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Dutch fleet which was trying to help the French into Ireland. He caught
it off Camperduin (on the coast of North Holland) and smashed it to
pieces after a furious battle, in which the Dutch, with a smaller fleet,
showed that they too were of the Viking breed. This victory stopped the
danger from the north, just as St. Vincent's stopped it from the south.
Both were fought in the only proper way to defend the British Empire on
the sea when the enemy comes out, that is, by going to meet him in his
own waters, instead of waiting to let him choose his own point of attack
against the British coast.

Next year, 1798, Nelson was also made a peer for a glorious victory won
on his own account. He had learnt from Lord Hood the first principle of
all defence - that the real aim is not so much to stand on guard or even
to win a victory as to destroy the enemy's means of destroying you. This
chimed in with his own straight-forward genius; and he never forgot his
old chief: "the best officer that England has to boast of." Hood had the
misfortune never to have been in supreme command during a great battle.
But, in Nelson's opinion, he stood above all other commanders-in-chief of
his own time; and, as we look back on him now, we see that Nelson alone
surpassed him.

Napoleon, like the Germans of today, hoped to make land-power beat
sea-power in the East by stirring up rebellion against the British rule
in India and making Egypt his bridge between Europe and Asia. With
daring skill he crossed the Mediterranean and conquered Egypt. But his
victory proved worse than useless; for Nelson followed the French fleet
and utterly defeated it in the Bay of Aboukir at the mouth of the Nile on
the 1st of August, 1798. The battle was fought with the utmost firmness
on both sides, each knowing that the fate of Egypt, of the East, and of
Napoleon's army as well as of his fleet, hung trembling in the scales.
The odds were twelve British battleships to thirteen French. The French
sailors, as usual, were not such skilled hands as the British, partly
because France had always been rather a country of landsmen than seamen,
but chiefly because the French fleets were, as a rule, so closely
blockaded that they could not use the open sea for training nearly so
much as their British rivals did. Still, the French fleet, though at
anchor (and so unable to change its position quickly to suit the changes
of the fight) looked as if it could defy even Nelson himself. For it was
drawn up across the bay with no spot left unguarded between it and the
land at either end of the line; and it was so close in shore that its
admirals never thought anybody would try to work his way inside.

But that is just what Nelson did. He sent some of his ships between the
van of the French and the Aboukir shoal, where there was just room to
scrape through with hardly an inch to spare; and so skilful was the
British seamanship that this marvellous manoeuvre took the French
completely by surprise. Then, having his own fleet under way, while the
French was standing still, he doubled on their van (that is, he attacked
it from both sides), held their centre, and left their rear alone. By
this skilful move he crushed the van and then had the centre at his
mercy. The French gunners stuck to their work with splendid courage,
driving the _Bellerophon_ off as a mere battered hulk and keeping most of
the rest at bay for some time. But the French flagship, Orient, which
the _Bellerophon_ had boldly attacked, was now attacked by the
_Swiftsure_ and _Alexander_; and the French admiral, Brueys, already
wounded twice, was mortally hit by a cannon ball. He refused to be
carried below, saying that "a French admiral should die on deck in a
fight like this." His example encouraged the crew to redouble their
efforts. But, just after he died, fire broke out on board the _Orient_
and quickly spread fore and aft, up the rigging, and right in toward the
magazine. The desperate battle was now at its fiercest, raging all round
this furious fire, which lit the blackness of that warm Egyptian night
with devils' tongues of flame. The cannonade went on. But even the
thunder of two thousand guns could not drown the roar of that seething
fire, now eating into the very vitals of the ship, nearer and nearer to
the magazine. Every near-by ship that could move now hauled clear as far
as possible; while the rest closed portholes and hatchways, took their
powder below, sent all hands to fire stations, and breathlessly waited
for the end. Suddenly, as if the sea had opened to let Hell's lightning
loose, the _Orient_ burst like a gigantic shell and crashed like Doomsday
thunder. The nearest ships reeled under the terrific shock, which racked
their hulls from stem to stern and set some leaking badly. Masts, boats,
and twisted rigging flew blazing through the air, fell hissing on the
watered decks, and set two British vessels and one French on fire. But
the crews worked their very hardest, and they saved all three.

