RODNEY, DOUGLAS, CLERK, AND THE
BREAKING OF THE LINE:
CHRISTOPHER J. VALIN
in Military History
Historical Research Methods, RC576
removed all doubt on the matter from my mind….
manoeuvre was one of the happiest ever introduced into naval
warfare, and I think your duty leaves you but one course to
pursue with those documents in your possession.
lay them before the public.”
Walter Scott to Sir Howard Douglas
S. W. Fullom, Life of General Sir Howard Douglas, p. 294
It was the early morning
hours of April 12, 1782, and Sir George Brydges Rodney, Admiral
of the White, was spoiling for a fight. The French fleet under
the Comte de Grasse was on its way to meet a small Spanish fleet
so that they could together invade
Jamaica, one of the few
Caribbean islands still held by the British. If
Rodney, British Commander-in-Chief of the
West Indies, could catch De Grasse in time, he might
just prevent this from happening. He came upon the French in the
channel between Dominica and a
small group of islands known as the Saintes, and both fleets
drew up their battle lines. What happened next would change the
course of history, and incite one of the great controversies of
the period. An unusual maneuver by the British ships, never
before attempted in a major battle, led to a decimation of the
French fleet from which it never recovered. The credit for the
maneuver, however, was to be fought among supporters of naval
officers on the same side. Though the exact truth will probably
never be determined, a thorough examination of the evidence
available strongly favors one side: that of Rodney’s
captain-of-the-fleet, Sir Charles Douglas.
By the end of the
eighteenth century, naval tactics had become stale. Admirals and
captains were required to follow the rules of battle imposed on
them from above. Known as the “Sailing and Fighting
Instructions,” these directives had come about after a great
deal of trial-and-error at the beginning of the Age of Sail,
when the limits of fighting in vessels dependent upon the wind
and other weather conditions began to be understood. Following
these instructions, as well as common sense, a style of fighting
had come about where two fleets would line up, one ship behind
the other, then pass one another going in opposite directions,
shooting their cannons as each ship went by (ships large enough
to form up in such a battle line became known as “battle-line
ships” or simply “battleships”). This would continue until one
side surrendered or escaped. Naval battles of the time became
quite orderly, and this prevented ships on the same side from
causing damage to one another either from their guns or due to
collisions. It also meant that the side with the greater
firepower generally won, and that the winning side was often
nearly as damaged as the loser.
This is not to say that
officers of the Royal Navy never deviated from the Fighting
Instructions. In 1744, Admiral Sir Thomas Mathews fought against
a combined Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Toulan and
brashly went against the Instructions. His maneuver, which may
have even been an attempt to break the enemy line, met with such
failure that he was court-martialed, along with his second in
command (Trew 2006, p. 15). This and other examples led naval
commanders to be highly reticent about varying their tactics. At
least that way, if they failed, they could still claim they were
simply following orders.
of the Saints (known to the French as the Battle of Dominica),
12th April 1782, changed all of that. Sir Rodney, after pursuing
the French fleet for three days with his 35-ship fleet, forced
De Grasse and his thirty-three ships into a fight. During the
battle a change in the direction of the wind and some confusion
in the French line opened up spaces between ships. Rodney’s
flagship, the Formidable, sailed toward and through the
French line (thus “breaking the line”) and several other British
ships followed suit, either behind Rodney’s ship or at other
points in the line. Because nearly all of the guns on the ships
were located on the sides, the British ships were able to fire
away at the hapless French vessels, which were practically
unable to return fire. The French fleet was devastated, and many
ships were destroyed or captured, including De Grasse’s
flagship, the Ville de Paris.
It was a tremendous
victory, with several important consequences: First, it ruined
France’s plan to invade
Jamaica, which remained a
British colony. Second, it reasserted Britain’s dominance at sea after huge losses
during the Revolutionary War, allowing Britain to save face at the treaty
negotiations a short time later. Third and finally, it changed
naval warfare for as long as battles continued to be fought
between sailing ships (well into the nineteenth century),
including the all-important Battle of Trafalgar, where Admiral
Horatio Nelson defeated Napoleon’s fleet using similar tactics.
