Triumph In Retreat


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


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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