One of Britain's forgotten naval heroes
He might have been outshone by the charismatic Nelson but James Saumarez was also a nautical hero.
He might have been outshone by the charismatic Nelson but James Saumarez was also a nautical hero. He helped Britain thwart Napoleon and was lauded as 'Sweden's friendliest enemy'. Steven Russell meets a man championing the brave and thoughtful admiral
IT was a friend who sowed the seeds in the early 1980s. Angela Harvey returned from Shrubland Hall Health Clinic bubbling with vitality - and excited about boxes of historic letters in the cellar. The correspondence was between the first baron de Saumarez, a naval commander who served with distinction during the Napoleonic wars, and wife Martha.
Back at the home of her Suffolk hosts, where she was staying awhile, Angela told Tim Voelcker about her discovery. “You've been in the navy; you like sailing; you were a historian,” she said. “What are you going to do about it?!”
Well, Tim shared the view that the admiral's story was interesting, but with a business to run, and three children to bring up with wife Sally, there wasn't a lot of spare time for combing through 200-year-old letters and marshalling the information.
He did, though, enjoy the 1968 Navy Records Society collection of James Saumarez's official correspondence about his time in the Baltic, from 1808-1812. Editor AN Ryan said the admiral's unique contribution had been to keep open the gates of northern Europe, despite Napoleon's best efforts to sever Britain's economic lifeline.
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“As I read it, I thought 'This guy should be better known.' But Ryan covered the official stuff; the joy of the letters Angela saw was that they were private letters, and much more revealing than official documents.”
The good admiral remained on the back-burner until 2000, when Tim sold his Ipswich-based business Wines of Interest in the June . . . and started a PhD in maritime history that October, at the age of 67. At last he had the time to investigate the Saumarez story.
Tim's doctorate was conducted under the auspices of the University of Exeter, but, luckily, his tutor lived in London. It wasn't uncommon for discussions to take place at the British Library - “very gentlemanly supervisions over lunch for about an hour and a half!”
Mind you, there were times when Professor Nicholas Rodger would scribble on his student's work “Too much narrative, not enough analysis.” But, laughs Tim, I like story-telling. It's good news for us, for the six years of part-time study that took him to Sweden, Denmark and elsewhere not only gained him his doctorate but spawned an enjoyable book.
Admiral Saumarez Versus Napoleon explores the life of the man born in Guernsey in the spring of 1757. His qualities came to the fore after he went to sea at 12, with promotions for gallantry - including an example of bravery at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1781, where he was wounded. He was given command of a 14-gun dispatch ship and the next year sailed her to the West Indies. When another captain went home ill, he swapped ships with Saumarez, with official approval. “So at the age of just 25 he became captain of a 74-gun ship which had had a sick captain for a long time and was on the edge of mutiny,” explains Tim. “As a young man, that's pretty demanding.”
Two months later, during the Battle of the Saintes, he played a remarkable part in the fighting and demonstrated how he could seize the initiative.
After the French and British fleets had passed each other, firing, Saumarez luffed up out of the line to repair his damaged rigging and then turned back to chase the enemy - risking the wrath of his superiors. He reached the three-deck French flagship, sat where her guns couldn't hit him, and blasted away. “So he showed even at the age of 25 that he was quite an adventurous and independent young man.”
In 1793, off Guernsey, his vessel captured a French frigate; 120 of La Reunion's men were killed or injured, compared to just one man wounded on Saumarez's frigate Crescent - and that was as the result of an accident. For this Saumarez was knighted.
Further battles followed. He was second-in-command to Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 (and was wounded there) and received great public acclaim for his triumph over a Franco-Spanish squadron at Algeciras in 1801. And then the Admiralty asked him to head for the Baltic, destroy the Russian fleet, help the king of Sweden and protect our merchant ship convoys.
It had been a period of shifting alliances, underpinned by virtually ever-present conflict between London and Paris. Britain was stopping trade getting through from its enemy's colonies, and in the early years of the 19th Century Napoleon had set up his “Continental System”, aiming to wreck the British economy by stopping its goods reaching their markets. Spain, Holland, Denmark, Prussia and Russia were forced to back him.
It was a tricky brief, then, but Saumarez enjoyed some of his finest hours.
