James Saumarez, 1st Baron de Saumarez (or Sausmarez), GCB (11 March 1757 – 9 October 1836) was a Guernsey born naval officer, an Admiral of the Royal Navy, notable for his victory at the Battle of Algeçiras, and for his later command in the Baltic.
James Saumarez was born on the 11th March 1757 in St Peter Port. He was the son of Matthieu De Sausmarez, by his second wife Carterette Le Marchant. He was thus descended from two of the oldest Guernsey families. A number of his father's brothers had served in the Royal Navy including Phillip Saumarez. He was educated at Elizabeth College, and his father arranged for his name to be entered on the ship's roll for the Solebay whilst James continued his schooling. This was common practice at the time - to obtain promotion to Lieutenant one had to show a certain period of time spent at sea. Thus officially he had been at sea two years and nine months before actually joining his first ship, the Montreal in August of 1770.
After service in the Mediterranean in Montreal, Saumarez (he had dropped the prefix, and second 's' after joining the Navy) moved into the Winchelsea and then into Levant where he spent three years under Captain Samuel Thompson. He passed the Lieutenant's examination in 1775, but did not immediately receive a commission to Lieutenant.
American Revolutionary War
He was despatched to North America in the Bristol, and saw his first action on the 28 June 1776 when his entire gun crew were killed, leaving him the only survivor. He was given an acting commission, which was confirmed by Lord Howe on 25 January 1778. Howe also gave him his first command, the galley Spitfire.
After service in Victory, and Fortitude he was made acting captain of the Preston after her captain had been killed in the Battle of Dogger Bank (1781). On the 23 August 1781 he was promoted to Master and Commander of the fireship Tisiphone. On 12 December 1781 it was Saumarez who warned Admiral Kempenfelt of the French troop ships before the Battle of Ushant (1781). He was then sent ahead to warn Admiral Hood of the approaching French survivors. This involved navigating a particularly dangerous passage. and led to Hood promoting him to the command of the 74 gun Russell.
Now at 25 a full (or 'Post) Captain, it was just eight weeks later when Saumarez and the Russell took part in the pivotal Battle of the Saints. The new Captain fought brilliantly - at one point surprising and astonishing the commanding Admiral Rodney, who broke the enemy line only to find de Saumarez had already done so. With this battle the British West Indies were saved, but the American War was over however , and Saumarez returned to Guernsey on half pay.
On 8 October 1788 he married Martha Le Marchant, daughter of Thomas Le Marchant and Martha Dobreé.
French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
War broke out again in 1793, and Saumarez was given command of the 36 gun Crescent which had a significant number of Guernseymen on board. It was thus inevitable that she took the French Réunion of equal rate, (equivalent size and guns), in spite of the latter having 320 men to Crescent's 260. 120 men were lost on the French vessel - not a soul on Crescent. For this action Saumarez was Knighted. In June 1794 the Crescent, along with the Druid and Eurydice, met two 36-gun French frigates and two 54-gun ships. Saumarez was outnumbered and out gunned, and when the wind changed changed against him he organised a controlled retreat to Guernsey - a manoeuvre carried out with great skill. He allowed the slower Eurydice to escape supported by the Druid. Seeing the latter ships entering harbour, the French were confident of taking the outnumbered Saumarez. They were to be frustrated when Crescent slipped through a channel that had never before been attempted. When Sausmarez questioned his pilot, fellow Guernseyman Jean le Breton, about the latter's confidence in his position he received the famous answer ‘I am quite sure—there is your house—there is mine’.
In March 1795 he was appointed to the command of the 74 gun Orion - his first ship of the line. He took part in the blockade of Brest and of Rochefort, and then in 1797 joined Hyde Parker's squadron in reinforcing Sir John Jervis shortly before the Battle of St Vincent. During the battle Orion succeeded in forcing the surrender of the Santissima Trinidad, with 136 guns the largest warship afloat. Unfortunately due to a manoeuvering command from the flagship he was unable to take possession of the prize and she escaped. He also engaged the Salvador del Mundi, and succeeded in placing a boarding party on her before she struck her colours to Victory. To his disgust neither action was reported in the Admiral's despatch home.
He was nominally Nelson's second in command at the Battle of the Nile. Orion engaged first Sérieuse, then Peuple Souverain, and the French flagship Franklin. He received the only wound of his career when a large splinter struck his thigh. Following the battle Saumarez escorted the captured ships home.
