Contents Back Chapter IX Home Exmouth
Edward Pellew - By Parkinson, C. Northcote, London, 1934
CHAPTER VIII - Combined Operations
The next question was what Province of France should bee first attempted. Some gave opinion for the hither, others for the further part ; at last it was resolved to undertake some such place in that Kingdom as might bee not farre of from Spaine, and for that Purpose, together with a puissant Fleets, to send a little army, which, by givinge the Enemy continuall Alarmes and Onsetts, in several places successively, might first weary and after dispose him the sooner to Peace. - Lord Herbert of Cherbury.
(226) WARS have usually to be fought out on land, sooner or later, and it must be admitted, therefore, that the expeditions of 1799 and 1800 were a step in the right direction. They showed that the rulers of England had begun dimly to realize some of the more elementary principles of war. They showed that the limitations of sea power had been recognized by somebody, and that the uselessness of paying other people to do all the fighting was becoming apparent to everybody. As a symptom of sanity, as a sign that experience was teaching a lesson which intelligence would not have needed, these forays are to be commended. It is clear, too, that the criticism of them implied in the catchphrase 'breaking windows with guineas' amounts to nothing. The smashing of one's enemy's windows is unlikely to bring about his death. So far the analogy is sound. The mistake is in supposing that guineas were the ammunition used. Except for the presents made to Chouans, descents on the French coast cost very little. The ships would have been there in any case. The troops would have been paid and fed in any case. An army had to be raised sooner or later, and the recruits destined to form it were as well employed marching and counter-marching in one place as in another. The choice was between paying men for camping at Shorncliffe and paying the same men for camping on Houat. And the latter alternative was preferable because it annoyed the French more. That the French might have been more annoyed had the raids been more intelligently directed is true. But this is a criticism of the raids actually made, not of the (227) policy of raiding. It is untrue to say that we broke windows with guineas. Only stones were used. The mistake was in aiming at the wrong windows, in missing the window aimed at, in using too large a stone which fell short, in using too small a stone which failed to do any damage. There are grounds enough for criticism without bringing up the question of expense. Little progress could be made with the war until Pitt was dead. It would have been well had these raids been his worst blunders.
It was Pellew's fate at this time to take part in two descents, both of which failed utterly. These episodes deserve especial attention in that they show him at his best. His competence shines out more clearly in failure than in success. His ability contrasts with the muddle-headed indecision of those with whom he acted.
While Pellew was with the fleet in Cawsand Bay there came the great news that the Channel fleet was to have a new commander-in-chief. Bridport was to be succeeded by Earl St. Vincent. His joy on this occasion found vent in a letter to Broughton.
Dec. 1st 1799
If I was only to consider the date of your last letter I should take shame to myself for not writing to you sooner-but I thought by its contents you would by this time be returned from your London excursion and the better able to enjoy your letters from your friends - the enjoyments and gaiety of London suit but ill with the correspondence of our friends - every moment there is filled up - and when that pleasure is only for a Month and that Month not often repeated by you and me - it is fair to give it a good swing and return to the Country with empty pockets and fatigued to death - I have had some hopes you would have met my brother as he is also in Town and wanted me very much to go with him and had I been allowed to put my Ship into Dock where she ought to have gone, I should in that case have cited leave of absence from my home and gone with him but this was refused me altho' the ship has not a bit of false keel and has besides received other injury in her bottom by running on shore before my time.
Your long double letter my dear Alex gave me great pleasure, as it was fully explanatory of all I wished to know and I hope you are in a fair way of recovering your money from that Jewish rascal Meares who really ought to be exposed and punished. If you have met with my brother he will have told you that my darling Susan has presented me with a (228) prodigious fine boy who is called after his papa, this was done before I reach'd home - for fear I should interfere upon it, there it is, you see how such Coolies as you and I are treated. Thank God Susan is perfectly well and both herself and Cub are going to undertake a journey to me here. The boy is five Weeks old. I hope your good little Womans Sister has been equally fortunate with us. Susan was never better and down stairs in a fortnight.
Your friend Dick I have sent to Chudleigh School while we were refitting and I have had very good accounts of him from the Master. I hope he will do well both for his own sake and mine. I have never heard any more of the circumstances and conclude it has blown away.
You will have heard that we are to have a New Commander in Chief, heaven be praised. The old one is scarcely worth drowning, a more contemptible or more miserable animal does not exist. I believe there never was a Man so universally despised by the whole Service. A mixture of Ignorance, avarice and spleen. I certainly do not deserve to hear from you these two months but I hope I shall because I know you are of a forgiving Disposition - present me affectionately to all your dear Cubs and my dear Mrs. B - tell her I long to see her, we shall very soon call ourselves old friends born in the last Century. Adieu, Pownoll unites with me in affectionate Regard.
believe me truly yours E. PELLEW
Earlier in the year there had been some talk of a landing at Brest to destroy the fleet there, and Warren and Pellew had been consulted with a view to deciding on a suitable landing-place. But during the winter the Government's wavering policy veered round, so that the new century began with another attempt to foster a rebellion in France.
On January 9th 1800, l'Impetueux sailed from Cawsand Bay, reaching Falmouth on the 11th. And now, for nearly a month, Pellew saw a little of that independent world he had known so well. With a frigate and a cutter in company, he left Falmouth on the 12th and proceeded to Quiberon Bay, where five more frigates and smaller craft joined him. He was there landing arms for the use of the Chouans until February 3rd. He was back in Cawsand Bay by the 19th, and in Torbay and with the fleet by March 12th. Four days later the fleet was off Ushant, twenty-seven strong with four frigates. Service with the fleet was no longer intolerable since the change in the chief command. Nor was it at this time prolonged.
On April 25th the fleet returned to its station off Ushant (229) after a short stay at Torbay during the middle of the month. St. Vincent had, as soon as he arrived, put Pellew with the inshore squadron. On May 5th a detachment of the Brest fleet came out and was nearly brought to action. It will be seen from the following letter describing the affair that the arrival of Lord St. Vincent had meant a much closer blockade of the port.
Brest Bay May 12th 1800
I dare say you have been for a long time astonished that you have not heard from me since the late changes in the Fleet. You were aware I should rejoice most cordially in losing the old Lady Bridport, and I believe the joy has been universal both on shore and in the Fleet. Lord St.Vincent hitherto has been invisible, at least to me who have been happy enough to become one of the detached Squadron to watch our good friends at Brest, and about 8 days ago we were very near bringing 8 Sail of their Line to Action and had they not very shabbily given us the point we should I flatter myself have drag'd our opponent out by the hair of His Head. They came out and drove our Frigates off in order to cover in a Convoy at Anchor outside Point St. Mathew. We drove them back in their turn without their errand - the Fleet seemed all ready and the [wind] was fair for their detaching Ship after Ship to their afsistance so that I hoped if we could force them once to begin, a General Action might have been bro't on at last between the Whole Fleets - Our Gallant Earl was close in the bay among the Rocks waiting for them but alas no, they were better advised and have now hauled 9 Sail of the Line and 2 Spanish Frigates into Port for Docking, and to a certainty all the troops they had embarked have been called for by Bonaparte - so that I think all will be quiet and harmlefs on our side for the Summer and from every appearance the End of the Campaign will bring no peace, than wch nothing can be more welcome to you Salt Manufacturers. You say my worthy friend you have some thoughts of removing from Staffs and of looking out for some spot in Devon - wait till the War Ends and go with me to France. We think of Emigrating towards the South and looking for a Chateau under the Pyrenees - about Tarbes or Pau, wch is a delightful part and fortunate enough to have been undisturbed by Jacobins. And I think you may find Winter Qrs in a ready furnished House in many pleasant spots between Torbay and Weymouth tho' I shall be extremely sorry to see you obliged to move for health only, as you say such journeys are very expensive. My Susan is at present in such a situation at Brixham, Torbay, (230) where the Summer is pleasant enough, Winter bad enough. Emma leaves . . . in June and I have hopes we may all be . . . at Torbay, our cub is there . . . . I hope by this time dear Mrs B. has one by her side, dispose of my name as you think proper, if you call the boy Obediah I shall be equally fond of him for his Fathers sake as well as his Mothers . . . . [torn]
. . . give me your sentiments on the propriety of my getting into St. Stephens Chapel, is it an object for an honest Officer if at small expense and what advantage. Adieu.
For one so partial to his relatives and fellow-Cornishmen, Pellew was very little attached to any locality. When he came to buy land he viewed the matter with considerable detachment, considered a number of possibilities, and eventually settled down outside Cornwall. But this proposal to settle m France was probably half in jest. It must have originated in talk with his friend Bergeret, who came from the Midi. Only the fascination that part of the world has since exercised on his direct descendants prevents one supposing that this suggestion was altogether frivolous.
On May 30th Earl St. Vincent sent for Pellew and put him in command of the squadron destined to carry out the first of the descents on the French coast. The plan was to land a body of English troops in Quiberon Bay in order to stimulate the Chouans to fresh exertion. The Royalists were no longer very numerous, but the Chouan leaders were still at large and the English Government was still in touch with them. The arms landed by Pellew in the winter had been a sort of ground-bait, a preparation for action in the spring and summer. A second object of the expedition was to capture Belle isle. Keppel had taken it in 1761, which showed that it could be taken. And now there was an additional incentive for taking it, in that the Chouans would be encouraged by the proximity of an English garrison and a sure place of refuge. Whether they were worth encouraging, and whether there was any justification for leaving a large force to hold the island for their encouragement, is doubtful. From other points of view, however, the island had its uses. Its capture would irritate the French; and the island would be a pawn for the diplomats to play with when the war ended. As a window to be smashed, Belle isle was insignificant. But it was a window the French could not easily repair.
Transports carrying some four thousand soldiers had already joined the fleet, and on the 31st General Maitland, (231) who was in command of the troops, came on board the Impetueux. The expedition sailed on that day, six men-of-war, four transports, and a cutter. General Georges Cadoudal joined on June 1st, and the ships came into Quiberon Bay and anchored there on the 3rd. It was soon apparent that nothing was to be expected from the Chouans,
PLAY TO ILLUSTRATE THE PROPOSED DESCENT ON BELLE ILE
if only because there were not enough of them. A few small craft in the Morbihan were destroyed, and a battery of two 24-pounders was duly spiked with the loss of one man. Apart from the Chouan leaders with the expedition, hardly any Royalists appeared. So the attempt was very rightly abandoned. The first object of the expedition was unattainable. Pellew and Maitland were now free to concentrate on the second and more important object, the taking of Belle isle.
(232) Unfortunately, the force intended to act with the more or less non-existent Chouan armies was insufficient for a single-handed attack on a fortified island. The first thing to be done was to obtain more ships and more troops. The troops already there were landed on the island of Houat to await reinforcements. This was on the 7th. Four days later a reconnaissance was made of the possible landing-places on Belle isle.
