THE "Languedoc" (1761-1798)

HISTORY OF AN XVIIIth century Ship of the Line

 

Military History, and a fortiori Naval History, are still a matter of specialists. For the public, Naval History from the end of the XVIIIth century to the beginning of the XIXth century is summed up in one naval battle : Trafalgar. But Naval History can't be resume to the only Military History. In France, the Colbert Ordonnance of 1689 has taken a census of each fisherman and shoreman, which are required to serve in the Marine Royale. So, the history of the Languedoc is not only a naval and military history, it is also an history of men, of seamen. From the noble Captain who doesn't understand seamanship, to the gunners and topmen from little seacoast village, all have lived in the terrible inferno of battle and lifetime in a ship of less than sixty meters, with sometimes a crew of more than one thousand men.

In 1761, France is getting out of the terrible Seven Years War. The Finance Royale  are empty, and the Navy is a ghost. Although the taken of Minorca, the war has been a disaster. The Atlantic Squadron has been defeated and destroyed in the Gulf of Morbihan, and the Mediterranean Squadron on the shores of Lagos in Portugal. The new Navy Minister, the Duke of Choiseul has so an important mission. He must not only built up a new fleet but also prepare it to the revenge against England. But he needs money, and he has not and for a long time. So He decides to call the Peuple de France to help lis king, and to touch it on its more sensible part : the orgueil national.
To help him in his project, he has called one of his friend the archbishop of Narbonne, Charles Antoine de la Roche-Aymon, president-born to the States of Languedoc. The States are for the south of France the equivalent of the northern Parliaments: they are the assemblies of the three orders (Noblemen, Clergymen, and the Tiers-Etats, the middle-class). They vote the ordonnances royales for taxes, and direct local matters. Their power, if it is smaller than the intendant's represent the behavior of their province. The States of Languedoc are one of the most rowdy. They have refused to vote extraordinary taxes to the king, and has been closed for five years. The archbishop is so very interested by Choiseul's project, not only for his province but also for himself. So he prepare his work in secret, and inform only the Intendant of his mission. On the 26th November 1761, in front of the three orders of the States, he makes a great speech, and all the members decide to offer a 74th gun ship of the line to the king. But, it not sufficient, and the Duke of Castries propose an 80th  guns ship, and all accept but for no more money than for a 74th. The example of the States of Languedoc is followed by all the others parliaments and states of France, to the great joy of Choiseul. Seventeen ships of the line are, so, offer to the kingdom, from 56th to 106th guns ships. It will only happen only one more time in France's history following the American War of Independence.
The ship is financing by a loan at 20% to five years. The construction of the ship is less easy. At the end of 1761, the Commissaire général of the Toulon shipyard, Dasque, receive the list of the ships to be build there. He gives the Building of the Languedoc to Joseph Coulomb, new of  the General Engineer Luc Coulomb, designer of the famous Soleil Royal II, which has been destroyed during the Quiberon Bay battle. Joseph Coulomb will us for that matter the old drawings to design and modernize the Languedoc. The ship will carry 2055 tonnes, for 60,41 meters long, 15,7 meters large, and 7,5 meters from the bottom to the upper deck. She will also carry thirty guns of 36, thirty-two of 24, and eighteen of 12. She is great ship, so great that a new yard must be build for her. It will takes two years. The sails drawings is an old one with round tops and a mizzen sail because it has been designed by Luc Coulomb. So the Languedoc is the combinaison of two schools: one new which is turn to fast line, and the others which is turn to the line of battle design. It will not be without consequences for the futur of the ship. The Languedoc is finally launched on may 15th, 1766. The vessel will be commissioned in 1773 under the command of Rear-Admiral d'Estaing during the Falklands casus belli between England and Spain. But the death of Louis the XVth stops the adventure.
Charles Henri d'Estaing is one of the man that destiny makes up sometimes. Since 1776, the War of Independence inflames the British colonies of America, and after a long hesitation, Louis the XVIth decides to intervene. D'Estaing and his squadron will have a double mission: firstly, and after a long meeting with Benjamin Franklin, he will have to carry back to America Sileas Deane, the Congress Representative in France, and also Gérard, the first french ambassador; and secondly, his squadron must leave Toulon in secret before the declaration of war to arrive in time on the American shores. The Languedoc will be the flagship, and for this reason she will carry ten more guns. Moreover, the soldiers of the army regiments will be transport on board the squadron's twelve ships because transports ships would be too slow and a too risky advertisement to British spies. So the Languedoc will have a crew of 1181 men on board. It is difficult to imagine the life of so much men in so few spaces, with many having seasickness. Of all his captains, d'Estaing has three forcoming great sailors: Bougainville, Suffren and Rioms. D'Estaing himself is an army officer, who doesn't really understand seamanship. The squadron leaves Toulon on April 13th 1778, but a strong wind obliged it to go East, so it is not until May 16th that it passes Gibraltar. During this time, the war has begun, the surprised is out. The Languedoc arrives in New York on July 5th because of the strong weather in the Atlantic Ocean. The British squadron under the command of Rear-Admiral Howe is in port, just behind the Sandy Hook. D'Estaing doesn't know the bay and without pilotes decides to takes sails to Boston. It is there that occur the first battle between France's and England 's fleets, on August 10th 1778. But as the two squadron were ready to fight, a tempest came and stop it. The Languedoc lost all of her masts, and her rudder. The British warship Renown of 50th guns decides to take such an opportunity, and attack the french flagship by the stern with all her starboard broadside. The gunshots run throw the decks from the stern to the bow, the men have no place to hide in this rain of iron. Fortunately, Suffren and the rest of the squadron arrive in time to save the ship from surrender. The year was ending without a victory or any good news. Howe decided to go south for winter time and to attack the defenceless French West Indies, but George Washington learned the news and  informed d'Estaing . The chase begin. The British admirals, Howe and Byron, want to avoid a combat and fly from the french from one island to an other. D'Estaing inspired by his captains decides to organize a trap by attacking and taking Grenada Island. The British fleet arrives to late to prevent the capture and must fight. On April 4th 1779, the two lines of huge ships of the line prepare to fight, an historical battle, but after half a day, nothing came out except guns smoke. The reason was that d'Estaing doesn't want a close action, neither Howe. So with spring, the two fleets came back to northern America for the Savannah siege. During the ground battle d'Estaing escape to death, but pursue by the British Army, he must came back on board quickly ans without any glory. Fortunately, a new tempest hides the french fleet, and d'Estaing decides to go back to France. But, unfortunately, the Languedoc lost her masts and rudder, and must repaire on sea without any signe of the rest of the squadron and so on, until she arrives in Brest after such an awful campaign.
In Brest , she is sent to the yards to repair her woods. In march 1781, the Duke of Castries, new navy minister, give Admiral de Grasse the King's order of organizing a fleet of three squadrons to help and carry reinforcement to  Rochambeau' army in America. The marquis d'Argelos, field officer, is now Languedoc's new captain, and her crew is on the same mood except a few Briton sailors. With such a captain and crew an accident is undoubtful. It happens on march 22nd, the Languedoc, at the head of the first squadron of the fleet is going out of the Goulet de Brest, when she rames in a merchant vessel requiring the fleet to come back in harbor. Although this incident, the fleet arrives in Martinique, and then takes a route to the north to help the blocus of Yorktown. On September 5th, de Grasse fights a decisive battle near the Chesapeake Bay. Five British vessels are taken out of combat, but the wind stops the battle, and the British fleet must retreat. It is a strategic victory, alone, the army of Yorktown surrenders on October 19th, prelude to Insurgents final victory. But de Grasse has a new idea: the taken of Jamaica. The french fleet leaves North America shores to West Indies. But many men suffer from scurvy and half of the crew of the Languedoc  must be take on shore fro care. On April 5th 1782, the french fleet comes out of Martinique but is being spied by Rodney's frigates. For this time the wind is on french side and Rodney can see all the french fleet moving before him without anything to do. The chance turns during the following night when a bad order provoke a great dismiss in the french fleet. On morning, de Grasse must fight. The Languedoc is at the stern of the flagship Ville de Paris. The battle is terrible, and the french line is cut before and after the flagship and her guards. The sea is in perfect mood for complete broadside at close range. It is hard to imagine the courage those mens needs to stand to their post waiting for orders and most of times for wounds and finally for death. Death was perhaps a better way for them than the wounds because the surgeon hasn't time to care of all the men and gangrene was the worst enemy. The only way of survive was then amputation. The day is ending and the battle continue. D'Argelos see nos escape for the flagship and decides to leave her behind him to save his own ship. Alone, de Grasse must surrender. Leaving also the main fleet, the Languedoc goes to the Cap and joins La Pérouse's squadron to help to protect the Spanish fleet on its way to Havana. She comes back in Brest in June 28th 1783, escaping barely to run aground on the Pont de Sein. D'Argelos is arrested but after a year trial, he is free. De Grasse, the hero of the Chesapeake Bay, is disgraced.
With this return, the Languedoc has achieved her last mission for the crown of France. She is nearly completely rebuild by General Engineer Sané at Brest. In 1792, when France declares war to Austria, she is recomissioned. On September 5th, she leaves Brest to join the Mediterranean Fleet. She i

