December 23, 1803: The loss of the Grappler and the sufferings of its captain and crew

Chaussey, or Choye, is a group of islets lying off the coast of Normandy, about twenty miles from Jersey, and nine from Granville. They stretch north, east, and west, and cover a space of nearly twelve miles. The principal of them is called the MaÎtre Isle, and is the resort of a few French fishermen during the summer, but being only a rock, and totally devoid of vegetation, its inhabitants are entirely dependent on the neighbouring shores for all the necessaries of life, excepting what their nets may produce. At the time of which we are writing, the winter of 1803, this group of islets was in the hands of the English, and was the scene of the wreck of the Grappler in that year.

On the 23rd December, 1803, Lieutenant Abel Thomas, commanding His Majesty’s brig Grappler, then stationed at Guernsey, was directed by Admiral Sir James Saumarez to proceed, with some French prisoners on board, to Granville, in Normandy, and there to set them at liberty; after which he was to touch at the islands of Chaussey, on his return to Guernsey, in order to supply twelve French prisoners who were on the Maître Isle with fifteen days’ provisions.1

On the evening of the 23rd, the same day that they sailed from Guernsey, the Grappler anchored off the north side of Chaussey, but a heavy gale of wind which came on during the night rendered her position so dangerous, that Lieutenant Thomas thought it advisable either to return to Guernsey, or to run into one of the small harbours formed among the rocks, which afford a safe shelter during the severest gales, but are by no means easy of access, and are available only to small vessels, and with the aid of an experienced pilot. Into one of these natural harbours, Lieutenant Thomas, by the advice of his pilot, determined to run the Grappler, and succeeded in anchoring her in safety under the Maître Isle. There they remained four or five days, keeping a sharp look-out by day from the top of one of the adjacent rocks, to guard against a surprise from the enemy’s cruizers; while for their better security at night, a guard-boat was stationed at the entrance of the harbour.

As the weather still continued too boisterous to trust the brig with safety on a lee shore, her commander determined to return to Guernsey, and offered his prisoners the alternative of returning with him, or remaining with their countrymen at Chaussey. As they all chose to remain, they were promptly landed, and furnished with a boat and a week’s supply of provisions, in addition to what had already been left for the use of the inhabitants. To enable his prisoners to land with greater security at Granville, Lieutenant Thomas read aloud and sealed in their presence a letter, addressed by Sir James Saumarez to the Commissary of Marine at that port, containing an explanation of his reasons for liberating these Frenchmen, with his hopes that the French authorities would act in the same manner towards any English who might fall into their hands, and entrusted it to one of them, with another letter from himself, in which he stated how he had been prevented from conveying them to Granville in his own vessel, and begged that any English prisoners who chanced to be at that place might be sent to one of the Channel Islands.2 The sequel will show in what manner this courtesy and generosity were repaid by the French government.

At six a.m., December 30th, all was in readiness for the Grappler to leave the harbour. The anchor was up, and the vessel was riding between wind and tide, with a hawser made fast to the rocks. Unfortunately, the hawser either broke or slipped while they were in the act of close reefing the topsails, and the brig cast to port. She drifted about three or four hundred yards, and struck at last on a half-tide rock, from which all their efforts were unavailing to haul her off again, and at low water she bilged, and parted in two abreast the chess tree.

Lieutenant Thomas, foreseeing the inevitable loss of the brig, had ordered the master to proceed with the cutter and eight men to Jersey for assistance; and he was directing the crew in their endeavours to mount some guns upon a small rocky islet, to which they had already carried the greater part of the provisions, small arms, and ammunition, when the look-out man, who had been stationed on the summit of the rock, reported that several small craft were steering towards them. Upon receiving this intelligence, the commander and pilot repaired to the high ground, and after carefully examining the appearance of the vessels, agreed that they were merely fishing boats, and considered that it would be imprudent to let them depart before assistance had been procured from Jersey, as, in case there were no ships of war at that place, these boats might possibly be hired to carry the men and stores to Jersey. With this object in view, Lieutenant Thomas pushed off in the jolly boat, accompanied by the French fishermen’s small boat which had come to the assistance of the Grappler’s crew.In order to approach the supposed fishing boats, it was necessary to double a point of the Maître Isle; and this they had no sooner accomplished, than they came in sight of three châsse marées, which had been concealed behind the point. On the sudden appearance of the English boat, the men on board the châsse marées were thrown into some confusion, and Lieutenant Thomas determined to attack them before they had time to recover themselves. On communicating his intention to his boat’s crew, they dashed forwards at once with a loud cheer, but had scarcely pulled a dozen strokes when a body of soldiers, who had been concealed behind some rocks on the Maitre Isle, poured in so severe a fire that Lieutenant Thomas, seeing the superiority of the French in point of numbers, thought it prudent to retreat. No sooner had he given orders to do so, than a shot struck him on the lower jaw and passed through his tongue, rendering him incapable of further exertion. A second volley of musketry riddled the boat, so that she began to fill with water, and finding that they had no alternative but to surrender, the English made a signal to that effect, which was either unobserved, or purposely disregarded, as the firing did not cease till the arrival of the officer in command of the French, when the little party were all made prisoners. Upon Lieutenant Thomas being carried on shore, he found that he had fallen into the hands of a Capitaine de Frigate, who commanded a detachment of fourteen boats and a hundred and sixty men. As soon as the captives were landed, a party of the French troops proceeded to the wreck of the Grappler, and made prisoners of the men who were on the adjacent rock, and after seizing all the stores and provisions, they blew up the remains of the brig.3