The additional ships Pellew demanded were readily granted him. On June 15th, Lord St. Vincent wrote to Lord Spencer to state that the force asked for did not appear excessive to him.
Paris, off Ushant
15th June, 1800
. . . When I reflect that Commodore Keppel with ten ships of the line, eight frigates, three bomb-vessels, two fire-ships, and a number of cutters, with very many flat boats, suffered great loss and was repulsed in his first attempt to land, and afterwards received a reinforcement of five ships of the line and several frigates, I do not think Sir Edward Pellew was much over the mark in his schedule; he probably expected his bill to be taxed, and made it out accordingly. I am much pleased with the manner he has disposed of his force, and there cannot be a doubt of his achieving the descent if practicable.
[N.R.S. Vol. lviii.]
While preparations were going forward for the attack on Belle isle, efforts were made to draw the attention of the enemy to other parts of the coast. Sir John Borlase Warren made a demonstration against the forts in Benaudet Bay which 'most certainly frightened and alarmed the whole district, and may occasion some troops to be moved this way.' At the same time Warren expressed his doubts whether Pellew would succeed with so few troops. He also thought that L'Orient would have been a better place to attack. His proposals to attack Brest may have been self-centred, as he feared that any further watching of that port 'will kill us all;' but he was almost certainly right in saying that Belle isle was the wrong objective.
After some hesitation, Maitland agreed to make the attack with the 4,000 bayonets he already had, without waiting for reinforcements. More troops were on their way, but delay was dangerous as the French were becoming suspicious. It was decided to make the landing on June 19th. This (233) decision was belated, but it was a triumph for Pellew. To make a Scotch general decide on anything is no easy task; to do so without offending his native and professional pride is all but impossible. And this is what Pellew had done.
The arrangements for the landing can only be described as brilliant. Few men could have planned the affair so well. Fewer still, having planned it, could have left the general with the impression that he had arranged it all himself. Combined operations usually lead to a hearty dislike of each other among those taking part. The sailor's contempt for the landsman clashes with the soldier's hatred for those who have seen him being sea-sick. It should never be forgotten of Pellew that he made lifelong friends of at least two of the soldiers with whom he co-operated, and was on excellent terms with a third as long as the affair lasted. Not many naval officers of his day could say as much.
Although combined operations have the disadvantage of putting a very considerable strain on the tempers of all concerned, they have one very real advantage. They can take the enemy by surprise. There is nothing, that is to say, in the nature of this form of enterprise which tends, of itself, to prevent a surprise taking place. The enemy may find out about the expedition before it sails through the treachery or loquacity of a Cabinet Minister. But if the Cabinet is tolerably honest and silent, all should be well; and if the Cabinet knows nothing about it, all will quite certainly be well. For those destined to make the landing need not know where they are going until they are at sea. And once they are at sea they will have no one to tell it to. The enemy may, of course, guess where the expedition is to go. The only remedy for this is to assist him to guess wrongly, which should not be difficult. On the whole, the nature of a combined operation is altogether in favour of surprise.
Now, the combined operation of Pellew's day was favourably circumstanced, as regards surprise, in two other respects. Spying was sometimes inefficient, so that the enemy did not even know that the troops were embarked . And, even when spying was efficient, the news might come too late to be of any use. Command of the sea, therefore, gave England every opportunity of attacking France unexpectedly in any coastwise part, and the further France extended itself the longer became the coast-line open to attack. The most brilliant use might have been made of this opportunity but for two unfortunate facts: one being (234) that we had no generals capable of leading an army; the other being that we had no army for the incapable generals to lead. It must be remembered, nevertheless, that the opportunity for surprise existed, and that surprises actually took place. The fact that, in the two instances about to be described, the astonishment of the enemy at our arrival was more than equalled by his astonishment at our departure, must not obscure an advantage inherent in the enterprise.
A combined operation has the advantage of tactical as well as strategical surprise. Whether the embarking of an army is or is not kept secret, the army itself is invisible as long as it is on board the ships. Even when the defenders of a particular stretch of coast-line have a hostile fleet before their eyes, and are fully aware that an army is embarked in it, they still do not know which ships have troops on board and which have not. And their ignorance of this may prove fatal to them. Montcalm made this discovery at Quebec - a discovery that killed him.
Belle isle was strategically surprised by Pellew's unexpected arrival in Palais Roads. The garrison had not been reinforced in anticipation of attack; and, once he was there, reinforcement became very difficult. It was his plan to arrange a further, tactical, surprise by putting the troops on shore where the French least expected to see them. To do this it was merely necessary to shift the soldiers from one ship to another without the French seeing him do it - a simple matter. This done, he had only to threaten them at one point with loud noises and large, but empty, ships; while the troops landed, without ostentation, at another point.
It is impossible to say exactly how many vessels Pellew had at his disposal for this enterprise, owing to the indeterminate number of small craft and transports which joined him after his arrival in Quiberon Bay. In the main, however, the strength of his force is known. He had six ships of the line, the original number he had brought from the fleet, seven frigates, four troop-ships armed en flûte, several transports, a gun-vessel and a few cutters and chasse-marées. The troops under the brigadier amounted to rather over four thousand effectives with eleven field-pieces and eight howitzers. To these were added 600 marines and fifty sailors.
Had the expedition been taking place a lifetime earlier a proportion of both soldiers and seamen would certainly have died before the landing could be effected. But Pellew took (235) no risks of this kind. The troops were not kept on board ship any longer than was necessary. They were made to camp on Houat, where stores were landed for them from day to day. Throughout the squadron lemon-juice and sugar was served out almost daily, so that the men remained perfectly healthy. As regards the troops, this was their only virtue. Colonel Maitland-his rank of brigadier was only local - rather put his trust in the marines.
Information about Belle isle and its defences was scanty and unreliable. The Chouans said that there were at least four thousand men defending the island - some thought that there were as many as eight thousand. Both the larger and smaller figures were probably wild guesses by civilians who knew nothing about it, but the English had no other information on the subject. Assuming that the lowest estimate was roughly correct, it was rightly decided that an immediate attack on the fortress of Palais would certainly fail from lack of numbers. A reinforcement of about two thousand men was, however, expected shortly. It was Maitland's object to land his 4,000 men, gain a foothold, anal wait for the rest of the troops. When these had arrived, he would have nearly seven thousand men and could begin to besiege Palais. The coast of the island was not everywhere suitable for making a landing, and there were batteries placed on the headlands to defend the more obvious landing places; so that the landing would be resisted. On the other hand, the scattering of the French forces along the shore would be an advantage to the assailants once they were on the island. It was necessary, first and foremost, to keep the French scattered, so as to secure this advantage and prevent their having a large force to resist the landing.
Now, the sheltered side of Belle isle has three possible landing-places, each corresponding to a village. There is Havre de Palais in the middle, which was out of the question ; Sable de Saumzum near the southern end of the island; and the Rade de Sauzon at the northern end. There is also a place at the southern end called Port de Lomaria, and an exposed bay at the northern end called Havre de Vieux Chateau. It was decided to make a feigned attack on the Sable de Saumzum, simultaneously landing the whole force at the other end of the island to take Sauzon. This, the real attack, was to be delivered by the main body of troops landing 'on that part of the coast which lays between Pt. Canal and a small sandy bay near a mile to the northward of it,' supported by two outflanking attacks. (236) One of these last was to be delivered by a small party landing near the place of the main attempt, so as to take the defenders in the rear; the other was on a larger scale, to be delivered by the marines landing at Havre de Vieux Chateau and marching to attack Sauzon from the landward side.
As the smaller of the two diversions was to take place close to the principal landing place, it was regarded, from the naval point of view, as a part of the main attack. Pellew had, therefore, three separate movements to direct; a feint attack on Saumzum, the main landing near Sauzon, and a minor landing in Havre de Vieux Chateau. To carry out these three schemes, he divided his squadron into as many parts and allocated one to each sector.
The first division was to be 'the apparent strength of the squadron.' It naturally included all the troop-ships and transports; the Diadem (64), Europa (50), Inconstant (36), and Cyclops (28), being the former, while the Adventure and Alligator were among the latter. None of these carried any troops, and the captains, boats, and some of the crew of each were used elsewhere. With this division were the Impetueux and Ajax, the two biggest ships of the line, the Diamond frigate (38), and a number of chasse-marées from Hedic and Houat. This division of perhaps a dozen sail was to be placed opposite Sable de Saumzum, and, at a specified time towards the middle of the night, was to bombard the whole coast from Palais as far as Pte. de Lomaria.
While this sudden uproar along the southern coast of the island was attracting the garrison's attention, the real landings were to take place at the other end. The third division, consisting of the Brilliant and Thames frigates, the Cynthia sloop, and the Furieux gun-vessel, with a number of armed and unarmed launches and longboats, and carrying the 600 marines under the command of Captain Lukin, was to have gone round the northern end of the island and attacked Havre de Vieux Chateau. For the second division Pellew prepared the most detailed instructions. It was to consist of four ships of the line, the Terrible, Ramillies, Canada, and Captain; four frigates, Amethyst, Stag, Amelia, and Magicienne ; two or three cutters and a chasse-marées, twenty-one flat-boats and a host of armed and unarmed ships' cutters and launches. The landing was to be very highly organized, every detail being thought out beforehand. It was to be under the immediate direction of Captain Sir Thomas Livingstone, Bart., assisted (237) by Captains Nicholas and Brisbane, but all signals and orders during the attack would be given from the Vesper cutter, in which Pellew and Maitland were to embark.
The troops were divided into three battalions for the purposes of the landing, and were intended to land in three successive waves. The first battalion, of 1,200 men, was to be divided between the Terrible, Ramillies, and Canada, two or three days before the attack, and as far as possible was to remain concealed on board. The ships were to
PLAN TO ILLUSTRATE THE PROPOSED DESCENT ON BELLE ILE
remain in full view of Belle isle during the days previous to the attack, and the troops were to be brought secretly from Houat by cutters, so that the French should continue to assume that the troops were in the troop-ships. Each of these three ships of the line had seven flat-boats, and it was intended that the troops should be put on board these between ii p.m. and midnight on the night of the attack. The flat-boats had to be loaded simultaneously, six at a time - 'two on each side and two from the stern ports, to do which a lower deck gun opposite the boat is to be removed and a gangway ladder to be hung to the port for the troops to get in by.' Pellew, who forgot nothing, was careful to (238) add that two seamen were to be placed 'to receive their arms and give them again when the men seat themselves.'
