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The Loss Of Hms Repulse
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Triumph In Retreat






A STORY OF "BILLY BLUE."


After the defeat of the French by Lord Howe on the 1st of June, 1794,
the French navy was much too shattered to attempt anything like
offensive warfare for some time. Notwithstanding this, however, fortune
favoured France with an opportunity of revenge as early as the following
year.

In June, 1795, Admiral Cornwallis, known in the fleet as "Billy Blue,"
was cruising off Belle Isle when on the 7th he fell in with a fleet of
merchantmen under the convoy of three ships of the line and six
frigates. His own force consisted of five sail of the line and two
frigates, with which he made an easy capture of eight of the enemy's
ships, the men-of-war effecting their escape. On the 16th, however, came
the Frenchman's opportunity of turning the tables; for, as the admiral
was standing in towards the land, near the Penmarks, one of his frigates
signalled the sighting of the enemy's fleet, which numbered thirteen
sail of the line, several frigates, two brigs and a cutter. The wind at
first falling calm and afterwards coming round to the north, the enemy's
ships were enabled to get to windward, and the next morning by daylight
they were seen mooring on both quarters of the British squadron.

During the preceding day and night the admiral himself had led the
retreating ships in the Royal Sovereign, in order that he might be
able to take advantage of any favourable opportunity that might present
itself in the night for altering his course and getting away
unperceived by the enemy; but with daylight he changed his disposition,
ordering the two heavy sailing ships, the Brunswick and the
Bellerophon, to lead, and the Mars and Triumph to form the rear,
while he himself, in the Royal Sovereign, formed a connecting link,
and was prepared to bear down to the assistance of any of his squadron
that might particularly need his help. It was now in the power of the
French admiral to have engaged closely, and at about nine o'clock in the
morning a line-of-battle ship and a frigate opened their fire upon the
Mars. From this time a pretty constant cannonade was kept up, the
French ships firing at a distance as they came up, and three of the
English ships returning it. Such was the bad sailing of the Brunswick
and Bellerophon that their fire was quite lost and they were obliged
to keep their course without retaliating; in fact, it became necessary
to cut away their anchors and launches, throw overboard part of their
ballast, and crowd all the sail they could carry, to enable them to keep
their proper place, while the Mars and Triumph continued under easy
sail. The day had nearly passed over, and there was no serious
appearance of attack; but as the afternoon drew on, the enemy, as if
ashamed of having yet done nothing effectual to check the progress, or
even to ruffle the majestic steadiness of our little line, seemed to be
inclined to close upon the rear ship, the Mars. Two or three of them
had fore-reached upon her beam, and a beautiful eighty-four-gun ship was
hauling towards her, as if determined to act as champion, and by
arresting one of the ships to bring the matter to an immediate issue,
when an incident occurred which completely deceived the enemy.

In the early morning the admiral had called by signal for a boat from
the Phaeton, and as her young officer, afterwards Admiral Sir Francis
Beaufort, K.C.B., was eagerly springing up the Royal Sovereign's side,
he was stopped by the noble old admiral's foot and the words, "Stop,
sir; listen: go back immediately and tell your captain to go ahead of
the squadron a long way, and, when far enough off, to make the signals
for seeing first one or two strange sail, then more, and then a fleet;
in short, to humbug those fellows astern. He will understand me. Go."
The Phaeton sailed well, but it took a long time to get to the
admiral's "far enough," in order to give colour and credibility to her
signals. At length, about three o'clock p.m., she made the signal for a
stranger, then two, five, and then for a fleet, which was made by
letting fly the top-gallant sheets and firing a lee gun. It was well
known that the French had copies of our "Tabular" signals, and by them
Captain Stopford announced that the fleet was English; the large recall
flag (the Dutch ensign) was then hoisted to bring them into the
squadron, and when time had been given for the supposed answer, the
Phaeton wore round, under easy sail, towards the squadron, thus
implying that a fleet of English ships was following her, and, passing
under the admiral's stern, gave him three cheers.

By a happy coincidence two or three small distant vessels were at that
time actually peeping up on the horizon; but the bait had been fully
swallowed; a flood of signals was made by the enemy--their fire became
languid--and at half-past six their whole force tacked off to the
eastward, leaving our gallant squadron to enjoy the fruit of their
bravery and wit.

In the official announcement of this encounter the admiral gives full
credit to his gallant companions, as well as to Sir C. Cotton and Sir
Erasmus Gower, who, in the Mars and Triumph, bore the brunt of the
fray. Of the officers, seamen and marines, he says that, "instead of
being cast down at seeing thirty sail of the enemy's ships attacking our
little squadron, they were in the highest spirits imaginable, and
although circumstanced as we were, we had no great reason to complain of
the conduct of the enemy, yet our men could not help repeatedly
expressing their contempt of them. Could common prudence have allowed me
to let loose their valour I hardly know what might not have been
accomplished by such men."

Of the admiral himself we are told that, on the anxious morning he
continued the operation of shaving, dressing and powdering with his
usual composure, and observed to Captain Whitby, in his customary cool
and dry manner, that he had been in similar situations before, and knew
very well what they, the French, would do. More than once during the day
he repeated that sooner than abandon his comrades in the slow sailers,
the Brunswick and the Bellerophon, the Royal Sovereign should go
down with her colours flying.

Admiral (then Captain) Cornwallis had previously exhibited great daring
in Rodney's celebrated action in 1782, when, in the Canada,
seventy-four, after having defeated the Hector, a ship of equal force,
single-handed, he bore down upon the huge Ville de Paris, and lay her
alongside and commenced a combat which lasted two hours. A point of
honour prevented De Grasse striking to anything short of a flag; but
when Sir Samuel Hood came up in the Barfleur the count surrendered,
having only three men, of whom he himself was one, alive and unhurt upon
his upper deck. He declared, after the action, that the little red-sided
ship (the Canada) had done him more harm than all the rest with which
he had contended.

The fleet from which Admiral Cornwallis thus escaped were not destined
long to boast of their triumph; for on the 22nd of the same month, Lord
Bridport, with fourteen sail of the line and eight frigates, fell in
with them, and as they indicated no intention to fight him, made the
signal for four of his best sailing vessels to chase. As there was very
little wind the pursuit continued all that day and during the night.
Early on the morning of the 23rd some of the British ships came up with
the enemy; and a little before six o'clock the action began, and
continued till three in the afternoon. The French kept as near their own
shore as possible; so that only three were captured--the Alexander,
which had been taken from the British the preceding year, the
Formidable and the Tigre. The rest of the French squadron escaped
into L'Orient. The loss of the British in this action was thirty-one
killed and one hundred and fifteen wounded; the loss of the French was
not accurately ascertained.





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Previous: The Glorious First Of June



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