Chapter 3 Notes

The Battle of Aix Roads

One of Captain Lord Thomas Cochrane’s great victories, despite the disappointing finale to it. Once again I recommend Ian Grimble’s The Sea Wolf for a detailed account of it, and also Thomas’ autobiography (you can read an excerpt from this on page 344 of my book, in the chapter on the battle). The battle was also called The Battle of the Basque Roads as explained in this Wikipedia article.

Admiral Gambier’s prayerful dithering is a reference to the the fact that Admiral Gambier was known in the service of his times, as a “tract-man” meaning that the crews and officers under his command were obliged to read tracts from the bible daily. Gambier was the Admiral in command of the  British Fleet at Battle of Copenhagen in 1807. The fleet opened fire on the city and shelled it for 3 days (September 2 – 5). 195 civilians were killed and 768 injured. Gambier never recovered from the battle, his conscience leading him to become deeply religious. Many people speculate that he simply could not bring himself to order the shelling of anything after the battle.

As noted on the first page of this book, the battle of Aix Roads is accurately depicted and all references to events and people in it are fact. But  I moved the battle from its original date (it began on April 9, 1809) to June, 1813, to accommodate the story. A few people complained about this distortion of history, suggesting that I should have found a more appropriate battle. Not so easy, if you want to use Captain Lord Thomas Cochrane as the protagonist. After the battle in 1809, and Thomas’ subsequent abstention on Gambier’s award, he was denied a command at sea and by 1814 he was living in exile in Chile.

One minute between broadsides

The guns in use at this time were muzzle loaders. Assuming that the gun has just been fired, the following  typical sequence of events would occur before it was fired again:

  1. The barrel was cleaned with a wet swab to ensure that all embers were extinguished before placing a new charge of powder in the gun.
  2.  A parchment cartridge of powder was shoved into the barrel’s mouth and pushed home with a rammer, a stick with a soft pad on the end.
  3.  The cartridge was pricked through the “touch-hole” at the end of the barrel, to expose the powder so that it could be ignited when ready to discharge.
  4.  A cloth wad (usually made from old rope and canvas) was shoved in, again with the rammer, to hold the cartridge in place.
  5.  Next came the shot itself – a ball (to penetrate the enemy’s hull), canister (grape – to mow down enemy crew), bar or chain (to disable an enemy ship’s rigging).
  6.  Another wad was rammed in to keep the shot tight against the powder charge (in case the barrel was depressed to fire downwards).
  7.  The gun was then “run out”. The gun crew heaved on the tackle until the front of the gun’s carriage was hard against the ship’s bulwark (side where the gunport’s lid was hinged). This manoeuvre required the entire gun crew as the guns were heavy:  an 18-pounder weighed almost 3 tons.
  8.  Powder from a horn was poured into the breech’s touch-hole to connect the top of the hole with the powder in the cartridge.
  9.  The gun was aimed at its target. The barrel was raised or lowered by using a marlin-spike to lever the breech (the back of the barrel) up or down, and to hold it there while a wedge of wood was pushed in or removed, to hold the desired elevation. The gun was traversed using the spike and a similar wooden block to align it to the desire angle of fire. Sights on the guns were only invented about the time the story takes place and Thomas had not yet installed them at the Battle of Aix Roads. The gun-captains simply aimed the gun by sighting along its barrel.
  10.  The gun captain then applied a slow-match to the flintlock which sparked the touch-hole’s powder train and this discharged the weapon.
  11.  The gun recoiled. Newton’s  third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, the gun recoiled at the same momentum as the shot exited the gun: depending on the gun, at least 1,000 feet a second. Obviously the gun is heavier than the shot and thus the gun itself didn’t travel at the same speed as the shot. It’s the total momentum we’re concerned with (mass times velocity). But rest assured, the gun recoiled with enough force to main and kill slow crewmembers who were in the way.
  12. Back to (1) as the cycle began again.

Now perhaps you can see how a team of between 6 and 10 men needed to practice a great deal to fire, reload and fire again in 60 seconds. Thomas, in his autobiography, explains that he believed that the speed and accuracy of a ship’s broadside were the most important facets of any engagement. Makes sense: the faster you can fire (assuming that you do so accurately), the more damage you inflict and the less damage the enemy inflicts.

Ship’s Rigs

19th C sailing ships were divided into 2 broad classifications: Merchantmen and Warships. Warships in the British Navy were rated and you can read about this system here.

Ships rigs were varied and obviously depended on the size of the ship and its use. For a good description of the sails and masts usually found on ships, check out this link.

Demonstrating her purpose with crystal clarity 

The words in the text are: “Shouldering the swell aside powerfully, Impérieuse demonstrates her purpose with crystal clarity. A swiftly moved barrage of big guns; such grace and beauty, such lethal abilities, all under the command of one man.”     That ships were mankind’s most powerful weapons was proved conclusively a few years after Thomas took command of Speedy in 1801. Nelson’s 27 ships at Trafalgar (1805) fired more metal at the French, than Napoleon’s entire army expended during the battle of Waterloo. John Keegan states, in his The Price of Admiralty, ‘…six times as many guns of much heavier caliber, could be transported daily by Nelson’s fleet, as by Napoleon’s Army, at one fifth of the logistic cost, at five times the speed.’

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