Battle of the Saints, the British government was so
unhappy with Sir Rodney’s recent performance in the West Indies that (unbeknownst to Rodney) his replacement,
Admiral Pigot, had already been sent to relieve him. Following
the battle, amidst celebrations all over the country, the
government was forced to acknowledge the great victory (Conway
2001). Rodney was made a baron, and parliament officially
thanked him for his service (Breen 2000, p. 245). It was
generally accepted by the public that Rodney had come up with
the brilliant idea of breaking the French line, and that credit
for the victory was his. But there were other views. A Scot
named John Clerk of Eldin, who had written an Essay on Naval
Tactics, believed that Rodney had been aware of his book,
including the idea on breaking the line that he presented in it,
and indeed took credit for the celebrated maneuver in later
editions. A version was published posthumously in 1827 that even
contained notes by Lord Rodney himself, which many took to be
proof of Clerk’s claims.
Meanwhile, the family
and friends of Sir Charles Douglas, as well as many naval
officers and sailors, believed that it had been Douglas, not
Rodney, who had the idea. The first time this is mentioned in
print is probably in Admiral Ekin’s Naval Battles in
1829. But it was not until Sir Charles’ son, General Sir Howard
Douglas, wrote his “Statement of Some Important Facts, Supported
by Authentic Documents, Relating to the Operation of Breaking
the Enemy’s Line, as Practiced for the First Time in the
Celebrated Battle of the 12th of April, 1782” as part
of his Treatise on Naval Gunnery in 1829 that the
controversy came to a head. The Quarterly Review, a
magazine, published an ostensibly unbiased, but in reality quite
one-sided, article taking to task both Sir Howard Douglas and
the supporters of the then-late Clerk of Eldin in its January
1830 issue. Shortly afterward, the Edinburgh Review, the
liberal competition, published its own views on why Clerk should
be credited. This was followed by Sir Howard defending himself
and his evidence in the United Service Journal, a
less-well-known military magazine, and eventually in an entire
book entitled Naval Evolutions (1832).
Noted naval expert Alfred T. Mahan said of Sir Howard’s
documentation, “…it may be said that the son of Sir Charles
Douglas, Rodney’s chief-of-staff, brought forward an amount of
positive evidence, the only kind that could be accepted to
diminish the credit of the person wholly responsible for the
results, which proves that the suggestion came from Douglas, and
Rodney’s consent was with difficulty obtained” (Mahan 1898, pp.
367-368). Interestingly, the Quarterly Review
article stated that Sir Howard’s evidence obviously showed that
Clerk had no claim to the maneuver, but disputed his claims
against Rodney; while the Edinburgh Review said that Sir
Howard’s refutation of Rodney’s claim was clearly proven, but
that Douglas got the idea from
Other journals and books
came down on one of the three sides, the authors of many of
which appear to have only read one or two of the previous works.
For example, in an 1852 book on gunnery, Colonel Francis Chesney
credits Clerk and acknowledges the controversy regarding Rodney,
but makes no mention of Douglas.
It is no surprise, then, that he references Clerk’s own book,
Playfair’s biography of Clerk, the Edinburgh Review, and
the Quarterly Review, and ignores the other available
evidence. Obviously, to properly assess the claim, the evidence
for all three versions should be thoroughly reviewed.
The name Admiral George
Brydges, Lord Rodney may not enjoy the fame of Horatio Nelson,
but to those familiar with British naval history he is ranked
among such eminent officers as Nelson himself. Rodney had a long
and illustrious, albeit controversial, career in the Royal Navy.
After being raised by wealthy relatives, he joined the navy at a
very young age, and, through a combination of connections, good
fortune, and merit, quickly moved up in rank. His naval career
was a roller coaster, with great victories often overshadowed by
poor health, nearly constant financial troubles due to a
gambling problem, and assaults on his reputation by fellow
officers at sea and politicians at home (Trew 2000, pp. 2-4).
