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Remembering British war dead 

Recently we remembered those who gave their lives in the First World War. This article is about men who died in a battle long before.

During the Napoleonic Wars, when Spain was an ally of France and therefore an enemy of Britain, in the early hours of the morning of the 25th July 1797, combined British forces of about 1,200 seamen and marines under the command of our national hero, Rear Admiral Nelson, began its attack on what was originally thought would be a soft easy target, Santa Cruz, the main port of Tenerife and the Canary Islands. But the attack was a last fling, a fairly desperate attempt to take the city and thereby subdue the whole archipelago. The element of surprise had been lost three days before and the first attempt at landing had failed miserably. Now, in the darkest hours before dawn, the approach to shore of the British launches with their muffled oars and laden with armed men was seen by a woman on her way from San Andres to market in Santa Cruz. She alerted the guard at the nearest fort and the general alarm was raised. Soon afterwards the defenders of the seventeen forts and gun batteries of Santa Cruz, under the command of General Antonio Gutierrez, were ready and waiting.

Everything that could go wrong for the British went wrong. A tremendous barrage of cannon fire such as the British had never experienced wreaked havoc among the launches. A strong tide that had not been reckoned with swept many of the launches to the south of the city, gunpowder got wet when the men landed and made firearms useless, and at least four men were drowned in trying to get through the surf. Nelson himself was in the first line of boats and, with his sword raised, he was about to step onto the beach where the Plaza de Espana is now, when he was shot in the elbow and had to be taken back to his flagship where the lower part of his arm was amputated.

One of the British fleet, the cutter ‘Fox’ of fourteen guns, was carrying about 180 men (the exact number is uncertain) and supplies of munitions when it was holed below the waterline by a cannon shot. It sank instantly with the loss of her commander and 97 men.

A full account of the attack has been written in Spanish and an English translation is awaiting publication. But to put it into a nutshell, the marines and sailors who landed were without their leader, the chain of command was broken at the top as captains and lieutenants waited for Nelson’s orders that never came. Detachments of soldiers became lost and separated in the maze of dark city streets that the island militiamen knew like the back of their hand. After only a few hours the British, who had taken refuge in a convent, surrendered and after some negotiations General Gutierrez allowed them to return to their ships with their firearms, their flags and such dignity as they could muster.

Later, when the reckoning was made and Nelson sent his report, signing it with his left hand, to his senior officer, Admiral Jervis, he found that 44 men had been killed in action (28 seamen and 16 marines), 105 men had been wounded (90 seamen and 15 marines), and 101 seamen and marines had been drowned or were missing, 97 in the sinking of the ‘Fox’ alone, making a total of 250 casualties in the aborted attempt to take Santa Cruz.

After the attack and the British withdrawal five of the forts of Santa Cruz claimed credit for firing the cannon that sank the ‘Fox’. After exa-mination the claims were narrowed down to three, which, after further exa-mination of the various accounts, became one that was identified as the fort of San Miguel, near to the larger fort of Paso Alto. A dramatic model diorama in the Military Museum at the Almeyda in Santa Cruz reconstructs the action. Among several relics of the attack on display in the museum there is the flag of the British ship ‘Emerald’. It has to be said that the flag was not taken in battle, which would have been a great dishonour, but was lost from the ship and washed up onshore.

Nelson was full of admiration for his nemesis; from on board his ship ‘Theseus’ he dictated;

“And here it is right that I should notice the noble and generous conduct of Don Juan Antoine Gutierrez the Spanish governor; the moment the terms were agreed to, he directed our wounded to be received into the Hospitals, and all our people to be supplied with the best Provisions, that could be procured, and sent offers that the ships were at liberty to send on shore and purchase whatever refreshments they were on want during the time we might lay off the island.”

The two commanders exchanged gifts and expressions of goodwill and hoped to meet in person once the war was over, but neither man lived to see that day.

In the lists of casualties, Nelson named the officers who were wounded: Rear Admiral Nelson, right arm shot off, Captain Thompson of the Leander, slightly wounded, Captain Freemantle of the Seahorse, shot in the arm, 3rd Lieutenant John Douglas, also of the Seahorse, shot in the hand, M. Waits, midshipman with the Zealous, wounded.

And there were the names of officers who had been killed: Richard Bowen, Captain of the Terpsichore, Bowen’s First Lieutenant, George Thorpe, John Weatherhead, 5th Lieutenant of the Theseus (mortally wounded), William Earnshaw, 2nd Lieutenant of the Leander, Raby Robinson, Lieutenant of marines on board the Leander, Lieutenant Baisham, Lieu-tenant of marines on board the Emerald, and Lieutenant John Gibson, commander of the Fox cutter, who was drowned.

But the ordinary seamen and marines who died were only a set of numbers in the records, and they still are at the time of writing. Research is happening in the Public Records Office in London on behalf of Spanish re-searchers, not, it has to be said, British. The place where the ‘Fox’ cutter sank with the loss of 98 men constitutes a war grave. The wreck lay probably in what is now the approach to the port of Santa Cruz. Surely, when and if their names become known, a memorial could be erected in Tenerife out of respect for all those who died, regar-dless of rank. These men, so far as they knew, were fighting and dying for the honour of their country, as loyal soldiers always have done and always will do for as long as there are wars.

(This painting of the British landing at the pier at Santa Cruz is taken from ‘La Historia de 25 de Julio de 1797 a la luz de las Fuentes Documentales’, by Luis Cola Benitez and Daniel Garcia Pulido, from a painting by Gumersindo Robayana Lazo, c.1897.)