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Allegations of War Crimes at Sea in 1915

Germany announced on 4 February 1915 that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters round the United Kingdom from 18 February. It justified this on the grounds that the British blockade of Germany contravened international law. This led to heavy losses in Allied shipping, most infamously the sinking of the liner Lusitania on 7 May with the loss of 1,201 lives including 128 Americans.

A number of incidents involving submarines that occurred between 18 and 21 August led to both Germany and the UK accusing the other of being guilty of atrocities.

The first of these took place in the early hours of 18 August. The submarines HMS E8 and E13 were on their way to the Baltic to join their sister boats E1 and E9 when E13 suffered problems with her magnetic compass. She went off course and ran aground in Danish waters. At 5:00 am a Danish torpedo boat arrived, informing Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, E13’s captain, that he had the normal 24 hours to get his boat underway, but that no help would be given.

At 9:00 am, by when another Danish torpedo boat had arrived, two German destroyers appeared. One of them, SMS G132, fired a torpedo at E13 from a range of 300 yards and opened fire with all her guns, although the submarine was in neutral waters. She was soon in flames and her crew abandoned ship. The Germans fired on them in the water until one of the Danish torpedo boats put herself between the German ships and the swimming survivors. Fifteen men were killed and the others picked up by the Danes.[1] They were interned, but Layton escaped after three months. He rose to the rank of Admiral, holding commands in the Mediterranean and Far East during the Second World War.

The next two incidents both took place on 19 August. The website uboat.net lists seven British and one Spanish merchant ships as having been sunk that day by U24, U27 and U38, which were operating between Ushant and St George’s Channel. A Norwegian ship was also sunk by U25 in the North Sea. Two days earlier U-boats had sunk 11 merchantmen, but they were on average smaller, with a total tonnage of 15,733 tons versus 38,434 tons for the nine sunk on 19 August. The largest ship sunk on 19 August, the 15,801 ton British liner SS Arabic was bigger than all the ships sunk on 17 August combined.

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 was in the process of sinking the 4,930 ton merchant ship Dunsley by gunfire when she observed the Arabic, which was on her way to the USA, approaching. Earlier that day, U24 had survived attempts to ram her by the armed yacht Valiant II and the unarmed trawler Majestic and had been fired on by the defensively armed liner City of Exeter. Schneider was therefore wary of the Arabic and mistook her zigzag course for an attempt to ram his boat. U-boats had been ordered not to sink passenger liners without warning unless the liner was attacking them. Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking him, so fired a single torpedo which hit her. She sank about ten minutes later.[2]

There is some doubt about the number of people on board the Arabic and the number of dead, with the three British Official Histories giving different figures: Naval Operations says 40 dead out of 428 onboard; The Merchant Navy gives 39 killed out of 429; and Seaborne Trade states that 44 died.[3] The Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document written in 1926, says that she was carrying 429 people, 181 passengers and 248 crew, of whom 40, 18 passengers and 22 crew, were killed.[4] A document later published by the British government in response to German accusations that the British Q-ship HMS Baralong had murdered members of U27’s crew claimed 47 dead, a number that was increased to 49 in a later note.[5] Paul Halpern says that 44 died, including two or three US citizens.[6]

Baralong was one of a number of merchantmen given concealed armament and RN volunteer crews in order to act as decoy ships that could trap and destroy U-boats. She was a 4,000 ton ship, capable of carrying 3,000 tons of coal in four holds, that had been requisitioned as a supply ship by the RN. She was given three 12 pounder guns, two of which were concealed by dummy life belt lockers and the other by a sheep pen. Two of her holds were used for coal and the other two were filled with empty barrels that would help to keep her afloat if torpedoed. She was captained by Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert RN, a submariner, with Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Steele RNR as first lieutenant. Her maximum speed was 12 knots ‘on a good day.’[7]

Baralong received the Arabic’s SOS, but arrived too late to help.[8] At 3:00 pm she spotted that a steamer 9 miles away had changed her course significantly. She then received a radio message from the steamer, which was the Nicosian, saying that she was being chased by a submarine. Herbert headed for Nicosian, hoisting the signal for ‘Save life’ when 3 miles away.[9]

The Nicosian was a 6,250 ton ship of the Leyland Line, carrying a cargo of cotton, timber, steel rods and tinned meat plus mules for the British Army from New Orleans to Liverpool. She was unarmed, but carried a dummy gun on her stern. She was British but most of the 48 muleteers who tended to the mules were Americans. Baralong then flying the US flag and also had boards along her sides indicating that she was a US ship.[10] Sailing under false colours was legitimate under the rules of war, provided that the ship lowered and replaced them by her true ones before opening fire.

The submarine, which was U27, was firing on the Nicosian, whose crew had taken to her boats, from 1,000 yards. Baralong passed behind the merchantman, meaning that she was out of sight of the U-boat, dropped her neutral colours, raised the White Ensign and opened fire at 600 yards range once U27 was in sight. Several of the German deck gun crew were hit before they could fire on Baralong. She scored 34 hits with her 12 pounder guns and U27 sank, with the surviving members of her crew jumping into the sea and swimming for the Nicosian. Herbert claimed in her after action report that he was worried that they might try to scuttle or set fire to the ship in order destroying her and her cargo. He consequently ordered his crew to fire on them. Six succeeded in getting on board, so Herbert sent a party of marines across, warning them to be careful in case the Germans found the rifles that were in the Nicosian’s charthouse. According to Herbert, the six Germans who made it on board the Nicosian all ‘succumbed to the injuries they had received from lyddite shell.[11]

The German government issued a memorandum to the British government via the US government that accused ‘Captain William McBride’, a pseudonym adopted by Herbert as part of the pretence that Baralong was a merchant ship, of murder. They produced affidavits sworn by six of the American muleteers made to US public notaries. The witnesses were either on or in the process of boarding Baralong when she fired on the Germans in the water. They agreed that U27’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener, was shot in the water after raising his hands in surrender. [12]

One of them, James J. Curran, claimed that Baralong had opened fire before she lowered her US colours. He also stated that Herbert said to his crew ‘Boys, we’ll shoot those poor wounded devils in the water’ and then told the men that he sent aboard the Nicosian ‘Get them all, take no prisoners.’[13] Another American muleteer, Bud Emerson Palen, said that he heard Herbert tell one of the boarding party that ‘My orders are to take no prisoners.’[14]

The testimony of a seventh American can be disregarded. Larrimore Holland had joined the RN, claiming to be a Canadian. He said that he had been a member of Baralong’s crew, but in fact never went to sea during his four months in the RN. He admitted to being American on 11 August and was discharged from the RN on 24 August.[15]

The British responded to the German demand that ‘McBride’ be charged with murder by suggesting that an impartial court of investigation, perhaps comprising United States Navy officers, should be set up to investigate the alleged incidents in four sinkings that occurred close together: E13 on 18 August, the Arabic and U27 on 19 August and the SS Ruel on 21 August.

The 4,029 ton collier Ruel was attacked by a surfaced submarine whilst returning from Gibraltar to Barry Roads in ballast. After a chase lasting an hour and half Ruel’s crew abandoned ship once the U-boat was a mile away. It then fired on her lifeboats, killing one man and wounding eight. The Ruel sank just as the armed trawler Dewsland and the drifter Campania appeared, chasing off the U-boat.[16]

The Germans said in reply to this that they had already investigated the three incidents in which accusations had been made against their navy. They claimed that that E13 was sunk in the final stage of an engagement and noted that British ships had attacked German ships in neutral waters, that Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking U24 and that the attack on Ruel was in line with the policies that they had introduced in retaliation to the British blockade. They reiterated their demand that the British take action against ‘McBride.’[17]

The British awarded Herbert the Distinguished Service Order but did not say why, a normal security measure when decorations were given to Q-ship crews.

E13 was certainly attacked whilst helpless in neutral waters. The light cruiser SMS Dresden was sunk by the British in Chilean waters, but she had stayed there longer than allowed by international law, which E13 had not.

It is unlikely that the Arabic was trying to ram U24, but Schneider may well have genuinely believed that she was trying to do so.

The Germans may have intended to scuttle the Nicosian. However, Herbert’s claim that all the Germans who managed to swim from U27 to the Nicosian and haul themselves onboard her by ropes were so badly wounded that they soon died is impossible to believe, suggesting that he had something to hide. There are two witnesses that he told his marines to take no prisoners. Curran was an Irish-American who may have been prejudiced against the British.[18] Palen, however, was born in Canada.[19]

There was no justification for the Germans continuing to fire on the crew of the Ruel after they had abandoned ship.

The allegations made by both UK and Germany against the other would therefore appear to be justified, but there was little hope of either side admitting to this in the midst of a war in which the level of violence and ruthlessness was increasing. The first successful use of poison gas was by the Germans at Ypres on 22 April: the French had earlier made limited use of tear gas and a German attempt to use gas on the Eastern Front in January had failed because it did not work in temperatures below zero.[20] The first raid on London by an airship took place on 31 May, killing five people and injuring 35.[21]

The blockades imposed by Germany and the UK both aimed to starve the enemy. Diplomatically, the big difference was that the Germans killed Americans as well as British.

The USA sent Germany a series of strong diplomatic notes after the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Arabic. On 27 August Kaiser Wilhelm II accepted the view of his Chancellor, Theodore von Bethman-Hollweg, that passenger ships, even enemy ones, should not be sunk without warning. Three days later the order was amended to included ‘small passenger steamers’, without defining what this meant.[22]

The naval high command objected, Grosse Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, and Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, both offered their resignations, which were rejected. Pohl argued that the 30 August order meant that U-boats would have to examine ships before attacking them in case they carried passengers, making it impossible to conduct submarine warfare against commerce.[23] Tirpitz was told that he would no longer be needed at ‘consultations on naval questions connected with foreign politics.’[24]

Vize Admiral Gustav von Bachmann was removed as Chief of the Naval staff. On 18 September his replacement, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf, announced that U-boats would be withdrawn from the west coast of the UK and the English Channel. The minelaying UC-boats based in Flanders and some U-boats continued to operate in the North Sea, but the latter were required to follow prize rules . Others were sent to the Mediterranean, where they could attack Allied commerce and communications with much less risk of sinking American ships or killing Americans. The transfer of boats to the Mediterranean and the need to repair others meant that only four would have been available for use west of the UK.[25]

On the night of 4 September the passenger liner Hesperian, bound from Liverpool to Canada, suffered an explosion 125 miles south west of Queenstown. The Germans insisted that she had struck a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found on Hesperian before she sank. Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger’s U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, was in the area.[26] It is unlikely that the Germans would have mined an area in which their submarines were operating..

The last U-boat patrol to the south west of the UK was carried out by U41, which sailed on 14 September. She sank three British ships on 23 September. The next day she stopped and sank the liner Urbino. Another ship then appeared, which U41 approached and ordered to stop. She was HMS Baralong, now captained by Lieutenant-Commander A. Wilmot-Smith. She opened fire and quickly sank U41, before picking up the crew of the Urbino and the two survivors from the U-boat.[27] One of them, Oberleutnant Iwan Crompton, was later repatriated to Germany because of the severity of his wounds. He claimed that Baralong had been flying the US flag when she opened fire, which the British denied.[28]

The switch of U-boats to the Mediterranean did not prevent them killing Americans. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona off Bizerte, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[29]

From the outbreak of war to the start of unrestricted submarine warfare on 28 February 1915 U-boats sank 13 merchant ships with a total tonnage of 23,490 tons. From March to September they sank 431 ships of 677,184 tons.[30] New construction and seizure of enemy shipping meant that the British merchant fleet actually increased in size in the first year of the war. Construction, however, began to fall as shipyards switched to naval construction and repair work and shipyard workers joined the armed forces. At the same time, overseas campaigns increased the demand for shipping.[31]

Five U-boats were lost in 1914, two in January 1915 and 15 from March to September 1915.[32] New construction, meant that Germany had 46 boats at the end of September, but 15 of them were UB coastal boats and 14 were UC coastal minelayers. Only 17 were ocean going, compared with all 26 available at the start of the year. These figures exclude U25, which had been damaged too badly to return to active service, the obsolete U1-4 and U66-70, built in Germany, originally for Austria-Hungary, and then undergoing trials.[33]

The U-boats had shown that they were a potentially deadly weapon. The numbers available in 1915 could not, however, do enough damage to Allied shipping to balance the harm that they did to German relations with the USA.

[1] The last two paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 135-36.

[2] Ibid., p. 131.

[3] Ibid; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. ii, p. 103; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, p. 25.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. pp. 81-82.

[5] PP, Further Correspondence with the German Government Respecting the Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Sinking of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxillary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19, 1915, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8176]. p. 4; Memorandum of the German Government in Regard to Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Destruction of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxiliary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19th, 1915 and Reply of His Majesty’s Government Thereto’, January 1916, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8144]. p. 16.

[6] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 301.

[7] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 21-22.

[8] Ibid., p. 23.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. ‘Appendix N, Report from M.F.A. Baralong’, p. 229,

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 24-27.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. pp. 229-30.

[12] PP, Cd. 8144. pp. 1-4.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 37.

[16] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 33-34.

[17] PP, Cd. 8176.

[18] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 26, 36.

[19] PP, Cd. 8144. p. 6.

[20] H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 135, 168-69.

[21] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[22] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[23] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 141

[24] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[25] Halpern, Naval, p. 302.

[26] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 175.

[27] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[28] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 51-54.

[29] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

[30] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[31] Halpern, Naval, p. 303.

[32] Tarrant, U-Boat, p. 24.

[33] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 63-64.



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The Italian Naval Convention 10 May 1915

Italy, although a member of the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany, had remained neutral in 1914. It had not been consulted beforehand and the treaty did not require it to participate in an attack on Serbia. Austria-Hungary was Italy’s traditional enemy and incorporating the 800,000 Italian speakers around Trieste and in the Trentino region of the Hapsburg empire into Italy was the main objective of Italian nationalists.

Italy had joined the Triple Alliance in 1882 for defensive reasons: it was too weak to fight Austria-Hungary on its own and it considered the German army to be the best in Europe. However, Italy and Austria-Hungary both strengthened their navies and the fortifications on their mutual frontier whilst supposedly allied.

Once war between the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the Entente of France, Russia and the United Kingdom had begun, neutrality was the obvious and most popular course for Italy. It had a long coastline and imported most of its wheat and coal by sea, making it very vulnerable to attack by the Royal Navy.

Italy, however, was biding its time. the question was whether it could best achieve its objectives by joining the Central Powers, the Entente or staying neutral. The Treaty of London of 26 April 1915 required it to join the Entente within a month.

The Italian speaking regions of Trieste and Trentino would become Italian. It would also obtain defensible frontiers and dominance of the Adriatic by the incorporation of German, Croatian and Slovenian speaking areas and receive colonies in Africa and Asia Minor.

The Italians expected wrongly that their objectives could be gained by a quick war against Austria-Hungary, so declared war initially on only it.[1]

On 10 May, a week after Italy had renounced the Triple Alliance, a Naval Convention was signed between France, Italy and the UK. The French navy and the RN would support the Italian navy until the end of the war, unless the Austro-Hungarian fleet was destroyed earlier. The Italians would command in the Adriatic and the French elsewhere in the Mediterranean, except in Ottoman waters, where the British would command until the end of the Dardanelles operation.

The Italian navy would be reinforced by four British battleships, four British light cruisers, 12 French destroyers, as many torpedo boats, submarines and minesweepers as the French could spare, including at least six submarines and six French seaplanes, with a seaplane carrier if possible.[2]

This resulted in the following balance of power in the Adriatic:

Type Austria-Hungary Italy Lent by UK & France
Dreadnoughts 3 4
Pre-dreadnoughts 3 2 4
Smaller battleships 6 4
Cruisers 2 9
Fast light cruisers 5 3 2
Old light cruisers 2 3 2
Destroyers 18 39 12
Torpedo boats 42 28
Submarines 7 21 7

Source: Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1923 vol. viii The Mediterranean 1914-1915, p. 143.

These figures exclude an Austro-Hungarian and two Italian dreadnoughts that were close to completion and some German submarines that were assembled at the Austro-Hungarian base at Pola for operations in the Dardanelles.[3]

The British ships would come from the Dardanelles, where they would be replaced by four French cruisers and an increase in the French battleship force to six.[4]

The Italian handed their declaration of war to the Austro-Hungarians on 23 May: it came into effect at midnight. The British squadron was at the Italian naval base of Taranto by the morning of 27 May.[5]

[1] The above is based on D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 110-13.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1923 vol. viii The Mediterranean 1914-1915. pp. 141-42.

[3] Ibid. Footnotes 1, 2 & 11, p. 143.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, p. 396.

[5] Naval Staff vol. viii. pp. 144-45.


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The End of the War of 1812

The War of 1812 between the United Kingdom and the United States of America, which began when the USA declared war on 18 June 1812, formally ended on 18 February 1815 when the US Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Ghent, which had been signed on 24 December 1814. It was a war without a clear winner, but it did have a clear loser: the Native Americans.

The British initially demanded at the peace conference that a Native American buffer state be set up in the Ohio/Wisconsin area, but were not in strong enough position to insist on this proposal when the USA rejected it, so  quickly dropped the idea. Most, although not all Native Americans, backed the UK in the war. The Creeks also fought and lost a war with the USA in 1813-14.

The Native Americans played a significant role in several British victories, including Detroit and Queenston. However, the death of their leader Tecumseh at the Thames was a severe blow. The British inability to establish a Native American state left them open to US expansion westwards after the war.

The USA had originally gone to war because the UK’s economic war with Napoleonic France was producing British interference with US trade and because the Royal Navy impressed [often shortened to press] US sailors into service. Under British law, the RN was entitle to impress, or conscript, British merchant sailors. These included men who it considered to be British, but who were US citizens in American eyes.

All these causes disappeared when Napoleon was forced to abdicate in April 1814, but fighting in North America continued. Negotiations between the belligerents began at Ghent in August 1814. The victory of the Anglo-Canadian army at Lundy’s Lane on 25 July had by then ended the threat of a US invasion of Canada. The US naval victory at Lake Champlain on 11 September ended the threat of a British invasion of the USA. Consequently, although both countries held some enemy territory, neither had enough of an advantage to affect the negotiations.

The negotiations continued for several months. Eventually, war weariness, the stalemate along the frontier and the removal of the original American grievances by the end of the UK’s war with France led to the negotiators agreeing terms on 24 December: little changed from the pre-war situation. They still had to be ratified by the respective governments: geography meant that the UK did so very quickly, but it took until February before the terms reached Washington.

Operations continued until then. The British control of the seas meant that they could launch a series of amphibious assaults, including one that resulted in the burning of the White House and an unsuccessful attack on Baltimore and another that led to the American victory at New Orleans.

Many Americans heard of the end of the war soon after they learnt of their victory at New Orleans, so it was natural for them to assume that New Orleans had won the war for the USA, but this was not the case. The British were in the early stages of an attack on Mobile when they learnt of the end of the war. It took some time until all the warships at sea learnt that a peace treaty had been signed, so some naval actions took place after the official end of the war.

If there was a decisive American victory of the war it was Lake Champlain. It prevented the British from capturing American territory, which would have given them a bargaining chip that might have forced the US to accept their demand for a Native American buffer state.

Although the war was a draw, a draw was enough for the USA to firmly establish itself as an independent nation and for Canada to remain part of the British Empire and thus later become an independent nation. The war gave Canada a sense of national identity.

The United States Navy was a relative gainer, since it put up a better performance than the United States Army and a established a tradition of victory. However, apart from Lake Champlain, the major naval actions of the war were won by the side that should have won on paper.

The US squadron at Lake Erie was much stronger than the British one. The USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere and HMS Java in separate actions, whilst the USS United States took HMS Macedonian. In each case the US ship was more powerful.

The apparently most evenly balanced frigate action was when HMS Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake, which was similar in size and firepower. However, Philip Broke had captained the British ship for seven years, training her crew to a high level of efficiency. Captain James Lawrence had been in command of  the American ship for only 12 days. The other two American frigates to be captured by the British, the USS Essex and President, were both outnumbered. The sloop USS Wasp captured the roughly equal brig HMS Frolic, but was then forced to surrender to the much stronger HMS Poictiers.

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The Battle of Lake Champlain 11 September 1814

The American victory at the Battle of Lake Champlain, sometimes called the Battle of Plattsburg, on 11 September 1814 was the most decisive naval victory of the War of 1812.

In September 1814 11,000 British and Canadian troops under Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost invaded New York State. Prevost’s men were a mixture of veteran units recently arrived from the Peninsular War, British soldiers already in Canada and Canadians. His intention was to march along the western bank of Lake Champlain. The lakeside town of Plattsburg was defended by fewer than 2,000 effectives under Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb.[1]

The British plan required naval control of Lake Champlain. Both sides strengthened their squadrons in August, with the brig USS Eagle being launched on 16 August and the frigate HMS Confiance nine days later.

The following table shows that the British had two ships more than the Americans, with a greater total tonnage and more sailors, although the British ships may have carried fewer men than their official complements. The total broadsides fired by the two squadrons were very similar, but the British had a significant advantage at long range. Confiance was much bigger than any other vessel on either side, so the advantage would swing towards the Americans if they could put her out of action.

Displacement Broadside, tons
Name Tons Crew Total Long Short
USS Saratoga 734 240 414 96 318
USS Eagle 500 150 264 72 192
USS Ticonderoga 350 112 180 94 96
USS Preble 80 30 36 36 0
6 American gunboats totalling 420 246 252 144 108
4 American gunboats totalling 160 104 48 48
14 American vessels totalling 2244 882 1194 490 714
HMS Confiance 1200 325 480 384 96
HMS Linnet 350 125 96 96 0
HMS Chubb 112 50 96 6 90
HMS Finch 110 50 84 12 72
5 British gunboats totalling 350 205 254 108 146
7 British gunboats totalling 280 182 182 54 128
16 British ships totalling 2402 937 1192 660 532
Source: T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812. 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), vol. Ii, pp. 117-20. The original gives the broadside of the 5 larger British gunboats as being 12 tons from long guns and 72 from short guns. This is presumably a typo, being both improbably low and the same as HMS Finch in the row above. The correct figure has been calculated from Roosevelt’s totals.

Lake Champlain is long and narrow with the wind normally blowing either north or south and a northward current.

Master Commandant [equivalent to a modern Commander] Thomas Macdonough, the American naval commander, anchored his ships in a line in Plattsburg Bay, which meant that the British would have to engage at short range, negating their advantage at long range. The northern end of his line was so close to Cumberland Head that the British could not turn it. A shoal prevented the British from attacking his southern flank.

The order of the American line from the north was the USS Eagle, flanked by two gunboats on each side, Macdonough’s flagship the USS Saratoga, three gunboats, the USS Ticonderoga, three gunboats and finally the USS Preble. The anchors of the four largest American ships had springs attached to them, enabling them to swing in wide arcs whilst remaining anchored. The USS Saratoga, had kedge anchors off her bows, which would allow her to turn round. The positioning of the gunboats prevented the British from attacking the American line from both side, as Lord Nelson had done to the French at the Nile.

Captain George Downie’s British squadron sailed at daybreak and sailed down the lake with the wind almost aft. HMS Chubb and Linnet engaged the Eagle, Downie’s flagship HMS Confiance the USS Saratoga and HMS Finch and the gunboats the rear of the American line.

Downie held HMS Confiance’s fire until everything was ready, with the result that her first broadside was devastating. Half of the USS Saratoga’s crew were thrown off their feet, although many of them were not seriously hurt. However, the American ship replied and Downie was soon killed. Both ships had many guns put out of action, some by enemy fire, others because their inexperienced crews overloaded them.

HMS Chubb was badly damaged by the USS Eagle and the leading American gunboats, drifted away and was captured. HMS Linnet concentrated on the USS Eagle, which was also receiving some of HMS Confiance’s fire. Damage to one of the USS Eagle’s springs meant that she could no longer fire on HMS Linnet, so she cut her other cable, sailed south and anchored in a position where she could fire on HMS Confiance. HMS Linnet then fired on the American gunboats and drove them off, before raking the USS Saratoga’s bows.

Theodore Roosevelt notes that the American would now have lost the battle ‘had not Macdonough’s foresight provided the means of retrieving it.’[2] He ordered the anchor astern of the USS Saratoga to be let go and had her hauled round far enough to allow her undamaged port batteries to come into action.

HMS Confiance had been anchored by springs on her unengaged starboard side. These could not be shot away as had those of the USS Eagle, but did not allow her to turn in order to bring her unengaged batteries into action. With over half her crew casualties, most of the guns on her engaged side out of action and her masts and sails badly damaged, she was forced to strike her colours about two hours after she opened fire.

HMS Linnet could not withdraw because of the damage to her masts and sails, but kept on fighting in the hope that the British gunboats would come to her aid. They did not, and she was forced strike her colours about two and a half hours after the battle began. HMS Finch had already been crippled by the USS Ticonderoga and forced aground. The British gunboats withdrew, possibly taking a shot accidentally fired from HMS Confiance by the Americans after her capture, as a signal to do so.

Roosevelt estimates that over 300 British and about 200 Americans were killed and wounded in the battle. Macdonough reported 52 killed and 58 wounded, but this excludes about 90 lightly wounded who did not have to go to hospital. The Americans took 180 dead and wounded from HMS Confiance, 50 from HMS Linnet and 40 from4 HMS Chubb and Finch. There were 55 shot holes in the USS Saratoga and 105 in HMS Confiance. Macdonough allowed the captured British officers to keep their swords because of the gallant fight that they had put up.[3]

Lake Champlain was the United States Navy’s greatest victory of the War of 1812. The frigate actions were all won by the stronger side. Macdonough was faced by a squadron that was much stronger than his at long range and roughly equal at short range. He placed his squadron in such a way as to force the British to fight at short range and to give him an advantage. Roosevelt describes him as ‘the greatest figure in [US} naval history’ before the American Civil War.’[4]

Alfred Mahan blames Prevost for the British defeat, arguing that he should have taken Plattsburg before the naval action.[5] The American shore batteries of the fortress could not fire on the British squadron without risking hitting the American one. However, if there had been British guns on the shore Macdonough’s position would have been untenable. He would have had to have moved his squadron further out into the lake, where the British superiority in long range gunnery ought to have proved decisive.

Prevost, however, thought that a joint attack on land and water  had to be made. His orders to Downie, according to Mahan, ‘used language indefensible to itself, tending to goad a sensitive man into action contrary to his better judgement.’[6] The land attack was called off once it became clear that the British had lost the naval action.

The result of the Battle of Lake Champlain was that the British invasion of the USA was halted. because it was impossible to advance on land without control of the lake. Peace negotiations had started in Ghent the month before, and the British would have been able to obtain better terms had they held a significant amount of US territory.

[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, pp. 113-14.

[2] Ibid., pp. 137-38.

[3] Ibid., pp. 140-41. and footnote 2,

[4] Ibid., p. 143.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, p. 201.

[6] Ibid., p. 201.


Filed under War History

The Battle of New Orleans 8 January 1815

Negotiations between the United Kingdom and the United States to end the War of 1812 began in Ghent in late August 1814. A peace treaty was signed on 24 December and ratified by the British government three days later. However, the slow speed of communications in those days meant that it took some time until the news reached the USA. Fighting therefore continued for nearly two months.

In December 1814 10,000 British troops landed near New Orleans. They were commanded by Sir Edward Pakenham, like most of his men a veteran of the Peninsular War. The advance guard under Major General John Keane camped nine miles from New Orleans at noon on 23 December. By the early evening his initial 1,900 men had been joined by another 400.[1]

Andrew Jackson, who had been in command of the defences for only three weeks, decided to strike the first blow. He attacked Keane with a force of just over 2,000 after dark on 23 December. The British troops were more experienced as well as more numerous. They could possibly claim a tactical victory as they held their ground, albeit at the expense of nearly 300 casualties versus over 200 American. The latter withdrew three miles.

However, the action was a strategic success for the Americans, who halted the British advance for long enough to erect a series of breastworks, defended by 3,000 men, with their flank protected by the corvette USS Louisiana in the Mississippi.

Pakenham advanced to the breastwork on Christmas Day. He then halted for three days, before launching a series of probing assaults. Heavy British guns were brought up, with the intention of attacking on 1 January. However, the Americans had the better of the pre-attack artillery duel, so Pakenham cancelled the assault.

The next attack was to take place on 8 January. A canal would be dug to take 1,500 men under Colonel William Thornton to the Mississippi in ship’s boats. They would then cross the river and assault a redoubt that had been established on the west bank with three 24 pounders and six 12 pounders, which could fire into the flank of the attack by the other 8,500 men on the east bank.

The official US returns stated that there were initially 4,698 men on the east bank and 546 on the west. Another 500 men were ordered by Jackson the reinforce the latter, but 100 did not arrive in time and only 250 of the others were armed. This gives a total of 5,494 Americans at the battle, but Theodore Roosevelt notes that there may be a double counting of the 500 sent to the west bank, reducing Jackson’s force to about 5,000.[2]

The sounds of the British preparation alerted Jackson the impending assault, so his men were on the alert before dawn. The British attackers on the east bank were initially protected by a fog, but it lifted when they were 400 yards from the American defences.

The sides of the canal that was intended to take Thornton’s force to the river caved in, with the result that it was late in setting off and only 700 men crossed. They landed in the wrong place, but were able to take their objective. Jackson organised a counter attack, but the British withdrew before it went in as Colonel Alexander Dickson, the British artillery commander, estimated that 2,000 men would be needed to hold the position.

By then, the main British attack had been repulsed with heavy casualties. Pakenham, his second in command Major General Sir Samuel Gibbs being killed. Keane was wounded, leaving Major General Sir John Lambert, the only uninjured British general present, in command. Gibbs, Keane and Lambert had all been knighted on 2 January. Wikipedia gives British casualties as being 2,042: 291 killed, 1,267 wounded and 484 captured or missing. American ones were 71: 13 dead, 39 wounded and 19 missing.

The two armies then faced each other for 10 days. The position was too strong for the British to take, especially as Jackson was receiving reinforcements. However, he was unwilling to attack, since the British troops were more experienced than the Americans, so would have an advantage fighting in the open.

Lambert retreated his force on 18 January. It re-embarked on its transport ships and headed for Mobile. On 8 February 1,500 men were landed at Fort Boyer, which surrendered with the honours of wars on 12 February, a few hours before the news of the end of the war arrived. Casualties were 11 Americans and 31 British.

New Orleans was a major US victory that saved the city and Louisiana from being devastated. As Americans learnt of it before they heard about the end of the war, it was natural for them to assume that it won them the war. However, this was not the case as peace terms had already been agreed. Jackson, the architect of the victory, was rightly regarded as the best American general of the war and later became President.



[1] Troop numbers and casualties are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, pp. 211-68

[2] Ibid., p. 238. Note 2.


Filed under War History

Lundy’s Lane and the Niagara Front in 1814

Major General Jacob Brown, commanding the US Left Division, failed to follow up the US victory at Chippawa on 5 July

1812. He allowed the defeated British, commanded by Major General Phineas Riall, to retreat to Fort George near the mouth of the River Niagara on Lake Ontario.

Brown advanced to Queenston, a few miles south of Fort George, but his force, whose largest guns were 18 pounders, was too weak to assault it. He hoped that 24 pounders might be brought from Sacket’s Harbor, but British control of the lake made this impossible. On 24 July the Americans withdrew behind the River Chippawa in order to re-supply before moving on the Burlington Heights.

Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, ordered a British force under Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker to advance from Fort Niagara along the east bank of the Niagara with the intention of threatening Brown’s lines of communication. Riall was to demonstrate on the west bank

Drummond left York for Fort George on the evening of 24 July, arriving at before daybreak the next day. He had intended to remain there for a day, but on arriving learnt that the Americans had withdrawn and that Riall had advanced after them. He therefore decided to follow with reinforcements.

Brown became aware of Tucker’s advance and decided that his best course of action was to move towards Queenston in order to force Tucker to return to Fort George. His leading unit was the 1st Brigade under Brigadier-General Winfield Scott.

The two armies met at Lundy’s Lane on the evening of 25 July. Both sides aimed to defeat the enemy, rather than to capture territory, but tactically it was a battle for the hill on which the British artillery was positioned. The action is sometimes called the Battle of Niagara Falls.

The position of the guns was crucial and the British ones inflicted heavier casualties because of their higher position. The Americans eventually took the hill and beat off a series of British counter-attacks, but were forced to withdraw overnight because of shortages of ammunition and water.

Donald Graves gives the following figures for troop strengths:

US: 2,508 infantry, 200 artillerymen and 70 cavalry totalling 2,778 men. The Left Division had 14 guns: five 18 pounders, three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. However, probably only nine were present: three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. On 23 July the Left Division had 5,009 men, but many were in garrisons and some were guarding the camp.[1]

Anglo-Canadian: 2,226 British regulars, 852 Canadian regulars and 550 Militia totalling 3,638 men Probable artillery strength was a rocket section and eight guns: two 24 pounders, five 6 pounders and one 5.5″ howitzer.[2] Many accounts of the battle mention the rockets, but Graves says that ‘there is little evidence that these dramatic projectiles caused much damage.’[3]

Drummond had 2,200 men on the field at the start of the battle, and thought wrongly that he faced 4-5,000 Americans.[4]

Official US casualties totalled 860: 173 dead, 571 wounded and 117 missing. Graves notes that many British and Canadian historians think that the true US casualties were higher.[5] However, he argues ‘that Brown’s return was probably as accurate as it could be.’[6]

Official British casualties totalled 878: 84 dead, 559 wounded, 193 missing and 42 captured. This return includes 142 casualties for the Militia, 75 of which were missing. A later return for the Militia one gives 97 casualties, including 36 missing, so some missing may have returned to the ranks. The US claimed 169 prisoners. Graves thinks actual British casualties were probably about 800.[7]

The wounded included Brown, Scott, Drummond and Riall. Riall was captured, lost his left arm and recuperated alongside Scott, who did not serve again in the war.

Jeremy Black notes that ‘both sides claimed victory and produced conflicting contemporary accounts.’[8] Casualties were similar on both sides, but the British were entitled to claim victory on the basis of possession of the ground after the battle.

Brigadier-General Eleazer Ripley, the surviving senior US officer, did not attack again the next morning, but retreated to Fort Erie. The US no longer threatened Canada and had lost the initiative.

The British besieged Fort Erie, but an attack by Drummond on the night of 15 August was defeated: casualties were about 900 attackers and 90 defenders. Brown launched a sortie on the night of 17 September. His men were outnumbered 3,000 to 4,000, but inflicted casualties of about 600 men for the loss of 500 of their own and captured or destroyed much of the British artillery.[9] This American victory forced the British to end the siege.

4,000 US troops under Major General George Izard were moved from Plattsburg to the Niagara front, arriving on 12 October. Izard had 7,000 men, but was reluctant to attack Drummond’s defensive position. The US won a small engagement at Cook’s Mill on 18-19 October, but Drummond did not react; Izard then withdrew to the US shore of the Niagara.

On 5 November Fort Erie was abandoned and destroyed. This largely ended operations on the Niagara Front and the US threat to Canada. However, the performance of Brown’s Left Division was important for American morale and the future of the US Army. It would, according to Alfred Mahan, ‘have been a calamity…had the record for that generation closed with the showing of 1812 and 1813.’[10]

Graves describes the Left Division as being the ‘best led, best trained and most experienced military force [the USA] was to field during the war…With some truth it can be said that the birth of the modern US army occurred not at Valley Forge in 1777-1778 but along the Niagara in 1814.’[11]

[1] D. E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead!: The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814, Rev. ed. (Toronto: Robin Brass, 1997), pp. 257-58.

[2] Ibid., pp. 261-63.

[3] Ibid., p. 131.

[4] Ibid., p. 121.

[5] Ibid., p. 196.

[6] Ibid., p. 271.

[7] Ibid., p. 195.

[8] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 156.

[9] Troop strengths and casualties in this paragraph are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. xxi

[10] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905), p. 169. vol. ii,

[11] Graves, Where, p. ix.



Filed under War History

The Start of Napoleon’s 1814 Campaign

Following his defeat at Leipzig on 16-19 October 1813 Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat from Germany. He managed to get about 70,000 formed troops and 40,000 stragglers across the Rhine after winning the Battle of Hanau on 31 October, but he lost almost 300,000 men in Germany in 1813, with another 100,000 trapped in isolated garrisons. In the south Wellington’s army of British, Portuguese and Spanish troops had crossed the River Bidassoa into France on 7 October, and by 10 November were across the Nivelle.

The Coalition facing Napoleon had different objectives. The Austrians were the most willing to negotiate. Emperor Francis I of Austria was Napoleon’s father-in-law. More significantly, his chief minister, Prince Klemens Metternich was concerned that the overthrow of Napoleon would boost German nationalism, which he feared would weaken Austria’s position in central Europe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia was, according to David Chandler, ‘in two minds’ about whether to avenge Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812 by occupying Paris or to stop a war in which Russia now seemed to be fighting for the benefit of others, but ‘[o]n balance…favoured action.’[1]King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia tended to follow the Tsar’s lead, but many of his countrymen wanted revenge for past defeats and humiliations at the hand of Napoleon.

Bernadotte, once one of Napoleon’s marshals and now Crown Prince of Sweden, dreamed that he might replace Napoleon as ruler of France. The British, concerned with the balance of power in Europe, were willing to leave Napoleon on the throne of France provided that it was restricted to its natural frontiers, excluding Antwerp and the Scheldt.

At Frankfurt on 16 November Metternich obtained the consent of his allies to offer Napoleon the 1797 frontiers of France, including Belgium and the Rhineland. Charles Esdaile suggests that Alexander agreed because he expected Napoleon to reject the offer, which would ‘legitimise the continuation of the war. Esdaile adds that Lord Aberdeen, the ‘young and inexperienced’ British Ambassador to Austria, ‘more surprisingly’ agreed to terms that did not achieve ‘several important British goals.’[2]

The Emperor gave a favourable verbal response to the envoy who brought them to him, but his initial written reply did no more than propose new peace talks, suggesting that he was just playing for time in order to build up his forces. The British insisted that nothing more should be done until Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, arrived.

On 30 November Napoleon gave provisional acceptance to the offer, but his envoys were told that discussions would now be based on France’s 1792 frontiers. This was unacceptable to the Emperor, who told the Marquis de Caulaincourt, his recently appointed Foreign Minister, that:

‘France without its natural frontiers, without Ostend or Antwerp, would no longer be able to take its place among the States of Europe.’[3]

Chandler doubts ‘whether either side was completely genuine in its offers and suggestions at this time.’[4] However, Esdaile argues that ‘it is impossible to say’ if the original offer would ever have been signed, but ‘it was the best that Napoleon could hope for.’[5]

The Coalition plan was complex. Bernadotte’s Army of the North, less General Friederich von Bülow’s corps, would continue the siege of Magdeburg, surround Hamburg and threaten Denmark. Bülow’s corps, supported by a British expeditionary force under General Sir Thomas Graham would move into Holland which had revolted against France rule, take Antwerp and invade France through Belgium.

The main attack would come from the 200,000 man Army of Bohemia, commanded by Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg, but accompanied by Alexander and Friedrich Wilhelm. It would move from Basle to Colmar, cross the Rhine and advance to the Langres Plateau. It would then attack the French right whilst Napoleon’s centre was pinned by Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s 100,000 strong Army of Silesia, which was to cross the Rhine between Coblenz and Mannheim.

Schwarzenberg’s army would link up with Austro-Italian troops that were moving on Lyon, whilst Wellington’s army would advance north from the Pyrenees. By the middle of February there would be nearly 400,000 Coalition troops in France.

The Coalition plan was the one that had worked in Germany the year before. Fortresses should be masked rather than besieged. Its armies should manoeuvre against the enemy’s flanks and lines of communication, forcing Napoleon to respond to these threats. The Coalition would attack only when it heavily outnumbered the enemy. If one Coalition army was attacked by a large enemy force it would retreat, and the other Coalition army would advance.

Against this there were only 67,000 French soldiers on the frontier from Strasbourg to the North Sea. Napoleon called up 936,000 men, but many evaded conscription, and less than 120,000 of them served in the 1814 campaign. There was a shortage of equipment for those who did report for duty and a lack of NCOs and junior officers to command them. Napoleon was forced to use invalids and pensioners as leaders of even Imperial Guard formations.[6]

The Emperor attempted to find troops from his Spanish and Italian allies, but the only ones that he obtained were some veteran troops from the French armies facing Wellington. His position was further weakened by the defections of the King of Naples, his brother-in-law Joachim Murat, on 11 January, and the King of Denmark 3 days later.

Napoleon’s main advantage was that he could move his army quickly around a country with good road and river communications and several supply depots. He had to prevent the enemy from uniting, but could not afford the casualties of even a victorious major battle. Chandler notes that the Emperor had to fight a ‘war of subtlety and fast manoeuvre.’[7]

Napoleon could risk losing Paris, which was the centre of his power and the main supply depot and headquarters of his army. F. Loraine Petre points out that Paris ‘represented France in a way that Moscow did not represent Russia in 1812, or Berlin Prussia in 1813.’[8]

Blücher’s Army of Silesia crossed the Rhine on 29 December 1813, followed by Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia on 1 January 1814. Blücher’s army moved 75 miles in nine days, and had crossed the Marne by 22 January. The next day its advance guard took a bridgehead over the Meuse. The cautious Schwarzenberg moved more slowly, but reached his initial objective of the Langres Plateau on 17 January. He then halted for six days because there were suggestions of a new peace conference.

By 23 January the flanks of the two Coalition armies were only two days march apart. Napoleon had hoped that his frontier forces would delay them more, enabling him to build up his army. He now had to take personal command of the field army. On 25 January he left Paris to start his 1814 campaign.

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 947.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 517.

[3] Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 948.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 515-16.

[6] Troop strengths are from Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 948-50.

[7] Ibid., p. 955.

[8] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 3.

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