Royal Naval Biography/Newcombe, Francis

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A Companion of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1809.]

This officer was made a Lieutenant in 1704, and advanced to the rank of Commander in 1801. He subsequently commanded the Beagle sloop, stationed off Boulogne, where he captured the French privateers le Hazard, of 14 guns and 49 men; Vengeur, 10 guns and 48 men; and la Fortune, of 14 guns and 58 men. His gallant conduct in Aix Roads on the memorable 11th April (and following days) 1809, is thus recorded in the minutes of a court-martial which was afterwards assembled to investigate the conduct of Lord Gambier:

Question put to Captain George Wolfe, of l’Aigle frigate.– “Lord Cochrane having remarked to you that some of the fire-ships, upon the first attack upon the enemy, had not been well managed, do you know of any particular fire-ship, or fire-ships, that were improperly conducted on the evening of the 11th April?”

Answer.– “I cannot particularise those that were badly managed; the ship that passed between us and the island of Oleron, and got on shore there, was the only one I particularly noticed.”

Q.– “Do you know her name?”

A.– “I do not; I hailed five that came very near us. Our own ship was very nearly burnt by two that were badly managed, and which were on fire as they passed us. I could only learn the names of the officers of two of the fire-ships that behaved well; they did not fire their ships till after they had passed me. Five behaved very well: one of them was commanded by Captain Newcombe, who desired me to remember he had passed us[1].”

The following is Captain Newcombe’s own account of his proceedings on the ensuing day:

“Being under weigh, on the 12th April, and it being reported to me that a signal was made by the commander-in-chief – the frigates to go to the ship making signals of distress in such a quarter – I felt it my duty to proceed on after the Imperieuse, to Aix Roads; l’Aigle and the other frigates, besides the Valiant and Revenge, following. Conceiving it the intent of the commander-in-chief that I should so proceed, on having previously discovered the Etna bomb and several gun-brigs making sail for the anchorage, preceding the Imperieuse, and which I judged was from the directions they received from the commander-in-chief, I judged it prudent to reserve in preparation my bower anchor and cable, for any of the ships that might require it, concluding that there was a great probability that it might be required by either the line-of-battle ships or frigates. I caused my own stream-cable and anchor to be ready with a spring to it, to make use of as a bower to bring up the sloop I command, the wind being then moderate enough to ride her by, and to facilitate my movements to wherever I should be required. I brought up in Aix Roads, with my stream-anchor, on the larboard quarter of the Imperieuse, and without her, merely that I should not interrupt the anchorage of the line-of-battle ships and frigates that were close to me. The bomb and the gun-brigs were lying a little farther to the westward of me. There were some shot fired in their direction, and towards me, from the Imperieuse. No signal, whatever, having been previously made for the direction of any of the vessels, I sent Lieutenant Price with a message to Lord Cochrane, to know if those shot were fired at the isle of Oleron, or by mistake, or intentionally: if the latter, I felt very indignant at it. I brought up there, because I should not be in the way of the frigates and line-of-battle ships; and I should have thought it a most injudicious step, had I placed my sloop in such a situation so as to have prevented the services of a larger force: nor neither was there room between the Imperieuse and the Palles shoal for any more than one, which situation the Indefatigable took up. Moreover, I explained that I had neither chart nor any person on board that had ever been there before. The tide then falling, had I touched upon the Palles, the Beagle must inevitably have been lost. When I sent the officer away with this message, I was prepared to weigh my anchor, in the event of any situation being pointed out. A signal from the Imperieuse was made to close. In about two or three minutes I shot the vessel in between the Indefatigable and le Jean Bart (74), which ship was previously cast away on the Palles shoal, and brought up with my stream a second time, and commenced firing upon the enemy, the Ville de Varsovie (80) more particularly. This continued for about a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes, as far as I can recollect. Finding my rudder almost coming in contact with the wreck of the Jean Bart, and being too near the Indefatigable, so much so, that my masts and rigging were in danger from her fire, I got a second time under weigh, and kept so until six o’clock that night, under top-sails, jib, and spanker, to annoy the enemy in such situations as I thought I could act best. My second Lieutenant was away from the time I sent the message, to sound about the Palles and the entrance of the Charente; and observing that the Calcutta (50) was abandoned, went on board of her, at the same lime that another boat, which I understood to belong to the Imperieuse, went alongside to take possession of her. Seeing an opportunity to annoy the Aquilon (74), I made sail for her stern within pistol-shot, and commenced firing upon her; she returned it, carrying away many of my ropes, and all my larboard main-top-mast rigging; having fired upon her for about ten minutes, she struck her colours. I lowered a boat down, to send an officer on board to take possession of her, first tacking or wearing my head off. She again opened her fire, and I was obliged to return it also. I kept my main-top-sail spilling, to preserve my situation close to her. Perceiving all her boats manned, and the ship’s company abandoning her, I concluded that her firing, after she had struck, was from accident, and not by design. I then stood out, and back again, as occasion might require, being then in 17 or 18 feet water, and the tide fast falling[2]; and as no more annoyance could be given to any of the enemy’s ships, viz. those upon the Palles shoal, and which I afterwards learned to he the Calcutta, Tonnere (74), Ville de Varsovie, and Aquilon. I then recollect (seeing nothing more to be done, in my opinion) to have recommended to some of the frigates to trip their anchors und shoot a little further out, to prevent their grounding at low water; telling them that I found more water a little further to the W.S.W. or the S.W. About six, or half-past, I brought up my sloop with the bower in about five fathoms; and nothing being required of the Beagle, I caused the crew to get their dinner. I went with the boats afterwards, and staid till twelve o’clock that night, engaged in the service going on.”

