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Chapter Twenty One.
The crew of the Culloden distributed—Dick and I have to go on board the Mars—Cruise off Ushant—Fall in with the enemy—A narrow escape—Masterly retreat of Admiral Cornwallis—A ruse de guerre—A severe struggle—The Mars rescued by the Queen Charlotte—Return to England—State of the ships—My expectations of leave disappointed—We are drafted on board the Galatea.

The Culloden having gained a bad name for herself, in consequence of the late event and her behaviour on the 1st of June, her officers and crew were distributed among several ships; I, with Dick Hagger and other men, being sent on board the Mars, seventy-four, one of the squadron under Vice-Admiral the Honourable William Cornwallis, whose flag was flying on board the Royal Sovereign, of one hundred guns. The other ships were the Triumph, Sir Erasmus Gower, the Brunswick, and Bellerophon, seventy-fours, the Phaeton and Pallas frigates, and the Kingfisher, an eighteen gun brig.

We sailed at the end of May from Spithead, for a cruise off Ushant. On the 8th of June we made the land about the Penmarcks on the French coast, and soon after the Triumph threw out the signal of six sail east by north.

We immediately gave chase. After some time, one of the frigates, with the little Kingfisher and the Triumph, being considerably ahead, commenced firing at the enemy, while we were crowding all sail to get up with them, the admiral having made the signal to close.

Before we had done so, however, the admiral ordered us and the Bellerophon to chase two French frigates to the south-west, one of which had a large ship in tow. This, after a short time, they abandoned to us, and we took possession of her. We stood so close in that the batteries at Belle Isle opened upon us, and shoaling our water, the signal for danger was made.

Thereupon Admiral Cornwallis recalled us, and we stood off the land with the prizes we had taken, and eight others, captured by the frigates, laden with wine and brandy. A good many small vessels, however, escaped us by plying to windward under the land, to gain the anchorage in Palais Roads.

The next day it was calm, so that the enemy could not, even if they had had a mind to do so, come out and attack us, and in the evening a breeze springing up, we took the prizes in tow, and stood away for the Channel.

Sighting Scilly, Admiral Cornwallis ordered the Kingfisher to convoy the prizes into port, while we stood back to the southward and eastward to look after the French squadron. Several days had passed when the Phaeton, our look-out frigate, made the signal of a French fleet in sight; but as nothing was said about the enemy being of superior force, and as she did not haul her wind and return to us, Admiral Cornwallis must have concluded, as did our captain, that the signal had reference to the number rather than to the apparent strength of the French ships, and we accordingly stood on nearer than we should otherwise have done. It was not indeed until an hour afterwards that we got a sufficiently clear sight of the French fleet to make out that it consisted of one very large one-hundred-and-twenty gun ship, eleven seventy-fours, and the same number of frigates, besides smaller craft. Dick Hagger, who had been sent aloft, told me that he had counted thirty at least.

“Never mind! If we can’t out-sail them, we’ll fight them, and show the mounseers that ‘hearts of oak are our ships, British tars are our men,’” he exclaimed with a gay laugh, humming the tune.

All hands on board our ship were in the same humour, and so were the crews of the rest of the squadron. We knew that we could trust our stout old admiral, for if he was at times somewhat grumpy, he was as gallant a man and as good an officer as any in the service. I heard it said, many years after, that when some of the Government gentlemen offered to make a lord of him, he declined, saying, “It won’t cure the gout.”

The admiral now threw out the signal to the squadron to haul to the wind on the starboard tack under all sail, and form in line ahead, the Brunswick leading, and we in the Mars being last. Thus we stood on for about three hours, when we saw the French fleet on the same tack separate into two divisions, one of which tacked and stood to the northward, evidently to take advantage of the land wind, while the other continued its course to the southward. Of course it was the object of our admiral to escape if possible; for, fire-eater as he was, he had no wish to expose his ships to the risk of being surrounded and sunk, as he knew, well enough might be the case should the French get up with us.

After this we twice tacked, and then we saw the French north division tack to the southward, when the wind shifted to the northward, and this enabled that division to weather on us, and the south division to lie well up for our squadron.

