Sunday, 25 October 2020

All at Sea - French Third Rates of Renown (Formidable)

The Second Battle of Algeciras, 12-13th July 1801. Formidable 80-guns under Captain Amable Troude in action with HMS Caesar, Spencer, Venerable and the frigate Thames off Cadiz , 13th July 1801 - Pierre-Julien Gilbert

Tracing the history of French ships built and operated during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars can be an interesting and a sometimes confusing affair which is not at all surprising as the times people lived through then were even more interesting and confusing.

So when considering the history of a French third rate of this period we have two such named ships of the name 'Formidable' to consider, namely the 74-gun Temeraire Class ship originally named Lion by the Royalist French authorities when laid down in 1791, but with the changes in administration that came about before her launch in April 1794 she was renamed Marat in recognition of the French Revolutionary leader; but on the 25th May 1795, in recognition of certain leaders no longer being as fashionable as they once were, not to mention all the heads that had been caused to roll in their time, the ship was renamed Formidable, taking part in the action of the 6th November 1794 that saw the capture of HMS Alexander which she managed to rake in the fight prior to her capture.

HMS Alexander striking her colours in the action of 6th November 1794 - William Shayer

However the career of the first French Formidable was relatively short lived as she herself was captured by the Channel Squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Hood, Lord Bridport at the Battle of Groix on the 23rd June 1795.

Ile de Grox 1795 - William Adlam
From the Royal Collection Trust an Aquatint showing the British fleet engaging and pursuing the French into Port Louis 23rd June 1795 during which three French ships were taken (Le Formidable, Le Tigre and Alexander)

And so we can turn our attention to the Formidable that is the subject of our model, the 80-gun Tonnant Class ship of the line, designed by Jacques Noel Sane, laid down in August 1794 and so named on the 5th October, perhaps a little premature as her predecessor hadn't yet been captured,  then renamed Figuieres on the 4th December, with me so far, then restored to Formidable on 31st May 1795; did they know something about the predecessor?

Well perhaps they did because she kept the name Formidable as she rolled down the slips at Toulon on the 17th March 1795, effectively giving the French navy two third rate ships of the line before the Royal Navy conveniently relieved them of one of them the following June!

In 1800, the Formidable was commanded by the very experienced Captain Esprit-Tranquille Maistral, a veteran of the American War of Independence and a survivor from a brief few months under arrest at the Chateau de Brest in 1794 during the turbulence of the revolution, he would go on to serve throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War.

Captain Esprit-Tranquille Maistral

The Formidable would also be the flagship of Rear Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley who by 1800 was also a very experienced officer having commanded a division of ships on the expedition to Ireland in 1796 and played a leading role in the expedition to Egypt, during its planning and taking command of the harbour at Alexandria.

Of course, as we shall see, Admiral Dumanoir would re-hoist his flag on the Formidable in 1805 and command her and his van division at the Battle of Trafalgar which would see his command receive significant criticism for his performance that day.

Rear Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley

By 1801 the Formidable was under the command of Captain Landais Lalonde another very experienced officer having joined the French navy in 1751, in addition the ship was still a flagship in the Mediterranean squadron, now under the command of Rear Admiral Charles-Alexandre Leon Durand de Linois.

In July 1801 Linois would lead his squadron, Formidable, Indomptable 80-guns, Desaix 74-guns and the frigate Muiron 40-guns as part of a grand plan by Napoleon to regain control of the Mediterranean following the destruction of the French squadron by Nelson at Aboukir Bay in 1798.

Rear Admiral Charles-Alexandre Leon Durand de Linois

French ships had already departed from their Atlantic ports and arrived in Cadiz to combine with Spanish ships allotted to join in attacks on British naval forces in the Mediterranean and Linois was under orders to join them from Toulon and lead their offensive, with the addition of 1500 French troops to support possible attacks on Egypt or Lisbon.

This required Linois to make his way from Toulon to Cadiz and passing the British naval base at Gibraltar, out of which the British squadron under Rear Admiral Sir James Saumarez was operating to blockade the approaches to Cadiz.

First Battle of Algeciras, 6th July 1801 - From The Naval History of Great Britain by William James

Linois was warned of the presence of Saumarez' squadron after he captured Captain Lord Cochrane aboard the brig HMS Speedy off Gibraltar and decided to seek shelter under the Spanish guns in Algeciras Bay rather than press on to Cadiz.

