The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 4
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Chapter 4. The battle off Brest
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THE BATTLE OFF BREST.
When Bligh's expedition returned, Europe was staggering under the shock of the French Revolution. The head of Louis XVI was severed in January; the knife of Charlotte Corday was plunged into the heart of Marat in July; Marie Antoinette, the grey discrowned Queen of thirty-eight, mounted the scaffold in October. The guillotine was very busy, and France was frantic amid internal disruption and the menace of a ring of foes.
The English governing classes had been clamouring for war. It seemed to many political observers that it was positively needful to launch the country into an international struggle to divert attention from demands for domestic reform. "Democratic ambition was awakened; the desire of power, under the name of reform, was rapidly gaining ground among the middling ranks; the only mode of checking the evil was by engaging in a foreign contest, by drawing off the ardent spirits into active service and, in lieu of the modern desire for innovation, rousing the ancient gallantry of the British people." French military operations in the Netherlands, running counter to traditional British policy, were provocative, and the feeling aroused by the execution of Louis immediately led Pitt's ministry to order the French Ambassador, Chauvelin, to leave London within eight days. He left at once. On February 1st, acting on Chauvelin's report of the disposition and preparations of Great Britain, France formally declared war.
Flinders was with Bligh, peacefully landing breadfruit trees in the West Indies, when this momentous opening of a twenty-two years' conflict occurred. When the expedition reached England, every port and dockyard on the south coast was humming with preparations for a great naval struggle. The Channel Fleet, under Lord Howe's command, was cruising in search of the enemy's ships of war. Flinders' patron, Pasley, who had hoisted his broad pennant as commodore on the Bellerophon, was actively engaged in this service. In October, 1793, he was detached by Howe to look for five French vessels that had some time before chased the British frigate Circe into Falmouth. Howe himself, with a fleet of 22 sail, put to sea later in the same month. On November 18 his squadron sighted six French ships of the line and some frigates, and gave chase. But they were seen late in the day, and soon darkness prevented an engagement. On the following morning the enemy was again sighted by the chasing squadron under Pasley; but the Latona signalled that the French were in superior strength, and the British detachment retired.) Howe's cruise was barren of results, and the British fleet returned to Torbay. Naval operations were suspended for several months.Flinders naturally took advantage of the earliest opportunity to report himself to the friend who had first helped him into the King's Navy. Pasley, who was promoted on April 12th, 1794, to the rank of Rear-Admiral of the White, again welcomed him on board the Bellerophon and, hearing from Captain Bligh excellent accounts of his diligence and usefulness, appointed him one of his aides-de-camp. It was in this capacity that he took part in the great battle off Brest on June 1st, 1794, signalised in British naval history as "the glorious First of June."
Lord Howe, with the Channel Fleet (thirty-four ships of the line and fifteen frigates) put to sea on May 2nd with two purposes: first, to convoy to a safe distance from the probable field of hostilities a squadron of 148 British merchantmen bound for various ports; second, to intercept and destroy a French fleet which was known to be convoying a large company of provision-ships from America. War, bad harvests, the disorganization of industry, and revolutionary upheavals, had produced an acute scarcity of food in France, and the arrival of these vessels was awaited with intense anxiety. To prevent their arrival, or to destroy the French squadron, would be to strike a serious blow at the enemy. Howe had under him a fleet eager for fight; against him, a foe keenly aware how vitally necessary to their country was the arrival of the food-ships.
The French fleet (twenty-six ships of the line) under the command of Villaret-Joyeuse, put to sea from Brest on May 16. Some foggy days intervened. On the 28th Howe sighted them. The French admiral formed his ships in a close line. Howe's plan was first to get his fleet to windward of the enemy, then to sail down, pierce his line, and engage his vessels to leeward.
The Bellerophon was in action shortly after coming within striking distance, on the 28th May. Pasley, at six o'clock in the evening, attacked the French rear, his immediate antagonist being the Révolutionnaire, 110 guns. A hot duel, maintained with splendid intrepidity by the British rear-admiral, continued for over an hour and a quarter, for the other ships of the British fleet were unable to get up to support the fast-sailing Bellerophon. She was severely handled by her large antagonist, and was hampered in her ability to manoeuvre by a shot which injured her mainmast. Pasley therefore, on a signal from the Admiral, bore up. The Révolutionnaire was now attacked from a distance by the Russell, the Marlborough and the Thunderer, and endeavoured to make off, but was blocked by the Leviathan. The Audacious (74) took up the work which the Bellerophon had commenced, and, laying herself on the lee quarter of the Révolutionnaire, poured a rain of shot into her. The fight was continued in a rough sea far into the twilight of that early summer evening; until, about 10 o'clock, the Révolutionnaire was a mere floating hulk. Her flag had either been lowered or shot down, but she was not captured, and was towed into Rochefort on the following day. The Audacious was so badly knocked about that she was of no use for later engagements, and was sent home.
