Horatio Nelson is the most famous naval figure of the period. His four major battles (Cape St Vincent 1797, Nile 1798, Copenhagen 1801, and Trafalgar 1805) are the best-known naval engagements of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In his hour of triumph at Trafalgar, Nelson was killed. His death immortalized him in Britain and overshadowed the career of every other naval officer. But there were many other key naval battles fought during the conflicts. The Royal Navy would be pitted against the French, Spanish, American, and Dutch. Presented below are five lesser-known engagements.
1. The Glorious 1st of June (French Revolution)
At 05:00 on the morning of the 1st of June 1794, sixty-eight-year-old British Admiral Richard Howe was facing three immediate problems.
First, a huge French fleet he had been sparring with for the past three days was within sight. Second, the enemy grain convoy he had been sent to intercept was in danger of slipping away. Third, the condition of his own ships was perilous – they had been at sea without repair for months. The demanding British public expected nothing less than total victory.
The French Revolutionary government declared war on Britain in early 1793. French ports almost immediately came under blockade by the Royal Navy, but there were no major fleet-on-fleet battles until the following year.
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The battle, fought 400 nautical miles west of Brittany, saw 25 British ships of the line clash with 26 French. At this time, fleets fought in great lines so that more cannons could be brought to bear. Conventional British tactics were to engage and envelop either the front or rear portion of the enemy line.
On the 1st of June, Howe (like Nelson) abandoned conventional wisdom and instead ordered all his ships to sail straight at the French fleet, breaking the enemy line at multiple points. Howe issued the famous signal, “commence the work of destruction,” to his captains.
Despite the maneuver being ragged, notable success was achieved, and in the confused mêlée which followed, six French ships were captured and another sunk, with no ship losses on the British side. However, the human cost of the battle was high: 1,200 British casualties and 7,000 French.
Despite their losses, the French claimed a semi-victory, as by the end of the day, Howe’s fleet was too battered to engage the grain convoy, and it managed to slip through to supply the nascent French Revolutionary state.
2. Camperdown (French Revolution)
Camperdown saw the navy of Holland come out to contest the approaches to the English Channel with the Royal Navy.
At the beginning of the French Revolution, the Dutch Republic was on Britain’s side. During the winter of 1794-95, French armies overran Holland and set up a puppet state. The new so-called Batavian Republic then joined France against Britain.
In October 1797, Dutch admiral De Winter commanded a powerful battle fleet of 15 ships of the line. His plan was twofold. Conduct a sweep of the North Sea and attempt to destroy any small British forces in the area. Then, if at all practicable, he was to proceed into the Channel and link up with a French fleet at Brest in preparation for an invasion of Ireland.
On the British side, Admiral Duncan sailed from Yarmouth with a fleet of 16 ships of the line to intercept. The resulting clash, in which Duncan gave the order to engage closely, saw the Dutch navy smashed, with nine of their ships of the line captured. De Winter himself was taken prisoner.
When they met at the end of the fight, De Winter offered his sword to Duncan in an act of surrender. Duncan allowed him to keep the sword and shook his hand instead.
Camperdown effectively eliminated the Dutch Navy from the French Revolutionary War and doomed future Irish rebellions to bloody failure.
Both De Winter and Duncan were tall, broad, imposing figures. After the battle, the Dutchman was moved to remark that “it is a matter of marvel that two such gigantic objects as Admiral Duncan and myself should have escaped the general carnage of this day.”
3. The Battle of Pulo Aura (Napoleonic Wars)
The Napoleonic Wars started in 1803. A revitalized France under Napoleon sought to put right the naval losses it had previously suffered. Part of the reason Britain was such a threat was its control of global trade. The Honourable East India Company (HEIC) looked after British commercial interests in India and China. Every year, large numbers of Company merchant ships (known as East Indiamen) would gather in Canton. This “China Fleet” would then sail to England to offload Chinese goods at British ports.
France dispatched Admiral Charles Linois and a group of warships to intercept and capture the China Fleet. Linois was a competent sailor and had positioned his ships near the Straits of Malacca. He sighted the British convoy on February 14th, 1804.
Twenty-nine merchant ships had collected in the fleet. The East India Company was notoriously stingy and had only sent a lightly armed brig to escort them. It looked inevitable that Linois would capture most of the convoy with his squadron of one 74-gun ship of the line and four smaller warships.
In charge of the China Fleet was Nathaniel Dance, an East India Company sailor with decades of experience. He saw that the situation appeared hopeless. But Linois was cautious and merely shadowed the convoy for the rest of the day.
