The Battle of Ushant – 27 July 1778 – and the Political Aftermath
Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel was the equal of Lord Howe as the finest officer in the navy, but being an eminent Whig he was a bitter opponent of the war against the American colonies and as a consequence had refused to join the colours against them. Following the deterioration of relations with France in the spring of 1778 however, he saw it his duty to take command of the Channel Fleet to meet the French threat, and indeed he was prevailed upon to do so by the King whose protection from the Tory administration he sought.
Arriving at Portsmouth on 24 March, Keppel found only six ships that in his opinion were ready for sea, whereas he had been led to believe by the Earl of Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty, that twenty ships would be immediately available. This unsatisfactory situation was compounded by the fact that eleven ships would later have to be seconded to Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker in order that he could join Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron at Plymouth for his pursuit of the French Toulon fleet. Even Keppel’s old enemy, Sandwich, sided with him in opposing this detachment, but to no avail. To make matters worse there existed an acute shortage of seamen to man the fleet, so after the departure of the West India convoy on 26 May an embargo was placed on further departures to allow the press gangs to complete their work, whilst at the same time the gaols were raided to allow the drafting of prisoners into the fleet to help make up the shortfall of men.
All this meant that precious time was wasted in getting the fleet to sea, with further delays being incurred through the entertainment of the King during the fleet review in early May, and Keppel’s constant demand both for instructions from the Admiralty and postings to the fleet for his favourites. Parker duly left Portsmouth on 9 May with his eleven sail of the line, but it was not until 12 June that Keppel’s fleet of twenty sail of the line and three frigates got away, at which time war had still not been declared with France. Shortly afterwards the fleet was bolstered by the arrival of the Formidable 90 and Belleisle 64.
On 17 June, being twenty-odd miles to the south of the Lizard, Keppel decided to deal with the French frigates Belle Poule 30, Lieutenant Jean Isaac Chadeau de La Clocheterie, and Licorne 32, Lieutenant Gouzillon de Belizal, which together with the corvette Hirondelle 16 and lugger Coureur 10 had been shadowing the British fleet. His outlying frigates were sent in pursuit, with the swift six-pounder Arethusa 32, Captain Samuel Marshall, being followed by the Valiant 74 and Monarch 74 in chase of the twelve-pounder Belle Poule, and the Milford 28, Captain Sir William Burnaby, going after the Licorne with the distant support of several sail of the line.
Once the Arethusa got alongside the Belle Poule at 6 p.m. de La Clocheterie refused Marshall’s summons to report under escort to Keppel, and in response to a warning shot across the bows he poured a complete broadside into the Arethusa. A two hour duel in placid conditions ensued with the Belle Poule’s fire, as was the French custom, tearing her lighter armed opponent’s rigging and sails to shreds and eventually bringing down her topmasts and mainmast. The unmanageable Arethusa was obliged to break off the action as the two ships neared the French coast, and with jury masts aloft she was subsumed into her approaching consorts and taken in tow. de La Clocheterie worked inshore to anchor amongst the shoals off Plouascat where the next morning boats came out to tow his frigate to safety. Upon later being invited to Paris, de La Clocheterie was promoted captain, was received and decorated by the King, and even achieved the unique honour of having a hairstyle named after his frigate as the French ladies at court began sporting the ‘Belle Poule’ – a brushed-up style topped by a fully-rigged model frigate. The fact that he had incurred casualties of forty-five men killed and fifty-seven wounded as opposed to British losses of eight killed and thirty-six wounded did not prevent the French King from proclaiming de La Clocheterie victorious.