[Illustration: THE BLOWING UP OF _L'ORIENT_ DURING THE BATTLE OF THE
NILE.]

For a few awed minutes every gun was dumb. Then the _Franklin_, the
French ship that had taken fire, began the fight again. But the
_Defence_ and _Swiftsure_ brought down her masts, silenced nearly all her
guns, and forced her to surrender. By midnight the first seven ships in
that gallant French line had all been taken or sunk; every man who could
be saved being brought on board the victorious British men-of-war and, of
course, well treated there. The eighth Frenchman, the _Tonnant_, still
kept up the fight, hoping to stop the British from getting at the five
astern. Her heroic captain, Thouars, had, first, his right arm, then his
left, and then his right leg, smashed by cannon balls. But, like Brueys,
he would not leave the deck, and calmly gave his orders till he died.

Dawn found the _Tonnant_ still trying to stem the British advance against
the French rear, and the French frigate _Justice_ actually making for the
disabled British battleship, _Bellerophon_, which she wished to take.
But the light of day soon showed the remaining French that all they could
do for their own side now was to save as many ships as possible. So the
rear then tried to escape. But one blew up; two ran ashore; and, of all
the fleet that was to have made Napoleon's foothold sure, only four
escaped, two from the line of battle and two from the frigates on the
flank.

Nelson had won a victory which was quite perfect in reaching his great
aim - the complete destruction of Napoleon's power in Egypt and the East.
Napoleon himself escaped to France, after a campaign in Palestine
followed by a retreat to Egypt. But his army was stranded as surely as
if it had been a wrecked ship, high and dry. Three years after the
Battle of the Nile the remnant of it was rounded up and made to
surrender. Moreover, Malta, the central sea base of the whole
Mediterranean, had meanwhile (1800) fallen into British hands, where,
like Egypt, it remains to this day.

The same year (1801) that saw the French surrender in Egypt saw Nelson
win his second victory, this time in the north. Napoleon (victorious, as
usual, on land, and foiled, as usual, at sea) had tried to ruin British
shipping by shutting it out of every port on the continent of Europe.
This was his "Continental System." It hurt the Continent; for British
ships carried most of the goods used in trade not only between Europe,
Asia, Africa, and America, but also between the different ports on the
European continent itself. Napoleon, however, had no choice but to use
his own land-power, no matter what the cost might be, against British
sea-power. He was encouraged to do this by finding allies in those
countries which had formed the anti-British Armed Neutrality of the North
twenty years before. Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Prussia, and
the Hansa Towns of Germany, were all glad to hit British sea-power in the
hope of getting its trade for themselves. So the new Alliance arranged
that, as soon as the Baltic ports were clear of ice, the Russian,
Swedish, Danish and Norwegian fleets would join the French and Spanish.

But Nelson was too quick for them. On the 1st of April he led a fleet
along the channel opposite Copenhagen, which is the gateway of the
Baltic. After dark, his trusty flag-captain, Hardy, took a small rowboat
in as close as possible and tried the depths with a pole; for the boat
was so close to the Danish fleet that the splash of the sounding lead on
the end of a line would surely have been heard. By eleven o'clock Nelson
had found out that he could range his own fleet close enough alongside
the Danes. So he sat up all night planning his attack. At seven next
morning he explained it to his captains, and at nine to the pilots and
sailing-masters. Half an hour later the fleet began to move into place.
Three big ships grounded in the narrow, shallow, and crooked channel.
But the rest went on, closing up the dangerous gaps as best they could.
Just, after ten the first gun was fired; but it was another hour and a
half before the two fleets were at it, hard all. At one o'clock a Danish
victory seemed quite as likely as a British one. Very few Danish gnus
had been silenced, while two of the grounded British men-of-war were
flying signals of distress, and the third was signalling to say she could
do nothing. In the meantime the few British men-of-war that were trying
to work into the channel from the other end under Sir Hyde Parker were
being headed off by the wind so much that they could hardly do more than
threaten their own end of the Danish line. Parker was the
Commander-in-chief; though Nelson was making the attack.

[Illustration: THE BATTLE OF COPENHAGEN, APRIL 2nd, 1801. (Note the
British line ahead.)]

