Military service is long periods of boredom interupted by utter terror. For those boring times, this supplementary reading for my book This Side Toward Enemy might help fill the hours. For your further reading and research, I have placed Olive Drab links to more information or to Amazon.com where you can research or buy the source material.
The very interesting and instructive campaign of Suffren in the East Indies, although in itself by far the most noteworthy and meritorious naval performance of the war of 1778, failed, through no fault of his, to affect the general issue. it was not till 1781 that the French Court felt able to direct upon the East naval forces adequate to the importance of the issue. Yet the conditions of the peninsula at that the were such as to give an unusual opportunity for shaking the English power. Hyder Ali, the most skilful and daring of all the enemies against whom the English had yet fought in India, was then ruling over the kingdom of Mysore, which, from its position in the southern part of the peninsula, threatened both the Carnatic and the Malabar coast. Hyder, ten years before, had maintained alone a most successful war against the intruding foreigners, concluding with a peace upon the terms of a mutual restoration of conquests; and he was now angered by the capture of Mahe’. On the other hand, a number of warlike tribes, known by the name of the Mahrattas, of the same race and loosely knit together in a kind of feudal system, had become involved in war with the English. The territory occupied by these tribes, whose chief capital was at Poonah, near Bombay, extended northward from Mysore to the Ganges. With boundaries thus conterminous, and placed centrally with reference to the three English presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, Hyder and the Mahrattas were in a position of advantage for mutual support and for offensive operations against the common enemy. At the beginning of the war between England and France, a French agent appeared at Poonah. It was reported to Warren Hastings, the Governor-General, that the tribes had agreed to terms and ceded to the French a seaport on the Malabar coast. With his usual promptness, Hastings at once determined on war, and sent a division of the Bengal army across the Jumna and into Berar. Another body of four thousand English troops also marched from Bombay; but being badly led, was surrounded and forced to surrender in January, 1779. This unusual reverse quickened the hopes and increased the strength of the enemies of the English; and although the material injury was soon remedied by substantial successes under able leaders, the loss of prestige remained. The anger of Hyder Ali, roused by the capture of Mahe’, was increased by imprudent thwarting on the part of the governor of Madras. Seeing the English entangled with the Mahrattas, and hearing that a French armament was expected on the Coromandel coast, he quietly prepared for war. In the summer of 1780 swarms of his horsemen descended without warning from the hills, and appeared near the gates of Madras. In September one body of English troops, three thousand strong, was cut to pieces, and another of five thousand was only saved by a rapid retreat upon Madras, losing its artillery and trains. Unable to attack Madras, Hyder turned upon the scattered posts separated from each other and the capital by the open country, which was now wholly in his control.
Such was the state of affairs when, in January, 1781, a French squadron of six ships-of-the-line and three frigates appeared on the coast. The English fleet under Sir Edward Hughes had gone to Bombay. To the French commodore, Count d’Orves, Hyder appealed for aid in an attack upon Cuddalore. Deprived of support by sea, and surrounded by the myriads of natives, the place must have fallen. D’Orves, however, refused, and returned to the Isle of France. At the same time one of the most skilful of the English Indian soldiers, Sir Eyre Coote, took the field against Hyder. The latter at once raised the siege of the beleaguered posts, and after a series of operations extending through the spring months, was brought to battle on the 1st of July, 1781. His total defeat restored to the English the open country, saved the Carnatic, and put an end to the hopes of the partisans of the French in their late possession of Pondicherry. A great opportunity had been lost.
Meanwhile a French officer of very different temper from his predecessors was on his way to the East Indies. It will be remembered that when De Grasse sailed from Brest, March 22, 1781, for the West Indies, there went with his fleet a division of five ships-of-the-line under Suffren. The latter separated from the main body on the 29th of the month, taking with him a few transports destined for the Cape of Good Hope, therm a Dutch colony. The French government had learned that an expedition from England was destined to seize this important halting-place on the road to India, and Suffren’s first mission was to secure it. In fact, the squadron under Commodore Johnstone (1) had got away first, and had anchored at Porto Praya, in the Cape Verde Islands, a Portuguese colony, on the 11th of April. It numbered two ships-of-the-line, and three of fifty guns, with frigates and smaller vessels, besides thirty- five transports, mostly armed. Without apprehension of attack, not because he trusted to the neutrality of the port but because he thought his destination secret, the English commodore had not anchored with a view to battle.
1. This Commodore Johnstone, more commonly known as Governor Johnstone, was one of the three commissioners sent by Lord North in 1778 to promote a reconciliation with America. Owing to certain suspicious proceedings on his part, Congress declared it was incompatible with their honor to hold any manner of correspondence or intercourse with him. His title of Governor arose from his being at one time governor of Pensacola. He had a most unenviable reputation in the English navy. (See Charnock’s Biog. Navalis.)
It so happened that at the moment of sailing from Brest one of the ships intended for the West Indies was transferred to Suffren’s squadron. She consequently had not water enough for the longer voyage, and this with other reasons determined Suffren also to anchor at Porto Praya. On the 10th of April, five days after Johnstone, he made the island early in the morning and stood for the anchorage, sending a coppered ship ahead to reconnoitre. Approaching from the eastward, the land for some time hid the English squadron; but at quarter before nine the advance ship, the “Artesien,” signalled that enemy’s ships were anchored in the bay. The latter is open to the southward, and extends from east to west about a mile and a half, the conditions arc such that ships usually lie in the northeast part, near the shore. The English were there, stretching irregularly in a west-northwest line. Both Suffren and Johnstone were surprised, but the latter more so; and the initiative remained with the French officer. Few men were fitter, by natural temper and the teaching of experience, for the prompt decision required. Of ardent disposition and inborn military genius, Suffren had learned, in the conduct of Boscawen toward the squadron of De la Clue, (1) in which he had served, not to lay weight upon the power of Portugal to enforce respect for her neutrality. He knew that this must be the squadron meant for the Cape of Good Hope. The only question for him was whether to press on to the Cape with the chance of getting there first, or to attack the English at their anchors, in the hope of so crippling them as to prevent their further progress. He decided for the latter; and although the ships of his squadron, not sailing equally well, were scattered, he also determined to stand in at once, rather than lose the advantage of a surprise. Making signal to prepare for action at anchor, he took the head in his flag-ship, the “Heros,” of seventy-four guns, hauled close round the southeast point of the bay, and stood for the English flag-ship. He was closely followed by the “Hannibal,” seventy-four; the advance ship “Artesien,” a sixty-four, also stood on with him; but the two rear ships were still far astern.
1. Page 299 (in Chapter VIII).
The English commodore got ready for battle as soon as he made out the enemy, but had no time to rectify his order. Suffren anchored five hundred feet from the flag-ship’s starboard beam (by a singular coincidence the English flag- ship was also called “Hero”), thus having enemy’s ships on both sides, and opened fire. The “Hannibal” anchored ahead of her commodore, and so close that the latter had to veer cable and drop astern; but her captain, ignorant of Suffren’s intention to disregard the neutrality of the port, had not obeyed the order to clear for action, and was wholly unprepared, - his decks lumbered with water-casks which had been got up to expedite watering, and the guns not cast loose. He did not add to this fault by any hesitation, but followed the flag-ship boldly, receiving passively the fire, to which for a time he was unable to reply. Luffing to the wind, he passed to windward of his chief, chose his position with skill, and atoned by his death for his first fault. These two ships were so placed as to use both broadsides. The “Artesien,” in the smoke, mistook an East India ship for a man-of-war. Running alongside, her captain was struck dead at the moment he was about to anchor, and the critical moment being lost by the absence of a head, the ship drifted out of close action, carrying the East-Indiaman along with her. The remaining two vessels, coming up late, failed to keep close enough to the wind, and they too were thrown out of action. Then Suffren, finding himself with only two ships to bear the brunt of the fight, cut his cable and made sail. The “Hannibal” followed his movement; but so much injured was she that her fore and main masts went over the side,- fortunately not till she was pointed out from the bay, which she left shorn to a hulk.
Putting entirely aside questions of international law, the wisdom and conduct of Suffren’s attack, from the military point of view, invite attention. To judge them properly, we must consider what was the object of the mission with which he was charged, and what were the chief factors in thwarting or forwarding it. His first object was to protect the Cape of Good Hope against an English expedition; the chief reliance for effecting his purpose was to get there first; the obstacle to his success was the English fleet. To anticipate the arrival of the latter, two courses were open to him, to run for it in the hope of winning the race, or to beat the enemy and so put him out of the running altogether. So long as his whereabouts was unknown, a search, unless with very probable information, would be a waste of time; but when fortune had thrown his enemy across his path, the genius of Suffren at once jumped to the conclusion that the control of the sea in southern waters would determine the question, and should be settled at once. To use his own strong expression, “The destruction of the English squadron would cut off the root of all the plans and projects of that expedition, gain us for a long time the superiority in India, a superiority whence might result a glorious peace, and hinder the English from reaching the Cape before me, - an object which has been fulfilled and was the principal aim of my mission.” He was ill-informed as to the English force, believing it greater than it was; but he had it at disadvantage and surprised. The prompt decision to fight, therefore, was right, and it is the most pronounced merit of Suffren in this affair, that he postponed for the moment - dismissed, so to speak, from his mind - the ulterior projects of the cruise but in so doing he departed from the traditions of the French navy and the usual policy of his government. It cannot be imputed to him as a fault that he did not receive from his captains the support he was fairly entitled to expect. The accidents and negligence which led to their failure have been mentioned; but having his three best ships in hand, there can be little doubt he was right in profiting by the surprise, and trusting that the two in reserve would come up in time.
The position taken by his own ship and by the “Hannibal,” enabling them to use both broadsides, - in other words, to develop their utmost force, - was excellently judged. He thus availed himself to the full of the advantage given by the surprise and by the lack of order in the enemy’s squadron. This lack of order, according to English accounts, threw out of action two of their fifty- gun ships, - a circumstance which, while discreditable to Johnstone, confirmed Suffren’s judgment in precipitating his attack. Had he received the aid upon which, after all deductions, he was justified in counting, he would have destroyed the English squadron; as it was, he saved the Cape Colony at Porto Praya. It is not surprising therefore, that the French Court, notwithstanding its traditional sea policy and the diplomatic embarrassment cased by the violation of Portuguese neutrality, should have heartily and generously acknowledged a vigor of action to which it was unused in its admirals.
