Battle of the Glorious First of June – 1 June 1794
As a consequence of a poor harvest in 1793 and the turmoil created by the Revolution, there was a desperate need for the new French Republic to obtain food supplies, and to this effect a convoy of nearly one hundred and twenty ships began congregating in Chesapeake Bay during the spring of 1794, loading themselves to the full with grain from the French West Indian colonies, and with produce garnered from a United States that was indebted to her old ally for her crucial support in the American Revolutionary War.
On 26 December 1793 Rear-Admiral Pierre Jean Vanstabel was despatched from Brest to bring home the convoy with two sail of the line, the Jean-Bart 74 and Tigre 74, together with the frigates Concorde 36 and Sémillante 32 and the brig Papillon 14. This squadron arrived in the Hampton Roads, Virginia on 12 February 1794, and having spent some time gathering his charges from Baltimore, Norfolk, and Portsmouth, Vanstabel set sail for home on 11 April. The day before, and as previously arranged, Rear-Admiral Joseph Marie Nielly had departed Rochefort with the Sans Pareil 80, Audacieux 74, Patriote 74, Téméraire 74 and Trajan 74 to assist in escorting the grain ships on the last leg of their voyage into French waters.
Once news of the sheer size of the convoy reached Paris it was decided that further measures would be required to ensure its safe return. At Brest instructions were given to Rear-Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret-Joyeuse, a forty-five year old brave and experienced ex-lieutenant who had been rapidly promoted to command the fleet in the absence of the imprisoned Vice-Admiral Justin Bonaventure Morard de Galles and other deposed aristocratic officers. He had to get the convoy past the British, even if it meant losing his ships in the process. To fail in those turbulent times would for likely mean the loss of his head, and for any of his captains to surrender their ship would also for likely mean the loss of their heads. If his resolve did not need stiffening any further, Villaret-Joyeuse also found that a political martinet, André Jeanbon Saint-André, had appointed himself joint commander of the fleet in order to monitor the situation on behalf of Robespierre and his guillotine-worshipping cronies in Paris.
Meanwhile, the assembly of the huge convoy in the Chesapeake had long been monitored by Captain Sir Charles Knowles of the Daedalus 32, which frigate had been dismasted in passage to Halifax and sought refuge in Norfolk, Virginia, some thirty-odd miles from the French rendezvous. Shortly after Rear-Admiral Vanstabel’s appearance on the coast, Knowles had needed to fortify his command at the threat of a French intention to carry her by boarding with twelve hundred men, and he was personally fired upon by the supposedly neutral Americans. On another occasion an American force had launched a musketry attack on the Daedalus itself. Nevertheless, whilst he remained under blockade by the French, Knowles’ reports kept the Admiralty abreast of developments, and London was accordingly able to prepare for the interception of the convoy once it had sailed.
On 17 April Admiral Lord Howe, the commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet, was issued with detailed instructions from the Admiralty, and taking to sea from St. Helens on 2 May after several false starts occasioned by adverse winds, his thirty-four sail of the line and fifteen other men-of-war provided an escort to the Mediterranean, Spanish, Portuguese, African, West Indian and East Indian convoys of over two hundred ships during the first two days of their passage. At the appropriate latitude he sent them on their way under the care of the Suffolk 74, Commodore Peter Rainier, the Stately 64, Captain Billy Douglas, and four frigates. At the same time six of his own fleet were detached under Rear-Admiral George Montagu to help escort the merchantmen as far as Cape Finisterre, and then to voyage some five hundred miles out into the Atlantic with orders to cruise until 20 May in search of the French convoy.
With his remaining twenty-six sail of the line Howe sailed for Ushant, where on 5 May the frigates Latona 38, Captain Edward Thornbrough, and Phaeton 38, Captain William Bentinck, supported by the Orion 74, Captain John Thomas Duckworth, joined him to report that twenty-four French sail of the line were in the Goulet passage at Brest. Howe had no wish to keep Villaret-Joyeuse in port as he was determined to force a battle with the old enemy, so in disdaining a blockade he retreated to the west of the island to place his fleet between the expected convoy and Brest in the hope of intercepting the French fleet on its way out. This plan was unfortunately subverted when on 16 May Villaret-Joyeuse put to sea with twenty-five sail of the line and fifteen frigates, and the next day slipped past Howe so closely in the fog that his men could hear the activity aboard the British vessels. Two days later Howe was off Brest again where he received word from the Latona and Phaeton that the French were out.
That same evening Howe was joined by the frigate Venus 32, Captain William Brown, who brought news from Montagu’s squadron of the rear-admiral’s recapture of ten sail from the Newfoundland convoy, which with their escort, the Castor 32, Captain Thomas Troubridge, had been intercepted by Nielly a week earlier. He also delivered intelligence that Vanstabel and Nielly were due to unite their nine sail of the line, thereby placing Montagu in jeopardy. Howe immediately set off to support his rear-admiral, but on 21 May he fell in with several Dutch vessels from a convoy that had been captured by Villaret-Joyeuse, and in re-taking these ships, half of which he destroyed in order that he did not weaken his own fleet by placing prize-crews aboard, he learned that the Brest fleet was but a few leagues to the west. He now dispensed with his plan to join Montagu and assumed a south-westerly course, and on the 25th his outriders discovered and gave chase to the French sail of the line Audacieux 74, which was attempting to reinforce Villaret-Joyeuse from Nielly’s squadron. This pursuit took the fleet north again before it bore away to the east on the 27th, and at 6.30 a.m. the next day, some four hundred and thirty miles to the west of Ushant, in hazy weather with high cloud, strong south-westerly breezes and heavy seas slamming in from the west, the British frigates spotted their counterparts in the French fleet to windward on a north north-easterly course.