Despite such powerful
detractors as the distinguished Admiral Samuel Hood, there is
little doubt that Rodney was one of the best naval commanders of
his time. He was made one of the youngest captains in the fleet
at the age of twenty-five, and six years later became governor
of Newfoundland (Trew 2006, p. 15; Breen 2000,
p. 230). During the Seven Years War he was promoted to rear
admiral, and, following a period of exile in
Paris to avoid debtors, Rodney became
commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands (West Indies) in 1778. But it was during the period of
1779-1782 that he really distinguished himself. At the close of
the American War for Independence,
Rodney had captured or destroyed sixteen ships of the line in
two and a half years, and captured the commanding admiral of
each of the nations with which Britain was still at war (Breen
2000, pp. 235-237, 245). The Saints was his final battle, and he
retired upon his return home to
Rodney took at least his
fair share of prizes and credit, including for the maneuver at
of the Saints. He was known to be egotistical and self-serving,
which sometimes made him unpopular with his officers.
His difficulties with other officers included his captain
of the fleet, Sir Charles Douglas, of whom A. T. Mahan said,
“…the chief-of-staff was so much mortified by the failure,
and by the manner in which the admiral received his suggestions,
as seriously to contemplate resigning his position” (Mahan 1898,
Rear Admiral Sir Charles
Douglas, 1st Baronet of Carr, was born in 1727 to one
of the proudest and most influential families in Scotland. He was
a direct descendant of the Earls of Morton, and his son’s
biographer claims he would have inherited that title had a
distant relative not produced a son late in life. Regardless, he
must have had a good education, as evidenced by his ability to
speak six languages fluently and his fondness for mathematical
computation (Fullom 1865). His career in the Royal Navy began at
the age of twelve, and he was in the service of
Holland for several years, and for a short time
following the Seven Years’ War he was known to have been in
helping Catherine the Great reorganize the Russian navy. But
most of his long and distinguished career was spent in the Royal
Navy of Great Britain, and he was involved in many of the most
important military moments of the eighteenth century. As captain
of the Syren off Newfoundland,
it was he who first reported the French attack on St. John’s. During the American Revolutionary
War, his ship, the Isis, broke through the ice in the
Gulf of St. Lawrence and continued up the frozen river to
relieve Quebec from the siege of the Americans under
Benedict Arnold (Clark 1970; Nelson 2006). He also supervised
the building of a small navy for the Battle of Valcour Island on
Lake Champlain (for which he was made a baronet in 1777),
participated in the Battle of Ushant, and, obviously, was
Rodney’s captain-of-the-fleet (with duties similar to an
adjutant general) at the
of the Saints. He was twice made commander-in-chief of
North America at Halifax Station, and became a rear
admiral before his untimely death of apoplexy in 1789.
Although Sir Charles
never publicly took credit for the breaking the line maneuver,
it appears that this was simply a matter of loyalty, duty, and
discretion on his part. It is noteworthy that credit is
taken on his headstone at Greyfriars Church in
Whether this was the decision of a family member, a friend, or
perhaps his own way of finally setting the matter straight is
unknown. His son, Sir Howard Douglas, stated in a letter to the
editors of United Service Magazine that Sir Charles
accepted the congratulations of close friends and family for the
victory in private, but secretly longed for the public
acknowledgement given to his commander-in-chief, and “went to
his grave with a spirit wounded and mortified by neglect, for
splendid, but unrequited, services” (United 1830, p.
The third contender for
the credit, John Clerk, Laird of Eldin, was not a sailor, but a
merchant and lawyer who had always had an interest in naval
battles, even though he had actually been to sea very little. He
did write about naval tactics and, in a book printed for friends
in 1782, An Enquiry on Naval Tactics, (and
published publicly as An Essay on Naval Tactics in 1790),
discussed his idea for breaking the line in naval battles.
Whether or not his idea was known to Rodney, or even the same as
the tactic used at the Battle of the Saints, is a
matter of dispute.
