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Admiral Satan - The Life and Campaigns of Suffren.

* These two very dissimilar books go well together because although Sir Walter Scott never met the redoubtable Bailli de Suffren he would certainly have included him in his study of Napoleon's marshals had the admiral consented to serve under the emperor. As it was he died in 1788 but his exploits were sufficiently well known for Napoleon to lament that his navy had never found such a commander. Mr Cavaliero is to be congratulated on writing the first English biography of one who could claim to be the most innovative of all French admirals and his publishers for supplying it with maps and an excellent glossary.

Suffren came from a noble Provencal family and following a family tradition, was enrolled as a Knight of Malta at the age of eight, thus ensuring that he would remain celibate and follow a naval career.

At the battle of Toulon he first saw the French navy in action. Thereafter, between 1744 and 1780 he took part in five battles, was twice taken prisoner, and commanded a number of ships. He also turned his critical and inventive mind to the inadequacies of the French navy. The naval tactics of the eighteenth century form the core of Mr Cavaliero's absorbing study and it is within this framework that Suffren's achievement should be judged. By the mid-eighteenth century the French, and to a lesser extent the British navies, were tied to a system which dictated that ships should fight in line. Any admiral who acted differently risked disgrace or worse. In the French service, though it was unpardonable to lose a ship, an action in which though no victory was gained, honour was satisfied, was judged acceptable. To Suffren, such thinking was contemptible. In his view, ships of the line were designed to act not as elegant duellists but as engines of destruction. The line to him was not an icon to be defended at all costs. it could and should be turned, so that an assault on the enemy's rear would force it to fight on two fronts, or broken, by sending a strong force against a weak link. These were the tactics that Nelson, who had studied Suffren's campaigns, employed so successfully at Trafalgar.

Suffren's was a lone voice. A rigorous class system governed promotion and at fifty-one he was still only a captain `consumed with the restlessness and ill-humour of a genius'. His appearance was not an asset. Fat and enormously greedy, in full dress uniform he resembled `a hog in armour'. His own words. it was only in 1782, when he was sent to india it command of five ships that he could put his theories into practice. In the two years which followed, in five desperate battles, he successfully worsted the British ships under Sir Edward Hughes, sent against him. He did this though he lacked a base in which to re-fit or enough officers who either understood or followed his exacting orders.

Out of his captains, five were dismissed, four more chose retirement and four were killed in action. He returned to France a hero, but the Revolution convulsed France before the lessons he taught were accepted by the Bourbon navy.

Among Sir Walter Scott's friends was a retired Edinburgh merchant, John Clerk, whose Essay on Naval Tactics was the first to draw attention to Suffren's methods. Clerk is only one character to play a part in Allan Massie's adventurous recreation of `The most thoroughly Scottish of our great men'. His book The Ragged Lion opens with an introduction so artfully contrived that it is very hard, if not uncivil, to doubt its authenticity. The author, as he tells us, travelling when a young man in Italy, stayed with a contessa who subsequently sent him a copy of the manuscript given to her great-grandmother in the 1830s by Sir Walter Scott's younger son, Charles.

It took the form of a memoir, written by Sir Walter himself, and was presented to the lady when she entertained them both in Naples. As he looked back on his life and committed his thoughts to paper, Sir Walter was acutely aware that age and sickness were robbing him of the powers to which he owed both his fame and his pleasures. It is Allan Massie's achievement that as he looks into the mirror he has created, it is not his face which it shows but the sharply edged features of Sir Walter. Behind them can be glimpsed the Scotland he inhabited.

The Edinburgh of Scott's childhood was a place of street fights and friendships, but also of `the old radiant stories of Queen Mary and Prince Charlie, of the hooded stag, of the splendour and crime, the velvet and bright iron of the past'. As the author of a recent book devoted to the `braw toun', Allan Massie is here on home ground. What The Ragged Lion succeeds best in conveying are the two contradictory sides of Sir Walter's character. He was both a rational eighteenth-century an, sceptical of old wives tales, wary of lost causes, and `a strolling pedlar'. In that capacity he was a Borderer, wedded to the ballads and half-believing in a magic world where the Eildon hills were the gateway to Thomas the Rhymer's lost fairyland.

Had Sir Walter Scott not been born lame, he would probably have become a soldier. This would have been a sad loss for as Allan shows, he was born to be a writer. As a contented laird, settled in his beloved Abbotsford, he played to perfection the role of a conventional, genial host, but at his desk he lived among dreams so vivid that the books which came out of them almost wrote themselves. In 7he Ragged Lion we see both sides of a very rare coin.
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Author:Hesketh, Christian
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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