The first division now bore east by north about eight or nine miles, and the south division south-east, distant about ten miles on our larboard quarter. Night soon came on, and we could not tell but that before it was over we might have the French ships close aboard, and thundering away at us, “Well, if they do come,” cried Dick, “we’ll give them as good as we take, although we may have three to fight; but what’s the odds if we work our guns three times as fast as they do?”

To our surprise the watch was piped down as usual, for the admiral knew better than we did, that the enemy could not be up with us until the morning while the wind held as it then did.

We slept like tops, not troubling our heads much about the battle we might have to fight before another day was over, but I doubt whether many of the officers turned in.

The middle watch got their sleep like the first. After that the hammocks were piped up, and every preparation made for battle. Two of our ships, the Bellerophon and Brunswick, which were always looked upon as fast sailers, had, somehow or other, got out of trim, and during the night had to cut away their anchors and launches, and to start a portion of their water and provisions. The old “Billy Ruffian,” however, do all they could, would not move along, and they were compelled to heave overboard her four poop carronades with their carriages, and a large quantity of shot. Notwithstanding this, and that they were carrying every stitch of canvas they could set, we and the other ships had to shorten sail occasionally to keep in line with them. It may be supposed that we had been keeping a bright look-out for the French fleet, and when daylight broke we saw it coming up very fast, formed in three divisions.

The weather division, consisting of three ships of the line, and five frigates, was nearly abreast of our ships. In the centre division we counted five ships of the line and four frigates, and in the lee division four sail of the line, five frigates, two brigs, and two cutters. These were somewhat fearful odds, but notwithstanding, as far as I could judge, the hearts of none on board our ship, and we were the most exposed, quailed for a moment. We had made up our minds to a desperate fight, but we had confidence in our old admiral, and we knew that if any man could rescue us, he would do it.

Stripped to the waist, we stood at our quarters, waiting the order to fire, and resolved to fight to the last. At that moment I did not think of my wife, or home, or anything else, but just the work we had in hand. At such times it does not do to think. We all knew that it was our business to run our guns in as fast as possible and fire when ordered. We watched the approach of the French ships, eager for the moment when we should begin the fight.

A seventy-four was the van ship of the weather division, and a frigate led the centre division. We had had our breakfast and returned to our guns, when the seventy-four opened her fire upon our ship, the Mars. We immediately hoisted our colours, as did the rest of our squadron, and returned it with our stern-chasers. Directly afterwards the French frigate ran up on our larboard and lee quarter, and yawing rapidly, fired into us. This sort of work continued for nearly half an hour. Several of our men by that time had been struck down, though none that I could see were killed, while our standing and running rigging was already a good deal cut up. We had been blazing away for some time, and the enemy’s shot were coming pretty quickly aboard, when I heard a crash, and looking up saw that our main-yard was badly wounded. Now for the first time I began to fear that we should get crippled, and, being surrounded by the enemy, should be unable to fight our way out from among them.

Two other ships, the Triumph and Bellerophon, were now warmly engaged, and soon afterwards the remainder of the squadron began firing their stern or quarter guns as they could bring them to bear on the enemy. The Brunswick, it should be understood, was leading, then came the Royal Sovereign, next the Bellerophon and Triumph, we being, as I before said, the sternmost. We now saw the Royal Sovereign making signals to the two ships to go ahead, while she, shortening sail, took her station next in line to the Brunswick.

We had kept up so hot a fire on the first ship which had attacked us, that we had at length knocked away her main-topgallant mast and had done considerable damage to her rigging. To our great satisfaction we saw her sheer off and drop astern.

“Hurrah! there’s one done for,” cried Dick Hagger.

“So there is, my boy, but one down another came on,” remarked a wag among the crew of our gun, pointing as he spoke to a French seventy-four, which, crowding all sail, was approaching to open directly afterwards a brisk cannonade on our larboard quarter.

“Never mind, lads, we will treat her as we did t’other, and maybe we’ll capture both of them,” cried Dick.

