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The Story Of The Glorious Fifty-nine And The Battle Of Quiberon Bay






The year 1759 has been described as one of the most glorious years in
the history of England, a year during which "it was necessary to ask
every morning what new victory there was, for fear of missing one." The
early part of the year was, indeed, one of "magnanimous fear"--as Pitt
called it--for the French were known to be making unparalleled efforts
for the invasion of England with the proud hope of entire conquest, and
in Germany, in America, and in India, England was at war. Hostile fleets
were assembled at Havre, Brest, Dunkirk, and Toulon. The fleet at Havre
was an immediate menace to the English coasts; the Brest squadron was
destined for the invasion of Ireland, the ships at Dunkirk were
commissioned to harass Scotland, while it was hoped that the Toulon
fleet would supply reinforcements wherever needed. In France this naval
combination was regarded as irresistible.

But Pitt had aroused the national spirit, and aggressive reprisals were
adopted with enthusiasm. Admiral Rodney was entrusted with an attack
upon Havre, where a vast number of flat-bottomed boats with a quantity
of military stores of all kinds had been prepared to assist in the
projected invasion. On July 3rd he anchored in Havre roads. The French
commander had been forewarned of the English approach, and had made
ample preparations for resistance. Powerful batteries had been erected
all along the shore, and on both sides of the river's mouth; these were
garrisoned with several thousand men, who opened a heavy fire on the
squadron the moment it came within gunshot. The pilots proved wholly
ignorant of the place, but some of Rodney's captains worked all night in
taking soundings. The bombardment was continued without intermission for
two days and two nights. Nearly all the French transports and boats were
burnt, with all the warehouses containing the stores; and Havre itself
was so disabled as to be valueless as an arsenal during the remainder of
the war.

In August the Toulon fleet slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar,
with the intention of re-inforcing the Brest fleet; only, however, to be
vigorously attacked and decisively defeated by Admiral Boscawen, who
gave battle in Lagos Bay off the south coast of Portugal; meanwhile the
ships at Dunkirk were blockaded by Admiral Boyce.

In May, Admiral (afterwards Lord) Hawke was ordered to blockade the
Brest fleet. For six months the blockade lasted. The gales and the
difficulty of victualling the fleet governed the situation. When a
westerly gale sprang up, the French could not get out to sea from Brest;
but there was the great danger of some of the English ships being driven
on shore, and the question was "How to get the fleet into a place of
safety, like Plymouth or Torbay, and out again before the wind changed
and allowed the French to sail." It was like "a cat watching a mouse."
The difficulties of the commissariat may be estimated by a letter in
which Hawke wrote to the responsible officer at Plymouth: "The beer
brewed at your port is so excessively bad that it employs the whole of
the time of the squadron in surveying it and throwing it overboard.... A
quantity of bread will be returned to you; though not altogether unfit
for use, yet so full of weevils and maggots that it would have infected
all the bread come on board this day."

The fierce gales of November made Hawke's task of keeping a large fleet
in the Bay of Biscay one of supreme difficulty, and unusually wild
weather compelled him to run for shelter in Torbay. On the 14th the
storm abated, and De Conflans, seeing the coast clear, put to sea. The
same day Hawke left the shelter of the English coast; on the 16th he was
off Ushant. "On that afternoon," writes Dr. John Campbell, "several
English transports returning from Quiberon Bay passed through the fleet,
and informed the admiral that they had seen the French squadron on the
preceding day, standing to the south-east, and distant about
twenty-three leagues from Belle-Isle." The intelligence was received by
the whole British fleet with acclamations, and every ship prepared for
action. The wind also became favourable and every sail was spread to
catch the gale.

On the 20th, about half an hour after eight o'clock in the morning, the
Maidstone frigate let fly her top-gallant sails, which was a signal
for discovering a fleet. About nine, Lord Howe, in the Magnanime, made
signal that they were enemies. Sir Edward Hawke immediately told his
officers that he did not intend to trouble himself with forming lines,
but would attack them in the old way, to make downright work with them;
and accordingly he threw out a signal for seven of his ships to chase,
in order to allure the enemy to fight.

As the British neared the French, the weather became squally and rough;
but Conflans in a very gallant style seemed to offer battle: his
courage, however, soon cooled, and long before the fleets were within
the range of shot, he changed his plan, and stood right before the wind
toward the shore. It was two in the afternoon before our headmost ships
could get up with his rear; but at that time the Warspite and
Dorsetshire began to fire.