In the 1782 edition of
his book, Clerk states in the preface that he met with Rodney’s
secretary, Richard Atkinson, in 1780, and gave him notes and
sketches regarding the maneuver to give to Rodney before he left
for the West Indies. However, Sir Howard Douglas points out that
Rodney first sailed for the West Indies
in 1779, so there is no way Atkinson would have been able to
give Rodney the documents or discuss the tactic before he left (Quarterly
1830, pp. 52-53). Later, in a biography of Clerk, Professor John
Playfair repeated the claim that Clerk suggested his idea to
associates of Lord Rodney prior to 1780, and adds that Clerk
also met with Sir Charles Douglas himself, which would mean
that, regardless of who took the initiative on the 12th
of April, the plan originated with him (Playfair 1822). Yet, if
Clerk had met with Douglas, he never mentioned it himself. Moreover,
Playfair’s attempt to fix the dates by stating that Douglas left
for the West Indies several months after Rodney, and therefore
could have relayed the information to him before the
of the Saints, is also demonstrably false. Rodney had returned
for a short time in 1781, and both Rodney and Douglas left for
the West Indies together on
January 1, 1782 (Quarterly 1830, p. 53). Relatives of
Lord Rodney vehemently denied that he had ever seen Clerk’s book
or met the man before 1782, and Sir Howard Douglas likewise
refuted any meetings between Clerk and his father. In fact, he
discussed a letter in which his father mistakenly thought others
were referring to a naval officer named Clark, and had never even heard of Clerk of Eldin.
Further, Sir Howard had in his possession a copy of the version
of Clerk’s book printed before the battle in 1782, and stated
unequivocally that it did not even present the specific method
of breaking the line used on 12th April (from the
leeward), as did the later version (Douglas, 1832; Fullom 1865,
Many observers were
convinced by either the Quarterly Review or by Sir Howard that Clerk’s claims were
unfounded. A London Times article published in 1893
stated, “That John Clerk, of Eldin, had advocated it from the
arm-chair before it was employed in the
Battle of the Saints is a coincidence
only” (“Sea Power,” p. 462). In the third volume of his Life
of Napoleon Buonaparte, originally published in 1727, Sir
Walter Scott stated in a footnote: “John Clerk of Eldin; a name
never to be mentioned by Britons without respect and veneration,
since, until his systematic
Essay Upon Naval Tactics appeared the breaking of the line
(whatever professional jealousy may allege to the contrary) was
never practiced on decided and defined principle” (p. 114). And
yet, when Sir Howard Douglas showed him his evidence to the
contrary, Sir Walter was not only convinced of his error, he
urged Sir Howard to make his evidence public (Fullom 1865, p.
294). This is especially noteworthy in that one of Sir Walter’s
best friends was William Clerk, son of John Clerk of Eldin
In 1789, seven years
after the battle, a copy of Clerk’s Essay on Naval Tactics
was sent to Lord Rodney for his opinion on it. Rodney wrote
copious notes in the margins, including the section on the
breaking of the line maneuver, and yet never once mentioned
anything regarding first reading about the maneuver there. In
fact, in one note, he stated, “And it is well known, that
attempting to bring to action the enemy, ship to ship, is
contrary to common sense, and a proof that the Admiral is not an
officer, whose duty is to take every advantage of an enemy, and
to bring, if possible, the whole fleet under his command to
attack half or part of that of the enemy…” (Quarterly
1830, p. 57). By breaking the line, each ship would, in fact,
end up fighting ship-to-ship as they passed through the enemy
line. Furthermoe, as the editor of the Quarterly Review
article noted, “We venture to say no one will readily believe
that Lord Rodney was capable of annotating thus deliberately on
Clerk’s book in 1789, if he had been conscious of owing the
great victory of 1782 to its suggestions, without manfully and
distinctly expressing his sense of his obligations in some part
of his comments” (Quarterly 1830, p. 57).
Still, if one
investigates the matter without digging past the surface
materials, it may be difficult to find refutations of Clerk’s
defenders. Historians and writers from Henry Lord Brougham in
1870 to David Gates today, and even a recent History Channel
program on the Royal Navy, have continued to credit Clerk,
either based on Playfair’s claims, or a lack of knowledge of, or
attention to, the plentiful evidence to the contrary (Brougham
1870; Gates 2001; Chesney 1852). In fact, a magazine called
Library World, at the turn of the last century, criticized a
book on naval tactics for ignoring Clerk’s “contribution” (1906,
While the question of
Clerk’s contribution can be fairly easily laid to rest, the
dispute between backers of Rodney and Douglas is not so easily
resolved. Circumstantial evidence abounds on both sides.
