The Glorious First Of June

On January 21st, 1793, Louis XVI. of France was guillotined, and in the

following month the French Republic declared war against England. Fully

sensible of their inability to cope with the English in regular naval

warfare the French contented themselves for some time with sending out

cruisers and small squadrons and even single ships; and these were so

successful that in the month of May, 1794, ninety-nine ships were taken
/> by the French, whereas only one, a frigate of thirty-eight guns, was

captured by the English.

At length the French government were compelled to attempt a naval

armament on a larger scale, for their harvest failed them, and in dread

of famine they were compelled to look abroad for sources of supply. The

stability of their own government depended upon the success with which

they dealt with this difficulty, for it was not to be expected that a

new government, deriving its power and authority from the people, would

be able to continue if the nation became irritated and excited by the

pressure of famine. And yet the difficulties that beset their path were

all but insurmountable. The nations of Europe were almost without

exception hostile to them, and America was almost the only country to

which they could look for help, and the task of convoying supplies from

America while the English were masters of the sea was one attended with

very great difficulty and risk.

The French Government, however, had only a choice of difficulties. If

they sent their fleet to sea it must encounter the English fleet; if

they did not send a fleet to sea they were sure to lose their convoy of

provisions and worse disasters would follow. There can be no doubt,

however, that, under the circumstances, the utter destruction even of

the whole fleet would have been a much less serious evil than the loss

of the provision convoy, for the fleet might, in the course of time, be

replaced, but if the provisions were taken France would either be

actually starved or the people, under the apprehension of starvation,

would rise against the government.

It was therefore resolved to send the French fleet to sea; and about the

middle of May a fleet, under the command of Rear-admiral Villaret,

sailed from Brest; Jean Bon St. Andre, one of the representatives of the

people, sailing on board the admiral's ship to stimulate and encourage

the expedition.

Lord Howe, aware of the expected convoy, proceeded to sea early in the

same month with twenty-six sail of the line in the hope of intercepting

it. On the 19th as he was cruising off Brest, he received information

that the enemy's fleet had put to sea, and on the same evening he

received despatches from Rear-admiral Montague, who was also cruising in

the Channel, which induced him to attempt a junction of the two fleets.

Had this been effected Lord Howe would have had a very great superiority

over the French fleet; but in the meantime he learnt that the French

were but a few leagues to the westward, and he was consequently obliged

to alter his course to go in quest of them.

Early in the morning of May 28th the advanced English frigates

discovered the French fleet far on the weather bow of the English

admiral's ship. At first the enemy did not appear to see the English,

for they came down for some time in very loose order; but when they came

nearer they hauled to the wind. They were, however, very slow in

completely forming in regular order of battle, occupying indeed several

hours in the operation. This circumstance was of great consequence to

Lord Howe, as it afforded time for the detached part of the British

fleet, commanded by Rear-admiral Pasley, to be placed advantageously for

effecting an impression on their rear; and in the meantime the whole of

the English fleet was making a nearer approach.

In the French official report of the engagement given by Jean Bon St.

Andre, he observes that while the two fleets continued manoeuvring, one

of the ships, La Revolutionnaire, from motives not understood by the

rest of the fleet, slackened its sails on the approach of the English;

and that Admiral Pasley taking advantage of this circumstance, led on

his division and attacked this vessel. In the conflict the British

rear-admiral had his top mast disabled; assistance was therefore

immediately ordered, and Lord Hugh Seymour, in the Leviathan, pushed

up also to attack the Revolutionnaire, and was supported by Captain

Parker, of the Audacious. The captain of the Revolutionnaire was

killed and the vessel greatly damaged. English official accounts add

that the Revolutionnaire struck to the Audacious. Night, however,

put an end to the conflict; and in the morning a French ship fell in

with the Revolutionnaire and towed her into Rochefort.

During the whole of the night of the 28th the two fleets continued in

sight of each other; and on the morning of the following day Lord Howe

made the signal for the fleet to tack, with the intention, if possible,

of making some further impression on the rear of the enemy. As soon as

the French admiral perceived this manoeuvre he also made the signal for

his fleet to wear from van to rear, and continued edging down in a line

for the purpose of bringing the van of the British fleet to action. Lord

Howe upon this made the signal for passing through the enemy's line, and

a severe action commenced. The Caesar, which was the leading ship of

the British van, did not, however, keep to the wind; and this

circumstance appearing likely to prevent the movement of passing the

French line from taking its full and proper effect, the admiral

immediately tacked, and being followed and supported by the

Bellerophon and the Leviathan, passed through between the fifth and

sixth ships of the line of the enemy. Lord Howe having accomplished this

part of his plan, put about again, in preparation for renewing the

attack; but after manoeuvring and counter-manoeuvring for some time the

French wore round and stood away in order of battle, on the larboard

tack, followed by the British fleet in the same order. The fleets then

remained separated a few miles; and as there was a very thick fog they

were seldom seen by each other. This fog lasted for the greater part of

the two following days.

The object of the British admiral, hitherto, had been to obtain the

weather-gauge of the enemy, in order that he might not only compel him

to fight, but to fight on terms and in a situation comparatively

favourable to himself. Having succeeded in this object, an opportunity

occurred on June 1st for bringing the French fleet to close and general

action. Lord Howe accordingly threw out the signal for his ships to bear

up together and come to close action, between seven and eight o'clock in

the morning. The French fleet originally consisted of twenty-six sail of

the line, and the British of the same force; but on the part of the

former the Revolutionnaire had been towed into Rochefort; and on the

part of the latter the Audacious had parted company after her

engagement with the Revolutionnaire.

The battle immediately commenced and was carried on in a very courageous

manner on both sides; but though the revolutionary spirit of the French

officers and seamen incited them to fight with more obstinacy than they

generally displayed in naval engagements, it could not give them

discipline, skill and experience equal to that of the British, and they

soon became sensible that the victory could not be with them. Several of

the ships on both sides were dismasted, and the carnage was very great.

In the French official account of the battle it was stated that the

officers and crew of Le Vengeance, of seventy-four guns, displayed a

true republican spirit; that after the lower decks were under water and

destruction inevitable, they continued to fire the upper tier; and that

at the moment the ship went to the bottom the air resounded with the cry

of "Vive la republique, vive la liberte et la France."

Giffard in his "Deeds of Naval Daring" gives several anecdotes of

incidents which occurred during this famous day. He says, "On the

morning of June 1st Rear-admiral Neuilly, pointing out to Captain

Troubridge, at that time a prisoner on board the Sans Pareil, our

fleet sailing parallel to them, said, 'Your people are not disposed to

fight; they won't venture down.' Troubridge, who had seen the signal

flying for breakfast on board the ships of the British fleet, was at the

time partaking of the same meal, and, dropping the loaf he held, he

placed his hand on the French officer's shoulder, saying, 'Not fight!

stop till they have had their breakfasts. I know John Bull well, and

when his belly is full, you will get it. Depend on it, they will pay you

a visit in half an hour.' In a few minutes after the British fleet bore

up to engage. During the action Troubridge was sent below, where for

some time he leaned against the fore-mast. Suddenly he felt the

vibration of the mast as it was struck by a shot, and heard it fall over

the side, when, grasping the astounded Frenchman appointed to guard him

with both hands, he began to caper about with all the gestures of a

maniac. Lord Howe, in the Queen Charlotte, wished to be placed

alongside the Montagne, the French admiral's ship, and gave his orders

to his master accordingly. As they approached the French line it

appeared so compact and close that a doubt was expressed whether they

could get through; while closing with the Montagne, the master, who

held the helm, called out that they would be on board the next ship.

'What's that to you, sir?' said Lord Howe. Bowen, the master, as bold a

man as his admiral, replied coolly in an undertone, 'If you don't care,

I am sure I don't. I'll go near enough to singe some of our whiskers.'

The Queen Charlotte dashed through the line, brushed the ensign of the

French admiral's (Villaret Joyeuse) flag ship on one side, grazing on

the other the Jacobin's mizen shrouds with her jibboom, an exploit

which has never been equalled, although approached by Collingwood at

Trafalgar. The cannonade was tremendous and our gunnery most effective.

