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Guichen, ordinarily a careful officer, had allowed his ships of war to be to leeward and ahead of the convoy. The latter scattered in every direction, as the British swooped down upon them, but all could not escape; and the French ships of war remained helpless spectators, while the victims were hauling down their flags right and left. Night coming on, some prizes could not be secured, but Kempenfelt carried off fifteen, laden with military and naval stores of great money value and greater military importance. A few days later a violent storm dispersed and shattered the remainder of the French body. Two ships of the line only, the Triomphant, 84, and Brave, 74, and five transports, could pursue their way to the West Indies. The rest went back to Brest. This event may be considered as opening the naval campaign of 1782 in the West Indies.
Kempenfelt, before returning to England, sent off express to Hood in the West Indies the fireship Tisiphone, 8, Commander James Saumarez,1 — afterwards the distinguished admiral, — with news of the French approach. Saumarez, having been first to Barbados, joined Hood on the 31st of January, 1782, in Basse Terre Roads, on the lee side of St. Kitts; a position from which Hood had dislodged de Grasse six days before by a brilliant manoeuvre, resembling that which he had contemplated 2 as open to Graves the previous September at Chesapeake Bay for the relief of Cornwallis. The campaign for the year 1782 had opened already with an
1 James Saumarez, Lord de Saumarez, G.C.B. Born, 1757. Commander, 1781. Captain, 1782. Captain of Russell in Rodney's action, 1782. Knighted for capture of frigate Reunion, 1793. Captain of Orion in Bridport's action, at St. Vincent, and at the Nile (when he was second in command). Rear-Admiral and Baronet, 1801. Defeated French and Spaniards off Cadiz, July 12th, 1801. Vice-Admiral, 1805. Vice-Admiral of England and a peer, 1831. Died, 1836. 'Ante, p. 183.
attack upon St. Kitts by the French army and navy; and the French fleet was even then cruising close at hand to leeward, between St. Kitts and Nevis.
The original intention of de Grasse and de Bouille had been to capture Barbados, the most important of the Eastern Antilles still remaining to the British; but the heavy tradewinds, which in those days made a winter passage to windward so long and dreary a beat, twice drove them back to port. "The whole French fleet," wrote Hood, "appeared off Santa Lucia on the 17th of last month, endeavouring to get to windward, and having carried away many topmasts and yards in struggling against very squally weather, returned to Fort Royal Bay on the 23d, and on the 28th came out again with forty transports, manoeuvring as before." On the 2d of January it disappeared from Santa Lucia, and, after a short stay again at Martinique, proceeded on the 5th to St. Kitts, anchoring in Basse Terre Roads on the 11th. The British garrison retired to Brimstone Hill, a fortified position at the north-west of the island, while the inhabitants surrendered the government to the French, pledging themselves to neutrality. The adjacent island of Nevis capitulated on the same terms on the 20th.
On the 14th of January, an express sent by General Shirley, governor of St. Kitts, had informed Hood at Barbados that a great fleet approaching had been seen from the heights of Nevis on the 10th. Hood at once put to sea, though short of bread and flour, which could not be had, and with the material of his ships in wretched condition. "When the President 1 joins," he wrote the Admiralty, "I shall be twenty-two strong, with which I beg you will assure their Lordships I will seek and give battle to the Count de Grasse, be his numbers as they may." On the way a ship reached him with word that the French fleet had invested St. Kitts. On the
1 Probably Prudent, 64. There was no President in the fleet.
21st he anchored at Antigua for repairs and supplies, indispensable for keeping the sea in the operations which he contemplated, the duration of which could not be foreseen. About a thousand troops also were embarked, which, with the marines that could be spared from the squadron, would give a landing force of twenty-four hundred men.
St. Kitts being less than fifty miles from Antigua, Hood doubtless now got accurate information of the enemy's dispositions, and could form a definite, well-matured plan. This seems to have been carefully imparted to all his captains, as was the practice of Nelson, who was the pupil of Hood, if of any one. "At 9.15 A.m. the Admiral made the signal for all flag-officers," says the log of the Canada; "and at 4 P.m. the Admirals and Commodore made the signals for all captains of their divisions." At 5 P.m. of the same day, January 23d, the fleet weighed and stood over for Nevis, round the southern point of which Basse Terre must be approached; for, the channel between Nevis and St. Kitts being impracticable for ships of the line, the two islands were virtually one, and, their common axis lying north-west and south-east, the trade-wind is fair only when coming from the south.
