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The new Commander-in-Chief endeavoured to cut off de Grasse from Martinique, but the French fleet got in there on the 26th. Rodney consequently went to Santa Lucia, to refit Hood's ships, and to prepare for the coming campaign, in which it was understood that the conquest of Jamaica was to be the first object of the allies. An important condition to their success was the arrival of a great convoy, known to be on its way from Brest to repair the losses which Kempenfelt's raid and subsequent bad weather had inflicted in December. Hood suggested to Rodney to halve the fleet, which then numbered thirty-six of the line, letting one part cruise north of Dominica, between that island and Deseada, while the other guarded the southern approach, between Martinique and Santa Lucia. Rodney, however, was unwilling to do this, and adopted a half-measure, — Hood's division being stationed to windward of the north end of Martinique, reaching only as far north as the latitude of Dominica, while the center and rear were abreast of the centre and south of Martinique; all in mutual touch by intermediate vessels. It would seem — reading between the lines — that Hood tried to stretch his cruising ground northwards, in pursuance of his own ideas, but Rodney recalled him. The French convoy consequently passed north of Deseada, convoyed by two ships of the line, and on the 20th of March reached Martinique safely. De Grasse's force was thus raised to thirty-five of the line, including two 50-gun ships, as against the British thirty-six. At the end of the month Rodney returned to Santa Lucia, and there remained at anchor, vigilantly watching the French fleet in Fort Royal by means of a chain of frigates.
The problem now immediately confronting de Grasse — the first step towards the conquest of Jamaica — was extremely difficult. It was to convoy to Cap Francois the supply vessels essential to his enterprise, besides the merchant fleet bound for France; making in all one hundred and fifty unarmed ships to be protected by his thirty-five sail of the line, in face of the British thirty-six. The tradewind being fair, he purposed to skirt the inner northern edge of the Caribbean Sea; by which means he would keep close to a succession of friendly ports, wherein the convoy might find refuge in case of need.
With this plan the French armament put to sea on the 8th of April, 1782. The fact being reported promptly to Rodney, by noon his whole fleet was clear of its anchorage and in pursuit. Then was evident the vital importance of Barrington's conquest of Santa Lucia; for, had the British been at Barbados, the most probable alternative, the French movement not only would have been longer unknown, but pursuit would have started from a hundred miles distant, instead of thirty. If the British had met this disadvantage by cruising before Martinique, they would have encountered the difficulty of keeping their ships supplied with water and other necessaries, which Santa Lucia afforded. In truth, without in any degree minimizing the faults of the loser, or the merits of the winner, in the exciting week that followed, the opening situation may be said to have represented on either side an accumulation of neglects or of successes, which at the moment of their occurrence may have seemed individually trivial; a conspicuous warning against the risk incurred by losing single points in the game of war. De Grasse was tremendously handicapped from the outset by the errors of his predecessors and of himself. That the British had Santa Lucia as their outpost was due not only to Barrington's diligence, but also to d'Estaing's slackness and professional timidity; and it may be questioned whether de Grasse himself had shown a proper understanding of strategic conditions, when he neglected that island in favour of Tobago and St. Kitts. Certainly, Hood had feared for it greatly the year before. That the convoy was there to embarrass his movements, may not have been the fault of the French admiral; but it was greatly and entirely his fault that, of the thirty-six ships pursuing him, twenty-one represented a force that he might have crushed in detail a few weeks before, — not to mention the similar failure of April, 1781.1
Large bodies of ships commonly will move less rapidly than small. By 2.30 P.m. of the day of starting, Rodney's lookouts had sighted the French fleet; and before sundown it could be seen from the mastheads of the main body. At 6 next morning, April 9th, the enemy, both fleet and convoy, was visible from the deck of the Barfleur, the flagship of Hood's division, then in the British van. The French bore north-east, distant four to twelve miles, extending from abreast of the centre of Dominica northwards towards Guadeloupe. The British had gained much during the night, and their centre was now off Dominica to leeward of the enemy's rear, which was becalmed under the island. Some fourteen or fifteen of the French van, having opened out the channel between Dominica and Guadeloupe, felt a fresh trade-wind, from east by north, with which they steered north; and their number was gradually increased as individual ships, utilising the catspaws, stole clear of the high land of Dominica. Hood's division in like manner, first among the British, got the breeze, and, with eight ships, the commander of the van stood north in order of battle. To the north-west of him were two French vessels, separated from their consorts and threatened to be cut off (i). These stood boldly down and crossed the head of Hood's column; one passing so close to the leading ship, the Alfred, that the latter had to bear up to let her pass. Rodney had hoisted a signal to engage at 6.38 A.m., but had hauled it down almost immediately, and
