Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

CHAPTER IX

THE PURSUIT OF VILLENEUVE

FOR a little over a year Francis Austen was Flag-Captain in the Canopus. This ship, which had been captured from the French at the Battle of the Nile, had originally been called Le Franklin, and was one of the best built vessels in the Navy of that day, carrying eighty guns.

On March 29, 1805, Rear-Admiral Louis hoisted his flag in the Canopus, and soon afterwards became second in command to Nelson.

Perhaps few, even among British captains of that day, were engaged in search of French fleets across the Atlantic twice within a twelvemonth, but the story in the log-book of the Canopus for that year tells of the chase of Villeneuve before Trafalgar, of the second cruise and of the battle of St. Domingo, followed by the return voyage to England with three French line-of-battle ships as prizes.

The subtle strategy of the Emperor Napoleon, with the counter-strokes of Nelson and the British Admiralty, have been often described; but the of those months, told day by day in the log-book of the Canopus, has a freshness of detail which gives reality to such stock phrases as "contrary winds" or "strange sails," and makes one recognise that it was the men at sea who really did the work.

The escape of Villeneuve's fleet from Toulon begins the series of events in 1805 which led up to the Battle of Trafalgar. Napoleon's original plan has since become well known.

Villeneuve was to be joined in the West Indies by the combined fleets under Ganteaume from Brest, and Missiessy from Rochefort. The force thus gathered was to cross the Atlantic, gain possession of the narrow seas by overpowering the Channel fleet, and then the long-threatened invasion of England was to be attempted by the Grand Army, embarked in the Boulogne flotilla.

The plan was so far forward that the fleet from Toulon was already at sea, and the Rochefort squadron had reached the West Indies. It only remained to get the Brest fleet out of harbour. This was, however, exactly where the plan failed. The blockading force was not to be moved and could not be eluded. False news of troubles in India and false declarations of intentions were all unavailing; and even the bluff in the French papers that, so far from waiting till the British would let them go, the French fleet could and would sail whenever it was convenient, did not effect the withdrawal of a single British ship from Ushant. At the same time the fact that the Toulon fleet was at large was enough to cause anxiety to Nelson, especially as it was quite impossible to tell what might be Villeneuve's orders. Nelson supposed him to be making for Egypt, and took up a position accordingly midway between Sardinia and Africa.

The fleet with Nelson at this time is recorded in the log of the Canopus as follows:

100 Victory Rt. Honble. Lord Viscount Nelson, K.B., Vice-Admiral of the White, &c. &c.
Rear.Admiral George Murray, Capt. of the Fleet.
Captain Thomas Hardy.
100 Royal Sovereign Sir Richard Bickerton, Baronet, Rear-Admiral of the Red.
Captain John Stuart.
80 Canopus Thomas Louis, Esq., Rear-Admiral of the Blue.
Captain F. W. Austen.
74 Superb " Richard G. Keats.
74 Spencer " Honble. Robert Stopford.
74 Swiftsure " Mark Robinson.
74 Belleisle " William Hargood.
74 Conqueror " Israel Pellew.
74 Tigre " Benjamin Hallowell.
74 Leviathan " H.W. Baynton.
74 Donegal " Pulteney Malcolm.

The Royal Sovereign was found unfit to make the voyage across the Atlantic, and went home from Lagos in May for thorough repairs, which were so effective that she carried Collingwood's flag into action, before any other of the fleet, at Trafalgar.

The narrative begins at the Bay of Palma in Sardinia, amid general preparations throughout the fleet.

On the 4th of April the Admiral signalled "to prepare for action, as the enemy's fleet from Toulon is at sea." After this the fleet cruised for some days between Sardinia and Sicily, waiting for news of the enemy's movements. If, as was thought possible, they were bound for Egypt, the position taken up by Nelson was a strong one. There were daily consultations of the admirals and captains on board the Victory. After about a fortnight of this uncertainty, "intelligence is gained" that the sixteen French ships of the line were spoken on the 7th of April, off Cartagena, going west. On the 18th this news was confirmed, with the addition that they had passed Gibraltar on the 9th, and were joined by five Spanish two-deckers, and had continued westward with fair winds. Now ensued an anxious time. The enemy were well started ten days in advance, with the wind behind them, while the British fleet were still battling with adverse winds in the Mediterranean. Every breeze is carefully noted in the log, and the slow progress evidently gave the greatest concern.

