Remember the Battle of Lissa
Between 1807 and 1814 the British and French conducted a series of naval operations contesting control over the Adriatic. During this period the French had occupied territories surrounding the Adriatic including ‘client’ states which supported Napoleon’s designs on his planned eastward expansion in the Balkans.
The Royal Navy being dominant in the Mediterranean since 1805 sought to disrupt French convoys crossing the Adriatic and in 1807 following the Russian withdrawal dispatched a frigate squadron commanded by Captain William Hoste to operate in the area. Captain Hoste captured the Illyrian island of Lissa (Vis) and using this as a base began a campaign against the French and their allies forcing the French commander Bernard Dubourdieu to deploy a disproportionate number of his forces to combat the problem. Despite this, the disruption by the British escalated until on the 13th March 1811 Commodore Dubourdieu in desperation decided to attack the island of Lissa. It is perhaps worth detailing the forces which he had at his disposal in comparison to those available to Captain Hoste.
The French fleet consisted of three 40 gun frigates – Favorite, Danae and Flore, three Venetian frigates – Corona, Bellona and Carolina, the Venetian 16 gun brig-corvette Mercure one 10 gun schooner one 6 gun xebec and two gunboats with 400 – 500 troops aboard ready to re-garrison Lissa when taken. Captain Hoste’s squadron consisted of the three frigates, 32 gun Amphion, 38 gun Cerberus, 38 gun Active together with the 22 gun Volage. Despite this disparity in strength, the French squadron was defeated and Commodore Dubourdieu mortally wounded. As the British squadron formed up prior to the engagement, Captain Hoste hoisted the signal - ‘Remember Nelson’. Dubourdieu had attempted to emulate Nelson’s initial tactics in the opening stages of Trafalgar when he broke the line. The irony was no doubt not lost on Captain Hoste!
Following the Battle of Lissa, the badly wounded Hoste returned to England. Captain James Brisbane took over command in the Adriatic conflict. Due to the widely dispersed nature of the campaign, he decided to delegate command to the commanders of the various small squadrons. The commander on Lissa in November 1811 was Captain Murray Maxwell of the Alceste 38. Supporting him was Captain James Alexandre Gordon of the Active 38, the 18 pounder 36 gun frigate Unite, Captain Edwin Henry Chamberlayne and the 20 gun ship Acorn, Captain George Miller Bligh.
On the 28th November at 0700 hrs whilst lying in Port St. George, Lissa, the telegraph on Whitby Hill announced three suspicious sail to the south. Captain Maxwell prepared to make sail but in view of an expected attack on Lissa decided to leave Captain Bligh of the Acorn together with 30 seamen and marines from the Alceste and Active to defend the port. Due to a strong east-north-easterly wind the squadron began warping out of the harbour and did not clear the land until 1900 hrs. At 2130hrs whilst off the south end of Lissa a strange sail was sighted which fired two guns. Unite boarded the ship which proved to be a neutral and was informed by a Lieutenant John McDougal formerly of the Unite, who was en-route to Malta, that he had sighted three French frigates 40 miles to the south. Anticipating an imminent action he decided to re-join his old ship! At 0930 hrs on the following day the Active made the signal for three strange sail in the east north east off the island of Augusta. At 1000hrs the strangers were identified as the three French frigates Pauline 40 gun, Commodore Francois-Gilles Monfort, the Pomone 40 guns, Capitaine Claude-Charles-Marie Ducamp-Rosamel and the frigate built store ship Persanne of 26 guns, Capitaine Joseph-Andre Satie. The ships had left Corfu on the 16th bound for Trieste loaded with a quantity of iron and brass ordnance for the squadron there. At first the French frigates formed in line on the larboard tack and stood towards the British but realising their mistake Commodore Monfort bore up to the north west setting studding sails. The Alceste and her companions set an equal press of canvas and gave chase. At 1100 hrs the Persanne seeing that she was unable to keep pace with her consorts bore away to the north east. The Active began to steer after her but was quickly recalled by Maxwell who deployed the smaller Unite instead.
At 1150 hrs the Alceste and the Active were clearly gaining on the heavily laden French frigates. It was at this point that Captain Maxwell telegraphed the Active with the signal ‘Remember the Battle of Lissa’ At 1230 hrs with the island of Pelagosa bearing from the Alceste south west five leagues the first shots of the engagement occurred when the Persanne fired her stern chasers at the Unite which returned fire from her bow-chasers. At 1320hrs the Alceste running at nine knots with the wind on the larboard quarter fired a shot from her foremost starboard gun striking the larboard quarter of the Pomone. At the same time the Pomone hoisted a French pennant and ensign firing a single shot which splintered the Alceste’s main t’gallant mast. The Pauline close ahead of the Pomone hoisted her colours with a commodore’s broad pennant. At 1324 hrs the Alceste still under a full press of sail in order to fetch the Pauline and with the intention of leaving the Active to engage the Pomone opened a broadside at the Pomone receiving fire in return. At 1340 hrs when abeam of her with every chance of drawing nearer to the Pauline which had taken in her royals, the Alceste received a shot from Pomone which carried away her main topmast just above the cap. The wreckage of the topmast together with the t’gallant and royal studding sails fell over the starboard side causing the Alceste to drop astern. Cheers of ‘Vive l’empereur!’ were heard to come from the crews of the French ships but as Captain Maxwell stated later, “they thought the day their own, not aware of what a second I had in my gallant friend Captain Gordon who pushed the Active up under every sail”
At 1400 hrs Active gained station on the starboard lee quarter of the Pomone commencing a close action. At 1420hrs the Pauline re-set royals braced up and tacked standing for the weather beam of the Alceste becoming closely engaged at 1430 hrs. At 1540 hrs a sail was sighted in the distance which proved to be the 18 gun ship-sloop Kingfisher, Captain Ewell Tritton. On seeing the approaching British ship and deciding that the Pomone had little chance of defeating the Active, Commodore Monfort set all sail and stood to the westward. Shortly afterwards despite backed topsails, the Active began to haul ahead of the Pomone as it did so the firing ceased. At 1540 hrs the Alceste arrived on the Pomone’s larboard side and as she opened her first broadside, the main and mizzen masts of the Pomone went by the board shortly followed by the foremast. Only at this point did the French captain declare the surrender of his ship by hoisting a Union Jack.