It was at this time of doubt and danger that Parker, urged by a nervous
staff officer, ordered up signal No. 39, which meant "Discontinue action"
(that is, stop the fight if you think you ought to do so). The story
commonly told about this famous signal is wrong; as most stories of the
kind are pretty sure to be. Signal 39 did not order Nelson to break
away, no matter what he thought, but meant that he could leave off if he
thought that was the right thing to do. As, however, he thought the
chance of winning still held good, he told his signal lieutenant simply
to "acknowledge but not repeat No. 39." Then he added, "and keep mine
flying," his own being the one for "close action." These two signals
then gave Nelson's captains the choice of going on or breaking off,
according to which seemed the better. All went on except "the gallant,
good Riou," a man who, if he had lived today, would certainly have won
the Victoria Cross. Riou was in charge of a few small vessels which were
being terribly mauled by the Trekroner batteries without being able to do
any good themselves. So he quite rightly hauled off, thus saving his
division from useless destruction. Unluckily he was killed before
getting out of range; and no hero's death was ever more deeply mourned by
all who knew his career. Good commanders need cool heads quite as much
as they need brave hearts.

Shortly after Riou had left the scene the Danes began to fire more
slowly, while the British kept up as well as ever. But, the Trekroner
forts that had hammered Riou now turned their guns on the _Monarch_ and
_Defiance_, making the battle in that part of the line as hot as before;
while some Danes so lost their heads as to begin firing again from ships
that had surrendered to the British. This was more than Nelson could
stand. So he wrote to the Danish Crown Prince: "Lord Nelson has been
commanded to spare Denmark when she no longer resists. The line of
defence which covers her shores has struck to the British flag. Let
firing cease, then, that he may take possession of his prizes, or he will
blow them into the air along with the crews who have so nobly defended
them. The brave Danes are the brothers, and should never be the enemies,
of the English."

Nelson refused the wafer offered him to close up the letter, saying,
"this is no time to look hurried"; and, sending to his cabin for a
candle, wax, and his biggest seal, he folded and sealed the letter as
coolly as if writing in his house at home instead of in a storm of shot
and shell. After arranging terms the Danes gave in; and the whole Armed
Neutrality of the North came to nothing. For the second time Nelson had
beaten Napoleon.

This defeat did not really harm the Northern Powers; for, though they
liked their own shipping to do all the oversea trading it could, they
were much better off with the British, who _could_ take their goods to
market, than with Napoleon, who could _not_. Besides, the British let
them use their own shipping so long as they did not let Napoleon use it;
while Napoleon had to stop it altogether, lest the British, with their
stronger navy, should turn it to their advantage instead of his. In a
word: it was better to use the sea under the British navy than to lose it
under Napoleon's army.

Both sides now needed rest. So the Peace of Amiens was signed in March
1802. With this peace ended Napoleon's last pretence that he was trying
to save the peoples of the world from their wicked rulers. Some of them
did need saving; and many of the French Revolutionists were generous
souls, eager to spread their own kind of liberty all over Europe. But
British liberty had been growing steadily for a good many hundreds of
years, and the British people did not want a foreign sort thrust upon
them, though many of them felt very kindly toward the French. So this,
with the memory of former wars, had brought the two countries into strife
once more. All might then have ended in a happy peace had not Napoleon
set out to win the overlordship of the world, like Philip and Louis
before him and the German Kaiser since. France, tired of revolutionary
troubles and proud of the way her splendid army was being led to victory,
let Napoleon's dreams of conquest mislead her for twelve years to come.
Hence the new war that began in 1803 and ended on the field of Waterloo.

Napoleon had used the peace to strengthen his navy for a last attempt to
bring the British to their knees. Villeneuve, the admiral who had
escaped from the Nile, was finally given command of the joint fleets of
France and Spain in the south, while Napoleon himself commanded the great
army of invasion at Boulogne, within thirty miles of England. "Let us,"
said Napoleon, "be masters of the Channel for six hours and we shall be
the masters of the world." But he knew that the only way to reach London
was to outwit Nelson.

