For by the dewy moonlight still,
He fed the weary-turning mill,
Or bent him in the chill morass
To pluck the long and tangled grass,
And hear above his scar-worn back
The heavy slave-whip's frequent crack!
There has been a time in the history of the chief maritime nations of Europe when it has fallen to the lot of each to seize and to hold the supreme sovereignty of the waters. Sometimes this mastery was for but a very brief duration; sometimes it was jealously maintained for years. But always was it kept at the cost of the greatest and most heroic effort, and lost because another power exceeded this endeavor.
One of these brilliant but short flashes of triumph came to France during the reign of Louis XIV, at the very outset of her career as a recognized naval power. Of the four illustrious seamen who were largely responsible for France's strength on the deep blue waters, none contributed quite so strongly as Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Tourville.
This valiant seaman was born at the castle of Tourville in Normandy in the year 1642, coming from a long line of noble and distinguished ancestry. His father, the Baron de Tourville, died when he was five years old. Slender and pale, almost delicate, it was little thought that this frail boy was destined to spend forty-five years of his life in an active and tireless service on the sea, and that he was to be counted the foremost commander of his time.
Tourville's noble birth automatically entitled him to become a member of the famous Order of the Knights of Malta. As a preface to this distinction, at fourteen he became a page to the grand master of the Order. He served as page three years, was then placed on probation a twelve month for the higher honor of Knight, and when eighteen years old stepped into the much-coveted position.
This was a proud day for the youth—a day that opened his long career as a seaman. The ensuing seven years of his life were spent on the Mediterranean, far from home, fighting the Moorish buccaneers who swarmed over the narrow seas, and protecting the commerce of France from their ravages. These wild corsairs, the highwaymen of the Mediterranean, whose haunts lay along the creeks and inlets of the North African coast, for more than a hundred and fifty years had been stabbing the commerce of all Christian Europe. They had spread terror along the southern shores of that continent; they had even ravaged the seaport towns of Spain, Italy, and Sicily; they had interrupted trading, held up rich convoys bound to distant marts, and chained thousands of unlucky Christian slaves to the galley benches of their robber craft. Many of the greatest seamen of recent ages, admirals of Italy, Spain, France, and Holland, had spent the best years of their lives in hunting down and trying to annihilate these leeches of trade. But their natural rivals and untiring enemies, those whose special mission it had become to dispute and weaken their power, were the Knights of Malta, themselves the Christian pirates of the Mediterranean, whose booty was these corsairs from the Barbary steppes.
The brilliant crusades against the Moorish crescent were carried on in a fleet of galleys most splendidly equipped. Every Knight was obliged to serve in four cruises of six months each, and few it was of them who were not sorry when their period of stirring adventure came to an official end. Young Tourville particularly started out upon his voyages with gusto. In his very first encounter with the Barbary pirates he exposed himself heedlessly to the sweeping fire of the enemy, and fought with such abandon of bravery that he won the admiration of friend and foe alike. In this encounter he was finally wounded in three places, but insisted on staying on deck and using his gun.
Following came a long succession of heroic deeds. These brought him a reputation for ability and intrepid courage that spread from Venice to the royal court of France. The Venetian republic was so grateful for his services in relieving her from the depredations of the Algerian sea-rovers that she bestowed upon him the titles of "Protector of Maritime Commerce" and "Invincible Seaman." As a sequel Louis XIV, his own ruler, sent for him and personally complimented him upon his fine exploits. Shortly afterward he received his commission as captain in the Royal Navy, and was given the command of a ship.
Meanwhile the relations of France to other continental nations became strained. Finally, in 1672, she and Great Britain united with the purpose of crushing the power of the Netherlands, as stated in a preceding section of this volume. In this step France was largely actuated by her feeling of security in the navy which she had recently built up—a navy such as she had never owned before, a navy that was the greatest pride of the King's heart, and one which he was very desirous of trying out, like a boy with a new kite. Envy of the enormous commercial wealth of the Netherlands, with Louis XIV at least, was a secondary consideration.
Great Britain, weary of hostilities, had withdrawn from the contest and had signed a treaty of peace with the Dutch. France was left to continue the war alone with her doughty antagonist. Determined to destroy the commerce of the Netherlands, she sent her men-of-war to the Mediterranean.
In the battles that followed in southern waters Tourville took an active part under the leadership of Admiral Duquesne. With him were many other gallant young Frenchmen, the pick of all France, but of them all none stood out so brilliantly in action as the dashing, slender figure of Tourville himself, then thirty-four years old.
