The age of sail—particularly as it related to the Royal Navy—has, perhaps been justifiably, dominated by the great Nelson. His victory at Trafalgar meant that Britannia effectively did rule the waves and the threat of British sea power meant that the Royal Navy did not have to fight a major battle for a hundred years whilst the British Empire prospered. The often quoted and lauded 'Nelson Tradition,' all but implies he originated it. In fact Nelson was part of an established tradition of great British seamanship that began before him, accompanied and supported him and survived his immediate passing. This book outlines the lives of some of the finest and most successful of those men—all famous in their own right and all remarkable despite their eclipse by the master, Nelson himself. The sea battles of Hawke, Jervis, Howe, Saumarez, Rodney and Pellew are expertly described here by Mahan—one of the finest historians of this subject—making it an essential read for all those interested in the exploits of the Royal Navy during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
As the British line drew near the French, Howe said to Curtis, “Prepare the signal for close action.”
“There is no such signal,” replied Curtis. <br>
“No,” said the admiral, “but there is one for closer action, and I only want that to be made in case of captains not doing their duty.” Then closing a little signal book he always carried, he continued to those around him, “Now, gentlemen, no more book, no more signals. I look to you to do the duty of the Queen Charlotte in engaging the flag-ship. I don’t want the ships to be bilge to bilge, but if you can lock the yardarms, so much the better; the battle will be the quicker decided.”
His purpose was to go through the French line, and fight the Montagne on the far side. Some doubted their succeeding, but Howe overbore them.<br>
“That’s right, my lord!” cried Bowen, the sailing-master, who looked to the ship’s steering. “The Charlotte will make room for herself.” She pushed close under the French ship’s stern, grazing her ensign, and raking her from stern to stem with a withering fire, beneath which fell three hundred men. A length or two beyond lay the French Jacobin. Howe ordered the Charlotte to luff, and place herself between the two. “If we do,” said Bowen, “we shall be on board one of them.”
“What is that to you, sir?” asked Howe quickly.<br>
“Oh!” muttered the master, not inaudibly. “D——n my eyes if I care, if you don’t. I’ll go near enough to singe some of our whiskers.” And then, seeing by the Jacobin’s rudder that she was going off, he brought the Charlotte sharp round, her jib boom grazing the second Frenchman as her side had grazed the flag of the first.<br>
From this moment the battle raged furiously from end to end of the field for nearly an hour,—a wild scene of smoke and confusion, under cover of which many a fierce ship duel was fought, while here and there men wandered, lost, in a maze of bewilderment that neutralized their better judgment. An English naval captain tells a service tradition of one who was so busy watching the compass, to keep his position in the ranks, that he lost sight of his antagonist, and never again found him. Many a quaint incident passed, recorded or unrecorded, under that sulphurous canopy. A British ship, wholly dismasted, lay between two enemies, her captain desperately wounded. A murmur of surrender was somewhere heard; but as the first lieutenant checked it with firm authority, a cock flew upon the stump of a mast and crowed lustily. The exultant note found quick response in hearts not given to despair, and a burst of merriment, accompanied with three cheers, replied to the bird’s triumphant scream. On board the Brunswick, in her struggle with the Vengeur, one of the longest and fiercest fights the sea has ever seen, the cocked hat was shot off the effigy of the Duke of Brunswick, which she bore as a figurehead. A deputation from the crew gravely requested the captain to allow the use of his spare chapeau, which was securely nailed on, and protected his grace’s wig during the rest of the action. After this battle with the ships of the new republic, the partisans of monarchy noted with satisfaction that, among the many royal figures that surmounted the stems of the British fleet, not one lost his crown. Of a harum-scarum Irish captain are told two droll stories. After being hotly engaged for some time with a French ship, the fire of the latter slackened, and then ceased. He called to know if she had surrendered. The reply was, “No.”<br>
“Then,” shouted he, “d——n you, why don’t you fire?” Having disposed of his special antagonist without losing his own spars, the same man kept along in search of new adventures, until he came to a British ship totally dismasted and otherwise badly damaged. She was commanded by a captain of rigidly devout piety.<br>
“Well, Jemmy,” hailed the Irishman, “you are pretty well mauled; but never mind, Jemmy, whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.”
The French have transmitted to us less of anecdote, nor is it easy to connect the thought of humour with those grimly earnest republicans and the days of the Terror. There is, indeed, something unintentionally funny in the remark of the commander of one of the captured ships to his captors. They had, it was true, dismasted half the French fleet, and had taken over a fourth; yet he assured them it could not be considered a victory, “but merely a butchery, in which the British had shown neither science nor tactics.” The one story, noble and enduring, that will ever be associated with the French on the 1st of June is in full keeping with the temper of the times and the enthusiasm of the nation. The seventy-four-gun ship Vengeur, after a three hours’ fight, yardarm to yardarm, with the British Brunswick, was left in a sinking state by her antagonist, who was herself in no condition to help. In the confusion, the Vengeur’s peril was for some time not observed; and when it was, the British ships that came to her aid had time only to remove part of her survivors. In their report of the event the latter said:<br><br>
Scarcely had the boats pulled clear of the sides, when the most frightful spectacle was offered to our gaze. Those of our comrades who remained on board the Vengeur du Peuple, with hands raised to heaven, implored, with lamentable cries, the help for which they could no longer hope. Soon disappeared the ship and the unhappy victims it contained. In the midst of the horror with which this scene inspired us all, we could not avoid a feeling of admiration mingled with our grief. As we drew away, we heard some of our comrades still offering prayers for the welfare of their country. The last cries of these unfortunates were, ‘Vive la République!’ They died uttering them.<br><br>
Over a hundred Frenchmen thus went down. Seven French ships were captured, including the sunk Vengeur. Five more were wholly dismasted, but escaped,—a good fortune mainly to be attributed to Howe’s utter physical prostration, due to his advanced years and the continuous strain of the past five days. He now went to bed, completely worn out.