It was a hard fought action and the casualties were high. The Alceste had 1 midshipman and 6 seamen killed, 1 lieutenant, 11 seamen and 1 marine wounded. The Active lost 1 midshipman, 5 seamen and 2 marines killed. Mid-way through the action Captain Gordon who was standing on a shot bag and leaning on the capstan was struck in the knee-joint by a 36 pound shot which entered through a gun port grazed a carronade carriage, took the leg off a seaman and left Captain Gordon’s leg hanging by the tendons. He managed to retained consciousness directing his first lieutenant Mr Dashwood to fight the ship. As the captain was being carried below he ordered his second Lieutenant Mr Haye to take over if anything should befall Mr Dashwood. Shortly afterwards Lieutenant Dashwood had his right arm shot away and command of the ship fell to Mr Hayes for the rest of the action. Captain Gordon’s leg was amputated and complete with a wooden leg he returned to active service in command of the Seahorse within the year. Captain Gordon received £477 9s 10d prize money for Persanne. An ordinary seaman received £5 5s 4d equivalent to three months wages! The Pomone was found to be carrying 42 iron guns chiefly 18 pounders and nine brass guns in addition to 220 iron wheels for gun- carriages. The Persanne was carrying 130 iron 24 pounders and 20 brass 9 pounders. The Pauline was no doubt carrying an equivalent number. The loss of the two ships and ordnance was a serious blow to the French army in the Balkans and it is considered that it may have been one factor which influenced Napoleons decision to abandon his plans to invade the Ottoman Empire and concentrate on the invasion of Russia.
Captain Rosamel and his crew fought with a gallantry which was acknowledged by their opponents. Captain Maxwell stated: “Captain Rosamel fought his ship with a skill and bravery that has obtained for him the respect and esteem of his opponents”. Etiquette of service demanded that as the senior officer, Captain Maxwell should receive the sword of the French captain who would deliver it to no-one else but Captain Maxwell. However on receiving it he presented it to Captain Gordon considering that the Pomone was the ‘fair conquest of the Active’ Commodore Monfort’s decision to abandon Pomone to her fate was considered by the French authorities to be an act of cowardice. He was court- martialled and relieved of his command. Napoleon clearly remembered the significance of the action. In 1817 whilst returning from the East Indies following the loss of the Alceste, Captain Maxwell visited St. Helena . He met Napoleon who informed him that: “Your government must not blame you for the loss of the Alceste, for you have taken one of my frigates”.
The painting depicts the moment when the Active is about to overhaul the Pomone and is firing her last broadside. Her main topmast and t’gallant are braced aback in an effort to take the way off the ship. Although the Pomone has a lower fore studding sail set on the larboard side and an upper main studdingsail on the starboard side they have little effect on her speed due to her heavily laden state and the fact that she has at this stage of the engagement taken on 4 – 5 feet of water. The Alceste can be seen in the background minus her main topmast but is still making way. The island of Pelagosa is distant on the left of the picture.
A fifth rate 38 gun frigate of the active class ordered on the 27th April 1796. Built at Chatham Dockyard, laid down in July 1796 and launched on the 14th December 1799 She carried a crew of 284. Armament consisted of 28 x 18 pounders on upper deck, 8 x 32 pounder carronades on quarter deck, 2x 9 pounders + 2 x 32 pounder carronades forecastle
She served throughout French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars capturing many enemy vessels. She returned to service. After the wars being refitted as a receiving ship at Plymouth between October 1825 and February 1826. Renamed Argo on the 15th November 1833 she was broken up at Plymouth on 21st October 1860.
An Armide class 38 gun frigate laid down in May 1804 at Rochefort for the French navy as Minerve. Launched on 9th September 1805 and completed in November. Carried a crew of 284. Armament consisted of 28 x 18 pounder on upper deck. 14 x 32 pounder carronades on quarter deck. 2 x 9 pounder + 2 x 32 pounder carronades on forecastle. She was captured by the British in an action on the 25th September 1806 and renamed Alceste. She served throughout the Napoleonic Wars. On the 18th February 1817 she was wrecked on a reef in the sea of Java plundered and burned by Malay Dyak pirates.
A 40 gun Sane designed Hortense class frigate built at Genoa for the puppet government of the Ligurian Republic which was annexed as a part of France in June 1805 a month after Pomone was completed. She was launched on the 10th February 1805 and presented to Jerome Bonaparte on his being appointed a ‘capitaine de fregate’ Like most of these presented ships the Pomone was hastily built of light scantlings and on being brought to England in September 1812 was found to be defective and broken up. During her brief time with the Royal Navy she was renamed Ambuscade.
18th January 2019