Meanwhile the Alert 12, Lieutenant William Fairfax, had grappled and then carried by boarding the lugger Coureur, M. de Rosilie, which had been attempting to assist the Belle Poule. The enemy lost five men killed and seven wounded during the hour-long engagement, the Alert four men wounded of whom two later died. The Licorne, had also been caught by the Milford that evening, but her captain couldn’t be persuaded to report under escort to Keppel. However, during his polite discourse with Sir William Burnaby the Frenchman had allowed other British ships to close, and he was obliged to submit after receiving a single cannon shot and the threat of a broadside from the Hector 74. Overnight the Licorne was put under the supervision of Captain Sir Charles Douglas of the Stirling Castle 64 who was instructed to provide every courtesy to the French captain prior to his interview with Keppel in the morning. It was therefore with some surprise that the frigate was seen attempting to make her escape on the other tack at 9 a.m. on the morning of the 18th, and when a warning shot was fired across her bows she heretically fired a broadside in the vicinity of the America 64, Captain Lord Longford, whilst the two commanders were calling out civilly to each other, wounding four men. Her captain then took the sensible course of striking his colours and she was taken into Plymouth by Lieutenant Alexander Fraser of the Hector. The Hirondelle had in the meantime got clean away.
Later during the morning of 18 June another stranger was seen standing towards the British fleet from the north-east before suddenly spinning on her heel and attempting to sail away. Keppel despatched the Foudroyant 80, Courageux 74 and Robust 74 in chase, these vessels being joined by the Milford and, on the next morning, the Proserpine 28 which joined the fleet whilst the chase was still underway in feeble easterly winds. At noon on the 19th the stranger, which proved to be the French frigate Pallas 32, Captain Le Breton de Ransanne, submitted to the inevitable and allowed herself to be taken without recourse to action and thereafter conducted into Plymouth. A sense of the chivalry of the times, one that would soon be set aside, was a written instruction found on both French ships to the effect that they were ‘not to molest that useful navigator, Captain Cook, on any account whatever’, a somewhat unnecessary order in this instance given that the great explorer was then thousands of miles away in the Pacific. Once war commenced in July, all three detained French ships would be added to the Navy.
The intelligence gleaned from the detained vessels allowed an outraged Keppel to realise that he had been misinformed by the Admiralty as to the strength of the French fleet, for it transpired that instead of seventeen sail of the line at Brest there were in fact thirty-two. In accordance with previous instructions, after much soul-searching, and with the complicity of Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, who concurrent with his role as third in command of the fleet was also lord of the Admiralty and supporter of the government, Keppel put back into port on 25 June to collect another ten reinforcements. In a foretaste of events to come he was furiously attacked by the ministerial benches in the Houses of Parliament who felt that in returning so quickly he was deliberately undermining the government. Odious comparisons were even made with the unfortunate Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byng who had been executed twenty years before by his political opponents for failing to tackle a French force off Minorca.
On 9 July Keppel put to sea again, a day after Vice-Admiral the Comte Louis Guillouet d’Orvilliers had departed Brest with his thirty-two sail of the line and nine frigates for a month’s cruise in which he planned to attack the British Indies trade. The French commander-in-chief instructions in the event of meeting Keppel were somewhat vague, suggesting that he should possibly not fight but certainly not flee. The sloop Lively 20, Captain Robert Biggs, which had been stationed off Brest to keep a watch the French came into contact with d’Orvilliers on the 9th, and was instructed to lie-to by the cutter Curieuse commanded by the Chevalier du Romain. When Captain Biggs refused to do so he was approached by the frigate Iphigenia 32, Captain de Kersaint de Coëtnempren, and given further orders to report to the French commander-in-chief. When Biggs again refused the frigate gave him a full broadside, whereupon he decided that discretion was the batter part of valour and stuck his colours.
By 19 July Keppel had thirty ships under his command, and with war having been declared nine days previously the two fleets came in sight some hundred miles west of Ushant in thick weather on the afternoon of 23 July. It was now the French turn to be surprised, for their intelligence indicated that they could expect to be opposed by only twenty British sail of the line. With Keppel instigating a chase to the north-east the French maintained their course until 7 p.m. when, with the wind coming in from the north-west, they tacked towards the British. Keppel, who preferred to avoid a night action, brought his fleet too. Overnight the cautious d’Orvilliers decided to gain the weather gauge by crowding on all sail in the dark, although this brought about the detachment of the Duc de Bourgogne 80 and the Alexandre 64, thereby equalising the two forces. Keppel was not overly concerned by d’Orvilliers’ manoeuvre as he now sat between the French and their home port. Meanwhile the two errant French vessels, which had fallen well away to leeward, escaped from the British ships sent in chase of them and made the best of their way to Brest.