The flat-boats were to be drawn up in order, with a number of armed boats on either flank to give the troops cross covering fire as they landed. But not a shot was to be fired unless the enemy fired first - 'it is to be performed if possible without the discharge of a single gun.' If, however, the gunboats were forced to cover the landing, a signal to cease fire was to be given as soon as the troops were on shore.
As soon as the flat-boats had moved off to the attack, the second wave of troops was to follow. This was to consist of 1,600 infantrymen, 200 artillerymen, eleven field-pieces and eight howitzers. The infantry were to be loaded into eight cutters, in which they would come direct from Houat; two cutters would carry the artillery and ammunition, assisted by a chasse-marée for the field-pieces; and another cutter, the Telemachus, was to be filled with entrenching tools. This, the second wave, was to be under the direction of Captain Ogilvy and Captain Fyffe; and it was to form two sections, one led by Captain Winthrop, the other by Captain Bowen. The cutters were intended to anchor close inshore, ready to support the flatboats.
The reserve of troops forming the third battalion was 1,000 strong and was to be equally distributed between the four frigates, Amethyst, Stag, Amelia and Magicienne. These were to follow the cutters in and anchor so as to protect them. Seawards of the frigates would be the three ships of the line, without troops, but ready to weigh or slip their cables at a moment's notice and move in to support the frigates with their fire.
Pellew planned everything to the last detail. The lieutenants and master's mates commanding the flat-boats would receive final instructions from Sir Thomas Livingstone before putting off. Boats carrying troops had to have their guns and slides removed. 'Every gunboat is to be furnished with as much plank as the ships can find, in order to lay under the wheels of the artillery when dragging over the sand. Each flat-boat is to be provided with two gang-boards two feet wide.'
As a finishing touch to the arrangements, the remaining ship of the line, the Captain, was to weigh anchor the moment the troops had landed or were under fire, and move to bombard the battery defending the harbour at Sauzon. In the event of that battery being silenced, the Captain was to anchor in a position for covering the left flank of the (239) landing party. If the silencing of the battery proved impossible, she was to move along the shore between Sauzon and Pte. Taillefer and engage the batteries so as to prevent the French concentrating to dispute the landing. The right flank of the landing party did not need covering for two reasons; one being that there was no French post northward of Sauzon, so that a flank attack from that side was unlikely; the other being that an effort was to be made there to outflank the French. This last landing was to be made by Captain Ayscough and fifty sailors and a party of light infantry. The sailors, who were to be in blue with white scarves on their left arms, were intended to scramble up the cliffs, work round the left flank of the defending troops, and attack their trenches in the rear. While the main landing was taking place, the marines were to march overland from Havre de Vieux Chateau to Sauzon. The final effect should have been for the French to be driven from the shore to fall back on Sauzon - into the arms of Captain Lukin, who was timed to arrive there before them. The one thing the most perfect organization could not ensure was fine weather on the night of the 19th.
23rd June, 1800
The General had prepared everything for our attack on the 19th, but unfortunately it blew so hard no movement could take place, and, as he will explain, the night of the 20th brought an aide-de-camp from Georges after which he judges it not proper to risk the attack without more troops, and under all the circumstances I think he is right, although I wish from my heart the messenger had been drowned; however, I hope delay will not injure the cause, but render it more secure; it checks the order a little, but we have the means of setting it afloat again very effectually. I have high reason to be pleased with everybody round me, both afloat and on shore, and am satisfied we shall not only pull together but with strength and effect. The enemy are busy as bees; but I believe truly unsuspicious of the point of attack. I did and do promise myself complete success from Lukin's party of marines . . . they are 600 strong and full of spirits. I wish I could say so much of certain Regiments, but they shall be goaded on . . . . I am distressed by the account of the diabolical disposition of the. . . no appearances whatever show themselves here. I will find enough for them to employ their minds upon, without mischief and prompt resistance is ready for them if they dare begin. I am in hourly hopes of seeing troops arrive and (240) decided action commence, in which I trust your Lordship will be satisfied we shall bear a manly and honourable part.
I am, my Lord, with unceasing thankfulness for your kindness to me,
Lordship's most obliged
and most devoted servant
[N.R.S. Vol. lviii.]
The tragedy contained in this letter to Lord St. Vincent needs some explanation. The A.D.C. from Georges Cadoudal came to warn Maitland that the French had at least seven thousand men to defend Belle isle. This information, whether true or not, was enough to frighten Maitland into waiting for reinforcements. In spite of the general's initial inability to 'make up his mind on the business,' reinforcements were actually on their way to him. But the whole plan was endangered by delay and Pellew knew it, although the above letter shows that he had not lost hope. To begin with, the troops were mutinous, untrained, and undisciplined and did not improve with keeping. Then there was a chance of the enemy managing to throw reinforcements into Belle isle. Worst of all was the chance of the Government changing its mind. This last was the greatest danger. Pellew could provide against the other possibilities - he knew how to make up his colleague's mind for him, how to blockade Belle isle, how to deal with a mutiny. But he could not strive against the folly of Pitt and Dundas. Pellew did not know it but the chance of success had gone. Vacillation and delay had begun to kill the expedition.
Many men would have despaired at this point; and still more would have quarrelled with Maitland. Pellew did neither. Although he was tactful enough to write: 'The General had prepared everything . . .' and 'It is the General's intentions that . . .' he had himself been the driving spirit of the enterprise from the first. He was now determined that his work should not be wasted. He would take Belle isle in spite of everything. He would not be defeated by bad weather, a wavering Government, a Scotch general, and half-useless troops. He would stay there until it was taken. And in the meanwhile he remained on good terms with the general.
On ,June 24th, Maitland wrote to Lord St. Vincent from the Island of Houat
. . . I hope your Lordship will not think it presumption in me simply to express my feelings with respect to Sir Edward (241) Pellew. Much as he has been employed as an efficient officer, his talents for general arrangement have not hitherto been called into action.
In every point, however, connected with military operations he seems as distinguished as he is for personal gallantry and professional knowledge.
It is my duty to state this much for I have found the good effects of it . . . .
[N.R.S. Vol. lviii.]
Talented amateurs are the bane of the military profession, and it was generous of Maitland to write this. Without having read any books on tactics and fortification, Pellew was the better soldier of the two in that he possessed a military virtue which Maitland lacked - readiness to take responsibility. He also possessed another virtue which has its uses - readiness to fight.
On receiving these letters from Pellew and Maitland, St. Vincent enclosed them both with a letter of his own to Lord Spencer.
Paris, near Ushant
25th June, 1800
I have this instant received the enclosed from Sir E. Pellew and Brig.-General Maitland, and I am not in the smallest degree surprised at the doubts therein hinted about the troops, the brigading of them immediately after their return from Holland (I mean those formed out of the Militia) having prevented any improvement being made in them during the winter and spring . . . unfortunately the whole infantry of the Country is in the same state and totally unfit for a service of hardy enterprise . . . .
[N.R.S. Vol. lviii.]
St. Vincent wrote again on the following day.
Paris, off Ushant
26th June, 1800
The disposition made by Sir Edward Pellew for the descent on a certain spot is the most masterly I ever saw. Your Lordship shall have it by the next conveyance . . . . Although the naval command in Quiberon Bay may appear too important for a captain, I shall not divest Sir Edward of it, unless I am ordered so to do, feeling a thorough conviction that no man in his Majesty's Navy, be his rank ever so high, will fit it so well. The enemy is certainly intent upon throwing troops into the (242) island and malgre the vigilance of Sir Edward and the chosen band under his orders, will succeed in some degree; the enclosed from Brigadier Maitland will confirm the opinion you have formed of his colleague . . . .
[N.R.S. Vol. lviii.]
By the time this last letter was written it had ceased to matter whether the French should or should not succeed in reinforcing their garrison at Palais. For orders had arrived on the 21st, from Dundas, directing Maitland to send all his troops to Minorca. Pellew embarked the whole force and saw the transports sail on the evening of the 23rd. This proceeding alarmed the French 'and the whole coast and Island were illuminated all night long, expecting to be attacked.' But this was small consolation for Pellew, who had planned how to give them ground for alarm. He was certain that there were only 5,000 men on Belle isle, and certain that he could have taken the island; 'how can I, my Lord, cease to regret that our intentions at that moment were frustrated ! I much fear both the General and myself will have to lament the fatal arrival of Georges' messenger.' They speedily had other cause for lamentation. Two days after the troops had gone, a second order came from Dundas which practically countermanded the first; and a few days later there appeared the reinforcements they had been waiting for. These, 1,700 strong, were to be landed on Houat in their turn - to await yet further reinforcements. The object was no longer, however, the taking of Belle isle. The possibility of an attempt on Ferrol was already under discussion.
Even now, Pellew did not give up hope. With dogged determination, he began a fresh reconnaissance of the island. He had seen, from the lights shown on the night of the 23rd, that the French were defending the east side of Belle isle with all their force. So he now planned a new scheme for a landing on the seaward side. All this was eminently characteristic of him. But his work was wasted. Even St. Vincent, who was strongly opposed to the Ferrol landing, thought that the time had gone by for the capture of Belle isle.
Paris, off Ushant
4th July, 1800
I enclose a letter I have just received from Sir Edward Pellew who perseveres in a manner that does him infinite credit; the moment, if ever there was one, is I fear lost, and (243) the troops coming by driblets will be much discouraged before the attempt is made. I wish most heartily the whole force could have been sent within a shorter space of time . . . .
On the day this letter was written to Lord Spencer, Maitland received orders to return to England, leaving the troops at Houat; and, two days later, the Impetueux sailed for Plymouth.
On his way home, Pellew wrote to Broughton, saying nothing about the Belle isle scheme, which was supposed to be secret, but expressing himself freely concerning the Chouans, whose leaders he was taking back to England.