1 Ante, p. 164.
Hood would not fire without orders. These ships therefore rejoined their main body unharmed. At 8.30 the French hoisted their colours, and shortly afterwards the vessels which had cleared Dominica tacked and stood south, opposite to Hood.
De Grasse now had recognised that he could not escape action, if the convoy kept company. He therefore directed the two 50-gun ships, Expiriment and Sagittaire, to accompany it into Guadeloupe, where it arrived safely that day (Position 1, dd); and he decided that the fleet should ply to windward through the channel between Dominica and Guadeloupe, nearly midway in which lies a group of small islands called Les Saintes, — a name at times given to the battle of April 12th. By this course he hoped not only to lead the enemy away from the convoy, but also to throw off pursuit through his superior speed, and so to accomplish his mission unharmed. The French ships, larger, deeper, and with better lines than their opponents, were naturally better sailers, and it may be inferred that even coppering had not entirely overcome this original disadvantage of the British.
At the very moment of beginning his new policy, however, a subtle temptation assailed de Grasse irresistibly, in the exposed position of Hood's column (h); and he met it, not by a frank and hearty acceptance of a great opportunity, but by a half-measure. Hood thoroughly crushed, the British fleet became hopelessly inferior to the French; Hood damaged, and it became somewhat inferior: possibly it would be deterred from further pursuit. De Grasse decided for this second course, and ordered part of his fleet to attack. This operation was carried out under the orders of the Marquis de Vaudreuil, the second in command. The ships engaged in it bore down from the windward, attacked Hood's rear ships, stood along northward (f) on the weather side of his column at long range, and, having passed ahead, tacked (t) in succession and formed again in the rear, (1*2) whence they repeated the same manoeuvre (Positions 1 and 2). Thus a procession of fifteen ships kept passing by eight, describing a continuous curve of elliptical form. They were able to do this because Hood was condemned to a low speed, lest he should draw too far away from the British centre (a) and rear (c), still becalmed under Dominica (Position 2). The French, having choice of distance, kept at long gunshot, because they were deficient in carronades, of which the British had many. These guns, of short range but large calibre, were thus rendered useless. Could they have come into play, the French rigging and sails would have suffered severely. This first engagement (Position 1) lasted, by Hood's log, from 9.48 to 10.25 A.m. It was resumed in stronger force (Position 2) at 14 minutes past noon, and continued till 1.45 P.m., when firing ceased for that day; Rodney hauling down the signal for battle at 2. Between the two affairs, which were identical in general character, Hood's column was reinforced, and great part of the British centre also got into action with some of the French main body, though at long range only. "Except the two rear ships," wrote Rodney to Hood that night, "the others fired at such a distance that I returned none."
The injuries to the British ships engaged were not such as to compel them to leave the fleet. The Royal Oak lost her main topmast, and that of the Warrior fell two days later, not improbably from wounds; but in these was nothing that the ready hands of seamen could not repair so as to continue the chase. Rodney, therefore, contented himself with reversing the order of sailing, putting Hood in the rear, whereby he was able to refit, and yet follow fast enough not to be out of supporting distance. This circumstance caused Hood's division to be in the rear in the battle of the 12th. One of the French ships, the Caton, 64, had been so