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Encyclopedia > Battle of the Basque Roads

The Battle of the Basque Roads was a naval battle of the Peninsular War during the Napoleonic Wars. On the night of April 11, 1908 Captain Thomas Cochrane led a British fireship attack against a powerful squadron of French ships anchored in the Basque Roads. In the attack all but two of the French ships were driven ashore. The subsequent engagement lasted three days but failed to destroy the French fleet. The French battleship Orient burns, 1 August 1798, during the Battle of the Nile A naval battle is a battle fought using ships or other waterborne vessels. ... The Peninsular War (1808–1814) (It is known in Spain as War of Independence) was a major conflict during the Napoleonic Wars, fought in the Iberian Peninsula with Spanish, Portuguese, and the British forces fighting against the French. ... The Napoleonic Wars was a series of wars fought during Napoleon Bonapartes rule of France. ... April 11 is the 101st day of the year in the Gregorian calendar (102nd in leap years). ... 1908 is a leap year starting on Wednesday (link will take you to calendar). ... Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald (14 December 1775–31 October 1860), styled Lord Cochrane between 1778 and 1831, was a politician and naval adventurer. ... This article is not about the fireboats that fight fire Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588-08-08 by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, painted 1796, depicts Drakes fire ship attack on the Spanish Armada. ... The Basque Roads are a sheltered bay on the Biscay shore of the Charente-Maritime département of France, bounded by by the Île dOléron to the west and the Île de Ré to the north. ...

Cochrane accused the British commanding officer, Admiral James Gambier, of being reluctant to press the attack. Gambier demanded a court-martial, and was duly exonerated; Cochrane's career in the Royal Navy came to an end. The French Navy continued to operate against the British from the Basque Roads until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Admiral John James Gambier (13 October 1756 New Providence, Bahamas- 19 April 1833 Iver,England) Governor of Newfoundland 1802 - 1804 In 1807, he took part in the Battle of Copenhagen (1807). ... The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom is the senior service of the British armed services, being the oldest of its three branches. ...



The Basque Roads are a sheltered bay on the Biscay shore of France, bounded by by the Île d'Oléron to the west and the Île de Ré to the north. The port of La Rochelle stands at the northeast corner of the roads, and the important town of Rochefort is near the mouth of the Charente River to the south. ESA photo, phytoplankton bloom along the Bay of Biscay Not to be confused with the North American Biscayne Bay. ... ÃŽle dOléron (English: Island of Oleron) is an island off the Atlantic coast of France (due west of Rochefort), on the southern side of the Pertuis dAntioche straight. ... The quays at Saint Martin en Ré. ÃŽle de Ré (formerly also ÃŽle de Rhé; in English Isle of Rhé) is an island off the west coast of France near La Rochelle, on the northern side of the Pertuis dAntioche strait. ... Location within France La Rochelle is a city or commune of western France, and a seaport on the Atlantic Ocean (population 76,584 in 1999). ... Rochefort is a commune in western France, a seaport on the Atlantic Ocean. ... Charente is a river in western Atlantic Ocean. ...

During the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal the Duke of Wellington depended on maritime supply. The French fleet in the Basque Roads operated against the British supply ships. To protect the convoys, the Royal Navy maintained a blockade of the Basque Roads, but this was expensive and never wholly effective. The Peninsular War (1808–1814) (It is known in Spain as War of Independence) was a major conflict during the Napoleonic Wars, fought in the Iberian Peninsula with Spanish, Portuguese, and the British forces fighting against the French. ... The Most Noble Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, KG, GCB, PC, FRS (1 May 1769–14 September 1852) was an Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman, widely considered one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century. ... The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom is the senior service of the British armed services, being the oldest of its three branches. ...

With these reasons in mind, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, proposed an attack on the French fleet at anchor using fire ships and "explosion-vessels". Cochrane's superior officer, Lord Gambier, who was Admiral of the Fleet, was opposed to the plan, calling it "a horrible and anti-Christian mode of warfare". The First Lord of the Admiralty was a British government position in charge of the Admiralty. ... Henry Phipps, 1st Earl of Mulgrave (14 February 1755 - 7 April 1831) was a British statesman and politician. ... Admiral of the Fleet is a supreme naval position that has existed both in historical navies and several modern day navies of the 21st century. ...

Gambier's opposition and Mulgrave's persuasiveness meant that full responsibility for executing the plan fell to Lord Cochrane.

The attack

Cochrane described the attack as follows:

"On the 11th of April, it blew hard, with a high sea. As all preparations were complete, I did not consider the state of the weather a justifiable impediment to the attack; so that, after nightfall, the officers who volunteered to command the fireships were assembled on board the Caledonia, and supplied with instructions according to the plan previously laid down by myself. The Impérieuse had proceeded to the edge of the Boyart Shoal, close to which she anchored with an explosion-vessel made fast to her stern, it being my intention, after firing the one of which I was about to take charge, to return to her for the other, to be employed as circumstances might require. At a short distance from the Impérieuse were anchored the frigates Aigle, Unicorn, and Pallas, for the purpose of receiving the crews of the fireships on their return, as well as to support the boats of the fleet assembled alongside the Caesar, to assist the fireships. The boats of the fleet were not, however, for some reason or other made use of at all.
"Having myself embarked on board the largest explosion-vessel, accompanied by Lieut. Bissel and a volunteer crew of four men only, we led the way to the attack. The night was dark, and, as the wind was fair, though blowing hard, we soon neared the estimated position of the advanced French ships, for it was too dark to discern them. Judging our distance, therefore, as well as we could, with regard to the time the fuse was calculated to burn, the crew of four men entered the gig, under the direction of Lieut. Bissel, whilst I kindled the portfires, and then, descending into the boat, urged the men to pull for their lives, which they did with a will, though, as wind and sea were strong against us, without making the expected progress.
"To our consternation, the fuses, which had been constructed to burn fifteen minutes, lasted little more than half that time, when the vessel blew up, filling the air with shells, grenades, and rockets; whilst the downward and lateral force of the explosion raised a solitary mountain of water, from the breaking of which in all directions our little boat narrowly escaped being swamped. The explosion-vessel did her work well, the effect constituting one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable. For a moment, the sky was red with the lurid glare arising from the simultaneous ignition of fifteen hundred barrels of powder. On this gigantic flash subsiding, the air seemed alive with shells, grenades, rockets, and masses of timber, the wreck of the shattered vessel. The sea was convulsed as by an earthquake, rising, as has been said, in a huge wave, on whose crest our boat was lifted like a cork, and as suddenly dropped into a vast trough, out of which as it closed upon us with the rush of a whirlpool, none expected to emerge. In a few minutes nothing but a heavy rolling sea had to be encountered, all having again become silence and darkness."

Gunpowder is a substance which burns very rapidly and is used as a propellant in firearms. ...

The follow-up

The initial attack of the explosion-vessel was successful. A "boom" of heavy spars and chains the French had placed to prevent the British ships from engaging the French, more than a mile long, was broken in several places, and some of the French ships were firing on each other in the confusion following the tremendous blast.

When Cochrane returned to the British fleet, he found that the second attack — 20 fireships — was in complete disarray. Only four of those ships managed to reach the enemy's position, and they did no direct damage. Cochrane was outraged, reckoning that the fireships could have completely destroyed the French squadron in the confusion following the explosion; instead a series of mishaps took place including firing the ships too soon, missing the enemy squadron, with one fireship even grounding itself.

The fireships missed their target, badly; but they still inflicted considerable indirect damage. When the French sighted the fireships taking flame several miles away, they believed they were seeing more explosion-vessels at much closer range, and wreaked much havoc upon themselves in their attempts to escape. Most of the ships either cut their anchor cables and drifted ashore, or else hoisted sail with equally disastrous results.

Cochrane wrote:

"At daylight on the morning of the 12th, not a spar of the boom was anywhere visible, and, with the exception of the Foudroyant and Cassard, the whole of the enemy's vessels were helplessly aground. The flag-ship, L'Océan, a three-decker, drawing the most water, lay outermost on the north-west edge of the Palles Shoal, nearest the deep water, where she was most exposed to attack; whilst all, by the fall of the tide, were lying on their bilge, with their bottoms completely exposed to shot, and therefore beyond the possibility of resistance."

This is one of six ratings (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th) in the rating system of the Royal Navy. ...

Battle continues

Throughout the morning of 12 April, Cochrane signalled Lord Gambier to attack the paralyzed French squadron. (Gambier was 14 miles offshore with the blockading fleet; Cochrane had one frigate under his command.) Finally, in desparation, at 13:00 Cochrane allowed his ship to drift toward shore, coming under fire of the land-based fortifications, trying to compel Gambier to send ships to aid Cochrane's frigate.

The strategy worked; at 13:30, seven British ships came in, and Cochrane spent the rest of the day capturing and destroying French ships.

Much to Cochrane's displeasure, on 13 April, the other ships returned to Lord Gambier's position offshore, and Cochrane ignored repeated orders from Gambier to also disengage. Cochrane instead destroyed more French vessels before finally obeying Gambier's signals, and the battle came to an end.


Cochrane returned to Britain a popular hero, but he had already made himself unpopular in important places in the British government, and the Admiralty chose to give Lord Gambier credit for the victory. Gambier and Cochrane were both members of Parliament, and when a vote of thanks to Gambier was proposed, Cochrane charged that Gambier had failed to follow up the attack at Basque Roads. Gambier demanded a court-martial of himself, to clear those charges, and was acquitted. Old Admiralty House, Whitehall, London, Thomas Ripley, architect, 1723-26, was not admired by his contemporaries and earned him some scathing couplets from Alexander Pope The Admiralty was historically the authority in the United Kingdom responsible for the command of the Royal Navy. ... A court-martial (plural courts-martial) is a military court that determines punishments for members of the military subject to military law. ...

Cochrane's naval career was apparantly over, the Admiralty did not give him another ship, and he returned his main attentions to Parliament. In 1814 he was convicted of stock market manipulation; he was sentenced to the pillory and a year's imprisonment; expelled from Parliament and the Royal Navy; immediately re-elected to Parliament from his district; popular support and acclaim was so strident that the pillory was never used in Britain again, and he received a royal pardon; and Cochrane became the head of the Navies of Chile, Brazil, and Greece during their wars of independence. View of the Pillory in the Market-place of Paris in the Sixteenth Century, after a Drawing by an unknown Artist of 1670. ... The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom is the senior service of the British armed services, being the oldest of its three branches. ...

In 1832 Cochrane was returned to the Royal Navy as a Rear Admiral, serving with distinction and eventually being promoted to Admiral. The term Rear Admiral originated from the days of Naval Sailing Squadrons, and can trace its origins to the British Royal Navy. ...

External links

  • The Life of Thomas, Lord Cochrane
  • the real Master and Commander
  • Royal Naval History, Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane

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