July 6th 1800
Plym'th July 19th - just arrived
MY DEAR ALEX
I am scribbling you a chit on our way to England as I know when we arrive I shall have so much writing that it will be perfectly tiresome. I am very sorry to find that disinclination to writing increased every day, but so it is that I believe on my Conscience Six Months retirement in the Country and no soul out of the House will know whether I was dead or alive. We are returning from Quiberon where I have been with a Squadron at Anchor above three weeks - altho a superior force lay ready for Sea only 8 Leagues from us. We have been feeding Royalists, alias Chouans - alias Mecontents - alias banditti and alias Rascals who care not one Curse for all the Princes on Earth, and who provided Mafs be sung, care not a rush who Governs France and I am satisfied it can never come to any Thing. The Lower orders want only quiet and relief from Vexations, the Priests their old gewgaws, the Chiefs to become great Men - and the Émigrés an opportunity of erasing their names from the fatal lists and re-glifsen with good Estates, and all together wish for John Bull to come over to play the first fiddle whilst they play Bafs - alias basely withal - They have now made what they term a Peace platree at the expense I fear of all we have landed wch is 20,000 Musqts Compleat, 7 field pieces, Powder boucoup, Clothes etc etc and L'argent a ship load - tant pis. Thank God my Cargo is going Home again, none of the parties being. able to get down to the Coast - the Universal cry is for the Prince but really I see no use in his coming, the Country of the Mecontents (a new name they choose) is bare land, no body of men can live in it. And I believe the whole that can be afsembled will not make 40,000 Men, but it is impossible to get them together and when they are there can be no dependance. If Bonaparte (244) allows of peace with their Arms I think they will be up . . . Bonaparte has already gain'd the Priests and be afsured it is not so much a Royal party as it is Catholique, probably I shall be here again. I have now a Ship full of Generals, Barons, Counts and Chevaliers and next I conclude myself Lord in Waiting to the Princes. I am cursed sick - poor Dick has been very near Kicking, great care and nursing has bro't him about . . . [passage carefully erased] . . . we got to Ply., where Susan, George & Edward are, Pownoll is with me and goes on I hope well - give my kindest love to Mrs. B. and kifs the Cubs and ever believe my dear Alex
Pellew was not destined to be in England for long. He had to return to Quiberon Bay almost immediately, to protect the forlorn detachment encamped on Houat. There were rumours of fire ships being fitted out at Bordeaux, and it was feared that these might be used against Pellew's squadron. The English had used fire ships in a recent attack on Dunkirk, and it was thought that this 'may have put it into their heads.' Risks of this kind were so real that St. Vincent wanted the troops withdrawn from Houat in case he should have to expose them by being driven into Torbay. The Government had other plans.
By the beginning of August St. Vincent was informed that Lieut. General Sir James Pulteney was on his way out to join him, with a view to making an attack on Ferrol. So impressed had the Earl been with Pellew's skilful arrangements for attacking Belle isle, that he wished him to command in the attempt on Ferrol.
5th August, 1800
Your Lordship may rest satisfied that Sir James Pulteney shall be put in possession of all the sense and knowledge I have upon every subject connected with his mission, and that I will contribute all in my power to the success of it, to which effect I am confident the continuance of Sir Edward Pellew in the naval command is most essential; he greatly excels Sir J. Warren in seamanship and arrangement, and is equal to him in enterprise.
Touching the Rear-Admirals here, I never can be brought to say that they are so fit for the business in question as the person already fixed upon . . . .
[ N.R.S. Vol. lviii.]
(245) Sir James Pulteney arrived soon after this letter was written; but Pellew was not to be his colleague. Spencer insisted that a rear-admiral should command the expedition, and St. Vincent accordingly appointed Sir John Borlase Warren, who had recently attained that rank. He did so without a great deal of confidence, and asked at the same time for a promotion to the flag such as would include Thornborough and Saumarez - he could rely upon none of the present rear-admirals for work with the inshore squadron.
That there was much to be said for Spencer's point of view in refusing to allow Pellew to command at Ferrol was shown by subsequent events. He was far too junior a captain for the post. Captains senior to him were already angry at his being given the command in Quiberon Bay, and Lord Bridport had left the fleet without the discipline necessary to make them keep their feelings to themselves. St. Vincent had given him this command because he knew the coast better than any one else, not because of his ability. Realization of Pellew's merit had come to him on seeing the plan for the landing on Belle isle. Pellew was obviously the man to take Ferrol. Unfortunately, the argument concerning local knowledge did not hold good in this case. And, in making appointments according to ability, St. Vincent was overlooking the rights of seniority. There was a demonstration of this even after Warren's appointment.
14th August, 1800
MY DEAR LORD
A Captain commanding a squadron in this department has no authority, the captains having lived together, hail fellows well met, and there having been neither discipline nor subordination in the squadron. No service can be carried on with energy unless there is a distinction of rank in the commanding officer. Sir Edward Pellew has been treated with the most abominable disrespect by two captains your Lordship little suspects, and if they do not make the amende honorable I will subject them to a court martial; others of his squadron were offended because Sir Edward found it necessary to hold his head up - in short, my dear Lord, the adding sixteen or eighteen admirals to your list, to get at the only two men fit to command at the advanced post, which I will cover if necessary, will meet with universal approbation, particularly from the representatives of the people, who are always ready to vote money for the Navy . . . .
(N.R.S. Vol. lix.]
(246) The troubles Pellew might experience with fellow-captains did not deter St. Vincent from giving him the command of a detachment as long as he commanded the fleet. Pellew was out of his element in the line of battle. Besides, he knew the French coast as few other men knew it. Sir John Borlase Warren and Sir James Saumarez were also well acquainted with the coast; but the first would not, the second could not stand the strain of blockading work.
The attack on Ferrol formed a part of a general scheme for destroying the Spanish navy at its moorings, so as to do away with the necessity of blockading it. An army was to land and take Ferrol, remove or burn the squadron there, re-embark, and then proceed to do the same at Vigo and Cadiz. The plan was admirable. So were many of the plans produced by Pitt and his friends. The mischief lay in the multitude of excellent plans. The ministers hesitated between the different schemes. They spent months trying to decide which to adopt. Then they tried to carry out all the plans simultaneously. Finally, they failed to carry out any of them.
It is the pastime of the military historian to decide what exactly the English army should have been doing throughout all the first years of the French wars. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what it did mattered nothing compared with the way in which it was done. Most of the plans might have succeeded had they been undertaken whole-heartedly. The trouble was not so much the dispersion of troops as the cautious use of them. Whatever there was to be said for the policy of breaking windows, there was nothing to be said for pondering over what window to break first. Since windows were to be broken, it was obviously best to break as many as possible as quickly as possible. The time spent by ministers with their heads in their hands trying to decide which window to break first would have sufficed for breaking all of them. The first necessity was to concentrate on one window at a time. The second necessity was to select the right stone and throw it hard. The third necessity was to realize that a stone sent through a pane of glass seldom comes back. In the attempt to take Ferrol, all three essentials were neglected.
The whole scheme, as already outlined, betrays an inability to grasp the first and last essentials. To send one force to make more than one attack was, in itself, a blunder. It meant hampering the general with instructions of the most ambiguous kind. It involved the assumption that (247) the force would be intact after the first attack had taken place. Above all, it shifted all responsibility on to the general by making it needful for him to disobey part of his orders, and by leaving him to decide what part of his orders to disobey. Pulteney was gravely instructed to take Ferrol without losing any men repeat this miracle at Vigo and Cadiz, and then proceed unscathed to the Mediterranean. Dundas, whose ordering it was, thus left Pulteney to take all the responsibility. He could disobey his instructions by incurring losses at Ferrol or he could disobey his instructions by failing to attack Ferrol. To obey such orders was quite impossible. Yet it must not be thought that they were drafted carelessly. On the contrary they were worded with extreme care. In the avoiding of responsibility Dundas was expert. Nearly all his orders were issued in the same style.
It has now been shown that inability to concentrate on one window, combined with determination that the stone should return, had prevented the Government throwing it with any vigour. The next point to discuss is whether the stone was of the right size, and whether it was the proper kind of stone.
The troops detailed for the landing at Ferrol were probably fifteen thousand strong. The rendezvous was Quiberon Bay where Pellew was still mounting guard over the four battalions encamped on Houat. To these 1,700 bayonets were to be added some nine thousand more from Minorca, including the battalions sent there when the attempt on Belle isle was abandoned, and various other detachments, mainly from Ireland. As a part of the troops from Ireland never arrived, the army was actually only 13,000 strong when the landing took place. Now, this force was at once too large and too small. It was a compromise between the force necessary for a coup de main and the force necessary for a siege. For a swift dash at Ferrol, a surprise attack, 5,000 would have been ample. If that number could not take it by assault, there was no reason to suppose that more men would make the result any different. On the other hand, fifteen or thirteen thousand was insufficient for a siege. To besiege Ferrol it would have been necessary to have one army to entrench itself round the town and another army to fight the forces which would be sent to relieve it. Even Dundas must have known this. So we may assume that Pulteney was expected to make a surprise attack that the place was to be taken by assault. For this purpose, (248) the number of men was excessive, which might cause delay and throw away the element of surprise. Perhaps, however, doubts were entertained of the general's ability. The policy of giving a bad general a double allowance of troops on the assumption that he will mislay half of them on the way to battle is understandable. But it is probably better in the end to find another general.
This brings us to the final question of whether Pulteney was the right man to send on such an enterprise. Was he the man to take Ferrol despite his instructions ? He was not. And to understand why he was not it is necessary to know that his real name was Murray, and that he was as Scotch as Maitland. Now, Scotland tends to fill the English army with a certain type of general more fit for some kinds of service than others. There have doubtless been exceptions, but the majority of these worthy officers have always placed a reliance on professional knowledge which results have not often justified. It would be untrue to say that such men are merely peace-time soldiers. But it would be near the truth to say that they are most useful as subordinates. Cautious professionalism may have its uses but it seldom hastens the end of the war. The Scotch generals which a Scotch Secretary for War insisted on employing in the first part of the French wars rarely showed much enterprise. This is not to say that they were all cowards. But a man who could defend a besieged town with obstinacy is not always fit to command a forlorn hope.
Pulteney, in short, may not have been a bad general but was certainly not the man to take Ferrol. The blame rests on Dundas for giving scope to Pulteney's misplaced caution, not on Pulteney for evading a responsibility improperly placed on him.
Here, then, we have the materials for tragedy. The wrong general is sent with a force of the wrong size to carry out ambiguous orders which no one could obey in furtherance of a strategy which few can appreciate. With such materials, a heroic defeat was as unlikely as a brilliant victory. All that could be expected was an ignoble miscarriage.
Warren had appeared off Ushant 'in the very nick of time to become colleague to Sir James Pulteney' at the end of the first week in August. The general, the army from Minorca, and some reinforcements from England had already joined the fleet. After the troops had been inspected by Earl St. Vincent, and after a conference had been held with (249) Captain Hood, who knew Ferrol, Sir John Borlase Warren set off for Quiberon Bay. He had under his orders four sail of the line besides his flagship, the Renown, and a fleet of transports. Reaching the rendezvous on August 16th, he found Pellew with two sail of the line and seven frigates and sloops. The junction of the two squadrons brought the total number of warships up to fourteen, half being of the line. The junction of the troops from Minorca, and from England, with the battalions removed from Houat, brought the numbers of the army up to thirteen thousand or more. A further contingent from Ireland was still expected, however, and the expedition was delayed for some days waiting or this brigade. The delay seemed justified as two battalions of Guards formed the bulk of the expected reinforcement. On the other hand, delay was dangerous, partly from risk of disease and partly from the risk of the Ferrol squadron leaving that port. Pellew had sent some of his ships to watch the harbour entrance, and Captain Keats, who was performing this service, reported that the ships in Ferrol were said by fishermen to be about to sail. Warren was less impressed by this rumour than by the possibility of the troops falling sick. After waiting for a few days, he and Pulteney decided to wait no longer. He wrote on the 20th reporting this decision to St. Vincent.
