Admiral Hotham’s Action 12-14 March 1795

In March 1795, Admiral Hotham was in temporary command of the Mediterranean Fleet. On 8 March Hotham heard that the French Admiral Pierre Martin had sailed with fifteen ships-of-the-line from Toulon to protect a troop convoy intended for the invasion of Corsica. Hotham led his fourteen battleships in pursuit. Nelson himself described:

12 March. At daylight our fleet much scattered. At 6 A. M. Princess Royal made the signal for the enemy’s fleet, south. We endeavoured to join the Princess Royal, which we accomplished at 9. Light airs, southerly: the enemy’s fleet nearing us very fast, our fleet nearly becalmed. At 9.15, Admiral Goodall (in Princess Royal) made the signal for the ships near to form ahead and astern of him, as most convenient: Admiral Hotham (in Britannia) made the same signal. Our ships endeavouring to form a junction; the enemy pointing to separate us, but under a very easy sail.

They did not appear to me to act like officers who knew anything of their profession. At noon, they began to form a line on the larboard tack, which they never accomplished. At 2 P. M. they bore down in a line ahead, nearly before the wind, but not more than nine sail formed. They then hauled the wind on the larboard tack; about three miles from us, the wind southerly, Genoa lighthouse NNE about five leagues; saw the town very plain. At 3. 1 5 P. M. joined Admiral Hotham; who made the signal to prepare for battle; the body of the enemy’s fleet about three or four miles distant. At 4.6, signal to form the order of battle on the larboard tack: 4.30, signal for each ship to carry a light during the night. At 5.16, signal for each ship to take suitable stations for their mutual support, and to engage the enemy as they came up. Our fleet at this time was tolerably well formed, and with a fine breeze, easterly; which, had it lasted half an hour, would certainly have led us through the enemy’s fleet, about four ships from the van ship, which was separated from the centre about one mile. At 5.45, the fleet hoisted their colours. At dark, the wind came fresh from the westward. At 6.55, the signal to wear together. A fresh breeze all night: stood to the southward all night, as did the enemy.

13 March. At daylight, the enemy’s fleet in the SW, about three or four leagues with fresh breezes. Signal for a general chase. At 8 A. M. a French ship of the line carried away her main and fore topmasts. At 9.15, the Inconstant frigate fired at the disabled ship, but receiving many shot, was obliged to leave her. At 10 A. M. tacked and stood towards the disabled ship, and two other ships of the line. The disabled ship proved to be the Ca Ira of 84 guns, 1,300 men; (the others were the) Sans Culotte, 1 20 guns; and the Jean Bart 74 guns. We could have fetched the Sans Culotte, by passing the Ca Ira to windward, but on looking round I saw no ship of the line within several miles to support me; the Captain was the nearest on our lee quarter. I then determined to direct my attention to the Ca Ira, who, at 10.15, was taken in tow by a frigate; the Sans Culotte and Jean Bart keeping about gunshot distance on her weather bow. At 10.20 the Ca Ira began firing her stern chasers. At 10.30 the Inconstant passed us to leeward, standing for the fleet. As we drew up with the enemy, so true did she fire her stern-guns that not a shot missed some part of the ship, and latterly the masts were struck every shot, which obliged me to open our fire a few minutes sooner than I intended, for it was my intention to have touched his stern before a shot was fired. But seeing plainly from the situation of the two fleets, the impossibility of being supported, and in case any accident happened to our masts, the certainty of being severely cut up, I resolved to fire so soon as I thought we had a certainty of hitting. At 11.15 A. M., being within one hundred yards of the Ca Ira’s stern, I ordered the helm to be put a-starboard, and the driver and after-sails to be braced up and shivered, and as the ship fell off; gave her our whole broadside, each gun double-shotted. Scarcely a shot appeared to miss. The instant all were fired, braced up our after-yards, put the helm a-port, and stood after her again. This manoeuvre we practised till 1 P. M., never allowing the Ca Ira to get a single gun from either side to fire on us. They attempted some of their after-guns, but all went far ahead of us. At this time the Ca Ira was a perfect wreck, her sails hanging in tatters, mizen top-mast, mizen topsail, and cross jack yards shot away. At 1 P. M. the frigate hove in stays, and got the Ca Ira round.

I observed the guns of the Ca Ira to be much elevated, doubtless laid for our rigging and distant shots, and when she opened her fire in passing, the elevation not being altered, almost every shot passed over us, very few striking our hull. The captain of the Ca Ira told Admiral Goodall and myself that we had killed and, wounded one hundred and ten men, and so cut his rigging to pieces that it was impossible for him to get up other topmasts.

