Defeated By The Instrctions
At The Battle Off Toulon In 1744
This Naval History is a continuation on from: "Edward Hughes"
Thomas Mathews in difficult, even heart-breaking circumstances,
he attempted to show initiative. But he was defeated, not by
the enemy, but by the nature of his Instructions; he was court-martialled for his pains; found guilty, and was mercilessly
Admiral Thomas Mathews, whose previous post was Commissioner
of Chatham Dockyard, the supreme representative of authority,
was now Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, and in 1744, was off
the Riviera coast, watching a fleet in Toulon which belonged to
the enemy, Spain.
France was not officially in the war, though she had already
given Spain much help, and even now was allowing a Spanish
convoy destined for Northern Italy to shelter under the guns of
the great naval base, and of her full Mediterranean fleet.
His main preoccupation being to see that the Spaniards did not
proceed east, Mathews himself was lying up to the east of
Toulon when on 11th February, the full French and Spanish
fleets broke away from the port and sailed due south.
Mathews Made All Sail In Pursuit
The enemy's ships fresh from port, were cleaner than his, and
try as he would, he could not get his main force up close
enough. And all the while he was drawing farther and farther
away from the coast along which the Spanish convoy might be
It was a cruel situation, and what made it worse was that he
was committed to fight the action under the "Permanent"
Instructions of 1703, he declared his intention to follow them.
He decided to attack the enemy's centre; there was of course in
those days no signal for such a manoeuvre; the situation arose
out of immediate circumstances, which were not predictable.
All he could do was, while leaving the signal for the line
flying, was to set a personal example by turning out of line
himself, and bearing down upon the enemy's rear. This he did,
managing to inform only his immediate seconds by word of mouth.
The ships of his squadron which were ahead of him took their
cue from his action, and followed him. Those immediately astern
of him did the same. They plunged into the action and aquitted
themselves reasonably well.
But Everything Else Went Wrong
The plain fact was that all subodinate commanders not in the
immediate vicinity of Mathews and his flagship, the "Namur",
had a difficult decision to make, and each made it according
to his character and habit of mind.
Admiral Rowley, in command of the main force, seemed to grasp
the intention behind Mathew's action, and came down to the
attack, though, making for the "Terrible" flagship of the French
Admiral, de Court.
He did not leave enough ships for those coming behind to attack:
but on the other hand, left far to many French ships ahead of
"Terrible"; half the whole fleet; to be tackled by the leading
half of his squadron.
There resulted a very large overlap, which gave the French main
force an obvious opportunity to double-up upon the British. This
danger was particularly clear to the British leading captains,
the first three of whom decided to counter it by drawing out to
the south, and refusing to engage closely. They were successful;
for the French did not double.
Problems At The Rear
Astern of Mathews things became progressively worse. At the
moment of the Admiral's attack, the enemy's rear ships; all
Spaniards; had lost station and were a long way astern. This
meant that the last ships of the British main attack had no
opponents immediately opposite them.
To make matters worse, the British rear squadron lagged both
far behind and was a long way to windward. The reason for this
is the most distressing part of this encounter.
The squadron in the rear was commanded by Vice-Admiral Richard
Lestock, who had temporarily been holding the Mediterranean
Command before Mathews arrived, and who felt aggrieved at being
displaced by him.
There Were Other Irratations Between Them
Lestock's slowness in general, and his conduct of his part of the fight, were due, in part at least, to deliberate malice it is impossible to doubt. And Malice quickly found a devil-sent weapon to its hand.
By suddenly leaving the line and initiating action in a way not
in the instructions, Mathews had broken all "formal" rules. And
he was leaving much to common sense and the-loyalty of his
officers; and especially of the commander of the rear squadron.
For if Lestock were literally to obey Mathews, he too would bear
down, in conformity with his senior. He would it is true, have
no enemy opposite him; he would bear down upon an all but empty
But He Would Be Keeping The Line!
Mathews hoped Lestock's squadron would move into a position of
reserve, and then come up to the support of any part of the
British fleet which might be closely engaged.
