Saturday, 17 July 2021

All at Sea - Early Revolutionary War French Frigate & Brig

HMS Nymphe vs Cleopatre 18th June 1793 - Donald MacLeaod
The war at sea in the French Revolutionary War got started rather unofficially as a lot of wars tend to do, not with an exchange of memorandums between opposing groups of ambassadors in Paris and London, but following a salute of gunfire from shore batteries guarding the entrance to the main French naval base at Brest at His Majesty's Brig-Sloop Childers, when the later was fired upon whilst 'taking a look' at the entrance to the harbour on January 2nd 1793, bringing home to the Admiralty French cannon balls lodged in her timbers as proof of French aggression.

A more formal declaration of hostilities soon followed with France declaring war on Great Britain on February 1st 1793 and a war lasting some twenty one years with a year's break following the Peace of Amiens commenced and the first engagement between Britain and France's naval forces took place close to the Isles of Silly on the 13th March 1793 between the French privateer brig, le Sans Culottes 12-guns and the British brig Scourge 16-guns as covered in a video presentation of a game I ran back in January.

The Scourge and le Sans Culottes do battle of the Isles of Silly in March 1793 - Thomas Yates
Note the French privateer shown flying her 1793-94 French Revolutionary ensign, a combination of the former Bourbon model white ensign with the cantoned republican tricolour. 
All at Sea - Scourge vs le Sans Culottes

Whilst really enjoying exploring how to better replicate these single ship actions at sea with all the issues of identification and the different actions that could follow, namely a duel or chase type of engagement, principally differentiated by the willingness to fight between both parties, see my post below;  

All at Sea -To Covet Glory in Narrow Seas

I made a mental note at the time that having my French sporting colours that weren't official until 1795 would not do and so when the opportunity presented I would sit down and create a more appropriate looking light squadron to better model these little actions.
The start of my 1793-94 French Light Squadron with a frigate and brig to get the collection started

As with my previous post looking at my Batavian Dutch Light Squadron, I modelled these first ships around a series of sixteen historical engagements, including Scourge and San Culottes, that these models are designed to suit the look of for the French vessels involved, between the 13th March 1793 and 22nd October 1794 in waters ranging from the Channel and Western Approaches, the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, with two involving a 50-gun British 4th rate and one an ex-French Indiaman, which will require some extra models to be constructed when the opportunity presents - great fun!
My new Revolutionary War brig means I can now portray le Sans Culottes nearer to her appearance the next time we play.

These early-war engagements reveal French naval forces reeling under the effects of the Revolution following the cull of politically unsuitable naval officers, and the flight into exile of others, together with the breakdown in discipline in a force that could only operate under such a system.

French Naval Ensigns (22) Early 17th century to 1790, (23) Naval Ensign 1790-4, (24) Naval Jack 1790-4 and (25) Tricolour , modern form as used at sea - Flags at Sea, Tim Wilson
I created my own 1:700th scale French Revolutionary Ensigns and pennants for brigs to first rate ships, with a link below to the pdf
French Flags at Sea 1793-94 pdf

Perhaps the light forces were less affected than the fleet units in that 'motivated by profit' privateers with better access to able volunteers helped to supplement the frigate and corvette commanders and crews, the latter with commanding officers having aspirations to rapid promotion in the wake of a successful cruise and with their smaller crews better able to impose discipline and retain the revolutionary zeal to take the fight the royalist lackies.

Thus the early actions produce some hard fought scraps, such as that the Scourge encountered, mixed with rather more tame meetings followed by an attempt to run or simply strike after a few desultory shots, meaning that Royal Navy captains could be sure of their likely superiority in sailing and gunnery but not about the robustness of opposition they might encounter.

Another typical classic example of the more robust encounter occurred on the 18th June 1793, eighteen miles south-west of Start Point, on the South Devon coast, between the British frigate Nymphe 36-guns and the French frigate Cléopâtre 32-guns, captured in the excellent painting by Donald MacLeaod seen in the header above.

William James in the Naval History of Great Britain Volume I, records the drama of the action;

'On the 17th of June the British 12-pounder 36-gun frigate Nymphe, Captain Edward Pellew, sailed from Falmouth on a cruise. Having, in his way up the Channel, arrived nearly abreast of the Start point. Captain Pellew ran out to the southward in the hope of falling in with one of the two French frigates which, a week or two before, the Nymphe and Venus had chased into Cherbourg, and which were known to be the Cleopatre and Semillante, already noticed in the action between the latter and the Venus. 

Captain Sir Edward Pellew c 1797 - Thomas Lawrence (Royal Museums Greenwich)

On the next day, the 18th, at 3h. 30m, A.M., the Start point bearing east by north, distant five or six leagues, a sail was discovered in the south-east quarter. At 4 A.M. the Nymphe bore up in chase under all sail; the stranger, which, by a singular coincidence, was the French frigate Cleopatre, carrying a press of canvas, either to get away or to prepare for action.

At 5 A.M., finding that the Nymphe had the advantage in sailing, the Cleopatre hauled up her foresail and lowered her topgallant sails, bravely awaiting the coming up of her opponent.

Captain Mullon, upon this, came to the gangway, and,
waving his hat, exclaimed, " Vive la nation !"

