Royal Naval Biography/Branch, Alexander Barkclay

[Post-Captain of 1822.]

Is descended from an ancient Scotch family, whose over zeal in what they considered a just cause, and conscientious loyalty, compelled them to fly from North Britain during the troubles there, first seeking an asylum in France, and ultimately settling at the island of Barbadoes, where his mother died in giving birth to him, and his father on the following day ; both deaths occasioned by the dreadful effects of a hurricane, in, we believe, the year 1784.

The subject of this memoir served under Captain (now Sir David) Milne, in la Pique 36, at the capture of the French frigate la Seine, June 29, 1798[1]. On that occasion, he received some severe bruises; and, his ship being destroyed, lost every thing belonging to him. During the remainder of the revolutionary war, we find him serving under Captains Sir Richard J. Strachan and Edward Griffith (now Vice-Admiral Colpoys), in the Diamond 38; and accompanying her boats, as a volunteer, whenever they were sent against the enemy, with whom he was consequently engaged more than thirty times, previous to the treaty of Amiens.

After passing the usual examination for lieutenant, in 1802, Mr. Branch joined the Resistance 36, Captain the Hon. Philip Wodehouse, who strongly recommended him to the patronage of the immortal Nelson, for his general good conduct, but more particularly for his great exertions when that frigate was wrecked, near Cape St. Vincent, May 31, 1803, where he again lost all his property. In consequence of this recommendation, he was received on board the Victory; and in less than four months afterwards, appointed acting lieutenant of the Weazle sloop, Captain William Layman, under whom he continued to serve till that vessel likewise was wrecked, in a heavy easterly gale, near Cabritta Point, coast of Andalusia, Mar. 1, 1804; when, for the third time, he was deprived of every necessary, and only saved his life by swimming through an awful surf, sadly bruised in many parts of his body. Previous to this disaster, the Weazle had been most actively employed in protecting the trade of Gibraltar, and often engaged with the enemy’s gun-boats, land-batteries, and privateers.

Mr. Branch returned home in the Argo 44, Captain Hallowell (now Sir Benjamin H. Carew); and his commission as lieutenant having been confirmed by the Admiralty, May 8, 1804, he was, at the particular request of that distinguished officer, appointed with him to the Tigre 80, in which ship he went back to the Mediterranean station, and from thence accompanied Nelson’s squadron to the West Indies, in pursuit of the combined fleets of France and Spain[2]. His next appointment was, about the close of 1806, to the Pylades ship-sloop, then commanded by Captain George Miller Bligh, but subsequently by Captains William Henry Whorwood and George Ferguson; under which officers he served five years as first lieutenant, most actively employed in various parts of the Mediterranean, where he assisted at the capture of many vessels, including le Grand Napoleon and l‘Aigle, French privateers, the latter mounting 10 guns, with a complement of 80 men.

Early in 1811, the Pylades being then stationed in the Archipelago, Lieutenant Branch was directed by Captain Ferguson to take charge of the Gleaner hired armed ketch, of 12 small carronades and 30 men (during the temporary absence of her proper commander); and sent on a cruise, with positive orders to examine strictly every Greek vessel he might see, as the French had monopolized almost the whole of the Levant trade, in neutral bottoms, and under the Greek flag. In the execution of this service, he had a most severe action with a large polacre ship, carrying 12 long guns and 70 men, which ended in her capture. Unfortunately, however, just before she surrendered, he had the misfortune to be struck by a twelve-pound shot, which shattered his right thigh to atoms, and slightly injured the left. In this dreadfully mutilated state, he lay five days without any surgical or medical assistance, consequently suffering indescribable torment. On his arrival at Smyrna, where the Pylades was then lying, he underwent amputation a few inches from the groin. His subsequent sufferings were excessively great, and of long duration ; but the moment he could move about upon crutches even, he returned to his ship, and continued to perform the duty of senior lieutenant until her arrival in England, about the close of 1811.

The captured polacre was claimed by the Sublime Porte, as belonging to an Ottoman subject; and although the British Ambassador did every thing in his power to have her acknowledged a lawful prize, yet it was at length deemed necessary, from political motives, to restore her. Mr. Adair, however, gave Lieutenant Branch the fullest assurance that, from his representation of the case to the British government, he would not only be promoted for his gallantry and sufferings, but also amply remunerated for his pecuniary sacrifice; sorry are we to say, that after so severe an action, with such a superior force, he obtained neither advancement nor compensation; even a pension for the loss of his limb was not granted to him till after many months had elapsed, and that only to commence from the day it was bestowed, instead of the day on which he had so dearly earned it.

