Saturday, 10 October 2020

All at Sea - British Third Rates of Renown (HMS Tonnant)

The Tonnant, in action and dismasted, with her colours nailed to a stump and her captain mortally wounded but still commanding fron his quarterdeck at the Battle of the Nile 1st August 1798 - Louis Le Breton (National Maritime Museum)

HMS Tonnant, was the French ship Le Tonnant, meaning 'Thundering', an 80-gun ship designed by the great French ship designer Jaques-Noel Sane and built in the Toulon shipyard, launching there on the 24th October 1789.

The Anglo-Spanish and their allies forced to depart from Toulon in 1793, attempting to destroy naval materials that they cannot take away. In the chaotic withdrawal, Le Tonnant 80-guns was left to the Republican forces.

She seemed destined not to serve her French builders, as the Tonnant fell into Anglo-Spanish hands in August 1793, when Admiral Sir Samuel Hood captured her after leading the combined allied fleet into the harbour in support of French Royalists who invited them in to help defend the city from Republican forces; however she was one of the ships left behind and intact when the allies were forced to withdraw.

Following the allied withdrawal and through 1794, the French concentrated on recreating their Mediterranean squadron under Contre-amiral (Rear Admiral) Pierre Martin, seeing him make a brief sally in June of that year with seven ships of the line, and achieving some success with the capture of the Sardinian frigate Alceste on the 8th June, but was quickly back in Toulon after being confronted by Admiral Hood and the British fleet now operating a loose blockade out of the island of Corsica.

Contre-amiral (Rear Admiral) Pierre Martin

By 1795 the French Mediterranean squadron was back up to its former power and Admiral Martin was ordered to sea, setting sail on the 3rd of March 1795 for operations in the Ligurian Sea north of Corsica. 

It would seem the purpose of Martin's expedition is unclear, but it was either to support French troops along the coast or to protect a planned invasion of Corsica, with a troop convoy assembled in Toulon.

Le Tonnant's first commander Captain Julien Marie Cosmao-Kerjulien

Either way, Tonnant was one of the thirteen ships of the line supported by six frigates that set sail under her new commander Captain Julien Marie Cosmao-Kerjulien who had taken command in December 1794.

The British fleet was now commanded by the rather inept Vice Admiral William Hotham who took command when Admiral Hood was summoned home late in 1794 and it was under his command that its fourteen ships of the line made contact with Martin's squadron off Cape Noli in the Gulf of Genoa on the 11th March, and with the French turning to run for Toulon, caused Hotham to signal a general chase.

I think the figurehead and stern galleries on the model are highly speculative, but I like them and they certainly add character.

Hotham finally caught up with the rear of Martin's squadron on the 13th March some 20 nautical miles south west of Genoa, with the French under full sail for Toulon, but with the Ca Ira 80-guns under tow from the Censeur 74-guns, this following the former losing its fore and main topmast in a collision with another French ship, the Victoire 80-guns, and then being damaged further following an aggressive attack by Captain Horatio Nelson aboard HMS Agamemnon 64-guns and the frigate HMS Inconstant 36-guns, before Martin was able to drive them off by dropping back with his centre.

Map showing the positions of the two battles fought in the Ligurian Sea between Admirals Martin and Hotham in 1795

Admiral Martin, determined to avoid his two rearmost ships falling into enemy hands, as the British van closed, had to wear round in succession to try and put his main body between them and the British pursuers, however confusion in the French fleet allowed Hotham to cut off the now badly damaged Censeur and Ca Ira and despite appeals to the British admiral by a frustrated Nelson, to pursue the French main body after securing the prizes, Martin was allowed to withdraw unmolested back to Toulon.

The Agamemnon engaging the Ca Ira, 13th March 1795 at the Battle of Genoa - Nicholas Pocock (National Maritime Museum)

Specific casualties among the French ships are not known with the British reporting a loss of 74 killed and 284 wounded and around 750 casualties aboard the captured Ca Ira and Censeur between them but it seems the Tonnant together with Duquesne, Victoire and Timoleon were all heavily engaged and badly damaged in the action.

Admiral Martin would try his luck again in the Ligurian Sea in July and was spotted by the British 'Flying' squadron commanded by Commodore Nelson which brought on another fleet chase as the the French withdrew with Hotham's British fleet in hot pursuit.