It has been said that Suffren, who had watched the cautious movements of D’Estaing in America, and had served in the Seven Years’ War, attributed in part the reverses suffered in the French at sea to the introduction of Tactics, which he stigmatized as the veil of timidity; but that the results of the fight at Porto Praya, necessarily engaged without previous arrangement, convinced him that system and method had their use. (1) Certainly his tactical combinations afterward were of a high order, especially in his earlier actions in the East (for he seems again to have abandoned them in the later fights under the disappointment caused by his captains’ disaffection or blundering). But his great and transcendent merit lay in the clearness with which he recognized in the English fleets, tho exponent of the British sea power, the proper enemy of the French fleet, to be attacked first and always when with any show of equality. Far from blind to the importance of those ulterior objects to which the action of the French navy was so constantly subordinated, he yet saw plainly that the way to assure those objects was not in economizing his own ships, but by destroying those of the enemy. Attack, not defence, was the road to sea power in his eyes; and sea power meant control of the issues upon the land, at least in regions distant from Europe. This view out of the English policy he had the courage to take, after forty years of service in a navy sacrificed to the opposite system; but he brought to its practical application a method not to be found in any English admiral of the day, except perhaps Rodney, and a fire superior to the latter. Yet the course thus followed was no mere inspiration of the moment; it was the result of clear views previously held and expressed. However informed by natural ardor, it had the tenacity of an intellectual conviction. Thus he wrote to D’Estaing, after the failure to destroy Barrington’s squadron at Sta. Lucia, remonstrating upon the half-manned condition of his own and other ships, from which men had been landed to attack the English troops:-
“Notwithstanding the small results of the two cannonades of the 15th of December [directed against Barrington’s squadron], and the unhappy check our land forces have undergone, we may yet hope for success. But the only means to have it is to attack vigorously the squadron, which, with our superiority, cannot resist, notwithstanding its land batteries, whose effects will be neutralized if we run them aboard, or anchor upon their buoys. If we delay, they may escape... Besides, our fleet being unmanned, it is in condition neither to sail nor to fight. What would happen if Admiral Byron’s fleet should arrive? What would become of ships having neither crews nor admiral? Their defeat would cause the loss of the army and the colony. Let us destroy that squadron; their army, lacking everything and in a bad country, would soon be obliged to surrender. Then let Byron come, we shall be pleased to see him. I think it is not necessary to point out that for this attack we need men and plans well concerted with those who are to execute them.”
1. La Serre: Essais Hist. et Critiques sur la Marine Francaise.
Equally did he condemn the failure of D’Estaing to capture the four crippled ships of Byron’s squadron, after the action off Grenada.
Owing to a combination of misfortunes, the attack at Porto Praya had not the decisive result it deserved. Commodore Johnstone got under way and followed Suffren; but he thought his force was not adequate to attack in face of the resolute bearing of the French, and feared the loss of time consequent upon chasing to leeward of his port. He succeeded, however, in retaking the East India ship which the “Artesien” had carried out. Suffren continued his course and anchored at the Cape, in Simon’s Bay, on the 21st of June. Johnstone followed him a fortnight later; but learning by an advance ship that the French troops had been landed, he gave up the enterprise against the colony, made a successful commerce-destroying attack upon five Dutch India ships in Saldanha Bay, which poorly repaid the failure of the military undertaking, and then went back himself to England, after sending the ships-of-the-line on to join Sir Edward Hughes in the East Indies.
Having seen the Cape secured, Suffren sailed for the Isle of France, arriving there on the 25th of October, 1781. Count d’Orves, being senior, took command of the united squadron. The necessary repairs were made, and the fleet sailed for India, December 17. On the 22d of January, 1782, an English fifty-gun ship, the “Hannibal,” was taken. On the 9th of February Count d’Orves died, and Suffren became commander-in-chief, with the rank of commodore. A few days later the land was seen to the northward of Madras; but owing to head-winds the city was not sighted until February 15. Nine large ships-of-war were found anchored in order under the guns of the forts. They were the fleet of Sir Edward Hughes, not in confusion like that of Johnstone. (1)
1. The question of attacking the English squadron at its anchors was debated in a council of war. Its opinion confirmed Suffren’s decision not to do so. In contrasting this with the failure of the English to attack the French detachment in Newport (p 394), it must be borne in mind that in the latter case there was no means of forcing the ships to leave their strong position; whereas by threatening Trincomalee, or other less important points, Suffren could rely upon drawing Hughes out. He was therefore right in not attacking, while the English before Newport were probably wrong.
Here, at the meeting point between these two redoubtable champions, each curiously representative of the characteristics of his own race, - the one of the stubborn tenacity and seamanship of the English, the other of the ardor and tactical science of the French, too long checked and betrayed by a false system, - is the place to give an accurate statement of the material forces. The French fleet had three seventy-fours, seven sixty-fours, and two fifty-gun ships, one of which was the lately captured English “Hannibal.” To these Sir Edward Hughes opposed two seventy-fours, one seventy, one sixty-eight, four sixty-fours, and one fifty-gun ship. The odds, therefore, twelve to nine, were decidedly against the English; and it is likely that the advantage in single- ship power, class for class, was also against them.
It must be recalled that at the time of his arrival Suffren found no friendly port or roadstead, no base of supplies or repair. The French posts had all fallen by 1779; and his rapid movement, which saved the Cape, did not bring him up in time to prevent the capture of the Dutch Indian possessions. The invaluable harbor of Trincomalee, in Ceylon, was taken just one month before Suffren saw the English fleet at Madras. But if he thus had everything to gain, Hughes had as much to lose. To Suffren, at the moment of first meeting, belonged superiority of numbers and the power of taking the offensive, with all its advantages in choice of initiative. Upon Hughes fell the anxiety of the defensive, with inferior numbers, many assailable points, and uncertainty as to the place where the blow would fall.
It was still true, though not so absolutely as thirty years before, that control in India depended upon control of the sea. The passing years had gently strengthened the grip of England, and proportionately loosened that of France. Relatively, therefore, the need of Suffren to destroy his enemy was greater than that of his predecessors, D’Ache’ and others; whereas Hughes could count upon a greater strength in the English possessions, and so bore a somewhat less responsibility than the admirals who went before him.
Nevertheless, the sea was still by far the most important factor in the coming strife, and for its proper control it was necessary to disable more or less completely the enemy’S fleet, and to have some reasonably secure base. For the latter purpose, Trincomalee, though unhealthy, was by far the best harbor on the east coast; but it had not been long enough in the hands of England to be well supplied. Hughes, therefore, inevitably fell back on Madras for repairs after an action, and was forced to leave Trincomalee to its own resources until ready to take the sea again. Suffren, on the other hand, found all ports alike destitute of naval supplies, while the natural advantages of Trincomalee made its possession an evident object of importance to him; and Hughes so understood it.
Independently, therefore, of the tradition of the English navy impelling Hughes to attack, the influence of which appears plainly between the lines of his letters, Suffren had, in moving toward Trincomalee, a threat which was bound to draw his adversary out of his port. Nor did Trincomalee stand alone; the existing war between Hyder Ali and the English made it imperative for Suffren to seize a port upon the mainland, at which to land the three thousand troops carried by the squadron to co-operate on shore against the common enemy, and from which supplies, at least of food, might be had. Everything, therefore, concurred to draw Hughes out, and make him seek to cripple or hinder the French fleet.
The method of his action would depend upon his own and his adversary’s skill, and upon the uncertain element of the weather. It was plainly desirable for him not to be brought to battle except on his own terms; in other words, without some advantage of situation to make up for his weaker force. As a fleet upon the open sea cannot secure any advantages of ground, the position favoring the weaker was that to windward, giving choice of time and some choice as to method of attack, the offensive position used defensively, with the intention to make an offensive movement if circumstances warrant. The leeward position left the weaker no choice but to run, or to accept action on its adversary’s terms.
Whatever may be thought of Hughes’s skill, it must be conceded that his task was difficult. Still, it can be clearly thought down to two requisites. The first was to get in a blow at the French fleet, so as to reduce the present inequality; the second, to keep Suffren from getting Trincomalee, which depended wholly on the fleet. (1) Suffren, on the other hand, if he could do Hughes, in an action, more injury than he himself received, would be free to turn in any direction he chose.
1. The dependence of Trincomalee upon the English fleet in this campaign affords an excellent illustration of the embarrassment and false position in which a navy finds itself when the defence of its seaports rests upon it. This bears upon a much debated point of the present day, and is worthy the study of those who maintain, too unqualifiedly, that the best coast defence is a navy. In one sense this is doubtless true, - to attack the enemy abroad is the best of defences; but in the narrow sense of the word “defence” it is not true. Trincomalee unfortified was simply a centre round which Hughes had to revolve like a tethered animal; and the same will always happen under like conditions.
Suffren having sighted Hughes’s fleet at Madras, February 15, anchored his own four miles to the northward. Considering the enemy’s line, supported by the batteries, to be too strong for attack, he again got under way at four P.M. and stood south. Hughes also weighed, standing to the southward all that night under easy sail, and at daylight found that the enemy’s squadron had separated from the convoy, the ships of war being about twelve miles east, while the transports were nine miles southwest, from him. This dispersal is said to have been due to the carelessness of the French frigates, which did not keep touch of the English. Hughes at once profited by it, chasing the convoy, knowing that the line-of-battle ships must follow. His copper-bottomed ships came up with and captured six of the enemy, five of which were English prizes. The sixth carried three hundred troops with military stores. Hughes had scored a point.
Suffren of course followed in a general chase, and by three P.M. four of his best sailers were two or three miles from the sternmost English ships. Hughes’s ships were now much scattered, but not injudiciously so, for they joined by signal at seven P.M. Both squadrons stood to the southeast during the night, under easy sail.