Napoleon's naval plans were wonderfully clever, like all his plans. But
they were those of a landsman who failed to reckon with all the troubles
of bringing the different squadrons of the French and Spanish fleets
together in spite of the British blockade. Moreover, they were always
changing, and not always for the better. Finally, toward the end of
August, 1805, when he saw they were not going to work, he suddenly began
a land campaign that ended with his stupendous victory over the Austrians
and Russians at Austerlitz early in December.

But meanwhile the French and Spanish fleets had remained a danger which
Nelson wished to destroy at its very source, by beating Villeneuve's main
body wherever he could find it. At last, on the 21st of October, after
two years of anxious watching, he caught it off Cape Trafalgar, at the
northwest entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. Directly he saw he could
bring on a battle he ran up the signal which the whole world knows, and
which we of the Empire will cherish till the end of time: "England
expects that every man will do his duty." That he had done his own we
know from many an eye-witness, as well as from this entry in his private
diary three months before Trafalgar: "I went on shore for the first time
since the 16th of June 1803; and, from having my foot out of the
_Victory_, two years wanting ten days." During all this long spell of
harassing duty he kept his fleet "tuned up" to the last pitch of
perfection in scouting, manoeuvring, and gunnery, so as to be always
ready for victorious action at a moment's notice.

[Illustration: The _VICTORY_. Nelson's Flagship at Trafalgar, launched
in 1765, and still used as the flagship in Portsmouth Harbour.]

Villeneuve had thirty-three battleships, Nelson only twenty-seven. But
these twenty-seven all belonged to one navy and were manned by crews who
had been drilled for battle on the open sea without a single spell of
mere harbour work, like the French and Spaniards. Still, the enemy were
brave, and Nelson remarked that "they put a good face on it." But he
quickly added, "I'll give them such a dressing as they never had before."
It was a lovely day of light west wind and bright sunshine as the British
bore down to the attack in two lines-ahead ("follow-my-leader"), the port
(or left) one led by Nelson in the immortal _Victory_, flying the battle
signal "Engage the enemy more closely," and the starboard one by
Collingwood in the _Royal Sovereign_. The first shot was fired on the
stroke of noon, or at "eight bells," as they say on board. Nelson's
plan, as usual, was to strike hardest at the weakest spot, which he knew
he could reach because his fleet was so much better trained. He and
Collingwood went through the enemy's long line at two spots about half a
mile apart, crushing his centre, and separating his front from his rear.
The double-shotted British guns raked the enemy vessels with frightful
effect as their muzzles passed close by the sterns. The enemy fired back
bravely enough; but with much less skill and confidence. The Spaniards
were already beginning to feel none too friendly toward Napoleon; while
the French had already lost their trust in Spanish help.

[Illustration: TRAFALGAR. 21st October, 1805.]

Yet the Spaniards were a proud people, not to be beaten without a hard
struggle; while the French were bound to do their best in any ease. So
the fight was furious and fought at the closest quarters. The gunners
could often see every feature of their opponents' faces and were
sometimes scorched by the flashes from opposing guns. The _Victory_ was
fighting a terrific duel with the French _Redoutable_, and Nelson was
pacing the deck with his flag-captain, Hardy, when, at 1.25, he suddenly
sank on his knees and fell over on his side, having been hit by a
musket-shot fired from the enemy's mizzentop, only fifteen yards away.
"They've done for me at last," said Nelson, as Hardy stooped over him. A
Sergeant of Marines and two bluejackets ran forward and carried him
below. Though in great agony he pulled out his handkerchief and, with
his one hand, carefully covered his face, in the hope that the men
between decks would not see who was hit.

While Nelson lay dying below, the fight raged worse than ever round the
_Victory_. The _Redoutable's_ tops were full of snipers, who not only
plied their muskets to good effect but also used hand grenades (something
like the bombs of the present day). The _Victory's_ deck was almost
cleared by the intense fire of these men, and the crew of the
_Redoutable_ got ready to board. But on the word "_Repel boarders_!" so
many marines and blue-jackets rushed up from below that the French gave
up the attempt. The musketry fire was still very hot from one ship to
another; and the French snipers were as bad as ever. But those in the
mizzentop from which Nelson was hit were all sniped by his signal
midshipman, young Jack Pollard, who, being a dead shot, picked off the
Frenchmen one by one as they leaned over to take aim. In this way
Pollard must have hit the man who hit Nelson.

