Well apparently, people ARE reading my blog posts! My recent post titled ‘An “Illuminating” Experience,’ led to the identification of the “unidentified 18th century naval battle” depicted on one of our lithophanes (thankfully I did peg the right century). Reader Andy Cook identified the scene as the sinking of the French 74-gun ship-of-the-line Vengeur du Peuple during the battle affectionately known by the British as the Glorious First of June (1794). The scene was taken from a lithograph adapted from a painting by French artist Auguste Étienne François Mayer (1805-1890).
As you would expect, at least when it comes to large-scale naval battles, there were many factors that led to the fight, which makes it hard to distill the action into just a few paragraphs. However, since it’s considered to be the first major fleet action of the French Revolutionary Wars and one of the greatest convoy actions in naval history I’ll give it a try!
Looking over the many accounts of the battle, it seems that the major factor that led to the action started when France suffered several years of bad harvests. Combined with the chaos that followed the French Revolution, numerous regions within France were facing famine. Desperate to alleviate the situation, the French Directorate sent a convoy of one-hundred thirty ships to America and the West Indies to bring grain and produce back to France. The convoy, accompanied by a small escort, left Brest in December of 1793.
Unable to prevent the convoy’s departure, the English Channel fleet under Lord Richard Howe hoped to intercept the convoy on its way back to France in the spring (the convoy sailed from Hampton Roads on April 11, 1794).
In early May, Howe, with the bulk of the British fleet, headed to sea to cover an outward-bound British convoy of ninety-nine merchant vessels headed to the East and West Indies and Newfoundland. After the convoys were safely away with some protective escorts, Howe assembled the rest of his fleet (twenty-six ships-of-the-line and seven frigates) deep in the Bay of Biscay off Ushant with the intent of catching and destroying the French convoy.
Desperate for the supplies, the French Directorate mobilized what was essentially France’s entire Navy and sent it into the Atlantic to ensure the convoy’s safe passage. Just to make sure you understand the gravity of the situation, the French rear admiral in charge of the operation, the gloriously named Louis Thomas, Comte de Villaret de Joyeuse, had been warned that if he failed to protect the convoy his next port of call would be the guillotine.
At this point it should be obvious that there were a serious number of warships sailing off Ushant waiting for the arrival of convoy from America–but each country’s fleet had different goals. The British wanted a fight while the sole focus of the French was to get its convoy safely to France.
With so many ships operating in such a “small” area, avoiding detection was nearly impossible and it became a real game of “you stole my merchant ship.” Convoys were found, captured and then lost again by each side. This constant exchange of ships, however, gave the British fleet the intelligence it needed to hone in on the location of the French fleet.
The two fleets finally spotted each other on the morning of May 28th (400 miles west of Ushant) which began a three-day skirmish that culminated in a massive engagement of single ship actions. At this point I should mention that my favorite moment occurred when a rooster on the HMS Marlborough (yes, I am talking about chickens here) escaped its coop, ran to the top of the stump of a mast and let loose a rousing crow. That lone rooster’s cheer encouraged the ship’s crew to keep fighting and resulted in the dismasting of every opponent that faced Marlborough.
The most memorable of these ship-on-ship actions occurred between the 74-gun ships HMS Barfleur and the French Vengeur du Peuple become entangled and instead of separating began pounding the crap out of each other. Unable to open their gunports, the crew of the Barfleur actually fired double-shotted charges through their CLOSED ports into the decks of the Vengeur. Oh my god…at this point it should be obvious what sort of havoc was being unleashed on the French ship.
Although Vengeur du Peuple eventually managed to break away from Barfleur, she was immediately engaged by other British ships which poured continual broadsides into the already heavily damaged vessel. With all her masts gone and water pouring in through numerous shot holes, Vengeur du Peuple had no choice but to surrender. Over the next few hours she sank, taking half of her crew (mostly wounded) with her. The sinking became a rallying point for the French, who glorified the action by saying the ship when down with flags waving and guns firing (which may have provided the impetus for Mayer to create his painting).
As a result of the battle, twelve French ships were badly damaged, nine of which were completely dismasted. The British captured six of them and caused the sinking of Vengeur du Peuple without losing a single vessel.
Although the British celebrated the battle as a major victory, it was pretty much a draw as the French convoy did arrive safely in France. In the end, Villaret had the last word when he told a British officer “what do I care for the half-dozen rotten old hulks which you have took? I saved my convoy and my head.”