HC Deb 03 March 1808 vol 10 cc879-87
Mr. Calcraft

rose to call the attention of the house to a subject of as serious a nature as any that could he submitted to parliament: nothing connected with so leading a feature in the defence of our country as the British navy could possibly be deemed unimportant; nor could that house, or the country, exercise too strict a jealousy over that public board, to which the conduct and interests of the navy were at any time entrusted. He confessed, that not only in the instance with respect to which he was now to move for certain papers, did he think the conduct of the noble lord at the head of the admiralty not the most judicious in the appointment of an hon. captain to so eminent a command as he lately held in the Baltic expedition, he did think that that noble lord had not exercised a sound discretion. This, how, ever, he only touched upon, and would pass to the business immediately before the house. In the first place then, he took it upon him to assert, that sir Richard Strachan had been compelled to abandon the blockade of the Rochfort Squadron by the want of a seasonable supply of provisions; and this assertion ho did not wish the house to take upon his Own bare statement: so far from it, that he now moved for the documents, which, when upon the table of that house, would either confirm or falsify that statement. The circumstances, he had reason to believe, were simply these: sir Rd. Strachan had been compelled, by the want of provisions, to abandon the blockade; and so very urgent was the necessity, that he was compelled to cruize in the offing for whatever he could meet; whether the long and vainly expected victuallers, or whatever chance might throw in his way. When that gallant officer met the Superb, the supply with which he was furnished from that vessel was not sufficient to enable him to follow in pursuit of the, enemy; but there could not be a stronger proof of the extreme pressure and extent of his necessity than the fact he was about to state to the house: that after the gallant admiral had come up with the Superb and Colossus, and after he had taken from them all they could possibly spare, he was obliged to apply to the Ferrol squadron, and get from them all they could give. Here it appeared to him as if the common routine had been lost sight of, which had prescribed the utmost vigilance and attention towards all blockading squadrons; not to mention what an extraordinary claim the peculiar situation of sir Rd. Strachan should have had upon their attention; and yet during the period that that squadron was suffering so much, ships were daily sailing from Portsmouth and Plymouth with fair winds. He was, therefore, at present, totally at a loss to conjecture how ministers could satisfactorily account for such unpardonable negligence; for if there was a situation more distressing in the service than another, of severer duty and more incessant fatigue, for a set of brave men to Le placed in, it was that of a blockade; and accordingly, it had been hitherto the uniform practice of all former boards of admiralty to pay to all blockading squadrons the strictest and most active attention; to anticipate their wants, and not to abandon them to the chance of casual relief, while tossing in the bay of Biscay. The blockade service was a service of patient suffering to brave men, who could not have the hopes of honourable victory to animate their zeal; it was the barren discharge of a fatiguing duty; but how was that hardship aggravated by such cruel neglect as he had too much reason to fear had occurred in the present instance? Who could say of what this neglect might not have deprived the country? When the want of provisions had driven sir R. Strachan from his blockade, he was cruizing in Basque roads, at three miles distance from the enemy's squadron, and if he had not been sadly destitute of provisions he would have pursued them; and what the result would have been it needed no extraordinary spirit of prophecy to divine. —He did not think there could be a more important ground for parliamentary investigation; an officer of high professional character had been obliged to abandon a most important service and in consequence, the very effect, which it was the sole object of that service to prevent, had occurred; the enemy had taken advantage of the opportunity afforded them, and had escaped. There was no obstruction, no difficulty in the way of provisioning the squadron appointed to watch them, and the house and the country were vet to be satisfied why the lords commissioners had not done their duty. He, for his part, was at a loss to conceive upon what ground such neglect would be attempted to be justified. For the satisfaction of the house, the fullest information was desirable. He did not rest upon mere assertion, nor did he ask that house to be guided in their decision upon the question by any other evidence than that which would appear in the documents he should now move for; and he was satisfied that, unless he had laboured under gross mistake, he should be able from those papers to make out a case sufficiently strong to justify him in the part he had felt it his duty to take. In the resolutions he should have the honour of moving, it would appear that his object was to comprehend every information that could be thought necessary to a right understanding of the present question. If he was wrong in his statement, the documents he called for would correct him; if he was right, parliament would insist upon inquiry. He could not readily anticipate a single objection to the production of these. papers; they would make no improper disclosure, reveal no secret information, betray no private confidence, endanger no foreign communications; and yet, he was sorry to state, that he had learned that a part only of the papers he asked for would be granted. The list of the ships under the command of sir R.Strachan, ascertaining the time for which each was victualled, would be granted. There was no objection either to the weekly accounts; but the letters from sir Rd. Strachan to lord Gardner, and the admiralty, complaining of the destitute state in which he had been left upon so important and harassing a duty, as well as the accounts given in those letters of the then state of the squadron under that officer's command; these, he was sorry to say, had been refused him, and reasons for that refusal he was yet to learn. The hon. gent. then concluded with moving for the lowing papers. "1. A List of the ships which were under the orders of rear-admiral-sir Rd. Strachan, on the 1st Dec. 1st Jan. and 1st Feb. last, stating against each ship the day when she last sailed from port, and the time for which she was then victualled. 2. Copies of all the several Accounts (commonly called Weekly accounts) which have been received at the admiralty, or by admiral lord Gardner, slewing the state and conditions of the ships under the orders of rear-admiral sir Rd. Strachan, between the 1st Nov. and 31st Jan. last. 3. Copies, or extracts, of all Letters received by the admiralty, or by admiral lord Gardner, from rear-admiral sir Rd. Strachan, dated in Nov. Dec. and Jan. last, which relate to the state of the water and provisions on board the squadron under his orders, or which may have described the actual or probable necessity of his putting the crews of the ships upon short allowance thereof, and of the replies thereto. 4. An Account shewing the time that the squadron under the orders of rear-admiral sir Rd. Strachan, or any of the ships belonging to it, was at short allowance of water and provisions, in Nov. Dec. and Jan. last; and to what proportions, and in what articles, the usual allowance to the crews had been reduced; and copies of any orders which had been given by the rear-admiral for that pur- pose. 5. Copies, or extracts, of all Letters received by the admiralty, or by admiral lord Gardner, from rear-admiral sir Rd. Strachan, stating any reason which made it necessary for him to quit his station before the port of Rochfort, prior to the sailing of the French squadron from that port, in Jan. last; and likewise the copies, or extracts, of all letters stating any reasons which have made it necessary for him, subsequent thereto, to take provisions and water out of the ships cruizing off Ferrol."

