The Cornwallis Retreat – 17 June 1795
In early May 1795, the newly promoted Rear-Admiral Richard Bligh was released from imprisonment in Brest where he had been incarcerated since the capture of his command, the Alexander 74, in the previous year. A report of his subsequent interview at the Admiralty suggested that having been able to view the French fleet in Brest following its disastrous winter cruise and earlier mauling at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, Bligh had identified only three ships of the line as being ready for sea. Safe in the apparent knowledge that the enemy’s severely reduced fleet would not therefore represent a threat, five ships of the line and two frigates under the command of Vice-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis set sail from Spithead on 30 May to cruise to the south of the Penmarks.
On 6 June the squadron began the chase of an unknown sail, and later in the day the frigate that was leading the pursuit, the Phaeton 38, Captain Hon. Robert Stopford, signalled that the stranger was a French frigate. Despite her best efforts the Phaeton could not run the enemy down, and as night came on Cornwallis recalled Stopford’s command to his squadron, which at this time was about a hundred miles to the south-west of Brest. Come the next morning another sail was seen in the east, and with the benefit of a fresh northerly breeze the Phaeton, Pallas 32, Captain Hon. Henry Curzon, and Kingfisher 18, Commander Thomas Le Marchant Gosselin, set off in chase whilst the ships of the line lumbered along behind them. Upon closing in on Belle Isle more ships were identified, and these would prove to be a French squadron consisting of three sail of the line, six frigates, a brig, a sloop and a cutter under the command of Rear-Admiral Jean Gaspar Vence.
A race now began to cut the French squadron off before they could obtain sanctuary under the batteries on Belle Isle, but although the Phaeton was able to briefly engage a ship of the line, which responded with her stern-chasers, a favourable wind allowed Vence to safely enter the Belle Isle Roads. Yet in hauling his wind, any disappointment Cornwallis might have harboured was soon mollified when three more sail were spotted standing in towards the southern coast of Belle Isle. These would prove to be two French frigates with a large Dutch vessel in tow. The Kingfisher took the lead in this new pursuit, and upon her firing several broadsides the French frigates cast off their tow and made good their own escape amongst the shoals, from which the Triumph 74, Captain Sir Erasmus Gower, and Phaeton were obliged to stand off.
Fortune had still not deserted the British however, for upon rounding the south-western tip of Belle Isle, the leading ships discovered a convoy which had been under the protection of Vence’s squadron whilst working up from Bordeaux, and eight of these vessels laden with wine, corn, flour, and naval stores were easily captured. That night the Phaeton was despatched inshore to attempt the cutting out of a brig-corvette, but when she came under fire the next morning from a hitherto unseen battery she had to withdraw, having lost one man killed and seven wounded. The prizes that had been taken were carried away by the squadron, and on 11 June, to the south of the Scilly Isles, they were dispatched to Falmouth under the escort of the sloop Kingfisher, which also had under her charge two American vessels that had been detained whilst attempting to deliver provisions to the French.
Having regained his cruising ground in the hope of intercepting Vence once more, Cornwallis was caught somewhat unawares on the morning of the 16th when the advanced Phaeton made the signal at 10 a.m. for a fleet in sight ahead. Captain Stopford initially stood on towards the strangers, being confident in the apparent intelligence obtained from Rear-Admiral Bligh that the Brest fleet was not yet ready for sea, and that the other vessels were probably Rear-Admiral Vence’s small squadron with some merchantmen in company. It was only when the Phaeton suddenly brought to that Cornwallis recognised his own squadron was in danger, and at 11 a.m. he ordered his ships of the line to haul to on the starboard tack in line of battle, with the Brunswick 74 leading the Royal Sovereign 100, Bellerophon 74, Triumph 74 and Mars 74. Upon seeking clarification from Stopford, he was informed by signal that the other fleet numbered thirty ships in all, and that they appeared to consist of thirteen sail of the line, fourteen frigates, two brigs and a cutter.
There could now be little doubt that the other force was the Brest fleet. Commanded by Vice-Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret-Joyeuse, it had been ordered to sea by the political commissars to rescue Vence’s squadron, even though the senior naval officers knew that the rear-admiral was perfectly safe at Belle Isle or could easily get into the port of Lorient if threatened. Villaret-Joyeuse had joined Vence the day before and having added the latter’s force to his own he actually had under his command twelve sail of the line and two ships of 50 guns, in addition to nine frigates, three armed ships, two brigs and two cutters.
That a misunderstanding had taken place following Bligh’s interview at the Admiralty was obvious, and it would later be verified that the rear-admiral had not only been fully aware of the number of French ships ready for sea at Brest, but indeed had been able to name every single one of them. Someone had clearly erred in letting Cornwallis put to sea, but for the vice-admiral, facing overwhelming odds, there was little time to consider the matter as he now took steps to make good a retreat.
Initially the French fleet was to leeward of Cornwallis, but at 2 p.m. a shift in the wind allowed it to separate into two columns, with one tacking to the north in order to catch the land wind, whilst the other maintained its course to the south. The wisdom of this move was realised shortly after 6 p.m., for having weathered the British line, the northern column tacked to the south on the northerly wind so that they were positioned some eight or nine miles east by north on Cornwallis’ starboard quarter. Meanwhile, the southern column edged to within ten miles to the south-east on the larboard quarter of the British centre. Aboard the dull sailing and out of trim Bellerophon and Brunswick, the heavy anchors were cut away, and during the night provisions were jettisoned whilst the Bellerophon’s launch was broken up and cast overside, as were four carronades and some shot.
On the morning of 17 June, the French could be seen coming up hand over fist on the British rear in three divisions, with three ships of the line and five frigates to windward, five ships of the line and four frigates in the centre, and five sail of the line and five frigates to leeward. At 9 a.m. the Mars began to come under fire from the leading French ship in the weather division, the Zélé 74, to which she and the other British ships in range responded with their stern-chasers. The Mars then found herself exposed to a persistent and debilitating attack on her larboard quarter by the outstanding frigate Virginie 40, Captain Jacques Bergeret. Fortunately, the other French frigates remained stubbornly to windward without seeking to enter the action.
At 9.30 a.m. Cornwallis ordered the Bellerophon to move ahead of the Royal Sovereign in the line so that he could better deal with the situation developing around the Mars, and as the ‘Billy Ruffian’ edged past his flagship the vice-admiral took the opportunity to respond to her crew’s cheers by raising his own hat in acknowledgement. Meanwhile the Phaeton, which had been ordered ahead of her consorts earlier in the morning, had began sending up a series of hoists accompanied by signal guns advising that one, and then four sail were in sight to the west-north-west. Her signals were in fact part of a cunning and drawn-out subterfuge that had the intention of deceiving the French into thinking that Admiral Lord Bridport’s Channel Fleet was over the horizon, it being understood that Villaret-Joyeuse was conversant with the British signals.
By noon all the British ships were firing stern chasers in support of the beleaguered Mars, which at 1 p.m. came under fire from the second French ship in their van. A half-hour later the damaged Zélé was forced to break off the action having lost her main topgallant mast, yet the Mars then came under a more sustained attack off her larboard quarter from the second French ship. Throughout the afternoon, what Cornwallis described as a ‘teasing fire’ was sustained, whilst up ahead the Phaeton let fly her topgallants in the universal signal that a fleet was in sight. At about 3 p.m., with the Mars in ever-increasing danger of capture by the four leading French ships, the frigate began signalling to the imaginary fleet over the horizon, and her subterfuge then escalated at about 4.30 when she sent up a Dutch flag to indicate that the imaginary fleet was not hostile. Yet still the French continued their attack on the Mars, and in order to protect her, the Royal Sovereign and the Triumph swung around to starboard and unleashed several raking broadsides at the pursuers.
Cornwallis’ bold move, coupled with the Phaeton’s antics, confirmed the French suspicions that they were sailing towards a superior force, and the four leading ships which had been seeking to cut off the Mars hauled to the wind. The frigate’s subterfuge was providentially completed at 6.00 p.m. when a sail appeared on the horizon and the Phaeton put about in mock confidence to sail under the stern of the Royal Sovereign and give the vice-admiral three cheers. It was enough to finally convince the French that a more formidable force awaited them, and a half an hour later they positively threw over the chase, tacking away before sunset. As it happened, the solitary strange sail was not a member of the Channel Fleet but a British merchantman, part of a passing convoy.
During the retreat, the Mars had suffered twelve men wounded and sustained much damaged aloft, but the other ships of the squadron had emerged virtually unscathed. Dispatching his protégé, Captain John Whitby of the Royal Sovereign, to Portsmouth aboard the Phaeton with dispatches the day after the encounter, Cornwallis arrived at Plymouth on the evening of 24 June. Here his ships, and in particularly the Triumph, underwent extensive repairs to their sterns, for not only had the French shot wreaked havoc, but the ships’ carpenters had also had to remove planking to facilitate the use of the stern-chasers.
Cornwallis was justly praised for his conduct in what would become famous as ‘The Cornwallis Retreat’, and in due course he received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile the French fleet headed back towards Brest but being unable to enter port due to severe weather they were driven by the winds to Belle Isle, where a week later they would engage the Channel Fleet in the Battle of Groix.
|Royal Sovereign 100||Vice-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis|
|Flag Captain John Whitby|
|Bellerophon 74||Captain Lord James Cranstoun|
|Brunswick 74||Captain Lord Charles Fitzgerald|
|Mars 74||Captain Sir Charles Cotton|
|Triumph 74||Captain Sir Erasmus Gower|
|Phaeton 38||Captain Hon. Robert Stopford|
|Pallas 32||Captain Hon. Henry Curzon|
|Kingfisher 18||Commander Thomas Le Marchant Gosselin|
1 x 120 guns: Peuple:
11 x 74 guns: Alexandre; Nestor; Redoubtable; Mucius; Tigre; Zélé; Formidable; Jean Bart; Droits de l’Homme; Wattignies, Fougueux:
2 x 50 guns: Brave; Scévola 50:
Frigates: Virginie 40, Insurgente 36, Régénérée 40, Cocarde 36, Proserpine 40, Fidèle 36, Fraternité 40, Dréade 36:
Plus an unknown frigate and three armed ships, two brigs and two cutters.