Page:The life of Matthew Flinders.djvu/71

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43
THE BATTLE OFF BREST

Lord Howe, with the Channel Fleet (thirty-four ships of the line and fifteen frigates) put to sea on May 2nd with two purposes: first, to convoy to a safe distance from the probable field of hostilities a squadron of 148 British merchantmen bound for various ports; second, to intercept and destroy a French fleet which was known to be convoying a large company of provision-ships from America. War, bad harvests, the disorganization of industry, and revolutionary upheavals, had produced an acute scarcity of food in France, and the arrival of these vessels was awaited with intense anxiety. To prevent their arrival, or to destroy the French squadron, would be to strike a serious blow at the enemy. Howe had under him a fleet eager for fight; against him, a foe keenly aware how vitally necessary to their country was the arrival of the food-ships.

The French fleet (twenty-six ships of the line) under the command of Villaret-Joyeuse, put to sea from Brest on May 16. Some foggy days intervened. On the 28th Howe sighted them. The French admiral formed his ships in a close line. Howe's plan was first to get his fleet to windward of the enemy, then to sail down, pierce his line, and engage his vessels to leeward.

The Bellerophon was in action shortly after coming within striking distance, on the 28th May. Pasley, at six o'clock in the evening, attacked the French rear, his immediate antagonist being the Révolutionnaire, 110 guns. A hot duel, maintained with splendid intrepidity by the British rear-admiral, continued for over an hour and a quarter, for the other ships of the British fleet were unable to get up to support the fast-sailing Bellerophon. She was severely handled by her large antagonist, and was hampered in her ability to manoeuvre by a shot which injured her mainmast. Pasley therefore, on a signal from the Admiral, bore up. The Révolutionnaire was now attacked from a distance by