Mr. Wellesley Pole

professed an inclination to grant every paper that could with propriety be given. The whole of the letters of sir R. Strachan to lord Gardner and admiral Young, could not with propriety be given, as they detailed the course which the commander of the blockading squadron thought it best, under such circumstances, to pursue. He had not seen the motions till he had entered the house. They had not been sent to the admiralty, nor any where else, for the information of the persons entrusted with the particular department, to consider how far it would be proper to comply with them. By the latest accounts received from sir Richard Strachan, which were dated Jan 18, it would be found that, on dividing the supplies, each line-of-battle ship had ten weeks bread, and 13 or 14 weeks meat, with a like quantity of every other necessary, and six weeks and five days water. The frigates were still better supplied than the ships of the line. The Mediator was not a transport, but a large man of war; the order for fitting her out was issued on Dec. 4, but it was impossible, from the tempestuous weather, to prepare her till the 21st of that month. The same cause prevented her sailing till the 8th of Jan. They joined on the 12th of that month, but it was not till the 18th that the clearing of the Mediator commenced, and it was not finished till the 19th. The Mediator, in addition to the other supplies, contained a large quantity of vegetables, and 40 bullocks. The hon. gent. was compelled to admit, that two line-of-battle ships joined sir Rd. Strachan's squadron on the 16th of January, the Colossus and the Superb, with the Lavinia frigate, one of the finest in the navy, victualled for five months. On the 23d the Cumberland joined; and there was then an average supply of ten weeks bread, 13 weeks of other articles, six weeks and five days water, 40 bullocks, and three fresh ships. On the 23d, a transport and a gun-brig joined, with every species of provisions; but the admiral sent them back to Plymouth, not being in such want as to induce him to delay his pursuit of the enemy, of whose course he had got information. It was not true that sir Richard Strachan had been obliged to get supplies from the squadron off Ferrol, or that he had gone off that port. It was on the 23d that sir Richard Strachan had intelligence of the sailing of the enemy, and it was not till the 29th that he had reason to be certain of the fact. From the 23d it blew a gale of wind, and it was impossible to clear the bay. In the attempt to clear Oleron light-house, he carried away his main-yard, which was known to be no light mischief at sea. He stopped three days to distribute the provisions equally among the ships, but not to take any other supplies; and so far was he from being unable to pursue the enemy, that he was now probably far up the Mediterranean, having received intelligence of their having taken that course. Having said thus much as to the state of the squadron under sir Rd. Strachan, he would now come to the wanton, indecent, and unfounded attack which the hon. gent. had gone out of his way to make on the noble lord at the head of the admiralty. It was certainly to be lamented if supplies could not be sent in so regular and copious a manner as not to leave a wish or a want ungratified. But let gentlemen consider all that the admiralty had to do in addition to former duties. The fleet from the Baltic arrived at Spithead on the 6th Nov. having 16 sail of the line, 10 frigates, and 15 sloops, under its convoy, with a part of the British crews. This fleet had encountered much bad weather, and some of the ships were lost coining to the Downs from Yarmouth. Some time was required to put the ships and crews to rights, so as to be efficient for service; and he should surprize the hon. gent. by telling him how soon that was done. It the course of Nov. there were 12 sail of the line at St. Helen's waiting for the Russian fleet. Sir Sidney Smith was sent with six sail to Lisbon, and five sail were sent after him; a force by means of which he was enabled to rescue the Prince Regent and royal family of Portugal, and to send them to the Brazils with a convoy of four sail, and to continue the blockade of the Tagus in the most effectual manner. Four sail of the line were besides sent with sir S. Hood to secure Madeira. With all these occasions, added to that of the blockade of Brest, other difficulties arose in sending supplies of provisions to sir Rd. Strachan's squadron, particularly from the tempestuous state of the weather. The best mode of relieving blockading squadrons was to send fresh ships; the men had thus an opportunity of being refreshed, and the wear and tear of ships was much diminished. He could not here omit paying a just tribute to the patience and zeal of the officers of the squadron under sir Rd. Strachan, who bore every hardship with cheerfulness for the good of their country. Every attention and relief was due to such men; but the admiralty could only appropriate such means of relief as they had. Was it consistent with the public service to allow sir S. Smith to rest idle from want of sufficient force? Was it desirable to keep back the expedition under sir S. Hood, and to suffer the Russian fleet, if it had come out, to proceed home unmolested? Certainly no Englishman would say so. Every relief competent with circumstances had been afforded to the blockading squadrons. The ships ordered to the relief of sir Rd. Strachan's squadron were the Bellerophon, which, when partly fitted out, was found to be so bad that it was necessary to take her into dock at Plymouth to be repaired. The Superb, Colossus, and Cumberland joined: the Spencer was prepared, but prevented from joining by an epidemic disorder breaking out among her crew. He would leave it to naval authorities whether a relief of five ships upon seven was not ample and adequate. Sir Rd. Strachan was driven from his anchorage in Basque roads by bad weather. He met the relief ships in the rendezvous appointed in his last general letter. Sir Rd. was now up the Mediterranean; Brest was blockaded; Madeira was looked to; the West Indies were safe; and we had a tolerable force to look the American gentlemen in the face if they should prove refractory. The admiralty, so long as it was directed by the noble lord now at the head of it, would not shrink from any attack that might be made by the hon. gent. opposite. Let the charges be brought forward upon the papers; but let not a premature and uncandid aspersion be cast upon a man who stood as high any other in the country. The hon. gent. concluded with reading a resolution which was nearly the same in substance as what had been Moved by Mr. Calcraft, and expressing his willingness to grant any information which could, without danger to the public interest, be given.