I did not see there was much chance of that, considering that the whole French fleet was at hand to support the crippled ships. Had we been more nearly matched we might have done it.

We were now getting pretty severely mauled. First one and then another got up under our quarter, and blazed away at us. More men were wounded, and our fore-topsail yard was badly damaged, in addition to our main-topsail yard, while we had to cut away the stern galleries the better to train our guns, run through the after ports. The other ships—especially the Triumph, Sir Erasmus Gower—were keeping up a tremendous fire from their stern-ports. Notwithstanding this, the French were getting closer and closer.

Four hours thus passed away. While we were thus engaged, it must be remembered we were pressing on with all sail, so that we kept ahead of the enemy. While our sticks stood we had no fear of making our escape, but we well knew that at any moment a shot might carry away one of our masts, and then, too probably, our brave chief would have to leave us to our fate for the sake of the safety of the rest of the squadron, not that we supposed for an instant that he would do so until compelled by the most dire necessity. Strange to say, I had not the slightest fear of being shot, but I did dread the thought of being captured and shut up in a French prison, to be treated as we heard that English prisoners were treated by the French Republicans. The wretches who had cut off the heads of their king and beautiful queen, and had guillotined thousands of innocent persons, until the very streets of Paris ran with blood, were not very likely to be over kind to the English they got into their power. As yet, to be sure, they had not made many prisoners, but those they had made we heard were treated barbarously.

The expectation of what we should receive should we be defeated did not make us fight with the less determination. Still, as day wore on, the French ships in greater numbers crowded up astern, and the chances that we should escape seemed to diminish. Not a man, however, quitted his gun. We should have a tremendously hard fight before we were taken—of that we were certain; and many said, and believed it too, that Sir Charles would let the ship sink under his feet rather than strike our flag. Matters seemed getting worse and worse. We saw the Royal Sovereign throw out signals to us to alter our course to starboard, and get away from the ships most annoying us.

Immediately afterwards we saw her keep away in our direction, accompanied by the Triumph. We cheered lustily as she opened her powerful broadside upon the enemy, when we running down were brought into close order of battle, thus being saved from the mauling we were getting.

Our two friends did not arrive a moment too soon; for just then four of the French van ships had borne up, hoping to secure us. On seeing the approach of a three-decker, they again hauled their wind.

While this work had been going on, the Phaeton frigate, which had been sent by the admiral in the morning to a distance of some miles, was seen approaching, making the signal of a strange sail west-north-west, soon afterwards for four sail, and finally she let fly her topgallant-sheets, and fired two guns in quick succession, which we all well knew was the signal for fleet, probably that of Lord Bridport. This cheered up our hearts, as may be supposed, for we fancied that the tables would soon be turned, and that instead of being chased, we should be chasing the Frenchmen, with the prospect of a stand-up fight, ending in the capture of a part, if not the whole of their fleet.

No one thought at the time that the Phaeton was carrying out a ruse de guerre, which had shortly before been arranged by Admiral Cornwallis.

In the afternoon, about three o’clock, we saw the Phaeton making private signals to the supposed fleet; and then using the tabular signals with which the French were well acquainted, she communicated to our admiral the fact that the fleet seen were friends.

About an hour and a half afterwards, she signalled that they were ships of the line. She then hoisted the Dutch ensign, as if replying to a signal made by the admiral in the distance to Admiral Cornwallis, ordering him to join company.

