The wars against Napoleonic France and Spain in the early years of the nineteenth century have long fascinated historians and casual readers who are enchanted by the colour and romance of those incredible times. No aspect of the period has generated more interest and enthusiasm than the war at sea-fought between great naval commanders whose names from reverberated through time and who stood upon the decks of equally famous ships of the line in heroic battles. Here are the true life events that so inspired C. S. Forrester-and those who later followed his tradition of naval adventures to appeal to a new and enthusiastic audience. However, nothing in fiction is more remarkable than the actual events related in this book. Here are the true stories of the Victory, the Temeraire, the Orient and many other iconic vessels, and their famous and inspiring feats of naval warfare at Copenhagen, the Nile, Cadiz, Trafalgar and many other battles that helped shape the modern world
On the night of April 11, 1809, Lord Cochrane steered his floating mine against the gigantic boom that covered the French fleet lying in Aix Roads. The story is one of the most picturesque and exciting in the naval annals of Great Britain. Marryat has embalmed the great adventure and its chief actor in the pages of "Frank Mildmay," and Lord Cochrane himself—like the Earl of Peterborough in the seventeenth century, who captured Barcelona with a handful of men, and Gordon in the nineteenth century, who won great battles in China walking-stick in hand—was a man who stamped himself, as with characters of fire, upon the popular imagination.
To the courage of a knight-errant Cochrane added the shrewd and humorous sagacity of a Scotchman. If he had commanded fleets he would have rivalled the victories of Nelson, and perhaps even have outshone the Nile and Trafalgar. And to warlike genius of the first order Cochrane added a certain weird and impish ingenuity which his enemies found simply resistless. Was there ever a cruise in naval history like that of Cochrane in his brig misnamed the Speedy, a mere coasting tub that would neither steer nor tack, and whose entire broadside Cochrane himself could carry in his pockets! But in this wretched little brig, with its four-pounders, Cochrane captured in one brief year more than 50 vessels carrying an aggregate of 122 guns, took 500 prisoners, kept the whole Spanish coast, off which he cruised, in perpetual alarm, and finished by attacking and capturing a Spanish frigate, the Gamo, of 32 heavy guns and 319 men. What we have called the impish daring and resource of Cochrane is shown in this strange fight. He ran the little Speedy close under the guns of the huge Gamo, and the Spanish ship was actually unable to depress its guns sufficiently to harm its tiny antagonist. When the Spaniards tried to board, Cochrane simply shoved his pigmy craft a few yards away from the side of his foe, and this curious fight went on for an hour. Then, in his turn, Cochrane boarded, leaving nobody but the doctor on board the Speedy. But he played the Spaniards a characteristic trick. One half his men boarded the Gamo by the head, with their faces elaborately blackened; and when, out of the white smoke forward, some forty demons with black faces broke upon the astonished Spaniards, they naturally regarded the whole business as partaking of the black art, and incontinently fled below! The number of Spaniards killed and wounded in this fight by the little Speedy exceeded the number of its own entire crew; and when the fight was over, 45 British sailors had to keep guard over 263 Spanish prisoners.
Afterwards, in command of the Impérieuse, a fine frigate, Cochrane played a still more dashing part on the Spanish coast, destroying batteries, cutting off supplies from the French ports, blowing up coast roads, and keeping perspiring battalions of the enemy marching to and fro to meet his descents. On the French coast, again, Cochrane held large bodies of French troops paralysed by his single frigate. He proposed to the English Government to take possession of the French islands in the Bay of Biscay, and to allow him, with a small squadron of frigates, to operate against the French seaboard. Had this request been granted, he says, "neither the Peninsular war nor its enormous cost to the nation from 1809 onwards would ever have been heard of! It would have been easy," he adds, "as it always will be easy in case of future wars, so to harass the French coasts as to find full employment for their troops at home, and so to render operations in foreign countries impossible." If England and France were once more engaged in war—absit omen!—the story of Cochrane's exploits on the Spanish and French coasts might prove a very valuable inspiration and object-lesson. Cochrane's professional reward for his great services in the Impérieuse was an official rebuke for expending more sails, stores, gunpowder and shot than any other captain afloat in the same time!
The fight in the Basque Roads, however—or rather in the Aix Roads—has great historical importance. It crowned the work of Trafalgar. It finally destroyed French power on the sea, and gave England an absolute supremacy. No fleet actions took place after its date between "the meteor flag" and the tricolour, for the simple reason that no French fleet remained in existence. Cochrane's fire-ships completed the work of the Nile and Trafalgar.