The Fighting Temeraire: The Battle of Trafalgar and the Ship that Inspired J.M.W. Turner's Most Beloved Painting

The Fighting Temeraire: The Battle of Trafalgar and the Ship that Inspired J.M.W. Turner's Most Beloved Painting

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by Sam Willis

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The extraordinary story of the mighty Temeraire, the ship behind J. M. W. Turner's iconic painting The H.M.S. Temeraire, one of Britains most illustrious fighting ships, is known to millions through J.M.W. Turners masterpiece, The Fighting Temeraire (1839), which portrays the battle-scarred veteran of Britain’s wars withSee more details below


The extraordinary story of the mighty Temeraire, the ship behind J. M. W. Turner's iconic painting The H.M.S. Temeraire, one of Britains most illustrious fighting ships, is known to millions through J.M.W. Turners masterpiece, The Fighting Temeraire (1839), which portrays the battle-scarred veteran of Britain’s wars with Napoleonic France. In this evocative new volume, Sam Willis tells the extraordinary story of the vessel behind the painting.  This tale of two ships spans the heyday of the age of sail: the climaxes of both the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) and the Napoleonic Wars (1798–1815). Filled with richly evocative detail, and narrated with the pace and gusto of a master storyteller, The Fighting Temeraire is an enthralling and deeply satisfying work of narrative history.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
On the list of iconic ships, we know the Bismarck, Victory, Titanic, and Constitution, with the Bellerophon and Temeraire slightly lesser known. There were actually two ships named Temeraire, the first a French warship captured by the British in 1759, which served with distinction throughout the Seven Years' War. The second, named in honor of her predecessor, was a magnificent three-decked, 98-gun behemoth that broke through the French and Spanish line of battle directly behind Lord Nelson's flagship Victory at Trafalgar in 1805. This second Temeraire is the subject of J.M.W. Turner's famous painting of 1839, depicting the ship being moved by steam-powered tugboats upriver to be broken up. This book is much more than a biography of these two ships and of Turner's painting. Willis (Fighting Ships), an expert on both maritime painting and tall ships, covers every aspect of life in the sailing navy, comparing two technologically different eras (1759 and 1805). In a readable narrative, he emphasizes disease, blockade duty, mutiny and amphibious warfare, and, of course, the men (and occasionally women) who served in the "wooden walls." VERDICT Readers of naval and Napoleonic history should not pass this one up, and art history buffs should consider as well. Strongly recommended.—David Lee Poremba, Keiser Univ., Orlando, FL
Kirkus Reviews

Willis (Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare, 2008, etc.) follows the adventures of theTemeraire, which played an integral role in British military successesand was the subject of J.M.W. Turner's masterpieceThe Fighting Temeraire (1839).

A little-known fact about the Temeraire is that two famous ships carried the name; the first was a French warship that the British captured in the Battle of Lagos in 1759. She was so symbolic in stature and design that the British, 15 years later, named their most important new ship after her. Immediately the newTemeraire was in the thick of the Napoleonic Wars, battling not only the enemy, but the more common disturbances found at sea—constant battles with scurvy, lack of fresh supplies and mutiny. So hazardous was the mutiny of 1801 that the ship was forced to return to England, and 12 mutineers were hanged in a highly publicized trial. Not long afterward, Horatio Nelson was named leader of the fleet designated to (once again) wage war with France. Under his command, the Victory and Temeraire fought side-by-side at the famed Battle of Trafalgar. It was in this battle that the mighty Temeraire lived up to its fame as one of the best British warships of all time. Just as the lead ship, theVictory,was compromised and Nelson injured, "theTemeraireappeared out of the smoke...and rammed the [French ship] Redoutable with such force" that the French were ultimately forced to surrender. Upon the great ship's heroic return to Britain, masses thronged the port to catch a glimpse. It's possible that Turner, already a successful artist at the time, was one of the revelers, and drew on this experience later when he created his famous painting. In this compelling narrative, Willis captures the atmosphere of great change that marked the era, writing with infectious enthusiasm about the warship and the art it inspired.

Exciting and informative—every detail contributes to a greater understanding of British maritime history.