Both men were certainly tactical giants, with numerous
victories on their records. But Douglas
had the advantage with respect to “thinking outside the box.”
The fact that he rammed his ship, the Isis, into the ice
in order to sail up the St. Lawrence River and relieve Quebec
during the Americans’ siege of that city shows not only his
ingenuity, but also his willingness to embrace risk and try
something unusual and untested (Clark 1970). He was so confident
in his ideas on naval gunnery that he used his own money to
change the cannons on his ship, The Duke, from fuses over
to flintlocks, as well as widen the field of fire of its guns
and make them more stable. As a result, these ships were able to
fire more often and more accurately, with less risk of injury to
those firing them. The Barham Papers contains so many
letters from Douglas to Lord Barham at the Admiralty filled with
technical information on these types of changes, that the editor
began to excise portions and simply state that Douglas described
things in “tedious detail” (Laughton 1907). But
Douglas’ suggestions worked. The same alterations
made to the Duke were made to at least two other ships of
Rodney’s fleet, the Formidable and the Arrogant,
and after the success at the Battle of the Saints, the entire British fleet
Lord Rodney, on the
other hand, had a habit of sticking to the rules, and
admonishing those who did not. He had two of the officers under
his command court-martialed following the Battle of Martinique
in 1780 for not following his instructions to the letter. A
memorandum of advice to his son, John (whom he had made a
captain while still a teenager) begins: “The first consideration
of a captain of a man of war is to be particularly attentive in
perusing and studying the Sailing and Fighting Instructions he
may receive from the Admiralty…” (Trew 2006, p. 200). It should
also be mentioned that Rodney, as a newly-promoted rear admiral,
commanded the van of Admiral Mathews fleet at the previously
mentioned Battle of Toulan, and saw both his commander-in-chief
and vice-admiral court-martialed for deviating from the
Instructions. Obviously, it would have been no small matter for
Rodney to deviate from the Instructions by breaking the line,
regardless of the circumstances at the time.
It has been suggested by
some, such as the editor of the
Rodney’s biographer (and son-in-law) General Mundy, and W. H.
Adams, that Rodney apparently attempted to break the French line
during an earlier battle off Martinique (Quarterly
1830 p. 78; Mundy 1830, pp. 295-297; Adams 1882, p. 159). This
does not appear to be accurate, nor would it necessarily fall on
his side of the argument. Many analysts believe Rodney was
simply trying to concentrate his fire upon a small part of the
opposing line (in this case, the rear) rather than cut the line,
as was done in the later battle (Trew 2006). In any case, the
attempt was not successful due to the failure of some of his
officers to follow his signals. Because of his personality,
Rodney often had difficulty relaying his wishes to his officers,
and in this case, it resulted in two of his captains being
court-martialed. If anything, this may be seen as yet another
reason why Rodney would have been hesitant to attempt a similar
maneuver again two years later.
Another item to take
into consideration is Lord Rodney’s poor health. By all
accounts, the admiral was extremely ill, and spent most of the
day in his cabin. Rodney’s physician, Gilbert Blane, wrote in a
…it was considered as a
fortunate circumstance for the service, that the
Commander-in-Chief of the fleet in the West Indies, in the
memorable campaign of 1782, should have had about his person to
assist and advise him, so able an officer as Sir Charles
Douglas, he himself being almost always in such bad health,
either from illness or from convalescence from the gout, from
debility and unequal spirits, so as to render him less equal to
the fatiguing and anxious duties inseparable from such high
responsibility (United 1830, p. 598).
Some crewmembers would
go so far as to state that Rodney spent most of the Battle of the Saints sitting in a chair (United
1830, p. 598).
Hearsay evidence exists
on both sides. Friends of Lord Rodney claimed that
Douglas had admitted that Rodney first had the idea.
