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The French Nelson

When British and French fleets met in battle during the 18th century, as a general rule, it was always the British that won. Not every time, granted, and there were plenty of encounters that ended in strategic draws, but overall this is true. But there was a notable exception to this rule. The French admiral who led his nation’s fleet in the Indian Ocean during the American War of Independence fought no less than five fleet actions against the Royal Navy, and never lost any of them. Indeed, he never even lost a ship. His name was Pierre Andre de Suffren.

He joined the French Navy in 1743, as a fourteen year old midshipman. Four years later be tasted his first defeat, when the convoy he was defending was attacked by the hugely aggressive Admiral Edward Hawke. Six of the eight French warships were captured, including the one in which young Suffren was serving, and he spent the remainder of that conflict as a prisoner of the British. The war ended, and Suffren returned home, but it was a short lived peace. In 1759 Britain and France were at war once more, but for Suffren the result was much the same. Defeat again, this time at the hands of Admiral Boscawen, and another period in a British prison.

One might have forgiven Suffren if he had greeted the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775 with some trepidation. Here, after all, was a fresh opportunity for him to taste defeat and try his hand at a third period in a foreign prison. But Suffren was an intelligent and determined man. He had learnt from his various defeats, which had all come when other, more cautious French Admirals had been in command. He had risen up the ranks. This time, it was going to be him in charge.

In 1781 he was put in command of a squadron of five French ships and some troops, sent to help their allies, the Dutch, resist a British attack on the Cape of Good Hope. By chance he came across the British attacking force, at anchor in the Cape Verde Islands. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Suffren immediately attacked the British while they were ill prepared, did considerable damage, and then headed on to the Cape. He landed his troops ahead of his enemy, and was able to organise the Dutch defences to be able to repel the British attack when it came. Having done so, he headed into the Indian Ocean to join up with Admiral d’Orves’s fleet in the Indian Ocean.

Their combined fleet was seventeen ships strong, and with this force they sailed to challenge the Royal Navy under Admiral Hughes in the waters around the Indian subcontinent. Admiral d’Orves was the senior of the two admirals, but fortunately for the French, he died before the conflict could begin in earnest. Under Suffren’s leadership the fleets clashed five times, and five times Suffren came close to victory. Only news that peace had been signed in Europe brought the campaign to a close.

In his battle Suffren showed many similar traits to Nelson. He was hugely aggressive, he attempted to defeat his enemies in detail, and believed in trying new tactics in battle. His attack on an anchored opponent in the Cape Verde islands is reminiscent of Nelson’s attack at the Battle of the Nile. But what he lacked were two of Nelson’s key strengths. There was never a ‘Suffren Touch’, the equivalent of Nelson’s unique ability to forge his captains into a ‘Band of Brothers,’ all of who knew by instinct what they should do in any situation. He also suffered from the tools he was provided with. Surely he would have achieved true greatness if he too had been supplied with the same superb instrument that Nelson had, the ships and men of the 18th century Royal Navy.

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Philip K Allan is an author of historical naval fiction. His debut novel, The Captain’s Nephew is available to order now from all good online retailers. Click here to learn more.

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