George the Third - from A.D. 1803 to end of war A.D. 1814.
The “piping times of peace” were not destined to last long. Napoleon, indeed, had never ceased making preparations for war from the time the treaty of Amiens was signed. On the 16th of May the British Government, discovering his aims, issued letters of marque and ordered general reprisals; and at the same time Holland, being in reality a province of France, all ships belonging to the Batavian Republic in English ports were detained. Admiral Cornwallis, in command of the Channel Fleet, of 10 sail of the line and frigates, which was lying in Cawsand Bay, had his flag flying on board the Dreadnought, 98. With these he proceeded the next day to cruise off Ushant, and watch the motions of the French ships in Brest Harbour; other small squadrons being sent, as soon as they were ready, off the other French ports, containing either ships of the line or gunboats, of which Napoleon was collecting vast numbers for the invasion of England. In a short time that war, which was to last ten years, commenced in earnest. The French gunboats were, however, kept pretty close prisoners by the English cruisers, and whenever any of them ventured out from under the protection of their batteries, they were attacked, captured, driven on shore, or compelled to seek shelter in the nearest port under their lee; while many of them were gallantly cut out and carried off in triumph, even when moored in positions where they could receive assistance from the forts on shore.
Out of the numberless gallant deeds performed by the crews of boats and small vessels engaged in this service, one must be instanced for its singularity, and the bravery displayed by the commanding officer and his followers. A hired cutter, the Sheerness, carrying 8 4-pounders and 30 men and boys, under the command of Lieutenant Henry Rowed, while watching Brest Harbour, observed two chasse-marées close inshore. Having sent a boat with seven men and the mate to cut off one of them, the commander proceeded in the cutter in chase of the other, which was about five miles off, under the protection of a battery. A calm coming on, he, with the boatswain, John Marks, and three other men, jumped into a small boat and pulled away for the chase. The latter, after some time, ran on shore under the battery, where thirty soldiers were observed drawn up on the beach. Notwithstanding the heavy fire they at once opened, Lieutenant Rowed dashed alongside. The Frenchmen having deserted their vessel, he began making efforts to get her off; in this, as the tide was rising, he at length succeeded, and going ahead in the boat, towed her away from the shore. He had pulled about a third of a mile, when suddenly a French boat, with an officer and nine men armed with muskets, were seen alongside, having pulled up in the wake of the vessel. Before the French could have time to attack them, John Marks sprang on board the chasse-marée, and seizing a boat-stretcher, stood prepared to prevent any of the enemy from getting up the side. The astonishment of the Frenchmen gave time to the lieutenant and his three men to climb on board and to prepare their firearms and cutlasses. The French, who attempted to get up the side, were driven back, when they sheered off, but discharged their muskets at the English as they pulled away, while the battery also opened fire. Wonderful as it may seem, though forty-nine musket-balls were found sticking in the prize, not a man was hurt; and both chasse-marées were carried off.
For some time the principal fighting was between the English cruisers in the channel and the invasion flotilla, as Napoleon’s gunboats were called; and as their stings might annoy, though they could not inflict serious injury, attempts were made to destroy them by fire-vessels or catamarans—which was the name given to a species of nautical infernal machine—though without much success. The catamaran consisted of a coffer of about 21 feet long and 3 and a half broad, somewhat in shape like a log of mahogany, wedge-shaped at each end. It was covered with thick planking, and lined with lead, thoroughly caulked and tarred, while over all was a coat of canvas, payed over with hot pitch. To give an idea of its size, the vessel weighed about two tons. Inside was a piece of clock-work, the mainspring of which, on withdrawing a peg placed on the outside, would, after going six or ten minutes, draw the trigger of a lock, and explode the vessel. Every other part was filled with about 40 barrels of gunpowder and other inflammable matter. As much ballast was placed in it as would keep the upper surface of the deck even with the water’s edge. It had no mast, and had to be towed towards the scene of its operations. The tow-rope was at one end, and to the other was fixed a rope with a grappling-iron at its extremity, kept afloat by pieces of cork. This grappling-iron, it was intended, should hook itself to the cable of the vessel it was to destroy, and thus swing the catamaran alongside. It was, indeed, on a larger scale, though with less destructive power, something like Harvey’s torpedo of the present day.
Lord Keith, who was with a squadron off Boulogne, first made use of four of the machines, in the hopes of destroying some of a flotilla of 150 vessels moored in a double line outside the pier. Three exploded one after another, doing very little harm; but a heavily armed launch, which had chased one of the boats towing a catamaran, ran foul of it, when the launch and every one on board was blown into the air.