An action during the British fleet’s blockade of the French port of Toulon between 1810 and 1814, depicted by Thomas Luny
Fog could cover French movements, as when the Brest fleet sailed in April 1799. Once it had sailed, the British were unsure whether the French would head for Ireland or the Mediterranean. Concern about the safety of Minorca handicapped the subsequent British pursuit in the Mediterranean, and the French were able to sail to Toulon, and eventually back to Brest, without being intercepted. In January 1808 the French Rochefort squadron evaded the British blockaders in bad weather and poor visibility and sailed to Toulon. Fog was also a hazard to British warships. The 74-gun Venerable, part of the squadron covering Brest, sank on the Devon coast in 1804 after running ashore in a thick fog.
The poorly charted nature of inshore waters was also a problem and ships ran aground. Nearly 400 men drowned in March 1801 when the Invincible ran aground near Great Yarmouth. It was particularly easy to do so when enforcing blockades. Thus the frigate Jason was wrecked on a rock when pursuing a French convoy near Brest in 1796. Chasing a frigate off La Rochelle, the frigate Artois ran aground in 1797 and was lost. Shoals were also a problem when attacking enemy warships sheltering in coastal waters. The Hannibal ran aground and was forced to surrender in Saumarez’s attack on French warships moored off Algeciras on 6 July 1801. The Amazon was wrecked in Audierne Bay in January 1797 when the British attacked and drove inshore the Droits de l’Homme. The Amazon’s captain, Robert Reynolds, was lost with all bar 12 of the crew of 850 when the 98-gun St. George was driven onto the Danish coast in a storm in December 1811; the 74-gun Defence was also lost on the same occasion. Fire at sea was another hazard: one such, caused by a drunken steward, put paid to Ajax off the Dardanelles in 1807. The Queen Charlotte, flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, was destroyed by fire off Livorno in 1800 with the loss of nearly 700 men.
The condition of the fleet forced the government to launch an expensive programme of repair, refitting and construction. Aside from the expense, this programme faced serious deficiencies in the dockyards and in supplies, especially of timber. A rapid rise in the demand for timber led to the use of inferior, including unseasoned, stock and thus to warships rotting rapidly. Part of the strain was met by adding captured warships to the fleet. Aside from the wear on the ships, the shortage of sailors also ensured that blockade posed a major burden. Nevertheless, the very presence of blockading squadrons was crucial. Blockade was designed to prevent French squadrons from sailing out in order to mount attacks. It also served both to prevent the squadrons from uniting and becoming a more serious threat, and to limit the supplies that they could receive. The threat posed by the united Franco- Spanish fleet in Cadiz in 1805 was a salutary reminder of the need to keep French squadrons separated: Villeneuve would have had even more ships in his force had he been able to join with the Brest fleet.
After Trafalgar, the British presence off Spain and in the Mediterranean was maintained by Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, who had received a peerage for his role as second in command at Trafalgar. In 1805-7 he blockaded Cadiz, but he then moved into the Mediterranean where his main concern was the French fleet in Toulon. Threatening Sicily, this fleet forced the British to adopt a defensive strategy. At least after Trafalgar this strategy was based on clear maritime dominance. In 1808 Collingwood failed to intercept Ganteaume when he relieved the French garrison on Corfu, largely because he only received belated news of French moves and responded in an overly cautious fashion. The blockade of Toulon was more successful the following year, and on 26 October two ships of the line attempting to carry supplies to Barcelona were driven on shore and destroyed. Nevertheless, concern about the Toulon fleet continued strong, and at times the British fleet seemed stretched. In 1810 Collingwood was replaced as commander in the Mediterranean by Admiral Sir Charles Cotton, and that year, as the French continued to increase their fleet, concern about the situation in the Mediterranean reached a post-Trafalgar peak. The British command stretched over 2,000 miles and Cotton was critically short of frigates. One British squadron blockaded Corfu. In January 1811 the British feared that the Toulon squadron would be able to escape and to attack Wellington’s position at Lisbon.
From 1811 command in the Mediterranean was held by Edward Pellew, then a Vice-Admiral. A sortie from Toulon was turned back in 1812. Despite the problems of British naval19 power in the Mediterranean, there was no retreat from the sea as in 1796. In 1810 George, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, who had spent much time in Greece and the Aegean, argued that there was much interest in independence there and that Britain should encourage it. Aberdeen added that a “French connection, from the absence of naval intercourse and protection, is much less desired than the friendship of this country”.
It was not only in the Mediterranean that British naval resources were stretched. Elsewhere, despite the size of the navy, there were too few ships and sailors for the myriad tasks expected of the navy, and the situation could become hazardous if the French acted in strength. In December 1809 the Junon sailing from Halifax to the West Indies was attacked, heavily battered and successfully boarded by four French frigates near Guadeloupe. However, the successive capture of French overseas bases lessened their ability to challenge the British.
Collingwood, Cotton and Pellew had the responsibilities of fleet command in the Mediterranean and had primarily to respond to the possibility of French sorties. A more aggressive note was struck by Thomas Cochrane. As captain of the frigate Pallas in the Bay of Biscay, he harried French trade and destroyed corvettes. In 1808, as captain of the frigate Impérieuse, Cochrane attacked positions on the coasts of southern France and Catalonia. Semaphore stations, fortifications, lighthouses, batteries and bridges were destroyed. In 1809 Cochrane organized the fireship attack on Basque Roads, but fell out with Gambier when the latter failed to press home the attack. In 1810 Murray Maxwell and the frigate Alceste stormed a battery near Fréjus on the French Mediterranean coast.
William Hoste also had the active time that being detached on independent cruises permitted. As commander of the frigate Amphion and later the Bacchante, in 1806 he operated against French bases on the coast of Calabria and in 1808-14 ravaged French trade in the Adriatic and attacked coastal positions. Both Cochrane and Hoste showed their flexibility and all-round military skills by also operating successfully on land. In 1808 Cochrane delayed the fall of the Catalan castle of Rosas for a fortnight when he took over its defence and in 1814 Hoste established batteries on difficult positions, commanding Cattaro and Ragusa, leading their garrisons to surrender. The successes of naval forces in such circumstances were frequently obtained with allied support, for example that of the Austrians at Cattaro. Furthermore, only so much could be achieved against superior French forces: Rosas fell, and the French dominated Italy.
Nevertheless, British naval activities harassed the French and forced them to deploy considerable forces to garrison their coasts. It was a counterpart to the commercial challenge posed by British contraband. Attacks on coastal shipping and positions required less military effort and resources than amphibious operations, and were possible both when the war was going badly and when it was more successful. A squadron under Nelson harassed the French on the Ligurian coast in 1795-6; another, under Vice-Admiral Thomas Freemantle, in 1812-14 drove the French from much of the Dalmatian coast, playing a major role in the capture of Fiume (1813) and Trieste (1814). In a host of small actions, British warships put the French on the defensive. The Sirius frigate captured the corvette Bergere off Civitavecchia in April 1806.
French ports on the Atlantic, Channel and North Sea also had to be blockaded after Trafalgar. The service was similarly arduous, although there were fewer opportunities for operations against coastal positions than in the Mediterranean. In the Channel after Trafalgar there was felt to be less need for winter blockade by ships of the line. As in the Mediterranean, there were many small-ship actions, as the British sought to stop French commerce raiding: frigate, sloop, ketch, cutter operations against French warships, privateers and merchantmen. Captain John Loring of the Niobe was a particularly active frigate commander, acting both on his own, for example in the capture of the brig Néarque in 1806 and of the privateer Loup Marin off Le Havre in 1811, and in co-operation with other warships, as in the destruction of two frigates off the Cherbourg peninsula in the winter of 1810-11. As commander of first the Loire frigate and the Emerald, Captain Frederick Maitland attacked French privateers and coastal batteries around the Bay of Biscay. Such actions also took place across the oceans. In the West Indies James Gordon in the sloop Racoon captured one brig in July 1803 and drove another ashore on Cuba the following year, continuing his attacks on privateers in 1805.
Aside from blockade and inshore attacks, the navy also played a major role in supporting operations in the Peninsular War. This involved the transport of men and supplies for the British forces and also of supplies for their Portuguese and Spanish allies. Rear-Admiral Sir Home Popham played a particularly important and active role, with amphibious operations on the north coast of Spain in 1812. British participation in the war would not have been possible without the navy.