Sunday, October 20, 2013

James Caithness and HMS Mars 1798

James Caithness, father of mariners James Ramsey and George Caithness, appears on the muster roll of the British warship HMS Mars in April 1798, under the command of Captain Alexander Hood.

Europe was in ferment: the French Revolutionary Wars were in progress and the Royal Navy was blockading the coastline of France off Brest.

The British fleet under Admiral Lord Bridport was crossing the Iroise Passage on 21 April when, on foreign sail being sighted to the east, three RN ships left the fleet in pursuit, led by the 74-gun ship of the line, HMS Mars.

One of their quarry was L’Hercule (the Hercules), also 74 guns, under Captain Louis L’Heritier, recently commissioned and sailing to join the main French fleet at Brest. The Mars sped to intercept. L’Heritier tried to escape through the Raz de Sein passage, but the tide was against him and he was forced to anchor, coming under heavy fire as Hood brought the Mars into position. For over an hour the two vessels lay so closely alongside each other that their guns couldn’t be run out but had to be fired from within the ships.

The furious action between H.M.S. Mars and L'Hercule
 off Brest on 21st April 1798 by John Christian Schetky

Casualties and damage were extensive on both sides, Hood himself being mortally wounded when a musket ball severed his femoral artery. He was carried below, bleeding to death.

Death of Captain Hood by James Daniell 1798

L’Hercule surrendered, her crew’s attempts to board the Mars having failed. The French casualties numbered 290 or more and the British 90 including her commander. L’Hercule was taken as a prize and conveyed to Britain, later being repaired and put to service in the Royal Navy until 1810.

This fierce battle between two evenly-matched ships was James Caithness’s baptism of fire: he had joined the complement of HMS Mars only two weeks earlier.

If his birth year as shown on various ships’ musters is accurate (1786), James was very young at the time, not yet in his teens. He may have been a powder monkey, ferrying gunpowder from the hold to the guns. Usually this task was undertaken by boys of 12 to 14 years of age, chosen for their speed and height i.e. short so that they would be hidden behind the gunwales out of sight of the enemy’s sharpshooters.

Firing the 18-pounder

The terrifying impact, noise and intense heat of this bombardment can scarcely be imagined:  two ships raking each other at close quarters, their wooden sides gaping with blackened holes, and men being blown to smithereens on the slippery decks.

James’s naval career had started with a bang. Perhaps it’s fortunate that, as he savoured the dizzy relief of survival after the engagement, he couldn’t foresee the hazardous adventures which still lay ahead of him in the service of his country.

Rope Knots
from textbook on Seamanship

Tom Sheldon for research at TNA Kew.

Nelson, Navy, Nation: the story of the Royal Navy and the British people, 1688–1815. New permanent gallery opens at the National Maritime Museum on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 2013

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