Dirk Puehl‘s Today’s Memory
The battle of the Glorious First of June
Originally shared by Dirk Puehl
#onthisday in 1794, 220 years ago, 400 miles west of Ushant, the first major fleet action of the Revolutionary Wars was fought between two huge British and French squadrons, known as the Glorious First of June or Bataille du 13 prairial an 2 or simply as the Third Battle of Ushant.
“In a letter from a gallant admiral, who was in the battle of the 1st of June, and now living, it is justly observed, – “The 1st of June was the first general action fought in the course of the war, and led to many glorious results; had it been the last, not one of the French ships would have been allowed to return to port;” (Sir John Barrow, “The life of Richard, earl Howe, K.G., Admiral of the Fleet, and General of Marines”, London 1838)
The Revolution began to devour its own children, not only during the Terreur that rampaged in Paris, but on the battlefields as well, since 1793, Revolutionary France was at war with all European major powers and early in 1794, food was in short supply on top of it and before the devouring of fellow revolutionaries became all too literal, the young United States decided to pay back the moral debts accumulated during their own War of Independence about 15 years before and support another republic. In the spring of the year, a convoy of 117 merchant ships gathered at Hampton Roads in the Chesapeake Bay, laden with enough provisions to feed France for a year and left American waters on April 2nd for its scheduled two-months crossing of the broad Atlantic, while Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse was supposed to prevent the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet under Lord Howe to intercept the convoy.
Aristo Villaret de Joyeuse had sworn the civic oath on the Republic already in 1792, as the only member of his family. He was an experienced naval officer but had attained flag rank just a few weeks before while his fleet of 26 sail of the line was in a near mutinous state and had only few commanders left who really knew how to sail and fight a battleship after the Terreur had weeded out most of the older hands. 68 years old Howe on the other side commanded a battle-ready, but hugely undermanned fleet of 25 ships commanded by captains who, by and large, had never commanded in a major fleet action either and many still held their peace-time commissions to captain a capital ship due to political connections, among them Thomas Mackenzie, Captain of HMS “Gibraltar” (80), described by one of his subordinates as “about the stupidest man possible”. Howe took up the pursuit on May 20th, fighting a running battle with the convoy’s escorts, sighted Villaret de Joyeuse’s squadron on the 28th, manoeuvred his ships for three days through fog and averse winds to gain the weather gauge and issued the orders to bear down upon the French individually and break their line of battle as soon as the enemy was in sight. Not all of his captains would follow suit.
The French line of battle was drawn up on the morning of the 1st of June, Howe gave his signals, the van of his squadron approached and was met wit a few scattered broadsides, a sure sign of the dismal condition of the Revolutionary fleet’s state of naval discipline, most of Howe’s other ships lagged behind though or steered elsewhere, but the line was broken and over the next hours the 51 ships-of-the-line were tangled in three individual clusters of grim close-range combat. To everyone’s surprise, Villaret de Joyeuse even managed to form a new line of 11 ships, Howe drew 6 of his battered fleet together, a few broadsides were exchanged at mid-range and Villaret de Joyeuse decided to call it a day and broke off the engagement, leaving 6 of his ships to be captured by the British and one, the “Vengeur du Peuple”, sinking. Howe’s ships had suffered considerable damage but none was lost, 1.200 British officers and crew were either dead or wounded while the French had lost 4.000 men and 3.000 captured by their enemy. On June 12th though, the convoy arrived in France and saved the starving Revolution. Howe had won a hard-fought victory but failed to achieve his broader strategic aim, thus, both sides claimed victory on the Glorious First of June.
Depicted below is the duel between Howe’s flagship, the 1st rate ship-of-the-line “Queen Charlotte” (100) and Villaret de Joyeuse’s “Montagne” (120). In the foreground, British boats are seen trying to rescue the survivors of the sinking “Vengeur du Peuple” (74) Painted by the French-born London artist Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740 – 1812) a year after the battle.
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