Shortly afterwards she shortened sail, then wore, and stood back towards us. We had been all day retreating, most of the time warmly engaged with our overpowering enemy, when soon after 6 p.m. the French ships suddenly ceased firing; and shortly afterwards, their admirals making signals to them, they shortened sail and stood to the eastward. By sunset they were nearly hull down in the north-east, while we sailed on, rejoicing in having escaped from as dangerous a position as squadron was ever placed in. I don’t know if I have succeeded in explaining the position of our ships sufficiently well to be understood by shore-going persons. So close were the French ships upon us, that had they not given up the chase when they did, it would have been scarcely possible for us and the Triumph, which, if she had not suffered as much as we had, was too much cut up to have afforded us any assistance, to have effected our escape. I am very certain that our old admiral would not have deserted us, nor was it likely that the other two ships would have done so. We should all, therefore, after a desperate fight, either have gone down, been blown up, or captured. As it was, our brave admiral’s masterly retreat excited general admiration. Every seaman on board was well able to judge of our danger, and of the way in which we had been rescued. Had he not so gallantly bore up to save us in the Mars, our ship must inevitably have been taken. He might, as some officers would have done, have left us to our fate, for the sake of preserving the rest of the squadron; but he had no notion of doing anything of the sort, and gallantly determined that if he could help it, not a single one of his squadron should fall into the hands of the enemy. In his despatch, giving an account of the transaction, he spoke in the handsomest way of the behaviour of the officers and ships’ companies engaged, saying very little of the manner in which he had come to our rescue. He and all of us got the thanks of both Houses of Parliament for what had been done, and all will acknowledge that he richly deserved them. As soon as we lost sight of the French fleet, we steered a course for Plymouth, to carry the intelligence that it was at sea. From the way the stern of our ship had been knocked about, we were compelled to remain for some time at Hamoaze to refit, and were therefore unable to sail with the fleet under Lord Bridport, which went out to look for the French fleet from which we had effected our escape. He came up with the enemy off Isle-groix; and after a tough fight, in which a good many officers and men were killed and wounded, three French ships were captured. One of them was the Alexander, but she was so knocked about by the Queen Charlotte, that she was worth little. The two others, the Tigre and Formidable, were fine new seventy-fours. The former was allowed to retain her name, but we already having a Formidable in the service, her name was changed to the Belle Isle, near which the action was fought.

We and the Triumph were at once ordered up to Hamoaze to get our damages repaired. We were much injured aloft, and when I looked at the stern of our ship, she had the appearance of having received a dreadful pounding. The Triumph had suffered still more, as from her position in the line she had to keep up the heaviest stern fire. In order to train her guns, the stern galleries, bulk-heads, and every part of the stern of the ward-room, except the timbers, had been cut away, and it was said that from her three stern batteries—namely, her first deck, her second deck, and quarter-deck—she had expended in single shots five thousand pounds of powder.

I now hoped that I might be able to get leave in sufficient time to reach Southsea, and spend a few days with my wife, and I resolved to make bold and ask for it as soon as I could see the commander. Meantime, the moment I was off duty I hurried below and began a letter to my wife. While thus engaged, all hands were piped on deck.

“What can it be for?” exclaimed Dick. “We are not going to sea, I suppose, in this state?”

On reaching the deck, we found numerous boats alongside, and besides them also several lieutenants not belonging to our ship. As soon as we were mustered, our commander addressed us. He said that as the Mars would be some time refitting, the Admiralty had ordered part of our crew to be drafted on board a line-of-battle ship and two frigates requiring hands, the Thunderer, Arethusa, and Galatea. He did not ask for volunteers, but said that those whose names were called over must get their bags at once and go off in the boats waiting alongside to receive them. I don’t know what my shipmates felt, but I hoped earnestly that I should not be among those selected. I listened almost breathlessly as the names were called over, and as they did so, the men were sent down for their bags. A hundred and fifty or more had been chosen, about two hundred were wanted. At last, what was my dismay on hearing my own name called! It was vain, I knew, to expostulate; I had to submit. Before going below, I stopped to speak to Hagger. Taking out the almost finished letter, I begged him to add a postscript, saying how I had been sent off, but that I trusted I might return before long. Scarcely were the words out of my mouth when his name was called.

“It can’t be helped, Will,” he said; “bear up, lad, I’m thankful I’m going with you. You must try and finish your letter, and send it off when we get aboard the ship we’re ordered to join.”

I made no reply, my heart was too full to speak. I wanted to do my duty, but this disappointment was almost more than I could bear.

“Move on, be smart now, lads!” I heard one of the officers sing out, “there’s not a moment to lose.”

Dick and I hurried below, shouldered our bags and returned on deck, when we found that we were both to go on board the Galatea frigate, commanded by Captain Keats. The boats immediately shoved off, and away we pulled down the Sound.


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