At about 6 A.M., the Nymphe approaching near, the Cleopatre hailed her; but Captain Pellew, not hearing distinctly what was said, replied only by the usual "Hoa! hoa!" an exclamation instantaneously followed by three cheers from the crew of the Nymphe. Captain Mullon, upon this, came to the gangway, and, waving his hat, exclaimed, " Vive la nation !" and the crew of the Cleopatre, at the same time, put forth a sound which was meant for an imitation of the cheers of the British.

Captain Pellew (the first Lord Exmouth), gives the following account of this extraordinary rencontre: 

"At six o'clock the ships were so near that the captains mutually hailed. Not a shot had yet been fired. The crew of the Nymphe now shouted 'Long live King George,' and gave three hearty cheers. Captain Mullon was seen to address his crew briefly, holding a cap of liberty, which he waved before them. They answered with acclamation, shouting, ' Vive la republique.' The cap of liberty was then given to a sailor, who ran up the main rigging and screwed it on the mast' head."

At 6h. 15 m. A.M., the Nymphe having reached a position from which her foremost guns would bear on the starboard quarter of the Cleopatre, Captain Pellew, whose hat, like that of the French captain, was still in his hand, raised it to his head, the preconcerted signal for the Nymphe's artillery to open.

furious action now commenced, the two frigates still running before the wind, within rather less than hailing distance of each other. At about 6h. 30 m. the Cleopatre suddenly hauled up eight points from the wind; and, before 7 a.m., her mizenmast (about 12 feet above the deck) and her wheel were shot away.

Tracks of the Nymphe and Cléopâtre taken from James.

In consequence of this double disaster the French frigate, at about 7 A.M., paid round off, and shortly afterwards fell on board of her antagonist, her jib-boom passing between the Nymphe's fore and main masts, and pressing so hard against the head of the already wounded mainmast, that it was expected every instant to fall; especially as the main and spring stays had both been shot away. Fortunately, however, for the Nymphe, the jib-boom of her adversary was carried away and her own mainmast preserved.

After this, the two frigates fell alongside, head and stern, but were still held fast, the Cleopatre's larboard maintop mast-studdingsail boom-iron having hooked the larboard leech-rope of the Nymphe's maintopsail. Here again was danger to the mainmast. In an instant a maintopman named Burgess sprang aloft and cut away the leech-rope from the end of the mainyard; and, as an additional means of getting the ships apart, Lieutenant Pellowe, by Captain Pellew's orders, cut away the best bower anchor.

Nymphe v Cléopâtre - Derek Gardner

During these important operations no relaxation had occurred on the part of the British at least, in the main purpose for which the two ships had met. Soon after they had come in contact in the manner we have related, the Cleopatre was gallantly boarded by a portion of the Nymphe's crew; one man of whom, at 7h. 10m. A.M., hauled down the republican colours, after the action had continued 50 minutes.

The firing now ceased, and it was just as the last of 150 prisoners had been removed into the Nymphe that the two ships separated.

The Nymphe mounted … 26 x 12-pounder main-deck guns . . . with two long 6-pounders and eight carronades, 24-pounders, on the quarter-deck and forecastle; total, 40 guns. 
(26 x 12-pounder long guns main deck, 4 x 32-pdr carronades, 6 x 24-pdr carronades on the quarterdeck and 2 x 6pdr, 2 x 24-pdr carronades on the forecastle).

Capture of La Cléopâtre by HMS Nymphe off Start Point- Nicholas Pocock (National Maritime Museum)

The loss on board the Nymphe was tolerably severe. Out of a crew of 240, men and boys, she had her boatswain (Tobias James), one master's mate (Richard Pearse), three midshipmen (George Boyd, John Davie, and Samuel Edfall), 14 seamen, and four private marines killed, her second-lieutenant (George Luke), two midshipmen (John A. Norway and John Plaine), one lieutenant of marines (John Whittaker), 17 seamen, and 6 private marines wounded ; total, 23 killed and 27 wounded.

The loss on board the Cleopatre, in killed and wounded together, out of a crew, as certified by her surviving officers, of 320, men and boys, amounted to 63. Among the wounded were included the ship's three lieutenants, and among her killed was the truly gallant Captain Mullon. A round shot had torn open his back and carried away the greater part of his left hip. It is related that, having the list of coast-signals adopted by the French in one of his pockets, Captain Mullon, during his short agonies, drew forth a paper, which he imagined was the right one (but which really was not), and died biting it to pieces. Here was a trait of heroism and yet no French writer, as far as we can discover, has recorded the fact.

The Cleopatre was armed with 28 instead of 26 long 12s, and eight instead of ten long 6 -pounders.
(28 x 12-pounder long guns main deck, 4 x 36-pdr carronades, 4 x 6-pdrs on the quarterdeck and 4 x 6pdrs on the forecastle).

Sources Consulted in this Post:
Flags at Sea - Timothy Wilson
The Naval History of Great Britain Volume I - William James

Next up: Work continues with the Light Squadrons as I now turn my attention to my surfeit of brigs, with six new flush-deck sloops to be built then some schooners and cutters. 

Additionally Steve and I have been battling away in the Western Desert for the last six weeks in a titanic struggle recreating Operation Crusader with a gem of a game by GDW called '8th Army - Operation Crusader' with a rather unique hidden movement process that meant I couldn't post about until it was over. 

Finally I've been exploring Iron Age Dartmoor with Carolyn and Will so will post a look at our last expedition back in time.

More anon


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