The arrival of the French squadron off Gibraltar caused word to recall Saumarez who immediately gathered his seven ships of the line and a couple of frigates to arrive in the bay at 0700 on the 6th July and, finding the French in line of battle about 500 yards apart, anchored under the Spanish guns with eleven large Spanish gunboats in support, he immediately ordered an attack.

The Battle of Algeciras 6th July 1801 - Antoine Leon Morel-Fatio

However beset by low winds and poor navigation combined with Linois immediate response on sighting the British to warp his ships close into shore to gain the maximum protection from the Spanish guns, Saumarez's squadron was beaten off with the loss of the 74-gun Hannibal which ran aground and surrendered after taking heavy fire from Formidable, Spanish shore batteries and gunboats.

Both sides suffered heavy casualties with French losses amounting to 161 killed and 324 wounded and the British, as well as losing HMS Hannibal, 121 killed 240 wounded and 14 missing. The Formidable was herself badly damaged and reported losses of 48 killed which included her commander Captain Lalonde and 179 wounded.

The British Squadron under Sir James Saumarez make repairs in Gibraltar after the First Battle of Algeciras in July 1801 - Captain Jahleel Brenton

Linois immediately sent word overland to Spanish Admiral Don Jose de Mazzaredo at Cadiz for a force to come to his aid and escort his squadron into Cadiz whilst Saumarez limped back to Gibraltar to make hasty repairs in preparation for another attack.

On the 9th of July a powerful combined Franco-Spanish squadron under Vice Admiral Don Juan Joaquin Moreno consisting of two 112-gun ships, Real Carlos and San Hermenegildo, the 96-gun San Fernando, 80-gun Argonauta, the 74-gun San Agustin and the French 74-gun Saint Antoine having recently been purchased by the French from Spain and rapidly crewed by men taken from the French frigate squadron in Cadiz.

After arriving and anchoring late in the afternoon of the 9th July, signs of preparation to sail three days later caught the British squadron by surprise, still refitting in Gibraltar across the bay, as Saumarez thought the damage to the French ships would detain them longer; and so rapid orders were issued to the British ships to prepare to depart on the afternoon of the 12th in pursuit with a light easterly wind preventing the British squadron clearing the rock until 19.00 to tack across the bay with the Franco-Spanish not lifting their anchors until 19.45 as they headed into the Gut of Gibraltar bound for Cadiz with the British squadron following in line of battle.

Realising that the speed of the Franco-Spanish squadron was superior to his own, Saumarez ordered his line to split up ordering the faster HMS Superb 74-guns to engage the rear of their column with the other British ships to come up in support as quickly as they could.

The Second Battle of Algeciras 12th July 1801, HMS Superb sails clear in the darkness as the two Spanish first rates fire into each other in their confusion before both exploding and sinking with massive loss of life - Antoine Leon Morel-Fatio

With a combination of excellent sailing and gunnery by Captain Richard Keats on the Superb and Admiral Linois orders to the Combined Squadron to extinguish their navigation lights, that only helped cause confusion amid the Franco-Spanish ships when attacked by Keats, Saumarez was able to achieve a famous victory that saw the two Spanish 112-gun ships fire on each other and explode with both crews lost and the capture of the French 74-gun Saint Antoine after a thirty minute battle with HMS Superb.

The Formidable was also in the rear of the Combined Squadron but by copying British signal lights managed to pass the combat between Superb and Saint Antoine unchallenged, however as dawn broke on the 13th July and with the French and Spanish ships scattered as they made their way into the Atlantic, Formidable was spotted by Captain Samuel Hood commanding HMS Venerable 74-guns, with HMS Caesar 80-guns, Superb 74-guns and the frigate Thames 32-guns in hot pursuit.

Captain Amable Gilles Troude commanded the Formidable at the Second Battle of Algaciras
 after the death of her former commander Captain Lalonde at the First battle.

Captain Amable Troude was more than ready for the challenge of defending his ship by allowing the Venerable to close with him and battering the British third rate into a dismasted and badly damaged wreck with the use of his superior battery, thus forcing his other pursuers to break off and come to the aid of the badly damaged Venerable.

