Friday, October 19, 2012

The Glorious (ish) 1st of June

by Jonathan Hopkins

 When France’s revolutionary government declared war on Britain in 1793, the country breathed a collective sigh of despair. Since being drummed out of America in 1776 things had not gone well for the British, militarily.

They were forced from their toehold on the French mainland at Toulon thanks largely to the clever tactics of a young artillery captain called Napoleon Buonaparte. And the Duke of York’s campaign in Flanders was becoming bogged down after minor early successes.

Britain needed a victory. Something to shout about: to help restore collective morale and take people’s minds off growing social unrest at home. So when in the spring of 1794 the Admiralty got wind of a large enemy grain convoy returning to France from America, the English Channel fleet, under Admiral Lord Howe, was ordered to intercept it.

Sixty-nine years old at that time, Richard Howe joined the navy at thirteen and having been successfully involved in many previous naval actions he was highly regarded, both by his peers and the ordinary seamen serving under him, as a master tactician and humanitarian. Which two didn’t often go together.

Howe’s fleet of 26 ships of the line (battleships) and 12 support vessels sighted the enemy on 27th May, in heavy seas, four hundred miles out into the Atlantic from the French coast. By next afternoon his leading ships were close enough to trade shots with the rearmost warships of the French escort squadron before rain and fog closed in, effectively putting an end to the action.

The following day the wind had dropped from gale force. With the French fleet still ahead and in more favourable winds Howe ordered his ships to tack. Angling upwind gave the British a speed advantage and they soon caught up with the enemy. But they were still too far away to engage in the most usual form of sea battle, a broadside-to-broadside cannon duel with their opponents.

So Howe determined on a tactic later to be made famous by Nelson at both the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar. With the enemy fleet sailing stretched out line-astern (nose to tail), he ordered his leading ships to turn almost at right-angles to break through their line.

Howe knew only too well this was a risky plan. Approaching the enemy bows-on meant though the British ships made smaller targets they could bring  few guns to bear, while the French could fire all cannon, on one side, at them. The attackers must wait, enduring French gunfire, for it was only as a British ship broke through the enemy line that it could fire back. Then it could use cannon on both sides and so engage the bow of one ship and the stern of another, without much in the way of retaliation possible from either.

When that happened, carnage was the usual result. A ship’s gundeck was one long, clear space, allowing crews as much room as possible in which to work. Any cannonball smashing through bow or stern could in theory travel the whole length of the deck, mangling anything in its path. A French sailor at Trafalgar reported a single shot killing and maiming ten men as it passed through his ship.

The weather then intervened again. A sea mist came down in the evening, prompting Howe to sensibly disengage, avoiding the risk of accidental collision and 'friendly fire'. Several ships on both sides had been badly damaged and during the night jury-rig sails were hurriedly prepared to keep them on the move. By morning the French fleet had moved off and when the fog cleared in the afternoon Howe realised they were now too distant to attack that day.

The 1st of June dawned cloudy and with a heavy swell. Despite the French having pulled further ahead during the night, with the best of the wind Howe soon caught them and by 9.30am was once again ordering his fleet to turn, in line-abreast this time, to engage the enemy.

The battle lasted four hours. Many ships having fought themselves to a standstill, Howe then signalled a halt. A dozen French warships had been disabled and though the enemy managed to take five under tow, the British captured six. The French 84 gun Vengeur sank, and despite rescue boats launched from a British frigate to pick up survivors many of her sailors drowned.

The loss of any ship this way was classed a major disaster. Oak warships could take a huge amount of punishment and still remain afloat unless fire took hold, exploding the powder magazine. Sinking an opponent in battle was not the idea, rather disablement and capture whence hull and contents could be sailed or towed to a friendly port and sold, providing prize money for the victorious captain and his crew. And since a huge number of sailors were unable to swim, casualties from sinkings were always high.

Talking of which, the British suffered 287 killed and 811 wounded in the whole engagement, the French approximately 1500 killed, 2000 wounded and 3500 made prisoner.

So how ‘Glorious’ was the 1st of June?

Despite Howe’s prizes, and some captains complained he should have let the action continue until more enemy ships were boarded to be taken in tow, the enemy merchant fleet escaped, prompting the French to count the battle their victory and honour seamen who died when the Vengeur sank as martyrs to the revolutionary cause.

In Howe’s defence he had engaged and half-destroyed a French battle fleet of more heavily armed ships than those he commanded, he was by now 600 miles out to sea, and many of his own vessels needed repairs before they could make for home.

And be fair - at his age, after four days continuous alert and action he was entitled to a rest!

In any event, the battle prompted wild celebration on both sides of the English Channel. Howe was hailed a hero and once again enhanced his reputation as a commander: presented with a jewelled sword by George III he ordered it sent around every ship in the fleet together with a letter of praise from the King which was read out to ordinary sailors, the men who had borne the brunt of the fighting. Knew how to boost men’s morale, did Howe. Apparently one of Nelson’s most treasured possessions was a note of congratulation he received from Howe after the Battle of the Nile.

Anyway, after the Glorious 1st, Britain never lost a major sea battle during the whole Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. That was pretty glorious, really.

Jonathan Hopkins usually writes about British cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. But since his third story is set partly aboard ship he thought he'd better do some research!

You can find out more here


  1. Jonathan, this is so beautifully written, I could smell the gunpowder. Thanks for a fascinating post.

  2. Most interesting! I enjoyed this post very much.


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