These few hours of respite allowed Dance to come up with a brilliant idea. The East Indiamen were badly armed and under-crewed, but they were large ships riding high in the water. Dawn on the 15th saw Linois still shadowing the convoy, waiting for the best time to strike. Suddenly, Dance ordered the four lead Indiamen to hoist the blue battle flag of the Royal Navy. This implied that the four merchant vessels were, in fact, ships of the line.
Linois observed the situation for another few hours, all the time edging closer to the convoy. There was a danger the ruse would be spotted. Then Dance did the unthinkable. He ordered the four lead Indiamen to come about and head straight at Linois’ approaching squadron. The ruse worked, and after a brief exchange of fire, Linois lost his nerve and broke off, convinced he had been attacked by stronger ships.
But Dance was not finished. To maintain the ruse, he made the incredible decision to launch a pursuit. This he did for two hours until he was satisfied Linois was not going to put in a return appearance.
For this unique action, Dance was showered with enough rewards by a grateful East India Company to allow him to retire to England. After the war, Linois was moved to comment that the English officer had put up a “bold front.”
4. The Capture of the Spanish Treasure Fleet (Napoleonic Wars)
At the start of the Napoleonic Wars, Spain was neutral but under immense pressure from the French to join the conflict. By 1804, it was becoming evident to everyone that Spain would declare war on Britain. But first, the Spanish government determined to get their annual treasure fleet from the Americas safely into Cadiz harbor.
In September, Royal Navy Commodore Graham Moore was tasked with intercepting and capturing the neutral Spanish treasure shipment, peacefully if possible.
It was a controversial order and one that would not be easy to carry out. The treasure fleet was well-armed. To do the job, he would have HMS Indefatigable (the ship that the fictional Horatio Hornblower sailed on) and three other frigates.
Moore managed to intercept the Spanish off Cape Santa Maria, quickly bringing his ships to “within pistol shot” and inviting the Spanish commander, Don José de Bustamante y Guerra, to surrender. Bustamente also had four frigates and, with his holds bursting with gold, naturally refused Moore’s offer.
Soon after, an exchange of fire began. It did not take long for superior British gunnery to gain the upper hand. At such close range, the carnage was horrific. Nine minutes after the firing began, the Mercedes, one of the Spanish frigates, blew up in a “tremendous explosion.” The remainder of the Spanish squadron was soon rounded up and captured.
The loot from the three ships amounted to over 70 million pounds in today’s money. Unfortunately for the sailors, the British government used a legal loophole to deprive them of most of their prize money. Moore’s next battle was with the Admiralty Court to try and get what he and his men were owed.
5. The Battle of Basque Roads (Napoleonic Wars)
1805 saw the French and Spanish navies combine in an ill-thought-out scheme to invade Britain and crash the London stock exchange. The subsequent chase to the Caribbean and back saw Horatio Nelson bring the Franco-Spanish to battle at Trafalgar, where he lost his life gaining a decisive victory.
Major fleet engagements were rare after Trafalgar. Though the French and Spanish navies were still powerful, the Royal Navy had achieved such a moral superiority over their enemies that they dared not come out of port in strength.
One exception to this was the battle at Basque Roads in 1809.
In early 1809, part of the French fleet in Brest escaped the British blockade. The Royal Navy under Admiral James Gambier set off in pursuit and soon bottled them up in Basque Roads (near Rochefort). Due to the narrow nature of its channels, Basque Roads was difficult to attack. Lord Thomas Cochrane (the real-life inspiration for Jack Aubrey) was dispatched to Basque Roads. The admiralty placed him under the command of Gambier.
Specially built fireships were being prepared in Britain to destroy the French fleet. However, as soon as the aggressive Cochrane arrived, he grew impatient and created his own fireships from captured French merchant vessels. Still impatient, as soon as the fireships were ready, he requested permission from Gambier to launch an attack. At first, Gambier refused, but after a heated argument, relented, stating to Cochrane that “if you choose to rush to self-destruction, that is your own affair.”
On the night of 11th April, Cochrane personally led in his ships. The attack caused the French to panic, and they began firing at one another in confusion. Cochrane did not light the fuse to ignite his own fireship until the last minute and was further delayed searching for the ship’s dog. When the dog was found, Cochrane jumped into the ocean and was picked up by his comrades.
In the morning, much of the French fleet had run aground and were ripe for the capture.
But Gambier hesitated, refusing to send the Royal Navy in. A furious Cochrane attacked on his own in his 38-gun frigate, Imperieuse, and rapidly became embroiled in fighting three French ships. Yet still, Gambier refused to act.
In the end, some French ships were destroyed, while the majority managed to get away. After the battle, Cochrane railed against Gambier in Parliament. But Gambier was an influential man with influential friends, and Cochrane was publicly censured, despite his heroism.
Speaking of Gambier after the war, Emperor Napoleon was moved to remark to an English journalist, “the French admiral was a fool, but yours was just as bad.”