As the frigate first, and then the Ca Ira, got their guns to bear, each opened her fire, and we passed within half pistol shot. As soon as our after-guns ceased to bear, the ship was hove in stays, keeping, as she came round, a constant fire, and the ship was worked with as much exactness as if she had been turning into Spithead. On getting round, I saw the Sans Culotte, who had before wore with many of the enemy’s ships, under our lee bow, and standing to pass to leeward of us, under top-gallant sails. At 1.30 P. M. the admiral made the signal for the van-ships to join him. I instantly bore away, and prepared to set all our sails, but the enemy having saved their ship, hauled close to the wind, and opened their fire, but so distant as to do us no harm; not a shot, I believe, hitting. Our sails and rigging were very much cut, and many shot in our hull and between wind and water, but, wonderful, only seven men were wounded. The enemy as they passed our nearest ships opened their fire, but not a shot, that I saw, reached any ship except the Captain, who had a few passed through her sails. Till evening, employed shifting our topsails and splicing our rigging. At dark, in our station: signal for each ship to carry a light. Little wind: south-westerly all night: stood to the westward, as did the enemy.

14 March. At daylight, taken aback with a fine breeze at NW, which gave us the weather-gage, whilst the enemy’s fleet kept the southerly gage. Saw the Ca Ira, and a line-of-battle ship, who had her in tow about three and a half miles from us, the body of the enemy’s fleet about five miles. 6.15 A. M., signal for the line of batde, SE and NW; 6.40, for the Captain and Bedford to attack the enemy. At 7 A. M., signal for the Bedford to engage close; Bedford’s signal repeated for close action. 7.5, for the Captain to engage close. Captain’s and Bedford’s signals repeated; at this time, the shot from the enemy reached us, but at a great distance. 7.15, signal for the fleet to come to the wind on the larboard tack. This signal threw us and the Princess Royal to the leeward of the Illustrious, Courageux, and Britannia. 7.20, the Britannia hailed, and ordered me to go to the assistance of the Captain and Bedford. Made all sail: Captain lying like a log on the water, all her sails and rigging shot away: Bedford on a wind on the larboard tack. 7.15, signal to annul coming to the wind on the larboard tack. 7.35, signal for the Illustrious and Courageux to make more sail. 7.42, Bedford to wear, Courageux to get in her station. At this time, passed the Captain; hailed Admiral Goodall, and told him Admiral Hotham’s orders, and desired to know if I should go ahead of him. Admiral Goodall desired me to keep close to his stern. The Illustrious and Courageux took their stations ahead of the Princess Royal, the Britannia placed herself astern of me, and Tancredi lay on the Britannia’s lee quarter. At 8 A. M. the enemy’s fleet began to pass our line to windward, and the Ca Ira and Le Censeur were on our lee side; therefore the Illustrious, Courageux, Princess Royal, and Agamemnon were obliged to fight on both sides of the ship. The enemy’s fleet kept the southerly wind, which enabled them to keep their distance, which was very great. From 8 to 10, engaging on both sides. About 8.45, the Illustrious lost her main and mizen masts. 9.15, the Courageux lost her main and mizen masts. At 9.25, the Ca Ira lost all her masts, and fired very little. At 10 Le Censeur lost her mainmast. 10.5, they both struck. Sent Lieutenant George Andrews to board them. By computation the Ca Ira is supposed to have about 350 killed and wounded on both days, and Le Censeur about 250 killed and wounded. From the lightness of the air of wind, the enemy’s fleet and our fleet were a very long time in passing, and it was past 1 P. M. before all firing ceased, at which time the enemy crowded all Possible sail to the westward, our fleet laying with their heads to South-east and east.

Hotham had captured two of the 15 enemy ships and thwarted the French attempt on Corsica. He told Captain Nelson:

We must be contented. We have done very well.

Nelson was angry and disappointed that they had not captured more of the French ships. Writing to his brother William, he said of the incident:

Had our good Admiral have followed the blow, we should probably have done more.

To his wife, Frances, he wrote:

I wish to be an Admiral and in command of the English Fleet; I should very soon either do much, or be ruined. My disposition cannot bear tame and slow measures. Sure I am, had I commanded our Fleet on the 14th, that either the whole French Fleet would have graced my triumph, or I should have been in a confounded scrape . . . Now, had we taken ten sail and allowed the eleventh to escape, when it had been possible to have got at her, I could never have called it well done.

By May 1795, Lord Hood had become ill and was allowed to go home on sick leave. At home, he complained about the weakness of the Mediterranean Fleet in such strong terms that he was dismissed from the command of the Mediterranean Fleet and ordered to strike his flag.

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