One associate, the writer Richard Cumberland, even went so far
as to say that Douglas told him he had tried to talk Rodney out
of breaking the line after Rodney ordered it (United
1830, p. 93). Sir Howard Douglas states that, even if that story
were true, it merely served to illustrate Sir Charles’
dedication to his commander-in-chief and his strong belief that
it was his duty not to undermine his superior in public. Admiral
Samuel Hood, who was Rodney’s second in command at the
of the Saints, claimed that Douglas
was too fearful of Rodney to have made such a suggestion, but he
was aboard his own ship, the Barfleur, at the time, so it
was only supposition. Hood had a reputation for being highly
critical of others, and this opinion may have been partly a
result of his disappointment in Rodney for not chasing and
destroying the rest of the French fleet on the 12th
of April, since he also blamed Douglas
for this lapse in initiative (Duffy 2000, p. 262). On the other
hand, if Hood is correct about Douglas’ reticence, it could also be another reason for
Sir Charles not taking credit for the maneuver later on, even if
it had been his idea.
In 1830, following
several first-hand accounts (recounted below), Sir Howard
Douglas produced a “Second Class of Evidence,” which were
letters addressed to Sir Charles “expressly ascribing to him the
Manoeuvre in question, and congratulating him on the glory he
had gained” (United, p. 599).
Next, Sir Howard
published what he called his “Third Class of Evidence,” a number
of letters from officers still living at the time, who were not
on the Formidable during the battle but were in the
fleet, that “prove that the belief and impression were general,
if not universal, in the Fleet at the time, that my Father
suggested, proposed, and urged the decisive, supermeditated
operation” (United 1830, p. 600).
Finally, Sir Howard’s
“Fourth Class of Evidence” consisted of three “letters from
officers who were at Jamaica when the fleet and prizes arrived,
a few days after the action, to show the belief and impression
were generally circulated and entertained in all societies at
Port Royal that the decisive operation was pointed out by my
Father at the important moment” (United 1830, p. 602).
First hand accounts of
what transpired aboard the Formidable tend to be detailed
and one-sided. As mentioned earlier, Rodney took credit for the
idea, but it is generally accepted that such was his personality
that he would done so have either way, while Douglas was mostly
silent on the matter out of respect for his admiral and the
chain of command. So one must, as in a court of law, assess the
testimony of eyewitnesses who were present at the time.
Perhaps the most
compelling evidence of all comes from Charles Dashwood, a
seventeen-year-old (most sources mistakenly say thirteen)
aide-de-camp to Rodney and Douglas at the time (Urban 1847,
p. 636). Dashwood, who later became a vice-admiral himself, gave
a detailed account of the exchange between the two men.
According to Dashwood’s letter to Sir Howard, Sir Charles was
leaning on the hammocks and staring out at the French line, when
he suddenly said, “Dash! Where’s Sir George?” When Dashwood
replied he was in the aft cabin, Sir Charles headed in that
direction and met with Rodney, who was coming from the cabin and
was close to the wheel. Then Sir Charles bowed and said:
“Sir George, I give you
the joy of victory!” “Poh!” said the chief, as if half angry,
“the day is not half won yet.” “Break the line, Sir George!”
said your [Sir Howard’s] father, “the day is your own, and I
will insure you the victory.” “No,” said the admiral, “I will
not break my line.” After another request and another refusal,
Sir Charles desired the helm to be put a-port; Sir Charles
ordered it to starboard. On your father ordering it again to
port, the admiral sternly said, “Remember, Sir Charles, that I
am commander-in-chief—starboard, sir,” addressing the master,
who, during this controversy, had placed the helm amidships.
Both the admiral and the captain then separated; the former
going aft, the latter forward. In the course of a couple of
minutes or so, each turned and again met nearly on the same
spot.” Then Sir Charles quietly and coolly again addressed the
chief—“Only break the line, Sir George, and the day is your
own.” The admiral then said, in a quick and hurried way, “Well,
well, do as you like;” and immediately turned around and walked
into the aft cabin. The words “Port the helm!” were scarcely
uttered, when Sir Charles ordered me down with directions to
commence firing on the larboard side. On my return to the
quarter deck, I found the Formidable passing between two
French ships, each nearly touching us. We were followed by the Namur, and the rest of the ships
astern; and from that moment the victory was decided in our
favor (Quarterly 1830, p. 64).
