Glorious First of June
The 1st of June 1794 AD
The Battle of the Glorious First of June was a great victory for the British Navy against the French; and it was a great triumph for the French Revolutionary Navy against the British.
By the spring of 1794 France was at war with various neighbours, including Britain. The French, and in particular Paris, faced famine too after harvest failures and trade embargoes. The fledgling USA came to France’s rescue, selling and donating a huge quantity of flour (some 67,000 barrels) to be shipped from Virginia in early April 1794 – America having enjoyed French support in the War of Independence . But this convoy of 117 merchantmen and their escorts had to bypass the fleet of Admiral Lord Howe operating out of Torbay , hoping instead to link up with the French fleet commanded by Villaret de Joyeuse.
Various clashes occurred in the Atlantic near and far from the Breton coast in May, but the great set-piece battle took place on June 1st about 400 miles west of Ushant. The nature of the battle reflected the poor state of both navies at that time: the French had executed many officers and drafted in replacements without sailing experience. Britain had rebuilt her fleet, but lacked crews (and had ships still generally smaller than France’s), inevitably resorting to press-gangs. Her officers were also of varying quality.
When Howe intercepted Villaret’s force he opted for an unconventional manoeuvre, asking his captains to turn into the French line to pass through it raking to port and starboard. Some damaged ships were incapable of this, some captains slow to react, and one apparently ignored the command entirely (court-martialled at his own insistence he lost the case). At the end of the battle Britain had captured or sunk seven French vessels with no British losses, thus claiming victory. The French supply convoy reached port on June 12 with just one ship lost to a storm, however, allowing France to deem the affair a triumph. Both were right.
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