For the next three days the French kept edging away to windward and the west so that Keppel was unable to effect an attack, but when the wind veered to the south-west on the misty morning of the 27th he saw an opportunity to force a battle. Both fleets were by now steering to the north-west, some six to ten miles apart. At 5.30 a.m. the captain of the fleet, Rear-Admiral John Campbell, signalled seven of the nine ships in Sir Hugh Palliser’s rear squadron to make more sail from leeward toward the French. Palliser and Keppel, although ex-shipmates and friends of long standing, were of diametrically opposing political views, and the perceived slight in subverting his command was not felt lightly by Palliser, even though Keppel had not ordered the signal. This incident would also have a substantial influence on the battle to come and, bearing in mind Palliser’s standing as a lord of the Admiralty, on the support he would receive from the administration in the huge dispute that would follow. At 9 a.m. the French fleet came about on the starboard tack and in so doing fell off to leeward towards the British who were sailing in line abreast in the north-east. Shortly afterwards the wind veered towards the south in Keppel’s favour.
At 10.15 Keppel tacked his line ahead in order to join the same tack as the enemy, with the French line now ahead of the British. Having failed to recover their position following Campbell’s earlier signal, Palliser’s ships in the rear were by now in poor order. At this time the weather closed in so that both fleets were unable to see each other, and when it did clear three quarters of an hour later the French had gone about again on to the larboard tack, reversing their order so as to prevent their rear from being overwhelmed by the British van and picked off at Keppel’s leisure. Almost immediately the two fleets were upon each other in a somewhat confused state, starboard to starboard with the French to windward. At 11.20 a.m. with the three leading French ships ahead still being out of range of the Monarch 74 at the head of the British line, the fourth ship in the French line opened fire.
For a couple of hours the two fleets prosecuted a fierce engagement, the French to windward firing high to cripple the British ships, the latter from leeward firing low to kill and wound. Keppel’s flagship, the Victory 100, reserved her shot for the enemy flagship, thereby failing to respond to the fire of the first six French ships she encountered, but pouring a full broadside into the Bretagne and the six ships in her wake. Captain Lord Mulgrave of the Courageux 74, a fellow lord of the Admiralty to Palliser, distinguished himself by setting his ship at the massive three-decked Ville de Paris which had strayed well to leeward of the French line. In passing her with her jib-boom scraping by he delivered such a ferocious broadside that had any other British ship been passing to windward of the Frenchman she could easily have secured a capture. Five British ships were immobilised and Palliser’s disordered rear division, standing closer to the enemy than the van and centre, suffered the most. Such was the vice-admiral’s determination to keep his flagship in action however, that his second, the Elizabeth 74, was forced to bear away from the Formidable’s stern at 1.15 when the flagship backed her mizzen topsail to maintain her assault on the last two French ships in the line. The Ocean 90, sailing to leeward of the disordered line, also had difficulty in directing her shot between Palliser’s flagship and the Egmont 74, so close were they together.
Meanwhile Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland’s ten sail of the line in the British van had passed the French line and was coming about in order to pursue the enemy, his ships now being to windward of the French wake. Once he had ran clear of the French line at 1 p.m. Keppel was unable to repeat this move in the damaged Victory and instead had to wear ship, taking an hour over the manoeuvre and dropping off to leeward from Harland in the west. At about 2 p.m. the commander-in-chief replaced the signal for battle with one for the formation of line of ahead, and about half an hour later Palliser’s flagship passed the commander-in-chief to leeward after clearing the French line.
