1794: The Glorious First of June
Diplomatic ties between Britain and France came under tension when Republican forts on the French coast fired on HMS Childers on 2 January 1793. A few weeks later the situation worsened with the execution of the French King. On 1 February, Republican France declared war.
The French Revolution created political instability and heightened tensions in Europe, especially in the Channel, Mediterranean, and North Atlantic due to invasion fears. Over time France became desperate due to food shortages that affected the entire country. The French Atlantic fleet resorted to mutiny, as an example of the extent the situation. In what appeared to be the only feasible solution to the problem, a large force of merchant ships was gathered in Chesapeake Bay in the United States with the task of transporting food from overseas French colonies back to the French mainland.
During April and May 1794 the British captured some isolated French grain ships travelling from America. However, France could not afford to lose the vast quantity of food currently en route, and so a large naval force was despatched from Brest to escort the merchants back.
In spring 1794, a British force numbering 26 ships was sent into the Bay of Biscay to await the arrival of the convoy. This fleet was under the command of Admiral Richard Howe, who was commander of all British operations within the Channel. Howe was ordered to search the Bay of Biscay for the French convoy, which he did between 2 and 18 May, but to no avail.
On 25 May, Howe spotted a lone French ship and pursued it. This led Howe and the main British force towards the large convoy. A significant but inconclusive skirmish followed. While the skirmish failed to yield a victory, it did give the British an advantage by placing them upwind of the French, allowing Howe time to decide when he wished to attack. Thick fog postponed the battle until 1 June, when the weather cleared.
The Royal Navy and the Republican Navy were relatively similar in their capabilities by 1794. While the Royal Navy was numerically superior, the French ships had on average 10% to 15% more firepower. Internally, however, the French were at a severe disadvantage: the French Revolution had left France's Navy stripped of many experienced sailors and officers, and as a result their fleet was full of inexperienced men.
By 8:00 a.m. on 1 June 1794, the British fleet had closed in on the French and was approximately five miles away. Howe had formed his ships in a line parallel to the French. At 9:30 a.m., the two lines began exchanging gunfire. However, Howe had other plans for his fleet that would utilise their advantageous weather position. Using the wind, the British ships would all individually turn towards the French line and break it in multiple places, in the process raking the bows and sterns of the enemy ships. After this the British ships would manoeuvre into position to prevent the French from fleeing into the wind.
While this plan seemed bold and ingenious, it did not take long to fail. Only moments after HMS Queen Charlotte (Howe’s flagship) issued the order to move, it became clear that the command had been misunderstood. Some ships followed; others held the initial line, leading to a non-uniform advance towards the French fleet. The French engaged the British ships that were advancing, but the inexperienced crews failed to score many direct hits. The ships that had understood Howe’s order managed to breach the French lines largely unscathed.
HMS Defence was the first British ship to reach the French, situating herself between the sixth and seventh ships in the enemy line. However, she was left at the mercy of the French due to the failure of other ships to follow her. Meanwhile, HMS Marlborough intersected the French line and executed the planned manoeuvre perfectly, engaging the French Impetuex.
The initial manoeuvre enjoyed mixed success, with HMS Bellerophon coming to a stop too far alongside the French, resulting in the death of Rear-Admiral Pasley. This same mistake was made by HMS Royal Sovereign and resulted in the wounding of Admiral Graves.
The British advance was uncoordinated, and differences in attack method can be seen at the individual ship level. While Howe was engaging in a close melee with the French, his supporting officers engaged in long-distance broadside volleying. Howe attempted to lead the fleet by example, breaking the line in HMS Queen Charlotte and engaging the French flagship. HMS Brunswick attempted to follow the British flagship, but got her anchor caught in the ropes of the French ship Vengeur du Peuple. These two ships were reportedly so close that the cannons had to be fired through their hatches as there was not enough room to open the firing ports.
At the rear of the line, only two British ships may actually have responded to Howe’s order to break the French line: HMS Royal George under Admiral Hood and HMS Glory. Meanwhile, the rest of the British rear force engaged the French at long range.
Isolated battles emerged between individual ships right across the line. However, the battle turned in favour of the British as multiple French ships started to surrender. Juste, Vengeur, Achille, Northumberland, and Jemmappes all surrendered by the mid-stages of the battle due to extensive damage.
By 11:30 a.m., 11 French ships had reformed into a squadron around the Montagne under the command of Villaret. In response to this, Howe formed some of his ships into a squadron of seven. This British squadron was deployed to protect HMS Queen Charlotte, the flagship. The French and British squadrons skirmished for a short while before Villaret broke off. After doing so, Villaret was joined by a few more ships before sailing back to France.
Due to extensive damage and a lack of manpower, the British were unable to pursue the French. It was not until early on 2 June that Howe’s force set sail for Britain again, after performing emergency repairs and collecting their prizes. British casualties were believed to be around 1,200, while estimates on French casualties ranged from 4,000 to 7,000. Seven French ships were sunk or captured; the British failed to lose any.
The merchant convoy was never prevented from reaching the French coast, only losing one vessel in a severe storm. Howe was unable to search for the force due to the extensive damage endured by his fleet. If Howe’s initial manoeuvre to break the French line had been successful, it is possible the French would have been swiftly defeated, saving enough of the British force to intercept the convoy. Capturing the convoy would have only worsened the already dire situation in France.
Interestingly, both sides claimed victory in the battle. The British had a clear numerical claim due to their minor losses and the significant French loss of seven ships. France identified the battle as their own victory, as the convoy still arrived unharmed despite British efforts.
Domestically, the battle was largely treated as a success in Britain, and King George III bestowed multiple honours. In France, opinions were more mixed; experienced sailors and officers called Villaret out for not re-engaging after forming his squadron mid-battle.
The battle identified a major problem for the French that would be experienced time and again throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: a lack of experience. The French operated with largely inexperienced crews, and this would only continue thanks to the long-term British blockade of France's ports. Later battles such as the Battle of the Nile would show that tonnage and firepower alone could not stand in for tactical prowess and an experienced force. Inefficiencies that would have been unthinkable in the French navy 20 years previously became defining features of the Republican Navy for the duration of the conflict.