“The clash is not only the first major naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, it is the longest and hardest fought.”
By John Danielski
PARIS. MAY, 1794. An emaciated peasant mother holding a skin-and-bones baby smiles in satisfaction as a guillotine blade slices down and the head of another aristocrat plops into a wicker basket.
An executioner grabs the severed head and displays it to the crowd. She notes with surprise that the` eyes blink and lips quiver for a brief second. A gaggle of ragged, toothless street people erupts into an off key, drunken chorus of “La Marseillaise.”
The shaky revolutionary government of Maximilian Robespierre retains its tenuous hold on power through a nation-wide Reign of Terror. No conviction for treason is necessary; mere suspicion or guilt-by-association is enough to condemn one to death. The Paris guillotines are working from dawn to dusk, meting out assembly-line justice that ensures that a head falls every two minutes. Eventually the principal site of the executions in Paris must be relocated because the flow of blood overwhelms the city’s drains. In recent months, 40,000 have died in the embrace of Mademoiselle Guillotine.
A culture of paranoia rules France; any opposition to the regime is punished fast and hard. A revolt of Royalists in the Vendee is brutally crushed. More than 200,000 are killed in the crackdown, including 30 women and children who are buried alive. Drowning is the preferred method of execution in the Vendee. Boatloads of men and women are taken to the middle of the Loire River, their hands bound and feet weighted with lead, where they are forced to jump into the water. A mutiny of the French Mediterranean fleet results in massacres in Toulon.
All of Europe is horrified by the bloodshed in France. The great powers ally against the Revolutionary regime. The government in Paris responds to the threat by raising a mass army. Universal conscription soon strips the nation of farmers. A food crisis brought on by the previous year’s bad harvest only worsens with fewer hands to work the fields. Bread is rationed and starvation stalks the land. Hollow-eyed peasants become fixtures on city streets and unrest grows even among the most ardent Republicans. France must have food or La Revolution will die.
In desperation, France turns to America for help. Robespierre dips into the country’s carefully-hoarded gold reserves to buy wheat and beef from the New World. Despite the United States’ official policy of neutrality towards Europe’s warring factions, the Washington Administration agrees to the sale: many politicians, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, hold deep sympathies for the ideals of La Revolution.
A Nation-Saving Convoy
Soon, 156 merchant ships assemble in the Chesapeake to carry the vast life-saving cargo of food purchased with 5.5 million gold livres. The vessels’ holds are crammed with 67,000 barrels of flour, beef and bacon, 11,000 barrels of coffee and 7,000 barrels of rice, sugar and cocoa. Escorted by two French ships-of-the-line and three frigates lead by the canny Admiral Jean Vanstibal, the convoy departs American waters in late March with the port of Brest as its destination.
A lone British frigate, HMS Daedelus, is trapped in the Chesapeake by the French flotilla. Its captain observes the formation of the convoy. Samuel Knowles is a perceptive man who talks to the locals and discerns exactly what the French intend. He dashes off a report and passes it to the crew of a small dispatch vessel bound for England.
The message reaches the Admiralty who, recognizing an opportunity to bring down the Revolutionary regime in France, mount a supreme effort to capture or destroy the convoy.
The Royal Navy has long enjoyed a heroic reputation. But in 1794, Britain’s warships have not fought a major action against France since Saintes in 1782. Following the American War of Independence, morale in the service was anemic.
But no matter how flagging the fleets spirits are, the situation is far worse in the French navy. Having had its officer ranks decimated by the purge of aristocrats, the fleet has decayed to a shadow of its former self. Most captains are very new to command and their ships are crewed by reluctantly recalled sailors and outright landsmen. Gunnery specialists are few. Most vessels are in need of repair and rations are so scarce that a principal supply source becomes captured British merchant ships. Worse, the regime mistrusts the navy following the Toulon mutiny. However, given a chance to defeat the hated British, the Brest Fleet will fight hard to erase the stain of disloyalty.
Command of the Brest squadron falls on Citoyen or “Citizen” Villaret, formerly Louis-Thomas Comte Villaret de Joyeuse. Spared the guillotine on account of his skill as a mariner, the one-time aristocrat is tasked with protecting the all-important American convoy. Still, the 47-year-old was only a lieutenant a year previously, having been jumped with one stroke of a pen to rear admiral. He has never commanded a ship, let alone a fleet. Yet he is warned that failure to protect the convoy will cost him his head. Surrender during the Reign of Terror is not an option.
Opposing Villaret is Britain’s own Richard Howe, the 1st Earl Howe. In his heroic 38-year career, he has fought in countless actions and won undying fame for his command of the fleet that broke the blockade of Gibraltar in the last war. He is known as throughout the Navy as “the sailor’s friend” because of his concern for the health and well-being of his crews. But at 68, he is badly afflicted with gout. In fact, Howe comes out of retirement only at the express wish of King George III.
The fleet Howe inherits includes a number experienced captains and petty officers, but is short of sailors. Nearly every ship-of-the-line is 30 to 60 men below full crew complement. One vessel is short 100 men. Fortunately, the squadron is well supplied, and the health and morale of its men is excellent. Gunnery drills are increased in preparation for a possible battle.
The Hunt is On
Howe orders a patrol of six ships-of-the-line under Admiral George Montagu to head out into the Atlantic to locate Vanstabel’s convoy, while he blockades Brest Harbor, trapping Villaret and the bulk of the enemy fleet in port. Montagu guesses that the convoy will make for a port on the Bay of Biscay, but fails to locate the transports.
