The Battle of Genoa 13/14 March 1795
On 3 March, the Toulon fleet under Rear-Admiral Pierre Martin, consisting of the flagship Sans Culotte 120, three sail of 80 guns, and eleven of 74, accompanied by six frigates and five thousand troops, put to sea. Adhering to the orders of the Directory in Paris, Martin’s aim was to defeat the British fleet, secure the Mediterranean Sea for French commerce and operations, and to thereby facilitate the recapture of Corsica.
That the French were able to consider such a relatively ambitious plan was largely because the Toulon fleet had been restored under the demanding eye of a politico, Etienne-François Letoumeur, following the British attempt to destroy it at the end of Vice-Admiral Lord Hood’s occupation in 1793. The French Navy’s resolve had also been bolstered as a result of a recently successful cruise in the Mediterranean by six frigates under the command of Commodore Jean-Baptiste Perrée. However, little consideration was given to the fact that Martin was an inexperienced fleet commander who had only been a lieutenant as recently as 1792, and that seven thousand of his twelve thousand sailors would be going to sea for the first time.
Steering initially for Corsica, the fleet had to battle through several north-easterly gales that saw two of their ships partially dismasted, but on 8 March it was presented with an early opportunity for success off Cape Corse when it fell in with the disabled British sail of the line Berwick 74, Captain Adam Littlejohn. This vessel’s previous captain, William Smith, together with the sailing master and first lieutenant, had been dismissed for failing to secure the Berwick’s masts and losing them to a heavy swell whilst anchored in the Mediterranean fleet’s winter harbour of San Fiorenzo Bay on 16 January. Under her new captain she had been ordered to effect rudimentary repairs and make the best of her way to Leghorn where the thirteen ill-manned, weary ships of the British fleet under the uninspiring temporary command of Vice-Admiral William Hotham had been victualling since 24 February following a two-week cruise off Toulon. Unfortunately, the Berwick had barely departed San Fiorenzo before she fell in with the French fleet, and in a brisk action that followed with the frigates Minerve 38, Vestale 36 and Alceste 36, the unfortunate Littlejohn was decapitated. Although her only other casualties were four men wounded, the Berwick was surrendered after a consultation with his fellow officers by Lieutenant Nesbit Palmer. Sixteen years later, on 26 May 1811, the same officer was to earn infamy for his lack of leadership when commanding the sloop Alacrity 18 in her capture by the French brig Abeille 18, but for the moment he and his men were distributed amongst the French fleet, whilst the Berwick in company with the Alceste was detached to Gourjean Bay to effect repairs.
On the same day as the Berwick’s capture, 8 March, an express from Genoa reached Hotham at Leghorn with news of the French fleet’s departure from Toulon five days earlier, whilst additional information advised that it had been spotted two days before off the Saint-Marguerite Islands to the south of Cannes. Confirmation of this intelligence came when the sloop Moselle 18, Commander Charles Pater, appeared off Leghorn to apprise Hotham that a fleet was in the north-west steering on a southerly course. The brig Tarleton 14, Commander Charles Brisbane, was dispatched to San Fiorenzo to warn the Berwick that the French were at sea, and at dawn on 9 March Hotham’s fleet worked its way out from Leghorn on a strong east north-easterly wind. That evening the Tarleton rejoined with the news that the Berwick had been captured, and she evidently provided some additional information that caused Hotham to change course to the north-west. At 10 a.m. the next morning his outlying frigates came in sight of the French fleet which was standing towards Cape Noli to the west of Genoa, on a westerly course for Toulon.
Having suffered a desperate winter, the British ships were in urgent need of a refit, but regardless of this requirement Hotham’s officers were determined to get to grips with the enemy. A feeble Mediterranean south-westerly wind prevented them from getting any closer to the French that day, and although a line of battle was formed during the early hours of the 11th, the morning found them becalmed in even lighter winds, and with no sign of the French in the hazy mists. Eventually that afternoon Martin’s fleet was spotted to windward in the south by Vice-Admiral Samuel Granston Goodall’s flagship Princess Royal 98 and half a dozen other ships which were some six miles or so ahead of the remainder of the British fleet, but then the haze closed in once more and the opportunity for an action seemed lost.
Disappointment soon turned to joy on the morning of the 12th when the French were again found to windward in the south-west, some five miles off Genoa, and hopes for a battle were heightened when Martin brought his fleet about and closed to within three miles of the Princess Royal before tacking away to larboard. At 3.15 Hotham signalled his fleet to prepare for action, and when a fresh south-westerly breeze sprung up an hour later, he directed them to form a line of battle on the larboard tack heading westwards. It was too late to do anything more that day, especially as Martin now appeared determined not to accept a battle, so Hotham ordered his ships to display night-lights and prepare for an engagement in the morning.
After a night of accidents and wind-changes in which the Mercure 74 lost her main topmast and parted company, the inexperienced French fleet attempted to flee for Toulon on the 13th under their pragmatic admiral. In squally, windy conditions the Ça Ira 80, previously known as the Couronne, fell aboard one of her consorts, the Victoire 80, and her fore and main topmasts went by the board at 8 a.m. She was immediately harried by the leading British frigate, the Inconstant 36, Captain Thomas Fremantle, which was some way in advance of the pursuing British fleet. With the skilful assistance of his master, John Fryer, who had previously come to notice as Captain William Bligh’s sailing master on the ill-fated Bounty, Fremantle hung off the Ça Ira’s rear quarters and plied his shot into her before eventually hauling off to make good repairs. Yet such was the damage the Inconstant had inflicted on the Frenchman that the colourful and universally esteemed Commander John Gibson of the cutter Fox felt emboldened to manoeuvre his tiny vessel under the Ça Ira’s stern and ludicrously demand her surrender. When this was unsurprisingly refused he let fly with his six-pounder pop-guns, blowing in the French ship’s stern windows before retiring.
Fremantle’s magnificent display of seamanship and bravery had allowed the fast-sailing Agamemnon 64, Captain Horatio Nelson, to come up and engage the damaged Ça Ira, which had been taken in tow by the frigate Vestale 36 at 10.15. From a distance of some one hundred yards astern of her enemy, the Agamemnon’s helm was turned to starboard and she unleashed a full broadside at the French ship which responded with her stern chasers, making excellent practice. For over two hours Nelson prosecuted his attack, supported only briefly by the Captain 74, Captain Samuel Reeve. At 1 p.m. the badly damaged Ça Ira could do nothing more than order the frigate to tow her around so that she could engage the Agamemnon broadside to broadside. It was a manoeuvre attended by great bravery and accuracy of fire on both her part, and on that of the frigate which boldly joined in the fray, and when the Sans Culotte 120 and Jean Bart 74 temporarily dropped back to keep the two vessels company Hotham ordered Nelson to withdraw at 2.15, much to the latter’s immense disgust. Similarly, the Bedford 74, Captain Davidge Gould, and the Egmont 74, Captain John Sutton, which had been sporadically engaging the Timoléon 74, Sans Culotte, and one other vessel, also withdrew.
Into the night two fleets continued on their westerly course, with the French sailing close to the south-easterly wind on the larboard tack. Martin and the political commissar removed from the Sans Culotte to the frigate Friponne in order to assume a more flexible control of their force, but later in the night their former flagship dropped away to leeward and out of sight, leaving the French without any three-decked ship to counter the four in the British fleet.
By the morning of the 14th the wounded Ça Ira had been taken in tow by the Censeur 74, and was some fifteen miles to the south-west of Genoa. These two ships were themselves a mile and a half to leeward and astern of the remainder of the French fleet, and when a north-westerly breeze sprung up at daybreak it left them at the mercy of Hotham, who could now claim the weather-gauge. A signal was given for the advanced Captain and Bedford to attack, but after sustaining the combined fire of the two French vessels without the means of responding on her approach, the damage inflicted on Captain Reeve’s ship by the Ça-Ira and Censeur was such that she had to be towed away after an eighty-minute action, her sails and rigging in shreds, her fore and main topmasts disabled, and her boats smashed to smithereens. The ill-sailing Bedford was also towed out of the engagement shortly afterwards with a great deal of damage aloft; however, the engagement had also left the Ça-Ira totally dismasted and the Censeur without her mainmast, and both appeared to be at the mercy of the Illustrious 74, Captain Thomas Lenox Frederick, and the Courageux 74, Captain Augustus Montgomery, which ships were some distance to leeward of their consorts and were racing up to attack the disabled French duo.
Whilst the assault on the Ca-Ira and Censeur had been in progress, the French fleet had been attempting to wear with the intention of passing on the starboard tack between the British fleet to windward and their two stragglers, but Martin’s plans were thrown into confusion by the lack of wind, and by the intruding presence of the British frigate Lowestoft 32, which had suddenly found her stern and starboard quarter within long-range of the larboard broadside of the leading French ship Duquesne 74, commanded by Captain Zacharie Allemand. Finding his frigate helpless under the French guns, Captain Benjamin Hallowell ordered all of his men below decks with the exception of the helmsman, and he calmly walked the empty deck with his lieutenant until the Neapolitan frigate Minerva drifted in range of the French cannon and drew their attention. A gust of wind eased the Lowestoft’s to safety having suffered not a single casualty despite much damage to her stern, whilst most conveniently she had also distracted the Duquesne to such an extent that instead of adhering to orders and passing to leeward so as to protect the Ca-Ira and Censeur, Allemand’s ship passed to windward of the British van, being followed on the same course by her immediate consorts.
At 8 a.m. the Duquesne, assisted by the Victoire 80 and Tonnant 80, began engaging the Illustrious and Courageux from a distance of about six hundred yards, and by 9.15 they had shot away the former’s fore topmast and sent her main mast tumbling backwards to bring down the mizzen and smash up the poop deck. Captain Frederick’s ship also received a great number of shot in her hull, sustained damage to the bowsprit and what was left of the foremast, and suffered ninety casualties. Her consort, the Courageux, fared little better, losing both her main and mizzen masts, and suffering fifty casualties. Fortunately, the French van moved slowly on to exchange a long-distance fire with a few of the ships astern of the two erstwhile opponents, and with the remainder of the vessels on both sides being too becalmed to join the engagement, and with the light wind precluding any possible rescue of the Ça-Ira and Censeur, Martin decided to bear away to the west to be followed by the Duquesne, Victoire and Tonnant.