In 1799 Saumarez moved into Ceasar, and took part in the blockade of Brest. Blockade was a grinding, unglamorous, and physically exhausting duty. However it played a vital role in reducing the effectiveness of the French navy; the French ships rotted at their moorings, and their sailors lost valuable sea time, while their morale suffered. Saumarez suffered physically from the effects of this time as sea, but was told by Jervis (by then Lord St Vincent) "with you there I sleep as soundly as if I had the keys of Brest in my pocket" (from the Ville de Paris off Ushant, 15 Sept 1800). On New Years Day 1801 he was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue, and in June was created a Baronet. He was then sent to blockade Cadiz.
The Battle of Algeçiras Bay
A French squadron had escaped the blockade at Toulon and was attempting to link up with their Spanish allies. Finding Cadiz blockaded they took shelter in Algeçiras Bay close to Gibraltar. On the 8th July 1801 Saumarez mustered all his available ships and attacked whilst the enemy (protected by gunboats, shoals, and land forts) lay at anchor. Despite early success, a change in the wind forced the British to retreat, and they lost the Hannibal when she grounded. The French ships were deliberately grounded to save them.
The next four days saw the two sides repairing damage. It is a credit to Saumarez's powers of organization that the badly damaged British ships were repaired, and were ready on the 12 July when the French ships (now reinforced by a Spanish squadron) sailed again. In a night action, and thanks to a daring manoeuvre by Captain Richard Keats, two Spanish ships were destroyed, and one French ship captured. Saumarez was created a Knight of the Bath in recognition.
He was then appointed to the command of the Channel Islands squadron and was appointed a Vice-Admiral in 1806. Following more blockade duty at Brest he was appointed to the Baltic Command in March 1808, hoisting his flag in Victory.
The Baltic would prove to a high point in Saumarez's career. France and Russia had signed an alliance in July of 1807, and this threatened British trade in the area. This was not just an economic problem, much of the raw material necessary for the maintenance of the Royal Navy (tar, straight tall timbers for masts and spars, cordage, etc.) came from the countries neighbouring the Baltic. Without firing a shot Saumarez countered the pressure from France and Russia on the Baltic countries, and ensured the continuation of British trade. This required a high level of tact and diplomacy as well as the targeted threat of British Naval power when required. He was especially successful in regard to Sweden, where he was (and remains) much admired. The Swedish government wrote to him
You have been the guardian angel of the country. By your wise, temperate and loyal conduct you have been the first cause of the plans which have been formed against the demon of the continent … you were the first cause that Russia dared to make war with France. Had you fired one shot when we declared war against England, all had been ended and Europe would have been enslaved. (Ross, 2.293–4)
Following the Baltic he was Admiral of the Port at Portsmouth. He rose through regular promotions finally becoming a full Admiral (of the Red) in 1830. He was created Baron de Saumarez of Saumarez in 1831, and served as an Elder of Trinity House. He was also the last holder of the honorary position of General of the Royal Marines
The De Saumarez Memorial, a 99 foot obelisk was built in Delancey Park in 1873 to celebrate his life. Sadly this was destroyed by German occupying forces in the Second World War. The four bronze plaques that were on the base of the obelisk can now be seen at Castle Cornet. There is also a memorial to him in the Town Church, St Peter Port.
Saumarez features in the works of both C. F. Forester (The Happy Return), and Patrick O'Brian (Master and Commander & The Surgeon's Mate). In the introduction to the "The Surgeon's Mate" O'Brian admits that he kept Saumarez in the Baltic for longer than was actually the case, but excuses himself as he wanted to say something about Saumarez "an outstanding example of a particular type of sea-officer of that time.
A statue of Saumarez by J. Steell (c1840) may be seen at the National Maritime Museum (First Floor, Upper Deck Collection).
P. Jean, miniature, 1801, National Portrait Gallery (NPG); T. Phillips, portrait, 1809, priv. coll; attrib. S. Lane, oils, Mational Maritime Museum (NMM) C. Turner, mezzotint (after Carbonier), British Museum, NPG; E. Williams, oils (after T. Phillips), NMM
- A. B. Sainsbury, ‘Saumarez, James, first Baron de Saumarez (1757–1836)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004
- The London Gazette: Number 15392 (August 3 1801).
- Sir John Ross, Memoirs of Admiral Lord de Saumarez (2 vols, 1838)
- Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition,
- Admiral Saumarez
- The London Gazette: Searchable edition of this official newspaper. Saumarez's Admiralty despatches, announcement of his Peerage, etc.