On May 21, westerly winds blow Howe’s fleet off station, giving Villaret a chance to breakout. The French commander weighs anchor and heads into the open sea. He hopes to avoid battle if possible, while keeping his ships between Howe and the convoy. It’s a wise strategy considering many of his sailors are novices; many are too seasick to even perform their tasks. Worse, his ships lack carronades. The squat, short-barreled guns are used to smash enemy vessels at close range. His gunpowder is also inferior to the British product.
Howe sets off in pursuit, but bad weather and uncertainty over Villaret’s course delay contact for at least a week.
Finally, on May 28, the French Fleet is sighted through a blanket of mist and fog. Lookouts report 25 warships — exactly the same number of vessels in Howe’s fleet. The British admiral forms his squadron into line of battle; the French follow suit. He next orders a general chase. Howe intends to engage the rear of the French formation, breaking their line, while bringing at least two British ships to bear on each French vessel.
With squalls and heavy swells, it is not until mid-afternoon that the lead British ship, Bellerophon, 74 guns, engages the mighty 110-gun Revolutionaire. The French behemoth is separated from the French fleet, but puts up an obdurate and surprisingly effective fight against six British ships. The vessels trade broadsides for four hours and by nightfall, Revolutionaire is dismasted. Rolling badly, her decks are awash with the blood of 400 of her 1,000-man crew. Still, she has not surrendered. Two British ships are badly damaged and out of action. Night and fog bring an end to the engagement but fighting resumes anew on May 29.
Howe’s flagship, HMS Queen Charlotte, and Bellerophon pierce the French line and cut five ships off from the main body. The fighting is fierce but inconclusive. Villaret shows surprising skill in rescuing the separated ships and not a single French vessel strikes her flag.
Fog and filthy weather prevent any fighting on May 30 and 31. Both sides use the time to make badly needed repairs and Villaret continues to sail south, drawing Howe farther away from the American convoy.
The Battle Continues
June 1 dawns crisp and clear and the heavy swells diminish to manageable proportions. Battle erupts once more as the vans of the two fleets engage. Fighting spreads down the line and the engagement becomes general. The Queen Charlotte penetrates the French line, passing the stern of Villerat’s flagship, the gigantic 120-gun Montaigne, and for a brief moment the two commanders spot each other through their spyglasses.
The British do not follow their traditional practice of shooting only at the hull but fire every other broadside into enemy rigging. Three other ships engage the Queen Charlotte and she is so badly damaged that Howe considers abandoning her and transferring his flag to another ship. Four British ships penetrate the French line but the rest are so severely hurt that they sheer off.
The fight between HMS Brunswick and Vengeur du Peuple epitomizes the ferocity of the wider battle. As the British vessel tries to breech the French line, the Vengeur moves to block her. The two ships collide and their spars and rigging become entangled. Locked in a bloody embrace, they drift south, out of the line of battle, fighting their own private war.
The two hulls are pressed so tightly that gunners cannot open the gun port lids and simply blow them off. British Captain Harvey is wounded three times. He’ll later lose an arm to amputation. Sharpshooters in the tops of both ships sweep the decks as the cannons blast away into hulls for three hours. Twenty-three of Brunswick’s guns are shot clear off their carriages; all of her masts are shot away. Forty of her crew are killed in the melee, and 113 are wounded. Brunswick suffers the highest casualties of any British ship in the battle. Captain Harvey dies a month later of his wounds.
Things are worse on Vengeur. Three quarters of the crew is down. The French ship is so badly holed that she begins to sink, a rarity in the age of sail. A vessel might succumb days later from battle damage but one seldom went down after a three-hour battle. No longer a threat, the Brunswick’s crew scramble to rescue their former foes. Although at least 250 perish with the ship, many are saved.
Winners and Losers
By nightfall, Villaret breaks off the engagement. Despite suffering horrendous loses, he has accomplished his mission; he has kept the British away from the convoy. No French ship surrenders until they see Villaret is abandoning them. Six ships eventually strike their colours.
Eleven British vessels are partly or wholly dismasted in the action. Howe is so exhausted from a week with very little sleep that he collapses at the battle’s end.
British casualties are 1,200; French losses are estimated at 4,000. An additional 3,000 sailors are prisoners of the British.
Howe’s battered fleet returns home to cheers and huzzahs and Britain erupts in a frenzy of celebrations. All of the fleet’s first officers are promoted to commander; all are awarded shares of prize money for the vessels that are captured.
Nicholas Pocock, a passenger aboard one of the British ships, paints a number of pictures of the battle. An experienced sea captain and a skilled artist, his life-like depictions of the fighting ushers in a whole new era of extreme realism in military maritime art that continues throughout the Napoleonic Wars.
Villaret returns home to approval but no glory. He is criticized for losing seven ships, even though his actions enabled the food convoy to reach Brest unmolested. The shipment is distributed throughout France over the next six weeks, staving off mass starvation and saving the Revolution from collapse.
The British eventually dub the victory the Glorious First of June. Having been fought 500 miles from the nearest cape or headland a more apt name for the battle fails to emerge. The clash is not only the first major naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, it is the longest and hardest fought; nothing at all glorious about the sheer volume of blood that’s spilled, The French merely refer to it as The Third Battle of Ushant.
The British claim it as a great victory and certainly the tactical triumph was theirs. But the strategic victory belongs to Villaret and that is of far greater moment. His job was to protect the convoy and he did so. He may have lost a battle but he saved a nation.
John Danielski is the author of the Pennywhistle Quartet, a series of novels set in the Napoleonic period. These include: Active’s Measure, The King’s Scarlet, Blue Water, Scarlet Tide, and Capital’s Punishment. Danielski has worked as a living history interpreter at Fort Snelling, a journalist and has taught history at both the secondary and university levels. Visit his website here.