The imagination can conceive nothing more sublime than the spectacle
which the hostile squadrons presented at this moment. A dreadful storm
darkened the face of the heavens; the sea was rolling in tremendous
waves which on all sides were dashing themselves into foam on
treacherous rocks and shallows unknown to the English pilots. In the
midst of these terrible circumstances, calculated, from the very majesty
of the physical power in action, to awe and intimidate, two adverse
navies, the greatest that had been employed in one of the greatest wars
in the annals of Europe, freighted with the fate, and worthy of being
intrusted with the glory of the rival nations, were preparing for
battle.

It was a moment as if nature had resolved to contrast the tameness of
physical terror with the grandeur of heroism, and to show how much more
sublime are the moral sentiments of a collected mind than all the awful
phenomena of the heavens darkened, and the ocean agitated by a tempest,
with the multifarious dangers of secret rocks and unknown shallows.

In the open sea Conflans might have hazarded a battle without the
imputation of temerity, as his fleet was equal in force to that of
Hawke, but like a prudent commander he endeavoured to avail himself of
all the advantages arising from the local knowledge of his pilots, who
were well acquainted with the navigation of the shallows. He directed
them to steer in such a manner as to decoy the English among the rocks.
But the very execution of this proceeding, which at the time was thought
disreputable to his character as a commander, required more time in
execution than the occasion allowed, and the British ships came up with
the French before they were well prepared for action.

At half an hour after two o'clock the British van opened fire on the
French rear. The Formidable, a French man-of-war, commanded by Admiral
de Verger, a man of great courage and noble determination, behaved in
the most heroic manner; broadside after broadside were poured into her
by the British as they sailed successively past towards the van of the
enemy; and she returned their fire with a promptitude that excited the
admiration of friends and foes.

In the meantime, the Royal George, with Hawke on board, was
approaching the Soleil Royal, which bore the flag of Conflans. Intent,
as it were, only on her prey, she passed on without heeding the shot of
the other ships. The sea was dashing over her bows, and as she came
rapidly nearer, she appeared as if she had been actuated by the
furiousness of rage. Her pilot, seeing the breakers foaming on every
side, told the admiral that he could not go farther, without the most
imminent danger from the shoals. "You have done your duty in pointing
out the danger," said Hawke, "but lay me alongside of the Soleil
Royal." The pilot bowed in obedience, and gave the necessary orders.

The Superbe, a French ship of seventy guns, perceiving what was
intended by the movements of the English admiral, generously interposed
between her commander and received the whole fatal broadside which the
Royal George had intended for Monsieur Conflans. The thunder of the
explosion was succeeded by a wild shriek from all on board. The British
sailors gave a shout of triumph, which was instantly checked by a far
other feeling; for the smoke clearing away, only the masts of the
Superbe, with her colours still flying, were seen above the water, and
in a moment they were covered by a roll of the sea, and seen no more;
but the Soleil Royal was spared; she escaped to the shore, where she
was afterwards burnt with disgrace.

About four in the afternoon, the Formidable, which had maintained the
whole battle with such heroic determination, struck her colours; but not
until after all her officers had been killed. The Heros, a
seventy-four, also struck, and the Thesee, of seventy guns, was sunk
like the Superbe.

Darkness coming on, the remainder of the enemy's fleet fled; seven ships
of the line hove their guns overboard, and ran into the River Villaine;
about as many more, in a shattered condition, escaped to other ports.
The wind blowing strong in shore, Hawke made the signal for anchoring to
the westward of the small island of Durnel. Here the fleet remained
during the night, and as the tempest continued to increase, the darkness
was occasionally broken by the flashes of cannon and the howl of the
wind; and the roar of the breakers was augmented in horror by the sound
of guns of distress. "This action, more memorable on account of the
terrific circumstances in which it was fought, than any other of equal
magnitude in the annals of heroic achievement," put an end to the naval
power of France for many years, and therefore, to all fear of invasion.
It, moreover, indicated the overwhelming superiority of the English
marine.

The capture of Goree in January, and of Guadaloupe in June, the victory
of Minden in August, and of Lagos in September, the capture of Quebec in
October, and the crowning victory of Quiberon Bay in November have
immortalised "the glorious fifty-nine" in English history.





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Previous: In Indian Seas



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