Fighting In Indian Waters 1782/3
This Naval History continues on from: "Indian Wars"
Admiral Sir Edward Hughes was also, a good and efficient
officer. He was certainly an exceptionally fine seaman, and
we have evidence of his rival, who was something of a genius,
that his tactical handling of his fleet was, magnificent.
But again those limits existed, and they may be best discribed
here in the sense of the word, he too was "docile". He would
not-or could not-rise superior to the System and succeed in
spite of it.
There is of course much to be said in his favour. He was
fighting in the same far-distant theatre as Pocock and Peyton,
and any serious set-back to the fleet under his command would
have sent the whole set-up of Britain in India crumbling.
Edward Hughes was facing a naval force which was, on paper as
strong as his own, and at first stronger. Above all, in Vice-
Admiral Bailli de Suffren he had an opponent of a calibre
such as Rooke, Hawke, Nelson or Napoleon.
He was almost the sole French commander of the century, whose
strategic concepts were cast on such offensive lines as were
to be found only in the flagships of his enemy, and with such
enterprising tactical ideas as left those enemies far behind.
They Fought Five Battles
The tactical details of the five duals fought between these
two opponents are of the utmost interest, but here we must
merely consider two aspects of them-the "Docility" of the
British commander, and the revealing spectacle of what
happened in a "formal" battle when the leeward fleet, instead
of avoiding action, held its ground.
The first battle was off Sadras on 17th April 1982, there
were twelve French against nine English ships; off the north
coast of Ceylon on the 12th April 1782, 12 French against
eleven English ships; off Cuddalore on 6th July 1782, eleven
French against eleven English ships; of Negapatam on 3rd
September 1782, fourteen French against 12 English ships,
and again off Cuddalore on 20th June 1783, fifteen French
against eighteen English ships.
Letter To First Lord Of Admiralty
An idea of what Sir Edward's tactical character was likely to
be, is contained in a sentence of the letter written by Sir
Hugh Pallister to Lord Sandwich, the First Lord, recommending
Hughes for the East Indian Command.
"One thing which I think an essential quality your Lordship
will be sure to find in him, that is, that he will not wander
out of the path that may be prescribed to him, to follow any
shemes and whims of his own, nor never will study to find
fault in orders, but always how he may best execute them for
His Majestey's service".
It turned out to be a most just summary of Hughes's character,
and it contained, a most exact forecast of what the man would
do in action. Within the limits of the System, Sir Edward was
all that could be desired in a leader.
He Would Adhere To The Permanent Instructions
In the first two battles Suffren attacked, with the wind and
with really aggressive tactics, which included schemes to
consentrate on the rear of the enemy and using his extra ships
to surround the rearmost of the British fleet.
He failed, largely through the failure of his captains to
change their methods of a lifetime and act offensively, partly
through the high standard of technical efficiency in the
British ships; but hardly at all through the tactical action
of Hughes, who maintained a correct and rigid line throughout.
In The Third Action
This time Hughes had his first and last opportunity to attack
with the wind. His conduct of the battle was strictly
according to the rule. And, as ever on such occasions, his
fleet failed to come in together to deliver the "shock".
There was hard fighting, and de Suffren being much less prone
to yeild ground than most Frenchmen, it began to look as
though the British might at last achieve decisive results from
But then the wind shifted, and later died. Hughes was probably
robbed of victory; but only possibly, for there was no reason
why, had the wind held, Suffren would not have broken off the
action in the usual french way.
In Their Fourth Battle
In the opening phases in this battle Sir Edward's Handling
was superb. Rather badly outnumbered, he retreated in masterly
style, forcing suffren in the end to attack in somewhat ragged
He even succeeded in isolating the centre of the French fleet,
battering and dismasting their flagship; and all this without
once deviating from the full, equally spaced line.
It has seemed to some historians that he now had the enemy at
his mercy, and had he departed from the System, he might have
destroyed the French centre.
This may be true , though it is only fair to add that, owing
to the lightness of the wind, it is possible he could not do
these things. This much is certain; he did not do it, and he
did not try. He "kept the line."
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Their last Battle
Bailli de Suffren triumphed; physically and morally, but strangely not tactically. He had planned to attack very similar to Tourville's at Barfleur; to concentrate his heavy ships on
the rear of the English line and to contain the rest.
But when the time came, with an inferior fleet he attacked
the British in the British way; all sharing a common boundary.
He had at last drilled his captains into a remarkable state
of seamenlike excellence; and obedience.
But the British also attacked in the British way; they did
not complete this surprising reversal of roles by acting in
the French way. They stood their ground and fought it out.
When night fell they were still there, pounding one another.
However with the night, came exhaustion of the human element
on either side, and the fleets drifted apart in the darkness.
Two Days Later Hughes Sailed North
It was probably the belief of the French that he was "on the
run," and his action has often been so presented by later
writers. But it is not so.
He retired on the 22nd June 1783, but only after waiting
throughout the 21st upon the field of battle for Suffren who
did not appear. Suffren had been carried north by the off-shore current. The fact was that the opponents had lost each
One fine feather must be retained in Suffren's cap. He had
attacked a superior British fleet and had inflicted upon it
heavier losses than he received.
The lesson to be learnt from this battle was; given equal, or
nearly equal fleets, the System was incapable of bringing
victory even when both sides played to the same set of rules.
The lesson of the whole series of battles was; given a really
good fleet (as Hughes's was) and a really able commander,
within the limits of the line (as hughes unquestionably was),
the results of the System would still remain tactically
indecisive and completely unproductive.
In the course of five hard fought battles, not a single ship
on either side was sunk or changed hands.
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