The Battle of Aix Roads was a naval engagement during the Napoleonic Wars that took place during the 11th and 12th April 1809 when a British fleet under the command of Admiral Gambier launched a fire ship attack against a French squadron in the Aix Roads.

The Background

The story begins with Admiral James Gambier, Baron Gambier, who was in charge of the British Channel fleet and occupied blockading the port of Brest, where a French squadron consisting of eight ships of the line and two frigates was skulking under the command of Admiral Jean-Baptiste Willaumez. On the 21st February 1809 Willaumez managed to slip away unnoticed and made his way to L'Orient, where he liberated the ships therein blockaded, before proceeding to Rochefort with much the same intention.

During this time the Royal Navy were frantically searching for the French, and eventually a squadron commanded by Admiral Robert Stopford found Willaumez at Rochefort. The French now withdrew into the Aix Roads1 where they were under the protection of the batteries on the Isle d'Aix. Now under the command of Admiral Zacharie Allemand, the fleet consisted of ten ships of the line, four frigates, and one store-ship, a captured East Indiaman, the Calcutta. Allemand had no intention of engaging the British in combat, he was simply awaiting the opportunity to slip away once more and sail for the Antilles where the French intended to attack British commercial shipping.

On the 7th March 1809 Gambier arrived to reinforce and take charge of the blockading squadron. He was now in command of a superior British force comprising eleven ships of the line, seven frigates, and fourteen other vessels. Although the French fleet posed no direct threat anchored in the Aix Roads, the Admiralty were well aware of the French strategy and were concerned that "they might get off to the West Indies, and do our commerce an immense amount of damage". The Admiralty was thus keen to attack and disable the French fleet before they could do so. 2

The problem was that the French squadron was hiding behind a protective boom in a narrow stretch of water that limited the ability of the Royal Navy to bring their superior firepower to bear. Thus the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, proposed to use fire ships to dislodge the French from their anchorage at Aix Roads. However Gambier, who was a devout Christian, had moral qualms regarding the use of fire ships which he referred to as "a horrible mode of warfare". He particularly regarded the use of fire ships in the Aix Roads as an "hazardous if not desperate" action and was unwilling to proceed without a direct order from the Admiralty. The Admiralty in turn, was not keen to issue such an order, as they would then have to take responsibility for the failure of any such operation.

Therefore the Admiralty approached the Lord Cochrane, who had already gained something of a reputation of a hothead and thus might well be regarded as the perfect leader for such a "desperate" action. Somewhat surprisingly Cochrane agreed with Gambier's view that a fire-ship attack was likely to fail, because the French could simply divert them before they could do any damage. However he believed that the addition of an explosion ship or two would remedy this failing, as having set off an explosion ship the French would then not dare approach any of the fire ships for fear that they too were about to explode. This plan according to Cochrane had "no risk of failure whatsoever".

The Battle of Aix Roads

The 11th April 1809

Arriving with the Impérieuse at the Basque Roads at the beginning of April, Cochrane began preparing his explosion ships. On the 10th April the Beagle arrived with the fire-ships. Cochrane was anxious to attack as soon as possible, but Gambier was concerned about the safety of the volunteer crew that would man the fire-ships, and insisted on a delay of at least a day, so that they could receive at least some instruction. 3

The attack was therefore launched on the evening of the 11th April when, according to Cochrane, "it blew hard, with a high sea". Cochrane himself steered the first explosion ship into position, before setting the fuse and making his escape. When it exploded it resulted in "one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable" with the "sea was convulsed as with an earthquake, rising ... in a huge wave". It was a little unfortunate, that having calculated the fuse for fifteen minutes, it lasted only half that time, and so Cochrane's boat was almost swamped by the resulting wave. Nevertheless Cochrane survived the blast, only to note with disappointment the fact that the second explosion ship had been set adrift and was threatening to blow up the Impérieuse. Fortunately the Impérieuse managed to avoid getting blown up and it seems that the first explosion ship had at least partially cleared the protective boom the French had constructed. However of the fire-ships, "upwards of twenty in number, four only reached the enemy's position, and not one did any damage!".

Thus Cochrane expressed his disappointment with the results of his attack, as he had apparently failed to destroy a single French vessel. This he blamed on the fact that the fire-ships had been set alight to soon, although typically it never seems to have occurred to him that such a failure was entirely his responsibility.