As soon as he was advised that the French fleet was to the south, Lord Howe ordered Rear-Admiral Thomas Pasley to windward to reconnoitre with his flying division consisting of the Russell 74, Captain John Willett Payne, Leviathan 74, Captain Lord Hugh Seymour, Thunderer 74, Captain Albemarle Bertie, Marlborough 74, Captain George Cranfield Berkeley, and flagship Bellerophon 74, Captain William Johnstone Hope, and by ten o’clock this squadron was able to report that the other fleet consisted of twenty-six sail of the line, five frigates and two corvettes.
Villaret-Joyeuse, who had been joined by the Patriote 74 from Nielly’s force, already knew that the homeward-bound convoy was to his south, and with thoughts only for its safety he began to lure the British fleet to the west throughout the morning before pausing to tack and form line of battle at about midday. Howe signalled a general chase of the French from his leeward position, and at about 3 p.m. with the wind rising to gale force accompanied by squally showers, he signalled Pasley’s pursuit ships to harass the enemy’s rear. By the early evening the wind had begun to abate, and from about 5 p.m. until they broke off the action on Howe’s instructions at dusk some three hours later, Pasley’s division engaged the lattermost French ships at long range. During this period the straggling Révolutionnaire 110, Captain Daniel Vandongen, which vessel had previously been known as the Bretagne, and which had flown the Comte d’Orvilliers’ flag at the Battle of Ushant in 1778, came under a sustained attack from the Leviathan, Latona, Russell, Marlborough and Bellerophon, although the latter was soon obliged to withdraw and signal an inability to continue the action.
As darkness fell and all of his consorts dropped back bar the Leviathan, which was attempting unsuccessfully to bring the second ship from the rear to action, Captain William Parker of the Audacious 74 moved in under full sail to leeward of the Révolutionnaire. For a couple of hours the two ships fought it out at short range, the Audacious posting herself on her larger opponents’ lee-quarter, their cannon almost touching, until at about 10 p.m. the Révolutionnaire, having lost her mizzenmast, bowsprit, fore and main top-yards and main topsail yard, and with only a handful of guns replying to the British broadsides, attempted a boarding manoeuvre. In so doing she fell across the Audacious’ bows, but providentially the resulting entanglement was only a brief one, and when the two ships separated a cheer went up forward on the British vessel in the belief, which Captain Parker was unable to verify, that the French had struck their colours. Whether or not that was the case, the Révolutionnaire had been thwarted in her design to carry her enemy by superior numbers and she now flew before the wind, barely avoiding the British rear, and in particular the Thunderer 74 which might easily have taken her.
As his own vessel had suffered so much damage aloft there was no possibility of Captain Parker setting off in pursuit of the Révolutionnaire, and indeed it was some time before he could wear ship and attempt to run off to leeward of the French line. Come daylight he discovered nine French sail some three miles to windward which had been detached by Villaret-Joyeuse to recover the dismasted Révolutionnaire. These ships in turn set off in pursuit of the Audacious, and for up to an hour Parker’s command was raked by the frigate Bellone 36, hanging off her stern. At last being able to get more sail aloft, there was nothing the Audacious could do but run before the wind to Plymouth, losing her day-long pursuers in the thick haze, yet suffering the frustration of passing within a half mile of her stricken erstwhile opponent. On 3 June she reached Plymouth Sound where Parker reported that of the twenty-two casualties incurred, three men had been killed in the engagement, another had died soon afterwards, and the life of two more were despaired of. As for the Révolutionnaire, she had suffered one hundred and forty-eight casualties in the duel with the Audacious, and it was only through her good fortune in falling in with the French Audacieux, which was still seeking to join Villaret-Joyeuse from Nielly’s squadron, that she was able to obtain a tow and be assisted into Rochefort.
A hazy morning on 29 May with a fresh breeze coming in from the south-west found the fleets within six miles of each other, both sailing in a south-easterly direction on a heavy sea with the French to windward in line ahead. Shortly after 7 a.m. Howe sought to pass through the French rear and seize the weather-gauge by manoeuvring on to the larboard tack, but a slight change in the wind hampered him. In turn, Villaret-Joyeuse skilfully wore his fleet around at 8 a.m. to threaten the British van, and during a long-range skirmish the French Montagnard 74 and several British ships were damaged. Howe’s determination to force an action was then frustrated when his leading ship, the new 80-gun Caesar commanded by the old-school Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy, farcically neglected to obey the order to set more sail. With the rest of the British line losing leeway in consequence of having to shorten their own sail Howe was forced to signal his fleet to tack in succession at 12.15, which would mean turning into the wind and coming about closer to, or hopefully even through, the French line. Almost inconceivably the Caesar signalled her inability to do so, and instead she swung away from the wind to assume a new course down the sheltered side of the British line. On the quarterdeck of his flagship, Queen Charlotte 100, Lord Howe overheard a derogatory comment from the first lieutenant, Thomas Larcom, and instructed him to hold his tongue but not to shut his eyes, as his ‘observations may be required’. Tellingly, Howe had long doubted Molloy’s abilities, and only the latter’s friendship with the captain of the fleet, Sir Roger Curtis, had allowed the Caesar to remain the leading vessel in the British line.
