Tuesday 31 January 2017

The Wreck of the RMS Atlantic 1873

I continue to be amazed by the sheer number – and scale – of shipping disasters in the 19th Century and many have been described previously in this blog. It’s notable that in so many cases the “accidents” were avoidable and attention to even the most basic precautions would have averted them. Unwillingness to provide adequate lifeboats was to be a common feature up to the Titanic sinking in 1912, but many other tragedies resulted from sheer bad seamanship. It’s also probable that the custom of recruiting crews for short periods – often only a single voyage – mitigated against formation of efficient teams that worked together over long periods.  Working and accommodated in often-atrocious conditions, and poorly paid, the merchant-seamen of the period must have had very little identification with their ships. It’s notable that in the same era there were relatively few losses in the Royal Navy.  On many occasions indeed, naval ships survived conditions that would have doomed civilian vessels, the cohesion, discipline and esprit de corps of the naval crews being worth diamonds in extreme situations.
RMS Atlantic
(Like other black and white illustrations in this article, this is public-domain ex-Wikipedia)
These musings were prompted by reading a Victorian-era account of the wreck of the 3700-ton RMS Atlantic, a liner belonging to the famed White Star Line which would later own the Titanic. When she came into service in 1871 this ship was one of the fastest and most luxurious afloat. 420-feet long, and driven at a maximum of 14.5 knots by her single-shaft 600-hp engine, she carried auxiliary sails on four masts – the back-up to steam that was still essential in this period. With the “RMS” identifying her as authorised to carry Royal Mail, the Atlantic was employed on the prestigious Liverpool-New York route “with wonderful regularity”, and with capacity for 1166 passengers in addition to her crew.

In March 1873 the Atlantic set out on her nineteenth voyage to the United States with 835 passengers – many of them emigrants – and 117 crew on board. Stormy weather was encountered from the start and this caused such heavy consumption of coal that the Atlantic’s Captain Williams decided to head for Halifax, Nova Scotia, to replenish his bunkers before pressing on to New York. On the evening of March 31st, the Atlantic was within some dozen miles of Halifax and stormy conditions were continuing. Williams decided to put off entering harbour until daylight and in the meantime the ship was set on a southerly course. At midnight he retired to rest in the chart-room, leaving instructions for the officer of the watch to call him at three o’clock. The first officer had apparently also retired, leaving the vessel in charge of the second and third officers. Despite proximity to a dangerous coast, they did not take soundings, or post a masthead lookout, or reduce speed. They failed to spot the Sambro Lighthouse to the south of Halifax’s harbour entrance.

The watch changed at three o’clock but the captain was apparently not woken. Minutes later an alarm of “Breakers ahead” was called from deck, too late to allow evasive action. The Atlantic had driven herself on to rocks and was stranded there immovably. Pounded by the waves, she heeled over on her starboard side, rendering it impossible for the boats there to be launched, while those on the port side, exposed to the storm’s full fury, were ripped away. Bewildered passengers crowded up on deck and were told by the officers to lash themselves to the rigging to prevent being washed away. It appears that significant numbers of passengers never made it on deck and drowned in the steerage. The Victorian account almost relishes the horror of the moment: “they slept, ignorant of the danger, until the cold waves dashed in upon them, and rose to their lips. Then, one wild startled cry, and all was hushed!”

The Wreck of the Atlantic - a  contemporary Currier and Ives print
(Found on http://angloboerwarmuseum.com and gratefully acknowledged)
The Atlantic was aground some fifty yards from a large rock, itself lying about a hundred and fifty yards from an island behind. The third officer, named Brady, and two seamen braved the waters and managed to get five lines across to the nearer rock. A single rope was then passed from this rock to the island behind. The courage of the men who managed this must have been superhuman. A photograph of one of these heroes survives, Quartermaster John Speakman.

One of the heroes: John Speakman
An appalling choice now confronted the survivors on deck – stay on the doomed ship or risk passage through the raging surf along the ropes to the rock and island. “Of those who made their way to the deck, or clambered into the rigging, tens and scores were washed away by the inrush of waters. The fore-boom broke loose and, swinging to and fro, crushed the unfortunates who chanced to be within its range. Then, again, there were not a few who, in a sudden frenzy, threw themselves headlong into the sea, and were carried out of sight in a moment.” About two hundred people managed to gain the rock along the ropes and fifty of them reached the coast beyond.

At dawn a boat from a nearby island reached the wreck but was too small to take off survivors. The indomitable Third Officer Brady made use of tis skiff however to assist freeing of Atlantic’s boats trapped on her starboard side and with them managed to get more survivors ashore. Captain Williams was apparently still on board “issuing his orders with admirable composure, and doing his best to direct, tranquilise and encourage, until his hands and feet were frozen, when he was rescued by one of the boats.

