The Battle of Groix – 23 June 1795
On 12 June, Admiral Lord Bridport’s Channel Fleet of fourteen sail of the line, including eight three-deckers, five frigates, two fireships, a hospital ship, and a lugger, sailed from Spithead. Two of Bridport’s subordinate admirals were absent from the fleet, these being Vice-Admiral John Colpoys who was acting as the commander-in-chief at Portsmouth for Admiral Sir Peter Parker, and Rear-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis who had been presiding over the court-martial of Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy at Portsmouth. Bridport himself was acting as the commander-in-chief of the fleet in place of the indisposed Admiral Earl Howe.
Bridport’s instructions were to rendezvous with Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren’s expeditionary force of three sail of the line, six frigates and fifty transports carrying some three thousand French Royalist troops, and to escort it on the final leg of its voyage from Yarmouth to Quiberon Bay. Expectations were that Bridport would form a junction with the five ships of the line and two frigates under the command of Vice-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis, which had previously set sail from Spithead on 30 May to cruise to the south of the Penmarks. It was considered that this combined force would easily be able to nullify any threat to the expedition from the Brest Fleet, which in any event was believed to be somewhat reduced and in poor repair.
The first indication Bridport had that the Brest Fleet was indeed at sea came from a prize chasse-marée, which had been captured by Captain Richard Keats of the Galatea 32, and which had seen the French on the 15th. Two days later the admiral received further intelligence from an American vessel which also claimed to have seen the French fleet off the Penmarks on the 15th, although there was some scepticism that the American might well have mistaken the fleet for a convoy. On the 19th, the Channel Fleet parted company with Warren’s expedition off the Saintes, but later that day the commodore’s scouting frigate Arethusa 38, Captain Mark Robinson, discovered the Brest fleet off Belle Isle, and after altering course to avoid it, Warren dispatched a fast vessel to appraise Bridport.
The Brest fleet was under the command of Vice-Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret-Joyeuse, and it consisted of twelve sail of the line, two fifty-gun vessels and eleven frigates. It had gone to sea earlier in the month to rescue a squadron from Belle Isle commanded by Rear-Admiral Jean Gaspar Vence, in the course of which mission it had put Cornwallis’ force to flight on 17 June. Being low on provisions, it had then sought to return to Brest but had been driven back by northerly gales to Belle Isle on the 18th. For some reason, either because Warren’s convoy was not seen, or perhaps because the French considered it to be the Channel Fleet, Villaret-Joyeuse made no attempt to intercept Warren. As they were unaware of the real purpose of the Brest Fleet being at sea, or of its encounter with Cornwallis, this inaction must have caused some confusion to the British, and it would lead to speculation that the French had a greater prize in mind, including the possibility that it was seeking to bring in an American convoy.
The commodore’s report to Bridport stated that the enemy fleet numbered sixteen sail of the line and ten frigates, and so having failed to rendezvous with Cornwallis, and wishing not to be outnumbered, the commander-in-chief sent back a request asking Warren to dispatch three reinforcements. These would prove to be the Robust 74, Captain Edward Thornbrough, the Thunderer 74, Captain Albemarle Bertie, and the Standard 64, Captain Joseph Ellison. By the next morning, the 20th, Warren could see the Channel Fleet in the south-east, but in the event his reinforcements were still attempting to join Bridport when at 3.25 a.m. on Monday 22 June, the admiral’s outlying frigates Nymphe 36, which had joined the fleet the day before, and Astraea 32, spotted the French fleet in the south south-east.
At the time of this discovery, the Channel Fleet was sailing on the starboard tack with light winds from the south-east, and the island of Belle-Isle was some fifty miles to the north-east. The French were almost twenty miles closer to the land, an advantage which suggested to the British that the only possibility of a battle was if Villaret-Joyeuse sought with his apparent numerical superiority to accept one. It soon became clear however that he had little inclination of staying around for a fight, and that he preferred to seek the sanctuary of the coast and its shore batteries.
At 6.30 a.m. Bridport signalled his fastest ships, the Sans Pareil 80, which flew the flag of Rear-Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour, the Colossus 74, Captain John Monkton, the Russell 74, Acting-Captain Thomas Larcom, and the Orion 74, Captain Sir James Saumarez, to chase the enemy. Shortly afterwards, forgoing a line of battle, he ordered a general chase. By 7.30 the whole of the Brest fleet was in sight of the advanced British, and on the French side, Vice-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse and his attendant political commissar removed to the frigate Proserpine 38, from which he considered it preferable to manage his fleet. The pursuit progressed throughout the morning, and by noon the French were twelve miles away from the British to the east south-east, with the light airs in their favour. During the afternoon the meagre winds became more advantageous to Bridport, and at 7 pm he signalled his advanced ships to attack the enemy’s rear, and twenty-five minutes later to attack the French ships individually as they overhauled them.
A calm set in after 10.30 p.m., but as the night remained clear there was no possibility of an escape by the French fleet, which by now had been correctly identified as twelve sail of the line, two fifty-gun vessels, and eleven frigates. At 3 a.m. on the 23rd a south-westerly breeze came to aid the British attack, and with the island of Groix some ten miles or so to the east, and with the Lorient Roads about half a dozen miles beyond it, the French fleet appeared in view at dawn. The main body of Villaret-Joyeuse’s force were huddled together in a group, yet there were three or four stragglers, the rearmost of which was some way astern of her consorts and a mere two miles ahead of the British van. Adhering to Bridport’s instructions for his frigates to annoy the enemy and report their movements, the Nymphe and Astraea were hanging on to the French coat tails on a sea that was smooth.
For a while it seemed touch and go as to whether Bridport would be able to prevent any of the French ships getting inside the Isle of Groix and reaching Lorient, but by 4 a.m. the beautifully handled Queen Charlotte 100, Captain Sir Andrew Snape Douglas, and on her larboard bow the Irresistible 74, Captain Richard Grindall, had reduced the deficit. Not far behind these two vessels were the Orion, Russell, Sans Pareil and Colossus, whilst the London 98, Queen 98, and Prince George 98, were about three miles astern, Bridport’s flagship Royal George 100 about four, the Valiant 74, Prince of Wales 98, Barfleur 98, and Prince 98 a long way behind, and Warren’s three ships still some further distance away in the north-west.
The rearmost ship in the French line by some distance was the Alexandre 74, Captain Francois-Charles Guillemet, which as the British Alexander, Captain Richard Bligh, had been captured by a French squadron on 6 November 1794. Poorly handled and ill-repaired, she was taken in tow by the frigate Régénérée 40 at 5 a.m., but she nevertheless began falling away to leeward, and just before 6 a.m. the Irresistible and Orion began exchanging fire with their chaser guns. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, the Régénérée parted company with the Alexandre, whereupon the two British sail of the line began a determined action with her.
At 6.15 the Queen Charlotte brought the next French ship to action with her starboard guns, this being the Formidable 74, Captain Charles Alexandre Léon Durand-Linois, and she was joined in her assault by the Russell and Sans Pareil, the latter striking hard with one single broadside before moving on to find another opponent. The cannonade saw the French ship catch fire on her poop at 6.30, she lost her mizzen mast, and although she withstood the hammer blows of the Queen Charlotte for fifteen minutes, she sustained three hundred and twenty casualties, including Linois, blinded in his left eye, and inevitably had to strike her colours. At about the same time the Alexandre, having fought bravely but suffered about two hundred and twenty casualties, was thought to have surrendered.
Although the slower Britons were unable to join the battle, the London, Colossus, Queen and Russell were able to get into action with the Tigre 74, Peuple 100, Redoubtable 74, Mucius 74, Nestor 74, and Wattignies 74. Meanwhile in the French van, the Droits de l’Homme 74, Zélé 74, Fougueux 74, and Jean-Bart 74 had ignored Villaret-Joyeuse instructions to form a tight line of battle and were pushing eastwards, despite some suggestions that the commander-in-chief had attempted to place his frigate across their bows in order to force them to engage.
At 7.14, the virtually disabled Queen Charlotte, which at one stage had found herself under fire from up to five French vessels, forced the Alexandre to strike her colours after that apparently surrendered vessel had fired into her larboard beam. Concurrently, the Tigre struck following heavy fire from the Queen Charlotte, Sans Pareil, Queen and London, and having sustained upwards of one hundred and thirty casualties. At 8 a.m. Bridport’s Royal George passed the disabled Queen Charlotte’s weather bow to larboard, and a quarter hour later she signalled the well-advanced Colossus, which had exchanged fire with a shore battery, and the Sans Pareil, to discontinue the action and rejoin the fleet. The battle was not yet over however, for at 8.35 the Royal George fired a broadside into the Tigre, being unaware of her surrender, and she also began to engage Villaret-Joyeuse’s erstwhile flagship, the Peuple, which had been under attack by the Sans Pareil. Coming to within about a half-mile of the western tip of Groix Island, the Royal George bore up and unleashed her starboard broadside into the Peuple’s stern and larboard quarter, receiving some fire from that quarter in return.
Now however, Bridport faced several quandaries, for he was wary of the approaching coast with its attendant obstacles of batteries, shoals, rocks and narrow channels within the Isle de Groix, and although he did have some personal experience of the area, he did not have any pilots with local knowledge. At this stage of the war the British also held a healthy respect for their enemy, being largely unaware of their inferior capabilities and poor discipline as a result of the revolutionary purges, and the evidence of the battle suggested that any continuation would be bravely resisted. Deciding on caution, the commander-in-chief declined to further prosecute an attack, and in wearing ship he began standing out to the south-west at 8.37.
British casualties in the action numbered thirty-one men killed and one hundred and thirteen wounded, whilst an indirect victim of the battle was the midshipman son of the late Vice-Admiral Hon. Keith Stewart, who had himself died just three months previously, and whose offspring lost his life when he tumbled over the side of the Queen Charlotte the day after the action whilst watching the carpenter stopping shot-holes. The only British captain to suffer any serious wound was Richard Grindall of the Irresistible, who reportedly broke his arm. Of the ships, only the Queen Charlotte was materially damaged. Despite their battered condition, the prizes were brought off the hostile coast in the teeth of a developing strong gale and were taken in tow by the Prince, Barfleur, and Prince George, which vessels had barely participated in the action. The frigate Révolutionnaire later took over the tow of the Alexandre. Bridport’s flag-captain, William Domett, was charged with carrying the commander-in-chief’s brief dispatch announcing the victory to the Admiralty, which he delivered on 27 June.
Back home, news of Cornwallis’ encounter with the Brest fleet had broken on 24 June, and thus expectations had been high that Bridport would have fallen in with the enemy and brought them to account. Once news of the Battle of Groix was received it was celebrated as a great victory, and Bridport, who was personally praised for piloting his flagship inshore after the pilot had apparently refused to do so, was rewarded with an English barony in the following May. He and several other officers including the influential lord of the Admiralty, Rear-Admiral Lord Seymour, claimed that all the French ships would have been taken or destroyed had they been four or so miles further out to sea when first chased, yet some criticism would subsequently be levelled at the stand-in commander-in-chief with regard to his conduct of the engagement, with the appraisal that he had called off the chase whilst still in a position to gain a thorough victory, thereby allowing the Brest fleet to remain in being.
Warren’s expedition to Quiberon Bay was saved by the ‘victory’, and with Bridport’s fleet remaining in the vicinity to provide protection, the French Royalists were landed near Vannes on 27 June. Initially, some minor actions with the Republican forces were successful, but on 16th July General Louis Lazare Hoche rallied the latter and threw back the insurgents, leading to the British evacuation of the remnants of the Royalist army, together with many local supporters of the rebellion. Warren subsequently captured the islands of Houat and Hoëdic in Quiberon Bay and later, having been joined by such Royalist luminaries as the Comte d’Artois and the Duc de Bourbon, the Isle of Yeu was taken. Efforts to capture Belle Isle and Noirmoutier proved unsuccessful however, and by the end of the year the Royalist forces had been withdrawn.
In the meantime, the Brest fleet had remained penned in Lorient for two months, resulting in some hopes that the royalist sympathies of the town, together with the effects of a British blockade, would see all the ships taken. Eventually a lack of provisions resulted in the French seamen being sent away on leave, and many chose not to return. Consequently, three voyages were required to get the fleet back to Brest, with those remaining seamen having to return overland to Lorient each time to man the next ship. A series of court martials were also held at Lorient to investigate the conduct of the French officers during the battle, and these saw Captains Charles François Aved-Magnac of the Zélé and Sébastien Giot-Labrière of the Fougueux dismissed the Navy, and Michel Larréguy of the Mucius censured, whilst Joseph-René Donat of the Wattignies, Louis-Marie Legouardun of the Jean-Bart, and Etienne Joseph Sebire of the Droits-de-l’Homme were acquitted.
With regard to the prizes, following her arrival before delighted crowds at Plymouth on 14 July the Alexandre reverted to her original name, and after extensive repairs she rejoined the colours. She would later play a major role under the captaincy of Alexander Ball at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, although once she was paid off in 1802, she did not see any further active service. The Tigre retained her French name and saw a great deal of service in the Mediterranean before she was converted into a powder hulk in 1817. The Formidable was renamed the Belleisle, and she fought with great distinction under the captaincy of William Hargood at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 before being paid off four years later.
Lord Bridport’s Fleet: Total Casualties 31+115
|Royal George 110||Admiral Lord Bridport||0+6|
|Flag Captain William Domett|
|Queen 98||Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Gardner||0|
|Flag Captain William Bedford|
|Prince of Wales 98||Rear-Admiral Henry Harvey||0|
|Flag Captain John Bazely|
|Sans Pareil 80||Rear-Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour||10+2|
|Flag Captain William Browell|
|Queen Charlotte 100||Captain Sir Andrew Snape Douglas||4+32|
|Prince George 98||Captain William Edge||0|
|London 98||Captain Edward Griffith||0+3|
|Barfleur 98||Captain James Richard Dacres||0|
|Prince 98||Captain Charles Powell Hamilton||0|
|Orion 74||Captain Sir James Saumarez||6+18|
|Russell 74||Acting-Captain Thomas Larcom||3+10|
|Valiant 74||Captain Christopher Parker||0|
|Irresistible 74||Captain Richard Grindall||3+14|
|Colossus 74||Captain John Monkton||5+30|
|Révolutionnaire 44||Captain Francis Cole|
|Thalia 36||Captain Lord Henry Paulet|
|Nymphe 36||Captain George Murray|
|Aquilon 32||Captain Robert Barlow|
|Astrea 32||Captain Richard Lane|
|Babet 20||Captain Edward Codrington|
|Megoera FS||Commander Hon. Henry Blackwood|
|Incendiary FS||Commander John Draper|
|Charon HS||Commander Walter Locke|
|Commodore Warren’s Squadron:|
|Pomone 40||Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren|
|Robust 74||Captain Edward Thornbrough|
|Thunderer 74||Captain Albemarle Bertie|
|Standard 64||Captain Joseph Ellison|
|Anson 44||Captain Philip Calderwood Durham|
|Artois 38||Captain Sir Edmund Nagle|
|Arethusa 38||Captain Mark Robinson|
|Concorde 36||Captain Anthony Hunt|
|Galatea 32||Captain Richard Goodwin Keats|
1 x 120 guns: Peuple:
11 x 74 guns: Nestor; Redoubtable; Mucius; Tigre; Fougueux; Zélé; Formidable; Jean Bart; Droits de l’Homme; Alexandre; Wattignies;
2 x 50 guns: Brave; Scévola:
11 Frigates: Virginie 40, Fraternité 40, Régénérée 40, Proserpine 40, Cocarde 36, Dréade 36, Fidelle 36, Insurgente 36, Nante, Rénard, Fortitude.