The letter is followed
by an extract of the diary of Vice-Admiral Sir Joseph Sydney
Yorke, who was also an aide-de-camp to Rodney and Douglas
at the time. In Yorke’s version, which is very close to
Dashwood’s, Douglas urged the admiral to break the line, to which
Rodney replied that “it was a very hazardous experiment.” The
argument over turning the ship is also present in Yorke’s diary,
with Sir Charles repeatedly calling out to the helm to “luff” (Quarterly
1830, pp. 65-66).
The Quarterly Review’s
editor (signed only “ART,” but generally understood to be
Sir John Barrow, Lord of the Admiralty) was not persuaded by
Dashwood’s (or Yorke’s) testimony, and was actually quite cruel
in his assessment (Trew 2006, p. 178; Quarterly 1830, pp.
66-79). He stated that Dashwood was too young at the time and it
was too long ago for him to remember it so clearly, took issue
with the timing and the background noise that must have existed,
and even went so far as to ridicule some of the descriptions of
After seeing the
Quarterly Review article, Dashwood wrote a letter to the
editor of the United Service Journal, in which he said
his letter to Sir Howard Douglas “is canvassed with no small
degree of acrimony” in that article and went on to defend and
explain himself (United
1830, p. 352-353). In that same issue of United Service
Journal, Sir Howard pulled out all the stops and published
many more accounts that backed up his claims and, specifically,
Dashwood’s letter. Charles Thesiger, brother to Sir Frederick
Thesiger (Rodney’s first aide-de-camp on the
Formidable), produced a letter that Frederick wrote to him
at the time, in which he gave an account that not only supported
Dashwood and Yorke’s stories, but stated, “Sir Charles Douglas
is the man who had the sole merit of fighting the Formidable,”
and that he (Thesiger) had even disobeyed Rodney’s direct order
to turn the ship to starboard, since he was required to always
obey the last order given, and Douglas continued to
shout, “Luff, my boys, luff!” (United 1830, pp. 596-597).
The next letter printed in the United Service article was
from Frederick Knight, who was Sir Charles Douglas’ secretary at
the time of the battle, and whose job was to record everything
that happened. Knight also tells almost an identical story to
the others, and states in no uncertain terms “that bold and
fortunate manoeuvre rests wholly on the late Sir Charles
Douglas!” (United 1830, p. 597). In another letter,
Captain G. W. Blaney, a midshipman on the Formidable
during the battle, states, “There can be no doubt of an
altercation between the Commander-in-Chief and Captain of the
Fleet, whether the helm should be put a-starboard or port, which
was alternately done, and even a-port by the motion of Sir
Charles’ hand.” A statement similar to the others’ follows this,
calling, “luff, my man, luff” over Rodney’s objections, and
Rodney finally saying, “Do as you please, Sir Charles.” Blaney
wrote this letter with his journal, written the day after the
battle, in front of him (United 1830, p. 598).
One could certainly
speculate, as the Quarterly Review did, as to why so many
eyewitnesses would act in collusion to make up a story like
Dashwood’s. But without any known reason to doubt their
statements, and their versions having been told at such
disparate times and under such different circumstances, it would
be an odd endeavor, and certainly one undertaken with some sort
of ulterior motives.
Finally, there is an
assertion that, to my knowledge, has never been made, but
probably should be examined based on what is known about
Rodney’s character. Assuming the version told by Dashwood, Yorke,
and the others is truthful, Rodney would have had very little to
lose by finally allowing Douglas to steer the Formidable into the French
line. If the maneuver proved to be a success, which it did, he
would receive and accept the credit for the victory, which he
was only too happy to do. But if it failed, Rodney had many
witnesses who overheard Douglas
countermanding his orders several times, which certainly would
have been grounds for a court martial, for which he surely would
have called in such an event. Either way, Rodney would probably
come through the matter unscathed. As with so many things in
life, the people at the top tend to find a scapegoat for the
bad, and take the credit and praise for the good.
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His memorial reads: “To the revered memory of Rear
Admiral Sir Chas Douglas, Bart., Son of Chas Ayton
Douglas of Kinglassie, Born 1727 Died 1789, a
distinguished naval officer, he relieved Quebec 1778 and
when Captain of the Fleet to Adl Sir George Rodney in
the heat of battle first suggested the manoeuvre known
as the breaking of the line, 12 April 1782. Interred
beside his brother near this spot.”
National Maritime Museum,