Reviewed by: Andrew Lambert
Author: Sam Willis
Price (RRP): £25
In May and June 1794 the main fleets of the two greatest naval powers fought three battles against each other in a week. The last, the Glorious First of June, pitted a brave and determined French fleet, under the eyes of a high-powered political commissar, against a more skilful and experienced British force led by master tactician Admiral Lord Howe. The prizes were command of the sea, and the passage of a vital American grain convoy to France.
Howe, a veteran of three wars, had created a powerful, effective fleet in little more than a year. His mission was to intercept this grain convoy. French Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse had drilled his ships into basic fighting units, forming a line of battle without too much trouble. However, his officers lacked the confidence and initiative needed to win. His mission was to save the convoy.
On the morning of 1 June, Howe, having secured the weather gauge (he had the wind in his favour), forced action. Six or seven British ships followed his plan, breaking through the French line, but in the process most suffered serious damage to their masts and rigging and were unable to exploit the advantage, despite superior skill and striking camaraderie. While the British took six French battleships, and sank another, Villaret de Joyeuse was able to reform his fleet, dissuading Howe from any thought of pursuit. In defeat Villaret had drawn Howe away from the grain convoy, and he brought 80 per cent of his shattered fleet home.
This would be the last time the main British and French fleets would meet in this manner. For the rest of war the French Brest fleet rarely put to sea, and avoided battle. The British had secured command of the ocean, the bedrock of their strategy for a long war with France, and it would not be contested thereafter.
After the battle the British fleet was devastated by a typhus epidemic, caught from contagious prisoners. The navy’s mania for cleanliness, allied to stripping down ships and fumigating, ensured only 40 men died from 800 infected. By contrast the French lost far more men in battle, as prisoners, and to disease. These losses, as Willis notes, meant the French were constantly rebuilding their fleet, with new ships and men.
After the battle, the combatants fought over its meaning. The British celebrated the re-establishment of their naval dominance in words and pictures, with a royal fleet review, a panorama and great art. For a nation that depended for its existence, then as now, on the ability to control the seas, it was a magical event.
British artist Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg captured the battle in the style of a biblical epic, filled with figures struggling amid the flood. The French politician Bertrand Barère turned the sinking of the battleship Vengeur du Peuple into a powerful emblem of Republican virtue (it was claimed her crew chose to go down with the ship rather than surrender). When the author Thomas Carlyle learned the story was false he retained it, praising Barère’s morale-boosting journalistic “masterpiece”.
But there were other results. Confident that a maritime strategy would work, British prime minister Pitt the Younger reinforced the government, bringing the moderate Portland Whigs into a broad coalition that would, with a brief interlude, take Britain through 21 years of war with France. This was timely: soon French armies had occupied Belgium and the critical invasion base at Antwerp. In France the reign of terror was spiralling to a conclusion, Robespierre and his circle were brought down by their excesses, losing popular support before the grain could reach French bakeries.
On 28 July Robespierre, the “monster spewed from Hell” (as a woman in the watching crowd described him), went to the guillotine, and France lurched back from the abyss. Within months the war had become a matter of strategy and politics, natural frontiers and old ambitions. The fleet lost its Jacobin names, and its Jacobin fervour.
Those who would attempt to explain a great battle at sea in the age of sail need salt water in the veins, and a skilled pen. In this marvellous book Dr Sam Willis proves that he has both, placing a titanic battle in the critical contexts of French and British politics, grand strategy, art and culture.