Zacharie Jacques Théodore Allemand, 1762-1826

Zacharie Jacques Theodore Allemand (1762-1826) was one of the more capable French naval commanders of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, gaining his reputation in a series of successful raids against British shipping early in the wars.

Allemand was born at Port-Louis in the Morbihan area of Brittany, the son of Phillipe Allemand, a naval lieutenant and Knight of St. Louis. He joined the French navy at the age of twelve, well before the revolution, and had risen to his father's old rank when the revolution broke out. Allemand was a supporter of the revolution, and soon rose to the rank of captain. 

In 1794 Captain Allemand commanded a squadron that raided the African coast, attacking Freetown, Sierra Leone. The French squadron approached the town while flying British colours, before raising French colours and beginning a two hour bombardment. The town was then plundered before the French moved off to capture Bunce Island, up the Sierra Leone River from Freetown. Allemand finally left on 23 October, and officially claimed to have burnt or sunk 210 British, Spanish and Portuguese ships during his raid.

Allemand returned to African waters in 1795, this time in command of a squadron engaged in privateering.

In 1796 Commodore Allemand was part of a squadron that raided the Canadian coast, hoping to intercept the British fishing fleet. He was detached from the main fleet to raid the Bay of Castles (now know as the Straits of Belle Isle), but he arrived on 22 September, after most of the fishing boats had sailed for home. The townsfolk burnt their own fishing stages as the French approached. Allemand burnt what was left, and then returned to France, reaching Lorient of 15 November.

Allemand was promoted to Rear Admiral early in 1805. He was to have played a part in Napoleon's grand naval plan for 1805. The two main fleets were to dash across the Atlantic, unite in the West Indies, and then return to European waters, where they would overwhelm the British and allow Napoleon to begin the invasion of England. Allemand's role was to wait in European waters then join with the united fleet and take part in the movement into the English Channel.

The union of the two French fleets never happened. Instead Villeneuve was chased across the Atlantic by Nelson. Once the French commander realised that Nelson was in the West Indies he immediately returned east across the Atlantic. A tentative battle with part of the British fleet followed (Calder's battle off Finisterre, 22 July 1805), before Villeneuve reached safety at Ferrol. This was as close as he was to come to Allemand's five men at arms, which passed close to the site of the battle on the following day (having captured the 16-gun HMS Ranger on 17 July).

Allemand's presence at sea with five ships of the line meant that Villeneuve was unable to join up with him. An attempt to find the Rochefort squadron at sea failed, and probably helped convince Villeneuve to sail south to Cadiz instead of north to Brest. Villeneuve reached Cadiz on 20 August, four days after Allemand had anchored in Vigo Bay (16 August). This failure of the two French squadrons to join up is one of the more tantalising 'what ifs' of the Trafalgar campaign - if the rendezvous had been achieved that might have encouraged Villeneuve to turn north and follow Napoleon's orders, potentially allowing the invasion of Britain to begin, or it may have meant that Allemand was present at Trafalgar, giving the French and Spanish another five ships of the line.

In 1805 Allemand did lead the Rochefort squadron on one successful raid, when his most significant victory was over the 54-gun HMS Calcutta (Captain Daniel Woodriff). The Calcutta was escorting a convoy of six merchantmen when it was intercepted by Allemand with five ships of the line, three frigates and three brigs on 25 September. Light winds delayed the battle until the following day. The Calcutta managed to disable one French frigate but was soon engaged by Allemand's ships of the line and forced to surrender. One ship from the convoy was also captured.

Towards the end of 1807 Allemand, with six ships of the line, was blockaded in the Aix Roads by a British squadron under Rear-Admiral Sir Richard John Strachan. In November Strachan was forced to leave his post to find supplies, a task that took him until mod January. This gave Allemand his chance, and on 17 January 1808 he escaped from the trap, eluding the single British frigate watching him. One of Allemand's ships had to turn back after suffering damage in bad weather, but on 26 January the rest of his fleet slipped past Gibraltar, and Allemand entered the Mediterranean.

Later in 1808 Allemand was ordered to sail to the Indian Ocean, but he was back in French waters early in 1809, when he took charge of the final stages of a major French naval disaster (not of his own making). Early in 1809 the French fleet at Brest, under the command of Rear Admiral Jean-Baptiste Willaumez, escaped from port after the British squadron blockading the port was driven away by storms. His freedom was short-lived - fearing that he was being driven into a trap Willaumez sailed into Basque Roads, where his fleet was soon blockaded by Admiral James Gambier. Willaumez was dismissed for his failure to fight a smaller British fleet during his brief period at sea, and Allemand was appointed in his place. Napoleon assured him that the guns of a nearby fort would protect his fleet, but they would soon prove to be ineffective.

Gambier was joined by Captain Lord Cochrane, a daring if somewhat unconventional officer, who was given command of the actual attack on the French fleet. Cochrane had been in this area before. In May 1806, when commanding the Pallas, he came close to the island of Aix to reconnoitre Allemand's squadron, which by coincidence was then anchored in the same roads. Now he realised that the French were in a vulnerable position, and on 11 April 1809 he was able to inflict serious damage on the anchored French fleet using a mix of fireships and bomb vessels. Several of the French officers involved in this disaster were court-martialled, and one was even executed, but Allemand was not amongst them. Instead he was promoted to vice-admiral and given command of the Mediterranean fleet.

In 1810 Allemand was made a Count of the Empire. He retained command of the Mediterranean fleet from its base at Toulon until 1812, although he spent most of this period blockaded in port.

Early in 1812 Allemand with five ships of the line was blockaded in Lorient by four British ships of the line under Captain Sir John Gore. On the night of 8 March Allemand slipped away to sea. A pursuit followed but he escaped into fog and managed to remain at sea for three weeks, capturing a small number of prizes before reaching Brest on 29 March.

After the return of the Bourbons Allemand remained in favour and was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, but he retired in 1816, dying at Toulon on 2 March 1826. During his career he spent some 318 months at sea, out of a total of 445 months in the navy, a very impressive total for a French sailor in a fleet that spent much of its time blockaded in port. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 November 2010), Title,

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