Lieutenant Branch’s next appointment was, in the winter of 1813, to command the same armed ketch, then employed on the north coast of Spain, under the orders of Captain Sir George Collier. After the arrival of Rear-Admiral Penrose at Passages, to co-operate with the Marquis of Wellington in his advance upon Bayonne, that vessel was stationed off the mouth of the Adour, to prevent the enemy’s row-boats, &c. from issuing thence and intercepting the supplies sent coastways for the use of the allied armies. As a proof of his extreme watchfulness, not one instance of molestation occurred to the transports during the whole time he was so employed for their protection. His activity and exertions were strongly represented to the Admiralty, in various despatches, by both the above officers, and the victorious Field-Marshal was also pleased to express very high approbation of his vigilance, in a letter addressed to Rear Admiral Penrose.

When the preparations for throwing a bridge across the Adour were completed, Rear-Admiral Penrose did Lieutenant Branch the honor to hoist his flag in the Gleaner, which vessel ran close to the edge of the tremendous breakers on the bar of that river, and directed every movement of the flotilla, on the day that it was crossed; a service already described at pp. 277–286 of Suppl. Part II. After that most important operation. Lieutenant Branch was selected to convey the Rear-Admiral’s official account thereof to England; but ordered to remain in the bay of St. Jean de Luz, until the arrival of the officer charged with similar despatches from the triumphant Wellington.

Unfortunately, a dreadful gale of wind came on, while Lieutenant Branch was waiting for the military aide-de-camp; and of twenty-one sail then lying in the above bay, not a single vessel escaped destruction. The Gleaner was one of the first that suffered, owing to a transport driving on board; and tearing her down to the water’s edge: providentially she drifted athwart hawse of another transport, by which means the whole of her crew were that day saved. On the following day, the ship in which they were, having only one cable left, and that one already stranded, was obliged to cut, and run for the beach, at high water, as the sole chance of escape remaining for any one on board: the surf was then truly terrific; – yet, of so great a number of persons, not more than two were drowned.

Thus was Lieutenant Branch twice wrecked in the course of twenty-four hours, making the fifth time of his suffering in that way, without ever preserving an iota of his property.

The circumstances attending the loss of the Gleaner were, of course, investigated by a court-martial, when Lieutenant Branch was not only acquitted of all blame, but also strongly recommended to the favorable notice of the Admiralty, for his conduct on that occasion. On the 6th June in the same year (1814), he was at length promoted to the command of the Swinger sloop of war.

In this vessel (formerly rated a gun-brig, and as such commanded by a lieutenant), Captain Branch, while cruising on the coast of Dutch Guiana, engaged and completely silenced a large American privateer of nearly double his own force: owing, however, to the superior sailing and sweeping of the enemy’s vessel, he could not prevent her escape into the Oronoco river; but he had the satisfaction of knowing, that she arrived there in so crippled a state as to be immediately condemned and dismantled. His gallantry and perseverance, in this action and the subsequent chase, were so strongly represented by Sir Philip C. Durham, commander-in-chief at the Leeward Islands, that that officer was directed by the Admiralty to convey to him, publicly, their Lordships” approbation of his conduct.

After the surrender of Count de Linois and the Buonapartean garrison of Guadaloupe, in Aug. 1815, on which occasion the last tri-coloured flag that flew in the West Indies was struck to the British navy[3]. Captain Branch received orders to carry home the different officers charged with despatches from Lieutenant-General Sir James Leith, Rear-Admiral Sir P. C. Durham, and the Count de Vaugiraud, governor of Martinique, to whom the British commanders were indebted for a trifling addition to their means of attack. The Swinger was paid off immediately after her arrival in England[4].

Captain Branch’s next appointments were, Oct. 4, 1816, to the Helicon of 10 guns; and Feb. 21, 1818, to the Harlequin 18; in which sloops he served three years, chiefly on the north coast of Ireland, under the orders of Sir Benjamin Hallowell and Sir Josias Rowley, both of whom were much pleased with his active exertions while he was attached to their respective flags.

After this very fagging triennial service, Captain Branch naturally expected promotion, particularly as his claim thereto was so much strengthened by his gallant action with the American, on the coast of Surinam; his advancement to post rank, however, did not take place till Dec. 20, 1822. From that time, he constantly applied for employment until Dec. 6, 1827, when he obtained the command of the Mersey 20, fitting for the Jamaica station, where he was compelled to invalid (about thirteen months after his appointment to that ship), in consequence of debility from repeated attacks of fever, added to the alarming state of his wound, which opened and threatened mortification. He is now happily recovered, and quite ready for any kind of service.

This meritorious officer is a married man, with a family of seven children

Agent.– C. Clementson, Esq.

  1. See Vol. I. Part I. p. 403.
  2. See Vol. I. Part II. p. 589 et seq.
  3. See Vol. I. Part II. note at p. 869.
  4. Sir Philip C. Durham’s flag-lieutenant reached the Admiralty, Sept. 18, 1815; and was made a commander on the 20th of the same month.