Unbeknown to Keppel, at 1 p.m. d’Orvilliers had signalled his fleet to wear on the starboard tack with the intention of attacking the five disabled British ships that were to leeward in the south-east. There was a great deal of confusion attendant to this manoeuvre, with the first vessel to comply being a junior admiral’s flagship that was fourth in the French line, although even this officer found it necessary to seek further clarification from d’Orvilliers. Keppel recognised the French intentions at about 2.30 and half an hour later wore again on to the starboard tack in an attempt to form a diagonal line across the enemy van that could protect his disabled ships. Harland’s division was instructed to put about once more and take up the rear until the ships of Palliser’s division could join. Unfortunately the latter, having worn ship almost immediately to resume the attack the French but then found themselves momentarily unsupported, were two or three miles away on the weather quarter of the Victory making good their repairs, and after wearing again they gradually reformed around the Formidable, not the Victory. Even so, the French delay in completing their manoeuvre had ruined any chance that it might prove successful, and failing to take advantage of the utter confusion in the British fleet the wary d’Orvilliers backed off.
By 4 p.m. Harland’s division was in line astern of the Victory, and Keppel signalled Palliser to take up station in the rear. The commander-in-chief was determined to renew the action with his enemy which at the time were to leeward with their van abreast of the British centre, and he needed his subordinate in the line if he were to gain a victory. When no response was received he despatched the frigate Fox at 5 p.m. to know the reason why. Still no sensible answer was received, and at 7 p.m., with Harland having taken up his proper position in the van, Keppel signalled Palliser’s ships individually to join his flag. When they eventually arrived it was too dark to resume action that night, so the fleet lay too until the morning, being deceived by the lights glowing on three decoy vessels into thinking that d’Orvilliers was on the horizon waiting for a fair wind to re-commence the battle.
Come the morning it was only from the mastheads of the British ships that the bulk of the French fleet could only be seen some twenty miles distant, slipping back into Brest and clearly unwilling to resume the action. The three decoy vessels were visible from the quarterdeck of the Victory, and assuming these to be in a crippled state Keppel signalled the Duke 90, Prince George 90, Elizabeth 74 and Bienfaisant 64 at 5 a.m. to chase them down. However, neither the Prince George nor the Elizabeth was in any condition to instigate a chase, and in any event a pursuit would have been pointless as the three French ships enjoyed superior sailing qualities that would have prevented their capture. As there was no question of Keppel pursuing the French fleet towards a lee shore with his crippled ships the battle could not be resumed and therefore remained inconclusive.
Casualties on the British side during the engagement numbered one hundred and thirty-three dead and three hundred and seventy-five wounded, of which there were forty-three killed and one hundred and forty-four wounded in Harland’s division, twenty-two killed and forty-five wounded in Keppel’s division, and sixty-eight killed and one hundred and eighty-six wounded in Palliser’s division. Palliser’s flagship alone had suffered twenty casualties in a single incident when a gun was fired by a seaman who was carrying a cartridge at the time. French casualties were one hundred and sixty-one killed and five hundred and thirteen wounded. Both sides rued missed opportunities – the French to attack the five disabled British vessels due to confusion over d’Orvilliers’ intentions, and the British to renew the engagement following Palliser’s failure to answer Keppel’s summons.
Later during the morning after the battle the British fleet sailed for Plymouth to repair its damage, leaving two sail of the line at sea to guard the British trade. Captain Jonathon Faulknor of the Victory was sent to London with the despatches, and once Keppel reached port himself on the 31st and despite some despondency in the country at large with the failure to secure an overwhelming victory, he soon received the approbation of the Admiralty. Although he would certainly have been justified in condemning Palliser his initial despatch failed to do so, and in claiming a victory he actually praised both his subordinate admirals for their conduct. The possibility of meeting the French once more was evidently in Keppel’s thoughts, and he wished to preserve a unity of purpose amongst his officers, especially with Palliser with whom he was still on cordial terms despite some bickering over a few incidental matters. Additionally there was a concern over the fate of the East Indian and Leeward Islands convoys which were due in at any time, and he needed to get to sea promptly in order to protect them, although in the event both convoys came in safely on 5 and 14 August respectively. For the present the only contentious issue arose from the dismissal of Captain William Brereton from the Duke 90 following accusations of drunkenness on the days immediately before and after the battle that were investigated and somewhat controversially accepted at a court of enquiry.