The Second Officer, named Frith, was still on board with thirty-two passengers, one of them a lady, and they had climbed up into the rigging of the mizzen mast. Some were rescued by boat, others were washed away, until at last only Frith remained with the lady and a boy. The storm had worsened and the boats could no longer approach closely. Washed away by the waves, the boy managed to reach a boat but the lady was held tight by Frith – one can imagine that with the female clothing of the period survival in the water would have been impossible. A local clergyman, named Mr. Ancient (a wonderful name!), had arrived in a small boat with four volunteers and they now made one last attempt to rescue Frith and the lady. By the time the boat reached the ship this unfortunate woman had succumbed to cold and it proved impossible to reach the mizzen mast where Frith was stranded. Ancient did manage however to get a footing in the rigging of the main mast and threw a rope across to Frith, who was dragged back by it and then brought to shore by boat.
Burial service for victims of Atlantic shipwreck, April 1873, Lower ProspectHalifax County, N.S.
(Could the clergyman be the heroic Mr. Ancient?)
There were 371 survivors. All 156 women and 189 children on board died, the only surviving child being the twelve-year-old boy whom Frith had stood by. Ten crew members were lost, while 131 survived (there appears to be some uncertainty as to numbers). The courage of the islanders – not least Mr. Ancient – who came to the rescue and who cared for the survivors afterwards was beyond praise.  There can be little doubt that neglect of proper precautions when so close to a dangerous coast led to the disaster. A subsequent court of enquiry resulted in Captain Williams being “severely censured” but in view of is courage and his efforts to save lives, his captain’s certificate (“ticket”) was suspended for only two years. One wonders what became of him afterwards. Did he perhaps become like Conrad’s Lord Jim, haunted by his failure and striving to make amends?

 Perhaps some of the readers of this article may know.

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Tuesday 24 January 2017

1810: The Heroine of Matagorda

In much historical fiction (including my own) women tend to turn up in the most extraordinary situations and bear heavy responsibilities, to an extent which may seem fanciful to many today who have the idea of women’s roles in the past being always so subservient.
Mrs. Reston at the well
One example is “The Heroine of Matagorda”, a Mrs. Agnes Reston, wife of a sergeant of the Scots Brigade which was responsible for the defence of a small fort of Matagorda, on the approaches to Cadiz, in 1810. The city was under siege by French forces and the Matagorda outwork was a critical point in the defences. She was one of the few women (mainly wives of NCOs) who were allowed to follow their husbands, often acting as laundresses, and she refused to leave the fort when the other wives were sent away for safety.

According to Joseph Donaldson, a sergeant of the 94th Regiment of Foot who later published his memoirs, Mrs. Reston tore up her linen for bandages and tended the wounded.  She carried sandbags for repair of the batteries, and brought ammunition and water to the men at the guns. When she saw a frightened drummer-boy was had been sent to get water for the wounded from a well that was under French fire she exclaimed “The puir bairn is frightened, and no wonder! Gie the bucket to me!”

Mrs. Reston proceeded to the well and drew water calmly, though no less an authority than General Napier, historian of the Peninsular War, stated that a shot cut through the bucket rope but she recovered it and continued on regardless. She had a child with her in camp and Donaldson recorded that “I think I see her yet, while the shot and shell were flying thick around her, bending her body to shield her child from danger by the exposure of her own person.”

Mrs. Reston’s courage was however remembered in a long poem by the Scottish poet William McGonnagal in his poem “A Humble Heroine”.  The most memorable lines as typical of  McGonagall at the height of his not-inconsiderable lyric power and mastery of rhyme:

And while the shells shrieked around, and their fragments did scatter,
She was serving the men at the guns with wine and water;
And while the shot whistled around, her courage wasn't slack,
Because to the soldiers she carried sand-bags on her back.

A little drummer boy was told to fetch water from the well,
But he was afraid because the bullets from the enemy around it fell;
And the Doctor cried to the boy, Why are you standing there?
But Mrs Reston said, Doctor, the bairn is feared, I do declare.

And she said, Give me the pail, laddie, I'll fetch the water,
Not fearing that the shot would her brains scatter;
And without a moment's hesitation she took the pail,
Whilst the shot whirred thick around her, yet her courage didn't fail.

And to see that heroic woman the scene was most grand,
Because as she drew the water a shot cut the rope in her hand;
But she caught the pail with her hand dexterously,
Oh! the scene was imposing end most beautiful to see.

The Victorian-era illustration shows a possibly idealised picture of Agnes Reston at the well but nothing indeed can convey the depth of her heroism. Not all the women of her time were dancing and flirting with Mr. Darcy. She should not be forgotten.

And to read about the adventures of another heroine ...

... albeit a fictional one - you may be interested in Britannia's Amazon, which deals with the adventures of Florence Dawlish while her husband is overseas in the service of Queen and Country.  Click on the image below for more details.

 Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

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Friday 20 January 2017

Guest Blog by Simon Wills - Death on the Ocean Wave in the 19th Century

In January 2015 I wrote a blog about the loss of the steamship London in 1866. It was one of the most appalling maritime disasters – of which there were only too many – in the 19th Century. (Click here to read that article).

Since then a book had been published recently that describes this tragedy in much greater detail.  “The Wreck of the SS London” is by the respected maritime genealogist Simon Wills, who has already written several books about the era (You’ll find links at the end of this article). I’m therefore honoured today to welcome Simon as a guest blogger – his article deals not only with the disgracefully high casualty rates in maritime commerce but traces a fascinating link between one of the survivors – and heroes – of the 1866 London shipwreck and two earlier disasters.

Over to Simon …

Death on the Ocean Wave by Simon Wills

The British merchant fleet was the lifeblood of its Empire in the nineteenth century. It was trade that gave the Empire stability, power and growth, and merchant ships were needed to transport the goods that allowed this to happen. This meant that there was plenty of work for seamen, but life at sea could be a dangerous business since there were few safety regulations.
The SS London going down in 1866
Shipwrecks were common, and the loss of the SS London in 1866 is a good example of a notorious mid-Victorian shipping disaster. One of my earliest connections with this tragedy was finding a slip of paper in an old encyclopedia that carried the autograph of one of the London’s survivors: John King. He was credited with providing great leadership during the ship’s final moments by ensuring that a boat got away with a few survivors. King also took responsibility for steering this boat, even though the tiller was broken and he had to improvise with a makeshift scrap of wood to keep the boat heading into the waves without turning over.
John King's autograph
A remarkable thing about the autographed piece of paper is that John King wrote down the names of two other ships he’d been wrecked in as well: the Alma in 1861 and the Duncan Dunbar in 1865. The Alma was dashed onto jagged rocks off the coast of Australia, where the crew became trapped in their sinking ship. The local lifeboatmen got a rope aboard and King and 23 colleagues had to work their way along it, hand over hand, with the raging sea and sharp rocks beneath them. They only just made it because the Alma was soon torn apart and dispersed over ten miles of beach.
Rescue by lifeline from shore - how John King survived the Alma sinking
John King’s second shipwreck was a famous one. The Duncan Dunbar collided with an atoll at night off the coast of Brazil. The terrified passengers were sure they were going to drown in the darkness, but they made it through the night. The next morning, the crew lowered passengers off the stern in a chair, one by one, and into a boat that took them to an islet. It was baking hot and the islet was covered with vermin, but the 117 survivors hoped to sight a passing ship. They rigged a shelter from the Duncan Dunbar’s sails and managed to get some supplies ashore including, crucially, some drinking water. Eventually the captain took some of his crew to Pernambuco by boat and a steamship came to the rescue of the remaining people ten days later.

The Duncan Dunbar wrecked on the atoll
Having survived both these disasters, John King returned to England and immediately found a job as able seaman on the SS London in December 1865. It was his first steamship, and virtually a new vessel. He was greatly surprised to recognise passenger Alan Sandilands on board, a fellow survivor of the Duncan Dunbar. The rest, of course, is history. The SS London sank in the Bay of Biscay in early January 1866 and King was one of only 19 survivors. The unfortunate Alan Sandilands didn’t make it this time.

John King - three times lucky
The number of ships lost during this period is shocking. Vessels were smashed by storms, ran aground, collided with other ships, got lost, and caught fire. There were also construction defects to contend with, ageing timbers, incompetent officers, neglectful crews, and unscrupulous owners who scrimped on safety. Between 1867 and 1871, official statistics show that there were over 500 ships lost every year on the coast of Great Britain, and an alarming 34 people died in shipwrecks every week. Yet these figures are only part of the story because there are no records for the number of ships lost away from the British coastline in the Atlantic, Pacific, Baltic and so forth – the real figure is much higher.

The survivors of the London were traumatised and, understandably, reluctant to go to sea again. When survivor David Main first tried to set foot on a ship a few weeks later, the events of the London came back to him so intensely that he fainted. Ship’s boy Alfred White was only fourteen when he escaped the London but he turned away from the sea and became a door-to-door salesman, while steward Edward Gardner opened a barber’s shop. Midshipman Walter Edwards did go back to sea, but a few years later his ship the SS Tacna blew up off the coast of South America and that was enough. He changed careers and became a priest.

What about John King? Maybe we should say ‘lucky’ John King, having survived three sea disasters. He and a few other survivors emigrated to Australia where many of them became miners; King died here, in Queensland, in the 1880s.

About Simon Wills...