But Lestock did not do so; and he showed no intention whatever
of trying. He did not, for a long time reach his allotted
position in the "formal" line, though he submitted afterwards
that this was what he was trying to do.
It is very hard, not to see in Lestock the villain of the piece:
not to see in his conduct a deliberate intention of using the
very rigidity of the "Instructions" to ruin a man whom he disliked.
His two leading ships were well ahead of the rest, and near enough to the semi-melee brought about by Mathews's attack to see clearly what was going on.
But their captains would not close without orders from their
immediate commander-Lestock, who gave them none. For, they argued, that would mean "breaking the line." So they too did nothing.
Mathews Own Squadron
At first they conformed with those ahead of them; but, finding
no ships opposite them, and not daring to swing about to
engage the lagging Spaniards in the rear; that would have been
a really courageous thing to do in 1744; and seeing ships astern
of them (Lestock's squadron) carrying straight on, their captains, lost any intentions and did nothing.
The little fighting which resulted from the half-engagement had
its moment of fierce fighting; which was mostly a sort of melee.
But on the whole it was ineffectual and indecisive, between ships and not the fleets. The prime reason was the "Instructions" for Admiralty Fighting Orders.
Several British ships in the centre quickly drove their individual opponents from the line; both the French and the Spanish were on this occasion disenclined to fight.
Why Should They?
De Court preferred the old game of firing at the sails and winging the British; he knew that no British captain having beaten his opponent out of the line; dare not follow him and finish him off because of the British Article 21.
And this was true even of Captain Edward Hawke, commanding the
"Bedford", a man whose daring handling of a British fleet brought about the the greatest victory of this dark period; a man whom even his critics never accused of lacking dash and initiative.
After This Deplorable Battle
Great Britain washed her dirty linnen in public. There were at
least, no half-measures about this. Thirteen courts martials
followed. The first Mathews, then Lestock and eleven other
Of the latter, two were acquitted and seven dismissed or suspended, one died before his trial and one - the son of old Sir John Norris, and the worst offender of them all - deserted and disappeared.
Lestck was - acquitted! This remarkable verdict surprised the
public and has still surprised every historian ever since.
Certainly the evidence would show to any unbiased mind that he was guilty on almost every article of the charge.
The fact remains, he was acquitted on all charges. It appears that the court was determined to acquit not Lestock the Admiral, but Lestock the "Whig." He was however found guilty of not pursuing the enemy after a battle; but it was not a tactical offence at all.
Thomas Mathews Was Cashiered out
There were certainly many faults both in the man and in his
handling of the battle, so it is arguable whether or not he
suffered an injustice.
The court found Mathews guilty of bearing down upon his enemy
without waiting to form a line for battle; and of not steering
his main force against the enemy's main force. Next he was
convicted of bringing the fleet into proper danger; but on this
charge he was acquitted.
The proceedings of the court were not made public; causing public concern, all believed Lestock to be guilty, but he had escaped because in addition to being a good Whig, he had kept within the letter of the Instructions.
Mathews had not escaped because he had not done so. The British
fleet in this action captured one ship - a Spaniard. It was a
somewhat rediculous prize for the powerfulness of the fleet; but
at least it was one better than the previous eleven battles.
Fast Boats Pages
Joe Wezley Pages
Whatever The Technical Faults
Or the moral shortcomings of Mathews, there remains a spark of
boldness and initiative about him that commands some respect. He
did try to get the better of his circumstances. Nor is it possible to blame the failure entirely on him; Lestock must take his share, and many of his captains.
Also we should take into account the long inactive period which
preceeded the war, and not least the neglect of the Navy, both
in personnel and material; and above all the deadweight of the
Instructions; all must share the factors of failure.
The whole Navy, every department of it, was at a very low ebb in
1744. After this during the long series of French wars, the tide
of change started to arrive. Naval tactics were released once more, and allowed to retake the road of normal healthy development.
The continuation of this Naval History will be: "The Battle Of Jutland"
The Battle Of Jutland
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