The Action of 22 May 1812 off Brittany and the ignominious end of a successful commerce raid.

22 May 1812 near Lorient, Henry Hotham’s 74 gun ship-of-the-line HMS “Northumberland” brought the two French frigates “Ariane” and “Andromaque” to bay who, trying to slip the British blockade, returned home from a successful commerce raid out in the Atlantic. 

“I Andromache, envied name in days of yore, but now of all women that have been or yet shall be the most unfortunate“ (Euripides, “Andromache”)

Destruction of the French Frigates Arianne and Andromaque , 22nd May 1812   

The Napoleonic Wars at sea were, contrary to popular myth, not over after Trafalgar. However, what was left of Napoleon’s navy lay scattered in ports along the French Channel and Atlantic coast, bottled up by the Royal Navy with hardly a chance left for small squadrons or even individual French ships-of-the-line to slip the blockade and win an engagement against the British or even assemble into another invasion fleet again. Nevertheless, a few actions were fought between French vaisseaux de ligne and British ships-of-the-line, most notably one off Santo Domingo in 1806 and one in the Basque Roads in 1809. After that, even though Napoleon launched one ship-of-the-line after the other, none would ever threaten British supremacy on the high seas again, but there was commerce raiding. Commissioned warships, often enough a brace of frigates, as well as privateers sneaked out into the Atlantic in the tradition of the famous Breton corsairs Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf to harass British merchant shipping, while the French battleships remained a fleet in being. Early in the year of 1812, one of those forays had brought the two “Pallas”-class 5th rate frigates “Ariane” and “Andromaque” to the Azores and off Bermuda.

A French “Pallas”-class frigate

raid of the two French frigates had been a huge success. 36 prizes from almost all of the allied nations were captured, pursuing British squadrons successfully evaded and early May saw “Ariane” and “Andromaque” homeward bound for Brest or Lorient. The return trip proved to be difficult, though. Rear Admiral Harry Burrard-Neale’s ships-of-the line blockading Brest were on the alert. They knew of the two frigates out there and they did not, as the French commodore Féretier supposed, help to hunt down Zacharie Allemand’s squadron that had indeed managed to slip from Lorient to Brest in March. Burrard-Neale had ordered the new seventy-four HMS “Northumberland” to lay in wait for the homecomers off the island of Groix. In the wee hours of May 22nd, the frigates and their satellite, the 12-gun brig “Mameluck” had rounded the Pointe de Penmarc'h and sailed due south towards Lorient. Around noontime, though, the “Northumberland” came in sight and in the afternoon, west of Point de Talud just a few miles from the roadstead of Lorient and safety, the first broadsides were exchanged. Nonetheless, the ship-of-the-line blocked the way towards open waters as well as to the approaches of Lorient and then, Ensign Legrand of the good ship “Andromaque” claimed that he originated from these parts and could lead the frigates, both with a draught of at least 19’, now more, laden with plunder to their gunwales as they were, through the dangerous shallows off the Breton coast where the British battleship couldn’t follow and make good their escape. Féretier believed the youngster and off they turned to the southeast and into the islets dotting the coastline.

A French post-Trafalgar Bucentaure-class 80-gun ship of the line, like those that escaped with Allemand and the “Diadème” that had remained in Lorient

Captain Henry Hotham decided to order the 2,000 ton “Northumberland” with her draught of 50’ to pursue anyway, close enough inshore to allow a coastal battery to take the British seventy-four under fire. However, the British gunners found their mark and one of the next broadsides took the life of Ensign Legrand and “Andromaque” struck a reef soon enough. Seeing her sister aground, Féretier of the “Ariane” tried to put his frigate about and promptly ran aground as well. Ordering the smaller “Mameluck” to make a run for Lorient and fetch help had the brig aground close to the “Ariane” in an instant. A fisherman later claimed that the passage Legrand, the deceased local talent, had remembered was just deep enough for a fishing smack anyway, but not for a fully outfitted warship. Hotham, in the meanwhile, had all the time in the world to position his seventy-four out of reach of coastal artillery and the two stricken frigates’ and the brig’s broadsides and shoot the trio to pieces. Two hours later, “Andromaque” and “Ariane” were ablaze and both exploded around midnight. Most of their crews, the prisoners taken from the captured prizes and at least some of their loot could be evacuated to the shore with the boats that had arrived from Lorient in the meanwhile. A straggler from Allemand’s squadron, the brand-new powerful French 80-gun ship-of-the-line “Diadème” was condemned to stand on the sidelines and watch. Unfavourable winds had blown her back into the roadstead of Lorient. Both French frigate captains were court-martialled afterwards for their grave nautical and tactical mistakes while Captain Hotham, later Vice-Admiral The Honourable Sir Henry Hotham, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, was probably inconsolable that he fought a brilliant naval action but was neither able to secure prizes nor the plunder from the two frigates’ previous raid. HMS “Northumberland” would receive another measure of fame three years later, though, when she sailed Napoleon from Devon to St Helena into exile after his surrender.

And more about the Action of 22 May 1812 on: