Naval Hero Sir James Lucas Yeo – Part 1
When reading of action by the Royal Navy in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War period one is struck not just by the commitment in carrying the fight into the enemy’s inshore waters – and even harbours – but by the almost insane gallantry that was so widespread among officers and enlisted men alike. Nowhere was this more apparent than in “cutting out” operations – captures of enemy shipping by boarding parties in small boats – and in assaults on coastal fortifications. Hazardous as such actions were, they represented craved-for opportunities for young officers to distinguish themselves and to earn advancement, while prize-money provided a welcome inducement for officers and men alike. One such example of a young officer who earned fast promotion, and whose career would probably have brought him to the most senior levels, had he not died young, was Sir James Lucas Yeo (1782 – 1818). He is best remembered today for his command of British naval forces on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812 but his rapid ascent to such a significant command started with a spectacular attack on coastal fortifications in 1805. Handsome and courageous, obviously a born leader, he seems like a figure who steps from the pages of a work of naval fiction.
Yeo joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 10. By 1805, having already seen significant action, this twenty-three year old was serving as First Lieutenant on the frigate HMS Loire. Her name betrayed her French origin – it was Royal Navy policy for ships captured from the enemy to retain their original names – and this 1350-ton, 150-ft frigate had been captured off the west coast of Ireland in 1798 in the aftermath of the Battle of Tory Island.
The Battle of Tory Island, 12th October 1796 by Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821) –
Loire escaped but was run down and captured six days later
In June 1805 – when Spain was still allied with France – HMS Loire was on patrol off the north-west coast of Spain. Information reached her that a 26-gun privateer was fitting out in Muros Bay, a deep inlet on this indented coast. Loire’s Captain Fredrick Lewis Maitland (1777-1839) had been in the bay on a previous occasion and – though his recollection was not perfect – believed it possible to either to capture or destroy the enemy vessel. The complication was however that the entrance to the bay was commanded by a shore battery and in any contest between a warship and shore-based artillery the ship was likely to come off worst. This insight was summarised in Nelson’s aphorism that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”. As a precursor therefore to Loire entering Muros Bay, Lieutenant Yeo was directed to take a landing party of fifty men – seamen and marines – to storm the battery.
On the morning of 4th June HMS Loire stood in towards the bay, apparently to draw fire from the battery to provide a diversion to cover the landing party’s approach. In the elegant expression of the time, the Loire was described as having been “much annoyed” by fire from the battery, which proved to be armed with two guns only. Loire’s action proved effective enough for Yeo to get his force ashore under the battery. The arrival of this group proved enough for the troops manning the battery guns to abandon the position, leaving Yeo in possession. He immediately ordered spiking of the guns but also identified, about a quarter mile distant, and further into the bay, a “regular fort protected by a ditch and a gate”, with its guns commanding the inner bay. The presence of this fortification had not previously been known – Captain Maitland’s recollection of his previous visit to the bay was indeed incomplete.
With the battery eliminated – but with Yeo and his men still ashore – Captain Maitland now brought HMS Loire further into the bay. He could now see that the privateer was a corvette – later to be identified as the Confiance – and also a large armed brig. He concluded that these vessels had not yet shipped their guns and were, accordingly, at his mercy. Only now however was he to become aware of the previously unseen fort. Loire was now subjected to what was descried as “well-directed” fire from shore, with virtually every shot striking her hull. Nothing daunted, Maitland dropped anchor in a position relative to the battery’s protective embrasures that made aiming of its guns at the ship virtually impossible. He then engaged the fort but HMS Loire’s fire alone could not be enough to neutralise it – that would be dependent on Yeo, ashore, having the initiative to take appropriate action.
A French corvette – the Confiance would have been generally similar
Yeo brought his force, apparently undetected, close to the fort’s landward side – activity in the fort itself being focussed on action with HMS Loire. He launched a charge at the outer gate, where a single soldier fired on them and then retreated within. The landing party stormed behind him and towards a second, inner gate, which also appears to have been open. Here a furious struggle commenced, with the Loire’s men opposed by the fort’s governor, Spanish troops and the crews of the French privateers. Yeo led from the front and killed the governor with a blow that broke his own sword in two. The defenders broke and retreated back into the fort, some being seen from the Loire as jumping down – twenty-five feet – from the embrasures. It was later stated that “such as laid down their arms received quarter, but the slaughter among those who resisted was very great”. After surrender however care does seem to have been taken of the wounded prisoners and indeed the local bishop and one of the community leaders afterwards went out to the Loire to express gratitude for this. Despite the heavy French and Spanish casualties. Loire lost no men, though Yeo and fifteen others were wounded – eleven on the ship as a consequence of fire from shore. (It should be borne in mind however that the classification “wounded” could be serious enough as to require amputation).
Confiance (R), under command of Surcouf, capturing the East Indiaman Kent in 1800
With the fort neutralised, Captain Maitland now easily captured the Confiance and the brig – both of which proved to be as yet unarmed – as well as a Spanish merchantman. The brig was found to be not ready for sea, and was accordingly burned, but the Confiance was taken into Royal Navy service. She was a ship with an already notable history. Commissioned in 1799, this 490-ton corvette had served in the Indian Ocean under the renowned French privateer Robert Surcouf. Confiance’s most notable action under his command was capture in 1800 of the East Indiaman Kent after a fierce battle. She had returned to Europe under Surcouf’s command but when found by Loire was fitting out for a new privateering voyage under another captain.
Command of what was now HMS Confiance was now awarded, deservedly, to Yeo who was promoted to commander – who would achieve coveted post-captain rank two years later. In Confiance he was to achieve notable further success in the South Atlantic and by the War of 1812 had built a reputation that earned him the important command on the Great Lakes.
And Captain Maitland? Napoleon Bonaparte was to surrender to him on board HMS Bellerophon in 1815, in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo.
James Lucas Yeo’s further career – and HMS Confiance’s – will be covered in Part 2 of blog – due next week.
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