Having refitted as quickly as it could, the fleet numbering thirty sail of the line and six frigates was back off Ushant by 23 August on the lookout for d’Orvilliers, whom it was rumoured had left Brest on 16 August. In actuality the French had put to sea on 18 August with a reported thirty-nine ships and made for Cape Finisterre. Here they cruised for some time on the look-out for the British trade before re-stationing northwards and then returning to Brest on 20 September. Apart from being joined on 11 September by the Suffolk 74, Captain Adam Duncan, Defence 74, Captain James Cranston, and Egmont 74, Captain John Carter Allen, the only noteworthy occurrences for Keppel were the capture of several lucrative French West Indiamen, and the chase on two separate occasions of the French Réflechi 64, both of which were curtailed by the foggy autumnal conditions. When he did receive intelligence that d’Orvilliers was cruising off Cape Finisterre Keppel despatched the frigate Fox 28 in search, but unfortunately she was captured by the French on 10 September. A second vessel, the Porcupine 20, Captain William Clement Finch, left the fleet ten days later, and although she did not find the French either she did capture an East Indiaman so richly laden that her commander would ever after rejoice in the sobriquet ‘Goldfinch’. For Keppel, Harland and Palliser however there was nothing but frustration and fatigue as their search for the French fleet proved fruitless.
Nothing further of consequence may have occurred at sea, but by the time the Channel fleet returned to Spithead on 26 October, worn out by sickness, bad weather and anxiety, all hell had broken loose in the political world. For some time rumours had been circulating that Keppel’s acolytes had been dismayed by Palliser’s role in the battle, and they finally surfaced publicly on 15 October with an anonymous article in the opposition newspaper, the General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, implying Palliser’s cowardice or even politically inspired sabotage. Some claimed that the article was the work of Keppel’s politically active nephew, Lieutenant George Cranfield Berkeley, others that one of Palliser’s own officers had scribed it.
Having seen the newspaper some time later, Palliser demanded to meet Keppel in London during early November where he desired the commander-in-chief to countersign a letter praising his own conduct in the action. In defending his failure to join the second line of battle the document explained that Palliser believed Keppel’s intentions in calling him to the flag were aimed at renewing action the next day, not the same day. Not surprisingly Keppel, who admitted to being short with Palliser in a belligerent discourse, refused to sign the document, so Palliser had to content himself with printing his own version of events in the Tory Morning Post and other newspapers on 5 November. This version implied that Keppel’s behaviour was worthy of censure, and needless to say it astonished the commander-in-chief who declared that he could never serve with Palliser again. The escalation of the dispute now became the talk of the nation, and soon absurd stories were flying around to the effect that Palliser and Sandwich had contrived to lose the battle in order to discredit Keppel and the Whigs.
When Parliament met in November the affair was fiercely debated in both houses, and with so many military men sitting, including the popular Howes who were already embittered over their treatment by the government in respect of their American campaigns, Palliser’s conduct came under professional scrutiny. The Earl of Bristol set the ball rolling in the House of Lords by asking Sandwich to instigate an inquiry into the conduct of the two commanders on the day of the battle. The first lord declared that this would not be necessary as the results of the action were tantamount to a victory, and that a court of inquiry would only withdraw the cream of the navy from their duty at sea in the following spring. A number of furious debates followed in the House of Commons, attended by both Keppel and Palliser. Keppel initially adhered to Sandwich’s line in stating that he was content both with the course and the results of the battle, but made it very clear that he could never serve with Palliser again. The latter declared that as Keppel spoke with a certain reserve and would not condone his conduct there was an implication that his honour, character and reputation were still open to question. He added that an inquiry held no fears for him, and that crucially he had not failed to adhere to Keppel’s signal on the day of the battle. The commander-in-chief could not possibly let this last statement go unanswered, and he finally admitted to his unhappiness that Palliser had failed to respond to his signal to join the flag on the evening of the battle after it had been flying for five hours.