With witnesses ashore at Cadiz able to see the fight put up by Formidable and her escape into the port amid cheering crowds, Captain Troude was welcomed as the conquering hero and later granted an audience with Napoleon with his promotion to capitaine de vaisseau and dubbed by the First Consul 'The French Horatius'.

The fight between HMS Venerable and Formidable left the British ship grounded and badly damaged taking the bulk of British casualties in the battle as a whole with 18 killed and 87 wounded out of a total British loss of 18 killed and 101 wounded.

The Formidable was also heavily damaged in the fight but got away with just 20 killed but part of a total loss to the Combined Squadron of around 2,000 men.

Formidable would continue to serve with the French Mediterranean Squadron during the years leading up to the Peace of Amiens in 1802 operating from Toulon under the command of Vice Admiral Latouche-Treville.

However it would not be until the recommencement of war in 1803 and Napoleon's decision to direct his campaign of the invasion of Britain by bringing a combined Franco-Spanish fleet into the Channel that Formidable would see her next significant action; and it would be from Toulon on the 30th March 1805 that the first naval movements in that campaign would happen when Vice Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve escaped the blockade and sailed for the West Indies.

Villeneuve's squadron consisted of two divisions with himself commanding the first division aboard the 80-gun Bucentaure together with Neptune 80-guns, Pluton, Mont Blanc, Berwick and Atlas all 74-guns, and with his second division under the command of Rear Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley aboard the Formidable, together with Indomptable 80-guns, Swiftsure, Scipion and Intrepide all 74-guns; six frigates and two brigs sailed in support.

The capture of HMS Diamond Rock 3rd June 1805 - Auguste Mayer

The fleet captured HMS Diamond Rock off Martinique on the 3rd June before heading back to European waters to be intercepted by Sir Robert Calder's squadron on the 22nd June at the Battle of Cape Finsterre with Formidable not involved in the confused action and suffering no damage or casualties, before Villeneuve took the fleet into El Ferrol and from there down to Cadiz in August.

With his job now on the line following his failure to bring his fleet into the Channel, Villeneuve was compelled to sail into the Straits of Gibraltar that October in search of a British convoy exiting the Mediterranean and the chance to salvage his career despite the chances of running into a British blockading fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Nelson.

When the two fleets met on the 21st October the Formidable was under the command of Captain Jean Marie Letellier with Rear Admiral Dumanoir flying his flag as commander of the van division and led the four ships out of ten that turned back to come to the assistance of the centre of the Combined Fleet under direct attack from Nelson's division.

Dumanoir would come under significant criticism for his inability to lead his division back to the support of the Combined Fleet's centre, though some French accounts suggest that Nelson's initial heading for the van division held them in position right up until HMS Victory changed course and turned towards Villeneuve's flagship Bucentaure in what they describe as a British feint towards the van but always intending to cut the centre.

In addition to Nelson's late turning manoeuvre, the light north westerly breeze had its intended effect as Nelson calculated in that the van ships had great difficulty reversing course to the south and indeed Formidable unable to tack about resorted to lowering her boats to pull her bow through the wind thus only arriving in action as the late arrivals in Nelson's column came into range, seeing Formidable clash with both HMS Minotaur and Spartiate as Dumanoir attempted to cut off the two ships with his four.

Formidable shows off her metal deck complete with 12-pounder bow chasers on her forecastle and spiral steps up to her poop deck

Mr Robert Duncan, master of the Minotaur recorded;

'At 2.10, observed four French and one Spanish ships bearing down towards the Victory. Hauled toward them, as did the Spartiate, and commenced firing on the Admiral's ship (Formidable) . Passed the four French ships and attacked the Spanish ship with a broad pennant flying (Commodore Valdes) . At 4, wore and got alongside of her, Spartiate in company. At 5.12 she struck; found her to be Neptuno of 84-guns.' 

As the illustration below shows, Dumanoir would lose the Neptuno to the Minotaure and Spartiate as he led his remaining ships away from the battle and into later controversy for their role in it.

At Trafalgar, Formidable, not surprisingly, suffered minimal losses to her crew of just 8% amounting to 22 killed and 45 wounded.

Illustration from The Trafalgar Companion showing the possible last act of Trafalgar as HMS Minotaur and Spartiate force Neptuno to strike as the Formidable under Dumanoir leads the other three ships in his squadron away from the battle sometime just after 5pm.