I beg to inform you, that General Sir James Pulteney and myself, having remained here a week, in expectation of being joined by the ships having the Guards and Hompesch's Hussars on board, from Ireland: and not having received any intelligence of them, but being of opinion that they are at sea, and that it may be possible to meet them by steering along shore, as all is arranged, and every person embarked, considering also the advanced season of the year, and that a further delay in executing our orders may defeat the object of them, especially as from the number of troops embarked at so hot a season of the year, sickness may be expected by their remaining: I agreed with the general to leave this anchorage tomorrow. It may probably be another day before we get as high as Groa, by which time it is to be hoped the second convoy will appear. I have, however, given orders to Captain de Courcy, to take under his command the Requier brig, and, upon the appearance of the Cork Convoy, to escort them part of the way to the appointed rendezvous; sending forward the Requier to conduct them wherever I may be. I have also left sealed orders for the senior officer of the convoy, for his (250) guidance whenever he may arrive at this anchorage. I trust that these measures may meet with your lordship's approbation; as the general and myself have reflected upon the consequences of the number of soldiers crowded into transports at so hot a season of the year; and that a longer delay in the execution of our orders may defeat the object of them.
Warren finished off this letter by reporting that he had given Pellew a distinguishing pendant. This, conferring upon his second-in-command a more secure right to the title of commodore, was tactful of him, since Pellew was not at that moment in the best of moods. Apart from a rooted dislike for being second-in-command to any one, Pellew particularly hated his subaltern role on this occasion, being rightly convinced that he could have done the work better himself. St. Vincent entirely approved of this proceeding, and of all Warren's arrangements. He reported as much to Lord Spencer on the 30th.
Royal George, near Ushant
MY DEAR LORD
Probably your Lordship is aware of Sir John Warren's having given a distinguishing pendant to Sir Edward Pellew who is charged with the detail of the operations ashore, Sir John having formed his marines into a battalion, and appointed (pro tempore) an Adjutant & Quartermaster, which are certainly necessary. The arrangements making in the Naval Department are admirable, the wind was propitious to a quick passage, and the southerly wind we now have equally so for the descent and I do not entertain a doubt of complete success and that the troops will arrive at their second destination in time for the grand operation.
I have the
[S.N.R. Vol. lviii.]
By the time this letter was written the whole affair was over. However, it is now necessary to return to the narrative of the expedition and to the 21st of August. On that day the convoy sailed for Ferrol, although none but the leaders knew where they were bound. The secret had been well kept - almost too well kept, as will be seen - and the rendezvous in Quiberon Bay was well calculated for putting the Spanish off their guard, had they ever been on their guard; which they had not.
St. Vincent's expectation of complete success was not shared by every one. At least two people thought otherwise. (251) One was Pellew, who was perhaps prejudiced. The other was Pulteney, who had decided not to fight. Had he been a man of any moral courage he would have interpreted his orders as a command to attack Ferrol and assume the responsibility in case of failure. It was plain from his instructions that Dundas would be responsible for nothing. It was obvious that, should no attack be made, Pitt would say that he had ordered it to be made, and ask why his orders were not carried out. And it was equally obvious that, should the attack fail, Pitt would say that he had ordered Pulteney not to incur serious loss, and again ask why his orders were not carried out. Now, a good soldier would have seen that a serious attack was the Government's intention, and would have taken the risk of making it. That was the proper course for a man of intelligence and honour. The cautious Pulteney, however, saw the problem from a rather different angle. Realizing that his orders were a trap, he thought that he could escape by discovering that Ferrol was too well fortified and then returning to the House of Commons to argue about it with Pitt. His duty as an officer mattered less to him than his career, and he was not to be outwitted by his fellow-countryman in the Cabinet.
The first symptoms of the general having reached this decision appeared while he was on board the Renown, and supposedly on his way to glory or the grave. That ship contained an old gazetteer. In this volume he read that Ferrol had been newly fortified in 1774, from which he drew the surprising conclusion that it was still well fortified; 'he knew that 24 years could not much impair the Works.' As every one else was deeply absorbed in calculations as to how much prize-money there would be, little notice was taken of Pulteney's sad pondering over a gazetteer. Fewer hopes would have been dashed had they watched him more carefully.
Two days after leaving Quiberon Bay, Warren decided to push ahead with the Renown and select a suitable landing place. He ordered Pellew to follow with the convoy.
I wish you to proceed with the convoy and ships of war off Cape Prior, notwithstanding it may be necessary for me to go ahead with the Generals to reconnoitre and ascertain the points at which they wish the disembarkation of the troops to take place; as well as to find Captain Keats' squadron and the (252) Magicienne, who are off Ferrol. I think, therefore, you had better not come in sight of Cape Ortegal, nor carry sail for 16 hours after my departure, to allow of a sufficient time for me to obtain the information required by the general officers. After which, the sooner you join us the better, that the whole may be anchored in the best situation for the execution of our orders.
It has been said that the secret of the expedition's objective was, if anything, too well kept. The danger of this was pointed out to Pellew on the 24th, soon after the Renown had parted company. Purvis, captain of the London (98), wrote to him on that day: 'If we had unfortunately parted Company I should have had nothing to direct me but from the course we have steered which points to Ferrol more than any other place.' His disgruntled letter ended with a request for instructions. He had been told to have three days' provisions cooked. But for how many ? For the whole crew, the troops, or the landing party ?
Pellew replied on the back of the same piece of paper. He was in a bitter mood consequent on losing his command, and seeing the work ill-done by another.
24th August 1800
Sir J. W. ran away this morning, having arr. the Rendez's etc with me - thank God we did not part as all would have been destroyed and no body know where it was intended to act - he is gone to reconnoitre and I am sorry, very sorry to see no plan or system is determined upon, he orders me not to see Cape Ortigul and to give him 16 hours Law. I shall make sail at Noon. The Cooking is for the troops and the 34 of your people to land with the Artillery with whom they are to serve - he says they shall land in the Bay South of Ferrol at the Town of Aries - a worse choice could not be made - we are by this to take Ferrol accrofs the Harbour either a third, one and a third or perhaps four and a third of a Mile distance. You can judge of the effect of Artillery - but it is ridiculous. No road - no water - no cattle - a barren Mountain. I am for rescuing all and dashing up the Harbour; if not this, to run into Sidere Harbour w'ch is good and unfortified - only 8 or 10 Miles from Ferrol and a good road leading to the back of the Town and a fine Country to draw provisions from. I am entirely out of heart and full of fears that we shall work hard and do nothing. However, we are in for it. You will have your Artillery Guns and party ready at the first rush - the Guns I hope will be on shore as soon as the Troops. We (253) carry ours athwart the launch w'ch holds both very well - We have tried it already. I have sent you a plan of the landing w'ch you should have had long ago if I could have got near you.
Adieu, Yrs E. PELLEW
It is not to be imagined that Pellew's exasperation at Warren's way of ordering things made him useless as a
PLAN TO ILLUSTRATE THE ATTACK ON FERROL AND THE LATER BLOCKADE
subordinate. He did not spend his time saying: "This is not how I should have done it." Growl he might, and did; but once he reached the scene of action he seconded Warren as few other men could have done. Being given charge of the actual landing, he performed his work as well as it could be done.
On the 25th Pellew reached Cape Prior with the convoy and found the Renown there. He immediately went on (254) board her to find out where the landing was to be. The admiral, Pulteney, and Maitland were in conclave at the time, and Pellew attacked them in his own way. Without troubling to hear what their plans might be, he promptly proposed his own.
Before detailing his proposals it seems desirable to define the nature of the problem he was attempting to solve.
Ferrol is to be found at the north-west corner of the map of Spain, in the province of Galicia and thirty or forty miles north of St. Iago de Compostella. It has a well-sheltered harbour, and at the period with which we are concerned was an important naval base. Neither Ferrol nor the port immediately to the south of it, Corunna, then usually known as the Groyne, had any great volume of trade. Galicia was too barren for its seaports to be wealthy. Nevertheless Ferrol was thought 'an agreeable town.' Its importance, as far as this descent was concerned, lay in the squadron stationed there, the arsenal, cannon foundry, powder magazines, and the like. Now, it may be seen from the accompanying map that the town itself lies on the north side of its harbour, and that there are a number of other harbours in the vicinity. Ferrol itself was known to be fortified, but the towns at these adjacent harbours had only batteries facing seawards. There seem to have been a number of batteries along the coast in addition to these. The English knew very little about the town, but most naval officers agreed in supposing its defences to be strong, at any rate on the seaward side.
The above short description of the place to be attacked contains most of the factors in the situation, and indeed most of what the English knew about the place. Of these facts the one which impressed itself on Pellew's mind was the situation of Ferrol on the north side of its harbour. If that harbour itself could not be rushed - and his letter to Purvis is proof that he thought it could - the landing would have to be to the northward. That seemed to him obvious. A landing to the southward would put the troops on the wrong side of the harbour. The only question he thought worth discussing was whether to land in Sidere Harbour and have the use of a good road, or in Playa de Dominos so as to be nearer. By the time he came on board the Renown this question was no longer open. The wind was northerly and the fleet was already too far to leeward of Sidere for a landing to be made there. He accordingly proposed to land the troops in Dominos and Cape Prior (255) Bay, which lie close together south of the cape. The latter bay had the advantage of a road fit for artillery, of which the army had a large quantity-in fact, far too much.
Pulteney had not asked Pellew for his advice in the first instance; and he was not particularly grateful for it when it came unbidden. The result was that Pellew was told, perhaps rather coldly, that the landing-place had already been chosen. He was there, in short, to obey orders; such was the implication. When his advice was wanted they would ask for it. The army was to land in Betancos Bay - and there was an end of it.
If it was hoped to silence Pellew by this predetermination, a certain disappointment must have been felt when he prepared to argue the point. He was, to begin with, horrified at the choice of Betancos Bay, and made no scruple of saying so. And he had, in addition, plenty of arguments to offer for his own plan. The substance of his contention was this: The landing in Cape Prior and Dominos Bay was possible because the fleet was close to those places already, and because there was no surf on the beach-they were near enough to see that. And a landing there was desirable because Ferrol was only four or five miles distant; because Captain Hood and a Spaniard among the crew of the Renown, born on the spot, agreed that there was a good road from Cape Prior Bay to the back of Ferrol. On the other hand, he was able to prove that a landing in Betancos Bay was at once undesirable and impossible. It was undesirable because it would not only place the army on the wrong side of Ferrol Harbour but also place it on the wrong side of an un-fordable river which was only crossed by a long, narrow, and easily destroyed bridge. It was impossible for the best of reasons. They could not get there in time. The light wind, varying between NNW and NNE, would not allow the fleet to reach Betancos Bay before dark. They could not land in the dark, and all element of surprise would be thrown away if they tried to land next morning.