This time the French again managed to escape, losing their slowest ship, Alcide 74-guns which with a fire onboard caused her magazine to explode late in the afternoon taking 300 of her crew with her, but also seeing Hotham criticised with lacking energy and diligence for not attacking more vigorously.

As far as Tonnant was concerned, she was not engaged throughout the action and suffered no losses or damage.

The next and last time under French colours the Tonnant would be in action would be at the Battle of the Nile on the 1st August 1798 when Rear Admiral Nelson entered Aboukir Bay with his squadron late in the afternoon to attack the French squadron of Vice Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers anchored in line on the orders of General Bonaparte in support of his invading French army of Egypt.

Battle of the Nile 1-2 August 1798 showing Tonnant anchored behind and in support of the flagship L'Orient.
Courtesy of

Anchored directly behind the French flagship L'Orient 120-guns, the Tonnant was the penultimate French ship to be attacked as Nelson sought to overcome the van and centre of Bruey's line that saw the French flagship come under heavy attack from HMS Bellerophon, Swiftsure and Alexander, which saw her fires take hold and her magazine explode at about 22.00.

All the ships close by could see the impending doom of the L'Orient and took whatever avoiding action they could to protect themselves from the likely explosion and this saw the Tonnant along with the Heureux and  Mercure cut their cables in rapid succession, with the latter two drifting aground whilst continuing to fire, but the Tonnant managing to drop anchor near to the next French ship still in line, the Guillaume Tell, flagship of Rear Admiral Pierre Villeneuve.

Tonnant's commander at the Battle of the Nile, Captain Aristide Aubert du Petit Thouars

The fighting in the final phase of the battle focussed on the Tonnant and the rear most French ships and the accounts are confused and incomplete, but following the lull that ensued after the destruction of the L'Orient, many ships of both sides took the opportunity to make repairs and extinguish fires of their own.

The fighting reached a crescendo at about 0600 on the morning of 2nd August as HMS Zealous, Goliath, Theseus, Alexander each of 74-guns and Leander 50-guns, closed in on the French rear, that would see the French commander, Rear Admiral Villeneuve, cut and run aboard the Guillaume Tell in company with Genereux each of 74-guns and the frigates Diane 48-guns and Justice 44-guns.

The 80-gun Tonnant battered but unbowed with her mortally wounded captain propped up in a barrel stoically issuing commands on his quarterdeck despite having lost both arms and a leg to separate round shot, and having his colours nailed to pole following all the masts being shot away

The Tonnant was by that stage aground and dismasted, having drifted onto the nearby shoals, but still fighting bravely, having badly damaged HMS Majestic, causing nearly 200 casualties including her commander Captain George Westcott, the only British captain killed in the battle.

When the Theseus and Leander approached her at about 0600 she finally capitulated having suffered, 120 men killed and 150 wounded, nearly half her compliment and included her captain who is reported to have finally shot himself in the head with his pistol.

Most nations of the period retained the names of captured ships, especially if they had fought particularly well in the action in which they were captured thus it was that HMS Tonnant was taken into the service of the Royal Navy on the 9th December 1798 eventually being sent home to Plymouth on the 17th July 1799 and with a short commission in the Channel and Gibraltar was back in Portsmouth laid up in ordinary by 1800.

With the start of the Napoleonic War in 1803, Tonnant was fitted out and recommissioned in March 1803 under the command of Captain Sir Edward Pellew and attached to the Channel Squadron blockading the Spanish port of El Ferrol and it was in these duties that she participated in the recapture of  the Indiaman Lord Nelson on the 27th August, as the French prize crew attempted to take her into the Spanish port.

Captain Sir Edward Pellew, seen here in 1804, was HMS Tonnant's first commander in the Napoleonic War and in which he flew his commodore's pennant.

The following month as part of Sir Robert Calder's squadron she took part in the chase of the French 74-gun Duguay-Trouin and the 36-gun frigate Gurriere as they managed to evade Tonnant and the British blockade and get into Corunna.

In May 1804 Pellew handed command over to Captain William Henry Jervis, whose time with HMS Tonnant was limited as he drowned off Brest when his gig overturned on its way across to the flagship, San Josef on the 26th January 1805, thus seeing the appointment of Captain Charles Tyler.