Allied with Holland, Spain was threatened with the loss of one of her most important possessions in the Mediterranean. This was Messina, a seaport in Sicily, queen island of the South Sea. The people had risen in revolt against the Catholic King, had captured the forts and gained almost entire possession of the city. Too weak, however, to maintain the rebellion without foreign aid, the Messinese asked for the protection of the King of France.
At this stage of affairs Admiral Vivonne was lying at anchor with his fleet off the coast of Catalonia. With him were such renowned seamen of France as Valbelle, Preuilly, and Tourville. He dispatched Valbelle, on September 27th, 1674,with a small squadron to help the insurgents. This failing to meet the demands of the occasion, in January a second expedition was sent with Tourville as captain.
Several forts had been retaken by the Spaniards in the meantime, among which were the Pharo and Reggio. Outside the gates of Messina was encamped a Spanish army. This force, aided by a fleet of forty-one sail which guarded the entrance to the Straits, pressed the city vigorously. Thus Messina lay, surrounded by land and sea, practically at the mercy of the Spaniards when, on the 2nd of January, Valbelle appeared with his small squadron consisting of six war-ships, one frigate, three fire-ships, and a convoy of supply vessels.
Favored by fresh winds and an incoming tide, the French flotilla dashed through the channel, swept past the barricade of Spanish galleys, weathered the fire of the forts, and forced an entrance into the Straits with bewildering audacity. Amazed to inaction the heavy men-of-war offered little resistance. Messina was relieved by a brilliant stroke.
But the new supply of provisions could not last forever. At the end of five weeks the stores were exhausted. Starvation faced the rescued. The sorely besieged prayed that succor might reach them before it was too late. That prayer was answered.
In February Tourville's ships sailed into view, and soon followed more French ships in the shape of the squadrons of Duquesne and Vivonne and Valbelle. This great force was more than the Spaniards could withstand. In a short time they were put to flight, leaving half their number behind. Needless to say the victors were received with the wildest joy and greatest gratitude when they entered Messina and brought huge stores of food to the besieged rebels.
During the remainder of the year of 1675 the French strengthened themselves in Sicily, and extended their conquests along the southern coast.
On the 17th of August twenty-nine ships under Vivonne anchored in the bay before Agosta and opened fire on the forts protecting the harbor. While this was going on Tourville was leading six ships to the mouth of the harbor. Despite the galling fire to which he was soon subjected he forced an entrance and turned his broadsides upon Fort Avalo, the strongest and most important of the enemy defenses.
As the fort still held out after a brisk cannonading, Tourville sent Cöetlogon with a small landing party to make an attack at closer quarters. Under a storm of shot and stones the first barricade was then taken, but Cöetlogon's little force was threatened with capture by his numerous foe. Alarmed for the safety of his friend, Tourville threw himself into a small boat with a few volunteers and flew to the succor.
The Spaniards made a feint by running up a white flag. When the rescuers had come within range they let loose a wild storm of artillery in their direction. But Tourville was not to be nonplussed. After an hour's obstinate attack, the second barricade was carried, the fort surrendered, and the first landing party was saved. The town quickly thereafter capitulated.
In reporting this success Tourville, as customary, gave the lion's share of the credit to his officers and men. But his government, while up to this time slow to promote him, was not blind to the truth, and a year later the modest and intrepid captain was rewarded with a commission as commodore.
Imagine yourself gazing down upon the volcanic Islands of Lipari—the very outposts of Sicily—the rock sentinels that guard the entrance to the Gulf of joy and act as finger posts for many a grizzled mariner as he feels his way along the shores of Italy past her beautiful Queen Island.
On Stromboli, which forms the gateway to the gulf, stands the great lighthouse of the southern sea. Rising more than two thousand feet above the blue waters into which it has so often spat its molten saliva, Mount Etna in solitary grandeur furnishes by night the ever-burning beacon to seamen which is denied to Lipari. At the foot of this centuries-old volcano, under the open maw of fiercely-boiling flame, turbulent gases, and gurgling lava, the greatest seafighters of the age have now gathered to measure their skill and prowess.
Sent by William of Orange to the Mediterranean to make a juncture with the Spanish fleet and force the rebel Sicilian town to return to the allegiance of the King of Spain, the famous De Ruyter faces the French fleet with eighteen Dutch men-of-war. Duquesne's force numbers twenty-five war-ships and six fire-ships. He has divided his flotilla into three squadrons, one of which is commanded by Tourville.
For twenty-four hours the rival fleets lay watching each other warily, maneuvering to gain advantage of the wind. As the first gray light of dawn begins to appear in the east on the morning of the 8th of January, 1676, a stiff breeze springs up to the advantage of the French. Without hesitation Duquesne orders sail set, and bears down upon his enemy.