Originally intending to lead his squadron back through the Gibraltar Straits to Toulon, Dumanoir was to have second thoughts fearing a confrontation with the British squadron of six ships of the line there under Rear Admiral Louis and on the 22nd October, assured that he had eluded pursuit from Admiral Collingwood's ships, he changed course to the west to go around Cape St Vincent, steering north for Rochefort.

However on the 2nd November as his squadron entered the Bay of Biscay, forty miles north west of Cape Ortegal they spotted the frigate HMS Phoenix, searching for Rear Admiral Allemand's squadron that had left Rochefort in July; and Dumanoir gave chase as the frigate led them south towards a British squadron of four ships of the line and four frigates under Commodore Sir Richard Strachan cruising off El Ferrol.

The Battle of Cape Ortegal 3rd November 1805 - Thomas Whitcombe

The hunter had become the hunted as Dumanoir fled before the superior squadron, but with Strachan able to slow down his quarry by having his frigates attack the rear of the French column, slowing them enough to allow his heavier ships to catch up and close.

Bob, David, Jack and myself refought a What If -Cape Ortegal using the new 1:700th collection and War by Sail, back in February this year before the world changed forever!

The battle was fought for several hours as the British managed to double the French column with the ships of the line on one side and the frigates on the other, eventually overwhelming all four French ships to be taken back to the UK as prizes and writing the final chapter in the Trafalgar campaign.

Bringing Home the Prizes; Sir Richard Strachan and HMS Caesar 80-guns tows in the Formidable, with rest of the French squadron under tow by the other ships under his command, 4th November 1805. - Francis Sartorious 

Losses recorded at the Battle of Cape Ortegal show total British casualties as 24 killed and 111 wounded and with the French much larger at 730 killed and wounded as well as four captured ships. The Formidable's casualties are estimated at about 200 men of the French total.

The battered Formidable was taken into the Royal Navy as HMS Brave, a fitting name for such a hard fighting ship, but her fighting days were effectively over, serving the rest of the war in Plymouth as a prison ship, before being broken up in 1816.

At Trafalgar Le Formidable was armed with 30 x 36-pounder long guns on her lower deck, 32 x 24-pdrs on her upper deck, 12 x 12-pdrs on her quarterdeck, 6 x 12-pdrs on her forecastle and 6 x 36-pdr carronades on her poop.

She had an over strength crew of 840 men which included 550 naval personnel, 235 infantry and 55 marine artillerymen.

When you next see Le Formidable in company she will be flying her Rear Admiral's command pennant.

Next up; A couple of books are now in the revue stack ready for some comment and a post covering our third game of Mr Madison's War which turned into a real cut and thrust affair right to the end, followed by my final French third rate of renown, Indomptable.


  1. Another great post Jonathan! Love the research you've done on Le Formidable and the model looks great, especially the rigging and stern detail. Cheers Greg

    1. Thanks Greg.

      Yes the detail on these kits is what sets them apart from the smaller scale ranges and enables each model to take on its own character whilst appearing just a part of a larger force.

      Then if you take time to consider the actual history behind the model you are creating it just adds to the context of any game you create on the table with that model.

      All part of the fun of historical gaming.


  2. Those 1/700th ships are beautiful. The larger scale affords a lot of detail. I really like the photo from your earlier game. You'll be able to field quite a few more next time, won't you?
    Regards, James

    1. Hi James,

      Thank you.

      Yes the picture of our early game was illustrating my point about the context these detailed models bring to a game with the history behind a named model and the ability to create a picture from a game looking like a view straight out of a Nicholas Pocock picture.

      Well as you have probably surmised there is some method behind all the madness and I thought a few commentators wrote this scale of model off rather early in their launch as impractical to wargame with because of their size, something that can be levelled at 28mm Napoleonics, but then size has a feature all of its own, not only in the size of model, but the size of the game, so we'll see if those commentators still feel the same!


  3. Just to let you know your information on these kits has been invaluable. Thanks for all the time you have put into the site.

    1. Hi and thank you, your comment is very much appreciated and its great to hear when people are enjoying the content on the blog.


  4. Another excellent model and historical treatise that I thoroughly enjoyed. Thank you

    1. Hi Vol,
      Thank you and pleased to see you are back to building models yourself.

      All the best