Vice-Admiral Sir William Cornwallis came from a military family. His older brother, Charles, was a British general during the American War of Independence, and is best remembered for surrendering his army at Yorktown to a combined force of French and Rebel troops under the command of George Washington. This calamity in 1781 made Britain’s defeat certain. Perhaps it was the association between his family’s name and military disaster that helped Vice-Admiral Cornwallis 14 years later, when he too found himself heavily outnumbered and staring defeat in the face.
The admiral was a highly experienced naval officer. He joined the navy in 1755, and fought throughout both the Seven Years War and the War of American Independence. He was a veteran of two major fleet actions, having served at both Quiberon Bay in 1759 and the Saintes in 1782. In June 1795 Cornwallis was in command of a detachment from the Channel Fleet on patrol off the west coast of France. His command was a powerful squadron of five ships of the line, including his flagship the 100-gun first rate Royal Sovereign, two frigates and a sloop.
At first all went well. On the 8th June the squadron came across a French convoy of merchant ships being escorted from Bordeaux to Brest. The enemy made a dash for safety, heading for the island of Belle Île. Cornwallis pursued them, capturing eight of the merchant vessels before they reached the shelter of the fortified port. This satisfactory start to his cruise did come with one disappointment, however. Some of his ships had proved to be worryingly slow. In particular the 74-gun Brunswick, which had been left far behind the others during the chase. Cornwallis escorted his prizes north to the Channel, and then headed back to look for fresh opportunities to attack the French.
Unfortunately for him, his activities had not passed unnoticed. Word had reached the main French Fleet at Brest of the attack on the convoy. As luck would have it, a powerful fleet under Vice-Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse was ready for sea and anchored in Brest Roads. This force sortied out on the 12th June to hunt for Cornwallis. Three days later the French were spotted by one of Cornwallis’s frigates, HMS Phaeton, who signalled that a large number of sails were in sight to the northwest.
At first the British commander sailed towards the enemy, hoping that he had found another French convoy. Meanwhile the French sailed towards the British frigate. Captain Robert Stopford of the Phaeton, realising what odd behaviour this was for a convoy, closed towards them to investigate. There then followed a frantic series of signals to his admiral reporting the size of the enemy fleet. Cornwallis’s squadron was facing a force of twelve ships of the line and eleven frigates. Massively out-numbered, they turned about, and headed out into the Atlantic, with the French in pursuit.
Although the British had a substantial lead over their opponents, the Brunswick was still terribly slow. Even Cornwallis’ flagship, the Royal Sovereign was living up to her reputation as an indifferent sailer. Built in Plymouth to a design that was never used again, it was not for nothing that she was known in the service as the “West Country Wagon.” Fresh water and provisions were dumped over the side by the slower ships, and when this failed to remedy matters, anchors, boats and round shot followed. Meanwhile the French drew ever closer through that long day and into the night. With the coming of dawn, they were within a few hours of catching Cornwallis.
The British were in line of battle, with the Brunswick leading. Scouting ahead of them was the Phaeton once more, while the chasing French were in three divisions. By 9.00 am the first of these was within range. A long day of action followed as the British struggled to escape from the remorseless pursuit. Many of the ship’s cut extra gun ports in their sterns to allow more cannon to bear on the enemy. The Mars and Triumph, at the rear of the British line, bore the brunt of the fighting in a running battle with the overlapping French. No sooner had the pair damaged one opponent sufficiently badly aloft for them to fall back, then they were replaced by a fresh ship. By noon the British rear was in danger of being overwhelmed, forcing Cornwallis to swing his huge flagship out of the line, and beat off the French attack with a few ponderous broadsides. And then the battle swung in his favour.
Out ahead of the fleet, Captain Stopford on the Phaeton spotted sails on the horizon. These proved to be a small passing British convoy, but the confusion of the previous day, when Cornwallis had at first advanced on the French, gave him an idea. Using a code that was known to have been broken by the enemy, Stopford signalled to Cornwallis, reporting at first four ships, and then a full fleet. He then began sending details of the French force to a fictitious commander-in-chief over the horizon. He finished with a number of made up signals, to alert Cornwallis to what he was doing, and then rounded about to re-join the action.
What the bemused convoy made of all this is unknown, but Joyeuse was convinced. More used to being out-numbered by the Royal Navy, and battered by a century of defeats at their hands, Stopford’s clever ruse played on the fears that any French commander would have been prey to. Perhaps this all-too easy victory was a set-up, and he was being led into a trap? Vice-Admiral de Joyeuse continued the action for a short while, but when the first of the convoy’s topsails appeared over the horizon, he broke off the action, allowing the battered British ships and their relieved commander to escape.
As for the clever Captain Stopford, he went onto have a glittering career in the navy that lasted for over half a century, and ended with him as a highly decorated admiral. He eventually died in 1847, aged 79.