With what little wind there was, the Agamemnon and other British ships led by the Princess Royal were now free to do battle with the detached Ça-Ira and Censeur. Despite their hopeless situation the French fought back with great resolution, their usual crews having been bolstered by the embarkation of troops. Eventually, after a most gallant defence in which they had been given to understand that they could expect no quarter if captured, they surrendered at 10.05 with combined casualties estimated at anything between four hundred and seven hundred and fifty men. Lieutenant George Andrews of the Agamemnon was sent by Captain Nelson to take possession of both vessels, and he delivered the two French captains to the Princess Royal where, after presenting his sword to Vice-Admiral Goodall, Captain Louis Marie Coudé of the Ça Ira was told ‘Sir, I will keep this glorious sword for myself, but I beg you to accept mine in recognition of your noble courage.’
By 2 p.m. the general action was over, and with Hotham anxious to secure his own damaged ships and his prizes he decided to abandon any thought of pursuing Martin and set sail for an anchorage in the Gulf of La Spezia. A victory of sorts it might have been, but the commander-in-chief’s decision to retire did not please Nelson who lost no time in going aboard the Britannia to plead, unsuccessfully, with Hotham to press home the attack. He then convinced his divisional commander, Vice-Admiral Goodall, to convey the same request, yet Hotham could not be persuaded – he was happy to keep his fleet intact, and with the feeble wind dying away there was little more that could be done anyway.
There now began another battle, and that was to keep the Ça Ira afloat. Totally dismasted and riddled with shot below the waterline, she was weighed down with seven feet of water in the hold, and had lost all her anchors. At dawn on the 15th the frigate Romulus arrived alongside to assist, and being advised by one of the French officers that the Ça Ira was sinking, Captain George Hope sent across Lieutenant Edward Grey, the carpenter, and a boat’s crew to ascertain the damage. On approaching the ship it became evident that men were lining up to jump into the boat, and so Grey was obliged to scramble up her rudder pendant whilst ordering his oarsman to stand off. On deck he found that the commander of the Courageux’s prize-crew and as many men as he could take with him had abandoned the ‘doomed’ Ça Ira in the night. Setting the French soldiers to pump ship, Grey sent word of the captured vessel’s distress back to the Romulus and from her to Hotham. Soon more than a hundred men came aboard from the various ships of the fleet, whilst despatched in the opposite direction were those French sailors who had shown no interest in helping Grey. Her situation stabilised, the Ça Ira eventually arrived safely at Porto Espetice near Genoa on the 17th.
Following the battle, the badly damaged Courageux was towed into Leghorn by the Inconstant whilst the Illustrious was taken in tow by the frigate Meleager 32, Captain George Cockburn. Unfortunately, when a south-easterly gale sprung up on the 17th the tow rope to the Illustrious parted, and on the next day a gun went off as she was wallowing helplessly, causing water to pour in through the smashed port. Somehow Captain Frederick managed to haul her around to the north and prevent her from foundering, but upon anchoring in Valence Bay between Leghorn and Spezzia she took the ground. Thereafter her rudder was carried away, an attempt to place a hawser ashore failed, and there was nothing else left but to abandon her. Even so, it was not until the 20th that her crew was taken aboard the brig Tarleton, the Lowestoft and the Romulus, whereupon she was set afire. Her loss was a sad if somewhat fitting postscript to what many of the officers in the fleet considered to be a most depressing affair.
Hotham’s dispatch with a report of the battle reached the Admiralty on the evening of 6 April, and later that month he received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament for ‘his late meritorious exertions in the Mediterranean’. Strategically, his tentative and ineffective victory had temporarily saved Corsica, but the French fleet, which had retired to Hyères to be joined by the Sans-Culotte, remained in being and thus a threat that he had to monitor to the detriment of supporting the British allies ashore. Crucially he had missed the opportunity of destroying them.
British casualties in the two-day battle numbered seventy-four men killed and two hundred and eighty-four wounded, with casualties on the Illustrious accounting for twenty of the dead and seventy of the wounded alone. The French losses were not recorded. Of the two prizes, the Ça Ira was commissioned for the Navy but served for barely a year before being lost to fire on 11 April 1796 at San Fiorenzo, whilst the Censeur lasted even less time in British hands, being recaptured by Rear-Admiral Joseph de Richery on 7 October whilst in passage to England.
1 x 120 guns: Sans Culotte;
3 x 80 guns: Victoire; Tonnant; Ca Ira;
10 x 74 guns; Duquesne; Guerrier; Conquerant; Mercure; Barras; Timoleon; Généreux; Censeur; Alcide; Soverain;