[Illustration: MODEL OF THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR. (Reproduced by
permission from the model at the Royal United Service Institution.)]

An hour after Nelson had fallen the _Victory_ had become so battered, so
hampered by a maze of fallen masts and rigging, and so dangerously holed
between wind and water, that Hardy was glad of her sheering off a bit,
out of the thick of the fight. He then ran below to see Nelson, who at
once asked, "Well, Hardy, how goes the battle?" "Very well, my Lord,"
said Hardy, "we have twelve of the enemy's ships." "I hope," said
Nelson, "that none of ours have struck." "There's no fear of that," said
Hardy. Another hour passed before Hardy could come back to say, "I am
certain that fourteen or fifteen have struck." "That's well," said
Nelson, "but I bargained for twenty." Then, rousing himself to give his
last order, he said, "Anchor, Hardy, anchor!" for he knew a storm was
coming and that Cape Trafalgar was a bad lee shore (that is, a shore
toward which the wind is blowing). A few minutes later he died,
murmuring with his latest breath, "Thank God, I've done my duty."

Trafalgar was so complete a victory that Napoleon gave up all attempts to
conquer the British at sea. But he renewed his "Continental System" and
made it ten times worse than before. Having smashed the Austrian and
Russian armies at Austerlitz, and the Prussian one at Jena, he wrote the
Berlin Decrees, ordering every port on the continent of Europe to be shut
against every single British ship. This was blockade from the land. The
British answered with a blockade from the sea, giving notice, by their
Orders-in-Council, that their Navy would stop the trade of every port
which shut out British vessels. Napoleon hoped that if he could bully
Europe into obeying his Berlin Decrees he would "conquer the sea by the
land." But what really happened was quite the other way round; for
Napoleon's land was conquered by the British sea. So much of the trade
of the European ports had been carried on by British vessels that to shut
these out meant killing the trade in some ports and hurting it in all.
Imagine the feelings of a merchant whose country's army had been beaten
by Napoleon, and whose own trade was stopped by the Berlin Decrees, when
he saw the sea open to all who were under the care of the British Navy
and closed to all who were not! Imagine also what he thought of the
difference between Napoleon's land-power, which made him a prisoner at
home, and British sea-power, which only obliged him to obey certain laws
of trade abroad! Then imagine which side he thought the better one for
trade, when he saw Napoleon himself being forced to choose between
letting British vessels into France with cloth or letting his army go
bare!

Slowly, at first, but very surely, and faster as time went on, the
shutting of the ports against British vessels roused the peoples of
Europe against Napoleon. They were, of course, roused by his other acts
of tyranny - by the way he cut up countries into new kingdoms to suit
himself first and the people of these countries last or not at all, by
his ordering foreigners about like slaves, and by his being a ruthless
conqueror wherever he could. But his shutting of the ports added a kind
of slow starvation in the needs and arts of life to all his other sins;
while the opening of the ports to British fleets and armies, and to the
British trade that followed, meant the bread of life and liberty. Thus
Trafalgar forced Napoleon either to give in at once or else to go on
raising those hosts of enemies which sapped his strength in Spain and
Russia and caused his fall at Waterloo.




CHAPTER XIX

"1812"

The fight between Napoleon's land-blockade and Britain's sea-blockade
divided not only the people of Europe into friends and foes but also
divided the people of the United States into opposing parties, one in
favour of Napoleon, the other in favour of the British. The party
favouring Napoleon wanted war against the British. The other party
wanted peace.

The War Party hated the British, coveted Canada, and wished to break
the British blockade. The Peace Party said that Napoleon was a tyrant,
while the British were on the side of freedom, and that Napoleon was
rougher with American ships which broke the land-blockade than the
British were with those which broke the sea-blockade. The War Party
answered that, for one ship Napoleon could catch, the British caught
twenty. This was true. But it showed that the War Party would rather
make money on Napoleon's side than lose it on the side of freedom.

The War Party's last argument was that British deserters should be safe
under the American flag when on the high seas. The high seas meant the
sea far enough from any country to be a "no-man's-land," where, as all


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Online LibraryWilliam Charles Henry WoodFlag and Fleet → online text (page 11 of 19)