The Belleisle was originally the French Formidable which was captured in 1795, and renamed, since there was already a Formidable in the British Navy.
In 1803 HMS Belleisle joined Nelson’s fleet in the Mediterranean where she served for the next two years in the blockade of Toulon, and took part in the chase of Villeneuve’s fleet to the West Indies. On return she called briefly at Plymouth before rejoining the British fleet off the Spanish coast, and in the Battle of Trafalgar sailed into action second in Collingwood’s line between the Royal Sovereign and the Mars.
Her captain William Hargood’s steady disciplined approach to the enemy was noted by a young 16 year old Lieutenant Nicolas in the Royal Marines onboard Belleisle, who described the ‘eastern horizon as covered by ships’ of the French and Spanish fleets. Soon after 9 am. Captain Hargood sent his crew to breakfast, and Nicolas commented on the subdued atmosphere in the wardroom as fellow officers conversed quietly and inevitably speculated on their fate in the battle. The instructions from the captain were clear and concise as they aimed for the black hulled Spanish Santa Ana (112 guns), ‘Gentlemen, I have only to say that I shall pass under the stern of that ship. Put in two round shot and then a grape (shot), and give her that.’ During this approach Belleisle had to endure fire from the ships in the enemy line which caused casualties and damage, but when it was suggested that the ship turn to allow her to fire a broadside in return Hargood firmly replied, ‘… we are ordered to go through the line, and go through the line she shall, by God’.
Belleisle continued in silence until she passed under the stern of the Santa Ana which received a full broadside, and with military precision simultaneously delivered a broadside from the other side into another ship. Watching her from HMS Victory, Nelson exclaimed ’Nobly done, Hargood’. Hargood hoped to engage the French Indomptable (80 guns) but Belleisle was run on board by the French Fougueux (74 guns) and they remained locked together for 20 minutes before the French ship drifted away. Both badly damaged each other and Belleisle lost her mizen mast, and then both main mast and fore mast as she was engaged by the French Achille (74 guns) and Neptune (84 guns). Two Spanish ships also joined this battle which Belleisle had to fight single handed until other British ships intervened. The masts and wreckage on her decks and over the sides impeded replies from her own guns but some were levered into stern ports to continue the fight, and although her ensigns were shot away a flag was tied to a pike which was lashed in turn to the stump of the main mast to show that she was still in action.
The Belleisle was the only British ship to be totally dismasted at Trafalgar, and a quarter of her crew became casualties 33 dead and 93 wounded. Captain Hargood was himself knocked down by a splinter, and was later observed calmly sharing a bunch of grapes with the Lieutenant of marines while continuing in command. Belleisle took possession of the Spanish Argonauto (80 guns) when she surrendered sending Lieutenant of Marines John Owen across in the one surviving boat with a party of seamen, ‘On getting over Argonauto’s side I found no living person on her deck, but on making my way over numerous dead and a confusion of wreck across the quarterdeck I was met by the second Captain at the cabin door, who gave me his sword, which I returned, desiring him to keep it for Captain Hargood to whom I should soon introduce him. With him I accordingly returned to the Belleisle leaving the Master of the Belleisle in charge’. Exhausted captors and captive then joined Hargood for tea.
Dismasted and out of control the crew of Belleisle attempted to rig jury sails when the battle ceased, and she was eventually taken in tow by the frigate Naiad. Once at Gibraltar Belleisle was temporarily refitted to return to England where permanent repairs were made at Plymouth. In 1806 she returned to duty with the Channel Fleet and later sailed to the West Indies and American waters, where she saw further action. She was sold out of the Navy in 1814.
Courtesy of Alan Alberg of the Society for Nautical Research and The Woodland Trust.