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A History of Sea Power by Stevens and Westcott

About 400 miles west of Ushant


In

the Channel and Bay of Biscay, the first year of war passed quietly. Lord Howe, commanding the British Channel fleet, had behind him a long, fine record as a disciplinarian and tactician; he had fought with Hawke at Quiberon Bay, protected New York and Rhode Island against d'Estaing in 1778, and later thrown relief into Gibraltar in the face of superior force. Now 68 years of age, he inclined to cautious, old-school methods, such as indeed marked activities on both land and sea at this time, before Napoleon had injected a new desperateness into war. Both before and after the "Glorious First of June" the watch on the French coast was merely nominal; small detachments were kept off Brest, but the main fleet rested in Portsmouth throughout the winter and took only occasional cruises during the remainder of the year.

_The Battle of the First of June_

Though there had been no real blockade, the interruption of her commerce, the closure of her land frontiers, and the bad harvest of 1793, combined to bring France in the spring following to the verge of famine, and forced her to risk her fleet in an effort to import supplies from overseas. On April 11 an immense flotilla of 120 grain vessels sailed from the Chesapeake under the escort of two ships-of-the-line, which were to be strengthened by the entire Brest fleet at a rendezvous 300 miles west of Belleisle. Foodstuffs having already been declared subject to seizure

by both belligerents, Howe was out on May 2 to intercept the convoy. A big British merchant fleet also put to sea with him, to protect which he had to detach 8 of his 34 ships, but with orders to 6 of these that they should rejoin his force on the 20th off Ushant. Looking into Brest on the 19th, Howe found the French battle fleet already at sea. Not waiting for the detachment, and thus losing its help in the battle that was to follow, he at once turned westward and began sweeping with his entire fleet the waters in which the convoy was expected to appear.

The French with 26 ships-of-the-line--and thus precisely equal to Howe in numbers--had left Brest two days before. The crews were largely landsmen; of the flag officers and captains, not one had been above the grade of lieutenant three years before, and nine of them had been merchant skippers with no naval experience whatever. On board were two delegates of the National Convention, whose double duties seem to have been to watch the officers and help them command. To take the place of experience there was revolutionary fervor, evidenced in the change of ship-names to such resounding appellations as _La Montagne, Patriote, Vengeur du Peuple, Tyrannicide_, and _Revolutionnaire_. There was also more confidence than was ever felt again by French sailors during the war. "Intentionally disregarding subtle evolutions," said the delegate Jean Bon Saint Andree, "perhaps our sailors will think it more appropriate and effective to resort to the boarding tactics in which the French were always victorious, and thus astonish the world by new prodigies of valor." "If they had added to their courage a little training," said the same commissioner after the battle, "the day might have been ours."

The commander in chief, Villaret de Joyeuse, who had won his lieutenancy and the esteem of Suffren in the American war, was no such scorner of wary tactics. Thus when the two fleets, more by accident than calculation on either side, came in contact on the morning of May 28, 1794, about 400 miles west of Ushant, it would have been quite possible for him to have closed with the British, who were 10 miles to leeward in a fresh southerly wind. But his orders were not to fight unless it were essential to protect the convoy, and since this was thought to be close at hand, he first drew away to the eastward, with the British in pursuit.


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