For five years from 1808, as commander-in-chief of a large Baltic fleet and with HMS Victory as his flagship, he kept Britain's trade flowing - thwarting the efforts of Denmark's gunboats and privateers and undermining the blockade.
He also proved an adept diplomat - firm or moderate, depending on need - and worked to maintain good relations with Sweden when it was forced by France and Russia to declare war on Britain.
The Scandinavian nation, by then severely weakened by a series of conflicts and the loss of Finland to Russia, was grateful it didn't have to expend further money, food and manpower.
“They called Saumarez their friendliest enemy, and it's a very true term. Technically we were at war, but because of his restraint we remained friends. There may be other instances, but I don't know of one, where an enemy country has supplied meat and water and fresh vegetables, and anchorages, to a hostile fleet on their doorstep! It was quite a remarkable thing - for which, in the end, he was given a diamond-hilted sword by the Swedish king.”
Saumarez returned to his home in Guernsey from the Baltic in November, 1812, and did not serve again afloat. He was promoted up the ranks and in 1830 became Admiral of the Red - a rung short of Admiral of the Fleet. A peerage - he was the first Baron de Saumarez - followed in 1831, after 61 years of service to the Royal Navy.
He died in the autumn of 1836, aged 79, after three years of declining health. More than 1,000 people were said to have attended the burial in his home parish at Castel, with all the town's shops closing.
Tim Voelcker is convinced Saumarez merits greater recognition.
“He was a Hornblower or a Jack Aubrey-type captain” - courageous, fictional seamen of the period. He fought a lot of battles: he was in action from 1775 in the American War of Independence, right the way through, so he had a conventional naval career until he became admiral.
“Then he went to the Baltic, and whether his character changed or whether the situation brought out from him what was lurking there, he became the diplomat, the peacemaker, and thereby achieved much better results than if he'd been a Nelson.
“I think Nelson would not necessarily have been a success in the Baltic. He'd have gone in and blasted his way through, and that may not have politically been the best answer. Restraint and diplomacy don't catch fire in the imagination but can be more important.”
Saumarez, feels Tim, was one of many people overshadowed by Nelson's aura.
“Nelson was a genius, there's no doubt, and had many talents. One of them was PR! He made quite sure his name and honour was well-established. The other thing is, the British press and public like battles, and therefore you need to have won some great fleet action to reach the heights.”
Though Saumarez lacked the charisma of Nelson, “his diplomatic skill set him apart from the many other able captains and admirals of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars”. To the Swedes, he possessed greatness. “Not only was he described as Sweden's friendliest enemy, there's a plaque on Gothenburg Town Hall honouring him as the country's saviour, unveiled by the king in 1975.”
As a man, “from all I can discover, he was well-liked and respected, and his relations with those who served under him were actually very good. He didn't believe in the use of the cat o' nine tails. Flogging he avoided wherever he could”.
Saumarez and his wife were a devoted couple, “although, reading between the lines of the letters, he very much enjoyed the ladies' company. Martha was aware of this and it was one of her comments that drew my attention to this - that their son seemed to be taking after his father in this respect! But she knew, as far as one knows, that it didn't go any further than simply enjoying their company!
“He was an intelligent man, and both of them had a very strong religious faith, but he wasn't evangelical about it, unlike some commanding officers - other than he liked to have regular Sunday services on his ship. He didn't force it down people's throats.”
Tim smiles as he remembers one of his research visits in Denmark. He spent a couple of hours with historian Professor Ole Feldbaek and was asked, not unkindly, how he hoped to add to the excellent works by AN Ryan, who'd edited that collection of Saumarez's official correspondence. At that early stage in his fact-gathering, the PhD student didn't have a clear answer.
“I think and hope I've found out more about the man,” he says now, “and why he fitted in - and more about the human side. I came to respect him more and more. I think he deserves to be better known.”
Admiral Saumarez Versus Napoleon - The Baltic 1807-12 is published by Boydell Press, ISBN: 9781843834311. It costs £45. However, Tim Voelcker has a number of copies available for £27.75, including postage. Orders should be sent to Dr Tim Voelcker, The Old Rectory, Bucklesham, Ipswich, IP10 0DX, with cheques made out to Tim Voelcker. (Email inquiries: email@example.com)