s now under command of Rear-Admiral Latouche-Tréville, her first real sailor. In December, she sails to Naples to prevent its king to support Austria and its allies, which mission she perfectly accomplishes in pointing her full broadside to the windows of the Palace. But in this month of December 1792, a terrible tempest sweeps the Mediterranean sea from east to west. The Languedoc meets it on his way back and lost her masts and rudder escaping from only a few meters to be broken  against the cliff of Capri island. Everybody on board thinks she is condemned, but Latouche-Tréville saves his ship, and repairs it on a beach near Naples. Her repairs are complet in a month and half and she can join the invasion force to Sardinia. After the defeat of this expedition, she comes backs to Toulon for more repairs. She is so there when Admiral Hood captures the city, and she fortunately escapes of the destructions when the Allies evacuate the city. From 1793 to 1795, she changes two times of name. She becomes the Antifédéraliste at the city's liberation, and then the Victoire when Robespierre loses his head. On march 13th 1795, she is among the ships who fight on the coast of Cape Nioli. She encounters there a young an terrible English captain: Horatio Nelson. In 1796, she joins the Spanish fleet Cadiz but, because of bad relationship and mutiny, the two fleet go their on way. The french fleet attacks the Newfoundland, and the Spanish fleet meets her fate on Cape Saint Vincent. When the Victoire comes back from the Banks, she is in very bad state. Is is there that the mystery of her end begin. For the Brest shipyard Navy Records she is scrapped in 1797. But in Toulon there is record under both names of Languedoc and Victoire which shows that in 1798 she is a garrison ship in Venice. This record is completed by a letter of the National Records Office in Paris which announces the ship Victoire has been scuttled on her pier in the port of Venice.
On those two possible fates, the second is certainly the more romantic: to see Venice and die, what a better end for this old and glorious warship. If her wreck is in the Lagoon, it has certainly not been preserved by the mud, the waters are to much hottest than those of the northern seas. The Languedoc will remain a witness of the end of a century which change the world, and the last hope for France to have a seapower equal to England.

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