Simon is a maritime genealogist and history journalist with a special interest in shipwrecks. He is author of the book The Wreck of the SS London (Amberley, 2016) as well as several other works on seafaring in the 19th Century.

Click here to reach Simon’s author page and to learn more about his books.

Click on the cover image to find out more about his latest volume.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Charles Wager’s first step in a meteoric career

I dipped recently into a magnificently titled 19th Century book, of indeterminate date, called:

a weird series of tales of shipwreck and disaster,
from the earliest part of the century to the present time,
with accounts of providential escapes and heart-rending fatalities”

The anonymous author might not have been gifted in thinking up short, snappy titles, but there’s no doubt about what this volume published in New York contained.  I was particularly taken by a short account of an exploit in the early years of a cabin boy who galvanised a ship’s crew to withstand attack by a French privateer – a story that sounds too good to be true. A little further digging did indicate however that the case was a true one and that the boy in question was to ascend to dizzy heights in his later life. I’ll quote extensively (in italics) from the account in the book as its period-style gives it a charm of its own.

Charles Wager in later life
Though the father and grandfather of Charles Wager (1666-1743) had seen service at sea under both Cromwell and Charles II, he lacked the patronage that would have allowed him easy entry to the Royal Navy. His mother had married a Quaker merchant in London after his father’s death – this being a time when Quakers were a new and often suspect sect. Through his step-father however, Wager gained an apprenticeship with a Quaker from Barnstable, Massachusetts, a merchant ship’s captain called John Hull who sailed regularly between Britain and the Americas.  The key event of Wager’s early career, as told below, must have happened before 1689, the first year in which he appears in the Royal Navy’s records.

Britain was at war with France in the late 1680s – a condition that was to be almost the norm from this period until 1815, interspersed with only brief intervals of peace.  Though war was being waged at sea, and with merchant shipping the much sought-for quarry of privateers, Captain John Hull, as a Quaker, refused to arm his ship. On one of his voyages from America and close to the British coast, his vessel was chased, and ultimately overhauled, by a French privateer. Hull “had used every endeavor to escape, but seeing from the superior sailing of the Frenchman, that his capture was inevitable, he quietly retired below: he was followed into the cabin by his cabin boy, a youth of activity and enterprise, named Charles Wager. He asked his commander (Hull) if nothing more could be done to save the ship—his commander replied that it was impossible, that everything had been done that was practicable, there was no escape for them, and they must submit to be captured.”

Notwithstanding his age – and obviously unconvinced by Quaker pacifism, however much he might be beholden to Hull –  – Wager went on deck, summoned the crew and told them what their captain intended. Then, “then, with an elevation of mind, dictated by a soul formed for enterprise and noble daring, he observed, “if you will place yourselves under my command, and stand by me, I have conceived a plan by which the ship may be rescued, and we in turn become the conquerors.” The sailors no doubt feeling the ardor, and inspired by the courage of their youthful and gallant leader, agreed to place themselves under his command. His plan was communicated to them, and they awaited with firmness, the moment to carry their enterprise into effect.

When French vessel grappled the surrendered ship shortly after and a boarding party began to cross to claim their prize, these “exhilarated conquerors, elated beyond measure, with the acquisition of so fine a prize, poured into the vessel cheering and huzzaing; and not foreseeing any danger, they left but few men on board their ship. Now was the moment for Charles Wager, who, giving his men the signal, sprang at their head on board the opposing vessel, while some seized the arms which had been left in profusion on her deck, and with which they soon overpowered the few men left on board; the others, by a simultaneous movement, relieved her from the grapplings which united the two vessels.”

Wager had managed the near-impossible, essentially hijacking the attacker. “Our hero now having the command of the French vessel, seized the helm, and placing her out of boarding distance, hailed, with the voice of a conqueror, the discomfited crowd of Frenchmen who were left on board of the peaceful bark he had just quitted, and summoned them to follow close in his wake, or he would blow them out of water, (a threat they well knew he was very capable of executing, as their guns were loaded during the chase.)

It is probably an understatement that the French “sorrowfully acquiesced with his commands, while gallant Charles steered into port, followed by his prize. The exploit excited universal applause—the former master of the merchant vessel was examined by the Admiralty, when he stated the whole of the enterprise as it occurred, and declared that Charles Wager had planned and effected the gallant exploit, and that to him alone belonged the honor and credit of the achievement.”

The battle off Cartagena, 28 May 1708 known as “Wager’s Action”, in which
he became a rich man through prize money. Painting, via Wikipedia, by Samuel Scott (1702-1772)
This exploit gained for Wager what had previously been beyond his reach – a footing in the Royal Navy. He was appointed a midshipman, and by 1689 was listed as a lieutenant on the frigate HMS Foresight. His career thereafter was to be an active one in both naval and diplomatic service, one that, culminated in appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty – the head of the Royal Navy – from 1733 to 1742. Prize money was to make him immensely rich but “it is said that he always held in veneration and esteem, that respectable and conscientious Friend (i.e. Quaker), whose cabin boy he had been, and transmitted yearly to his OLD MASTER, as he termed him, a handsome present of Madeira, to cheer his declining days.”
 The cabin boy had come a very long way.

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Friday 13 January 2017

The Capture of the Chevrette, 1801

While leafing through an 1894 book entitled “The British Fleet” by Commander Charles N. Robinson (Assistant Editor of the Army and Navy Gazette) I came on a copy of the engraving above made from a painting by  Philip James de Loutherbourg, about whom I will blog again shortly.  It shows a cutting-out mission on July 22nd 1801 in which crews from four Royal Navy ships attacked a French ship in small boats, even while it was moored for protection under the guns of a shore battery at Camaret Bay on the Breton coast. Such cutting-out exploits feature frequently in naval fiction, as they often did in real-life during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This engraving, though an artist’s impression, gives an idea of just how brutal – and near suicidal – such actions could be. As I had not heard of this action previously I searched for more details and was surprised at just how high a price was paid for capture of so small a prize.

The captain of the 20-gun corvette Chevrette, must have regarded his vessel as invulnerable as he sheltered under shore-battery cover. British ships lying offshore on blockade duty included however the frigates HMS Beaulieu, Doris and Uranie, and the ship of the line HMS Robust (74-guns). The Uranie was originally a French ship, and had been renowned for her capture of a British frigate, HMS Thames, in a spirited action in 1793, prior to being captured and taken into British service in 1797.
The Uranie, in French service, capturing HMS Thames in 1793
A first attempt at cutting out was made on the night of 20th/21st July by boats from Beaulieu and Doris. This went awry when the surprise was lost and the boats withdrew. The French had however been alerted to the danger and the Chevrette was moved in even closer under the shore batteries. Soldiers were also embarked to add to the corvette’s defence, bringing the total on board up to with a crew of 339, including soldiers who had recently board.

Undeterred, a fresh British attack was mounted on the night of 21st/22nd, with men and boats from the Robust and the Uranie now also joining in. The attacking force now consisted of 280 men carried in 15 boats. Several of these boats lost their way in the darkness so that only nine reached the Chevrette, those on board significantly outnumbered by the seamen and soldiers on board her. The British approach was now detected and fire was opened on them from both the French shore battery and from the Chevrette. The boats closed however with the moored ship – a fact that must have made it impossible for the shore batteries to maintain fire – and, despite furious opposition, a large number of men gained the Chrevette’s deck.  Within three minutes of boarding, and as fighting raged, the outnumbered British attackers managed to cut the anchor cable and set sufficient sail for a light breeze to carry the vessel out into the bay. Many of the French, apparently trapped on the waist when the British gained possession of both quarterdeck and forecastle, either jumped overboard or took cover below. The shore batteries kept the Chrevette under fire until she cleared the bay. Here the six missing British boats brought reinforcements, so that possession was assured.

 The ferocity of the action was underlined by the high casualties. The French had 92 killed and 62 wounded while the British attackers lost 11 killed, 57 wounded and one missing. Given that the Chevrette was a small vessel and that her capture would have made no possible impact on the outcome of the war, and that the British casualty rate was almost 25%, the decision to attack looks foolhardy in the extreme. The only justification can be, in hindsight, that attacks of this type were vital in maintain a sense of moral superiority over the French and by so doing increasing their reluctance to break the blockade.  

One other, perhaps unworthy, thought does however strike one. Was the desire for prize money a prime motivator on this occasion? One sincerely hopes not.

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Tuesday 10 January 2017

Unequal Duel, 1758: HMS Monmouth vs. Foudroyant

A contemporary satirical print showing Byng
 and the inconclusive action that doomed him
The execution by firing squad in 1757 of Admiral George Byng (1704-1757) on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch in 1757 is perhaps best remembered by Voltaire’s verdict in his novel Candide: “In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others." Byng had been court-martialled for failure to relieve the besieged British garrison in Minorca in the Western Mediterranean the previous year. The key element in the charge was that he “had not done his utmost against the enemy in battle or pursuit”, as required by the “Articles of War” that governed the Royal Navy. A death sentence was mandatory for conviction on this charge. Byng’s squadron was seriously undermanned and ill-prepared for the latest conflict with France – later to be known as the Seven Years War. One of the French opening moves was to land 15,000 men on the island and lay siege to the British base there. Byng’s force, sent to succour the besieged garrison, did indeed engage the enemy in the inconclusive naval Battle of Minorca in May 1756 and, following a council with his senior officers thereafter, he decided that Minorca was beyond saving from the French. Byng brought his ships back to Gibraltar for refitting and the Minorca garrison was obliged to surrender to the French, thereby depriving Britain of a vital strategic resource. Recalled to Britain, Byng’s disgrace, court-martial and execution followed.

