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Royal Naval Biography/Maxwell, Keith

[Post-Captain of 1804.]

A brother of Captain Sir Murray Maxwell, C.B. whose services, as far as our information extends have been described at p. 797 et seq.

This officer was made a Lieutenant in 1794; and obtained the rank of Commander for his gallant conduct in cutting out la Chevrette, French national corvette, of 20 nine-pounders and 350 men, from under the batteries in Camaret bay, near Brest, in the, night of July 21, 1801. This daring exploit stands so high in point of credit to the British arms, and glory to those brave officers and men who so nobly achieved it, that we cannot refrain from entering most fully into the particulars.

In the month of July, 1801, the Doris, Beaulieu, and Uranie frigates, commanded by Captains Charles Brisbane, Stephen Poyntz, and William Hall Gage, were anchored near Brest, for the purpose of watching the combined fleets of France and Spain, then lying in that harbour. From their anchorage they had a full view of Camaret bay, and consequently of la Chevrette, the commander of which vessel felt himself as secure in that seemingly impregnable position, as if he had been riding under the immediate protection of his Admiral. The sight of the tri-coloured flag, as on all former occasions, only served to inspire British seamen with a wish to haul it down; and Captain Brisbane, aware of the impatience of his squadron to make the attempt, resolved to gratify them.

The enemy, having seen some English boats hovering about the bay, at day-break on the 20th, concluded that an attack was meditated, and although they judged it a measure of extreme rashness, were resolved to omit no possible preparation. In the morning of the 21st, they got the corvette under weigh, moved her a mile and a half farther up the bay, moored her under the batteries, and crowded her decks with troops from the shore. Temporary redoubts were at the same time thrown up upon the points, and a vessel mounting two 32-pounders was moored at the entrance of the bay as a guard-boat. Having taken these precautions, they in the afternoon displayed a large republican flag above an English ensign, as a signal of defiance.

All these manoeuvres were well observed from the Beaulieu, the crew of which ship evinced extraordinary ardour to engage in this enterprise. Lieutenant Maxwell who had just before volunteered to carry a fire vessel into Brest harbour[1], gladly embraced this opportunity of practising his boat’s crew preparatory to the grand object, and resolved, with his Captain’s permission, to head his own shipmates in the attack on la Chevrette. This resolution, so congenial to their wishes, the Beaulieu’s crew heard with much satisfaction, and at 9-30 P.M. her six boats, manned with about 90 volunteers, formed a junction with seven others belonging to the Doris and Uranie, and two sent from the Robust of 74 guns. About 9-45 Lieutenant Woodley Losack, who had been selected by the Admiral to conduct the enterprise, went with his own and five other boats in pursuit of a small vessel supposed to be on the look-out, and therefore necessary to be secured. For a considerable time after he parted company, the remainder of the boats continued as he had desired them, lying to on their oars and occasionally pulling easy. Finding the senior officer did not return, considering that the boats were yet at least six miles from the corvette, and aware of the time requisite to row that distance against a fresh breeze, Lieutenant Maxwell judged it expedient, in order that the undertaking might have the best chance of succeeding, to proceed immediately towards the entrance of the bay; a situation evidently more eligible for them, should it even be necessary to delay making the attack, than where they then were. He therefore, gave way a-head with the boats of the Beaulieu, and arrived within sight of the enemy about half an hour after midnight.

Having now taken upon himself the command, and made every arrangement for cutting la Chevrette adrift and loosing her sails immediately upon boarding, Lieutenant Maxwell determined to lose no more time in making the attack, particularly as the wind was favorable for bringing her out of the bay. The sky being clear, the boats were soon seen by the enemy, who instantly hailed, and opened a heavy fire of grape and musketry both from the ship and batteries, by which several men were killed and many wounded before they got alongside. The attempt to board was then most obstinately opposed by the French, armed at all points with muskets, pistols, sabres, tomahawks, and pikes, and who, in their turn, even boarded the boats.

Notwithstanding this resistance the British gained their point, and in less than three minutes la Chevrette was adrift, with her head towards the sea, and top-sails ready for sheeting home. The prompt execution of these operations proved decisive. The moment the enemy saw the sails fall, and found themselves, as if by a miracle, under way and drifting out, they were seized with astonishment and consternation. Some of them jumped overboard, others threw aside their arms, and tumbled down the hatchways. In less than five minutes the quarter-deck and forecastle were nearly covered with dead bodies.

The rest of the enemy, having now retreated below, kept up a heavy fire of musketry from the main and lower-decks. They also frequently set off large trains of gunpowder, endeavouring to blow up the quarterdeck, and throw their assailants into confusion. This obliged Lieutenant Maxwell to divide his men into two parties. One division to guard the hatchways and gangways, and return the enemy’s fire with their own arms and ammunition[2]; the other to make sail; in order to clear the decks for which purpose, it was necessary for them to throw overboard two or three dozen Frenchmen, and several of their own gallant companions who had fallen in the conflict.

Owing to the wind dying away, la Chevrette was for a considerable time exposed to showers of musketry and grape from the shore, but fortunately the enemy fired too high to annoy the British materially, and a light breeze springing up, at length enabled them to run her out of gun-shot. The firing on board continued nearly two hours, during which the British seamen had managed to get the top-gallant-yards across, and to set every sail in the ship. Being then clear of the batteries, and Lieutenant Maxwell having threatened that he would give the surviving Frenchmen no quarter if they did not instantly submit, they were induced to cease their opposition, and surrender themselves prisoners of war.