Captain Charles Tyler. the son of an army officer, took command of Tonnant
after his predecessor drowned off Brest in January 1805 and would be in command at the Battle of Trafalgar in October that year.

Captain Tyler had served alongside Nelson as captain of the frigate Meleager 32-guns in 1794 and was at Calvi in Corsica when Nelson lost his eye, and was at Copenhagen in 1801 commanding HMS Warrior 74-guns in 1801.

Thus it was that he would command HMS Tonnant under the great admiral when as part of Vice Admiral Collingwood's squadron of observation he arrived off Cadiz in June 1805 to keep watch and observe the arrival of Villeneuve's French squadron returned from the West Indies and his recent clash with Admiral Calder's squadron off of Ferrol.

On the 21st October, the Tonnant would be the fourth ship in Admiral Collingwood's Lee Column as it bore down on the Combined Fleet at Trafalgar with her band on deck playing 'Britons Strike Home' and cutting the line between the Spanish Monarca 74-guns and the French Algeciras 74-guns, flagship of Rear Admiral Magon, whilst also raking the French Pluton 74-guns.

Lieutenant Frederick Hoffman of the Tonnant described the breakthrough and the proximity of the enemy ships on each side as;

Lieutenant, later Captain Frederick Hoffman,
left his account of the fighting while aboard HMS Tonnant at Trafalgar.
See the link below for 'A Sailor of King George'.

'so close that a biscuit could have been thrown on either of them. Our guns were double shotted. The order was given to fire; being so close, every shot was poured into their hulls, and down came the Frenchman's (Algeciras') mizzen mast, and after our second broadside, the Spaniard's (Monarca's) fore and crossjack yards.'

HMS Tonnant engaging the Spanish 74-gun Monarca at Trafalgar - Nicholas Pocock

A third broadside was enough for the Monarca and she hauled down her colours, drifting away as she did so, being the first ship in the Combined Fleet to surrender, within ten to fifteen minutes and a sign of the accuracy of Tonnant's gunnery.

Contre Amiral Charles Rene Magon, killed at Trafalgar - Olivier Pichat (Palace of Versailles)

The Tonnant sailed on and Tyler spotted HMS Mars being pounded by the French Pluton and so turning to starboard raked the French 74 through her starboard quarter, but an alert Admiral Magon brought the Algeciras around to return the compliment to the Tonnant.

Turning to meet the new threat the bowsprit of the Algeciras thrust through the shrouds of the Tonnant amidships. Hoffman described the combat;

'A French ship of 80 guns, with an Admiral's flag, came up and poured a raking broadside into our stern, which killed or wounded forty petty officers and men, nearly cut the rudder in two, and shattered the whole of the stern, with the quarter galleries.

She then in the most gallant manner locked her bowsprit in our starboard main shrouds and attempted to board us with the greater part of her officers and ship's company. She had riflemen in the tops who did great execution. Our poop was soon cleared, and our gallant Captain shot through the left thigh, and obliged to be carried below.

During this time we were not idle. We gave it to her most gloriously with the starboard and main-deckers and turned the forecastle guns, loaded with grape, on the gentlemen who wished to give us so fraternal a hug.

The marines kept up a warm destructive fire on the boarders. Only one man made good his footing on the quarterdeck, when he was pinned through the calf of his right leg by one of the crew with his half-pike, whilst another was going to cut him down, which I prevented, and desired to be taken to the cockpit.

Our severe contest with the French Admiral lasted more than half an hour, our sides grinding so much against each other that we were obliged to fire the lower-deck guns without running them out.'

The battered Monarca 74-guns strikes her colours to Tonnant at Trafalgar - Nicholas Pocock

Both ships caught fire in the close exchange and were eventually extinguished as the fight continued as recounted by Lieutenant Hoffman;

'At length we had the satisfaction of seeing her three lower masts go by the board, ripping the partners up in their fall, as they had been shot through below the deck, and carrying with them all their sharp-shooters to look sharper in the next world, for as all our boats were shot through we could not save one of them in this. 

The death of Admiral Magon

The crew were then ordered with the second lieutenant to board her. They cheered and in a short time carried her. They found the gallant French Admiral Magon killed at the foot of the poop ladder, the captain dangerously wounded. Out of eight lieutenants five were killed, with three hundred petty officers and seamen, and about one hundred wounded. 

