Monday, June 01, 2009

The Glorious First of June

One of the epic battles of the Age of Fighting Sail occurred June 1st, 1794.

France was in the throes of revolution, and its revolutionary government had declared war on first Austria and Piedmont, then on Britain and the Dutch Republic as well.

In May 1794, the British navy learned of a large grain convoy sailing under heavy escort from the United States to France. This convoy carried food from France's overseas possessions as well as from the United States, and was desperately needed: revolutionary turmoil and a poor harvest threatened famine, and the French government's hold on power. British interception of this convoy would prove disastrous.

So in May the British Fleet left Portsmouth, in search of the convoy, while the French Atlantic fleet, less ships detached for convoy duty, left Brest in hopes of engaging the British fleet and screening the convoy.

Starting May 25th, the British fleet under Admiral Howe caught sight of the French and gave chase, beginning a series of indecisive running battles.

Finally, on June 1st, Admiral Howe dictated a change in tactics: to charge directly at the French line of warships and engage them closely.

The battle was joined, but when the signal to turn and attack was raised, not all of the British ships obeyed. Instead, three groups of ships made a run at the French line, and the battle degenerated into a brutal slugging match. The aggressive British were able to eke out a slim advantage, successfully capturing several badly damaged French ships, but at a cost of disabling several of their own.

The goal had been to destroy the French Atlantic fleet and the grain convoy, but half the French fleet was able to disengage and slip away while the grain convoy slid by a battered and exhausted British fleet. However, the British had inflicted heavy losses, and effectively banned the French from the high seas until the French attempted to challenge them again off Trafalgar in 1805.

But that is another story.

[Postscript: Yes, I know this episode belongs to the Revolutionary Wars, not the Napoleonic Wars. But it does provide a much-needed prescript.]