An epic stand against French oared-galleys in British Waters – 1707
When one thinks of battles involving oared galleys one thinks automatically of actions in the Mediterranean. The lot of a galley-slave chained to an oar must have been dreadful enough in the warm and usually calm waters of that sea, but it must have been infinitely worse in the cold, rough waters off the French Atlantic coast and in the North Sea. The galley’s day as a fighting vessel – a long one, stretching back two thousand years – ended in the early eighteenth century and as such they do not figure in most accounts of sea warfare of that era, as “Fighting Sail” reached its apogee of efficiency. I was therefore all the more surprised to come on an account in a Victorian publication of a battle with galleys in the Thames estuary in 1707. This was during the War of Spanish Succession, the last of Louis XIV’s wars, that which began the long decline of French power through much of the remaining century.
A réale galley of Louis XIV’s Mediterranean fleet. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Louis XIV (a man much given to his own comfort and luxury, as his creation of the palace at Versailles testifies) appears to have been favourable to use of galleys and ordered that courts should sentence convicted criminals to serve as oarsmen in them as far as possible, even in peacetime. Though the idea was never implemented, he appears to have considered substitution of galley-service for the death penalty. Considering that execution in France this period was by the barbaric method of breaking on the wheel, being chained to an oar would probably have represented a marginally preferable fate.
In August 1707 a French force of six galleys, commanded by a Commodore Langeron, was off the Thames estuary, en route for an attack on the British port of Harwich. It was being guided by a Captain Thomas Smith, an English Jacobite who had taken service in the French navy after fleeing to France following the deposition of the King James II from the British throne. Like many supporters of the exiled king, Smith had a bitter score to settle. The galleys appear to have been some 150-feet long and 22-feet in the beam, carrying sail on three masts and also propelled by oars pulled by some 200 chained slaves, most likely convicts. They carried around 12 guns. Though such vessels were obviously very manoeuvrable in Mediterranean conditions, one wonders just how well their high length to beam ratio would have made them workable in rougher Northern seas.
Battle of Grengam (a.k.a Ledsund) in 1720 by Ferdinand Perrot (1808–41). It shows a Russian galley engaging Swedish frigates at close range
This French squadron ran into a British convoy of thirty-six merchantmen coming from the Netherlands under the escort of a single frigate, the 20-gun HMS Nightingale, commanded by Captain Seth Jermy (1653–1724). On sighting the French Jermy ordered the convoy to crowd on sail and head up the Thames while he turned with his own single ship to meet the oncoming six vessels He must have known the odds to be hopeless – one is reminded of the epic last stands of the Rawalpindi and the Jervis Bay in WW2 – but his intention was to impose a sufficient delay to allow his charges to escape. Commodore Langeron, on the French side, decided to take on HMS Nightingale with his own galley, the La Palme, and pressed on so fast that he left his next ship so far astern as to make it impossible to render direct assistance. As she closed with HMS Nightingale the French galley opened fire but the British frigate withheld hers and made no attempt to escape. Anticipating little resistance, and encountering only irregular fire from the frigate when the range had decreased to pistol-shot, Commodore Langeron decided on carrying her by boarding.
Abraham Willaerts (1603-1669) : “A French Galley and a Dutch men of war off a Port” – the painting shows just how narrow-beamed sugh galleys were and at such risk in rough seas
The preferred method of attack by galley appears to have been to use her superior manoeuvrability under oars to come bows-on to the enemy’s stern, rake her with cannon fire, then ram, locking both vessels together and pouring boarders across from elevated platforms on the foreship. As the La Palme drove on Captain Jermy handled HMS Nightingale so skilfully that at the last moment she avoided her attacker’s viciously-pointed ram and he laid his own vessel alongside her. In the process HMS Nightingale smashed into the galley’s oars – the effect on the wretches chained to them must have been horrific. Only now did Jermy open with a full broadside, sweeping the enemy’s deck, the effect magnified by seamen in the fighting tops dropping grenades. Jermy now launched his own boarding party and a murderous hand-to-hand conflict began on La Palme’s deck. Commodore Langeron’s next galley in line finally arrived to join the fray and HMS Nightingale’s boarders, outnumbered, were forced back to their own ship, where most were subdued or killed.
“English warships heeling in the breeze onshore” by Willem v/d Velde the Younger (1633-1707). Judging from their size, HMS Nightinale would have looked very similar
Captain Seth Jermy had retreated to his own cabin, which gave access to the gunpowder store. He repulsed French attempts to enter – shooting dead a sergeant of marines – and was contemplating blowing up the ship rather than surrender. Only when he saw that his merchant charges had gained safety was he prepared to listen to terms of surrender and to accept them. A French account recorded that when Jermy was brought before the French commander his appearance was unprepossessing – Commodore Langeron “could not help testifying his surprise at the inconsiderable figure which had made such a mighty uproar – he was humpbacked, pale-faced, and as much deformed in person as beautiful in mind.” Langeron’s reaction could not have been more gracious. He returned Jermy’s sword to him with the words: ”Take, sir, a weapon no man better deserves to wear; forget you are my prisoner, but remember I respect you for a friend.”
Captain Thomas Smith, the Jacobite in French service, seems to have borne himself well in the action and was rewarded with command of the captured Nightingale. He was to enjoy it only for a year, as he was captured by the British and hanged as a traiter for his part in the attempt on Harwich. Jermy was exchanged with a French prisoner fourteen months after the battle and was immediately – and deservedly – appointed to another command. He retired from the navy in 1712.
And what of the men chained to the French oars? The record seems to say nothing of them. The mind recoils from considering their ultimate fates.
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This story intrigued me, as I was very surprised to find oared galleys being used in northern waters at this date – I did not think anyone would have imagined they could be any use against broadside sailing warships.
My personal view is that galleys were actually inherrently more useful than their reputation suggested, but the sixteenth century saw the misguided adoption of heavier designs that were brutally inefficient both as rowing and fighting machines, and in the process precipitated the vile use of slave and convict rowers. So at first, I wondered if these might be smaller and less formal oared warships of the sort associated with French corsairs (and also with Barbary pirates) – Dunkirk had some “galleys” of this sort in the period.
But much to my surprise, these do appear to have been “proper” Mediterranean-style galleys from the French royal fleet, each with over 250 slave and convict rowers, a company of soldiers on the deck, and normally I think a Knight of Malta in command, armed in the usual way with a 42-pounder and four smaller guns in the bows, plus a dozen swivels – built at Rochefort in 1689-90 by shipwrights sent north specially from Marseilles, they performed adequately, raiding along the coast of Devon in their first campaign, but proved slow and heavy sailers in the Channel, and were repurposed for harbour defense.
Whether the design was modified to improve their qualities as their relatively slight hulls were progressively rebuilt, I’m not sure – but in 1701, they were sent to Dunkirk, apparently rebuilt again, and put back into a more active role, apparently with a view to using them in the shallow costal waters off Flanders and Holland, though they also raided across to the English coast. The Protestant memoirist Jean Marteilhe was a convict rower aboard Langeron’s flagship, “La Palme”.
They apparently participated in nuisance raids on the English coast, and took a Dutch two-decker in 1702, but found themselves unable to make much impression as commerce-raiders against the convoy system. Four of them were “replaced” around 1704 – I do not know if this means new building or major repairs – and all appear to have been modified while at Dunkirk by the addition of a mizzen mast. In 1708, they were supplemented by a squadron of six smaller “brigantins”, which were apparently decided to be more useful vessels. The galleys were disarmed, and their soldiers formed into a battalion of naval infantry for service on shore, although the ships were not discarded by the navy until 1713.
(For those who want to pursue this in more depth, the sources from which I put this together are: 1. the memoirs of Marteilhe, which amount to an eyewitness history of the galley squadron in 1702-1708 from the rowing benches, and 2. those of the Chevalier de Forbin, which give more patriotic officer-class glimpses of the squadron and their commander – both these being available for free online in the original and in translation; 3. the entry for this class of ships in Winfield and Roberts’ “French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786”, p. 381, from which their armament and crew specifications are derived; two excellent works of French local history, 4. “Les Galères de Ponant à Rochefort”, in Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Rochefort 16 (1894), pp. 245-252, on the origin of the squadron in the 1690s and 5. for the Dunkirk phase, the much more modern narrative of Patrick Villiers “Les Corsaies du Littoral”, pp. 284-307 (essentially a history of the naval campaign at Dunkirk in 1701-1708, with references scattered throughout, though the most useful passages on the galleys are at the start and end), and 6. the monumental “Trésor du Langage des Galères” (a technical dictionary of French oared-warship terminology which also functions as a historical encyclopedia of the French galley fleet, esp. p. 27 and 32 of the introduction, though there’s useful discussion of Marteilhe’s technical references throughout the book). For simplicity’s sake, I’ve tried to dodge around the uncertainties and contradictions between them)
What a wonderful addition to the initial blog article! It adds so much and answers a number of questions that were in my mind – and unresolved. It adds depth and interest. Many thanks for posting this – it is highly appreciated.
Best Wishes; Antoine Vanner