Though the full responsibility for the disaster had been laid on Byng, a degree of opprobrium also attached itself to his captains. Among these was Captain Arthur Gardiner, who had been Byng’s flag-captain, an honourable man who felt that his own honour had been compromised.  He appears to have been especially hurt by a remark by the First Lord of the Admiralty, the formidable Lord Anson, which he reported to his friends and was to the effect that “he was one of the men who had brought disgrace on the nation.” For a man like Gardiner it was essential to demonstrate, at whatever cost to himself, that he was not the man Anson had judged him to be.
A French "64" of the period - Monmouth would have looked generally similar
(Attribution: Wikipedia Commons and  
www.musee-marine.fr Authority control VIAF: 19144648200974718522 Museofile: M5026 Accession number 3 OA 10)
Soon after Byng’s death Gardiner was sent back to the Mediterranean in command of the 64-gun HMS Monmouth, as part of Admiral Henry Osborne’s squadron. In early 1758 this force had succeeded in driving a French fleet of fifteen ships into the Spanish port of Cartagena and keeping them blockaded there. This fleet had been en-route to Louisbourg, the great French fortress on Cape Breton Island, with reinforcements. On February 28th a French relieving force of three ships-of- the-line, carrying the Governor of “New France” (French Canada) and under the naval command of Admiral Gallifoniere. This officer also spotted the British force, and realising that it was larger, decided to retreat. Osborne responded by ordering a general chase, directing Gardiner in Monmouth, and two other ships, the Hampton Court and the Swiftsure, to engage Gallifoniere’s flagship, the Foudroyant. The latter was one of the most powerful vessels afloat, her eighty guns consisting of thirty 42-pounders – enormous weapons for the time – as well as thirty-two 24-pounders and eighteen 12-pounders. With a crew of 470, a French privateer previously captured by the Monmouth had said of the Foudroyant that “She would fight today, tomorrow, and the next day, but could never be taken.” By contrast, the Monmouth was armed with sixty-four 24-pounders and had a crew of 470 and her two consorts were almost identically armed. Together, these three ships might have been enough to defeat the more powerful French vessel, but any one of them alone would be heavily outgunned.

An accident of fate had provided Gardiner with the opportunity he craved to wipe out the stain on his honour. As the Monmouth, faster-sailing than Hampton Court or Swiftsure, closed with Foudroyant it was revealed that she was flying the flag of the Admiral Gallifoniere, the commander who had been present on board her during the action with Byng. Eager now for action, Gardiner pressed on with Monmouth, determined to engage the Foudroyant at any cost and unwilling to wait for the other British ships to catch up. According to one account he pointed to Foudroyant and told an army-officer on board “Whatever becomes of you and me, that ship must go into Gibraltar.”

By the time Monmouth opened fire on Foudroyant, both Hampton Court and Swiftsure were out of sight and Gardiner was committed to a one-to-one duel. He was wounded in the arm almost immediately, but not badly enough to incapacitate him. Monmouth’s opening fire damaged the Foudroyant’s rigging, thereby lessening her manoeuvrability, and Gardiner placed his ship off the enemy’s quarter. From this position Monmouth pounded Foudroyant for almost two hours while being exposed to less fire herself (As so often when learning of such actions, one Is struck by the duration of such cannonades – one can only assume that sheer exhaustion of the gun crews would have lessened the rate of fire considerably). Gardiner, directing operations from the open deck, now received his second, and ultimately fatal, wound, a blow from a ball or fragment on his forehead. Before he passed out and was carried below to the surgeon he called for his first lieutenant – Robert Carkett (approx. 1720 – 1780) – and asked him not to give up the ship or halt the action. Carkett responded by having the colours nailed to the mast and with a pistol in each hand swore that he would shoot anybody who would attempt to strike them.
The climax of the battle, near midnight - the crippled Foudroyant on the left,
under fire from Monmouth, and Swiftsure and Hampton Court arriving on the right
Painting by Thomas Swaine (1725-1782) - with thanks to Wikipedia
Monmouth’s mizzen mast now collapsed but shortly after the corresponding mast on Foudroyant also came down, followed soon afterwards by the main mast. Now crippled, the French ship was subjected to no less than four hours of fire from Monmouth, which still had some ability to manoeuvre. This lasted through the evening and into darkness and when Swiftsure arrived on the scene around midnight, to add her fire to Monmouth’s, Foudroyant surrendered. Consistent with the chivalry of the period, the French captain recognised Carkett’s courage by insisting on handing his sword to him, rather than to the more senior officer commanding Swiftsure.