To this reasoning the general replied that Betancos Bay was more secure, and that the army landing there would cut off reinforcements from Corunna or Betancos. Pellew met this argument by offering to land with the marines and keep the garrison of Corunna occupied while the army took Ferrol. As the weather conditions approximated to a dead calm, the 'security' of one bay was the same as any other, so that the first part of the general's contention hardly merited an answer. The dispute closed with the general (256) refusing Pellew's offer of cutting off the garrison of Corunna and repeating his determination of landing at the place he had fixed upon.
'Finding however the generals determination fixed for Betancos Bay at all events, and that nothing could move him, I took my leave at 11 a.m. and returned to my Ship, to make the arrangements for the landing.'
It is necessary to remind the reader at this point that Pulteney was not insane or even exceptionally stupid. Pellew's arguments were quite unanswerable from his point of view. But it has been remarked already that Pulteney regarded the problem differently. He was not wondering how to take Ferrol but how to avoid fighting. For his purpose Betancos Bay would do very well. He did not want to surprise Ferrol. He wanted to look at it by daylight and discover its impregnable strength. He and Pellew were not in disagreement as to what means were best for attaining an end. They disagreed because each had a different end in view. Their dispute could not be settled because they were talking about different things. Pulteney eventually gave way, but it was not because he was convinced by Pellew's reasoning. It was more probably because he saw that to land at a place so obviously unsuitable would bring suspicion on himself. The ostensible reason is not convincing.
'At 3 p.m. the plan of operations was suddenly and unexpectedly changed, Occasioned I have since heard, by the appearance of the road from Domino Bay, up the side of the Mountain before spoken of, and the signal was made by the Admiral to haul to the wind but it was too late for the Ships to fetch in to Cape Prior Bay; the whole Fleet therefore . . . steered for Domino, and were consequently exposed to make their landing under the fire of a Battery of 8 24-Pounders, when the other Bay had no defence at all.'
In case this battery should make an obstinate resistance, Pellew sent three of the handiest frigates to land a battalion in Cape Prior Bay, in order that the men should march round and take the fort from the rear. As it happened, this precaution was unnecessary. The garrison discharged their guns and then deserted the post. This firing was the first intimation the garrison of Ferrol had of any danger. Nor did it in itself, give any clue to the nature of the danger. The Spaniards cannot have had news of the landing until the men who had deserted the fort reached the town - say, an hour later, about four-thirty. By that time the first (257) division of the army was on shore. A more complete surprise than that was hardly to be expected or required. That the surprise was complete was proved by the capture of a fishing boat which had come from Ferrol that morning. The fishermen, trapped in the bay by the arrival of the fleet, were separately examined, and all agreed that there had been no suspicion of any attack.
Although Pellew was in charge of the actual landing, he acted under instructions issued by Warren on the 24th. As the details were none of his arranging, they are not to our present purpose. It is sufficient to say that the army was formed into two divisions, to be landed in flat-boats, and that the artillery was to be taken on shore in launches sent from the ships of the line. The launches also carried parties of seamen with track-ropes, skids, and handspikes for man-handling the guns and the ammunition.
The Impetueux led the way in, and it was Pellew's boat which chased and caught the fishermen. There was no resistance from the fort, and by four o'clock the first division put off from the ships. Pellew was among the first to land, and superintended the whole operation. Having, in effect, gained his point with regard to the landing-place, he was in no bad humour. With a mixture of conscientiousness and boyish bravado he stood for hours up to his middle in water, helping to get the soldiers on shore dry shod. By eight the whole army was landed, with twenty guns, complete with ammunition and 250 seamen to serve them. With the troops went scaling ladders, entrenching tools, sand-bags, provisions, rum, and hospital staff. Preparations were made to land the heavy artillery and mortars, with horses and stores, at daybreak the following day. When everything to be brought on shore that night was actually on the beach, Pellew took his captured fishermen up to the fort, of which Pulteney had taken possession. The general examined three of the most intelligent of them in Pellew's presence. The men seemed rather pleased than otherwise to see the English, and were anything but uncommunicative. Questioned separately, they all agreed that the garrison of Ferrol did not exceed three thousand, that no attack was expected, and that the town was almost defenceless on the landward side. A little optimistically they thought that an immediate attack would find the garrison asleep. Vice-Admiral Morens, they said, commanded the French squadron in the harbour, which consisted of five sail of the line and four frigates, only half manned but otherwise ready for sea. (258) There was a general discontent throughout the country, the war was unpopular, there was a great scarcity of bread and no money to pay the troops.
About sunset a few random shots showed that a few troops were already in the neighbourhood, but there was no fighting during the night. The hillside was found to be too steep for artillery, all of which had to be abandoned for the present and left on the beach, except for three field-pieces the sailors took to pieces and dragged up the slope. The troops were eager to push on, but none but an advance guard was allowed to do so - and this only slowly and after delay. The remainder remained on the hill of Dominos near the fort until twelve o'clock in the morning, 'receiving orders and counter orders every hour until then.' The rifle corps formed the vanguard and had gained the heights overlooking Ferrol before daylight. The main body of the army was kept all night resting on their arms.
The staff stayed in the vicinity of the captured fort, and some of the officers lay down to sleep. Colonel Maitland was one of these. Towards midnight he was awakened by Pulteney, who wished to tell him that he did not much like the appearance of what he had seen, and that he was determined to embark again if things did not look better in the morning. It is not on record whether the sleepy staff officer merely yawned and went to sleep again, or whether he was sufficiently awake to make any comment on this remarkable pronouncement. Even if he made any comment, however, he cannot have said what outraged reason demanded of him.
The importance of this little incident is obvious. It finally disposes of the military historian's version of the Ferrol affair. Whether General Pulteney was or was not justified in what he did, it is at least clear that his decision was uninfluenced by the appearance of Ferrol. For he was talking of retreat before he had seen it. There is no reason to suppose that he reached the crest of the hills overlooking the harbour before midnight. It is, in fact, fairly evident that he did not. And, even had he done so, it was too dark to see anything. But in spite of this he had to wake another officer in the middle of the night in order to say that he did not like the appearance of what he saw. What had he expected to see ? All the enemy troops visible had instantly run away, which could hardly be an unfavourable omen. And, apart from that, he had no grounds either for hope or fear beyond what the orders in his pocket contained. Again, (259) he was determined to embark if things did not look better in the morning. But how could things look better in the morning ? Since he had seen nothing, what he was to see could be neither better nor worse than what he had seen already. It is impossible to conceive what could have happened that night to give things an appearance he would have liked better.
Very early in the morning, soon after daybreak, a body of Spanish infantry attacked the outposts and was beaten off without difficulty by the rifle corps and other troops with the advance guard. But while the Spaniards were being chased into Grania or Lagrana - it was spelt either way - more important events were happening in the rear. Major Cookson of the artillery came to report to Pulteney that the seamen had succeeded in dragging three field-pieces up to the hill crest where the army was now collected. He had himself found some carts in which he hoped to bring up the rest of the field artillery. To this Pulteney replied, it seems, as follows:
. . . that he believed he might take them back again, and if he had an officer with him, he had better send him to Sir Edward Pellew with his compliments, and request, he would immediately embark all the Artillery and Stores as fast as pofsible, and go himself back to the Fort of Domino, which he was to destroy; but by no means to blow it up for fear of making a noise.
At eight o'clock Pulteney wrote a short note to the same effect addressed to the admiral.
August 26, 1800
It appears to be quite impossible to do anything: It is, therefore, my intention to re-embark the troops to-night; the first will be on the beach at 10 o'clock. You will, in the mean time, have the goodness to stop all further disembarkation.
Warren replied immediately:
I regret most extremely the necessity of embarking the army at this moment; having flattered myself with the expectation of success, from being in possession of the heights. The boats and covering frigates shall be ready at any hour to receive the troops; but I beg leave to state, that it is high water at nine o'clock; and that from ten until three is the worst time for embarking the troops, the surf, at that period, being in general the highest; and that the most favourable time would be at (260) daybreak, or from eight until ten this evening. The boats will be ready, and all the officers of the fleet to attend.
Earlier in the morning Warren had sent Pellew and Hood to take an offer to the general of co-operation with the marines and seamen. If Pulteney thought fit, these would march over the signal hill and attack the lower forts of the harbour, so as to allow the fleet to enter the harbour and threaten the town from the other side while at the. same time dealing with the French squadron. But, on receiving the general's note, Warren sent a message after Pellew, in the hope of it reaching him before he had left the general's presence.
I wish you to mention to the general the necessity of destroying the fort and bursting the cannon, as early as possible, at the landing place ; and pray let the rum etc be sent off that lies on the beach, with all other stores that now are on shore.
P.S. Do not forget the fort
Warren apparently thought too highly of Pellew to add, as a second postscript : Do not forget the rum.
Meanwhile, a brisk skirmish was taking place on the heights. Two regiments coming to support the rifle corps drove the Spaniards down the hill into Grania and Fort St. Philip. There they paused and waited for orders. Colonel Vexey sent back a report to General Morshead stating that he was able to enter the fort among the fugitives - a report which had presumably become inaccurate before it arrived. Major McHerris, of the Engineers, took command of two flank companies of one regiment and pursued the other group of Spaniards into the arsenal of Grania. Then he too sent back for orders; his superior officer, Colonel Brereton, having no orders to advance and burn the arsenal, did not do so. Everything was at a stand for want of orders - or for want of initiative.
The officers with these leading troops were at least able at this point to examine the defences of the town, and see how far the enemy had taken advantage of the night's delay. To begin with, they had warped five sail of the line, four frigates, and some smaller vessels from under the walls of Grania to the other side of the harbour, and so out of immediate danger. They had placed a boom across the harbour, and landed their marines. More important still, they had brought over to Ferrol a part of the garrison of (261) Corunna. In spite, however, of these preparations which Pulteney had magnanimously allowed them to make, the town was still a tempting object of attack. The view from the hills of Grania included 'all that could inspire the Heart of Man with Courage' - the defenceless squadron, a huge arsenal, and 'the riches of a Noble Town.' The land defences of Ferrol were visibly ruinous, and the garrison was evidently in utter confusion. There was no ditch on the landward side, nor were there any guns mounted. Men, women, and children were at work, pulling down houses and making loop-holes. The surprise had been complete and the town could be considered as lost, provided the attack were made at once.