About this period some boats were perceived coming from the direction of Brest, and Lieutenant Maxwell, supposing them to be enemies, prepared for a fresh conflict, but on nearer approach they proved to be those with which Lieutenant Losack had gone in chase. Then, and not till then, did the latter officer have any thing to do with la Chevrette.

The morning’s dawn displayed to the combined fleets of France and Spain the mortifying spectacle of a republican ship of war brought out in their immediate presence from a position deemed inaccessible to an enemy, and proceeding to join the British frigates then at anchor above Point St. Matthew’s. On mustering the boats’ crews it was found that 11 men had been killed, 57 wounded, and 1 drowned; la Chevrette 92, including her Captain and 6 other officers slain; and 1 Lieutenant, 4 Midshipmen, and 57 men wounded. Among the British who fell on this brilliant occasion was Lieutenant Sinclair of the marines, and Mr. Warren, Midshipman of the Robust. Lieutenants Henry Walter Burke, of the Doris, and Martin Neville, of the Uranie, 1 Master’s Mate and 3 Midshipmen, were the only officers wounded[3]:

The credit of this almost unparalleled enterprise was, for a considerable time, given to Lieutenant Losack, who, as we have already shown, had been sent from the Admiral’s ship to conduct the attack. Owing to an unfortunate concurrence of untoward circumstances, the fact of Lieutenant Maxwell having commanded the boarding party, was not at first communicated to the commander-in-chief, Admiral Cornwallis, but as soon as it was made known to him, he ordered a Court of Inquiry to be held on board the Mars (Aug. 9, 1801), the result of which investigation fully satisfied him that the merit of the achievement was due to Lieut. Maxwell, who shortly afterwards received a very flattering letter from him, enclosing a commission as Commander, which the Admiralty had transmitted in a most handsome manner, as a reward for his distinguished bravery.

Captain Maxwell obtained post rank May 1, 1804; and on the 31st July in the same year we find him commanding the Tartar frigate on the Jamaica station, and capturing, by means of her boats, l’Hirondelle French schooner privateer of 10 4-pounders and 50 men[4]. He subsequently commanded the Arab of 22 guns, on the Boulogne and African stations. His conduct in an action with a Dutch flotilla, off Cape Grisnez, July 18, 1805, was handsomely noticed by Commodore Owen as will be seen by reference to p. 131 et seq. of this volume; and it may not be amiss to add, as a circumstance highly flattering to the Arab’s officers and crew, that on the following day, she received three cheers from the Immortalité, after the ceremony of burying their dead.

During this action, a large shell struck the Arab’s mainmast-head, carried away part of the top, and every thing that came in its way, and finally lodged on the gun-deck. A sailor, named Clorento, with the most admirable coolness, instantly endeavoured to extract the fuse, which Mr. Edward M. Mansell, Master’s-Mate, observing, and being more aware of the danger of a moment’s delay, he instantly, with the assistance of Clorento and two other seamen, got it out of a port, and a few seconds after the people quartered in the well and wings were alarmed with the idea of the ship having struck on a rock, so great were the effects and concussion from its explosion in the water. This accident did not for one moment interrupt the fire, not even of the two guns between which the shell fell; nor was any one acquainted with the danger they escaped, by the intrepidity of Mr. Mansell and his assistants, till some time afterwards, except those quartered nearest the spot; as the violent shock the ship received, in her then situation, could be and was imputed to various other causes. We mention this as an instance of the good discipline prevailing among her crew[5].

Captain Maxwell’s next appointment was, about Jan. 1809, to the Nymphen a 36-gun frigate; and in the course of the same year, the Society of Arts, &c. presented him with their gold medal for a valuable communication on telegraphs and telegraphic signals.

The Nymphen formed part of the frigate squadron, under Lord William Stuart, which forced the passage between the batteries of Flushing and Cadsand, Aug. 11th, 1809; and was subsequently employed on the North Sea station. An account of Captain Maxwell’s trial by a Court-Martial, for contempt and disrespect to the late Vice-Admiral Thomas Wells, commander-in-chief at Sheerness, and for retarding the public service (which ended in a sentence of reprimand and admonition, Nov. 13, 1809) will be found in the Naval Chronicle, vol. xxii. pp. 409 and 423 inclusive. Captain Maxwell died April 22, 1823.

  1. See Vol. I. p. 736.
  2. The British lost all their fire-arms whilst boarding, and had nothing remaining but their swords when they gained la Chevrette’s decks.
  3. Lieutenant Burke died in Plymouth Hospital of a fever occasioned by a grape-shot wound in his shoulder. He was a brother of the gallant officer whose name we have mentioned at p. 878. Lieutenant Neville died a Commander, at Honduras, in 1803. He was one of six brave brothers all of whom perished in his Majesty’s service, three by the sword, himself and two others by ruthless disease. In the conflict above described he was wounded in the head, breast, and shoulder; and it is said that the French Captain fell by his hand in single combat. A memoir of him will be found in the Naval Chronicle, v. 39, p. 265–274. Lieutenant Sinclair was killed when in the act of defending a wounded Midshipman, Mr. Crofton, of the Doris. Many of the men had their arm cut off by the enemy’s tomahawks when endeavouring to board.
  4. See Captain Nicholas Lockyer, C.B.
  5. The Patriotic Fund at Lloyd’s voted Mr. Mansell 50l. and the three seamen 30l. each, for their exertions in the affair of the shell: 125l. received from the same source, were afterwards distributed among her wounded men, eight in number.