Chemical Warfare During the Napoleonic Wars

Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald.  Photograph Source: Public Domain ~ http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/naval/p/Napoleonic-Wars-Admiral-Lord-Thomas-Cochrane.htm

Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald. Photograph Source: Public Domain ~ http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/naval/p/Napoleonic-Wars-Admiral-Lord-Thomas-Cochrane.htm

In 1812, Prince George received a plan outlining the use of “unusual” methods to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte. The plan came to the future George IV from Captain Sir Thomas, Lord Cochrane. At the time, Wellesley’s successes in Spain were sporadic, and the Royal Navy struggled with the blockades of French ports. Cochrane’s plan offered hopes of a quick victory over the French.

Cochrane quickly rose through the naval ranks from midshipman to lieutenancy (earned in three short years) and later received command of his own ship, the HMS Speedy. Although the Speedy was but a 14 cannon sloop, Cochrane managed to capture the Spanish frigate Gamo, for which he earned praise. Cochrane possessed strategic cunning, which should have served him well in his position, but he also possessed the uncanny ability to “insult” his superiors by pointing out their shortcomings.

Fortunately for Cochrane, Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, arrived in London in 1804 as First Lord of the Admiralty. Melville presented Cochrane with the command of the frigate Pallas and permission to patrol the North Atlantic waters. Within two months, Cochrane earned 75,000 pounds sterling in prize money. Napoleon marked Cochrane with the name “The Sea Wolf.” [le loupe des mers]

Needless to say a person with such charisma cannot sustain the favor of the Crown for long. Part of Cochrane’s woes came via the court martial trial of Admiral James Gambier after the action at Aix Roads in 1809. Cochrane managed to drive all but two of the French ships ashore during the battle. The battle lasted for three days, but it failed to destroy the French fleet. Cochrane blamed Gambier’s inaction for the English failure. Cochrane proved a poor public speaker during the trial, and public humiliation followed with Gambier’s exoneration. He also earned numerous political foes in Parliament for his reform tendencies. It was during his time as a MP for Honiton that Cochrane proposed his plan to Prince George.

The first weapon Cochrane suggested was the “sulphur ship” or “stink vessel.” Cochrane used a similar device at Aix Roads and knew some success. Cochrane sent three ships loaded with 1500 barrels of gunpowder and shell into the 11 ships of the line of the French fleet. These floating “explosion ships” were set off by fuses.

Cochrane suggested a hulk rigged with explosives. The English would remove the decks and reinforced the hull with timbers. A layer of clay would be spread and topped with scraps of metal. A thick layer of gunpowder would follow. At length, rows of shells and of carcasses of dead animals would top the gunpowder.

The explosion ship would be towed into place and anchored. The explosion would send the animal carcasses and metal scraps arcing in a shower upon the enemy.

Cochrane proposed a follow-up attack upon land fortifications. Abandoned hulls would again be used. Clay would cover the hull, but layers of charcoal and sulphur would be spread upon the upper decks. The hull would be situated close to land so the stick would carry inward once the British lit the charcoal. Cochrane thought the fumes would send the enemy running away, permitting the British to land and push the enemy back.

The Prince Regent sought the advice of Sir William Congreve, Frederick Augustus (the Duke of York), George, Lord Keith, and Lord Exmouth. Although the prince’s advisors saw the potential for a quick victory by using these devices, they also feared like reprisals upon England from the French. Prinny rejected Cochrane’s proposal. Cochrane refused to share the plans again with others. Cochrane was charged with illegal financial manipulations in 1814 during the London Stock Exchange scandal. He was imprisoned, dismissed from the Royal Navy, and forfeited his knighthood.

SOURCES USED TO WRITE THIS PIECE:
Royal Museum Greenwich 

History Net 

Westminster Abbey 

Military History 
The scheme described in this blog post is a plot point in my retelling of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” as Captain Frederick Wentworth becomes involved with the subterfuge of those who plan to break Cochrane from jail.
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CFWP Crop2Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Persuasion: Jane Austen’s Classic Retold Through His Eyes
The love affair behind Jane Austen’s classic, Persuasion, rests at the heart of this retelling from Captain Frederick Wentworth’s point of view.

He loved her from the moment their eyes met some eight years prior, but Frederick Wentworth is determined to prove to Anne Elliot that she made a mistake by refusing him. Persuaded by her family and friends of his lack of fortune, Anne sent him away, but now he is back with a fortune earned in the war, and it is Anne, whose circumstance have brought her low. Wentworth means to name another to replace her, but whenever he looks upon Anne’s perfect countenance, his resolve wavers, and he finds himself lost once again to his desire for her. Return to the Regency and Austen’s most compelling and mature love story.
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And to keep things interesting in the Austenesque world, the former Colonel Fitzwilliam (from Pride and Prejudice) joins Wentworth in the pursuit of smugglers and insurgents in my upcoming cozy mystery,

PoMDC Cover-2-2The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery (arriving June 16)

Fitzwilliam Darcy is enjoying his marital bliss. His wife, the former Elizabeth Bennet, presented him two sons and a world of contentment. All is well until “aggravation” rears its head when Darcy receives a note of urgency from his sister Georgiana. In truth, Darcy never fully approved of Georgiana’s joining with their cousin, Major General Edward Fitzwilliam, for Darcy assumed the major general held Georgiana at arm’s length, dooming Darcy’s sister to a life of unhappiness.
Dutifully, Darcy and Elizabeth rush to Georgiana’s side when the major general leaves his wife and daughter behind, with no word of his whereabouts and no hopes of Edward’s return. Forced to seek his cousin in the slews of London’s underbelly, at length, Darcy discovers the major general and returns Fitzwilliam to his family.
Even so, the Darcys’ troubles are far from over. During the major general’s absence from home, witnesses note Fitzwilliam’s presence in the area of two horrific murders. When Edward Fitzwilliam is arrested for the crimes, Darcy must discover the real culprit before his cousin is hanged for the crimes and the Fitzwilliam name marked with shame.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, Regency era and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Chemical Warfare During the Napoleonic Wars

  1. Pingback: Chemical Warfare During the Napoleonic Wars | ReginaJeffers’s Blog | First Night History

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