Royal Naval Biography/Godench, James

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Obtained his first commission in 1779; and was promoted to the rank of commander for his “bravery and good conduct” as senior lieutenant of the Alexander 74, in an action with a French squadron, of which we find the following official account:–

On board the Murat, at Brest, Nov. 23d, 1794.

“Sir,– The arrival of the Canada must long since have informed their lordships of my misfortune, in losing H.M.S. Alexander, late under my command, having been taken by a squadron of French ships of war, consisting of five 74’s, three large frigates, and an armed brig, commanded by Rear-Admiral Neilly: farther particulars I herewith transmit you for their lordships’ information.

“We discovered this squadron on our weather bow, about 2-30 a.m. on the 6th instant, being then in lat. 48° 25' N., long. 7° 53' W., the wind at west, and we steering N.E. I immediately braced sharp up, with the larboard tacks on board, and without signal, the Canada being close to us. We passed the strangers a little before four o’clock, the nearest of them only about half a mile distant, but could not discover what they were. Shortly after we bore more up, let the reefs out of the top-sails, and set steering-sails. About 5 a.m., perceiving, by my night-glass, the strange ships to stand after us, we crowded all the sail we could possibly set, as did the Canada, and stood still more to the eastward. About day-break the Canada passed us, steering more to the northward than we did. Two ships of the line and two frigates pursued her, and three of the line and one frigate chased the Alexander. About 7-30 the whole of them hoisted English colours. About 8-15 we did the same, upon which they hauled down the English and hoisted French. At 9 or shortly after, observing the ships in pursuit of the Canada draw up with her, I made the signal to form a-head for mutual support (being determined to defend H. M. ships to the last extremity), which signal she instantly answered, and endeavoured to put in execution; but the enemy seeing her intentions, hauled more to starboard to cut her off, and thereby obliged her to steer the course she had done before. We continued firing our sternchasers at the ships pursuing us, from 8-30 till near 11 a.m., when the three 74’s came up, and brought us to close action, which we sustained for upwards of two hours. During this period, the Alexander had become a complete wreck; the main-yard, spanker-boom, and three top-gallant-yards were shot away; all the lower masts shot through in many places, and expected every minute to go over the side; all the other masts and yards wounded, more or less; nearly the whole of the standing and running rigging shot to pieces; and the sails torn into ribands: her hull was much shattered, and, making a great deal of water; she was with difficulty floated into Brest.

“At 1 p.m., the the other ships had quitted (the Canada, and were coming fast up with us; the shot of one of them soon afterwards passed over us. Thus situated, and cut off from all resources, I judged it adviseable to consult my officers and accordingly assembled them all on the quarter-deck; when, upon surveying and examining the state of the ship (engaged as I have already described), they deemed any farther resistance would be ineffectual, as every possible exertion had already been used to save her, and therefore they were unanimously of opinion, that to resign her would he the only means of saving the lives of a number of brave men. Then, and not till then, I ordered the colours to be struck; a measure which, on a full investigation, I hope and trust their lordships will not disapprove. Hitherto I have not been able to collect an exact list of the killed and wounded, as many of the former were thrown overboard during the action, and when taken possession of, the people were divided and sent on board different ships; but I do not believe they exceed forty, or thereabout. No one above the rank of boatswain’s-mate was killed. Lieutenant Fitzgerald, of the marines, Mr. Burns, the boatswain, and Mr. M‘Curdy, pilot, were wounded, but they are in a fair way of doing well.

“The cool, steady, and gallant behaviour of all my officers and ship’s company, throughout the whole of the action, merits the highest applause; and I should be deficient in my duty, as well as in what I owe to those brave men, were I to omit requesting you will be pleased to recommend them in the strongest manner to their lordships’ favor and protection; particularly Lieutenants Godench, Epworth, Carter, West, and Darracott; Major Tench, and Lieutenants Fitzgerald and Brown, of the marines; Mr. Robinson, the master; together with the warrant and petty-officers, whose bravery and good conduct I shall ever hold in the highest estimation. I have hitherto been treated with great kindness and humanity, and have not a doubt but that I shall meet with the same treatment during my captivity. I am, &c.

(Signed)Richard Rodney Bligh.”

To Philip Stephens, Esq.
Secretary of the Admiralty.

At the period of her capture, the Alexander was returning to England from the coast of Spain, whither she had escorted a convoy, in company with the Canada 74, Captain Charles Powell Hamilton. The latter ship escaped through superior sailing, and her commander had the pleasure of witnessing the recapture of the Alexander, off l’Orient, June 23d, 1795[1]. According to the French papers, two of their 74’s were very much disabled, and sustained between them a loss in killed and wounded amounting to 430 officers and men. Rear-Admiral Neilly, it appears, had sailed from Brest purposely to intercept two valuable British convoys, then expected from the Mediterranean; and had he not been obliged to return into port with his crippled squadron, it is probable that he would also have fallen in with the Victory, first-rate, bearing the flag of Lord Hood, who was then returning home, unaccompanied by any other ship. On the 27th May, 1795, the gallant commander of the Alexander (who had been made a Rear-Admiral previous to his captivity) having got back to England, was tried by a court-martial, and, as may well be supposed, most honorably acquitted. The infamous treatment experienced by his officers and crew after they were landed at Brest, and the manner in which his first lieutenant escaped from the ferocious republicans, have been described in p. 702 of Vol. II. Part II.

The subject of this article obtained the rank of commander in May 1796; and died at Fishbourne, near Chichester, Jan. 6th, 1825, aged 72 years.