Astern of the Caesar, Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner’s flagship, the Queen 98, Captain John Hutt, also turned away from the wind, but with such alacrity that she immediately spun around to pass through her consorts and involuntarily engage the French. Her second, the Russell 74, had her foresail shot away from the yard and her bowsprit damaged, requiring Captain Payne to raise a signal of inability. It was not until Admiral Sir Alexander Hood’s flagship Royal George 100, Captain William Domett, the fifth in line, that a British vessel successfully acceded to Howe’s orders, and by that time the exasperated commander-in-chief had decided to tack the Queen Charlotte and her two seconds, the Leviathan and Bellerophon, with the intention of passing through the French line to re-group before attacking. All three vessels managed this manoeuvre at about 2.15, with the Queen Charlotte passing between the fifth and sixth ships from the enemy rear, and the others before and after the third from the rear. Yet with the Caesar well to leeward and the Queen in disrepair having engaged the entire French line, Howe was in no position to force more than a brief action with the well-ordered enemy. In the action that did take place the Royal George was badly damaged and the Queen Charlotte had to rescue the Leviathan, whose foremast was tottering, and whose wheel had been shot away. With no little instigation by his flag captain, Henry Nicholls, Admiral Thomas Graves was obliged to interpose his division between the French and the disabled Queen, whilst the Alfred 74, Captain John Bazely, found herself in action with a French 80-gun ship, being ably supported by the Brunswick 74, whose captain, John Harvey, had desired the Culloden 74, Captain Isaac Schomberg, to shorten sail in order for his ship ‘to have a berth somewhere!’. Only the Glory 98, Captain John Elphinstone, otherwise distinguished herself, and at 5 p.m. Villaret-Joyeuse was able to skilfully wear to the east to protect his rear, and in particular the badly damaged Indomptable 80 and Tyrannicide 74, before wearing again and standing off.
Many on the British side were surprised that their commander-in-chief had failed to force a general action, but resolute as Lord Howe was in wishing to fight one, he viewed it as essential to do so with what he perceived to be favourable conditions. To this end the day had been productive, for now he had seized the weather-gauge and could bring the French to battle at any time he desired. Additionally, the enemy fleet had been weakened by the loss of the Indomptable, which was to be escorted back to port by the Mont Blanc 74, and the damaged Montagnard, which had maintained her course when the rest of the fleet had wore, and which had failed to return despite the frigate Seine being despatched to recall her. The cost of the day’s action in casualties to the British fleet was the loss of sixty-seven men killed and one hundred and twenty-eight wounded, over seventy of the casualties being on the Queen alone, including Captain John Hutt who lost his leg and later died. Temporarily he was succeeded in command by his first lieutenant, William Bedford.
Back home in Britain during these tense days there was much speculation regarding the expected meeting of the two fleets. Newspapers reported that a Spanish force of twenty sail of the line had sailed from Cadiz and were looking to join Howe, thereby giving him an overwhelming superiority and the opportunity to strike a mortal blow against the new French Republic. Yet crucially, the Admiralty were still unaware that the French convoy had even departed North America, and indeed they would remain without definite information as to its whereabouts until 3 June, when a Bristol merchant by the name of James Jones wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Chatham, with the information that his ship, the Kelly, on her voyage home from the Southern Fishery, had spotted the convoy heading towards the south of the Azores on 12 May with the apparent intention of avoiding the British cruisers.
The day after the British fleet had seized the weather-gauge, 30 May, was shrouded in fog and so it was that Howe, sitting on a chair on his quarterdeck draped in a great-cloak, was unable to see his own ships, let alone the huge grain convoy passing to the south on the last leg of its voyage from America to France. Along with the convoy and indeed his country, Villaret-Joyeuse’s head would now be safe, although for the French commander-in-chief there was still a determination to protect his fleet. When the mists did briefly clear Howe signalled his ships to prepare for an action, but with the Caesar still pumping water from the previous days engagement there was a delay, and the fog soon returned. When the gloom lifted early on the afternoon of the 31st the British were still eight to nine miles from the French, and after making a cursory approach Howe compensated himself with detaching the Latona to keep a close watch on the enemy whilst he planned an attack for the next day. One of the Queen Charlotte’s crew noted his mood. ‘I think we will have a fight. Black Dick has been smiling.’
When a clear morning broke on a placid sea some four hundred and thirty miles to the west of Ushant on Sunday 1 June, the British fleet was steering in a north-westerly direction with the benefit of a moderate south-westerly breeze, the French being some six miles to leeward on the larboard tack. Since the action on 29 May Villaret-Joyeuse had been joined by the Sans Pareil 80, Trajan 74, and Téméraire 74 from Rear-Admiral Nielly’s squadron, and had also been reinforced by the Trente-et-un Mai 74, Captain Honoré Ganteaume. His fleet now numbered twenty-six sail of the line whilst the British, without the crippled Audacious which was returning to Plymouth, numbered twenty-five. At 6 a.m. the British line turned directly north, and shortly after 7 a.m. the two fleets, now some four miles apart, redressed themselves. On the British side Admiral Graves led the van, being supported by Rear-Admirals Pasley and Benjamin Caldwell, Lord Howe commanded the centre with Rear-Admirals George Bowyer and Gardner subordinate to him, and Admiral Sir Alexander Hood led the rear.
Shortly after 7 a.m. a breakfast flag rose up the Queen Charlotte’s halliards and the British fleet hauled off. On board the French Sans Pareil the delighted crew ridiculed this apparent British timidity, but they were quickly brought back to reality by Captain Thomas Troubridge, a prisoner aboard her, whose frigate Castor had been taken by Nielly’s squadron on 10 May. Munching keenly on a slice of bread, the bullish Englishman advised that the delay was only to ensure that the British fought on a full stomach, and that there would undoubtedly be a battle.
At 8.12 with breakfast over, the British fleet filled its sails once more and bore down on the enemy with the advantage of the weather-gauge. The French were now heading in a westerly direction with the British slanting down towards them on a north-westerly track. Having signalled his intention to break through the enemy line and allow each ship to rake and then engage her immediate opponent from to leeward, Howe targeted the recently renamed French flagship Montagne 120, which had previously been known as the Côte d’Or, and before that the Etats de Bourgogne. After a final signal to the Gibraltar 80, Captain Thomas Mackenzie, Brunswick 74, Russell 74, and Culloden 74 to make more sail he shut his signal book with a satisfied grunt, advising his quarterdeck that if they were able to engage the enemy flagship by locking yardarms the battle would soon be decided. It was down to his officers and men now.
At 8.24 the French began firing from long range at the British van, and once again the powerful Caesar at the head of the line failed miserably to follow the commander-in-chief’s instructions, so that instead of attempting to break through the enemy line and attack from leeward, she simply fired away from a distance of five hundred yards at the two leading ships, the Trajan 74 and Eole 74. Once her rudder was hit she would languish for ninety minutes in attending to repairs before resuming the action with the leading Frenchman. In an attempt to suggest a more active part in the battle her unpopular commander, the Irishman Molloy, would later inflate his casualty list, but this massaging of the figures would do him little good either with his admiral, or his fellow captains.
The second ship in the British line, the speedy eight-year old Bellerophon, opened up on the second ship in the French line, the Eole 74, at 8.45, but with the Caesar ploughing her own furrow she soon found herself subjected to the fire of up to four ships from the French van and was unable to break their line. Shortly after getting into close action at 10.50, Rear-Admiral Pasley was struck in the leg by an 18-pound shot and carried below, typically instructing two seamen to ‘never mind my leg; take care of my flag!’. His shattered leg would require amputation. With the Eole wearing away and fleeing her fire, the Bellerophon was attacked by the Caesar’s intended opponent, the van ship Trajan 74, and with all her topmasts and many shrouds shot away she eventually had to be taken in tow by the Latona having suffered four men killed and twenty-seven wounded. Whilst manoeuvring into position to take up the tow the Latona was fired on by the Eole and the Trajan in contravention of the accepted rules of war, and this shot she gamely returned.
Astern of the Bellerophon the Leviathan 74, which had seen her wheel destroyed by a shot on 29 May leaving her dependent on relieving tackles, quickly got into action with her opponent, the Amerique 74, and despite failing to break the French line she brought her opponent’s foremast down within the hour. Absurdly, she not only hurled round shot from her cannon at her enemy but also French five-franc pieces that were packed in to grape shot fired from some brass howitzers taken by her commander, Captain Hon. Hugh Seymour Conway, during the occupation of Toulon in the previous year. She then had to face the guns of both the Eole and Trajan which had come about at 11.50, but after these vessels had sailed on she resumed her bombardment of the Amerique to being her remaining masts down, and to make casualties of a third of her crew. The Leviathan’s final move was to join the Queen Charlotte, which had surged up the French line, and by the end of the day she had suffered ten men killed and thirty-three wounded.
The Russell 74 followed the Leviathan into the battle and began engaging the Téméraire 74 at 8.45., but in failing to break the line she also laid Captain Payne open to criticism that he did not close sufficiently on his opponent. In the duel that followed, his command was badly mauled aloft by the Frenchman before the Téméraire fell away to leeward at about 10.00. Attempting to follow her, the Russell was assailed by the passing Eole and Trajan, and at about this time her fore-topmast came down. The Russell next assisted the Leviathan in her action with the Amerique by raking the French ship, and in the afternoon Captain Payne sent a party of men aboard that vessel to take possession. Later these men were ordered off by a boarding party from the Royal Sovereign, but the Russell still managed to secure a prize by boarding the Impétueux 74, which had been devastated by the Marlborough 74, and from which she took aboard over one hundred and seventy prisoners. The Russell’s losses over the three days of action days were eight men killed and twenty-six wounded.
Next in line was Admiral Graves’ flagship Royal Sovereign 100, Captain Henry Nicholls, which got into action at 9.23 after pulling up so far from the French line that Howe had signalled her to engage more closely. Her immediate opponent was Rear-Admiral François Joseph Bouvet’s flagship, the three-decker Terrible 110. Within a half hour Graves was carried below wounded, but the action went the way of the Royal Sovereign, with her opponent’s main and mizzenmasts toppling overboard at 10.38, causing her to yaw across the British three-decker’s cannon. Villaret-Joyeuse soon brought his flagship Montagne 120 up with the Jacobin 80 to support the Terrible, and thereby the Royal Sovereign was denied her prize. After engaging the Montagne for some time she eventually had to be satisfied with chasing the Russell’s boarders off the Amerique. Fourteen of her men were killed and forty-four wounded in the battle, including the injured Graves.
Behind the Royal Sovereign, the Marlborough 74 managed to break through the French line astern of the Impétueux at 9.55 and came up alongside of her to leeward, as per Lord Howe’s instructions. Ten minutes later the two ships fell aboard one another and the duo were then impaled by the Mucius 74 at 10.15. All three ships became dismasted in the ferocious cannonade that ensued, and boarding parties from both countries briefly got aboard their opponents. The Montagne then ranged up and raked the Marlborough to leave Captain Berkeley and many of his men casualties, and upon being taken below he was succeeded in the command by Lieutenant John Monkton. To add insult to injury the Marlborough also found herself fired upon in the melee by two compatriots, the Gibraltar and Culloden, and when she hoisted a signal for assistance at 11.40 it was immediately shot away. A wallowing hulk, the Marlborough was later taken in tow by the frigate Aquilon 36, Captain Hon. Robert Stopford, having suffered twenty-nine men killed and ninety wounded. Her participation had nevertheless done enough to force the surrender of the Impétueux, although the Mucius escaped to join a new French line that Villaret-Joyeuse managed to forge in the north during the latter stages of the battle. Sadly, Captain Berkeley would be vilified by political opponents in the coming months with the Royal Standard publication describing him as a ‘shy cock’ who had ‘skulked in his cockpit’
The thirty-year old Defence, placed seventh in the van, was by far the boldest of the British ships, for after her officers had gathered to pray with their ultra-religious commander, Captain James Gambier, she outstripped her consorts by simply racing into battle. To the admiration of Lord Howe, Gambier set his topgallants to ensure that his vessel would be the first to break through the French line, reserving his shot until he passed between the Mucius and Tourville 74 after 9 a.m. This head-on assault left Gambier’s ship largely unsupported and cost the Defence her mizzenmast at 10.30 and mainmast an hour later, yet she still managed to put her two opponents to flight. Soon she was fighting on all sides and was drifting helplessly, unable to steer, yet when Rear-Admiral Nielly’s flagship Républicain 110 bore down upon her just before 1 p.m. the pious Gambier rebuked a lieutenant for uttering an oath and told his subordinate to save his words for the encouragement of his men. Fortunately, the French vessel was able to fire little more than a few random shot. When her foretopsail tumbled over the side the men of the Defence suffered yet further anxiety as the drunken second lieutenant, John Dixon, continued to fire his cannon, thereby temporarily setting her alight. At 1 p.m., being unable to play any further part in the action, having incurred over fifty casualties, and with all her forecastle and quarterdeck guns out of action, the Defence signalled for assistance and was taken in tow by the Phaeton. Whilst sailing into the melee the frigate also suffered from French fire, and having been un-chivalrously engaged by the Impétueux 74 for ten minutes she was to lose three men killed and five wounded.
The two ships behind the Defence in the British van, Rear-Admiral Benjamin Caldwell’s flagship Impregnable 98, Captain George Blagden Westcott, and the Tremendous 74, Captain James Pigott, did not carry their colours into battle with the same glory, for they failed to break the French line and engaged from too far to windward, thereby leaving Gambier’s ship largely unsupported. The Impregnable lost seven men killed and twenty-four wounded and had her topgallants masts shot away, although of some historical note two future admirals, Lieutenant Robert Waller Otway and Midshipman Charles Dashwood, earned praise for securing her foretopsail-yard under fire. Similarly, the Tremendous, which had lost her cathead and stern gallery having previously collided with the Alfred was unable to have a significant impact on proceedings, and in losing three men killed and eight wounded she at one stage flew a signal in inability, much to Admiral Pasley’s astonishment.
Leading the British centre, and also engaging from too far to windward, the Barfleur 98 lost nine men killed and twenty-five wounded including Rear-Admiral George Bowyer, who fell into Captain Cuthbert Collingwood’s arms when his leg was shot away. The Invincible 74, commanded by the colourful Irish Captain Hon. Thomas Pakenham, and manned by an Irish crew, was more effective than most of her compatriots, forcing the Juste 80 to make extra sail away from her fire and thereby sending her under the guns of the Queen Charlotte. Her casualties were fourteen men killed and thirty-one wounded. Behind her, Captain Schomberg’s Culloden 74 lost two men killed and five wounded, being principally involved with the Tyrannicide 74, and then in pursuing the beaten enemy at the end of the day. The ineffectively commanded Gibraltar 74 lost two men killed and twelve wounded, but her long-range firing at least proved to be effective in distracting Rear-Admiral Nielly’s Républicain 110 from an attack on the Queen Charlotte. However, the Gibraltar’s failure to even attempt to break the line and a wayward shot from her guns that hit the British flagship and felled Captain Sir Andrew Snape Douglas, was confirmation of the perceived low level of intelligence of her captain, Thomas Mackenzie.
At the commencement of the battle Lord Howe’s flagship Queen Charlotte 100, with her topgallant sails aloft, unerringly bore down on his counterpart’s flagship Montagne 120 under a withering fire from the Vengeur de Peuple 74 and Achille 74. When the next ship in the French line, the Jacobin 80, closed up on Villaret-Joyeuse’ quarter to avoid being raked bow to stern by the Queen Charlotte there was a lively exchange between the admiral and the flagship’s flamboyant sailing master, James Bowen. ‘Starboard!’ snapped Howe. ‘You’ll be foul of the French ship if you don’t take care’ replied Bowen, gesturing at the Jacobin. ‘What is that to you sir. Starboard!’ snapped Howe again. ‘Damned if I care if you don’t’ muttered Bowen for all to hear ‘I’ll take you near enough to singe your black whiskers!’
With barely enough room to manoeuvre, the Queen Charlotte surged through the French line at 9.55, passing so close to the Montagne as to brush her ensign with her main shrouds, and raking her mercilessly with a broadside that caused hundreds of casualties. Giving the Jacobin, which by now was almost abreast of the Montagne, another broadside for good measure, the Queen Charlotte assumed a position from where her larboard guns fired into the Montagne’s starboard quarter and her starboard guns fired into the Jacobin’s stern and larboard quarter. Not one shot was received in return from the French flagship, for being unprepared for the British mode of attack her starboard guns had been left un-loaded and un-manned. Only when the Montagne pushed ahead under a main topmast staysail at about 10.10, by which time her stern quarter was shattered and some three hundred men were casualties, did her starboard guns get into action. Meanwhile, although the Jacobin was forced away to leeward and somewhat astern of the Queen Charlotte, her guns that could be brought to bear shot away the British flagship’s fore topmast.
Her duel with the Montagne and Jacobin having temporarily concluded, Howe’s flagship moved up the French line to attack the Juste 80, but in bringing down all of the Frenchmen’s masts she lost her main topmast and much of her rigging, leaving her struggling for steerage way. Somehow, with the aid of a spiritsail on her bowsprit, the Juste managed to add to the confusion by passing astern of the Queen Charlotte to rake her, and almost immediately the British flagship was threatened by the approach on her weather quarter of the Républicain, which had been engaged at long-range by the Gibraltar. At this point fortune intervened, for just as the French vessel was in a position from which she could profit by an assault on the Queen Charlotte her main and mizzen masts came crashing down, and with her men grappling with the wreckage she passed under the flagship’s stern without firing a shot. Leaving the Latona to take possession of the Juste once she had struck her colours, the Queen Charlotte was able to wear ship under Bowen’s charge and bear down with other ships to assist Rear-Admiral Gardner’s Queen 98, which herself had come under attack from the Montagne and Jacobin. Nevertheless, with her fore and main topmasts gone, and fourteen men killed and twenty-nine wounded, there was little more that the flagship could achieve.
Before breaking through the French line as a second to the Queen Charlotte at about 10 a.m., the Brunswick received a great deal of fire from the Jacobin 74, Pelletier 80, Patriote 74, and Vengeur du Peuple 74. Finding her starboard anchor fouled by the latter’s fore chains, Captain Harvey’s command was dragged along to leeward, the tumblehome sides of the two ships’ grinding against each other so that their lower guns could not be run out. Crucially, the British had flexible rope rammers whilst those of the French were rigid, thereby allowing the Brunswick to continue firing through her closed ports to great advantage, her gun crews all the while dashing water onto the flames created by their broadsides. Yet the contest was of a different nature on deck where the Vengeur’s carronades and musketry held sway. In the face of this onslaught the Brunswick’s master enquired whether he should cut the ship loose but was answered in the negative. ‘As we have got her we’ll keep her’ replied Captain Harvey. In the warm work that followed the Brunswick’s men saw the hat of their figurehead, the Duke of Brunswick, shot away, to which Harvey gladly consented to their wish that they nail his spare hat in its place. The two ships continued to batter themselves mercilessly for four hours, albeit that about seventy minutes after grappling the Vengeur the Brunswick was still able to dismast the Achille 74 with half a dozen effective broadsides when threatened with boarding.
During the early part of the action Captain Harvey lost three fingers to a musket shot but simply bound his hand and told nobody of the injury. A second wound, a contusion in the loins, threw him to the deck, but he still refused to retire until at about midday he was knocked down for a third time. By now he had lost a lot of blood and was complaining of faintness, yet with Lieutenant William Cracraft taking command of the ship Harvey managed to walk below without assistance so that not one of his men would have to leave their station to assist him.
At 12.45 the Vengeur dropped away with water pouring in through her sides and not a mast standing, whereupon she received two raking broadsides at short range from the Ramillies 74, commanded by Harvey’s brother Henry, who in vain had earlier signalled the Brunswick to cut loose her opponent so that he could fire into her. Forty-five minutes later the French vessel began sending off distress signals, and at 2.30 she indicated her surrender by raising a British jack. The shattered Brunswick, having lost her mizzenmast, was too damaged to secure her, and although men from the Culloden and Alfred led by Lieutenant Edward Rotheram of the former vessel took possession of the Vengeur at around 5.30 p.m. she could not be saved. Boats from the two British sail of the line and the cutter Rattler took off as many Frenchmen as they could, with some estimates running to five hundred survivors, but when the Vengeur eventually sank at 10 p.m. it was with a huge loss of life exceeding two hundred men. Meanwhile her erstwhile opponent, the Brunswick, drifted off to Spithead with thirty-two two men dead and ninety-four wounded. Captain Harvey’s third wound necessitated the amputation of his arm, to which he calmly endured at sunset, but it was to prove a mortal wound a month later when he died at Portsmouth.
Following the Brunswick into battle, the thirty-five-year-old Valiant 74, Captain Thomas Pringle, came up to windward of the Patriote 74 at 9.30, and in forcing her way through the French line inflicted further damage on the Achille, which ship had already been raked by the Queen Charlotte and the Brunswick. The Valiant would fight a good battle in suffering two men killed and nine wounded, although Captain Pringle was to be mistaken in his belief that he had sunk the Eole. Her immediate consort, the Orion 74, Captain John Thomas Duckworth, attacked the Northumberland 74 at the start of the engagement, whilst also giving the Patriote a few shots for good measure. Having brought down all of her opponent’s masts for the loss of her own main topmast she attempted to follow the course of the Queen Charlotte but was unable to achieve anything further of significance. The Northumberland was eventually secured with over one hundred and eighty casualties, whilst the Orion suffered three men killed and twenty-four wounded.
The British vessel that came under the greatest threat in the battle was Rear-Admiral Gardner’s flagship, the twenty-five-year-old Queen 98, which was stationed at the rear of the British centre, and whose captain, John Hutt, was absent from the command with wounds incurred on the 29th that would also prove fatal. She endured a great deal of damage on her approach to the French line, and after failing to reach her appointed station alongside the Northumberland came up against the Jemappes 74. Fifteen minutes after bringing down her opponent’s mizzenmast she lost her own mainmast at 11.00, and she also sprung her mizzen. Even so, the Queen shot down the Frenchman’s remaining masts within the next half-hour and forced her surrender, to which her officers were alerted by the French seamen rushing up from below and waving their hats. Unfortunately, the Queen’s men were unable to take possession due to her own precarious condition.
After affecting repairs for over an hour the Queen’s attempt to rejoin Lord Howe was thwarted at about 1.30 when she was met by a line of eleven French ships led by the Montagne, which had worked their way to the north. The last nine of this force fired into her, as did two out of the three frigates that were towing the Terrible 110, but with the Queen Charlotte, Royal Sovereign, Valiant, Leviathan, Barfleur and Thunderer beginning to form a line of battle, and with the Queen displaying a tenacious defence, the French could not enforce her surrender. As they licked their wounds and attended to their many casualties, the brave and dextrous men of the Queen, led by their gallant admiral in the absence of Captain Hutt, had the disappointment of seeing the beaten Jemmapes taken in tow by other French ships. At 2.20 the Queen herself was taken in tow by the Pegasus 28, Captain Robert Barlow, but the hawser was able to be cast off at 6.30 upon a jury mainmast being rigged.
Following her raking of the Vengeur, the leading ship in the British rear, the Ramillies 74, Captain Henry Harvey, pursued the disabled Achille 74, which vessel the Brunswick had found the time to dis-mast an hour earlier, and she went on to take possession of the Frenchman at 4.15. The next two ships in the line failed to make any great impression, the Alfred 74, Captain John Bazely, engaging from long range with little effect, suffering just eight men wounded, and the ill-manned Montagu 74 engaging the Neptune 74 at long range, also to little effect, but suffering thirteen men wounded and four men killed including Captain James Montagu at 9.45, the command being taken by Lieutenant Ross Donnelly.
Commanding the rear division, Admiral Sir Alexander Hood’s flagship Royal George 100, Captain William Domett, engaged both the Sans Pareil 80 and Républicain 110 before breaking through the French line and bringing down the former’s fore and mizzenmasts. She was joined in her bombardment by the dull-sailing Glory 98, Captain John Elphinstone, which had come late into the battle astern of the last French ship, the Scipion 80, bringing all her masts down in return for some substantial damage aloft, and then moving up to assist the admiral on the leeward side of the French line. Soon the Républicain managed to rake both ships, bringing down the Royal George’s foremast, main and mizzen topmasts and disabling her wheel. The Glory too was severely damaged, enabling their French opponents escape, albeit in the case of the Sans Pareil only temporarily. Having already suffered casualties in the preceding days, the Royal George lost another five men killed and forty-nine wounded, and had to rely on jury-masts provided by the frigate Southampton 32, Captain Hon. Robert Forbes, to get home. The Glory lost thirteen men killed and thirty-nine wounded.
Of the remaining two British ships, the Majestic 74, Captain Charles Cotton, which had been the Royal George’s immediate second, lost three men killed and eighteen wounded, and she achieved little until the end of the battle when she took possession of the Sans Pareil, whilst the last ship in the British line, the Thunderer 74, suffered no casualties at all, perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the fact that Captain Albemarle Bertie had at one stage been signalled by Admiral Graves to come down from his position that was too far to windward and to engage more closely.
Having temporarily threatened the Queen with his reformed line of battle, Villaret-Joyeuse forsook any further exchanges with the British fleet and bore away to secure the threatened Républicain, Mucius, Scipion, and Jemappes before taking shelter with a reformed line three miles to leeward. By now the exhausted Howe, under the significant influence of his captain of the fleet, Sir Roger Curtis, had already decided at about 1.15 that enough had been achieved, and all of his ships were recalled to the line to protect his own damaged vessels. Such was the old admiral’s indisposition that he had to be helped to his cot by his officers, and much of the later criticism at the failure to pursue the defeated enemy would fall upon Curtis. Throughout the afternoon the two fleets re-grouped, and by 6.15 the French were out of sight and sailing for Brest, being only briefly observed the next day.
In total two hundred and ninety British seamen had been killed, and eight hundred and fifty-five wounded over the three days fighting, whilst French losses were thought to number over three thousand. By the end of the battle six French ships had been captured, these being the year-old Sans Pareil 80, the temporary command of which was given to the previously imprisoned Captain Troubridge who had been typically raging against the French during his confinement below decks, the Juste 80, Achille 74, Amerique 74, Impétueux 74, and somewhat ironically the Northumberland 74, given that she had been named after a British ship captured by the French in 1744.
Whilst the two fleets had been engaged in battle, Rear-Admiral Montagu had returned to Plymouth Sound on 30 May after failing to fall in with Lord Howe. On 2 June he was issued with orders from the Admiralty to gather every available vessel and either rejoin the commander-in-chief with the utmost expedition or, if he had intelligence of its whereabouts, to intercept the French convoy, which was daily expected on the French coast. The next day saw the Audacious arrive at Plymouth with news of the fleet’s initial skirmishes with Villaret-Joyeuse, and on the following morning Montagu set sail with nine sail of the line. Five days later he fell in with and pursued eight French sail of the line and five frigates under the command of Rear-Admiral Pierre-Franois Cornic-Desmoulins, a veteran of just three years naval service, but after chasing them into Bertheaume Bay Montagu was unable to bring them to an action. The following afternoon he found himself in the lee of nineteen French sail of the line, these being the remnants of Villaret-Joyeuse’s fleet which was approaching from the west. Although a number of these ships were under jury-rig at least fourteen were in good order, and so Montagu, being unaware of Howe’s victory, attempted to draw them southward so that they would be to lee of the British fleet should it appear, as he expected, in the north. After the merest chase by Villaret-Joyeuse and Cornic involving an exchange of gunfire at sunset, the French returned to their course, and by 11 June they were safely in the Brest Roads. Here they were joined the next day by the convoy from America, which also had the Montagnard and Mont-Blanc in company. By then Montagu had set off once more to look for Howe, but failing to find him he put into Cawsand Bay on 12 June where his ill-health and the grief caused by the death of his brother, Captain James Montagu, together with the King’s displeasure at his failure to capture the French convoy, resulted in his resignation.
In the meantime Captain Curtis had raced back to England aboard the Phaeton with Lord Howe’s dispatches to arrive at Plymouth on 9 June, and by 5 o’clock in the afternoon he was passing through Exeter on his way to London, his appearance and demeanour hinting at some glorious news. Such was his rush to reach the Admiralty that, according to the newspapers, his post-chaise was twice overset, so that he arrived in London on the evening of 10 June with both of his arms in slings. The next day the Times carried news of the victory, and church bells and the cannon of men of war in the Thames, joined by the Park and Tower guns, heralded the news across London, to be supplemented in the evening by illuminations across the city and a firework display in Drury Lane where, somewhat disparagingly, a tricolour was torn into strips.
After detaching Admiral Graves with the Royal Sovereign, Impregnable, Marlborough, Tremendous, Gibraltar, Culloden, Alfred, Montagu and Orion to arrive at Plymouth on the morning of 12 June, the remainder of Lord Howe’s victorious fleet appeared off the Isle of Wight at daybreak on the 13th. At 11 o’clock that morning the commander-in-chief took his six prizes in towards Portsmouth where they were anchored at the harbour entrance. The populace lined the ramparts and the beach to chair their favourite admiral from the sally port to the accompaniment of a salute from the battery and the Gloucester Regimental band playing ‘See the Conquering Hero comes!’, whilst all the time Howe took the opportunity to pay tribute to the brave Jack Tars who had ‘done the business’. Amidst the general revelry even the disabled Admiral Pasley managed to raise a wave during his painful transfer from the Bellerophon to Haslar Hospital and soon, being anxious to share in the glory, politicians descended on Portsmouth, including William Wilberforce who came to see his evangelical friend Gambier,.