The subordinate admiral was now publicly in the dock, so seeking to lay the blame for the indecisive nature of the battle at Keppel’s door the cornered Palliser received authorisation from a reluctant Sandwich to prosecute the commander-in-chief by court martial for neglect of duty and misconduct in failing to do his utmost to defeat the French. The charges highlighted in his official letter of 9 December were ones that exposed Keppel to the death sentence imposed twenty years earlier on Admiral Byng, on whose court-martial Keppel had sat. They stated that he was accountable for ‘not marshalling his fleet, going to fight in an un-officer like manner, making scandalous haste in quitting, making sail away from the enemy, giving them an opportunity to rally, and presenting the appearance of flight disgraceful to the British flag.’ In essence the charges maintained that Keppel had not formed his line properly in the first place, which given the difficulties in bringing d’Orvilliers to battle had been unavoidable, that he had not renewed the action promptly after the convergent lines of battle had passed each other, which given the condition of his ships was not feasible, and that in wearing away from the French to protect his disabled ships he was in fact fleeing from the battle, an accusation that was contemptible.
The fact that Byng had been a Tory and Keppel was an avowed Whig was not lost on the public, and there was much talk of revenge. With a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the two sides were labelled the ‘Montagus’, after Lord Sandwich’s family name, and the ‘Capulets’, a pun on the ‘Keppelites’. The whole affair threatened to split the navy asunder, and in an attempt to unite the service the King advocated the replacement of Sandwich at the Admiralty with Admiral Lord Howe. There were too many complications associated with this move however, and the Prime Minister, Lord North, vetoed the idea. Most of the naval officers regarded Keppel’s court-martial as a farce and they demonstrated their displeasure by refusing to serve the government whilst it remained in power. In December grand old Admiral Sir Edward Hawke, who the government had wished to preside over the court martial, signed an ‘admiral’s protest’ with eleven other senior officers censuring Palliser and condemning the charges. There was particular fury that Keppel, who was not in the best of health, should be forced to undergo what was clearly a politically motivated trial.
The court martial met at Portsmouth aboard the Britannia 100 on 7 January 1779 under the presidency of the inept and scandalous commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Thomas Pye, who himself had claimed ill-health in the hope of avoiding the responsibility. With him sat Vice-Admiral Matthew Buckle, Vice-Admiral John Montagu, Rear-Admirals Marriot Arbuthnot and Robert Roddam, Captains Mark Milbanke, Francis Samuel Drake, Francis Parry, William Bennett, Philip Boteler, John Moutray, Adam Duncan and James Cranston. The proceedings continued ashore thereafter at the governor’s house in deference to Keppel’s poor health. At Spithead, where Rear-Admiral Edward Hughes assumed temporary command of the Channel fleet, and with Rear-Admiral Francis William Drake taking on the duties of port admiral in Pye’s absence, Keppel’s and Palliser’s flagships were anchored well apart to prevent fighting. During the trial the Dukes of Cumberland, Gloucester, Portland, Richmond and Bolton, plus a host of aristocrats and the politicians Burke, Fox and Sheridan supported the commander-in-chief in person, and the whole event sent the local cost of living sky-high and shut down parliament.