While the advanced troops waited for orders, the Spanish infantry they had pursued down the hill escaped unmolested to Ferrol. The boats which took them actually made two trips, and at the same time 'absolutely towed away a Spanish Brig, laying within half Musquet Shot of the Troops.' Of the rather un-enterprising officers who allowed this to happen, the most active was Major McHerris. Having taken some prisoners, he went to the rear with them to look for the general. As no headquarters had been fixed on, he wandered about for two hours without finding him. At the end of this period, he sat down, tired out, 'to take some refreshment.' To him there presently came Colonel Maitland, also looking for the general. There were some other officers present, and Maitland took McHerris on one side to speak to him privately.
'McHerris, what do you think of the appearance of things ? '
The major replied that the town should be taken before dark, judging by the ruined defences and the consternation and confusion in the garrison. Maitland's answer to this was simple and sincere.
'By God, the general is off. He does not like the appearance of things.'
'Good God, you don't say so,' said the major.
McHerris was still explaining to Maitland how easy it would be to get over the town wall when Pulteney himself appeared. McHerris at once went up to him, congratulated him on being almost in possession of the town, and asked for orders to destroy the arsenal of Grania.
'I will come forward and take a look at it,' lied the general before taking McHerris aside by the arm and adding
'I do not much like the appearance of matters.'
(262) There was some argument after this, Pulteney trying to persuade the major that the town could only be taken with considerable loss, the latter trying to persuade him that it was as good as taken already.
The reader, being in possession of the fact that the retreat had been ordered hours before, may wonder what the object of this dispute can have been. It is explained by the sequel. Pulteney was about to take the advice of a Council of War - in the sense, that is to say, of asking the other officers to endorse something foolish he had already done. In order to ensure success in this, he tackled each member separately before calling the Council. In this instance he did so without disclosing the fact that the main body of the army was by this time on its way to the landing-place.
The Council of War, thus primed, met shortly afterwards. Generals Morshead, Coote, and Lord Cavan, Colonel Maitland and Major McHerris were its members. Pulteney began by stating his intention to re-embark, the appearance of things leading him to suppose that the town could only be taken with a loss of at least two thousand men - a loss his instructions did not permit him to risk. He asked for their opinions on the subject.
Contrary, one would have thought, to military usage, the officers gave their views in order of seniority. Morshead would offer no opinion, as he had not seen the instructions referred to; but he said that no military achievement could be accomplished without loss, and that the attempt ought to be made. Coote, Lord Cavan, and Maitland tactfully agreed with the general. McHerris repeated that he saw no difficulty in the enterprise. Pulteney had thus to content himself with a majority in favour of the re-embarkation, and soon began to collect evidence for the defence he would sooner or later have to make. Pellew's comments on this mock Council of War were vitriolic.
I will forfeit every pretension to any knowledge of Military affairs if it be the duty of any General to convene a Council of Officers to discufs the propriety of an attack, previously debated and directed to be vigorously made, by his Superior at home . . . . Certain it is, and cannot be denied, that no Military Post was ever more completely surprised, no debarkation of an Army was ever more fortunately or rapidly made; near 12,000 Men, 20 pieces of Artillery, entrenching tools, Hospital Necefsaries and Provisions were on shore, and on the road to the point of Attack, in 3 hours; the utmost distance to the Town Gate not more than 5 miles. The Army might (263) have been in full March, with three days Provisions upon their back, before 6 in the Evening, and would have carried the Town before Midnight, or at all events have slept before the Gates, ready for afsault at day break . . . the whole army was withdrawn and embarked without any reason given in 36 hours - and thus unhappily for those concerned, were blasted the hopes of striking one of the most important, and highest Military blows ever recorded in the History of the World.
Without belittling Pellew's pretensions to military knowledge, which were very real, it must be allowed that his commentary lies open to two retorts. In the first place, Dundas had not ordered the attack to be made vigorously. In the second place, the taking of Ferrol would not have been a 'Military blow' at all. Although meant to be accomplished by soldiers, the effect would have been that of a naval victory. Apart from the prize-money, which they would have shared, the soldiers were far less interested in the affair than the sailors.
Allowing, however, for Pellew's ignorance in one respect and his prejudice in another, his point of view was entirely justified. In at least one detail he was wrong. Pulteney's crime was not in disobeying his orders but in failing to disobey them. When given meaningless instructions, a good soldier obeys the orders he should have received. He acts, in short, for the good of the State. Pulteney did not do this. He used his orders as an excuse for evading his duty. It is on this point that Pellew's criticism of Pulteney was, not unfair, but misdirected. In other respects Pellew had grasped the situation very accurately. He saw that a strategical surprise should imply a tactical surprise; that the chief thing in an attack is speed; that there is a time for fighting as well as a time for thinking. Had the Government realized these principles, the army would have been smaller and unhampered by guns and stores. And had the general been the man for such an enterprise, the assault would have been sudden and swift - a matter of ladders and bayonets in the dark; it would have been silent in the sense of making no noise at all, or silent in the sense of making the noise somewhere else; it would have succeeded. If the failure was an example of Scotch general-ship, it was also an example of English compromise. It demonstrated the inability of a certain type of mind to choose between two alternatives. It showed the inability of another type of mind to take responsibility. It is a classic example of how not to carry out a raid.
(264) The final scenes of the affair are soon told. Sir John Borlase Warren received an answer to his protest about the tide not serving in the form of the reappearance of the army on the beach. The evening of the 26th was spent in re-embarking troops, cannon, and stores, not forgetting the rum. While supervising the work, Pellew talked with a Spanish officer who had been taken prisoner but who was to be released as soon as the army was embarked. This officer assured him that there were not 3,000 men in the garrison, and that every one in the town had thought the place lost.
By midnight the army was on board ship again, leaving the dazed enemy to boast of a victory as soon as astonishment had given place to self-congratulation. Pellew afterwards learnt that a corporal of the Hibernian brigade, then serving in Ferrol, had actually cleaned the keys of the town in preparation for the surrender which summoning the town would have caused. Delivering the keys would, however, have been ritual in a degree above the ordinary, in that - as Pellew learnt from another source - the gates of the town would hardly shut, let alone lock.
On the following morning, the 27th, the squadron and convoy weighed anchor and sailed for the next objective. And on that day and the next, Warren and Pellew wrote to St. Vincent, giving their accounts of what had occurred in tones, respectively, of sorrow and anger.
the entrance of Ferrol
27th Aug. 1800
I cannot say much, having not much to say . . . I would have done anything to get in the harbour, where there are two ships of three decks, and three 74's and five frigates all ready for sea, and the enemy got a boom across the harbour whilst we have been here, but they were completely surprised. However I can do no more . . . .
J. B. WARREN
[N.R.S. Vol. hiii.]
28th Aug. 1800
I should very gladly have embraced the first moment of writing to you from hence had I not been entirely engrossed by the arrangements necessary for landing and again embarking the army, which from the commencement of the first operation to the termination of the . . . [occupied a] period of 30 hours. (265) Your Lordship will have heard from Sir John before this what our operations were not; what they were it is not in words to describe, and the whole still appears to me like a dream, and has ended so totally different from our expectations we had formed from the happy success of our landing and gaining the heights over the harbour, that I can scarcely venture to tell your Lordship how our expectations were blasted by a [decision] as hastily formed and concluded as I can by words express it, and I believe as much to the astonishment of Sir John Warren as of myself, who had, at the moment when we received the General's determination to retreat, commissioned Captain Hood and myself to wait on him with the offer of landing 700 marines, and attack the outer forts of the harbour so as to secure anchorage for the ships . . . .
The whole operation of the entire day was driving down the [hill] into [the town] a body of about 1200 men and permitting them to embark peaceably in boats to the garrison of Ferrol . . . .
[N.R.S. Vol. lviii.]
St. Vincent read these letters with attention and then sent them on to Lord Spencer with a covering letter.
very near Ushant
7th Sept., 1800
In the utmost degree of confidence I enclose two letters I have received from Rear-Admiral Sir John Warren and Sir Edward Pellew. Your Lordship knows well the character of these two valuable officers, and will prize their private judgement as I do. Good Lord deliver us from all conjunct expeditions, unless commanded by Sir Charles Grey or Sir Charles Stuart.
[N.R.S. Vol. lviii.]
Off Ferrol, on their way out, Warren and Pellew fell in with the ships from Ireland, the late arrival of which saved the Guards from sharing in this disgraceful episode. While the whole convoy, thus reinforced, went slowly on towards Vigo, Maitland and Lord Cavan went to Oporto to procure wine for the army - 'but I believe more with the intention of collecting information to colour if pofsible the shameful retreat from Ferrol' was Pellew's morose comment. He went to Oporto himself, however, and did not fail to collect other information. He, too, had no objection to colouring (266) the shameful retreat, but his taste in colours differed somewhat from that of Pulteney's staff.
The fleet arrived at Vigo on the 29th, and remained there until September 10th. No landing was made, as Pulteney decided that there was nothing to gain by it. A privateer was taken there and a frigate, which went ashore, was lost. Otherwise, nothing happened; and Pellew occupied his leisure in writing a detailed account of the affair at Ferrol for the benefit of his friend Lord Chatham. He seems to have written at the same time to the Duke of Northumberland, but this letter has not survived.