On the morning of the 18th April, Lord Cochrane made arrangements for destroying the remainder of the French ships.

“About ten o’clock,” continues Captain Newcombe, “I proceeded in towards the Vice-Admiral’s ship, a two-decker, and a frigate, situated at the mouth of the Charente. I brought up, when on the Ocean’s quarter, in sixteen feet water, and engaged her from the hour of eleven until four o’clock, she returning the fire from her stern and quarter, as well as the other line-of-battle ship and frigate; Isle d’Aix occasionally throwing shells, and many of the splinters falling upon deck[3]. During these five hours my standing and running rigging were very much injured; my main-yard and top-masts were shot through; and several shot in my hull, * * * * * I weighed at about four o’clock, the tide then fulling, and turned up to my former anchorage, under a heavy fire from the batteries on the Isle d’Aix[4].

During the trial to which we have alluded, it was stated in evidence, that the conduct of Captain Newcombe had gained him the admiration of the commander-in-chief, and the officers of the fleet who had observed his proceedings[5]. “I beg leave to assure this court,” says Lord Gambier, “that he acquitted himself in the command of the Beagle, in Aix Roads, in a manner highly honorable to himself, and certainly satisfactory to me[6].”

Captain Newcombe’s gallantry and activity on that occasion were duly appreciated, his post commission being dated back to the 11th April, 1809. He subsequently commanded the Wanderer, of 20 guns; Chesapeake frigate; Bulwark 74 (pro tempore); and Pyramus 42; the latter ship employed at the Leeward Islands, on the peace establishment. The Pyramus was paid off in June, 1825.

Mrs. Newcombe died at Weymouth, Dec. 21, 1823.

Agents.– Messrs. Stilwell.

  1. See Gurney’s Minutes of the Court Martial, 2d edit, p 215 et seq.
  2. The Beagle drew nearly 15 feet abaft, and about 12½ feet forward.
  3. The Ocean was a first-rate, of 120 guns.
  4. The Beagle had then only three barrels of powder left, besides the cartridges which were filled.
  5. See Gurney, p. 185.
  6. See id. p. 191.