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Royal Naval Biography/Fife, Thomas


THOMAS FIFE, Esq.
[Post-Captain of 1813.]

Was second lieutenant of the Belleisle 74, Captain (now Sir William) Hargood, at the battle of Trafalgar, on which occasion that ship was totally dismasted, and otherwise very severely handled. Mr. James says:–

“After having, for the space of 20 minutes, sustained the tremendous fire, opened by the rear of the combined line, and after having suffered, in consequence, a loss of between 60 and 60 men in killed and wounded, the Belleisle, at about a quarter-past noon, exchanged a few shot with the Monarca 74, and passed through the line abreast of the Fougueux (French two-decker), then distantly raking the Royal Sovereign. In hauling up on the larboard tack, the Belleisle was enabled, owing to the advanced position of the latter, to pour a full broadside into the lee quarter of the Santa Anna, (Spanish first-rate). Bearing away a little, the Belleisle then passed close astern of the Indomptable 84; which ship, quickly wearing, exchanged a few broadsides with her, and then bore up to the S.E. In the mean time, the Belleisle was engaged with a Spanish 74, the San Juan Nepomuceno, at some distance on her starboard beam. At about 46 minutes past noon, the Belleisle’s main-top-mast was shot away, and, as the enemies’ rear ships were now pressing forward to support the centre, her situation became extremely critical.

“At 1 P.M. the Fougueux ranged up in the smoke on the Belleisle’s starboard beam, and struck her at the gangway with her larboard bow, rolling at the same time with her fore-yard over the British ship’s quarter-deck. The Fougueux immediately began engaging the Belleisle, and in 10 minutes, shot away her mizen-mast about six feet above the deck, the wreck falling over the larboard quarter. In about 10 minutes more, on the Mars beginning to engage her, the Fougueux, having received a smart fire from the Belleisle’s aftermost guns, dropped astern and hauled to the northward. At 1-30 P.M. l’Achille, another French 74, came ranging past the stern of the Belleisle, and stationed herself on her larboard quarter. In this position, the Achille kept up a steady fire, with comparative impunity, on account of the wreck of the Belleisle’s mizen-mast masking her aftermost guns. Meanwhile l’Aigle 74, having replaced the San Juan Nepomuceno, was distantly cannonading the British ship on the starboard side; and the San Juste and San Leandro, two-deckers, as they stood athwart the bows of the Belleisle, opened a passing fire.

“Thus in a manner surrounded, the Belleisle soon had her rigging and sails cut to pieces, and at 2-10 P.M. she lost her main-mast about four feet above the deck; the wreck of which fell upon the break of the poop, while the top-mast, with the yards, sails, and shrouds, hung over upon the larboard side. Her larboard guns thus completely covered by wreck, the Belleisle was prevented from returning, by a single shot, the Achille’s animated and destructive fire. At 2-30 P.M., driven from her capital station upon the bows of the Victory and Temeraire, by the approach of the Leviathan, the Neptune French 80, placed herself across the starboard bow of the Belleisle; and at 2-45, the foremast and bowsprit of the latter, still engaged by two other ships, were shot away by the board.

“At 3-15 P.M. the Polyphemus interposed herself between the Belleisle and Neptune. In five mintes more the Defiance took off the fire of l’Aigle; and at 3-25, the Swiftsure, passing astern of the Belleisle, commenced engaging l’Achille. As the Swiftsure passed close under the Belleisle’s stern, the two British ships cheered each other; and to signify that, notwithstanding her dismasted and shattered state, the Belleisle still remained unconquered, a union jack was suspended at the cud of a pike, and held up to view, while an ensign was being made fast to the stump of her mizenmast. Thus, by the timely arrival of her friends, saved from being crushed by the overwhelming force around her, the Belleisle ceased firing.”

Her loss consisted of no less than 126 killed and wounded: among the former were Lieutenants Ebenezer Geale and John Woodin. Her hull was knocked almost to pieces: both sides of it were about equally damaged. Ports, port-timbers, channels, chain-plates, all exhibited unequivocal marks of the terrible mauling she had received: her anchors and figure-head were shot away; every boat, except one, was destroyed.

The subject of this sketch was made commander Dec. 24, 1803; appointed to the Cadmus brig of 10 guns, about Nov. 1809; and posted Dec. 4, 1813.

Agents.– Messrs. Chard.