The Dutch receive the onslaught with a firm front, retaliating with a heavy fire. From ten in the morning till ten at night both sides fight with vigor, often coming to close quarters. From the deck of his ship, the Sceptre, Tourville supports his leader valiantly, never failing to be in the hottest part of the combat. On one occasion he is assailed by a huge three decker. The latter's heavy guns soon create havoc with his rigging, and his ship, crippled and shot torn from bow to stern, is only saved by a French fire-ship that comes to his assistance.
Just before nightfall a squadron of nine Spanish galleys pounce down upon the French flag-ship, and annoy her with their powerful chase guns, but Tourville sends several thirty-six pound cannon ball among them, and they scatter precipitately. When darkness comes, the loss to the combatants has been about equal, each suffering considerably.
The next day both fleets receive reënforcement. But the battle is not renewed; Duquesne sails around Sicily and enters Messina harbor from the south; De Ruyter goes first to Naples and afterward to Palmero to revictual and refit.
The most important action, however, was yet to take place.
On April 22d, between Catania and Agosta, the French fleet of thirty men-of-war encountered the combined squadrons of Spain and Holland, numbering three less ships. Bearing down quietly upon one another, no sign of hostility was apparent until they were within musket shot range. Then suddenly both fleets let loose violent broadsides.
The conflict was prolonged and furious. Toward the close of the day De Ruyter's flagship succeeded in closing with the Saint Esprit, at whose masthead flew the ensign of Duquesne. In a moment the two rival flagships were doing their utmost to sink the other. All their available guns were aimed with the deadliest intent, and men stood ready with boarding tools and weapons for the time when the crucial moment should arrive.
At this juncture Tourville observed his chieftain's predicament. With the Sceptre and Saint Michel he appeared quickly on the scene, a ship at either side of the Dutch flagship. Neatly trapped, it was by the utmost difficulty and only with a fine example of his famous seamanship that De Ruyter managed to extricate himself without capture. However, he had been sorely wounded himself. Not until later did this knowledge come to the French—not until their brave adversary's fleet had retired to Syracuse and De Ruyter's body had been consigned to the sea by his sorrowing countrymen.
By ten o'clock that evening the combat ceased. Next morning, in rain and mist, the combatants separated, the French to keep to the seas until May 1st, after which they sailed into the harbor of Messina.
The death of De Ruyter was an irreparable blow to the Allied fleet. Robbed of the strength of its most able commander, it is not to be wondered at that the next sea battle fought by the French proved to be one of the most signal naval triumphs on record.
After restocking and repairing their ships, the Allies had sailed out of Syracuse harbor, doubled the island of Sicily, and entered the port of Palmero, where they intended to await the movements of the French fleet. Their idleness was short lived.
Compte de Tourville.
On May 28th the French fleet of twenty-nine warships, nearly as many galleys, and almost a dozen fire-ships, put to sea from the harbor of Messina. It passed through the channel of the Pharo, and sailed northward on a lookout for the enemy. The Duke of Vivonne, viceroy of Sicily and nominal head of the Mediterranean fleet, was a member of the expedition, having come along in person that he might share what was considered to be the last glorious venture of French arms. His flag was run up on Tourville's ship, the Sceptre, which thus became the chief vessel of the center. Duquesne, as vice-admiral, took command of the vanguard.
Something like four days after leaving Messina, the French fleet sighted Palmero. There, before their eyes, the complete fleet of the Allies rode at anchor, arranged in battle formation. On the right and left wings were the Dutch ships under the command of Admiral Haan, who had succeeded De Ruyter. In the center the Spanish vessels were concentrated under De Ibarra. The craft were three or four cable lengths from the entrance to the roadstead, some of them being sheltered by the mole. In all there were in the combined Dutch-Spanish fleet twenty-seven ships-of-war, nineteen galleys, and four fire-ships.
No sooner had the French sighted the enemy than Vivonne called four of his most trusted officers for a most difficult and perilous undertaking. Among them was Tourville, the youngest of the commodores. These officers were asked to make a complete examination of the adversary's position, and to draw up a plan of his defenses.
The party set out in a small sailboat in broad daylight. Supported by the squadron of galleys, which were ready to protect them with their guns at the slightest provocation, the valiant and devoted quartet of young Frenchmen entered the harbor and approached to within close range of the serried battle front. Sailing up and down the enemy's line, Tourville and his companions made careful observations, no detail of the arrangements of defense escaping their vigilant eyes. Struck with admiration at their audacious bravery the Dutch and Spanish looked on silently. Not a gun did they fire.
Vivonne at once called a council of war to decide on a plan of attack. Tourville had already worked out a plan of procedure in his active mind which he now presented to his commander-in-chief. So pleased were the officers with this, especially Vivonne himself, that, after some discussion it was accepted with no little enthusiasm.