The prosecution was led by Palliser himself, whilst Lord Chatham’s brilliant ex-solicitor-general, John Dunning, headed the defence team of John Lee and Thomas Erskine. The public gallery of dukes and politicos gave Palliser and his witnesses, including his fellow lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, a hard time. Twenty-eight of the thirty senior officers involved in the action gave evidence with most indicating that Keppel could not have fought the battle in the first place if he had taken time out to form his line. The trial was not without its scandal, and Captain Alexander Hood of the Robust, an opponent of the Whig faction, was censured for substituting leaves in his log-book which may have assisted the verification of Keppel’s evidence. That he had felt justified in doing so as the original log had been carelessly written did not exonerate him – he had been in Palliser’s division after all. The vice-admiral’s evidence that he had repeated Keppel’s signals in the evening to his ships but had been unable to adhere to the commander-in-chief’s instructions in respect of his own flagship, was negated by the fact that subsequent to engaging the enemy the Formidable had been able to wear ship twice.
Supported by most of the officers of the fleet, and Captains John Jervis, John Laforey, Sir Charles Douglas and Michael Clements in particular, Keppel put up a fierce defence. With resolute impartiality from Captain Duncan and the other Whigs on the panel he was honourably and unanimously acquitted on 11 February, the charge being labelled ‘malicious and unfounded’. The general consensus arising from the trial was that Palliser’s conduct had prevented a victory at the Battle of Ushant, and that the only criticism that could be levied at Keppel was that he might have summoned Palliser’s ships by individual signal earlier than he eventually did so.
Once the verdict was announced Spithead went mad with joy, Portsmouth was illuminated, and the ships of the East India Company fired a nineteen-gun volley in Keppel’s honour. After being carried through the streets of Portsmouth to the strains of ‘see the conquering hero comes’, Keppel retired to his house to celebrate with over sixty captains. When the London mob heard the verdict they celebrated by breaking Lord North’s windows, attacking property of suspected government supporters, and smashing up Palliser’s Pall Mall house to make a bonfire of his furniture in St. James’ Square. The vice-admiral escaped only just in time, but they burned his effigy on Tower Hill and tore down the gates of the Admiralty, forcing Sandwich and his mistress to flee through the garden in their night-clothes. Keppel’s cousin and the darling of the left, Charles James Fox, celebrated the verdict with Lord Derby and others young associates in the Almacks Club before taking to the streets at three in the morning to enjoy the destruction by the mob – in particular they enjoyed watching a resoundingly drunk Tory duke flinging stones in concert with the best of them. The rest of the Whig gentry demonstrated their delight by illuminating London and Westminster. In York Palliser’s sister’s home was attacked and demolished, driving the poor owner almost insane with fright, and all over the country landlords painted their favourite admiral’s head on their inn signs with many hostelries being renamed the Keppel’s Head. The House of Commons voted their thanks to Keppel on the day following the court martial, to be joined on the 16th by the House of Lords. Two days later Keppel returned to the Houses of Parliament to receive an address from the Speaker, and he was granted the freedom of the City of London.
With Keppel’s acquittal it now became impossible for the government to continue their support of Palliser, and after secret negotiations with Sandwich and the influential secretary to the Treasury, John Robinson, the brother of Captain Hugh Robinson, Palliser was persuaded to resign his offices and his parliamentary seat. This did not prevent the Whig politicians escalating the matter with a vengeance, although a motion demanding Palliser’s removal from the navy was withdrawn when it was discovered that he too had asked to face a court-martial. Rising to his feet in front of a packed House of Commons at 3 o’clock on 4 March Fox turned the fury of the people against the government and voted a censure upon the Admiralty for its conduct in the Keppel affair. He moved that Sandwich had not only failed to promptly combat the French Toulon fleet, but had purposefully misinformed Keppel as to the strength of the French Brest fleet or equally culpably had failed to ascertain their numbers. Fox on the rampage was a brilliant political animal and through a variety of tactics, such as asking Keppel to stand and then firing questions at him, he ridiculed the government to such an extent that the House dissolved in laughter when Lord North tried to defend the first lord. North however stated that if Sandwich was guilty then the whole government was, and this threat to the stability of the establishment, and more importantly the pockets of his supporters in parliament, was enough to win him the resulting vote over Fox by two hundred and four votes to one hundred and seventy. Shortly afterwards tragedy struck when Sandwich’s mistress was shot dead by a drunken clergyman in Covent Garden. Politics was one thing, personal disaster something else, and having noted his bitter enemy’s desperate grief Fox dropped a motion of censure against the first lord.