Earl Temple

observed, that certainly the resolutions read by the hon. gent. could not answer the purpose of his hon. friend, as there was omitted in them the letter of sir Rd. Strachan to lord Gardner, applying for relief. He said that the weather could not have been so tempestuous at that time, as he knew that from the 6th of Nov. to the 25th of Dec. ships sailed daily west ward from Portsmouth. The charge brought against the board was sufficiently plain, arising out of the fact that sir Rd. Strachan was obliged to leave is cruizing ground to meet victuallers; but by remaining at Rochfort he would be obliged to capitulate for want of provisions.

Lord Castlereagh

stated, that the Adrian cutter had sailed with victuallers on the 14th of Nov. and had arrived on the 30th.

Mr. W. Pole

rose to supply an omission in his statement. The Colossus joined on the 12th, and the enemy did not come out till the 18th of Jan. Our squadron and the Collossus did not communicate till the 18th, and on account of foul weather, the Mediator was not cleared till the 19th.

Mr. Calcraft

, in reply, observed that he was not aware that any observations be had felt it his duty to make, deserved so harsh a character as the hon. gent. had been pleased to bestow upon them. In the little he had to offer at any time to the house, he was not much in the habit of indulging in charges, or making use of terms that could justly be stigmatized as indecent. He had questioned the conduct of the noble lord at the head of the admiralty upon two grounds; one was the appointment of sir Home Popham to an eminent command under circumstances that had excited a considerable irritation; an appointment which he had thought, and did still think, extremely ill judged: it was an appointment that had given rise to a very general sensation of well-grounded jealousy among the officers of the British navy. The public prints had recorded their dissatisfaction; it was a circumstance known throughout the country nor did the country think those officers had been well treated. His other ground of objection was the reprehensible neglect of our squadron off Rochfort. The hon. gent. had ingeniously steered clear of both these topics and thought the house would suppose he Was answering them when he was giving his very accurate details of what he and his colleagues had done; with what? the British navy! There was, no doubt, great reason for boasting what a man could do with such an instrument as the British fleet. He had told them that Brest was now blockaded; but did he forget that the abandoning of that very blockade was one of the consequences of the neglect of the Rochfort squadron? that sir John Duckworth, on hearing of the escape of the enemy from Rochfort, set out in pursuit of them, and that Brest was left open for 7 or 8 days? As to what had fallen from the hon. gent. as to the propriety of sending him a previous communication of what resolutions he had to submit to the house, he reminded the hon. gent. that the moment he got a copy of the resolutions he shewed it to him; and that he had yesterday a personal communication with him on the substance of what he meant to move for; therefore the hon. gent. could not be taken by surprize. But, as to the propriety of sending a copy to the board of admiralty, or any other board whatever, he conceived himself under no such obligation. He made that motion in his place, as a member of parliament; and he would not descend from that character, or compromise its dignity, by assenting to such a position. He concluded by pledging himself to the house to make good his statements, when the papers moved for were laid upon the table. —The question was then put and carried.