This was Matthew Flinders' first taste of war.
Howe's plan for the big battle that was imminent involved much manoeuvring, and, as Nelson wrote in his celebrated "plan of attack" before Trafalgar, "a day is soon lost in that business." The British manoeuvred to get the weather gauge; Villaret-Joyeuse to keep it. On May 29th Howe in the Queen Charlotte pierced the French line with two other ships, the Bellerophon and the Leviathan, and there was some fighting. The Bellerophon got to windward of the enemy by passing in front of the French Terrible (110), and put in some excellent gunnery practice. She sailed so close to the French ship to starboard as almost to touch her, and brought down the enemy's topmast and lower yards with a broadside, whilst at the same time she raked the Terrible with her larboard guns.
May 30 and 31 were foggy days, and neither fleet could see the other. On June 1st there was a blue sky, a brilliant sun, a lively sea, and a wind that favoured the plans of the British Admiral. The signal for close action was flown from the masthead of the Queen Charlotte. Howe ordered his ships to sail on an oblique course down upon the French line, the two fleets having during the night lain in parallel lines stretching east and west. The intention was to break the French line near the centre, each British captain sailing round the stern of his antagonist, and fighting her to leeward, thus concentrating the attack on the enemy's rear, cutting it off from the van, and preventing flight.
The Bellerophon was the second ship in the British line, next after the Caesar. Flinders was upon the quarterdeck as she steered through her selected gap, which was on the weather quarter of the Eole; and an anecdote of his behaviour on that memorable occasion fortunately survives. The guns on the quarterdeck were loaded and primed ready for use, but Pasley did not intend to fire them until he had laid himself on the lee of his chosen adversary, and could pour a broadside into her with crushing effect. There was a moment when the gunners were aloft trimming sails. As the Bellerophon was passing close under the stern of the French three-decker—within musket-shot, James says— Flinders seized a lighted match and rapidly fired as many of the quarterdeck guns as would plump shot fairly into her. Pasley saw him and, shaking him by the collar, said, sternly: "How dare you do that, youngster, without my orders?" Flinders replied that he "thought it a fine chance to have a shot at 'em." So it was, though not in conformity with orders; and probably Pasley, as good a fighter as there was in the fleet, liked his young aide-de-camp rather the more for his impetuous action.
The guns of the Bellerophon were opened upon the Eole at 8.45, and battered her severely. The British vessel was subjected in turn, however, not only to the fire of her chosen victim, but also to that of the Trajan. At ten minutes to eleven o'clock a shot from the Eole took off Pasley's leg, and he was carried down to the cockpit, whereupon the command devolved upon Captain William Hope. It must have been a distressing moment for Flinders, despite the intense excitement of action, when his friend and commander fell; it was indeed, as will be seen, a crucial moment in his career. A doggerel bard of the time enshrined the event in a verse as badly in need of surgical aid as were the heroes whom it celebrates:
"Bravo, Bowyer, Pasley, Captain Hutt, Each lost a leg, being sorely hurt; Their lives they valued but as dirt, When that their country called them!"
The fight was continued with unflagging vigour, in the absence of the gallant rear-admiral, who, as another lyrist of the event informs us, smiled and said—
"Fight on my lads and try To make these rebel Frenchmen know That British courage still will flow To make them strike or die."
At a quarter before noon the Eole had received such a hammering that she endeavoured to wear round under shelter of her leader; but in doing so she lost mainmast and foretopmast. The Bellerophon, too, had by this time been sufficiently hard hit to cause Hope to signal to the Latona for assistance. Her foretopmast and maintopmast had gone, and her mainmast was so badly damaged as to be dangerous. Her rigging was cut to pieces, all her boats were smashed, and she was practically as crippled as was her brave commander, upon whom the surgeons had been operating down below, amid the blood of the cockpit and the thunder and smoke of the cannon.
The battle ended about 1 p.m. The French fleet was badly beaten, and Villaret-Joyeuse at the end of the day drew back to Brest only a battered, splintered and ragged remnant of the fine squadron which he had commanded. Still, the French provision ships slipped by and arrived safely in port. The squadron had been sent out to enable them to get in, and in they were, though it had cost a fleet to get them in. Nelson used the phrase "a Lord Howe victory" disparagingly. Nothing short of a complete smashing of the enemy and the utter frustration of his purposes would ever satisfy that ardent soul.
For the sake of clearness, the general scheme of the battle has been described, together with the part played in it by the Bellerophon; but we fortunately have a detailed account of it by Flinders himself. Young as he was, only a few weeks over 20 years of age, he was evidently cool, and his journal is crowded with carefully observed facts, noted amidst the heat and confusion of conflict; and it is doubtful whether there is in existence a better story of this important fleet action. The manuscript of his journal occupies forty foolscap pages. It is much damaged by sea-water, the paper in some parts having been rendered quite pulpy. But the sheets relating to the 1st of June are entirely legible. As the reader will see, there is here no rhetoric, no excited use of vivid adjectives to give colour to the story. It is a calmly observed piece of history. Read attentively, it enables one to live through the stirring events with which it deals in a singularly thrilling style. We feel the crash and thunder and hustle of battle far more keenly from the detailed accumulation of occurrences here presented than any scene-painting prose could make us do. The journal begins on September 7th, 1793, when Flinders joined the Bellerophon, and continues till August 10th, 1794, when he quitted her. In the early part it deals principally with cruising up and down the Channel looking for the enemy's ships. Occasionally there was a skirmish. We may select a few instances from this period, before coming to what immediately preceded the great day:
"Wednesday, 11th (September, 1793) a.m. Hoisted a broad pennant by order of Lord Howe, Capt. Pasley being appointed a commodore of the fleet. Weighed and anchored in our station in Torbay.
"Monday, November 18th. Saw nine or ten sail, seemingly large ships, standing towards us. The admiral made the Russell and Defence signals to chase, also the Audacious; and soon after ours. By this time the strange ships had brought to, hull down, to windward, seemingly in some confusion. The Ganges' signal was also made to chase. At 9 the Admiral made the sign for the strange fleet being an enemy, and for our sternmost ships to make more sail. At 10 the signal to engage as the other ships came up was made. The enemy had now hauled their wind, and standing from us with as much sail as they could carry. Split one jib; got another bent as fast as possible. We were now the headmost line of battle ship and gaining fast upon the enemy; but the main part of our fleet seemed rather to drop from them. St. Agnes north 34 degrees east 89 miles. Ship all clear for action since 9 o'clock.
"Tuesday, November 19th, 1793. Judge six of the enemy's ships to be of the line, two frigates and two brigs.…On the wind shifting at 4 in a squall, tacked, as did the Latona, which brought her near the
FACSIMILE OF LETTER TO SIR JOSEPH BANKS, 1794.
rear of the enemy's ships, at which she fired several shot; she tacked again at 5, and fired, which the sternmost of their ships returned. At dark the enemy passed to windward of us, about 5 or 6 miles.… 12, set top-gallant-sails, but obliged to take them in again for fear of carrying away the masts. Sundry attempts were made during the night to set, but as often obliged to take them in. At 12 lost sight of all our ships except one frigate. The weather very hazy, with squalls at times, and at 2 a heavy shower of rain, which lasted a considerable time. When it cleared a little, saw two or three of the enemy's ships ahead of the others on the lee bow. Very thick and hazy, with much rain. Made the signal that the enemy had bore away. Saw the Latona and Phoenix, who seemed suspicious of each other, but on discovering they were friends both bore away after one of the enemy's ships.… About 9 the Phoenix and Latona being the only friends in sight, the latter made the signal for the enemy being superior to the ships chasing. Soon after we made the signal to call the frigates in.… In the firing the preceding evening the Latona received a shot between wind and water in the breadroom, and another in the galley; but happily no one was hurt and but little injury received."
An amusing example of an attempt to "dodge," under false colours, is related on the following day. The trick did not succeed.
"Wednesday, November 27th, 1793, a.m. Hazy weather. Squadron in company. Saw a strange ship to the southward, who hoisted an Union Jack at the main topmast head and a red flag at the fore. The Phoenix being ahead made the private signal, but the stranger not answering she made the signal for an enemy. We immediately made the general signal to chase. At 10 the Phoenix and Latona fired a few shots at her, upon which she hoisted French colours, discharged her guns, and struck. She proved to be La Blonde of 28 guns and 190 men. The squadron brought to. The French captain came on board and surrendered his sword to the commodore. Separated the prisoners amongst the squadron. An officer of the Phoenix sent to take charge of the prize and a party of men from each ship.
"Tuesday, December 1st, 1793. Brought to. The Phoenix sent into Falmouth, Mr. Waterhouse, Lieutenant, sent in her to take charge of the Blonde prize."
The French fleet, as related above, put out of Brest on May 16, 1794. Flinders tells us how they were sighted, and what happened during the days preceding the great battle:
"Friday, May 23rd. The Southampton brought a strange brig into the fleet and destroyed her … a.m. A fine little ship, called the Albion, of Bermuda, set on fire by the Glory. The Aquilon brought a strange ship into the fleet. A galliot, with Dutch colours inverted, passed through the fleet, having been set on fire by the Niger … A French man-of-war, captured and brought into the fleet by the frigates, was set on fire.
"Saturday, May 24. The ship brought into the fleet by the Aquilon left us and stood to the eastward. She was bound to Hull, and was part of a Dutch convoy, most of which had been taken and destroyed by the French fleet on Wednesday last.
"Sunday, May 25th. At daybreak saw four sail to windward; our squadron sent in chase. Fired a shot and brought to a French brig, man-of-war. Made signal that the prize was not secure, and chased a large ship further to windward, apparently of the line, and with another ship in tow. Tacked as soon as she was on our beam. She had cast off her prize as soon as we fired at the brig. In passing, fired at and brought to a French corvette; but left her for the fleet to pick up. Passed to leeward of the ship the chase had in tow. She appeared to be a large merchantman and had up American colours. The frigates in chase picked her up soon after. At 10 the chase was nearly hull down, and gained upon us. Stood back to the fleet, being recalled by signal. Saw one of the prizes in flames, and found the three had been destroyed at noon; 162 leagues west by south of Ushant."
In the ensuing pages we are brought into the thick of the battle.
"Wednesday, May 28th. Saw two strange sail, one of which the Phoenix spoke, and soon after made signal for a strange fleet south-south-west. About 8, we counted 33 sail, 24 or 25 of which appeared to be of the line, and all standing down towards us. At 8.30 our signal was made to reconnoitre the enemy—as we were now certain they were. A frigate of their's was likewise looking at us. At noon the enemy's fleet south-west to west-south-west, on the larboard tack under an easy sail in line ahead, and distant 3 or 4 leagues. Our fleet 3 or 4 leagues to leeward in the order of sailing or under a press of sail. Ushant north 82 degrees east 143 leagues.
"Thursday, May 29th, 1794. Fresh gales with rain at times, and a swell from the westward. Repeated the general signals for chase, battle, etc. Kd. ship occasionally, working to windward under a press of sail, our squadron and the frigates in company, and our fleet a few miles to leeward. "About 3 the Russell, being a mile or two to windward of us, began to fire on the enemy's rear, as they were hauling on the larboard tack, and continued to stand on with the Thunderer and frigates, to get into their wake. We tacked a little before the rear ship was on our beam, which enabled us to bring them to action a considerable time before the other ships could come up to our assistance. Our first fire was directed on a large frigate which brought up the enemy's rear, but she soon made sail and went to windward of the next ship (a three-decker) on whom we immediately pointed our guns. In a few minutes she returned it with great spirit, our distance from her being something more than a mile. My Lord Howe, seeing us engaged with a three-decked ship, and the next ahead of him frequently giving us a few guns, made the Russell and Marlborouqh's signals to come to our assistance, they being on the weather quarter. About dusk more of the fleet had got up with us, the signal having been made to chase without regard to order. The Leviathan and Audacious, particularly, passed to windward of us, and came to close engagement; the first keeping as close to him to leeward as she could fetch, and the latter fetching to windward of him, laid herself athwart his stern and gave a severe raking. The headmost of the French fleet were apparently hove to, but made no effort to relieve their comrade. At this time our maincap was seen to be so badly sprung as to oblige us to take in the main topsail; the larboard topsail sheet block was likewise shot away. Got down the top-gallant yard and mast, and, the ship being scarcely under command, we made the signal for inability. Soon after the Admiral called us by signal into his wake. The enemy's rear ship about 9 had his mizzenmast gone and he bore down towards us, the Russell and Thunderer striking close to his weather quarter and lee bow, keeping up a severe fire, but he scarcely returned a shot. Having got clear of them he continued coming down on us, apparently with the intention of striking to our flag, but firing a shot now and then. He was intercepted by one of our ships, who running to leeward of him soon silenced his guns, and, we concluded, had obliged him to strike. The enemy's fleet were now collected about 3 miles to windward, carrying lights, as did ours. We were in no regular order, it having been broken up by the chase. A.M., employed securing the maincap, etc. All hands kept at quarters. Fresh breezes and hazy weather. At daybreak the enemy's line was formed about 2 miles distant, and our commander in chief made the signal to form the line of battle, and take stations as most convenient. We bore down and took ours astern of the Queen Charlotte, the Marlborough and Royal Sovereign following. About 8 our fleet tacked in succession, with a view to cut off the enemy's rear, the Caesar leading and my Lord Howe the 10th ship. As soon as our van were sufficiently near to bring them to action, the enemy's whole fleet wore in succession, and ran to leeward of their line in order to support their rear, and edged down van to van. At 10 the firing commenced between the headmost ships of both lines, but at too great a distance to do much execution, and the Admiral made the signal to tack in succession in order to bring the enemy to close action, but not being taken notice of, about noon it was repeated with a gun. The Leviathan, being next ahead of the Admiral, fired some guns, but the Queen Charlotte and those astern did not attempt it. Hazy weather at noon with a considerable swell from the westward. Latitude observed to be 47 degrees 35 minutes north. Note—We found this morning at daybreak that the Audacious was missing, and we concluded was the ship who had secured the prize, neither being in sight.
"Friday, May 30th. Fresh breezes and hazy weather. The signal for the van to tack was again repeated, when the Caesar made the signal of inability; but at last they got round, and the Admiral made signal to cut through the enemy's line; but finding our leading ships were passing to leeward, we tacked a considerable time before the ships came in succession, and luffed up as close to them as possible. The enemy were now well within point-blank shot, which began to fall very thick about us, and several had passed through our sails before we tacked. Immediately we came into the Queen Charlotte's wake we tacked, lay up well for the enemy's rear, and began a severe fire, giving it to each ship as we passed. My Lord Howe in the Charlotte kept his luff, and cut through their line between the 4th and 5th ship in the rear. We followed, and passed between the 2nd and 3rd. The rest of the fleet passed to leeward. Their third ship gave us a severe broadside on the bow as we approached to pass under her stern, and which we took care to return by two on her quarter and stern. Before we had cleared her, her fore and maintop masts fell over the side, and she was silenced for a while, but it was only till we had passed her. Their rear ship received several broadsides even from our three-deckers, but kept her colours up. The Orion ran down to her, but getting upon her beam and too far to leeward was obliged to leave her, and she got to her own fleet, whom we were now to windward of. Lord Howe made the signal to tack, and for a general chase, but few of the van ships were able to follow him. For ourselves, we lay to, to reeve new braces and repair the rigging, which was entirely cut to pieces forward. The foresail was rendered useless, and was cut away, and being only able to set a close-reefed main topsail for fear of the cap giving way, we were not able to follow his lordship. The French perceiving how few followed them, rallied, tacked, and supported their disabled ships, and even made a feint to cut off the Queen, who was rendered a wreck. The Admiral, seeing their intention, bore down with several of the heavy ships who had not been engaged, and forced them to leeward of our disabled ships. At 5.30 having got a new foresail bent, and the rigging in a little order, we bore down and joined the Admiral, who soon after formed the line in two divisions, and stood to the westward under an easy sail abreast of the enemy, who were to leeward in a line ahead; the disabled ships in both fleets repairing their damages, several of theirs being without topmasts and topsail yards. At sunset saw two ships pass to windward, conjectured to be the Audacious and prize. Employed splicing and knotting the rigging, and repairing sails, not one of which but had several shot through them. The truck of the foretopgallant mast was likewise shot away. A.M., thick foggy weather. Saw the enemy at times north-north-west 4 or 5 miles. At noon very foggy. Latitude 47° 39' north by dull observation.
"Saturday, May 31st, 1794. Lost sight of the enemy and only four of our own ships in sight. People employed repairing sail, rigging, etc., with all expedition. At noon thick and foggy. No enemy in sight; 30 sail of our own ships.
"Sunday, June 1st, 1794. Moderate breezes and foggy weather. Before two it began to clear up. Saw the enemy to leeward, 8 or 9 miles distant, and made the signal for that purpose. Soon after the whole fleet bore down towards them by signal. The enemy were edging away from the wind, and several of their ships were changing stations in the line; some of them without topmasts and topsail yards. About 7, the van of our fleet being within three miles of the enemy's centre, the heavy ships in the rear a considerable way astern, the Admiral made the signal to haul to the wind together on the larboard tack, judging we should not be able to bring on a general action to-night. At sunset the enemy were in a line ahead from north-west by west to north-east by east about four miles distant, and apparently steering about two points from the wind. At 11 the Phaeton passed along the line, and informed the different ships that Lord Howe intended carrying single reefed T.S.F. sail, jib and M.T.M.S. sail. After speaking us he kept on our lee bow; each ship carrying a light by signal. A.M., fresh breezes and cloudy. At daybreak the enemy not in sight, our rear ships a long way astern, their signal made to make more sail; when the line became tolerably connected, the whole fleet bore away and steered north-west by signal. A little before six saw the enemy in the north by east about 3 leagues. Made the signal to the Admiral for that purpose, who by signal ordered the fleet to alter the course to starboard together, bearing down towards them. About 8, being nearly within shot of the enemy's van, hove to for the rear of the fleet to come up. Lord Howe made the signal 34, which we understood was to pass through the enemy's line, but it did not seem to be understood by the rest of the fleet. At 8.10 the signal was made to bear up and each engage his opponent. We accordingly ran down within musket shot of our opponent, and hove to, having received several broadsides from their van ships in so doing. We now began a severe fire upon our opponent, the second ship in the enemy's van, which she returned with great briskness. The van ship likewise fired many shot at us, his opponent the Caesar keeping to windward, not more than two points before our beam in general, and of course nearly out of point-blank shot. About 8.30 Admiral Graves made his and the Russell's signal to engage their opponent; we likewise made Captain Molloy's (the Caesar) signal twice to bear down and come to close action. About 9 the action became general throughout the two fleets, but the Tremendous kept out of the line, but on being ordered in by signal from the Admiral, she bore down after some time. A little before 11 our brave Admiral (Pasley) lost his leg by an 18-pound shot, which came through the barricading of the quarter-deck. It was now the heat of the action. The Caesar was not yet come close to his opponent, who in consequence of that fired all his after guns at us. Our own ship kept up a severe fire, and by keeping well astern to let the Caesar take her station, their third van ship shot up on our quarter, and for some time fired all his fore guns upon us. Our shot was directed on three different ships as the guns could be got to bear. In ten or fifteen minutes we saw the foremast of the third ship go by the board, and the second ship's main-top-sail-yard down upon the cap. Otherwise the two headmost had not received much apparent injury, at least in the rigging. At 11¼, however, they both bore away and quitted the line, their Admiral being obliged to do the same some time before by the Queen Charlotte. On seeing the two van ships hauling upon the other tack, we conjectured they meant to give us their starboard guns. The Caesar's signal was immediately made by us to chase the flying ships. On his bearing down they were put into confusion, and their ship falling down upon them they received several broadsides from the Leviathan and us, before they could get clear; which when they effected they kept away a little, then hauled their wind in the starboard tack, and stood away from the opposing fleets. And now, being in no condition to follow, we ceased firing; the main and foretopmast being gone, every main shroud but one on the larboard side cut through, and many on the other, besides having the main and foremasts with all the rigging and sails in general much injured. We made the Latona's signal to come to our assistance, and got entirely out of action. When the smoke cleared away, saw eleven ships without a mast standing, two of whom proved to be the Marlborough and Defence. The rest were enemy's, who, notwithstanding their situation kept their colours up, and fired at any of our ships that came near them. The Leviathan's opponent particularly (the same ship whose foremast we shot away) lying perfectly dismasted, the Leviathan ran down to him to take possession; but on her firing a gun to make him haul down his colours, he returned a broadside, and a severe action again commenced between them for nearly half an hour, and we could see shot falling on the water on the opposite side of the Frenchman, which appeared to have gone through both his sides, the ships being at half a cable's length from each other. The Leviathan falling to leeward could not take the advantage of him her sails gave her, and, seeing his obstinacy, left him, but not before his fire was nearly silenced. About 11.30 the firing was pretty well ceased on all sides, the Queen having only a foremast standing was fallen to leeward between the two fleets. She stood on the larboard tack to fetch our fleet, keeping to the wind in an astonishing manner, which we afterwards learnt was effected by getting up boat's sails abaft. In this situation every ship she passed gave her a broadside or more, which she returned with great spirit, keeping up an almost incessant blaze. After she had stood on past the fleets, she wore round and stood back, pursuing the same conduct as before, but the French, having collected their best-conditioned ships in a body, and being joined by two or three other disabled ships, were making off, having apparently given up all ideas of saving the rest. On this our fleet stood down a little, and the Queen joined. We were now employed knotting, splicing, repairing, etc. the rigging, cutting away the wrecks of the fore and main topmasts, and securing the lower masts. Fortunately no accident happened with the powder, or with guns bursting. We had but three men killed outright (a fourth died of his wounds very soon after) and about 30 men wounded, amongst whom five lost their limbs, and the other leg of one man was so much shattered as to be taken off some time after. Our brave Admiral was unfortunately in this list, as before observed. Captain Smith of the Marines and Mr. Chapman, boatswain, were amongst the wounded on the second day. Most of our spars were destroyed, and the boats severely injured. About noon we had still fine weather and the enemy standing away from us, except one ship, which did not seem injured, and paraded to windward, as if with the intention of giving some of us disabled ships a brush. However, we were well prepared for him, having got tolerably clear of the wreck, and he stood back again and out of sight, having spoken one of their wrecks. Lord Howe made the signal to form the line as most convenient, but it was a long time before that movement could be effected."
Flinders wrote in his journal an estimate of the French sailors who were put on board his ship as prisoners. It is of some historical value:—
"Their seamen, if we may judge from our own prisoners, are in a very bad state both with respect to discipline and knowledge of their profession; both which were evidently shown by the condition we saw them in on the 31st, many of them being without topmasts and topsail yards, and nearly in as bad a state as on the 29th after the action. 'Tis true they were rather better when we saw them in the morning of June 1st. Out of our 198 prisoners there certainly cannot be above 15 or 20 seamen, and all together were the dirtiest, laziest set of beings conceivable. How an idea of liberty, and more so that of fighting for it, should enter into their heads, I know not; but by their own confession it is not their wish and pleasure, but that of those who sent them; and so little is it their own that in the Brunswick (who was engaged yardarm and yardarm with the Vengeur) they could see the French officers cutting down the men for deserting their quarters. Indeed, in the instances of the Russell and Thunderer when close to the Révolutionnaire, and ours when cutting the line, the French do not like to come too close. A mile off they will fight desperately."
Pasley's loss of a leg had a decisive effect upon the career of Matthew Flinders. So fine a sailor and so tough a fighting man would unquestionably, if not partially incapacitated, have had conferred upon him during the following years of war commands that would have led to his playing a very prominent part in fleet operations. As it was, he did not go to sea again, though he was promoted through various ranks to that of Admiral of the Blue (1801). He became commander in chief at the Nore in 1798, and at Plymouth in 1799. Had he received other sea commands, his vigorous, alert young aide-de-camp might have continued to serve with him, and would thus have just missed the opportunities that came to him in his next sphere of employment. What young officer would not have eagerly followed a gallant and warm-hearted Admiral who had first placed him upon a British quarterdeck and had made him an aide-de-camp? As it was, the chance that came to Flinders about two months after the battle off Brest was one that ministered to his decided preference for service in seas where there was exploratory work to do.
Pasley's influence upon the life of Flinders was so important, that a characterisation of him by one who has perused his letters and journals must be quoted. "It is impossible," writes Miss L.M. Sabine Pasley, "not to be impressed from these journals with a strong feeling of respect for the writer, so simple-minded, so kind-hearted, such a brave old sailor of his time—rough, no doubt, in manners and language, but with an earnest and genuine piety that shows itself from time to time in little ejaculations and prayers, contrasting, it must be owned, rather strongly with the terms in which the 'rascally Yankies' are alluded to in the same pages." What Howe thought of him is recorded in a letter which he sent to the Rear-Admiral a fortnight after the battle, regretting that "the services of a friend he so highly esteemed and so gallant an officer, capable of such spirited exertions, should be restrained by any disaster from the continued exertion of them." There is also on record a letter to Pasley from the Prime Minister, a model of grace and delicate feeling, in which Pitt signified that the King had conferred on him a baronetcy "as a mark of the sense which His Majesty entertains of the distinguished share which you bore in the late successful and glorious operations of His Majesty's fleet," and assured him "of the sincere satisfaction which I personally feel in executing this commission."