Meanwhile Keppel had written to the King imploring that he be released from the command of the grand fleet rather than be obliged to serve men in the government that he could not trust. The letter was mean-spiritedly passed on to the Admiralty which replied to the admiral on 12 March. Some fiery correspondence followed, resulting in Keppel striking his flag on 18 March to be followed into voluntary retirement by a significant number of his subordinates, including the worthy Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland, and Captains Robert Kingsmill, Hon. John Leveson-Gower and Sir John Lindsay. This meant that at least some public sympathy towards the commander-in-chief was lost through his withdrawal from the service in the country’s hour of need.
On Monday 12 April Palliser’s court-martial convened aboard the Sandwich 90 in Portsmouth Harbour under the presidency of Vice-Admiral George Darby, who had been specifically appointed to a command in the Channel Fleet to allow him to sit. Also conspicuous on the panel was the newly promoted Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby, who had expressly been included in a recent list of promotions to allow him to attend. Other members were Captains Sir Chaloner Ogle, Richard Kempenfelt, Joseph Peyton, William Bayne, Mark Robinson, Adam Duncan, Samuel Granston Goodall, James Cranston, Robert Linzee, John Colpoys, and somewhat outrageously his own hitherto anonymous nephew, George Robinson Walters. Such was the temper of the service that it was felt expedient to despatch all those officers to sea who were hostile to Palliser, whilst those who favoured him were recalled to port. In Captain Duncan’s case the avid Whig was only able to secure a place on the panel because his unpaid crew had refused to go to sea.
Keppel resolutely refused to lead the prosecution and was at best a reluctant witness, so with no prosecutor and no charges the twenty-one day case soon turned into a court of inquiry. Palliser now changed his claim to one that he had not seen the signal to reform the line, and that his foremast had been too damaged to carry any sail. The eventual verdict exonerated him from any misdemeanour bar that of failing to inform his commander of the disabled state of the Formidable, however although his conduct and behaviour was held to be ‘in many respects highly exemplary and meritorious’, his acquittal was neither unanimous nor honourable. There was little doubt that a neutral court would have found him guilty, and the verdict carried a strong enough condemnation to prevent the administration restoring him to the various offices he had resigned pending his trial. As a reward for his loyalty he was nevertheless compensated with the lucrative governorship of Greenwich Hospital in May 1780.
Keppel neatly summed up the sad affair of the Battle of Ushant when upon being questioned in parliament as to Palliser’s conduct he declared that he ‘allowed the vice admiral behaved gallantly as he passed the line’, and that his complaint was with Palliser’s neglect of his subsequent signals. ‘If the lion gets into his den and won’t come out of it’ he said, ‘there’s an end to the lion’. The Battle of Ushant and the political aftermath did much to deflate the morale of the navy, particularly in the home fleet, and even two years later Admiral Sir George Rodney was complaining of the divisions retarding his own campaign in the West Indies. By then Keppel’s popularity had waned, with the ex commander-in-chief being castigated for failing to return to service as his country faced further perils.
1 x 110 guns: Bretagne;
1 x 100 guns: Ville de Paris;
3 x 80 guns: Couronne; Duc de Bourgogne; Saint Esprit;
12 x 74 guns: Glorieux; Palmier; Bien Aimé; L’Orient; Fendant; Magnifique: Actif: Robuste; Conquérant; Intrépide; Zodiaque; Diadème;
1 x 70 guns: Dauphin Royal;
11 x 64 guns: Vengeur; Alexandre; Indien; Réfléchi; Eveillé; Artésien; Actionnaire; Solitaire; Roland; Sphinx; Triton;
1 x 60 guns: Saint Michel;
2 x 50 guns: Amphion; Fier;
Frigates: Sensible 32; Andromaque 32; Sincère 32: Junon 32; Iphigénie 32; Nymphe 32: