In 1794, the fledgling French Republic stood on the brink of starvation. Paris was in the grip of the Terror, and her leadership was paralysed by the relentless, scything advance of the guillotine. In the countryside, huge changes in land ownership had combined with harsh weather to ensure that food production had sunk to catastrophic levels. Under normal circumstances, France would have been able to import the food she needed from her European neighbours, but she was at war with almost all of them. The only place she could turn for the grain she so desperately needed was from the other side of the Atlantic.
In the spring of that year, a convoy of several hundred merchant ships gathered at Hampton Roads in the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the ships were French, and every vessel was stuffed with food, either from France’s Louisiana colony, or supplied by the US government to help pay off the war loans incurred with the French during the American Revolution. On the 2nd of April, this vital grain convoy left the US, bound for the Atlantic coast of France. Meanwhile, in Europe, two fleets of warships left their home ports to meet it. A French fleet, under the command of the newly promoted Villaret-Joyeuse, was sent to escort the vital ships home, and a British fleet, under Lord Howe, with orders to stop any food getting through.
Both sides had approximately the same number of ships of the line, with 25 Royal Navy vessels facing 26 French. But although numbers slightly favoured his opponent, Howe was confident of a decisive victory. He knew that the Revolution had devastated the largely aristocratic officer corp of the pre-war French navy. Most of her naval leadership were either dead, in prison or had fled abroad. Their replacements were either hastily promoted from the lower ranks, or from outside the navy altogether. Three days of manoeuvring and skirmishing in mid-Atlantic prior to the battle only served to confirm to Howe that his fleet was the most competently led. He decided he would attempt to annihilate his opponent.
At dawn on the 1st of June his fleet was in the position he needed for his bold plan. The two fleets were sailing in parallel lines, with the British to windward of the French. He ordered all his ships to turn towards the enemy, each pass between two opponents, firing into both, and then reform in a line on the far side of the French. His opponent would then be caught between the wind and the British. It was a bold and decisive plan. It had also never been tried before, and Howe had not discussed it with his captains.
When the signal to turn was made, most of Howe’s captains failed to grasp what exactly it was that their admiral wanted. Naval orthodoxy at the time was to always keep a fleet in line ahead, yet suddenly they were being asked to abandon this. Some ships, like the Defence, the Queen Charlotte and the Queen carried out Howe’s instructions; others queried the signal; while most ships ignored the troubling order, staying to windward and bombarding the French fleet in the traditional way. The result was a far less decisive battle than Howe had hoped for. Six French ships were captured, and a seventh, the Vengeur du Peuple, was sunk outright, all without the loss of any Royal Navy ships. A comfortable, if modest, victory then, rather than ‘Glorious’.
Except that the French also claim it as a victory. To Paris, the survival of the French battle fleet was of secondary importance. They had sent it to sea as a distraction, to lure the British away from the true prize, the convoy that would save the Republic from famine. Howe took the bait and the grain ships all arrived unscathed, to widespread rejoicing. France would have happily sacrificed her entire Atlantic Fleet for such a result. In the end, they only lost a handful of ships.
So was the Glorious 1st of June the naval equivalent of a race from the pages of Alice in Wonderland, where everyone wins? The truth was that it was a strategic victory for the French, and a tactical one for the British. But perhaps the lasting result of the clash was on a thoughtful, brilliant, naval captain serving in the Mediterranean at the time, who took to heart the most vital lesson of the battle. While he admired Howe’s ambition, he deplored his execution. When he too became an admiral, several years later, he made a point of sitting down each day with his captains, discussing in detail what he expected of them in battle, and running through all the possible ways in which an enemy might be encountered and then defeated.
He did it so well that when the only naval battle in that war bigger than the Glorious 1st of June took place, in 1805 off Cape Trafalgar, it didn’t matter that he was fatally wounded at the very start of the action. In Lord Nelson’s absence, his subordinates carried on with his plan, winning the annihilating victory he had planned for with such care.