The broadside poured into the stern of the Montagne as the Queen

Charlotte passed made a hole, said the sailors, large enough to row the

admiral's barge through it. Howe's masts were shot away as the

Montagne ceased firing; this gave her the opportunity to make off to

leeward. The Queen, Defence, Marlborough, Royal George, and

Brunswick were the only ships which, like Howe's, pushed through the

enemy's line on that memorable and eventful day. The Queen, in which

Lord Gardner's flag was flying, was dreadfully cut up; her Captain,

Hutt, died of his wounds, and has a monument in St. Paul's. Gardner

learned during the engagement that a near relative, to whom he was

attached, was killed. He went on giving his orders in an unaltered tone;

but as the wind for a moment cleared off the smoke, marks of tears were

on his face; they were easily traced, for it was besmeared with smoke

and powder. The Defence, Captain Gambier, got into the midst of the

French ships, lost her main and mizen masts and behaved in the most

gallant manner. Captain Berkeley of the Marlborough was carried off

deck wounded, and the second lieutenant, Seymour, afterwards Sir

Michael, lost an arm. The ship was reduced to a wreck, but was fought to

the last by Lieutenant Monckton. While the bowsprit of the Impetueux

was over the Marlborough's quarters, a sailor, leaping over, said he

would pay them a visit. He was called to take a sword. 'I'll find one

there,' he said, and actually came back with two of the enemy's

cutlasses in his hands. The Brunswick had a figure-head of the duke,

with a laced cocked-hat on; the hat was shot off. The crew thinking that

a prince of that house should not be uncovered in the face of an enemy,

sent a request to their captain to supply the loss. He ordered his

servant to give them his cocked-hat. The carpenter nailed it on, and

there it remained until the battle was over. These incidents, amidst a

terrific fire, paint our sailors as they were and as they are. Harvey,

the captain of the Brunswick, died of his wounds."

In less than an hour after the engagement had become close and general

the French admiral, who had been engaged by Lord Howe's ship, the Queen

Charlotte, made all sail and crowded off, followed by nearly all the

ships in his van that were in a condition to carry sail; ten or twelve

of those that were dismasted, or much crippled, were left behind. Had

the British fleet not been very much disabled all these must have been

captured; but in consequence of their state several of them escaped; two

or three, even under a sprit sail singly or a smaller sail, hoisted on

the stump of the foremast, were able to get away. Six, however, were

secured and captured--viz., La Juste of eighty guns; La Sans

Pareille of eighty guns; L'Amerique of seventy-four guns; L'Achille

of seventy-four guns; L'Impetueux of seventy-four guns; and the

Northumberland of seventy-four guns; these added to Le Vengeur and

Le Jacobin, which were also sunk, made the whole loss of the French

amount to eight ships of the line. The return of [those] killed on board

of the English fleet was two hundred and seventy-two, and of wounded

seven hundred and eighty-seven. The loss of the French is not accurately

known, but it is believed to have been much greater than that of the

English. On board of La Montagne the captain was killed and nearly

three hundred men were either killed or wounded. In the ships that were

taken six hundred and ninety men were killed and five hundred and eighty

wounded; besides, it is supposed that three hundred and twenty perished

in Le Vengeur.

Though this victory was a great triumph to the English and a severe blow

to the arms of the Republic, the French can hardly be said to have

failed in the object of their expedition; for while Lord Howe was

engaged in chasing and fighting the French fleet, the provision convoy,

which the French fleet came out to protect, managed to escape him, and

one hundred and sixty sail of vessels, valued at five millions sterling,

and conveying an immense quantity of provisions and naval stores,

arrived from America safe in port a few days after the engagement.

On the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday immediately following the

publication of the "Extraordinary Gazette" which announced Lord Howe's

victory there were illuminations in all parts of the metropolis; a

subscription was almost immediately raised at Lloyd's Coffee House for

the widows and children of the seamen who fell in the engagement, and

the proprietors of Drury Lane Theatre gave a clear benefit, which

produced upwards of one thousand three hundred pounds, in aid of the


In order to show all due honour to the fleet which had achieved such a

victory, on Thursday, June 26th, George III. and Queen Charlotte and

three of the princesses arrived at Portsmouth; the three younger

princesses having come down the day before. The royal party then

proceeding in barges in the usual procession, and receiving the

customary honours, visited Lord Howe's ship at Spithead. Here His

Majesty held a naval levee, and presented Lord Howe with a

diamond-hilted sword, the value of which was three thousand guineas, and

a gold chain, to which a medal was afterwards suspended, to be worn

round the neck. After these ceremonies were gone through the royal party

dined with Lord Howe on board his ship. His lordship was also raised to

the rank of an earl for his glorious services in the battle.