We left the second lieutenant and sixty men in charge of her, and took some of the prisoners on board when she swung clear of us. We had pummelled her so handsomely that fourteen of her lower deck guns were dismounted, and her larboard bow exhibited a mass of splinters.'

Boarding actions were not as common as Hollywood would have you believe, with the simple problem of bridging the gap between the tumblehome of two ships close together, often preventing such an attack unless bridged by a main yard lowered of often dropped with a swift slash of a cutlass or as in the case of HMS Tonnant having the main shrouds pierced by the enemy's bowsprit, forming a perfect bridge. - Scene from Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World.

Following her battle with the Algaciras, Tonnant became engaged in exchanging broadsides with the Spanish San Juan Nepomuceno 74-guns, but the honour of finishing off the Spaniard went to the late arriving Dreadnought 98-guns who concluded the action within ten minutes.

HMS Tonnant would finish her battle badly damaged, with all three topmasts and the mainyard shot away and with her hull and rudder battered together with her stern gallery and rails demolished; this together with the loss of seventy-six casualties, with twenty-six killed and her captain among the wounded.

My interpretation of the San Juan Nepomuceno from my post about her back in July.

After the battle Tonnant was towed to Gibraltar by HMS Spartiate 74-guns for repairs, before returning to Portsmouth in January 1806 to begin a much needed six month refit at a cost of £17,890 equivalent to about £1,618,000 today, illustrating the damage the ship must have received.

Admiral Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane commanded the forces engaged in the Chesapeake campaign in 1814 from HMS Tonnant

From 1806 to 1812 HMS Tonnant served with the Channel Squadron, performing her blockade duties before the declaration of war by the Americans would see her go back to Portsmouth for another refit before joining the North American Squadron operating out of Halifax, Nova Scotia in the first quarter of 1814, later to become the flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane for most of her time in the Chesapeake Bay from which he conducted the campaign against Washington and Baltimore.

Whilst aboard HMS Tonnant, American Colonels John Stuart Skinner and Francis Scott Key dined with Admiral Cochrane and Major General Robert Ross as they negotiated the release of Doctor William Beanes whose observation of the bombardment of Fort McHenry before Baltimore inspired the poem 'Defence of Fort M'Henry' later to become the American National Anthem, 'The Star Spangled Banner'. The ship would also carry the body of General Ross back to Halifax in a barrel of Jamaica Rum for burial after his death at the Battle of North Point.

The Battle of Lake Borgne, Louisiana, 14th December 1814, a delaying action that saw the capture of all five US Navy gunboats by forty two Royal Navy ships boats armed with carronades in the bows and carrying 980 seamen and marines, but that ultimately helped in the defence of New Orleans and Major General Andrew Jackson's victory at the battle on 8th January 1815

Tonnant would also serve later as Cochrane's flagship in the New Orleans Campaign of 1815 where the ships boats participated in the successful capture of five US Navy gunboats only to have the delay caused by the action aid General Jackson's eventual victory and repulse of the British troops before the city.

HMS Tonnant's war concluded with the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte to St Helena in 1815, being finally paid off in to the ordinary in November 1818 and broken up at Plymouth in March 1821.

At the Battle of Trafalgar HMS Tonnant was armed with 32 x 32 pounder long guns on her lower deck, 32 x 18-pdrs on her upper deck, 2 x 18-pdrs and 14 x 32-pdr carronades on her quarterdeck and 4 x 32-pdr carronades on her forecastle giving her 84 pieces. 

At the battle she was very much under her compliment with 600 naval personnel and 88 Royal Marines.

As you can see the metal fittings of figurehead and stern galleries are very distinctive on this model but again the references for them seem doubtful but do make for a very impactful model to grace the table with.

Sources refereed to in this post:
The Trafalgar Companion - Mark Adkin
Nile 1798, Nelson's First Great Victory - Gregory Fremont-Barnes (Osprey Campaign)
A Sailor of King George - Captain Frederick Hoffman RN. Guttenberg Library Link

Other Links:

Next up: A book review covering a very famous action from the War of 1812, Mr Steve and I have been on our travels and Mr Madison's War goes into a third game, as well as the Third Rate of Renown looking at the Marine Nationale's Argonaute.

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