Wars of the French Revolution: Glorious First of June

Glorious First of June
HMS Defense at the Glorious First of June. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Glorious First of June: Conflict & Date:

The Glorious First of June was fought on June 1, 1794, during the Wars of the French Revolution (1792-1802).

Fleets & Commanders

Royal Navy

French Navy

  • Rear Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse
  • 26 ships of the line

Glorious First of June - Background:

In early 1794, the food situation in France was growing desperate after the failure of the previous year's harvest.

To aid in preventing famine, the National Convention turned to its overseas colonies and the United States for aid. Ordering a large convoy to congregate off Hampton Roads, VA, it dispatched a squadron under Rear Admiral Pierre Vanstabel to escort it back to France. Though possessing well-designed and built ships, the French Navy had been dramatically weakened by a series of purges executed by the National Convention. As a result, it had been stripped of many of its best and most experienced officers.

With the convoy assembled, Vanstabel departed the American coast on April 2. Learning of the French departure, the commander of the Channel Fleet, Admiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe, sailed from Portsmouth a month later with 26 ships of the line. Cruising south, he hoped to intercept the convoy before it could make port. Passing by Brest, he found that the main French fleet, led by Rear Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse was still in port.

Turning into the Bay of Biscay, Howe's ships searched fruitlessly for two weeks. Returning to Brest on May 18, he learned that Villaret had sailed the previous day.

Glorious First of June - The Chase:

Pursuing Villaret west into the Atlantic, Howe spotted a straggler from the French fleet on May 25. Revealed to be Audacieux (74 guns), the British were able to follow it directly to Villaret's fleet.

Forming a flying squadron of his fastest ships, Howe was able to cut off the rearmost ship in the French fleet, Révolutionnaire (110) on May 28. A violent action ensued in which the French ship was severely damaged but able to escape in the night. Receiving intelligence that the convoy was near, Villaret pressed west with the goal of leading the British fleet away.

Howe continued his pursuit and attempted to engage the French the next day. Desiring to split the French fleet in two, Howe's plan collapsed when his lead ship, HMS Caesar (80), failed to maneuver correctly. In the inconclusive engagement that followed, both fleets took damage and Howe was able to obtain the weather gauge which would allow him to attack at will in the future. Though eager to resume the battle, Howe was stymied for two days due to thick haze. When this finally lifted on the morning of June 1, the two fleets were approximately six miles apart.

Glorious First of June - Howe's Plan:

While many naval battles of the age saw opposing fleets close in line ahead formation, exchange shots, then withdraw or attempt to pierce the enemy line at one point, Howe had devised something new for June 1. Understanding and trusting to the professional skill of his officers and men, he desired each ship to turn towards the enemy and attack each gap in the French formation.

As a British ship passed through the enemy line it was to rake the French ship on each side. This done, they were to move up on the leeward side of their opposite numbers, engage, and cut off their retreat.

Glorious First of June - The Battle Begins:

Descending on the French fleet with his ships in a long line, Howe began exchanging long-range fire with the French around 9:24 AM. Signaling his plan to the fleet, he turned his flagship, HMS Queen Charlotte (100) towards Villaret's Montagne (118). What followed was a muddled movement which saw some British ships move as desired while others hung back either due to damage sustained earlier or confusion on the part of their captains. In Vice Admiral Thomas Graves' van squadron, HMS Defense (74) and HMS Marlborough (74) succeeded in breaking the French line as ordered (Map).

Graves' flagship, HMS Royal Sovereign (100) misjudged the range to the enemy and engaged on the windward side. HMS Bellerophon (74) and HMS Leviathan (74), damaged in the earlier fighting, did the same taking on Eole (74) and America (74). Other British ships, including the wayward Caesar failed to closely engage the enemy. In the center, Queen Charlotte passed through the French line, while HMS Brunswick (74), HMS Valiant (74), HMS Orion (74), and HMS Queen (90) closed and attacked the French. In the rear, only Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Hood's flagship, HMS Royal George (100) and HMS Glory (98) moved into the fight.

Glorious First of June - Order Breaks Down:

As the fleets collided, their formations began to fall apart and the battle became a melee at close range between the combatants. In the fighting, Graves was wounded but the British soon gained the upper hand. By 11:30, the British had succeeded in putting out of action or capturing Vengeur du Peuple (74), San Pareil (80), Juste (80), Northumberland (74), Achille (74), America (74), and Impetueux (74). Despite these victories, Howe's fleet had taken a severe beating and several ships, including Queen had been dismasted. Others such as Defense and Bellerophon were towed to safety by British frigates.

As the fighting calmed, Villaret was able to escape to north with Montagne and gathered eleven other ships of the line to form a new squadron. Seeking to lessen the severity of the defeat, he maneuvered towards the damaged Queen.

Surprised by this action, Howe formed a new line of six ships and moved to engage the approaching French. The two lines passed and engaged at long range before Villaret turned away. Gathering several of his damaged ships, the French commander turned east towards France. Possessing only eleven ships capable of battle, the British elected not to pursue and focused on collecting their prizes.

Glorious First of June - Aftermath:

In the wake of the battle, both sides declared victory. For the British, they had won decisive victory over the French and had captured six ships of the line (the seventh, Vengeur du Peuple sank shortly after the battle). On the French side, the battle served as a strategic victory in that it ended the British hunt for the grain convoy and allowed it to safely arrive on June 12. Casualties for the fighting are not known with certainty but British losses were around 1,200 men while the French may have been around 4,000, with another 3,000 captured. Following the battle, the French fleet retired to port allowing the Royal Navy to begin blockading operations.

Selected Sources