Wednesday, 28 August 2013

"No case of which we are aware more deeply affects the character of the Royal Navy..."

The Battle of Grand Port was a naval battle between squadrons of frigates from the French Navy and the British Royal Navy. The battle was fought during 20–27 August 1810 over possession of the harbour of Grand Port on Isle de France (now Mauritius) during the Napoleonic Wars. The British squadron of four frigates sought to blockade the port to prevent its use by the French through the capture of the fortified Île de la Passe at its entrance. This position was seized by a British landing party on 13 August, and when a French squadron under Captain Guy-Victor Duperré approached the bay nine days later the British commander, Captain Samuel Pym, decided to lure them into coastal waters where his superior numbers could be brought to bear against the French ships.

Four of the five French ships managed to break past the British blockade, taking shelter in the protected anchorage, which was only accessible through a series of complicated reefs and sandbanks that were impassable without an experienced harbour pilot. When Pym ordered his frigates to attack the anchored French on 22 and 23 August, his ships became trapped in the narrow channels of the bay: two were irretrievably grounded; a third, outnumbered by the combined French squadron, was defeated; and a fourth was unable to close to within effective gun range. Although the French ships were also badly damaged, the battle was a disaster for the British: one ship was captured after suffering irreparable damage, the grounded ships were set on fire to prevent their capture by French boarding parties and the remaining vessel was seized as it left the harbour by the main French squadron from Port Napoleon under Commodore Jacques Hamelin.

The battle is noted as the most significant defeat for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Not only had four frigates been lost with their entire crews, but 105 experienced sailors had been killed and 168 wounded in one of the bloodiest frigate encounters of the war. French losses were also heavy, with Duperré reporting 36 killed and 112 wounded on his squadron and among the soldiers firing from the shore.

In France the action was greeted with celebration, and it became the only naval battle commemorated on the Arc de Triomphe. The British response was despondent, although all four captains were subsequently cleared and praised at their courts-martial inquiring into the loss of their ships. The only criticism was of Willoughby, who was accused of giving a misleading signal in indicating that the French were of inferior force on 22 August. Contemporary historian William James described British reaction to the battle as "that the noble behaviour of her officers and crew threw such a halo of glory around the defeat at Grand Port, that, in public opinion at least, the loss of four frigates was scarcely considered a misfortune." However, he also notes that "No case of which we are aware more deeply affects the character of the Royal Navy than the defeat it sustained at Grand Port."

The battle subsequently attracted the attention of authors from both Britain and France, featuring in the 1843 novel Georges by Alexandre Dumas, and the 1977 novel The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian. On 30 December 1899, a monument was erected at the harbour of Grand Port in the memory of the British and French sailors who were killed in the engagement.
Inscription celebrating the battle on the Arc de Triomphe

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