An engraving of Swaine's picture. Such engravings were very popular
and some original ones can still be found in English country public houses
Captain Gardiner died the following day but his aspiration to have Foudroyant brought into Gibraltar was realised. Lieutenant Carkett was appointed to command her “as a reward for his conduct and an encouragement for future emulation” and was further rewarded by promotion to post captain, the coveted goal of every ambitious officer. It was especially valuable as he had originally entered the navy as a common seaman and had risen by his own exertions. This was however his last promotion and he was still a captain in 1780 when he was accused – unfairly – of failure to obey signals during the Battle of Martinique. Tragically, he did not live to clear his name as his ship, the Stirling Castle, was wrecked in a hurricane There was only a handful of survivors and Carkett was not among them.
The “butcher’s bill“ for the Monmouth vs. Foudroyant action was decidedly one-sided, reflecting Monmouth’s ability to retain manoeuvrability while her opponent was immobilised. She suffered 27 killed and 79 wounded (a not-inconsiderable loss rate of 23%) while the more powerful Foudroyant had 190 killed and wounded (40%). Gardiner’s grim determination to ignore the disparity in armament had paid off, though it cost him his own life.

It is probable that he found the price an acceptable one for redemption of his name and honour.

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Friday 6 January 2017

1859: The Battle of Solferino and the foundation of the Red Cross

Napoleon III and Eugenie in glory
I was set off on the train of thinking that led to this article when driving past a girl’s school some six-miles from my home. As I did I membered that I was passing the last resting place of the French Emperor Napoleon III, his Spanish-born Empress Eugenie and his son, Napoleon Eugene, the Prince Imperial, who was to die, incongruously, in British uniform during the Zulu War. Exiled after France’s collapse before Prussian professionalism in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Napoleon spent his last days in England. His wife was to retire to the house that is now the Farnborough Hill School and close by she built a mausoleum for herself, her husband and her son, whose body she had travelled to South Africa to recover. She lived on in sad retirement until 1920, the survivor of a bygone age. In an earlier blog of mine (Click here to read it) we met her at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the last moment of her  glory before war, death and exile enveloped her
Napoleon III's dream of military glory. The reality was somewhat different.
Napoloeon III’s “Second French Empire” lasted from 1852 to 1870 and for much of its existence was at war in one past of the world or another, not least because its mountebank emperor saw the pursuit of glory as one way of marginalising internal critics. The most extravagant and unlikely adventure was intervention in Mexico, and the short-lived installation of a puppet “emperor” there, and there were several colonial campaigns but the most bloody of Napoleon’s war were to take place in Europe.  The post-Waterloo nineteenth century in Europe is often seen as peaceful but it was so only in the sense that there was no continent-wide conflicts on the lines of the Napoleonic Wars or World War 1 There were however a number of brutal, if short-duration, struggles and they culminated in the Franco-Prussian War (Click here for an earlier blog about this). Unlike 20th Century conflicts there was no ideological element involved and the objectives were mainly focussed on balance-of-power considerations and on the desire to shift frontiers or control more territory.

French assets en route to the front
One of the bloodiest of these wars was fought in 1859 when Napoleon III decided to commit French power to support the tiny North-Italian kingdom of Piedmont against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Second Italian War of Independence. Italy as known today did still not exist as a single entity and major portions of Northern Italy were under Austro-Hungarian rule. Piedmont aspired – wholly successfully as it later turned out – not only to eject the Austro-Hungarians but to unite all the other Italian States under a single crown, that of Piedmont. Small in population and resources compared with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, tiny Piedmont had little hope of success unless she could secure  a powerful ally – which proved to be France. Napoleon III’s price was to be Piedmont’s handing over of its the provinces of Savoy and Nice to France. The bargain was a cynical one and because of it large numbers of innocent men were to die and there would be misery and suffering on a vast scale.

Once assured of French support Piedmont set out to provoke the Austro-Hungarians, less by issuing predicable demands than be mobilising its troops. The Austrians sent an ultimatum demanding immediate demobilisation while the French Ambassador in Vienna told them that any move against Piedmont wold be considered a declaration of war on France. (The similarities with 1914 need no stressing). On 27th April 1859 the Austrians crossed the Piedmontese frontier and were then at war with both France and Piedmont.

Eager to earn military laurels in imitation of his uncle, Napoleon I, the French Emperor took personal command of the his army. It was at this time a respected fighting force – it had performed well in the Crimea five years before and many of its officers and men had also been hardened by fighting in Algeria. The army the French sent into Northern Italy was upwards of 100,000 men and the Piedmontese added another 40,000 to this. Faced by a 130,000 Austrian troops, the stage was set for the largest battle on European soil since the Napoleonic Wars.
Battle of Magenta - French troops pushing back Austrian "White Coats"

Pushing eastwards towards Milan from the Piedmontese capital of Turin, the combined French-Piedmontese force crashed into the Austrians at the village of Magenta on June 4th. The fighting was savage as the area was well suited to defence, a landscape of orchards seamed with streams and canals. The Austrians turned every house into a miniature fortress that must be taken by storm. Dogged though the defence was, the Austrians were forced back with dead, wounded and captured reaching some 10,000.The French victory was to be marked by a newly discovered aniline dye being called after it.