The 12th April 1809

Despite the fact that Cochrane's attack had apparently failed to even damage a single enemy vessel, it had created panic amongst the French fleet. On the morning of the 12th April it became clear that, with the exception of two ships, the Foudroyant and the Cassard, every other ship of the squadron had gone aground and where thus sitting ducks. Cochrane was therefore anxious to attack and spent the morning issuing a frantic series of signals to the main British fleet imploring them to attack the enemy. Meanwhile the French captains were making equally frantic efforts to float their vessels and escape before the British arrived.

As the tide rose during the morning, most of the French ships succeeded in freeing themselves, leaving only the Calcutta, Tonnerre, Aquilon and the Ville de Varsovie stuck behind. Although Gambier had brought his squadron within three miles of the Aix Roads he contented himself with sending a single mortar forward to shell the French. Eventually at 1 pm a frustrated Cochrane ordered the raising of the Impérieuse's anchor and allowed the ship to drift towards the enemy, "the object of this being to compel the commander-in-chief to send vessels to our assistance". By around 1.50 pm the Impérieuse had drifted close enough to the enemy to engage the Calcutta whilst simultaneously firing at the Aquilon and the Ville de Varsovie stuck on the opposite bank.

However Gambier took no notice of Cochrane's signals requesting assistance, and proceeded with his original plan of waiting until high tide at 2.00 pm to send his ships in. At the appointed hour the Emerald, Unicorn, Indefatigable, Valiant, Revenge and Pallas and joined in the fighting. The British ships spent the rest of the afternoon hammering away at the French. At around half past five both the Aquilon and the Ville de Varsovie struck their colours, and half an hour later the captain of the Tonnerre abandoned and set fire to his ship, having first landed his crew safely.

In the meantime, whilst the Foudroyant and the Cassard had avoided danger during the previous night they had now gone aground in the middle of the channel leading to the mouth of the Charente. Cochrane was once again eager to attack, but to his dismay Gambier issued the recall order, requesting that Cochrane return to England with the news of the victory.

The result of the battle

Although Thomas Cochrane was awarded the Order of the Bath for his part in the battle he was dissatisfied with the result, believing that Gambier had failed to do his utmost to destroy the enemy. As the member of parliament for the Westminster constituency he also made it clear that he would oppose the parliamentary vote of thanks to Lord Gambier. Affronted by Cochrane's position, Gambier insisted on a court martial to clear his name.

The Court Martial was duly held aboard the Gladiator on the 26th July 1809 and presided over by Sir Roger Curtis. To cut a long story short, the majority of the witnesses supported Gambier's assessment of the situation and he was thus acquitted of any impropriety. As a result James Gambier eventually got his parliamentary vote of thanks in 1810, when it was passed by a majority of 161 to 39. This did not satisfy Cochrane, who accused the judges of bias, the witnesses of perjury and almost everybody else of falsifying evidence.

At the time the British regarded Aix Roads as a victory, but the later uncritical acceptance of Thomas Cochrane's account of the battle led many to come to regard it as a shameful episode in British naval history. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica stated that "No one now doubts that the French fleet should have been reduced to ashes, and might have been, had Lord Gambier had the talents, the energy, or the experience of many of his juniors", whilst its modern counterpart writes of the "the fruits" of Cochrane's courage being "thrown away by the commander in chief".

For his part Gambier's defence was that "as the enemy was on shore, he did not think it necessary to run any unnecessary risk of the fleet, when the object of their destruction seemed to be already in hand.". Given the state of the tide and the wind he had no intention of attacking until high water was reached at 2 pm, for fear that his larger ships would also be driven ashore and grounded. That had been his plan all along, and Cochrane's tactic of allowing his ship to drift into contact with the enemy made no difference to the timing of his decision to engage the enemy.

Gambier was of course supported by a majority of the witnesses at his subsequent court martial, but his take on events is also supported by the French accounts of the battle. The French uniformly regarded Aix Roads as "un désastre maritime" (a naval disaster), and record that "la victoire anglaise est cependant totale, car l'escadre de Rochefort est anéantie." (the English victory was total, as the Rochefort squadron was destroyed.) As it happens Cochrane's assessment of the success of the initial fire-ship attack was very wrong. Far more than four fire-ships made contact with the French fleet, and contrary to his assertion that "not one did any damage" a number of vessels including the French flag ship L'Orient were set on fire and suffered damage as a result4; and although the majority of the French squadron managed to free themselves during the morning of the 12th April, this was only at the price of their cannon, which had to be thrown overboard together with everything else they could lay their hands on.

One can therefore imagine Gambier, on the morning of the 12th April, surveying the damage suffered by the French fleet, watching the French throw both their artillery and ammunition into the sea, reasonably concluding that there was not much point in risking either his ships or his men in any rash action. What Gambier understood, but Cochrane did not, was that you do not necessarily need to sink a ship in order to destroy its capabilities. Although only four French vessels were destroyed (a fifth ship, the Hortense ran aground on the L'Île Madame and was abandoned to the elements), the remainder of the fleet was rendered useless and not a single ship from the Rochefort squadron ever made it to the West Indies, or indeed played any further part in the war. All this was achieved from the British point of view with the loss of only thirty-two men and with the fleet intact, whilst the French had 250 killed, 800 wounded and another 650 men made prisoner.


Although Thomas Cochrane claimed that he was subsequently slighted by the Admiralty who failed to offer him a command commensurate with his abilities, the truth was that it was Cochrane himself who lost interest in his naval career and preferred to spend his time in Parliament attacking what he saw as corruption in the naval administration. The Admiralty repeatedly asked Cochrane to resume command of the Impérieuse, but he declined to do so, claiming that this was simply an attempt to silence his attacks on naval corruption.


The French too had their issues with the conduct of the battle and many reproached Allemand for having failed to protect his fleet from the expected fire-ship attack. He was subsequently criticised for ordering his ships to anchor closer to the boom on that fateful night of the 11th April and for abrogating his responsibility subsequent to the attack when he signalled his captains with the instruction that they had the "freedom to manoeuvre" as they saw fit.

Allemand was, however too politically well connected to be charged with any offence as a result of Aix Roads, but as it was felt that someone should take the blame for the disaster, four captains were duly court-martialled. The court delivered its verdict on the 9th September 1809. Nicolas Clément de la Roncière (Tonnerre) was discharged, Charles-Nicolas Lacaille (Tourville) was sentenced to two years internment on the island of Oléron, and Guillaume-Marcellin Proteau (Indienne) condemned to three months of simple stops. The severest punishment was reserved for Captain Jean-Baptiste Lafon of the Calcutta who was condemned to death and shot that very same day.


Thomas Cochrane's description of the construction of his explosion ships.

The floor of the vessel was rendered as firm as possible, by means of log placed in close contact, into every crevice of which other substances were firmly wedged, so as to form the greatest amount of resistence to the explosion. On this foundation were placed a large number of spirit and water casks, into which 1,500 barrels of gunpowder were emptied. These casks were set on end, and the whole bound with hempen cables, so as to resemble a gigantic mortar, thus causing the explosion to take an upward course. In addition to the powder casks were placed several hundred shells, and over these again nearly 3,000 grenades; the whole by means of wedges and sand being compressed as nearly as possible into a solid mass
.

NOTES

1 The Aix Roads or the Rade d'isle d'Aix is a stretch of water to the south-west of the Isle of Aix, between that island and the Boyard shoal, leading to the mouth of the Charente river and the port of Rochefort.
2 It was almost a standard French stratagem during this time to attempt to get a naval force off to the West Indies as a diversionary tactic, hoping to draw off an even large British naval contingent.
3 Given Cochrane's later complaints that the crews had set light to the fire-ships to soon, he perhaps might have reflected that Gambier was right, and a little more time spent on training might not have gone amiss.
4 The British sources state there was a total of twenty-one fire-ships in addition to the two explosion ships. The French accounts however seem to believe there were thirty or more.


SOURCES

Thomas Cochrane's own account of the battle from his The Autobiography of a Seaman, together with the Introduction and editoral matter by Brian Vale from Memoirs of a Fighting Captain (Folio, 2005). The biographical entry for Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald in the modern Encyclopedia Britannica, and that of James Gambier, Baron Gambier in the 1911 edition.

Account has also been taken of French sources for the battle, principally Les Brûlots Anglais En Rade De L'Île d'Aix (1809) (Un texte de Jules Silvestre ; publié par Arthur Savaète, Paris, 1912 ; transcrit et édité par Dr Roger Peters.) reproduced at www.wissensdrang.com/daix2fr05.htm and the biography of Zacharie Allemand at perso.wanadoo.fr/marine-imperiale/amiraux/allemand.htm

Incidentally the author makes no claim to any proficiency in the French language but belives that a recollection of schoolboy French augmented by the likes of Babelfish and Harrap's Shorter French-English dictionary has enabled him to get the gist of things.

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