having replied at all. Needless to say, Pellew was not made a colonel of marines at this time. As he was still in command of a fifth-rate, he needed a certain audacity to make the request.
From his friend Broughton he received an enthusiastic letter, which is worthy of quotation. (182)
24 Jan. 1797
MY VERY DEAR FRIEND
I returned home to-day from Belmont where we have been pafsing a long Christmas with a large Family party, and was rejoiced to find your truly welcome Letter giving me an account of your late Action, so glorious and providential. I hope Heaven will never be lefs propitious towards you - my fervent Prayers ever attend you my friend - you never sail without them. What a proud day it would have been for you and your gallant supporter had you been so fortunate as to have brought off the Frenchman, but the Minutes of the Action bear evidence of your exertions and that it was not pofsible for a mortal Enemy to do more - it must be your consolation, your pride, and your Country's pride that you sent him to Davy Jones. But what is become of the Amazon and your friend Capt. Reynolds - I hope he is arrived in safety.
The Newspapers announced the noble exploit according pretty nearly with your report, nothing detracting but paying all due honours to your fame and when I found my dear friend was well my Heart expanded at the account, and all the World shall record it, said I - at least this little World that I am now in, so we quaffed Libations to your health and our brave Indefatigable defenders. But when think you did this good News arrive - just at the moment that my son was going to be baptized, and blending your Name and benediction with mine I called him Edward Alexander. Yes, my friend, he is my second Son and though he made rather a forced march upon us, having arrived a fortnight before he was expected, and at some distance from Head Quarters, yet he is no unwelcome Recruit for all that - and you are his Godfather and I cannot help thinking that my Wife managed the matter on purpose, for somehow or other she is cruel fond of you, as they say in Devonshire.
I am in haste to save the Post and have only time to say God Almighty blefs you and yours, and that
I am ever truly and affectionately
your faithful friend
ALEX D. BROUGHTON
If you have an inclination to lay out some of your loose cash in the purchase of Canal shares I think I could put you in the way to advantage. You would have 5 pr Ct (%) at first . . . .
The action with Les Droits de l'Homme was celebrated in deathless verse, as well as by Broughton's libations. The verse was written by a seaman of the Amazon. This chapter may fittingly close with one or two extracts from the ballad. (183)
Come, all you
British seamen bold that plow the raging main,
Come listen to my tragedy while I relate the same;
Tis what we underwent all on the raging main
Bold Reynolds was our Commander in the ship called the Amazon.
It is not for several verses that the Indefatigable is mentioned.
weigh'd, our sails were set, our ship she seemed to fly;
It was the Indefatigable that bore us company.
This tardy mention is slightly patronizing. But the Indefatigable could not be left out of the last verse in the nature of things.
So now the
Indefatigable is bound for England's shore
To let our suffering country know the Amazon's no more.
Still, we'll drink to George our King, we'll convince him of the same,
That British tars for evermore rule lords of the main.
This exploit also found its way into our prose literature. The weary Captain Marryat made use of it to bring himself and his readers one chapter nearer the end of one of his interminable novels. It is not a good novel. It does not deserve the quotation accorded to the ballad of the Amazon.