On the south-western coast of Australia, eight years later, Flinders remembered his first commander when naming the natural features of the country. Cape Pasley, at the western tip of the arc of the great Australian Bight, celebrates "the late Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley, under whom I had the honour of entering the naval service." On some current maps of Australia the cape is spelt "Paisley," an error which obscures the interesting biographical fact with which the name is connected.
It is noteworthy that though the career of Flinders as a naval officer covers the stormiest period in British naval history, the whole of his personal experience of battle was confined to these five days, May 28 to June 1, 1794. The whole significance of his life lies in the work of discovery that he accomplished, and in the contributions he made to geography and navigation. Yet he was destined to feel the effect of the enmity of the French in a peculiarly distressing form. His useful life was cut short largely by misfortunes that came upon him as a consequence of war, and work which he would have done to the enhancement of his reputation and the advancement of civilisation was thwarted by it.
- Alison, History of Europe, (1839) II., 128.
- James, Naval History, (1837), I., 60.
- There is an interesting engraving of the Bellerophon passing through the French line and firing both her broadsides in the Naval Chronicle Volume 1, and a plan of the manoeuvre, showing the course of the Bellerophon, in James's Naval History.
- Naval History, I., 154.
- Naval Chronicle, XXXII., 180.
- Naval Songs and Ballads—Publications of the Navy Record Society, Vol. XXXIII., 270.
- See note p. 56
- "Kd. ship" is an expression which puzzled Professor Flinders Petrie, who appended a note to the Flinders papers, suggesting that it could hardly mean kedged. Captain Bayldon supplies an exceedingly interesting explanation:—
"Without the least doubt 'Kd. ship' means 'tacked ship.' 'Kd.' is either a private abbreviation of Flinders' for 'tacked' or else he intended to have written 'Tkd.' There is no nautical term beginning with K which would make the least sense under the circumstances. 'Kedged' is utterly inadmissable; both fleets were under way in pretty heavy weather. 'Working to windward' practically means 'tacking ship.' So why did Flinders mention an obvious fact, 'tacked ship'? Because the weather was bad, strong breezes, heavy swell, and therefore it was very hazardous to tack ship (on account of throwing the sails aback) and also many ships could not be forced into tacking with a heavy head swell. Consequently it is usual to wear ship under these conditions (turn her round before the wind). So he then mentions 'under a press of sail,' to force her up into the wind (also making it a risky manoeuvre, for they could easily lose their masts—foremast especially). Hence he was proud of the manoeuvre, so mentions, 'tacked ship occasionally, under a press of sail.' On the 29th May at 8 a.m., the French van wore in succession. (Fresh wind, heavy head sea). Soon after noon (Flinders' old nautical time gives May 30th) Lord Howe signalled the British fleet to tack in succession. The leading ship, the Caesar, instead of obeying, made the signal of inability and wore round. The next ship, the Queen, also wore. So (at 1.30 p.m.) Lord Howe set the example in the Queen Charlotte and tacked. Pasley's Bellerophon followed him, and tacked also; the Leviathan tacked and followed her. These three ships were the only ones to tack. All the remainder wore, and so did the French. Either their captains would not take the risk, or else could not force their ships through the heavy head sea. So I expect Flinders and the 'Bully ruffians' felt elated at their performance and he intended to record 'Tkd. ship.'")
- The Révolutionnaire.
- Of course this surmise was incorrect. The Audacious had not secured the Révolutionnaire which was towed into Rochefort by the Audacieux (curious similarity in names). The Audacious badly crippled made her way to Plymouth alone.—[Captain Bayldon's note].
- Nautical reckoning in Flinders' day was 12 hours ahead; i.e., his June 1 began at noon on May 31. Occurrences following "a.m.," happened on June 1 by the Almanac.
- Letters probably denote single reefed Top Sails, Fore sail, jib and Main Topmast and Main Stay sails.
- Memoir of Admiral Sir T. S. Pasley, by Louisa M. Sabine Pasley. Sir T. S. Pasley was the grandson of Flinders' Admiral. It unfortunately happens that the Journals of "old Sir Thomas" which are extant do not cover the period when Flinders acted as his aide-de-camp. Miss Sabine Pasley was kind enough to have a search made among his papers for any trace of Flinders' relations with him, but without success.
- Flinders, Voyage to Terra Australis I., 87.
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