When Lieutenant Thomas had partially recovered from the faintness and insensibility caused by his wound, he handed his pocket-book to the French officer. After reading the orders of Sir James Saumarez, which it contained, this officer expressed much regret that Lieutenant Thomas had been so seriously wounded, and alleged that the troops had fired without his orders. Such was the apology of the French commander, but it certainly does not tell well for the discipline of his troops, nor is it easy to understand how so large a body of men could be left without a commissioned officer even for a moment, much less how they could have kept up a continued fire, which this seems to have been. Perhaps, however, it is not fair to comment too severely upon the conduct of the French on this occasion; the signal of surrender might not have been observed, and as the English had commenced the attack, the enemy may naturally have supposed that a larger force was shortly advancing to the support of their comrades. We should also bear in mind that the war had just broke out anew, after a short cessation of hostilities, and that national animosity was at its height.

Thus far we may attempt to palliate the conduct of the French, but it might naturally be supposed that upon learning from his papers the errand of mercy upon which Lieutenant Thomas had been engaged, the French officer would have done all in his power to alleviate the sufferings of his prisoner, and have shown him every mark of courtesy and attention. However this may be, no sooner were all arrangements completed, than the prisoners were marched to the boats, and Lieutenant Thomas was handed over to the care of two grenadiers, with directions that every attention should be paid to him; but the officer’s back was scarcely turned, when these grenadiers, assisted by some of their comrades, stripped poor Thomas of all his clothes, broke open his trunk, which had been restored to him, and appropriated to themselves every article of value that he possessed. Having secured their plunder, they dragged their unfortunate victim to the beach, regardless of his wound and sufferings, and after gagging him with a pocket-handkerchief, threw him on the deck of one of their boats.

The wind blowing fresh on their passage to Granville, which was three leagues from Chaussey, the greater part of the soldiers were prostrated by sea-sickness, whilst the seamen were in such a state of intoxication, that had Lieutenant Thomas been able to rise, or to communicate with his fellow-prisoners, he might easily have overpowered the French, and gained possession of the vessel. If such an idea flashed across his mind, it was but for a moment: he could neither speak nor move, and lay for many hours exposed to the insulting jeers of the French, and the inclemency of the weather. It was late at night when they landed at Granville, but the naval and military staff waited upon Mr. Thomas the next morning, and told him that it was the intention of the authorities to send him back to England, in consideration of his kindness to the French prisoners. The expectation raised in the English officer’s breast by these promises were, to the disgrace of the French government of that day, never realized. He was thrown into prison, and treated with the utmost severity; in vain did he protest against this injustice in vain did he represent that he was engaged on no hostile expedition at the time of his capture, which, moreover, was not through the fortune of war, but through the violence of the elements. He was kept in close confinement at Verdun for ten years, and when he was at last released, liberty was scarcely a boon to him. The damp of his prison, and the sufferings attendant on his wound, had impaired his eyesight, and otherwise so injured his constitution, that he was no longer fit for active service. He was, however, promoted to the rank of commander immediately on his return to England: this rank he still holds, but the best years of his life had been spent in captivity, and his hopes of promotion were not realized till too late for the enjoyment of its honours, or for the service of his country.

1 This extract is taken from William Gilly's Narratives of Shipwrecks of the Royal Navy between 1793 and 1849. For another ship lost on local waters while under James Saumarez's command, see 100 men lost: HMS Boreas, which was also written of by Gilly in his book.

2 The Library has original material concerning British prisoners-of-war from this period in its collection. See also Bailiwick Prisoners of War, 1813. For the treatment of prisoners and the manner in which they might be released see, for example, F. Robidou's excellent Les derniers corsaires malouins: la course sous la République et l'Empire 1793-1814, published in 1919, in the Library. Captains and other officers, too useful to both sides, were often ransomed, after having undertaken never to sail against France or Britain again, whereas ordinary seamen were left to languish in detention camps.

3 For the site of the wreck, see