Yet for a number of the victorious captains the universal goodwill and celebration turned sour when, having badgered by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Chatham, for a list of those officers worthy of honour, a supplementary letter to his earlier dispatch was published in Lord Howe’s name on 21 June. This letter, which many would later claim to be the work of Captain Curtis, offered a general summation of the battle and Howe’s observation that it was most difficult for a commander-in-chief, in the midst of a fleet engagement, to appraise the performance of all his captains. Thus, he had requested his flag officers to report on the merits of their own subordinate officers, and those who were deemed to have ‘particular claim’ to his attention were named in the letter. Five of the six admirals were included, with the glaring omission being Rear-Admiral Caldwell. Thirteen captains were named, these being Lord Hugh Seymour Conway, Pakenham, Berkeley, Gambier, John Harvey, Payne, Parker, Henry Harvey, Pringle, Duckworth, Elphinstone, Nicholls and Hope, whilst Lieutenants Monckton and Donnelly received Howe’s approbation for fighting their ships following the incapacitation of their respective captains. Allegedly Duckworth’s name was only added when Captain Pakenham demanded to have his own withdrawn if it were not included. A qualifying sentence to the effect that those not selected for mention may equally have been worthy of praise did nothing to mollify the excluded, and Cuthbert Collingwood in particular harboured such bitterness at his omission that three years later he refused to accept a gold medal for his magnificent services at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent until one was awarded him for the Battle of the Glorious First of June.
On 26 June King George visited the fleet with Queen Charlotte and three of their daughters, and attended by the Lords of the Admiralty he dined aboard the flagship where he presented his own favourite admiral with a jewel-encrusted sword valued at three thousand guineas, and a gold chain. Typically, Howe later insisted that the sword be displayed to every man-jack in the fleet as he considered that they had earned him the honour of receiving it. The King, who remained at Portsmouth for a further three days, had never attended a victorious fleet before and he was never to do so again, but at the time Howe’s capture of six enemy sail of the line, the most seen in one battle in the century, was deemed worthy of his presence. With hindsight it would be recognised that a close blockade of the enemy coast would have prevented Villaret-Joyeuse coming out in the first instance, and would have led to the capture of the convoy, but nobody had criticised Howe’s policy at the time. He continued to be feted as great victor and in London those windows not illuminated during the three-day celebration at Prime Minister William Pitt’s orders were put out by a rampaging mob singing his praises.
Howe preferred not to receive any honours in respect of his victory, although the King had offered a marquisate, and membership of the knighthood of the garter was mooted. Sir Alexander Hood was ennobled as Baron Bridport, Admiral Graves became an Irish baron, and Rear-Admirals Bowyer, Gardner and Pasley were awarded baronetcies, as was Captain Curtis. Those captains mentioned in the second letter, in addition to the flagship captains Curtis, Douglas and Domett, together with Captain William Brown of the frigate Venus, were controversially awarded gold medals, as were all the admirals bar Caldwell. All the first lieutenants were promoted to the rank of commander, and the master of the Queen Charlotte, James Bowen, was appointed prize-master, in which role he accordingly pocketed a tidy sum. The captains killed or mortally wounded in the battle, Hutt, Montagu and John Harvey, were accorded a monument in Westminster Abbey.
For Captain Molloy of the Caesar, who had controversially avoided battle on two separate days, discredit hung on his shoulders like a cloak to such an extent that he asked for a court martial to enquire into his conduct. Eleven months later he was convicted of not having done his best to join battle, dismissed his ship and never re-employed. His bravery had never been in doubt, and the Caesar’s casualties of eighteen men killed and seventy-one wounded over the three days, in addition to the recorded number of sixty-four shot in her hull, at least bore testimony to that fact. Sadly he was an officer versed in the old ways who had been unable to adapt.
From the French perspective, Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse had saved his head and crucially his country, for with the grain ships reaching France she was enabled to fight on in Europe. Consequently, Saint-Andre and the Revolutionary leaders hailed the battle as a victory over a superior enemy and the fleet was lauded. Only the old and deposed admirals realised that Villaret-Joyeuse had missed an opportunity to take the fight back to the British after re-forming his line in the latter stages of the action. After a couple more scrapes in the Channel the admiral eventually became governor of Martinique, and he was thus able to provide a lot of detail to Captain Edward Brenton when that officer and future historian gave him passage home aboard the Pompée 74 following the island’s capture in 1809. As for the political martinet Saint-André, he may have spun the battle as a victory for the French, but he had revealed his true character by dashing below at the start of the engagement and remaining there for its duration.
One sad postscript to the battle was the loss to fire of the Impétueux on 24 August in Portsmouth harbour, an incident witnessed by the townsfolk, who fled the potential risk of the powder magazine blowing up, and the French prisoners-of-war, who cheered at the spectacle and sang national songs. The British had the last laugh however when the Amerique was renamed the Impétueux, giving much good service to, amongst others, the brilliant Sir Edward Pellew. Both the Achille and Northumberland were broken up as unserviceable, but as with the new Impétueux, the Sans Pareil and Juste provided excellent service to the British cause for many years thereafter.
1 x 120 guns; Montagne;
2 x 110 guns: Terrible; Républicain.
4 x 80 guns: Juste; Jacobin; Sans Pareil; Scipion;
19 x 74 guns Trajan; Eole; America; Téméraire; Impétueux; Mucius; Tourville; Gasparin; Convention; Trente-un-Mai; Tyrannicide; Achille; Vengeur du Peuple; Patriote; Northumberland; Entreprenant; Jemappes; Neptune; Pelletier;