1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/First of June, Battle of the
FIRST OF JUNE, Battle of the. By this name we call the great naval victory won by Lord Howe over the French fleet of Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse, on the first of June 1794. No place name can be given to it, because the battle was fought 429 m. to the west of Ushant.
The French people were suffering much distress from the bad harvest of the previous year, and a great convoy of merchant ships laden with corn was expected from America. Admiral Vanstabel of the French navy had been sent to escort it with two ships of the line in December of 1793. He sailed with his charge from the Chesapeake on the 11th of April 1794. On the previous day six French ships of the line left Brest to meet Vanstabel in mid ocean. The British force designed to intercept the convoy was under Lord Howe, then in command of the channel fleet. He sailed from Spithead on the 2nd of May with 34 sail of the line and 15 smaller vessels, having under his charge nearly a hundred merchant ships which were to be seen clear of the Channel. On the 4th, when off the Lizard, the convoy was sent on its way protected by 8 line of battle ships and 6 or 7 frigates. Two of the line of battle ships were to accompany them throughout the voyage. The other six under Rear-admiral Montagu were to go as far as Cape Finisterre, and were then to cruise on the look-out for the French convoy between Cape Ortegal and Belle Isle. These detachments reduced the force under Lord Howe's immediate command to 26 of the line and 7 frigates. On the 5th of May he was off Ushant, and sent frigates to reconnoitre the harbour of Brest. They reported to him that the main French fleet, which was under the command of Villaret-Joyeuse, and was of 25 sail of the line, was lying at anchor in the roads. Howe then sailed to the latitude on which the convoy was likely to be met with, knowing that if the French admiral came out it would be to meet the ships with the food and cover them from attack. To seek the convoy was therefore the most sure way of forcing Villaret-Joyeuse to action. Till the 18th the British fleet continued cruising in the Bay of Biscay. On the 19th Lord Howe returned to Ushant and again reconnoitred Brest. It was then seen that Villaret-Joyeuse had gone to sea. He had sailed with his whole force on the 16th and had passed close to the British fleet on the 17th, unseen in a fog. On the 19th the French admiral was informed by the “Patriote” (74) that Nielly had fallen in with, and had captured, the British frigate “Castor” (32), under Captain Thomas Troubridge, together with a convoy from Newfoundland. On the same day Villaret-Joyeuse captured part of a Dutch convoy of 53 sail from Lisbon. On the 19th a frigate detached by Admiral Montagu joined Howe. It brought information that Montagu had recaptured part of the Newfoundland convoy, and had learnt that Nielly was to join Vanstabel at sea, and that their combined force would be 9 sail of the line. Montagu himself had steered to cruise on the route of the convoy between the 45th and 47th degrees of north latitude. Howe now steered to meet his subordinate who, he considered, would be in danger from the main French fleet. On the 21st he recaptured some of the Dutch ships taken by Villaret-Joyeuse. From them he learnt that on the 19th, the French fleet had been in latitude 47° 46′ N. and in longitude 11° 22′ W. and was steering westward. Judging that Montagu was too far to the south to be in peril from Villaret-Joyeuse, and considering him strong enough to perform the duty of intercepting the convoy, Lord Howe decided to pursue the main French fleet. The wind was changeable and the weather hazy. It was not till the 28th of May at 6.30 A.M. that the British fleet caught sight of the enemy in 47° 34′ N. and 13° 39′ W.
The wind was from the south-east, and the French were to windward. Villaret-Joyeuse bore down to a distance of 10 m. from the British, and then hauled to the wind on the port tack. It was difficult for the British fleet to force an action from leeward if the French were unwilling to engage. Lord Howe detached a light squadron of four ships, the “Bellerophon” (74), “Russel” (74), “Marlborough” (74), and “Thunderer” (74) under Rear-admiral Thomas Pasley, to attack the rear of the French line. Villaret-Joyeuse stood on and endeavoured to work to windward. In the course of the afternoon Rear-admiral Pas1ey's ships began to come up with the last of the French line, the “Révolutionnaire” (110). A partial action took place which went on till after dark; other British vessels joined. The “Révolutionnaire” was so damaged that she was compelled to leave her fleet, and the British “Audacious” (74) was also crippled and compelled to return to port. The “Révolutionnaire” was accompanied by another liner. During the night the two fleets continued on the same course, and next day Howe renewed his attempts to force an action from leeward. He tacked his fleet in succession—his first ship tacking first and the rest in order—in the hope that he would be able to cut through the French rear and gain the weather-gage. Villaret-Joyeuse then turned all his ships together and again headed in the same direction as the British. This movement brought him nearer the British fleet, and another partial action took place between the van of each force. Seeing that the French admiral was not disposed to charge home, Howe at noon once more ordered his fleet to tack in succession. His signal was poorly obeyed by the van, and his object, which was to cut through the French line, was not at once achieved. But the admiral himself finally set an example by tacking his flagship, the “Queen Charlotte” (100), and passing through the French, two ships from the end of their line. He was followed by his fleet, and Villaret-Joyeuse, seeing the peril of the ships in his rear, wore all his ships together to help them. Both forces had been thrown into considerable confusion by these movements, but the British had gained the weather-gage. Villaret-Joyeuse was able to save the two ships cut off, but he had fallen to leeward and the power to force on a battle had passed to Lord Howe. During the 30th the fleets lost sight of one another for a time. The French, who had four ships crippled, had been joined by four others, and were again 26 in number, including the “Patriote.”
The 31st of May passed without a hostile meeting and in thick weather, but by the evening the British were close to windward of the French. As Howe, who had not full confidence in all his captains, did not wish for a night battle, he waited till the following morning, keeping the French under observation by frigates. On the 1st of June they were in the same relative positions, and at about a quarter past eight Howe bore down on the French, throwing his whole line on them at once from end to end, with orders to pass through from windward to leeward, and so to place the British ships on the enemy's line of retreat. It was a very bold departure from the then established methods of fighting, and most honourable in a man of sixty-eight, who had been trained in the old school. Its essential merit was that it produced a close mêlée, in which the better average gunnery and seamanship of the British fleet would tell. Lord Howe's orders were not fully obeyed by all his captains, but a signal victory was won,—six of the French line of battle ships were taken, and one, the “Vengeur,” sunk. The convoy escaped capture, having passed over the spot on which the action of the 29th May was fought, on the following day, and it anchored at Brest on the 3rd of June. Its safe arrival went far to console the French for their defeat. The failure to stop it was forgotten in England in the pleasure given by the victory.
See James's Naval History, vol. i. (1837); and Tronde, Batailles navales de la France (1867).