The Sinking of the Vengeur du Peuple
The naval career of the French 74-gun ship of the line Vengeur du Peuple (Avenger of the People) began modestly. She was one of 18 major French warships paid for by public subscription to replace the crippling losses suffered by the French navy during the Seven Years War. The ship was funded by the Marseille Chamber of Commerce, hence her original name of Marseillois. Launched in 1766, she was too late to affect the outcome of the Seven Years War, which ended in 1763, and spent the next eleven years laid up in Toulon.
The French decision to come to the aid of the revolutionaries during the American War of Independence saw the Marseillois brought back into commission. She fought extensively during that war, mainly as part of the fleet of Admiral François de Grasse. The two-decker took part in the French victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake as well as being present for naval defeats at the Battle of the Saintes and the Battle of Saint Kitts. When the war ended she was repaired and laid up once more, this time at Rochefort.
During the French Revolution many warships were rechristened with more suitable names for the times, and when the Marseillois was brought back into service she became the Vengeur du Peuple. By 1794, the new republic had urgent need for her services. Amid the chaos of the revolution, agricultural production had slumped, and the Royal Navy blockade of the French coast was preventing the import of vital food stuffs to feed her starving population. The French fleet was sent into the Atlantic to draw off the British and allow a huge grain convoy from the United States to reach France. The ruse worked, but at a terrible cost to the French navy who received a mauling at the hands of the Channel Fleet at the Battle of the Glorious First of June. No ship fought harder, or came off worse than the Vengeur.
The Glorious First of June was a messy battle, in which the Royal Navy broke through the French line in multiple places. Vengeur was part of the fleet’s centre, positioned just behind the flagship. The big British three decker Queen Charlotte smashed the French line just ahead of her, raking her from close range. The next ship in the British line, HMS Brunswick, then passed so close that her anchors became entangled in Vengeur's rigging. When the British ship’s sailing master asked Brunswick’s captain if the French ship should be cut loose, he replied "No; we have got her and we will keep her.” The two ships swung so close to each other that Brunswick's crew could not open their gun ports and had to fire through the closed lids as the ships battered each other from a distance of just a few feet. Meanwhile a second British ship of the line, HMS Ramillies arrived and poured several devastating broadsides into the Vengeur’s stern.
After several hours of battle, the French 74 was in a dreadful state. Her hull was peppered with holes, including a large crater beaten into one side, her rudder was smashed and all her masts were down. Most of her pumps had been destroyed, and when the rising flood water reached her magazines she no longer had any means to continue the fight. Her commander, Captain Jean François Renaudin, struck his colours, but with the battle still raging around them, neither of his two tormentors could spare the time to put a prize crew onboard the stricken French ship, and instead moved on in search of fresh opponents.
This left their prize in a perilous state. Her remaining crew tried desperately to save their ship, but when the last pump failed, she began to settle. Desperate appeals for help prompted two newly arrived British ships, the undamaged HMS Alfred and Culloden, to send boats across to take off the survivors. They managed to rescue 367 men, including the captain, before the Vengeur sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, taking a similar number of dead or badly wounded with her.
News of the sinking of the Vengeur was quickly seized on by the revolutionary government in Paris, who decided to exploit it for its propaganda value. In the version of the battle they chose to portray, the martyred Captain Renaudin and his band of heroes had fought to the last against overwhelming odds, refusing to surrender as their ship sank beneath them. They had continued to sing La Marseillaise, and cry “Vive la Republique” until the choking waters of the Atlantic had closed over their heads. It was decided that the names of the brave crew were to be inscribed on a column of the Pantheon in Paris. Several poems were written in their honour, a number of pictures of the stricken ship were commissioned and patriotic songs composed. Reports from London denying these accounts were rebuffed with such vigour, that not even the inconvenient return of the crew by Britain, together with a surprisingly healthy Captain Renaudin, could entirely end the legend.
The myth lived on well into the 19th century. In 1847 Alphonse de Lamartine invented the story that Renaudin had been killed on his quarterdeck during the battle, cut in half by a cannon shot. Even as late as 1870 Jules Verne has Captain Nemo repeat the embellished version while visiting the wreck of the Vengeur on the seabed in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. All of which is a shame because, as is so often the case, the simple truth is quite heroic enough.