On the 22nd and 23rd of April, the distance made was only fifteen miles in all: "Extremely variable baffling winds and squally weather, tacking or wearing every two or three hours, the squadron very much dispersed." Ordinarily the Victory was within half a mile, "but now four or six miles away." Majorca was in sight at one time, and the African coast at another, but the progress towards Gibraltar must have been scarcely perceptible. The Rock was seen for the first time on the 2nd May, still twelve leagues away, and on the 4th they anchored in Tetuan Bay. Here was hard work to be done in getting fresh water and provisions on board. At Gibraltar on the 6th the Canopus did not even anchor, as the wind was at last fair, and their stay was only for four hours.

On May 9th, the Victory signalled "to prepare demands to complete provisions for five months," which was accomplished off Lagos in Portugal by the morning of the 11th. Then the Admiral made telegraph signal, "Rendezvous Barbadoes," and the whole fleet made sail for the West Indies.

With fair winds and a straight course, the distance of 3200 miles was accomplished by the 4th of June.

The sailing order of the squadron was:

WEATHER LINE. LEE LINE. FRIGATES ON VICTORY'S WEATHER BEAM.
100 Victory. 80 Canopus.
74 Superb. 74 Leviathan.
74 Donegal. 74 Belleisle. 32 Amphion.
74 Spencer. 74 Conqueror. 38 Amazon.
74 Tigre. 74 Swiftsure. 26 Decade.

There is very little in the log to indicate the intense expectation that must have been present as they made their entries of the diminishing distance.

"May 15.—Island of Barbadoes S. 64.46 W., dist. 877 leagues.

"May 22.—S. 70.15 W., dust. 589 leagues."

The careful comparison of observations with the vessels of the weather line, repairs to spars and sails, and general preparation for what might happen on arrival, seem to fill up the days, while the north-east trade winds gave them fine and clear weather.

"Oh, the wonder of the great trade wind! All day we sailed and all night, and all the next day, and the next, day after day, the wind always astern and blowing steadily and strong. The schooner sailed herself. There was no pulling and hauling on sheets and tackles, no shifting of topsails, no work at all for the sailors to do except to steer. At night, when the sun went down, the sheets were slackened; in the morning when they yielded up the damp of the dew and relaxed, they were pulled tight again—and that was all. Ten knots, twelve knots, eleven knots, varying from time to time, is the speed we are making. And ever out of the north-east the brave wind blows, driving us on our course two hundred and fifty miles between the dawns."

These words, taken from one of our popular modern novels,* give us some idea of what sailing was in those days.

The usual record every twelve hours is "Victory north one mile." Sometimes the flagship is rather more distant, and occasionally the "Admiral (Louis) went on board the Victory." Doubtless the impatience and excitement was not all on Nelson's part. Every man in the fleet must have felt that a battle was not far off. All this time the three frigates were almost daily out in chase, but no enemy was sighted, and it was not until June 3 that the Admiral signalled that the French and Spanish squadrons were at Martinique, "having gained this intelligence from two English letters of marque."

Next day they arrived at Barbadoes, where the Admiral gave orders to embark troops. Nine regiments had been sent out from. England in the spring, but had not arrived in time to prevent Missiessy and his squadron from Rochefort from doing much as they chose during his stay among the islands. His troops had taken possession of Dominica, excepting a fort held by General Prevost's force, and he had laid under contribution Montserrat, Nevis and St. Kitt's.

Missiessy had then departed, according to the Emperor's instructions, for France, crossing Villeneuve's fleet in Mid-Atlantic. Thus Napoleon's grand scheme of combination fell through. The fleets from Toulon and Rochefort missed each other, instead of meeting at the West Indies, and the Brest fleet did not succeed in getting past the British blockade. The Canopus log of July 17 records the return of Missiessy's squadron. "Five sail of the line and four frigates arrived at Rochefort, on May 21. Vessels dismantled and remained."

The troops embarked by the squadron at Barbadoes were some of those despatched hither in the spring. There is a record of a characteristic order on June 3:

"Admiral made telegraph signal—' Troops to be victualled at whole allowance of provisions. The practice of the day was that soldiers at sea received smaller rations than the ship's company— just the sort of unreasonable orders which it would delight Nelson to set aside.

Early on the 5th the squadron was again under weigh, the Victory leading and the Canopus astern; but in consequence of wrong information received they were on a southerly course, and hourly increasing their distance from the combined enemy's fleet, which was still among the islands, but to the northward of Martinique. The signal at three o'clock "to prepare for battle" was not to be followed by any immediate action.