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The Fighting Temeraire

The Battle of Trafalgar and the Ship That Inspired J. M. W. Turner's Most Beloved Painting

By Sam Willis

Pegasus Books LLC

Copyright © 2010 Sam Willis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-2632-2


The Escaping Téméraire


It was August 1759, and Admiral of the Blue Edward Boscawen had been invited to dinner by Francisco Bucareli y Ursua, Governor of San Roque, a small Spanish town with a monastery at its heart no more than five kilometres from Gibraltar. The Rock had been captured by the Royal Navy in 1704 and had been the home of the British Mediterranean Fleet since the island of Minorca had been taken by the French in 1756. One hundred and nine metres above sea level, San Roque is an eyrie from which it is possible to see down to Gibraltar Bay and, on a clear day, even across to North Africa. There are few more dramatic locations on the whole Atlantic seaboard of Europe. A vast expanse of sky meets the swirling waters and uncertain winds that characterize the convergence of two oceans and the division of two continents. To the east lies the Mediterranean; to the west, the Atlantic; to the north, the Iberian Peninsula; and to the south, Africa. For the Romans and Greeks this was the very edge of the world, the Pillars of Hercules, but by the 1750s Gibraltar had become the centre of a world encompassed, and contested, by European navies. Today it is still a strategic key to the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia. It is one of the most emotive places on earth and drips with weight of history. It is particularly fitting, therefore, that the events that were to follow would live up to the drama of their location.

Boscawen and his fellow officers were pulled ashore from their warships in a flotilla of longboats, leaving wakes that reached from their mother-ships like the tentacles of a sea creature projecting British sea power ashore. Once they had landed, the men wound their way up the dusty track that led to the settlement perching at the top of the hill. As his men filed in to the evening party, Boscawen posted a sentry to keep watch over the British fleet lying in the calm of Gibraltar Bay. For despite the genial surroundings and the hospitality of their Spanish host, the British officers were uneasy.

Their purpose in the Mediterranean had recently taken a decisive turn. Britain had been at war with France for three years. They had failed to come to any peaceful agreement over the extent and location of the boundaries between British and French possessions in North America and along the banks of the Ohio River, tension had spilled over into armed conflict. The war that followed, known as the Seven Years War, was the first conflict in human history to be fought around the globe. By the summer of 1759 both sides had had successes, but British expertise in amphibious operations had begun to turn the tide. In the first few weeks of the war, however, the French had besieged and captured the island of Minorca, the only British naval base deep in the Mediterranean, from where the Royal Navy had been able to monitor closely the activities of the French Mediterranean Fleet at Toulon. The loss of Minorca was a terrible blow to the British, both practically and psychologically, and a tide of professional and public outrage at the political and military lethargy that had led to its surrender erupted in the winter of 1756: the government fell and was replaced by a new administration under William Pitt, and George Byng, the admiral held responsible for failing to relieve the besieged garrison at Minorca, was court-martialled and shot on his own quarterdeck.

Since then, British troops had enjoyed great success in Canada, capturing the Louisbourg fortress on Cape Breton Island and Quebec itself in 1759. In the Caribbean the important French sugar island of Guadeloupe was captured, and the French had been driven from the valuable Coromandel Coast of India by a combined British naval and army force. Together, these British successes drove the French to one final desperate measure which would solve all their problems at a stroke by giving them sufficient bargaining power to reclaim their lost territories and end the war with some dignity. In early 1759 the French Foreign Minister, the duc de Choiseul, drew up plans to invade Britain. However, the French navy would first have to unite its Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets, and this became the central focus of the war in the coming weeks. Once united, the ships from Brest and Toulon would give the French numerical superiority over the British Channel Fleet and Western Squadron and would, in theory at least, enable them to seize control of the Channel or distract the British long enough to launch the invasion.

There were, in fact, two separate plans. Either the main French force would come into the Channel and 'distract' the British Channel Fleet while a smaller force escorted the invading armies to their appointed destinations, or the entire combined Brest and Toulon Squadrons would act as the escort. In both instances, the French armies, collected in two significant forces at either end of the Channel, would have to be landed. The force to the west, now encamped around the shores of the inland sea in southern Brittany known as the Morbihan, was commanded by the duc d'Aiguillon, whose force was to be embarked and then escorted around Ireland to land in the Clyde estuary in Scotland. The naval escort would then sail to the other major French force, based at Ostend, and would land it in Essex, by the mouths of the Crouch and the Blackwater. Meanwhile, a final and smaller force based at Dunkirk would be transported to Ireland.

It was an extremely complex and hopelessly unrealistic plan, devised by government administrators who neither understood the sea nor sought the advice of those who did. The crucial questions of wind, tide, weather and sea conditions were simply ignored. Nevertheless, the threat felt by the British was very real. There was no escaping the fact that the French intended to invade and her armies glowered over the horizon. The British, moreover, were well aware that their armies were already stretched to the limit, with the majority of their troops stationed abroad and very few left to protect the coasts. Both the French and the British knew that if Britain's maritime defences could be breached, she would be found to be more or less defenceless. The reaction of the British government was swift. As soon as they appreciated the extent of the French plan and understood its full implications, the Western Squadron, now a formidable fleet of twenty-five sail of the line under the command of the energetic and resolute Admiral Edward Hawke, was ordered to cruise off Brest with no respite, and emergency orders were sent to Boscawen at Gibraltar.

Hitherto, the aims of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean had been threefold: to annoy the French, to protect British trade and to maintain the security of Gibraltar. Boscawen had taken over command of the Mediterranean Fleet in April and he had executed his orders with great success. He had kept a close blockade of both Toulon and Marseilles and had deployed his cruisers at the well-known focal points of Mediterranean trade to protect British interests. Indeed, so dominant had the British naval presence been, that the Toulon fleet had been forced to retire into the inner road of Toulon harbour to seek the protection of its fort's guns from the sniping of British cruisers and the threat of their fireships. That was no place from which to exercise naval power, and the British enjoyed absolute control of the seas. So powerful was their position that the French believed Boscawen would launch raids and possibly even attack Marseilles or Toulon. A full ten battalions of regular infantry, together with militia, were stationed between Toulon and Marseilles to defend the coast from amphibious assault. While the French languished in port, the British sailors became fit and strong and their officers' confidence grew both in their own ability and that of their men.

On 3 August, Boscawen received fresh orders from the Admiralty. England herself was under threat. Intelligence had shown that the French were amassing huge flotillas of invasion craft in southern Brittany – preparations so vast that they had cost the French government thirty million livres on flat-boats alone, enough to build thirty Third Rates like the Téméraire. With French war strategy now tipped towards a final desperate throw of the dice, Boscawen was ordered to keep the French fleet bottled up in the Mediterranean. If they were somehow to escape, he was to follow them wherever they went and bring them to battle. If they could not be discovered, part of his fleet was to head at full speed to the Solent to join the Channel Fleet, leaving a smaller squadron in Gibraltar to defend British interests in the Mediterranean.

These new orders came at a particularly bad time for Boscawen. The challenge of maintaining a powerful presence in the Mediterranean was formidable, particularly with the wonderful natural harbour of Port Mahón in Minorca now denied to the Royal Navy. Boscawen's ships were forced to keep the sea for months at a time and constantly fight the northerly winds which blew the ships away from the coast. By the end of July, after three months of continual operations and ceaseless vigilance, many of the ships were so foul and weather-beaten that they were quite unfit for prolonged operations. Broken masts that had been temporarily fished needed to be unstepped and replaced with fresh timber; patched and torn sails had to be replaced by fresh bolts of canvas; standing and running rigging had to be surveyed and the frayed lines had to be protected and if necessary replaced; the blocks, tackles and other moving parts of the standing rigging had to be given a new coat of tallow; and the standing rigging had to be wormed, parcelled, served and then coated in tar. Only then, with four protective coatings, was it sufficiently protected from the weather, the sea and the sailors themselves, whose continual presence aloft gradually wore it down as surely as the sails that flogged themselves against it. The ships' bottoms were also coated in weed and barnacles and the timber of their hulls pocked by Teredo navalis – the shipworm which bored holes in timber as surely as any drill.

As it was, Boscawen's ships were falling apart, but above all his men needed water. In the heat of the Mediterranean summer a continual supply of diluted wine or spirits quenched the men's thirst and was crucial in the recovery of those with fever. Fresh water was also used to wash clothes, to steep the salted provisions and boil the food. In the Mediterranean summer a large ship of the line might use up to three tons of water per day. It was the need for water that finally forced Boscawen's hand and, in July, he reluctantly lifted the blockade of Toulon and took some of his fleet to Salou Bay, close to Tarragona, which he knew as the best watering place in the Mediterranean and also a fine source of fresh vegetables at a reasonable price. Today the area around Salou is still scattered with sweet fresh-water springs where the locals fill huge jugs of water which is valued for its mineral properties, although at Cala Font Beach the natural spring which used to pour into the cove has long ago dried up. The rest of the British fleet returned to Gibraltar, where they scraped their bottoms clean, took their masts and yards down, completely overhauled their rigging and received fresh victuals and stores. It was at this point, with his vigilance impaired and his fighting capability compromised, that Boscawen received his new orders. The Gibraltar Squadron was now the front line in the defence of Britain itself. So it was with a troubled mind that Boscawen sat down to dinner with the Spanish governor at San Roque. He knew that his absence from Toulon would quickly be noted by the French. Just when he needed to pin them down more closely than ever before, events had conspired against him. The time was ripe for a French sortie and Boscawen knew it only too well.

Until his ships and men were sufficiently refortified to regain their place directly off Toulon, Boscawen's only comfort lay in the narrowness of the straits that he had to defend. The Straits of Gibraltar are only eight miles wide at the narrowest point and yet sailing warships, with masts over 150 feet tall, could see each other up to twenty-one miles away. At such extreme distances only the masts and perhaps only the tops of those masts were visible, but it was possible to signal by setting, furling, raising or lowering the sails. Indeed the sails were used in this way to communicate quite detailed information over long distances. If two ships could see each other clearly at a conservative estimate of fifteen miles and a chain of such ships stretched back to a main fleet, or as in this case, to a naval base, the number, speed and direction of an enemy fleet perhaps as much as thirty miles distant could be known very quickly.

The ability to communicate in this way was, of course, threatened at night, but lights could be used in a similar way, albeit over far shorter distances. At night, however, the main problem would be the initial discovery of the enemy fleet. Ships in company usually carried lights at their stern and in their rigging to aid station-keeping and to prevent collision, but a ship or fleet wishing to remain elusive, as the French surely would in their escape from the Mediterranean, would extinguish their lights. Boscawen could only hope that if the French tried to escape, he would hear of it before nightfall. Station-keeping at night was notoriously difficult and ships in company would cut their speed to reduce the likelihood of collision, particularly if they were sailing with their lights extinguished. Boscawen could reasonably hope, therefore, that a fleet could not get far in the short nights of the Mediterranean summer.

Nevertheless, it was crucial to make contact with the enemy before they passed through the straits. If the French sneaked through under cover of night, it would take time to react to an alarm, however quickly it was made, and by then they could have disappeared deep into the vastness of the Atlantic, bound for the Caribbean to threaten Britain's trade or her colonies. Alternatively, they could have darted back to a Spanish or Portuguese harbour – to Cadiz, Lisbon, Vigo or Ferrol. Most worrying of all, they could have crossed Biscay and made it to the French harbours of Rochefort or even Brest. The options were almost too numerous to consider. No doubt intelligence from fishing boats and cruisers would eventually pinpoint their location, but such a network of communication took weeks if not months to bear fruit, and by then it could all be too late: Boscawen's best hope was to spot the French on their approach to Gibraltar and to follow them. To that end, as soon as the first two frigates had completed their repairs and were ready for sea, he immediately ordered them to search for the French; the Lyme to cruise off Malaga, and the Gibraltar across the mouth of the Straits, from Estepona to Ceuta Point.

At Toulon, the French had made ready for sea, but it had taken them months to do so. The original invasion had been intended for early summer, but it was not until August that the Toulon Squadron was sufficiently manned to mount a sortie. A lack of willing men to serve in the French navy and particularly at Toulon was just one of the many problems that beset the French in these years. The sailors were disillusioned after years of broken promises, their pay was long overdue and the ships were ill-provisioned, all the result of a king who failed to value his navy. Finally, however, the ships were manned, the stores loaded and the sails bent, and Rear-Admiral Jean François de La Clue-Sabran weighed anchor on 5 August. Much as Boscawen suspected and exactly as he feared, La Clue was relying on the coming night to cloak his ships as they flitted through the straits and burst into the Atlantic. There was a distinct possibility that the moon might reflect on the bleached canvas of their sails, signaling their ghostly presence to prying eyes, but with luck the night sky would be thick with cloud and the darkness impenetrable.

La Clue had gambled, correctly, that Boscawen would not know of his intended destination. Only two months previously the British had captured the important French sugar island of Guadeloupe in the Windward Islands and a reprisal was expected. It was considered therefore just as likely that La Clue would cross the Atlantic to attack Guadeloupe as it was that he would head north and rendezvous with the Brest fleet in home waters. Historians are still unsure exactly which destination was intended but we do know that La Clue's initial destination was the Spanish port of Cadiz, a little over a hundred miles west of Gibraltar. There he planned to reassemble his ships, which he fully expected to have been scattered in the night-time escape from their Mediterranean prison. The first stage of the operation was nothing more than a quick dash past the bulldogs at the gates.


Excerpted from The Fighting Temeraire by Sam Willis. Copyright © 2010 Sam Willis. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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