Friday 23 September 2016

On the Royal Navy List for 96 Years - Admiral Sir Provo Wallis (1791-1892)

Wallis in 1813
I am always amazed at just what change – political, technical, economic, scientific – can occur in a single human lifetime. I was reminded of this when I saw a reference in an 1895 book to the demise in 1893 of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis. He was 101 years old and his name had been entered on the Navy List for 96 of these years.  

Sir Provo Wallis in old age
This was due to his father, a clerk in the Naval Yard at Halifax, Nova Scotia, getting his name entered as an able seaman on a frigate, HMS Oiseau, when he was just over four years old. Such sharp-practice was common in the period, though usually with much older boys, and they did not actually go to sea until older. They were however amassing seniority. It is probable that Wallis did not actually serve afloat until he joined the frigate HMS Cleopatra as a midshipman in 1800. By 1809 he was a lieutenant on the sloop-of-war HMS Curieux (captured French ships retained their names when serving in the Royal Navy).

Wallis’s moment of glory was to come in 1813, when he was serving as second lieutenant on board the frigate HMS Shannon when she fought her victorious action against her counterpart USS Chesapeake on June 1st, 1813. When Shannon’s Captain Philip Broke was badly injured and her first lieutenant killed, the twenty-two year old Wallis took command. He had the honour of taking the captured Chesapeake into his home town, Halifax, Nova Scotia and the victory was especially significant for having ended a series of Royal Navy defeats inflicted by American ships. (In Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortunes of War Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are passengers on board the Shannon).
The Shannon-Chesapeake action Jun 1st 1813
Wallis, in Shannon, leads the Chesapeake into Halifax 
 Wallis was to have a distinguished career afterwards, his last active service in 1858, retiring as an Admiral in 1863.  He was to benefit from a special clause in the Navy’s retirement scheme of 1870 that provided for officers who had commanded a ship in the wars with France up to 1815 should be retained on the active list, thus drawing pay. The few days Wallis was in command of Shannon thus qualified him to remain on the active list until he died.  (It is sad to note that the clause was inserted to save two old admirals dying as paupers). Being on the active list meant he was liable for call-up for a seagoing command and in his late nineties he confirmed that he was ready to accept one!

The French Revolution was underway, but the Reign of Terror had not yet commenced, when Wallis was born. When he died Kaiser Wilhelm II was German Emperor (an empire that did not exist until 1871) and the seeds of the First World War had been sown. Wallis had grown up in the Royal Navy of Nelson and Cochrane, the age of wooden sailing ships. He saw the introduction of steam propulsion, rifled breech-loaders, steel construction, torpedoes, and much else. The most powerful Royal Navy ship of his youth was a 100-gun three decker – in the year of his death the title was held by HMS Royal Sovereign, the first pre-dreadnought class, one of which, HMS Revenge, was to bombard the Belgian coast in 1914 and 1915. His lifetime had seen the discovery of bacteria, antiseptics and anaesthetics, the arrival and spread of railways across the world, the shrinking of distance, even intercontinentally, by telegraph, the invention of the telephone, light bulb and internal combustion engine, the electrification of cities and , the extension of the franchise in Britain – the list is endless.

And all in one human lifetime.

HMS Royal Sovereign, commissioned in the year of Wallis's death

Britannia’s Spartan - and the Taku Forts, 1859 

The Anglo-French assault at the Taku Forts in Northern China – and the highly irregular but welcome intervention of the neutral United States Navy – was one of the most dramatic incidents of the mid-nineteenth century. It also led to the only defeat of the Royal Navy between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War 1.

A remark of the American commander at the height of the battle - "Blood is thicker than water" - has entered the English language.

The Taku Forts attack is described in detail in the opening of Britannia's Spartan.

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