On the 7th the Gulf of Paria, in Trinidad, was reached, but still no news of the enemy was obtained. The log merely mentions anchoring there for the night and sailing for the northerly islands next morning. The careful records of barometer and temperature are here interrupted, as "barometer taken down in clearing for action."

All through June 10, 11 and 12 the smaller craft were constantly detached to the various islands for intelligence, and finally they all anchored at Antigua.

"June 12.—Admiral made signal to prepare letters for England. At eight o'clock the Curieux brig parted company for England."

This brig had a history of some interest. She had been captured from the French on February 3, 1804. She was cut out by the Centaur from the harbour of Martinique, just after the Diamond Rock had been seized and garrisoned by the same man-of-war. The story is pathetically told by M. Cheminant, the only French officer who survived the action.

"On BOARD THE Curieux, CAPTURED BY THE ENGLISH,
"Pluviose 14, Year 22.

"The only officer remaining of those who commanded the crew of the Curieux, I owe you a faithful report of the cruel tragedy which has delivered us up to the enemy.

"On the 13th instant, before one o'clock in the morning I was on deck with a midshipman and twenty men, according to the orders given by Captain Cordier. The weather was of the darkest, especially in the northern direction. Sentries were placed abaft at the ladder and forward. Our boarding nettings were triced up. We had hardly perceived the English boats before they boarded by the stern and the main shrouds. We had only time to discharge two guns with grape shot, one swivel and a wall piece, when the enemy were on board, and forced us to have recourse to the sabre, pike and musketry."

Lieutenant Bettesworth took a chief part in the attack, and was eventually rewarded with the command of the brig, which had been one of the best vessels of its kind in the French navy.

It was an important mission which was now entrusted to Captain Bettesworth. He was to sail for England with despatches from Lord Nelson for the Admiralty, steering a certain course in the hope that he would sight the enemy's fleet. Nelson was right in his conjecture, and Captain Bettesworth reached England with the news that Villeneuve was on the return voyage.

The Curieux anchored at Plymouth on July 7, and the Captain reached the Admiralty at 11 P.M. on the 8th, too late, in the officials' opinion, for the First Lord to be disturbed. Lord Barham, a sailor himself, knew well the value of time in naval matters, and was much annoyed at the loss of so many precious hours. Though over eighty years of age his judgment was rapid and accurate. Early on the 9th Admiralty messages were on the way to Portsmouth and Plymouth. Admiral Cornwallis, off Ushant, received his orders on the 11th to detach the squadron blockading Rochefort and send it to join Calder westward off Cape Finisterre, while he himself was to cruise south of Ushant. To the amazement of Napoleon, only eight days after the arrival of the Curieux, Sir Robert Calder was ready with fifteen ships off Ferrol. There Villeneuve met him, and an action took place which should have been decisive, but by reason of excessive caution on the part of Calder, only caused loss of ships and men to both sides without advantage to either. Calder joined Cornwallis off Ushant, while Villeneuve went into Vigo Bay and afterwards into Ferrol.

Nelson's squadron began the voyage back from the West Indies on June 15, and we have again in the log of the Canopus the matter-of-fact, day-to-day record of routine work, vessels spoken, "no intelligence," small prizes, rigging out of gear, and so forth, behind which was the background of suppressed excitement, of unremitting watch, and of constant readiness. As the months went on and the situation developed, the excitement increased, and reached its climax only with Trafalgar Day.

One entry gives an idea of the difference in the conditions of warfare then and now. "On June 19, an English merchant vessel was spoken by the Amphion frigate. They signalled—' Have English papers to the 3rd of May. Interesting debates.' Admiral asked—' Who is First Lord of the Admiralty?' Answer—' Lord Barham.' Knowing so little as they did of affairs at home, they could not be sure that all might not be over before they got back.

"June 29.—The Amazon at daylight was seen to be towing a captured Spanish Tartan, from La Guayra. The people on board did not know of the war." This was undoubtedly an extreme case, and one feels some sympathy for the "people on board," who were captured before they knew that they were fighting.

The winds were naturally less favourable for the return voyage, but by taking a course near Bermuda, and to the Azores, they made much better headway than Villeneuve had managed to do, and reached Gibraltar on July 17. After a few days here they gained intelligence of the doings of the Curieux brig, and sailed northwards to join Admiral Cornwallis off Ushant.

"August 15.—Off Ushant. Lord Nelson saluted Admiral Cornwallis with fifteen guns, returned with thirteen.—Joined the Channel Fleet of twenty-four sail of the line. Answered our signal to follow orders of Admiral Cornwallis in the Ville de Paris."