A stiff breeze was blowing from the northwest the next morning, the 2nd of June. Shortly after daybreak, aided by this breeze, the French fleet sailed, in battle order, through the entrance to the harbor. They were led by nine selected war-ships and five fire-ships which were to open action by attacking the head of the enemy's line. Every deck was cleared for action, every man was at his post.
But before the French had swung into place, the Dutch opened fire. Their heaviest broadsides were poured into the bold intruders. In return the French sent even more furious and well-directed charges across the waters at the Dutch. This made their ships quiver and waver. Along the whole line the French fire was fully as terrible. The very impetuosity of their attack, coupled with the deadliness of their aim, soon filled the Allies with fear and dismay. In less than half an hour the Spanish vice-admiral had cut his own cables and drifted toward shore in a spasmodic effort to save his ship from capture.
With the line open, the French renewed their attack with greater vigor than before. Two more flagships were compelled to cut their cables, and in the resulting panic other Dutch and Spanish ships followed suit. The French made good use of their fire-ships, through their agency burning twelve enemy men-of-war, among them a Spanish and Dutch flagship. The Capitane and Steenberg—Spanish and Dutch vessels, respectively,—blew up with fearful force, covering the surrounding bay and some of their surviving craft with burning débris.
As the flames gathered headway and communicated to neighboring sister ships, consternation seized the Allies. Wild with terror Dutch and Spaniards alike fled for refuge behind the mole. Here, subjected to new frightfulness in the form of burning balls and shot-spraying grenades, which fell in showers on the city of Palmero, they fled inland.
The victory could scarcely have been more brilliant and complete. By it the French had asserted their mastery of the waters of the Mediterranean. The very blow that had relegated the strong navy of Spain into the dust had raised the navy of France to the pinnacle of sea powers.
The famous treaty of Nimègue, signed on the 10th of August, 1678, between Louis XIV on the one side and half of Europe on the other, marked the beginning of that dazzling period of naval supremacy which, during almost fifteen years, placed France for the first and only time in her history at the head of maritime nations. The flag of every country saluted the standard that floated proudly from the mastheads of the ships of France.
Not long after this, action on the seas again became imperative for the French. The commerce of Europe had been endangered by the piratical swoops of the corsairs of Barbary. In order to effectually put a stop to these bare-faced robberies of her merchantmen France decided it was advisable to attack the miscreants in their main retreat—Algiers. To this lair it was their habit to lead their captured prizes, fortifying themselves against interference in its ample, well caparisoned harbor. In Algiers it was truly suspected that thousands of Christian captives languished in foul prisons and in wretched servitude.
So in the summer of 1682, and again the following year, a French fleet under Duquesne and Tourville was sent to do what it could to clean out this nest of the pirates. For the first time new weapons were to be used. Among the heavy ships-of-the-line you might have seen small, flat-bottomed boats called bomb-galiots, each of which carried two mortars and four guns.
Reaching the harbor of Algiers, the Frenchmen lost no time in letting the sea-robbers know they meant business. From the warships cannon ball were thrown into the beautiful Moorish city, and from the mortars on the newly invented galiots death-carrying, destructive bombs were rained upon the roofs of the buccaneers homes and storehouses and places of amusement, as well as other buildings.
Palaces and mosques fell in a mass of ruins; storehouses were wrecked or burned; houses crumbled. The wives and children of the pirates, the pirates themselves, their slaves and captives, could be seen running through the streets in frantic quest of better shelter: Many captives took advantage of the terror of their brutal captors to run down to the water's edge where, with outstretched arms, they mutely plead for rescue.
Tourville—now a vice-admiral, and first in every perilous enterprise—came and went in a small boat, subjected to incessant fire from the shore, to direct and watch the work of the mortars. His heart ached for the supplicating captives, but it would have been suicide to have attempted their rescue just then.
At length the Algerians sued for peace. But Duquesne and Tourville refused to listen until every Christian captive had been delivered from bondage. Then for five days there was silence on the bay and a respite in the city, while boatload after boatload of Christians were carried from the shore to the ships that were to take them from slavery back to their almost-God-forgotten homes. Half-starved, hollow-cheeked, ragged, eyes dulled till only the fever-flame of life's last piteous grip gave them Divine expression at all, more than seven hundred white slaves of the Barbary pirates were thus restored to liberty. It was a proud day for Duquesne and Tourville, for it had brought them a greater trophy than ever mere victory over an enemy at sea. No quantity of prize war-ships could ever equal their satisfaction at this saving of their fellow men from a cruel bondage.