"a horrible and anti-Christian mode of warfare" - The last major naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars at the Basque Roads in 1809

11 April 1809, 205 years ago, the last major naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, the three-day engagement known as the Battle of the Basque Roads, began 20 miles south of La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast.
“To our consternation, the fuses, which had been constructed to burn fifteen minutes, lasted little more than half that time, when the vessel blew up, filling the air with shells, grenades, and rockets; whilst the downward and lateral force of the explosion raised a solitary mountain of water, from the breaking of which in all directions our little boat narrowly escaped being swamped. The explosion-vessel did her work well, the effect constituting one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable. For a moment, the sky was red with the lurid glare arising from the simultaneous ignition of fifteen hundred barrels of powder. On this gigantic flash subsiding, the air seemed alive with shells, grenades, rockets, and masses of timber, the wreck of the shattered vessel. The sea was convulsed as by an earthquake, rising, as has been said, in a huge wave, on whose crest our boat was lifted like a cork, and as suddenly dropped into a vast trough, out of which as it closed upon us with the rush of a whirlpool, none expected to emerge. In a few minutes nothing but a heavy rolling sea had to be encountered, all having again become silence and darkness." (Thomas Cochrane)

Thomas Whitcombe: "Destruction of the French Fleet in Basque Roads" (1817)

War at sea was far from being over after the British victory at Trafalgar in 1805, even though the immediate danger of an invasion was banned for good. However, Napoleon still had a fleet of line-of-battleships, frigates and smaller vessels – along with very active privateers, all ready to harass British merchant shipping as well as posing a threat to the vital colonies and act as suppliers for men and material, especially for the French army fighting for its very life in the Peninsula. And the Royal Navy still blockaded the major naval bases along the Channel and Atlantic coast to prevent at least the larger units to gain the open sea and wreak havoc. Every now and then though, a French squadron gave the British the slip and one such formation, 11 battleships-of-the-line and four large frigates, found itself bottled up off La Rochelle by their British pursuers.

French Battleships-of-the-line during the Battle of the Basque Roads by an unknown contemporary artist

Loup de Mers Thomas Cochrane, after dabbling in politics and making himself quite a few enemies because he couldn’t keep his big mouth shut and mercilessly criticised the conditions in the navy, the corruption and the conduct of the war in general, became his old self again in the Basque Roads. Given the command over 21 fireships, two of them filled to the rim with explosives, 3 Congreve rocket barges and 2 bomb vessels, the master of coastal warfare devised a plan his admiral “Dismal Jimmy” Gambier regarded as "a horrible and anti-Christian mode of warfare". He convinced the First Naval Lord, as the First Sea Lord was called back then, of his plan and Cochrane finally had his way – against the French who had taken up a position of all-round defence with a sound battle line protected to the north by the Ile d'Aix and to the south by the Boyart shoal behind a boom made out of the top masts and yards of the ships-of-the-line. Cochrane used his two “explosion ships” to blast away the barrier, the French panicked, cut their cables and, unable to get underway without their mainsails, drifted towards the shoals, went aground and Gambier didn’t follow up.

Louis-Philippe Crépin ( 1772 - 1851):
"The French Régulus under attack by British fireships, during the evening of 11 April 1809"

On the following day, back on board of his frigate “Imperieuse”, Cochrane had to manoeuver his ship under the guns of the coastal defences and hoist a signal of distress to lure Gambier’s battleships into the straits, 7 followed the call and managed to destroy at least four of the eleven French ships-of-the-line and a frigate that had all ran aground until Gambier gave the signal to break off the action. What might have been a complete victory, ending the war for one fourth of Napoleon’s remaining Atlantic fleet at one blow, was still a decisive blow, all in all, but one that left a stale taste and all due to Gambier’s capital incompetence – Cochrane and his admiral both insisted on a court martial – and Gambier was acquitted, very probably because of his excellent political connections, Cochrane, furious, couldn’t hold his tongue, made even more enemies and ruined his career in the navy for good. He would never command a British warship again until 1832, was compromised in a stock exchange fraud and left for South America to become a hero in the local wars of liberation, but that’s another story.

Charles Williams: “Sternhold and Hopkins at Sea”

Depicted above is a contemporary caricature, called “Sternhold and Hopkins at Sea” by Charles Williams of Gambier and Cochrane that can be summarised as follows:

Gambier: "Moab my wash pot, my shoe, o'er Edom I will throw." (Gambier had a reputation of being quite a Bible-thumper)
Sailor: "Your shoe won't do for the French Fleet. I think we had better throw some shells your Honour."
Cochrane: "Why Admiral? Damn their Eyes they'll escape if we don't make haste."
Chaplain: "Oh the wicked Dog he has put us quite out, he is insensible of the beauties of Divine Poetry."
Discarded on the cabin floor lies Gambier's telescope, log book and a batch of Congreve rockets. On his desk is a large edition of a Sternhold and Hopkins psalm book, and on the bulkhead a map of the Holy Land. (wikipedia)

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