"August 16.—Thirty-five sail of the line in company. Victory and Superb parted company for England."

We read from a contemporary writer that Nelson arrived "filled with mortification, which those who first conversed with him after his arrival state to have amounted almost to anguish, at his disappointment" at having missed Villeneuve in the West Indies.

"August 17.— Ville de Paris made signal to Prince of Wales (Sir R. Calder) to part company, on service previously denoted. Made sail (southwards) in company with squadron of nineteen sail of the line."

"On 20th Naiad brought intelligence that the French fleet had sailed from Ferrol on the 13th."

"On 22nd, off Peninsular coast, Admiral Calder signalled 'Prepare for battle.'"

This was almost on the very spot of his indecisive fight of July 23. Calder's "order of battle" gives very full details on various contingencies, making a sharp contrast with those signed "Nelson and Bronte," in which the ships' stations only are set down, the rest of the orders being given in the plan of attack well known as the "Nelson Touch."

In the log of 24th "the enemy's fleet of twenty-eight sail of the line were off Cape St. Vincent on the 18th, when they fell in with and destroyed four sail of merchantmen, under convoy of the Halcyon, which narrowly escaped capture. In the afternoon, the Euryalus, with despatches from V. A. Collingwood, reported that the combined fleet anchored in Cadiz on the 21st, making in all thirty-four sail of the line."

With the enemy in Cadiz the only thing to be done was to wait until they came out. On the 30th the log records: "Joined Vice-Admiral Collingwood's squadron of five sail of the line." The fleet wore and stood off while Canopus, Spencer, Tigre, Leviathan and Donegal were ordered to cruise in sight of Cadiz. This plan of keeping a squadron close in shore was followed throughout September, while the fleet awaited the arrival of Nelson from England, and the enemy watched for an opportunity to get out, either to meet the British fleet or to pass them on the way into the Mediterranean.

An extract from the Naval Chronicle shows something of popular feeling in England at this juncture. The remarks on Nelson as contrasted with those of a few months later, after Trafaigar had been fought and won, are more amusing than instructive.

"The arrival of Lord Nelson and Sir Robert Calder's action are the principal events of the last month which have occupied the public mind. It has been said that the former, with Sir Sydney Smith, is soon to embark on some desperate project against the enemy, and we most sincerely wish to see his lordship employed at the present moment in the defence of our own shores. Should the mad project of invasion ever be attempted, the public would feel additional security from having the Hero of the Nile off our own coast. But we greatly lament that ill-judged and overweening popularity which tends to make another demigod of Lord Nelson at the expense of all other officers in the Service, many of whom possess equal merit and equal abilities and equal gallantry with the noble Admiral.

"Sir Robert Calder has not yet, even to the Admiralty, given that explanation of his conduct which his country expects and his character demands. With his character and its failings we are well acquainted, but we only wish to regard his talents. The French fleet did certainly not run away; owing to the particular man&eolig;uvres of the action, they may be said even to have pursued us, and this may, perhaps, have been occasioned by some feint of our Admiral in order to attack the French to greater advantage. But the whole is at present merely conjecture, until some further explanation of the action has taken place. The account which the French have published in the Moniteur, allowing for their natural boasting and vanity, contains a greater portion of truth than usual."

Villeneuve's letter will give an idea of what that account was. "The battle then began almost along the whole line. We fired by the light of the enemy's fire, almost always without seeing them. The fog did not abate during the remainder of the evening. At the first peep of dawn I made signal to bear down upon the enemy, who had taken their position at a great distance, and endeavoured by every possible press of sail to avoid renewing the action. Finding it impossible to force them to an engagement, I thought it my duty not to remove further from the line of my destination."

In consequence of this Sir Robert Calder was recalled and tried by court-martial at Portsmouth in the following December, when he was severely reprimanded for an "error in judgment." The severity of tone of the Naval Chronicle towards those who were fighting the country's battles finds its parallel in the French newspapers of the date. Villeneuve was deeply stung by a sneering remark in the Moniteur upon what the conduct of the French fleet might be if commanded by a man of ability—so much so as to induce him to disregard Napoleon's wishes that he should go to Toulon, collecting forces on the way, and to lead him to come to close quarters with our fleet as soon as a convenient opportunity offered. Of that opportunity and the Battle of Trafalgar to which it led we will speak in the following chapter.

*The "Sea Wolf," by Jack London, Heinemann.