June 01, 2006

Gratuitous Royal Navy Geekery Posting

(Yips! to me.)

Glorious First.jpg
HMS Defense at the Battle of the First of June, 1794 by Nicholas Pocock

Today is the anniversary of the Glorious First of June (also known as the Battle of Ushant), the 1794 sea battle between the Royal Navy and the Jacobin swine navy of Revolutionary France off the coast of Ushant in which Admiral Lord Howe (known as "Black Dick") took on a French fleet escorting a grain convoy from America. Here is a description of the events leading up to the battle and of the fighting itself.

Here is a diagram of the battle:

(Image lifted from The Wargamer.)

Tactically, the battle was a draw - the Royal Navy captured or sank seven French ships without suffering any permanent loss itself, but the grain convoy made it to France, the British fleet being too battle-damaged to mount an effective pursuit. Strategically, it was an enormous psychological victory for the Brits, as simmering fears of Revolutionary invasion of England were soundly quashed. Furthermore, the French never tried to run another grain convoy past the British squadrons guarding the coast, instead relying on singleton blockade-runners and thus drastically cutting the rate of food importation.

Here is a celebratory engraving of Howe at the point of victory, issued shortly after the battle:

(Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Print Shop.)

One of the more famous ships to fight at the Glorious First was HMS Bellerophon, known in the service as the "Billy Ruffian". Mom just finished a book about her called The Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon by David Cordingly, about which she has been saying many enthusiastic things. I haven't read the book yet, but in celebration of the day, I've just ordered it from the Devil's Website.

One of the lieutenants of HMS Bellerophon is supposed to have penned a song commemorating the battle (although it actually describes events leading up to it):

The First of June

Twas on the twenty-eighth of May, the morning being clear,
A fleet to windward we espied, they Frenchmen did appear.
The signal for the same being made, the chase was soon begun;
And then for battle we prepared to show monsieurs some fun.
Our ship being cleared, the foe we neared, with expectations high,
That we should show the murderous foe,
That British courage still will flow, to make them strike, or die!

The famed Bellerophon began her cannons first to play
Upon a three-decked ship of theirs, which could not run away.
Our hearts of gold their shot well told, in showers about her side,
‘Til the Leviathan came up, the battle to divide.
Then seeing plain ‘twas quite in vain the contest more to try,
She struck, and this does show,
That British courage still will flow, to make them strike, or die!

Night coming on the battle ceased, ‘til Phoebus rose again,
When we beheld this traitorous fleet still vaunting on the main.
Our line being formed, and all hearts warmed, the fight was soon renewed,
Determined to hand down that flag which with contempt we viewed.
Lord Howe engaged their hottest rage; he broke their line to try
If such maneuvers would not show
That British courage still would flow, to make them strike, or die!

The battle warmly was maintained, much valor was displayed,
‘Til night with all her sable train the action still delayed.
Now since again all o’er the main these rebels can’t be found,
We’ll toast our admirals in our glass; our girls, too, shall go round.
Each heart shall sing, “Long live the King!” and each again reply,
“If e’er we’re called again we’ll show
That British courage still shall flow, to make them strike, or die!”

(For you Patrick O'Brian enthusiasts, I believe the Glorious First is one of the very few major battles Jack Aubrey did not participate in during his long career. However, he and his friends certainly sing "The First of June", as would any other self-respecting Navy man.)

Rule, Britannia!

Posted by Robert at June 1, 2006 07:58 AM | TrackBack