Emperor Franz Josef
Elated by success the French-Piedmontese juggernaut rolled on eastwards.  Three weeks later, on June 24th, it ran into four Austrian Armies, a total of 130,000 men, under the titular command of the 29-year old Emperor Franz-Josef, east of Milan and directly south of Lake Garda.  The Austrians had entrenched themselves, or had occupied strong-points,  on a ten-mile north south front and, once again, much of the fighting was to involve hand-to hand-storming of defended positions. The battle was to be the last at which two reigning monarchs were present. 

The French-Piedmontese attacks were launched at dawn and fighting was to continue for some fifteen hours. The sheer size of the battlefield, and the number of men involved, made coordination very difficult, especially on the French-Piedmontese side. The conflict therefore descended into three all-but-separate battles in flat farmland. In the north the Austrians, with the lake on their right flank, though outnumbered, resisted Piedmontese attacks successfully and retired in good order. The village of Solferino, in the centre, held out for most of the day but the French finally punched through in early evening. At the southern extremity, where the French were outnumbered, the Austrians held out successfully, counterattacking when appropriate, but, as at the northern end, it was necessary to fall back once the centre had been breached. They withdrew to the fortified area known as “The Quadrilateral” and were not followed – the war was essentially at an end.
French attack at Solferino village - the decisive point
The losses were horrendous –  over 2300 French and Piedmontese killed, over 12000 wounded and a further 2700 missing. – a 12% casualty rate. The corresponding figures for the Austrians were over 2300 killed, over 10,000 wounded and over 9000 missing – 17% of the men involved. The fighting was a merciless as is usually the case in close action and many wounded men on both sides were shot or bayoneted.
Solferino - the bloody aftermath
The suffering of the dead was over, but that of those surviving was immeasurable given the inadequate ambulance and medical services and the fact that battlefield surgery was performed without anaesthetics. Napoleon III was himself horrified and kept repeating “The poor fellows. The poor fellows. What a terrible thing was is!” Though this realisation that did not deter him from launching further wars in the future, he was sufficiently moved on this occasion to meet Emperor Franz Josef some days later and to make a separate peace with him.
Napoleon III walking, shocked, among the wounded
Henri Dunant
Though Nice and Savoy – Napoleon III’s price – remain French today (Mussolini got them back briefly for Italy  in WW2), the most significant long term consequence of the battle was the most unexpected. A Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant (1828-1910), who had encountered problems with the French authorities in Algeria about interests he had there, had sought out Napoleon in Northern Italy to seek his assistance. The result was that Dunant saw the appalling aftermath of Solferino, although he did not witness the battle himself. Shocked to the core by the carnage, but determined to do something to help, Dunant enlisted the local civilians, including women, to assist the wounded. Short as they were of the necessary resources, Dunant organised purchase of supplies and set up makeshift hospitals. He negotiated with the French to get captured Austrian doctors released and, without reference to difference in nationality, managed the initiative under the slogan "Tutti fratelli" (“All men are brothers”).

Dunant subsequently described his experiences in a book entitled  Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino), published in 1862. It not only described the battle and its aftermath but also the idea of a neutral organisation dedicated  to caring for wounded, regardless of nationality. He sent the book to many leading political and military figures in Europe. Support for such his ideas came first in Switzerland and the Geneva Society for Public Welfare took practical steps to establish what was to be the International Committee of the Red Cross. The symbol chosen was the reverse of the Swiss flag – a white cross on a red ground – and its simplicity, like its future Red Crescent counterpart in Muslim countries, made it an easy one to recognise even under battle conditions. The rest is history and Dunant’s legacy – and reputation – has outlasted that of the emperors whose ambitions prompted his actions.

Dunant in old age
Much of Dunant’s later life was unhappy. His business efforts did not prosper and he drifted away from the organisation  he had inspired. He descended into poverty and was dependent on friends in later years. It was only towards the end of his life that his personal achievement was fully recognised and in 1901 he was the joint recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. Dying nine years later, after suffering years of depression, his last words were "Where has humanity gone?"

Napoleon III lies forgotten in a mausoleum in Hampshire and Franz Josef was to remain on the Austro-Hungarian throne until 1916, leaving his empire plunged in a war that would destroy it two years after his death.  But Henri Dunant’s legacy lives on. His was a life to be more proud of than of either.

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