Basse Terre, where de Grasse then was, is about fifteen miles from the south point of Nevis. The roadstead lies east and west, and the French fleet, then twenty-four of the line and two fifties, were anchored without attention to order, three or four deep; the eastern ships so placed that an enemy coming from the southward could reach them with the prevailing trade-wind, against which the western ships could not beat up quickly to their support. This being so, we are told that Hood, starting shortly before sunset with a fair, and probably fresh wind, from a point only sixty miles distant, hoped to come upon the French by surprise at early daybreak, to attack the weather ships, and from them to sail along the hostile order so far as might seem expedient. His column, thus passing in its entirety close to a certain exposed fraction of the enemy, the latter would be cut up in detail by the concentration upon it. The British then, wearing to the southward, would haul their wind, tack, and again stand up to the assault, if the enemy continued to await it.
This reasonable expectation, and skilful conception, was thwarted by a collision, during the night, between a frigate, the Nymphe, 36, and the leading ship of the line, the Alfred, 74. The repairs to the latter delayed the fleet, the approach of which was discovered by daylight. De Grasse therefore put to sea. He imagined Hood's purpose was to throw succours into Brimstone Hill; and moreover the position of the enemy now was between him and four ships of the line momentarily expected from Martinique, one of which joined him on the same day. The French were all under way by sunset, standing to the southward under easy sail, towards the British, who had rounded the south point of Nevis at 1 P.m. Towards dark, Hood went about and stood also to the southward, seemingly in retreat.
During the following night the British tacked several times, to keep their position to windward. At daylight of January 25th, the two fleets were to the westward of Nevis; the British near the island, the French abreast, but several miles to leeward. Foiled in his first spring by an unexpected accident, Hood had not relinquished his enterprise, and now proposed to seize the anchorage quitted by the French, so establishing himself there, — as he had proposed to Graves to do in the Chesapeake, — that he could not be dislodged. For such a defensive position St. Kitts offered special advantages. The anchorage was a narrow ledge, dropping precipitately to very deep water; and it was possible so to place the ships that the enemy could not easily anchor near them.
At 5.30 A.m. of the 25th Hood made the signal to form line of battle on the starboard tack, at one cable interval.1 It is mentioned in the log of the Canada, 74, Captain Cornwallis, that that ship brought-to in her station, fourth from the rear, at 7 o'clock. By 10 o'clock the line was formed, and the ships hove-to in it. At 10.45 the signal was made to fill [to go ahead], the van ships to carry the same sail as the Admiral, — topsails and foresails, — followed, just before noon, by the order to prepare to anchor, with springs on the cables. The French, who were steering south, on the port tack, while the British were hove-to, went about as soon as the latter filled, and stood towards them in bow and quarter line.2
At noon the British fleet was running along close under the high land of Nevis; so close that the Solebay, 28, one of the frigates inshore of the line, grounded and was wrecked. No signals were needed, except to correct irregularities in the order, for the captains knew what they were to do. The French were approaching steadily, but inevitably dropping astern with reference to the point of the enemy's line for which they were heading. At 2 P.m. de Grasse's flagship, the Ville de Paris, fired several shot at the British rear, which alone she could reach, while his left wing was nearing the Barfleur, Hood's flagship, and the vessels astern of her, the centre of the column, which opened their fire at 2.30. Hood,
1 The times and general movements are put together from Hood's Journal and the Log of the Canada, published by the Navy Records Society. "Letters of Lord Hood," pp. 64, 86.
s When ships were in order of battle, or column, close to the wind, if they all tacked at the same time they would still be ranged on the same line but steering at an angle to it, on the opposite tack. This formation was called bow and quarter line, because each vessel had a comrade off its bow — to one side and ahead — and one off its quarter — to one side but astern. The advantage of this, if heading towards the enemy, was that by tacking again together they would be at once again in column, or line ahead, the customary order of battle.