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


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


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.