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1757 - The Royal Navy attacks the Island of Aix - Diary of an English soldier

D 10 July 2007     H 09:39     A Pierre     C 1 messages A 1533 LECTURES

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Sunrise at the Island of Aix
Photo : P. Collenot - 2005

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General Sir John Mordaunt, KB (1697 – 23 October 1780) was an English soldier and Whig politician, the son of Lieutenant-General Harry Mordaunt and Margaret Spencer.

On the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756, he was placed in charge of training troops at Blandford. The next year, he was picked by George II as the commander of a hit-and-run "descent" to be made upon the French port of Rochefort, seconded by Henry Seymour Conway and Edward Cornwallis. This attack was planned on the basis of a report by Lt. Robert Clerk that the defenses at Rochefort, as of 1754, were inadequate to hold off an assault. However, very little was known about the number of French troops in the area or the state of preparation, and both Mordaunt and Conway were uneasy about the expedition. The naval commanders, Sir Edward Hawke and Sir Charles Knowles were also unenthusiastic. However, the plan was championed at the highest levels, by William Pitt and Sir John Ligonier, and the commanders were reconciled with their mission.

The force of 31 warships and 49 transports carrying 10 battalions of soldiers set sail on 6 September 1757, and captured the Île d’Aix on 21 September. However, they now discovered that shallow water would prevent the ships from approaching closer than a mile and a half from shore, requiring a long and hazardous landing by boats. A council of war aboard HMS Neptune on 25 September considered further reports by Clerk that the defenses might have been improved, and reports by neutral ships of French preparation to resist the landing. The officers concluded that assaulting Rochefort was "neither advisable nor practical". A second council, called on 28 September aboard HMS Ramillies, decided on a night attack upon the forts at the mouth of the River Charente, the first embarkation to be led by Mordaunt in person. However, the navy called it off due to strong winds at the last minute, and Hawke declared the next day his intention to depart immediately. Mordaunt and his subordinates were compelled to concur, and the expedition returned on October 6.

Pitt was furious at the failure of the expedition, and the expenditure of more than £1,000,000 without result. George II appointed the Duke of Marlborough, Lord George Sackville and John Waldegrave to form a board of inquiry into the expedition. The board found that "It does not appear to us that there were then, or at any time afterwards either a Body of Troops or Batteries on the Shore sufficient to have prevented the attempting a Descent," and that it did not believe the defenses of Rochefort could have been sufficiently improved so as to repel an assault. In the wake of the inquiry, Mordaunt was tried by court-martial in December. However, due to the discretion inherent in his initial instructions, he was unanimously acquitted of disobedience. Nonetheless, George II removed Mordaunt, Conway and Cornwallis from the staff in July 1758, and replaced Mordaunt as governor of Sheerness.

Mordaunt retained his commission, but never again held a senior field command. He was promoted general in 1770, and was governor of Berwick from 1778 until 1780, when he died in his home near Southampton.

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