Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The First of June... The Glorious First of June

Two hundred and seventeen years ago today, there was a great battle.

The Third Battle of Ushant.

The Glorious First of June.

But let me start at the beginning...

In 1793 France's harvest failed. An agricultural nation found itself facing famine. The French Revolution was in jeopardy. France's armies were embattled on their borders and the people at home faced starvation.

But France had one ally among all her enemies: America, a fledgling nation itself, could provide the food France needed to sustain herself. By Christmas of 1793 a fleet of a hundred merchant ships had assembled along the east coast of America. A small flotilla of the French Navy, under Rear-Admiral Vanstabel slipped out of Brest to meet them and escort them back home with their cargo.

Great Britain was slow to react. Total war was an idea that had yet to be fully realized by the nations of the 18th century. These were not yet the days of the great Blockade, when the Channel Fleet under Lord St. Vincent scarcely saw port but patrolled up and down the coast like a pack of wolves, swooping down on any French ships found at sea and slipping in to cut out or burn ships at anchorages up and down France's coast.

Still, on the 2nd of May, 1794, the Channel Fleet left Spithead under Admiral Lord Howe with thirty-two ships of the line and ten frigates.

A quarter of the warships split off to escort a merchant convoy across the Atlantic. The remaining twenty-six battleships and seven frigates sailed south with Lord Howe in command. For two weeks his fleet spread out across the Atlantic in search of the French grain convoy but found nothing. Reassembling at Brest, they found the harbour empty.

The French Fleet had sailed three days earlier, under Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse with twenty-one of the line. A royalist who had risen to captaincy in the days before the Revolution, Villaret de Joyeuse nevertheless felt his loyalties were to France and had remained with the Navy. The situation was so desperate in France that the National Convention had let him know that if the grain fleet failed to make landfall, his head was forfeit. During the height of the Terror, this was not an idle threat, and one of their representatives was aboard his flagship.

On the 19th of May, Lord Howe again turned his ships out to sea. The day before the two fleets must have come within a hundred miles of each other. But in the days before wireless, fleets were dependent on signal flags. Without sufficient frigates to spread out across the miles in search of the enemy, Lord Howe's fleet had no way to know their enemies had been so close.

At 5 a.m. on the 28th of May, a signal went up from the HMS Latona, one of Howe's frigates. A sail had been sighted. After three hours, the sail proved to be a British merchant brig on course to London. As this fact was being spread through the fleet, more sails were sighted. This time it seemed certain that it was the French.

Admiral Villaret, reinforced to twenty-six ships, was to the south. After meeting the convoy he was cruising ahead of it, and with the wind from SSW was moving north. On sighting the British, he gave the order to Form Line and their course came north-west.

Lord Howe gave the signal to tack. The French, with the wind behind them, had the weather gage and the initiative in the engagement. A single order from Villaret and his ships could run downwind towards the British or turn and run with a lead to daunt any British pursuit.

By late afternoon the two fleets were converging and the first shots were exchanged. The French turned and the British followed with all sail as Lord Howe gave the order 'General Chase'. At this point the grain convoy would pass far to both fleets sterns, but with enemies in sight the British seem not to have spared a thought for the convoy.

That evening, the HMS Audacious (74 guns) finally caught up with La Révolutionnaire (110 guns). The French vessel had exchanged distant broadsides with a number of other vessels during that long day, but now the two came to grips at close range. For two hours that evening the two vessels hammered at one another, with the higher standard of British gunnery providing an advantage over the more inexperienced French crews. Just before 10 p.m. La Révolutionnaire struck her colours and was dismasted as she collided with Audacious. Audacious herself was heavily damaged, with her rigging shot to pieces and scarcely able to maneuver. In such a state, she was incapable of boarding her conquest and the two ships drifted apart. By morning Audacious had jury-rigged repairs enough that she could sail before the wind, but La Révolutionnaire had been reinforced by several frigates. All Audacious could do was turn and limp for home.

La Révolutionnaire did the same, and both vessels eventually made their home ports without further action.

The rest of the two fleets continued their headlong chase, and by dawn were sailing south-east. In the night, the French had regained their advantage to windward and Lord Howe called off the chase and issued orders to form line.

With the British Fleet to the north and to leeward, the two fleets continued their dance with the British still in pursuit of the French. Lord Howe passed on orders to tack in succession at around 7 a.m. on the 29th, pointing the British line at the tail of the French line of battle.

Observing this maneuver, Admiral Villaret gave orders to wear ship and the French line began to reverse itself, retracing its steps towards the British. With the grain convoy to think of, it was vital to keep the British occupied.

Lord Howe had seized the initiative from the French. His attempt to split the French fleet in half had failed, but he now held the weather gage: he could attack when he chose. As both fleets continued on course to the west, British and French sailors worked furiously to make repairs.

The morning of the 30th brought fog, reducing visibility in spite of strong winds. When the fog lifted mid-morning, the British sighted the French fleet making headway to the east. Both fleets changed course towards one another, but the fog thickened again and by noon the British ships could not see each other, to say nothing of their enemies. Turning back to their original course, the British fleet listened for signals but there was nothing else to be done.

The fog persisted until the afternoon of the 31st of May, with the French sighted to the north, downwind and about five miles away. It was sunset before Lord Howe's fleet could reassemble and reorganize itself. Through the night the British maintained their westerly course while the frigates kept the French within sight.

Sunday, June 1st arrived with cloudy skies and wind from the south. Both fleets were moving westwards and more or less parallel. Lord Howe passed orders to pass through the enemy line. This meant a long run towards the French fleet, facing their broadsides bow-on, but as the British passed through the French they could fire into the vulnerable bows and sterns of the French ships and they would finish downwind of the enemy, leaving them without an easy avenue of retreat. A ship upwind had two choices in close action: to fight, or to surrender. Lord Howe was seeking a decisive fight that would leave the French nowhere to run.

For five days now, Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse had led the Channel Fleet away from the grain convoy. He had done all he could to protect the precious grain ships by leading the British away, and now he would buy them more time to escape by bringing his ships into action with Lord Howe. His duty was already done, whatever the outcome.

Lord Howe's fleet bore down on the enemy in line abreast, with the intention of arriving as simultaneously as possible. The intent was to rake the French with broadsides and round on the French from the lee side, leaving them nowhere to run. In practice, it was impossible for twenty five ships to maintain a neat line, especially when facing fire from the French line of damage.

Less than half of Lord Howe's fleet managed to break the French line and the battle became a general melee. HMS Queen Charlotte, Lord Howe's flagship, came alongside the French Montagne before engaging Jacobin, Républicain and Juste. HMS Brunswick and the French Vengeur engaged so closely that their anchors caught and for hours they hammered away at each other before Vengeur was dismasted and the Brunswick drifted away downwind aimlessly as she struggled to make repairs.

At length, Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse managed to slip free of the battle to the northward with twelve ships. The British, with only eleven ships battle-worthy, were unable to mount a pursuit and they had seven prizes to protect. Vengeur was the worst damaged, after being holed below the waterline by Brunswick. Only the arrival of boats from HMS Albert and Culloden and the help of the cutter HMS Rattler managed to save nearly five hundred survivors of her crew as she settled lower in the water and finally sank.

Working through the night, the British managed to make their six other prizes and their own vessels seaworthy, but unable to face another battle set sail at dawn on the 2nd of June for England.

The French grain fleet arrived with few losses and Rear Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse was promoted to Vice Admiral. He survived the Terror and was later appointed by Napoleon as Governor of Venice.

The Channel Fleet under Admiral Lord Howe sank one and captured six enemy vessels without losing a single British ship. Their prizes: America (74 guns), Impétueux (74 guns), Juste (80 guns), Achille (74 guns), Northumberland (74 guns) and Sans Pareil (80 guns). It was the first major action of the Napoleonic Wars, and one of the most resounding and one sided fleet actions in naval history.


The Order of Battle of 3rd Ushant is available on wikipedia Here.

Thank you, for reading this far. My family have a long and proud naval history stretching back to the 18th century. It's important to me, to keep the memories alive of days when men could fight and then turn about and risk their lives to save fellow seamen.

As a last thought, I'd like to offer two poems by Rudyard Kipling. He is my favourite poet, the only one who can consistently reduce me to tears just by reading. I still cannot read any but his shortest poems aloud without having to stop and compose myself mid-verse.

From "Song of the Dead"

We have fed our sea for a thousand years
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there's never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead:
We have strawed our best to the weed's unrest,
To the shark and the sheering gull.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha' paid in full!

There's never a flood goes shoreward now
But lifts a keel we manned;
There's never an ebb goes seaward now
But drops our dead on the sand --
But slinks our dead on the sands forlore,
From the Ducies to the Swin.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha' paid it in!

We must feed our sea for a thousand years,
For that is our doom and pride,
As it was when they sailed with the ~Golden Hind~,
Or the wreck that struck last tide --
Or the wreck that lies on the spouting reef
Where the ghastly blue-lights flare.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha' bought it fair!

and "The French Wars"

The boats of Newhaven and Folkestone and Dover
To Dieppe and Boulogne and to Calais cross over;
And in each of those runs there is not a square yard
Where the English and French haven't fought and fought hard!

If the ships that were sunk could be floated once more,
They'd stretch like a raft from the shore to the shore,
And we'd see, as we crossed, every pattern and plan
Of ship that was built since sea-fighting began.

There'd be biremes and brigantines, cutters and sloops,
Cogs, carracks and galleons with gay gilded poops--
Hoys, caravels, ketches, corvettes and the rest,
As thick as regattas, from Ramsgate to Brest.

But the galleys of Caesar, the squadrons of Sluys,
And Nelson's crack frigates are hid from our eyes,
Where the high Seventy-fours of Napoleon's days
Lie down with Deal luggers and French chasse-marees.

They'll answer no signal--they rest on the ooze,
With their honey-combed guns and their skeleton crews--
And racing above them, through sunshine or gale,
The Cross-Channel packets come in with the Mail.

Then the poor sea-sick passengers, English and French,
Must open their trunks on the Custom-house bench,
While the officers rummage for smuggled cigars
And nobody thinks of our blood-thirsty wars!

1 comment:

chelsea said...

I love June. Just one day off from the summer.