At daylight of the 17th - the date of the first of four actions fought between these two chiefs within seven months - the fleets were six or eight miles apart, the French bearing north-northeast from the English. The latter formed line-ahead on the port tack, with difficulty, owing to the light winds and frequent calms. Admiral Hughes explains that he hoped to weather the enemy by this course so as to engage closely, counting probably on finding himself to windward when the sea-breeze made. The wind continuing light, but with frequent squalls, from north-northeast, the French, running before it, kept the puffs longer and neared the English rapidly, Suffren’s intention to attack the rear being aided by Hughes’s course. The latter finding his rear straggling, bore up to line abreast, retreating to gain time for the ships to close on the centre. These movements in line abreast continued till twenty minutes before four P.M., when, finding he could not escape attack on the enemy’s terms, Hughes hauled his wind on the port tack and awaited it. Whether by his own fault or not, he was now in the worst possible position, waiting for an attack by a superior force at its pleasure. The rear ship of his line, the “Exeter,” was not closed up; and there appears no reason why she should not have been made the van, by forming on the starboard tack, and thus bringing the other ships up to her.
The method of Suffren’s attack is differently stated by him and by Hughes, but the difference is in detail only; the main facts are certain. Hughes says the enemy “steered down on the rear of our line in an irregular double line- abreast,” in which formation they continued till the moment of collision, when “three of the enemy’s ships in the first line bore right down upon the ‘Exeter,’ while four more of their second line, headed by the ‘Heros,’ in which M. de Suffren had his flag, hauled along the outside of the first line toward our centre. At five minutes past four the enemy’s three ships began their fire upon the ‘Exeter,’ which was returned by her and her second ahead; the action became general from our rear to our centre, the commanding ship of the enemy, with three others of their second line, leading down on our centre, yet never advancing farther than opposite to the ‘Superbe,’ our centre ship, with little or no wind and some heavy rain during the engagement. Under these circumstances, the enemy brought eight of their best ships to the attack of five of ours, as the van of our line, consisting of the ‘Monmouth,’ ‘Eagle,’ ‘Burford,’ and ‘Worcester,’ could not be brought into action without tacking on the enemy,” for which there was not enough wind.
Here we will leave them, and give Suffren’s account of how he took up his position. In his report to the Minister of Marine he says: -
“I should have destroyed the English squadron, less by superior numbers than by the advantageous disposition in which I attacked it. I attacked the rear ship and stood along the English line as far as the sixth. I thus made three of them useless, so that we were twelve against six. I began the fight at half-past three in the afternoon, taking the lead and making signal to form line as best could be done; without that I would not have engaged. At four I made signal to three ships to double on the enemy’s rear, and to the squadron to approach within pistol-shot. This signal, though repeated, was not executed. I did not myself give the example, in order that I might hold in check the three van ships, which by tacking would have doubled on me. However, except the ‘Brilliant,’ which doubled on the rear, no ship was as close as mine, nor received as many shots.”
The principal point of difference in the two accounts is, that Suffren asserts that his flag-ship passed along the whole English line, from the rear to the sixth ship; while Hughes says the French divided into two lines, which, upon coming near, steered, one on the rear, the other on the centre, of his squadron. The latter would be the better manoeuvre; for if the leading ship of the attack passed, as Suffren asserts, along the enemy’s line from the rear to the sixth, she should receive in succession the first fire of six ships, which ought to cripple her and confuse her line. Suffren also notes the intention to double on the rear by placing three ships to leeward of it. Two of the French did take this position. Suffren further gives his reason for not closing with his own ship, which led; but as those which followed him went no nearer, Hughes’s attention was not drawn to his action.
The French commodore was seriously, and it would seem justly, angered by the inaction of several of his captains. Of the second in command he complained to the minister: “Being at the head, I could not well see what was going on in the rear. I had directed M. de Tromelin to make signals to ships which might be near him; he only repeated my own without having them carried out.” This complaint was wholly justified. On the 6th of February, ten days before the fight, he had written to his second as follows: -
“If we are so fortunate as to be to windward, as the English are not more than eight, or at most nine, my intention is to double on their rear. Supposing your division to be in the rear, you will see by your position what number of ships will overlap the enemy’s line, and you will make signal to them to double (1) [that is, to engage on the lee side].... In any case, I beg you to order to your division the manoeuvres which you shall think best fitted to assure the success of the action. The capture of Trincomalee and that of Negapatam, and perhaps of all Ceylon, should make us wish for a general action.”
1. The order of battle Suffren intended in this action was: The five rear ships of the enemy would each have two opponents close aboard. The leading French ship on the weather side was to be kept farther off, so that while attacking the sixth Englishman she could “contain” the van ships if they attempted to reinforce the rear by tacking.
The last two sentences reveal Suffren’s own appreciation of the military situation in the Indian seas, which demanded, first, the disabling of the hostile fleet, next, the capture of certain strategic ports. That this diagnosis was correct is as certain as that it reversed the common French maxims, which would have put the port first and the fleet second as objectives. A general action was the first desideratum of Suffren, and it is therefore safe to say that to avoid such action should have been the first object of Hughes. The attempt of the latter to gain the windward position was con-sequently correct; and as in the month of February the sea- breeze at Madras sets in from the eastward and southward about eleven A.M., he probably did well to steer in that general direction, though the result disappointed him. De Guichen in one of his engagements with Rodney shaped the course of his fleet with reference to being to windward when the afternoon breeze made, and was successful. What use Hughes would have made of the advantage of the wind can only be inferred from his own words, - that he sought it in order to engage more closely. There is not in this the certain promise of any skilful use of a tactical advantage.
Suffren also illustrates, in his words to Tromelin, his conception of the duties of a second in command, which may fairly be paralleled with that of Nelson in his celebrated order before Trafalgar. In this first action he led the main attack himself, leaving the direction of what may be called the reserve - at any rate, of the second half of the assault - to his lieutenant, who, unluckily for him, was not a Collingwood, and utterly failed to support him. It is probable that Suffren’s leading was due not to any particular theory, but to the fact that his ship was the best sailer in the fleet, and that the lateness of the hour and lightness of the wind made it necessary to bring the enemy to action speedily. But here appears a fault on the part of Suffren. Leading as he did involves, not necessarily but very naturally, the idea of example; and holding his own ship outside of close range, for excellent tactical reasons, led the captains in his wake naturally, almost excusably, to keep at the same distance, notwithstanding his signals. The conflict between orders and example, which cropped out so singularly at Vicksburg in our civil war, causing the misunderstanding and estrangement of two gallant officers, should not be permitted to occur. It is the business of a chief to provide against such misapprehensions by most careful previous explanation of both the letter and spirit of his plans. Especially is this so at sea, where smoke, slack wind, and intervening rigging make signals hard to read, though they are almost the only means of communication. This was Nelson’s practice; nor was Suffren a stranger to the idea. “Dispositions well concerted with those who are to carry them out are needed,” he wrote to D’Estaing, three years before. The excuse which may be pleaded for those who followed him, and engaged, cannot avail for the rear ships, and especially not for the second in command, who knew Suffren’s plans. He should have compelled the rear ships to take position to leeward, leading himself, if necessary. There was wind enough; for two captains actually engaged to leeward, one of them without orders, acting, through the impulse of his own good will and courage, on Nelson’s saying, “No captain can do very wrong who places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” He received the special commendation of Suffren, in itself an honor and a reward. Whether the failure of so many of his fellows was due to inefficiency, or to a spirit of faction and disloyalty, is unimportant to the general military writer, however interesting to French officers jealous for the honor of their service. Suffren’s complaints, after several disappointments, became vehement.
“My heart,” wrote he, “is wrung by the most general defection. I have just lost the opportunity of destroying the English squadron... All - yes, all - might have got near, since we were to windward and ahead, and none did so. Several among them had behaved bravely in other combats. I can only attribute this horror to the wish to bring the cruise to an end, to ill-will, and to ignorance; for I dare not suspect anything worse. The result has been terrible. I must tell you, Monseigneur, that officers who have been long at the Isle of France are neither seamen nor military men. Not seamen, for they have not been at sea; and the trading temper, independent end insubordinate, is absolutely opposed to the military spirit.”
This letter, written after his fourth battle with Hughes, must be taken with allowance. Not only does it appear that Suffren himself, hurried away on this last occasion by his eagerness, was partly responsible for the disorder of his fleet, but there were other circumstances, and above all the character of some of the officers blamed, which made the charge of a general disaffection excessive. On the other hand, it remains true that after four general actions, with superior numbers on the part of the French, under a chief of the skill and ardor of Suffren, the English squadron, to use his own plaintive expression, “still existed;” not only so, but had not lost a single ship. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that of a French naval writer: “Quantity disappeared before quality.” (1) It is immaterial whether the defect was due to inefficiency or disaffection.
1. Troude: Batailles Navales.
The inefficiency which showed itself on the field of battle disappeared in the general conduct of the campaign where the qualities of the chief alone told. The battle of February 17th ended with a shift of wind to the southeast at six P.M., after two hours action. The English were thus brought to windward, and their van ships enabled to share in the fight. Night falling, Suffren, at half-past six, hauled his squadron by the wind on the starboard tack, heading northeast, while Hughes steered south under easy sail. It is said by Captain Chevalier, of the French navy, that Suffren intended to renew the fight next day. In that case he should have taken measures to keep within reach. It was too plainly Hughes’s policy not to fight without some advantage, - to allow the supposition that with one ship, the “Exeter,” lost to him through the concentration of so many enemies upon her, he would quietly await an attack. This is so plain as to make it probable that Suffren saw sufficient reason, in the results to his fleet and the misconduct of his officers, not to wish to renew action at once. The next morning the two fleets were out of sight of each other. The continuance of the north wind, and the crippled state of two of his ships, forced Hughes to go to Trincomalee, where the sheltered harbor allowed them to repair. Suffren, anxious about his transports, went to Pondicherry, where he anchored in their company. It was his wish then to proceed against Negapatam; but the commander of the troops chose to act against Cuddalore. After negotiations and arrangements with Hyder Ali the army landed south of Porto Novo, and marched against Cuddalore, which surrendered on the 4th of April.
Meanwhile Suffren, anxious to act against his principal objective, had sailed again on the 23d of March. It was his hope to cut off two ships-of-the-line which were expected from England. For this he was too late; the two seventy- fours joined the main body at Madras, March 30th. Hughes had refitted at Trincomalee in a fortnight, and reached Madras again on the 12th of March. Soon after the reinforcement had joined him, he sailed again for Trincomalee with troops and military stores for the garrison. On the 8th of April Suffren’s squadron was seen to the northeast, also standing to the southward. Hughes kept on, through that and the two following days, with light northerly winds. On the 11th he made the coast of Ceylon, fifty miles north of Trincomalee, and bore away for the port. On the morning of the 12th the French squadron in the northeast was seen crowding sail in pursuit. It was the day on which Rodney and De Grasse met in the West Indies, but the parts were reversed; here the French, not the English, sought action.
The speed of the ships in both squadrons was very unequal; each had some coppered ships and some not coppered. Hughes found that his slow sailers could not escape the fastest of his enemy, - a condition which will always compel a retreating force to hazard an action, unless it can resolve to give up the rear ships, and which makes it imperative for the safety, as well as the efficiency, of a squadron that vessels of the same class should all have a certain minimum speed. The same cause - the danger of a separated ship - led the unwilling De Grasse, the same day, in another scene, to a risky manoeuvre and a great mishap. Hughes, with better reason, resolved to fight; and at nine A.M. formed his line on the starboard tack, standing inshore, the squadron in good order, with intervals of two cables between the ships. (1) His account, which again varies from that of Suffren, giving a radically different idea of the tactics used by the French commodore, and more to the credit of the latter’s skill, will first be followed. He says: -
1. Between four and five hundred yards.
“The enemy, bearing north by east, distant six miles, with wind at north by east, continued manoeuvring their ships and changing their positions in line, till fifteen minutes past noon, when they bore away to engage us, five sail of their van stretching along to engage the ships of our van, and the other seven sail steering directly on our three centre ships, the ‘Superbe,’ the ‘Monmouth,’ her second ahead, and the ‘Monarca,’ her second astern. At half- past one the engagement began in the van of both squadrons; three minutes after, I made the signal for battle. The French admiral in the ‘Heros’ and his second astern in ‘L’Orient’ (both seventy-fours) bore down on the ‘Superbe’ within pistol-shot. The ‘Heros’ continued in her position, giving and receiving a severe fire for nine minutes, and then stood on, greatly damaged, to attack the ‘Monmouth,’ at that time engaged with another of the enemy’s ships, making room for the ships in his rear to come up to the attack of our centre, where the engagement was hottest. At three the ‘Monmouth’ had her mizzenmast shot away, and in a few minutes her mainmast, and bore out of the line to leeward; and at forty minutes past three the wind unexpectedly continuing far northerly without any sea-breeze, and being careful not to entangle our ships with the land, I made signal to wear and haul by the wind in a line-of-battle on the larboard tack, still engaging the enemy.”
Now here, practically, was concentration with a vengeance. In this, the hardest fight between these two hard fighters, the English loss was 137 killed and 430 wounded in eleven ships. Of this total, the two centre ships, the flag-ship and her next ahead, lost 104 killed and 198 wounded, - fifty-three per cent of the entire loss of the squadron, of which they formed eighteen per cent. The casualties were very much heavier, in proportion to the size of the ships, than those of the leaders of the two columns at Trafalgar. (1) The material injury to hulls, spars, etc., was yet more serious. The English squadron, by this concentration of the enemy upon a small fraction of it, was entirely crippled. Inferior when the action began, its inferiority was yet more decisive by the subtraction of two ships, and Suffren’s freedom to move was increased.
1. The “Victory,” Nelson’s ship at Trafalgar, a 100-gun ship, lost 57 killed and 102 wounded; Hughes’s ship, a 74, lost 59 killed and 96 wounded. Collingwood’S ship, the “Royal Sovereign,” also of 100 guns, lost 47 killed and 94 wounded; the “Monmouth,” a 64, in Hughes’s action lost 45 killed and 102 wounded.
But how far was this concentration intended by Suffren? For this we must go to the pages of two French writers, (1) who base their narratives upon his own despatches on record in the French Marine Office. The practical advantage gained by the French must also be tested by comparing the lists of casualties, and the injuries received by their individual ships; for it is evident that if both the squadrons received the same total amount of injury, but that with the English it fell on two ships, so that they could not be ready for action for a month or more, while with the French the damage was divided among the twelve, allowing them to be ready again in a few days, the victory tactically and strategically would rest with the latter. (2)
1. Troude: Batailles Navales; Chevalier: Hist. de la Marine Francaise. 2. This remark seems too self-evident to need emphasis; yet it may be questioned whether naval men generally carry it in their stock of axioms.
As regards Suffren’s purpose, there is nothing to indicate that he meant to make such an attack as Hughes describes. Having twelve ships to the English eleven, his intention seems to have been to pursue the usual English practice, -form line parallel to the enemy, bear down together, and engage ship to ship. To this he added one simple combination; the twelfth French ship, being unprovided with an opponent, was to engage the rear English ship on her lee side, placing her thus between two fires. In truth, a concentration upon the van and centre, such as Hughes describes, is tactically inferior to a like effort upon the centre and rear of a column. This is true of steamers even, which, though less liable to loss of motive power, must still turn round to get from van to rear, losing many valuable seconds; but it is specially true of sailing vessels, and above all in the light, baffling airs which are apt to mark the change of monsoon at the season when this fight was fought. Nelson emphasized his contempt of the Russians of his day by saying he would not hesitate to attack their van, counting upon throwing the whole line in confusion from their want of seamanship; but though entertaining a not much better opinion of the Spaniards, he threw the weight of attack on the rear of the allied fleets at Trafalgar. In dealing with such seamen as the captains of Hughes’s fleet, it would have been an error to assail the van instead of the rear. Only a dead calm could have kept the latter out of action.
Suffren’s attack is thus described by Captain Chevalier. After mentioning Hughes’s forming line on the starboard tack, he says: -
“This manoeuvre was imitated by the French, and the two squadrons ran on parallel lines, heading about west-northwest. At eleven, our line being well formed, Suffren made signal to keep away to west-southwest, by a movement all together. Our ships did not keep their bearing upon the prescribed line, and the van, composed of the best sailers, came first within range of the enemy.(1) At one, the leading ships of the English fleet opened fire upon the ‘Vengeur’ and ‘Artesien’ [French van]. These two ships, having luffed (2) to return the fire, were at once ordered to keep away again. Suffren, who wished for a decisive action, kept his course, receiving without reply the shots directed upon his ship by the enemy. When at pistol-range of the ‘Superbe,’ he hauled to the wind, and the signal to open fire appeared at his mainmast head. Admiral Hughes having only eleven ships, the ‘Bizarre,’ according to the dispositions taken by the commander-in-chief, was to attack on the quarter the rear ship of the English fleet and double on it to leeward. At the moment when the first cannon-shots were heard, our worst sailers were not up with their stations. Breathing the letter, and not the spirit, of the commodore’s orders, the captains of these ships luffed at the same time as those which preceded them. Hence it resulted that the French line formed a curve, whose extremities were represented in the van by the ‘Artesien’ and ‘Vengeur,’ and in the rear by the ‘Bizarre,’ ‘Ajax,’ and ‘Severe.’ In consequence these ships were very far from those which corresponded to them in the enemy’s line.”
1. As always. 2. That is turned their side to the enemy instead of approaching him.
It is evident from all this, written by a warm admirer of Suffren, who has had full access to the official papers, that the French chief intended an attack elementary in conception and difficult of execution. To keep a fleet on a line of bearing, sailing free, requires much drill, especially when the ships have different rates of speed, as had Suffren’s. The extreme injury suffered by the “Superbe” and “Monmouth,” undeniably due to a concentration, cannot be attributed to Suffren’s dispositions. “The injuries which the ‘Heros’ received at the beginning of the action did not allow her to remain by the ‘Superbe.’ Not being able to back her topsails in time, the braces having been cut, she passed ahead, and was only stopped on the beam of the ‘Monmouth.’” (1) This accounts for the suffering of the latter ship, already injured, and now contending with a much larger opponent. The “Superbe” was freed from Suffren only to be engaged by the next Frenchman, an equally heavy ship; and when the “Monmouth” drifted or bore up, to leeward, the French flag-ship also drifted so that for a few moments she fired her stern guns into the “Superbe’s” bow. The latter at the same time was engaged on the beam and quarter by two French ships, who, either with or without signal, came up to shield their commodore.
An examination of the list of casualties shows that the loss of the French was much more distributed among their ships than was the case with the English. No less than three of the latter escaped without a man killed, while of the French only one. The kernel of the action seems to have been in the somewhat fortuitous concentration of two French seventy- fours and one sixty-four on an English seventy-four and sixty-four. Assuming the ships to have been actually of the same force as their rates, the French brought, counting broadside only, one hundred and six guns against sixty-nine. Some unfavorable criticism was excited by the management of Admiral Hughes during the three days preceding the fight, because he refrained from attacking the French, although they were for much of the time to leeward with only one ship more than the English, and much separated at that. It was thought that he had the opportunity of beating them in detail. (2) The accounts accessible are too meagre to permit an accurate judgment upon this opinion, which probably reflected the mess-table and quarter-deck talk of the subordinate officers of the fleet. Hughes’s own report of the position of the two fleets is vague, and in one important particular directly contradictory to the French. If the alleged opportunity offered, the English admiral in declining to use it adhered to the resolve, with which he sailed, neither to seek nor shun the enemy, but to go directly to Trincomalee and land the troops and supplies he had on board. In other words, he was governed in his action by the French rather than the English naval policy, of subordinating the attack of the enemy’s fleet to the particular mission in hand. If for this reason he did allow a favorable chance of fighting to slip, he certainly had reason bitterly to regret his neglect, in the results of the battle which followed; but in the lack of precise information the most interesting point to be noted is the impression made upon public and professional opinion, indicating how strongly the English held that the attack of the enemy’s fleet was the first duty of an English admiral. It may also be said that he could hardly have fared worse by attacking than he did by allowing the enemy to become the assailant; and certainly not worse than he would have fared had Suffren’s captains been as good as his own.
2. Annual Register, 1782.
After the action, towards sunset, both squadrons anchored in fifteen fathoms of water, irregular soundings, three of the French ships taking the bottom on coral patches. Here they lay for a week two miles apart, refitting. Hughes, from the ruined condition of the “Monmouth,” expected an attack; but when Suffren had finished his repairs on the 19th, he got under way and remained outside for twenty-four hours, inviting a battle which he would not begin. He realized the condition of the enemy so keenly as to feel the necessity of justifying his action to the Minister of Marine, which he did for eight reasons unnecessary to particularize here. The last was the lack of efficiency and hearty support on the part of his captains.
It is not likely that Suffren erred on the side of excessive caution. On the contrary, his most marked defect as a commander-in-chief was an ardor which, when in sight of the enemy, became impatience, and carried him at times into action hastily and in disorder. But if, in the details and execution of his battles, in his tactical combinations, Suffren was at times foiled by his own impetuosity and the short-comings of most of his captains, in the general conduct of the campaign, in strategy, where the personal qualities of the commander-in-chief mainly told, his superiority was manifest, and achieved brilliant success. Then ardor showed itself in energy, untiring and infectious. The eagerness of his hot Provencal blood overrode difficulty, created resources out of destitution, and made itself felt through every vessel under his orders. No military lesson is more instructive nor of more enduring value than the rapidity and ingenuity with which he, without a port or supplies, continually refitted his fleet and took the field, while his slower enemy was dawdling over his repairs.
The battle forced the English to remain inactive for six weeks, till the “Monmouth” was repaired. Unfortunately, Suffren’s situation did not allow him to assume the offensive at once. He was short of men, provisions, and especially of spare spars and rigging. In an official letter after the action he wrote: “I have no spare stores to repair rigging; the squadron lacks at least twelve spare topmasts.” A convoy of supply-ships was expected at Point de Galles, which, with the rest of Ceylon, except Trincomalee, was still Dutch. He therefore anchored at Batacalo, south of Trincomalee, a position in which he was between Hughes and outward-bound English ships, and was favorably placed to protect his own convoys, which joined him there. On the 3d of June he sailed for Tranquebar, a Danish possession, where he remained two or three weeks, harassing the English communications between Madras and the fleet at Trincomalee. Leaving there, he sailed for Cuddalore, to communicate with the commander of the land forces and Hyder Ali. The latter was found to be much discontented with the scanty co-operation of the French general. Suffren, however, had won his favor, and he expressed a wish to see him on his return from the expedition then in contemplation; for, true to his accurate instinct, the commodore was bent upon again seeking out the English fleet, after beating which he intended to attack Negapatam. There was not in him any narrowness of professional prejudice; he kept always in view the necessity, both political and strategic, of nursing the alliance with the Sultan and establishing control upon the seaboard and in the interior; but he clearly recognized that the first step thereto was the control of the sea, by disabling the English fleet. The tenacity and vigor with which he followed this aim, and great obstacles, joined to the clear-sightedness with which he saw it, are the distinguishing merits of Suffren and the crowd of French fleet-commanders, - his equals in courage, but trammelled by the bonds of a false tradition and the perception of a false objective.
Hughes meantime, having rigged jury-masts to the “Monmouth,” had gone to Trincomalee, where his squadron refitted and the sick were landed for treatment; but it is evident, as has before been mentioned, that the English had not held the port long enough to make an arsenal or supply port, for he says, “I will be able to remast the ‘Monmouth’ from the spare stores on board the several ships.” His resources were nevertheless superior to those of his adversary. During the time that Suffren was at Tranquebar, worrying the English communications between Madras and Trincomalee, Hughes still stayed quietly in the latter port, sailing for Negapatam on the 23d of June, the day after Suffren reached Cuddalore. The two squadrons had thus again approached each other, and Suffren hastened his preparations for attack as soon as he heard that his enemy was where he could get at him. Hughes awaited his movement.
Before sailing, however, Suffren took occasion to say in writing home: “Since my arrival in Ceylon, partly by the help of the Dutch, partly through the prizes we have taken, the squadron has been equipped for six months’ service, and I have rations of wheat and rice assured for more than a year.” This achievement was indeed a just source of pride and self- congratulation. Without a port, and destitute of resources, the French commodore had lived off the enemy; the store ships and commerce of the latter had supplied his wants. To his fertility of resource and the activity of his cruisers, inspired by himself, this result was due. Yet he had but two frigates, the class of vessel upon which an admiral must mainly depend for this predatory warfare. On the 23d of March, both provisions and stores had been nearly exhausted. Six thousand dollars in money, and the provisions in the convoy, were then his sole resources. Since then he had fought a severe action, most expensive in rigging and men, as well as in ammunition. After that fight of April 12 he had left only powder and shot enough for one other battle of equal severity. Three months later he was able to report as above, that he could keep the sea on his station for six months without further supplies. This result was due wholly to himself, - to his self-reliance, and what may without exaggeration be called his greatness of soul. It was not expected at Paris; on the contrary, it was expected there that the squadron would return to the Isle of France to refit. It was not thought possible that it could remain on a hostile coast, so far from its nearest base, and be kept in efficient condition. Suffren thought otherwise; he considered, with true military insight and a proper sense of the value of his own profession, that the success of the operations in India depended upon the control of the sea, and therefore upon the uninterrupted presence of his squadron. He did not shrink from attempting that which had always been thought impossible. This firmness of spirit, bearing the stamp of genius, must, to be justly appreciated, be considered with reference to the circumstances of his own time, and of the preceding generations in which he grew up.
Suffren was born July 17, 1729, and served during the wars of 1739 and 1756. He was first under fire at Matthews’s action off Toulon, February 22, 1744. He was the contemporary of D’Estaing, De Guichen, and De Grasse, before the days of the French Revolution, when the uprising of a people had taught men how often impossibilities are not impossible; before Napoleon and Nelson had made a mock of the word. His attitude and action had therefore at the time the additional merit of originality, but his lofty temper was capable of yet higher proof. Convinced of the necessity of keeping the squadron on its station, he ventured to disregard not only the murmurs of his officers but the express orders of the Court. When he reached Batacalo, he found despatches directing him to return to the Isle of France. Instead of taking them as a release from the great burden of responsibility, he disobeyed, giving his reasons, and asserting that he on the spot could judge better than a minister in Europe what the circumstances demanded. Such a leader deserved better subordinates, and a better colleague than he had in the commander of the forces on shore. Whether or no the conditions of the general maritime struggle would have permitted the overthrow of the English East Indian power may be doubtful; but it is certain that among all the admirals of the three nations there was none so fitted to accomplish that result as Suffren. We shall find him enduring severer tests, and always equal to them.
In the afternoon of the 5th of July Suffren’s squadron came in sight of the English, anchored off Cuddalore. An hour later, a sudden squall carried away the main and mizzen topmasts of one of the French ships. Admiral Hughes got under way, and the two fleets manoeuvred during the night. The following day the wind favored the English, and the opponents found themselves in line of battle on the starboard tack, heading south-southeast, with the wind at southwest. The disabled French ship having by unpardonable inactivity failed to repair her injuries, the numbers about to engage were equal, - eleven on each side. At eleven A.M. the English bore down together and engaged ship against ship; but as was usual under those conditions, the rear ships did not come to as close action as those ahead of them. Captain Chevalier carefully points out that their failure was a fair offset to the failure of the French rear on the 12th of April, (1) but fails to note in this connection that the French van, both on that occasion and again on the 3d of September, bungled as well as the rear. There can remain little doubt, in the mind of the careful reader, that most of the French captains were inferior, as seamen, to their opponents. During this part of the engagement the fourth ship in the French order, the “Brilliant”, lost her mainmast, bore up out of the line, and dropped gradually astern and to leeward.
1. The British account differs materially as to the cause of the distance separating the two rears. “In this action it did not fall to the ‘Monmouth’s’ lot to sustain a very considerable share, the enemy’s rear being so far to leeward that the ships of the British rear could not, even whilst the wind was favourable, close with them without considerably breaking the order of their own line” (Memoir of Captain Alms, Naval Chronicle, vol. ii.). Such contradictions are common, and, except for a particular purpose, need not to be reconciled. Alms seems to have been not only a first-rate seaman, but an officer capable of resolute and independent action; his account is probably correct.
At one P.M., when the action was hottest, the wind suddenly shifted to south- southeast, taking the ships on the port bow. Four English ships, the “Burford,” “Sultan”, “Worcester,” and “Eagle,” seeing the breeze coming, kept off to port, toward the French line; the others were taken aback and paid off to starboard. The French ships, on the other hand, with two exceptions, the “Brilliant” and “Severe”, paid off from the English. The effect of the change of wind was therefore to separate the main parts of the two squadrons, but to bring together between the lines four English and two French ships. Technical order was destroyed. The “Brilliant,” having dropped far astern of her position, came under the fire of two of the English rear, the “Worcester” and the “Eagle,” who had kept off in time and so neared the French. Suffren in person came to her assistance and drove off the English, who were also threatened by the approach of two other French ships that had worn to the westward in obedience to signal. While this partial action was taking place, the other endangered French ship, the “Severe”, was engaged by the English “Sultan”, and, if the French captain M. de Cillart can be believed, by two other English ships. It is probable, from her place in the line, that the “Burford” also assailed her. However this may be, the “Severe” hauled down her flag; but while the “Sultan” was wearing away from her, she resumed her fire, raking the English ship. The order to surrender, given by the French captain and carried into execution by the formal well-established token of submission, was disregarded by his subordinates, who fired upon their enemy while the flag was down. In effect, the action of the French ship amounted to using an infamous ruse de guerre; but it would be unjust to say that this was intended. The positions of the different vessels were such that the “Sultan” could not have secured her prize; other French ships were approaching and must have retaken it. The indignation of the French juniors at the weakness of their captain was therefore justified; their refusal to be bound by it may be excused to men face to face with an unexpected question of propriety, in the heat of battle and under the sting of shame. Nevertheless, scrupulous good faith would seem to demand that their deliverance should be awaited from other hands, not bound by the action of their commander; or at least that the forbearing assailant should not have suffered from them. The captain, suspended and sent home by Suffren, and cashiered by the king, utterly condemned himself by his attempted defence: “When Captain de Cillart saw the French squadron drawing off, - for all the ships except the ‘Brilliant’ had fallen off on the other tack, - he thought it useless to prolong his defence, and had the flag hauled down. The ships engaged with him immediately ceased their fire, and the one on the starboard side moved away. At this moment the ‘Severe’ fell off to starboard and her sails filled; Captain de Cillart then ordered the fire to be resumed by his lower-deck guns, the only ones still manned, and he rejoined his squadron.” (1)
1. Troude: Batailles Navales. It was seen from Suffren’s ship that the “Severe’s” flag was down; but it was supposed that the ensign halliards had been shot away. The next day Hughes sent the captain of the “Sultan” to demand the delivery to him of the ship which had struck. The demand, of course, could not be complied with. “The ‘Sultan,’” Troude says, “which had hove-to to take possession of the ‘Severe,’ was the victim of this action; she received during some time, without replying, the whole fire of the French ship.”
This action was the only one of the five fought by Suffren on the coast of India, in which the English admiral was the assailant. There can be found in it no indication of military conceptions, of tactical combinations; but on the other hand Hughes is continually showing the aptitudes, habits of thought, and foresight of the skilful seaman, as well as a courage beyond all proof. He was in truth an admirable representative of the average English naval officer of the middle of the eighteenth century; and while it is impossible not to condemn the general ignorance of the most important part of the profession, it is yet useful to remark how far thorough mastery of its other details, and dogged determination not to yield, made up for so signal a defect. As the Roman legions often redeemed the blunders of their generals, so did English captains and seamen often save that which had been lost by the errors of their admirals, - errors which neither captain nor seamen recognized, nor would probably have admitted. Nowhere were these solid qualities so clearly shown as in Suffren’s battles, because nowhere else were such demands made upon them. No more magnificent instances of desperate yet useful resistance to overwhelming odds are to be found in naval annals, than that of the “Monmouth” on April 12, and of the “Exeter” on February 17. An incident told of the latter ship is Worth quoting. “At the heel of the action, when the ‘Exeter’ was already in the state of a wreck, the master came to Commodore King to ask him what he should do with the ship, as two of the enemy were again bearing down upon her. He laconically answered, ‘there is nothing to be done but to fight her till she sinks.’” (1) She was saved.
1. Annual Register, 1782.
Suffren, on the contrary, was by this time incensed beyond endurance by the misbehavior of his captains. Cillart was sent home; but besides him two others, both of them men of influential connections, and one a relative of Suffren himself, were dispossessed of their commands. However necessary and proper this step, few but Suffren would have had the resolution to take it; for, so far as he then knew, he was only a captain in rank, and it was not permitted even to admirals to deal thus with their juniors. “You may perhaps be angry, Monseigneur,” he wrote, “that I have not used rigor sooner; but I beg you to remember that the regulations do not give this power even to a general officer, which I am not.”
It is immediately after the action of the 6th of July that Suffren’s superior energy and military capacity begin markedly to influence the issue between himself and Hughes. The tussle had been severe; but military qualities began to tell, as they surely must. The losses of the two squadrons in men, in the last action, had been as one to three in favor of the English; on the other hand, the latter had apparently suffered more in sails and spars, - in motive power. Both fleets anchored in the evening, the English off Negapatam, the French to leeward, off Cuddalore. On the 18th of July Suffren was again ready for sea; whereas on the same day Hughes had but just decided to go to Madras to finish his repairs. Suffren was further delayed by the political necessity of an official visit to Hyder Ali, after which he sailed to Batacalo, arriving there on the 9th of August, to await reinforcements and supplies from France. On the 21st, these joined him; and two days later he sailed, now with fourteen ships-of-the-line, for Trincomalee, anchoring off the town on the 25th. The following night the troops were landed, batteries thrown up, and the attack pressed with vigor. On the 30th and 31st the two forts which made the defensive strength of the place surrendered, and this all-important port passed into the hands of the French. Convinced that Hughes would soon appear, Suffren granted readily all the honors of war demanded by the governor of the place, con-tenting himself with the substantial gain. Two days later, on the evening of September 2d, the English fleet was sighted by the French lookout frigates.
During the six weeks in which Suffren had been so actively and profitably employed, the English admiral had remained quietly at anchor, repairing and refitting. No precise information is available for deciding how far this delay was unavoidable; but having in view the well-known aptitude of English seamen of that age, it can scarcely be doubted that, had Hughes possessed the untiring energy of his great rival, he could have gained the few days which decided the fate of Trincomalee, and fought a battle to save the place. In fact, this conclusion is supported by his own reports, which state that on the 12th of August the ships were nearly fitted; and yet, though apprehending an attack on Trincomalee, he did not sail until the 20th. The loss of this harbor forced him to abandon the east coast, which was made unsafe by the approach of the northeast monsoon, and conferred an important strategic advantage upon Suffren, not to speak of the political effect upon the native rulers in India.
To appreciate thoroughly this contrast between the two admirals, it is necessary also to note how differently they were situated with regard to material for repairs. After the action of the 6th, Hughes found at Madras spars, cordage, stores, provisions, and material. Suffren at Cuddalore found nothing. To put his squadron in good fighting condition, nineteen new topmasts were needed, besides lower masts, yards, rigging, sails, and so on. To take the sea at all, the masts were removed from the frigates and smaller vessels, and given to the ships-of-the-line while English prizes were stripped to equip the frigates. Ships were sent off to the Straits of Malacca to procure other spars and timber. Houses were torn down on shore to find lumber for repairing the hulls. The difficulties were increased by the character of the anchorage, an open roadstead with frequent heavy sea, and by the near presence of the English fleet; but the work was driven on under the eyes of the commander-in- chief, who, like Lord Howe at New York, inspired the working parties by his constant appearance among them. “Notwithstanding his prodigious obesity, Suffren displayed the fiery ardor of youth; he was everywhere where work was going on. Under his powerful impulse, the most difficult tasks were done with incredible rapidity. Nevertheless, his officers represented to him the bad state of the fleet, and the need of a port for the ships-of-the-line. ‘Until we have taken Trincomalee,’ he replied, ‘the open roadsteads of the Coromandel coast will answer.’” (1) It was indeed to this activity on the Coromandel coast that the success at Trincomalee was due. The weapons with which Suffren fought are obsolete; but the results wrought by his tenacity and fertility in resources are among the undying lessons of history.
1. Cunat: Vie de Suffren.
While the characters of the two chiefs were thus telling upon the strife in India, other no less lasting lessons were being afforded by the respective governments at home, who did much to restore the balance between them. While the English ministry, after the news of the battle of Porto Praya, fitted out in November, 1781, a large and compact expedition, convoyed by a powerful squadron of six ships-of-the-line, under the command of an active officer, to reinforce Hughes, the French despatched comparatively scanty succors in small detached bodies, relying apparently upon secrecy rather than upon force to assure their safety. Thus Suffren, while struggling with his innumerable embarrassments, had the mortification of learning that now one and now another of the small detachments sent to his relief were captured, or driven back to France, before they were clear of European waters. There was in truth little safety for small divisions north of the Straits of Gibraltar. Thus the advantages gained by his activity were in the end sacrificed. Up to the fall of Trincomalee the French were superior at sea; but in the six mouths which followed, the balance turned the other way, by the arrival of the English reinforcements under Sir Richard Bickerton.
With his usual promptness the French commodore had prepared for further immediate action as soon as Trincomalee surrendered. The cannon and men landed from the ships were at once re-embarked, and the port secured by a garrison strong enough to relieve him of any anxiety about holding it. This great seaman, who had done as much in proportion to the means intrusted to him as any known to history, and had so signally illustrated the sphere and influence of naval power, had no intention of fettering the movements of his fleet, or risking his important conquest, by needlessly taking upon the shoulders of the ships the burden of defending a seaport. When Hughes appeared, it was past the power of the English fleet by a single battle to reduce the now properly garrisoned post. Doubtless a successful campaign, by destroying or driving away the French sea power, would achieve this result; but Suffren might well believe that, whatever mishaps might arise on a single day, he could in the long run more than hold his own with his opponent.
Seaports should defend themselves; the sphere of the fleet is on the open sea, its object offence rather than defence, its objective the enemy’s shipping wherever it can be found. Suffren now saw again before him the squadron on which depended the English control of the sea; be knew that powerful reinforcements to it must arrive before the next season, and he hastened to attack. Hughes, mortified by his failure to arrive in time, - for a drawn battle beforehand would have saved what a successful battle afterward could not regain, - was in no humor to balk him. Still, with sound judgment, he retreated to the southeast, flying in good order, to use Suffren’s expression; regulating speed by the slowest ships, and steering many different courses, so that the chase which began at daybreak overtook the enemy only at two in the afternoon. The object of the English was to draw Suffren so far to leeward of the port that, if his ships were disabled, he could not easily regain it.
The French numbered fourteen ships-of-the-line to twelve English. This superiority, together with his sound appreciation of the military situation in India, increased Suffren’s natural eagerness for action; but his ships sailed badly, and were poorly handled by indifferent and dissatisfied men. These circumstances, during the long and vexatious pursuit, chafed and fretted the hot temper of the commodore, which still felt the spur of urgency that for two months had quickened the operations of the squadron. Signal followed signal, manoeuvre succeeded manoeuvre, to bring his disordered vessels into position. “Sometimes they edged down, sometimes they brought to,” says the English admiral, who was carefully watching their approach, “in no regular order, as if undetermined what to do.” Still, Suffren continued on, and at two P.M., having been carried twenty-five miles away from his port, his line being then partly formed and within striking distance of the enemy, the signal was made to come to the wind to correct the order before finally bearing down. A number of blunders in executing this made matters worse rather than better; and the commodore, at last losing patience, made signal thirty minutes later to attack, following it with another for close action at pistol range. This being slowly and clumsily obeyed, he ordered a gun fired, as is customary at sea to emphasize a signal; unluckily this was understood by his own crew to be the opening of the action, and the flag-ship discharged all her battery. This example was followed by the other ships, though yet at the distance of half cannon-shot, which, under the gunnery conditions of that day, meant indecisive action. Thus at the end and as the result of a mortifying series of blunders and bad seamanship, the battle began greatly to the disadvantage of the French, despite their superior numbers. The English, who had been retreating under short and handy sail, were in good order and quietly ready; whereas their enemies were in no order. Seven ships had forereached in rounding to, (1) and now formed an irregular group ahead of the English van, as well as far from it, where they were of little service; while in the centre a second confused group was formed, the ships overlapping and masking each other’s fire. Under the circumstances the entire brunt of the action fell upon Suffren’s flag-ship and two others which supported him; while at the extreme rear a small ship-of-the-line, backed by a large frigate, alone engaged the English rear; but these, being wholly overmatched, were soon forced to retire.
1. Curves represent the movements of the ships after the shift of wind, which practically ended the battle.
A military operation could scarcely be worse carried out. The French ships in the battle did not support each other; they were so grouped as to hamper their own fire and needlessly increase the target offered to the enemy; so far from concentrating their own effort, three ships were left, almost unsupported, to a concentrated fire from the English line. (1) “Time passed on, and our three ships, engaged on the beam by the centre of the English fleet and raked [enfiladed] by van and rear, suffered greatly. After two hours the ‘Heros’’ sails were in rags, all her running rigging cut, and she could no longer steer. The ‘Illustre’ had lost her mizzen-mast and maintopmast.” In this disorder such gaps existed as to offer a great opportunity to a more active opponent. “Had the enemy tacked now,” wrote the chief-of-staff in his journal, “we would have been cut off and probably destroyed.” The faults of an action in which every proper distribution was wanting are summed up in the results. The French had fourteen ships engaged. They lost eighty-two killed and two hundred and fifty-five wounded. Of this total, sixty-four killed and one hundred and scventy-eight wounded, or three fourths, fell to three ships. Two of these three lost their main and mizzen masts and foretopmast; in other words, were helpless.
1. The enemy formed a semicircle around us and raked us ahead and astern, as the ship came up and fell off, with the helm to leeward. - Journal de Bord du Bailli de Suffren.
This was a repetition on a larger scale of the disaster to two of Hughes’s ships on the 12th of April; but on that day the English admiral, being to leeward and in smaller force. had to accept action on the adversary’s terms, while here the loss fell on the assailant, who, to the advantage of the wind and choice of his mode of attack, added superiority in numbers. Full credit must in this action be allowed to Hughes, who, though lacking in enterprise and giving no token of tactical skill or coup d’oeil, showed both judgment and good management in the direction of his retreat and in keeping his ships so well in hand. It is not easy to apportion the blame which rests upon his enemies. Suffren laid it freely upon his captains. (1) It has been rightly pointed out, however, that many of the officers thus condemned in mass had conducted themselves well before, both under Suffren and other admirals; that the order of pursuit was irregular, and Suffren’s signals followed each other with confusing rapidity; and finally that chance, for which something must always be allowed, was against the French, as was also the inexperience of several captains. It is pretty certain that some of the mishap must be laid to the fiery and inconsiderate haste of Suffren, who had the defects of his great qualities, upon which his coy and wary antagonist unwittingly played.
1. See page 435. He added: “It is frightful to have had four times in his power to destroy the English squadron, and that it still exists.”
It is noteworthy that no complaints of his captains are to be found in Hughes’s reports. Six fell in action, and of each he speaks in terms of simple but evidently sincere appreciation, while on the survivors he often bestows particular as well as general commendation. The marked contrast between the two leaders, and between the individual ship-commanders, on either side, makes this singularly instructive among naval campaigns; and the ultimate lesson taught is in entire accordance with the experience of all military history from the beginning. Suffren had genius, energy, great tenacity, sound military ideas, and was also an accomplished seaman. Hughes had apparently all the technical acquirements of the latter profession, would probably have commanded a ship equally well with any of his captains, but shows no trace of the qualities needed by a general officer. On the other hand, without insisting again upon the skill and fidelity of the English subordinates, it is evident that, to whatever it be attributed, the French single ships were as a rule incomparably worse-handled than those of their opponents. Four times, Suffren claims, certainly thrice, the English squadron was saved from overwhelming disaster by the difference in quality of the under officers. Good troops have often made amends for bad generalship; but in the end the better leader will prevail. This was conspicuously the case in the Indian seas in 1782 and 1783. War cut short the strife, but not before the issue was clearly indicated.
The action of September 3, like that of July 6, was brought to a close by a shift of wind to the southeast. When it came, the English line wore, and formed again on the other tack. The French also wore; and their van ships, being now to windward, stood down between their crippled ships and the enemy’s line. Toward sundown Hughes hauled off to the northward, abandoning the hope of regaining Trincomalee, but with the satisfaction of having inflicted this severe retaliation upon his successful opponent.
That firmness of mind which was not the least of Suffren’s qualities was severely tried soon after the action off Trincomalee. In returning to port, a seventy-four, the “Orient,” was run ashore and lost by mismanagement, the only consolation being that her spars were saved for the two dismasted ships. Other crippled masts were replaced as before by robbing the frigates, whose crews also were needed to replace the losses in battle. Repairs were pushed on with the usual energy, the defence of the port was fully provided for, and on the 30th of September the squadron sailed for the Coromandel coast, where the state of French interests urgently called for it. Cuddalore was reached in four days; and here another incapable officer wrecked the “Bizarre,” of sixty-four guns, in picking up his anchorage. In consequence of the loss of these two ships, Suffren, when he next met the enemy, could oppose only fifteen to eighteen ships-of-the-line; so much do general results depend upon individual ability and care. Hughes was at Madras, ninety miles north, whither he had gone at once after the late action. He reports his ships badly damaged; but the loss was so evenly distributed among them that it is difficult to justify his failure to follow up the injuries done to the French.
At this season the monsoon wind, which has come for four or five mouths from southwest, changes to northeast, blowing upon the east coast of the peninsula, where are no good harbors. The consequent swell made the shore often unapproachable, and so forbade support from fleet to army. The change of the monsoon is also frequently marked by violent hurricanes. The two commanders, therefore, had to quit a region where their stay might be dangerous as well as useless. Had Trincomalee not been lost, Hughes, in the condition of his squadron, might have awaited there the reinforcements and supplies expected soon from England; for although the port is not healthy, it is secure and well situated. Bickerton had already reached Bombay, and was on his way now to Madras with five ships-of-the-line. As things were, Hughes thought necessary to go to Bombay for the season, sailing or rather being driven to sea by a hurricane, on the 17th of October. Four days later Bickerton reached Madras, not having fallen in with the admiral. With an activity which characterized him he sailed at once, and was again in Bombay on the 28th of November. Hughes’s ships, scattered and crippled by tempest, dropped in one by one, a few days later.
Suffren held Trincomalee, yet his decision was not easy. The port was safe, he had not to fear an attack by the English fleet; and on the other hand, besides being sickly during the approaching monsoon, it was doubtful whether the provisions needed for the health of the crews could be had there. In short, though of strategic value from its strength and position, the port was deficient in resources. Opposed to Trincomalee there was an alternative in Achem, a harbor on the other side of the Bay of Bengal, at the west end of the island of Sumatra. This was healthy, could supply provisions, and, from its position with reference to the northeast monsoon, would permit ships to regain the Coromandel coast sooner than those in Bombay, when the milder ending of the season made landing more practicable.
These simple considerations were not, however, the only elements in the really difficult problem before Suffren. The small results that followed this campaign must not hide the fact that great issues were possible, and that much might depend upon his decision. Owing to the French policy of sending out reinforcements in several small bodies, not only was there much loss, but great uncertainty prevailed among the scattered commands as to conditions elsewhere. This uncertainty, loss, and delay profoundly affected the political situation in India. When Suffren first reached the coast, the English had on their hands not only Hyder Ali, but the Mahrattas as well. Peace with the latter was signed on the 17th of May, 1782; but, owing probably to an opposition party among them, the ratifications were not exchanged until December. Both there and in the court of Hyder Ali there was division of interest; and representations were made from both to the French, who, though suspicious, could obtain no certain information, of the treaty, that everything depended upon the relative military strength of themselves and the English. The presence and the actions of Suifren were all that France had to show, - the prestige of his genius, the capture of Trincomalee, his success in battle. The French army, cooped up in Cuddalore, was dependent upon the sultan for money, for food, and for reinforcements; even the fleet called on him for money, for masts, for ammunition, for grain. The English, on the other hand, maintained their ground; though on the whole worsted, they lost no ships; and Bickerton’s powerful squadron was known to have reached Bombay. Above all, while the French asked for money, the English lavished it.
It was impossible for the French to make head against their enemy without native allies; it was essential to keep Hyder from also making peace. Here the inadequate support and faulty dispositions of the home government made themselves felt. The command in India, both by land and sea, was entrusted to General de Bussy, once the brilliant fellow-worker with Dupleix, now a gouty invalid of sixty-four. With a view to secrecy, Bussy sailed from Cadiz in November, 1781, with two ships-of-the-line, for Teneriffe, where he was to be joined by a convoy leaving Brest in December. This convoy was captured by the English, only two of the vessels escaping to Bussy. The latter pursued his journey, and learning at the Cape of Good Hope that Bickerton’s strong force was on the way, felt compelled to land there a great part of his troops. He reached the Isle of France on the 31st of May. The next convoy of eighteen transports, sailing in April for India, was also intercepted. Two of the four ships-of-war were taken, as also ten of the transports; the remainder returned to Brest. A third detachment was more fortunate, reaching the Cape in May; but it was delayed there two months by the wretched condition of the ships and crews. These disappointments decided Bussy to remain at the Island until joined by the expected ships from the Cape, and Suffren at this critical moment did not know what the state of things there was. The general had only written him that, as he could not reach the coast before the bad season, he should rendezvous at Achem. These uncertainties made a painful impression upon Hyder Ali, who had been led to expect Bussy in September, and had instead received news of Bickerton’s arrival and the defection of his old allies, the Mahrattas. Suffren was forced to pretend a confidence which he did not feel, but which, with the influence of his own character and achievements, determined the sultan to continue the war. This settled, the squadron sailed for Achem on the 15th of October, anchoring there the 2d of November.
Three weeks afterward a vessel arrived from Bussy, with word that his departure was indefinitely delayed by an epidemic raging among the troops. Suffren therefore determined to hasten his own return to the coast, and sailed on the 20th of December. January 8, 1783, he anchored off Ganjam, five hundred miles northeast of Cuddalore, whence he would have a fair wind to proceed when he wished. It was his purpose to attack not only the coasting vessels but the English factories on shore as well, the surf being now often moderate; but learning on the 12th, from an English prize, the important and discouraging news of Hyder Ali’s death, he gave up all minor operations, and sailed at once for Cuddalore, hoping to secure by his presence the continuance of the alliance as well as the safety of the garrison. He reached the place on the 6th of February.
During his four months absence the failure of Bussy to appear with his troops, and the arrival of Bickerton, who had shown himself on both coasts, had seriously injured the French cause. The treaty of peace between the English and the Mahrattas had been ratified; and the former, released from this war and reinforced, had attacked the sultan on the west, or Malabar, coast. The effect of this diversion was of course felt on the east coast, despite the efforts of the French to keep the new sultan there. The sickness among the troops at the Isle of France had, however, ceased early in November; and had Bussy then started without delay, he and Suffren would now have men in the Carnatic, with full command of the sea and large odds in their favor ashore. Hughes did not arrive till two months later.
Being thus alone, Suffren, after communicating with Tippoo-Saib, the new sultan of Mysore, went to Trincomalee; and there he was at last joined, on the 10th of March, by Bussy. accompanied by three ships-of-the-line and numerous transports. Eager to bring the troops into the field, Suffren sailed on the 15th with his fastest ships, and landed them the next day at Porto Novo. He returned to Trincomalee on the 11th of April, and fell in with Hughes’s fleet of seventeen ships-of-the-line off the harbor’s mouth. Having only part of his force with him, no fight ensued, and the English went on to Madras. The southwest monsoon was now blowing.
It is not necessary to follow the trivial operations of the next two months. Tippoo being engaged on the other side of the peninsula and Bussy displaying little vigor, while Hughes was in superior force off the coast, the affairs of the French on shore went from bad to worse. Suffren, having but fifteen ships to eighteen English, was unwilling to go to leeward of Trincomalee, lest it should fall before he could return to it. Under these conditions the English troops advanced from Madras, passing near but around Cuddalore, and encamped to the southward of it, by the sea. The supply. ships and light cruisers were stationed off the shore near the army; while Admiral Hughes, with the heavy ships, anchored some twenty miles south, where, being to windward, he covered the others.
In order to assure to Suffren the full credit of his subsequent course, it is necessary to emphasize the fact that Bussy, though commander-in-chief both by land and sea, did not venture to order him to leave Trincomalee and come to his support. Allowing him to feel the extremity of the danger, he told him not to leave port unless he heard that the army was shut up in Cuddalore, and blockaded by the English squadron. This letter was received on the 10th of June. Suffren waited for no more. The next day he sailed, and forty-eight hours later his frigates saw the English fleet. The same day, the 13th, after a sharp action, the French army was shut up in the town, behind very weak walls. Everything now depended on the action of the fleets.
Upon Suffren’s appearance, Hughes moved away and anchored four or five miles from the town. Baffling winds prevailed for three days; but the monsoon resuming on the 16th, Suffren approached. The English admiral not liking to accept action at anchor, and to leeward, in which he was right, got under way; but attaching more importance to the weather-gage than to preventing a junction between the enemy’s land and sea forces, he stood out into the offing with a southerly, or south-southeast wind, notwithstanding his superior numbers. Suffren formed on the same tack, and some manoeuvring ensued during that night and the next day. At eight P.M. of the 17th the French squadron, which had refused to be drawn to sea, anchored off Cuddalore and communicated with the commander-in-chief. Twelve hundred of the garrison were hastily embarked to fill the numerous vacancies at the guns of the fleet.
Until the 20th the wind, holding unexpectedly at west, denied Hughes the advantage which he sought; and finally on that day he decided to accept action and await the attack. It was made by Suffren with fifteen ships to eighteen, the fire opening at quarter-past four P.M. and lasting until half-past six. The loss on both sides was nearly equal; but the English ships, abandoning both the field of battle and their army, returned to Madras. Suffren anchored before Cuddalore.
The embarrassment of the British army was now very great. The supply-ships on which it had depended fled before the action of the 20th, and the result of course made it impossible for them to return. The sultan’s light cavalry harassed their communications by land. On the 25th, the general commanding wrote that his “mind was on the rack without a moment’s rest since the departure of the fleet, considering the character of M. de Suffren, and the infinite superiority on the part of the French now that we are left to ourselves.” From this anxiety he was relieved by the news of the conclusion of peace, which reached Cuddalore on the 29th by flag-of-truce from Madras.
If any doubt had remained as to the relative merits of the two sea-commanders, the last few days of their campaign would have removed them. Hughes alleges the number of his sick and shortness of water as his reasons for abandoning the contest. Suffren’s difficulties, however, were as great as his own; (1) and if he had an advantage at Trincomalee, that only shifts the dispute a step back, for he owed its possession to superior generalship and activity. The simple facts that with fifteen ships he forced eighteen to abandon a blockade, relieved the invested army, strengthened his own crews, and fought a decisive action, make an impression which does not need to be diminished in the interests of truth. (2) It is probable that Hughes’s self-reliance had been badly shaken by his various meetings with Suffren.
1. There was not a single ship of Suffren’s which had more than three fourths of her regular complement of men. It must be added that soldiers and sepoys made up half of these reduced crews. - Chevalier, p. 463. 2. You will have learned any promotion to commodore and rear-admiral. Now, I tell you in the sincerity of my heart and for your own ear alone, that what I have done since then is worth infinitely more than what I had done before. You know the capture and battle of Trincomalee; but the end of the campaign, and that which took place between the month of March and the end of June, is far above anything that has been done in the navy since I entered it The result has been very advantageous to the State, for the squadron was endangered and the army lost. - Private Letter of Suffren, Sept. 13, 1783; quoted in the “Journal du Bord du Bailli de Suffren.”
Although the tidings of peace sent by Hughes to Bussy rested only upon unofficial letters, they were too positive to justify a continuance of bloodshed. An arrangement was entered into by the authorities of the two nations in India, and hostilities ceased on the 8th of July. Two months later, at Pondicherry, the official despatches reached Suffren. His own words upon them are worth quoting, for they show the depressing convictions under which he had acted so noble a part: “God be praised for the peace! for it was clear that in India, though we had the means to impose the law, all would have been lost. I await your orders with impatience, and heartily pray they may permit me to leave. War alone can make bearable the weariness of certain things.”
On the 6th of October, 1783, Suffren finally sailed from Trincomalee for France, stopping at the Isle of France and the Cape of Good Hope. The homeward voyage was a continued and spontaneous ovation. In each port visited the most flattering attentions were paid by men of every degree and of every nation. What especially gratified him was the homage of the English captains. It might well be so; none had so clearly established a right to his esteem as a warrior. On no occasion when Hughes and Suffren met, save the last, did the English number over twelve ships; but six English captains had laid down their lives, obstinately opposing his efforts. While he was at the Cape, a division of nine of Hughes’s ships, returning from the war, anchored in the harbor. Their captains called eagerly upon the admiral, the stout Commodore King of the “Exeter” at their head. “The good Dutchmen have received me as their savior,” wrote Suffren; “but among the tributes which have most flattered me, none has given me more pleasure than the esteem and consideration testified by the English who are here.” On reaching home, rewards were heaped upon him. Having left France as a captain, he came back a rear-admiral; and immediately after his return the king created a fourth vice-admiralship, a special post to be filled by Suffren, and to lapse at his death. These honors were won by himself alone; they were the tribute paid to his unyielding energy and genius, shown not only in actual fight but in the steadfastness which held to his station through every discouragement, and rose equal to every demand made by recurring want and misfortune.
Alike in the general conduct of his operations and on the battlefield under the fire of the enemy, this lofty resolve was the distinguishing merit of Suffren; and when there is coupled with it the clear and absolute conviction which he held of the necessity to seek and crush the enemy’s fleet, we have probably the leading traits of his military character. The latter was the light that led him, the former the spirit that sustained him. As a tactician, in the sense of a driller of ships, imparting to them uniformity of action and manoeuvring, he seems to have been deficient, and would probably himself have admitted, with some contempt, the justice of the criticism made upon him in these respects. Whether or no he ever actually characterized tactics - meaning thereby elementary or evolutionary tactics - as the veil of timidity, there was that in his actions which makes the mot probable. Such a contempt, however, is unsafe even in the case of genius. The faculty of moving together with uniformity and precision is too necessary to the development of the full power of a body of ships to be lightly esteemed; it is essential to that concentration of effort at which Suffren rightly timed, but which he was not always careful to secure by previous dispositions. Paradoxical though it sounds, it is true that only fleets which are able to perform regular movements can afford at times to cast them aside; only captains whom the habit of the drill-ground has familiarized with the shifting phases it presents, can be expected to seize readily the opportunities for independent action presented by the field of battle. Howe and Jervis must make ready the way for the successes of Nelson. Suffren expected too much of his captains. He had the right to expect more than he got, but not that ready perception of the situation and that firmness of nerve which, except to a few favorites of Nature, are the result only of practice and experience.
Still, he was a very great man. When every deduction has been made, there must still remain his heroic constancy, his fearlessness of responsibility as of danger, the rapidity of his action, and the genius whose unerring intuition led him to break through the traditions of his service and assert for the navy that principal part which befits it, that offensive action which secures the control of the sea by the destruction of the enemy’s fleet. Had he met in his lieutenants such ready instruments as Nelson found prepared for him, there can be little doubt that Hughes’s squadron would have been destroyed while inferior to Suffren’s, before reinforcements could have arrived; and with the English fleet it could scarcely have failed that the Coromandel coast also would have fallen. What effect this would have had upon the fate of the peninsula, or upon the terms of the peace, can only be surmised. His own hope was that, by acquiring the superiority in India, a glorious peace might result.
No further opportunities of distinction in war were given to Suffren. The remaining years of his life were spent in honored positions ashore. In 1788, upon an appearance of trouble with England, he was appointed to the command of a great fleet arming at Brest; but before he could heave Paris he died suddenly on the 8th of December, in the sixtieth year of his age. There seems to have been no suspicion at the time of other than natural causes of death, he being exceedingly stout and of apoplectic temperament; but many years after a story, apparently well-founded, became current that he was killed in a duel arising out of his official action in India. His old antagonist on the battlefield, Sir Edward Hughes, died at a great age in 1794.