Impetueux, Vigo Sept. 1st 1800
I wish most earnestly I could convey to your Lordship what my mind led me to hope, and from the effective force and numbers, we had a right to expect, provided no intelligence of our intentions reach'd Ferrol before us, on that point we were fortunate for never was surprise more perfectly Complete as One instance will prove. We anchored in Domino Bay close under a Fort of 8 24-pounders and it was not until the first Division had put off that they opened any fire. I am sorry to say that a good deal of indecision appeared, in fixing the spot for landing, it was settled for Betancos Bay to the South of the Harbour, but when the Fleet was too far to Leeward to land in a Bay to the North of Domino from whence a Road led to Ferrol, that determination was changed and the Fleet ordered suddenly to the Wind and anchored in the Bay above named. At half-past 4 the first Troops were landed and before dark, had gained the heights over the Harbour of Ferrol; by Nine the whole Army were on shore with 20 pieces of Artillery and suitable proportions of Stores, Entrenching tools, Provisions etc; it was soon found impracticable to draw the Guns up the Hill and all but three were given up, these were taken to pieces and carried by 250 Seamen, with incredible labour, and reached their post with the whole Army consisting of near 12,000 Men, before daybreak, and by the same time a great part of the Horses and other Stores were on the beach and arrangements made for keeping up a constant supply. At dawn of day about 1000 or 1200 Spaniards spread among the Rocks, commenced a fire on the Rifle Corps of 150 Men with some vivacity, this small body was supported by a Company of Light Infantry from the 23rd, and beat the Enemy back; the advance of the 52nd Reg't soon drove them rapidly down the Hill upon the Town of Grania where stands all the Victualling Stores, and from this Arsenal the whole were permitted to embark peaceably (the boats making two trips) into the garrison of Ferrol, with- (267) out any movement being made either to take them Prisoners, or pofsefs the Arsenal, this was the final blow to all resistance in the field, and it seem'd the decided purpose of the Enemy to collect everybody in the Town, in the previous night five Sail of the Line and some Frigates were moved above the Town, in another branch of the Harbour, leaving the head of the branch, between us and Ferrol, clear for the March of our Army towards the land defence of the Town, and which from the moment of the General's embarking with us was confefsedly his great object, the lofs hitherto sustained was not above 30 or 40 Killed & wounded, the appearance of the land defences was ruinous, and everything carried the conviction of Surprise, Confusion and Terror, Crowds of all descriptions were at work on the land defences, and Houses pulling down which appeared to flank them, the works appeared to consist of Seven Bastions with Seven Ravelins between them, the high road ran close to the foot of the Rocks and no impediment was visible to prevent an escalade, eagerly and anxiously looked for by the Troops, who had hitherto suffered no fatigue, were in high health and spirits, landed without a wet shoe, and after a march of only 3 or 4 miles were placed in full view of the finest objects ever presented to the Ambition of a Soldier, to the hopes of a Nation, and the fame of a General. Thus far, my Lord, every thing wore the happiest appearances, how then shall I relate the extreme mortification we all experienced when the General came to the hasty decifsion of turning his back upon an object of such National importance and of such high Military resound, without having presented himself before the Gates to have ocular demonstration that an afsault was impracticable; the March was only 3 or 4 Miles, no obstacle prevented either his going or return and the Troops might still have been on board before day break. This determination was scarcely known to us, when we saw the Army in full March to the beach, and by 12 at night every Soldier and every Article landed was on board again. A more rapid Manoeuvre, I believe, by an Army was never executed, a Landing in great force, a March to the spot of Action, a retreat and embarkation was all performed in 32 hours; that it was not more honourable to the performers and more profitable to the Nation, I shall never cease to regret, and the More I reflect upon all the Circumstances, the more confident I feel that the Town of Ferrol would have fallen into our hands by Afsault, had we made the attempt, even on the Second day. The whole Army might have reached the Gates of the Town before day break, on the night of landing, had the General so pleased, as to any other means of carrying the place I believe they were impracticable, the Sea defences were extremely Strong, particularly the Fort St Philips, a Boom was placed, Gun Boats of great Strength brought out, and every (268) precaution taken to render the accefs from the Sea impracticable. The information obtained from some prisoners and confirmed by an Officer, made the Garrison about 3000, much discontent in every department, long arrears due, a great scarcity of Bread and' Money, and Much desertion. The fleet commanded by Vice Ad'1 Moreno, only half manned and scarce any provisions, the same Officer affirmed, that in a great circuit of the Country they would not be able to bring together more than 3000 Militia for a considerable length of time. We sailed from the Coast on the 27th and anch'd here yesterday, to arrange the Convoy for going to Gibraltar, under the Ajax and Gibraltar, Sir J. Warren with the other four Ships will I believe return. Last night the Boats of the Fleet boarded above Vigo a French Privateer and brought her off after a most obstinate resistance; by which most of her crew were killed, Wounded and drowned. The Guards from Ireland joined us at Sea, off Ferrol, after our retreat. I troubled your Lordship from Quiberon, and bitterly lamented my being deprived of the Command; as matters have turned up, I have cause to be thankful. I wrote also on the subject of promotion talk'd of. I hope if my letters are importunate, your Lordship will throw them aside, they are induced by the generosity of your conduct towards me, upon so many occasions, and their remembrance will be cherished, with gratitude, in the heart of your Lordships most truly obliged and Most faithful
Impetueux, Vigo Sept. 1st 1800
The promotion mentioned at the end of this letter as about to take place was not to be as extensive as St. Vincent wished, or as Pellew hoped. It seems probable that some rumour had reached Pellew of St. Vincent's desiring to promote him, with the result that he began to second any efforts the Earl might be making on his behalf. At least, that is the natural conclusion to draw from his conduct. For, whereas in March 1800, he was merely agitating for a colonelcy of marines and insisting upon his merits, his poverty, and the size of his family; now, in August and September, his demands were for flag-promotion. But Lord Spencer, who had explained earlier in the year that there was no colonelcy vacant, was now as careful to disillusion him on the subject of promotion. Even, he wrote, if a flag-promotion were to take place, which 'considering the great number of officers of that description already existing is not very likely,' (269) Pellew would not be included. At any rate 'it could not pofsibly extend as far as to comprehend you among them in the first Instance.'
After a delay at Vigo, owing to bad weather, the convoy went on to Cadiz, where nothing was done, and finally proceeded to take part in a more or less futile Campaign in Egypt. But with these feats Pellew had nothing to do. An escort of two sail of the line was thought sufficient for the convoy as soon as it had reached the latitude of Lisbon, and on September 13th Warren and Pellew sailed for England with the rest of the squadron. Pulteney took this opportunity of speeding back to defend himself in the House of Commons. That Pitt and Dundas intended him to be the scapegoat he was well aware, and he was preparing various word-pictures descriptive of Ferrol with which to thwart them. According to him that town bristled with cannon and sheltered behind its impregnable walls a garrison packed to the point of suffocation and bloodthirsty to a degree surpassing belief.
On arriving off Ushant, Pulteney, Warren, and Pellew all had interviews with Lord St. Vincent. A moment with Pulteney was enough for the Earl to form his own conclusions as to what had happened. But, although he himself probably surveyed Pulteney grimly enough, he was no promoter of friction between the Services. He suggested to Warren that a discreet silence was advisable whenever Ferrol was mentioned. To a mere captain he behaved with less ceremony - Pellew was made to promise not to go to London or to write another word on the subject.
The squadron reached Plymouth on October 11th, and Warren at once applied for leave of absence. He was a bitterly disappointed man. And, in spite of his reputation for avarice, the lack of prize-money and loot had little to do with his disappointment. The destruction of the ships at Ferrol-five sail of the line in the harbour, five more in the basin, and one on the stocks; with eight frigates afloat and two building - would have made his reputation. As things had turned out, his second-in-command was glad to have been second.
This account of the attempt on Ferrol would be incomplete without some mention of a second attempt in 1804 which failed to materialize. It was merely discussed and planned. Pellew was not present at the discussions. Nevertheless, they are relevant to this study. In November of that year Pitt went so far as to select a general to command (270) the expedition, and was so far fortunate in his choice that the enterprise was killed before it began. This was an improvement on his last selection for this purpose, which resulted in the enterprise being killed after it had practically succeeded. As a judge of men Pitt was clearly making progress.
The leader chosen for this second attempt was Sir John Moore, another Scotch general, and, needless to say, an expert in his profession. He was expected, at this time, to marry into Pitt's family. He was military adviser to the Government when not engaged in resisting French invasions of Kent. After being made to read two long reports made by Pellew on the possibility of taking Ferrol, he attended a meeting of the Cabinet in Downing Street - a meeting which consisted of Pitt, Dundas, and Camden. There was no obstacle to the speedy arrangement of the whole affair-no obstacle, that is to say, on the side of the civilians.
As soon as the subject had been broached, Moore commenced a lecture on the art of war. He knew, he said, nothing of Ferrol. The destruction or capture of the ships in the harbour, however desirable, would depend, he thought, upon the situation of the place, its defences, and the garrison it contained. It was at this point, probably, that the ministers saw that they had chosen the wrong man. They listened with sinking hearts while the expert continued his relentless discourse. They learnt that Pellew's reports were, in most respects, useless - from lack of military knowledge and neglect even to provide such information as an intelligent naval officer was capable, professionally, of comprehending. Pellew, they were to understand, was no judge of the possibility of bombarding Ferrol. A bombardment was an operation, they were assured, which must take up many days, during which whatever hostile force was in the neighbourhood would be assembled. Without further information, Moore concluded that there were not grounds upon which in prudence it was possible to determine on the propriety of an attack on Ferrol.
In the silence following this pronouncement a feeble protest was heard. Dundas pointed out that other officers besides Pellew thought the town far from impregnable. Even Gambier thought so. There was a general conviction of the weakness of the place. The moment, however, that Dundas's provincial accent - always a source of annoyance to Pitt - had ceased to be heard, his argument was ruthlessly (271) swept aside. Moore did not want opinions. He wanted facts.
The final upshot was that the general was sent to look at Ferrol for himself. Cunningly disguised as a civilian, he went on board Pellew's old ship, Indefatigable, at Plymouth. Again disguised - this time as a sporting naval officer - he landed near Ferrol and narrowly escaped being captured there. Then he returned to Downing Street and declared himself unable to take the town. He was probably right. It is to be doubted whether any one could take it, however, while Pitt was in office. That statesman was literally at a loss to improve upon the last attempt other than by sending another cautious general with 20,000 instead of 13,000 men. Against reasoning of that kind intelligence must strive in vain.
Our immediate concern is with Moore's criticism of Pellew. It was his complaint that Pellew's report of 1803-4 contained insufficient data about the defences of Ferrol. The reason why it did not do so is obvious. To begin with, Pellew did not think so much in terms of material and numbers as did the professional soldiers. He thought rather in terms of willingness to fight. He did not care how many Spaniards there were or how many guns they had as long as he was convinced that they would run away. The British army and the French navy of his time both suffered from this habit of stopping to count the enemy, and seeing double while they counted. By Pulteney's account, for example, the solid walls of Ferrol were well-nigh collapsing under the weight of aggressive soldiery with which they were crowded. And the 7,000 men with innumerable cannon, as seen by his imaginative eye, has long since become an incontrovertible fact of military history. To Pellew, their numbers, whatever they were, mattered little as long as he thought they were all asleep or afraid or disloyal. In material, Moore would certainly have found Ferrol more formidable than it was in 1800 . The Spanish had built a large fort, for instance, to command the place where the English had landed last time - although not, apparently, at the place where they should have landed. This was exactly the kind of fact likely to interest a Scotch soldier who had studied fortification on the Continent. Pellew approached the problem from a different angle. There had been a fort there before and the garrison had run away as soon as he came near it. So they might, as far as he was concerned, put three or four forts there. The Spanish cared nothing for the war and would surely run (272) away, wherever they were posted. He would take no great pains to find out where their cannon were because he was confident that no one would stay to fire them.
There was another, an even stronger reason why Pellew's report was more emphatic than detailed. In the event of another attack on Ferrol, he fully expected to be there. Nay, he very likely expected to be in command. What he did not anticipate was his own absence from the preliminary discussion; an absence due to his being on the other side of the globe.