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THE NAVAL WAR IN EUROPE. THE BATTLE OF
DURING the same two months that saw the contest between d'Estaing and Howe in America the only encounter between nearly equal fleets in 1778 took place in European waters. Admiral Keppel, having returned to Spithead after the affair between the Belle Poule and the Arethtisa,1 again put to sea on the 9th of July, with a force increased to thirty ships of the line. He had been mortified by the necessity of avoiding action, and of even retiring into port, with the inadequate numbers before under his command, and his mind was fixed now to compel an engagement, if he met the French.
The Brest fleet also put to sea, the day before Keppel, under the command of Admiral the Comte d'Orvilliers. It contained thirty-two ships of the line. Of these, three — a 64, a 60, and a 50 — were not considered fit for the line of battle, which was thus reduced to twenty-nine sail, carrying 2098 guns. To these the British opposed an aggregate of 2278; but comparison by this means only is very rough. Not only the sizes of the guns, but the classes and weight of the vessels need to be considered. In the particular instance the matter is of little importance; the action being indecisive, and credit depending upon manoeuvres rather than upon fighting.
The French admiral was hampered by vacillating instructions, reflections of the unstable impulses which swayed the Ministry. Whatever his personal wishes, he felt that he was expected to avoid action, unless under very favourable circumstances. At the moment of sailing he wrote: "Since you leave me free to continue my cruise, I will not bring the fleet back to Brest, unless by positive orders, until I have fulfilled the month at sea mentioned in my instructions, and known to all the captains. Till then I will not fly before Admiral Keppel, whatever his strength; only, if I know him to be too superior, I will avoid a disproportionate action as well as I can; but if the enemy really seeks to force it, it will be very hard to shun." These words explain his conduct through the next few days.
On the afternoon of July 23d the two fleets sighted each other, about a hundred miles west of Ushant, the French being then to leeward. Towards sunset, they were standing south-west, with the wind at west-north-west, and bore north-east from the enemy, who were lying-to, heads to the northward. The British remaining nearly motionless throughout the night, and the wind shifting, d'Orvilliers availed himself of the conditions to press to windward, and in the morning was found to bear north-west from his opponent.1 Their relative positions satisfied both admirals for the moment; for Keppel found himself interposed between Brest and the French, while d'Orvilliers, though surrendering the advantage of open retreat to his port, had made it possible, by getting the weather-gage, to fulfil his promise to keep the sea and yet to avoid action. Two of his ships, however, the Due de Bourgogne, 80, and a 74, were still to leeward, not only of their own main body, but also of the British. Keppel sent chasers after them, for the ex
1 Testimony of Captains Hood, Robinson, and Macbride, and of Rear-Admiral Campbell, captain of the fleet to Keppel.
pressed purpose of compelling d'Orvilliers to action in their support,1 and it was believed by the British that they were forced to return to Brest, to avoid being cut off. They certainly quitted their fleet, which was thus reduced to twenty-seven effective sail. From this time until July 27th the wind continued to the westward, and the wariness of the French admiral baffled all his antagonist's efforts to get within range. Keppel, having no doubts as to what was expected of him, pursued vigorously, watching his chance.
On the morning of July 27th the two fleets (Fig 1, AA, AA), were from six to ten miles apart, wind south-west, both on the port tack,2 steering north-west; the French dead to windward, in line ahead. The British were in bow-andquarter line. In this formation, when exact, the ships of a fleet were nearly abreast each other; so ranged, however, that if they tacked all at the same time they would be at once in line of battle ahead close to the wind, — the fighting order.3 Both fleets were irregularly formed, the British especially so; for Keppel rightly considered that he would not accomplish his purpose, if he were pedantic concerning the order of his going. He had therefore signalled a "General Chase," which, by permitting much individual freedom of movement, facilitated the progress of the whole body. At daylight, the division commanded by Sir Hugh Palliser — the right wing, as then heading — had dropped astern (R); and at 5.30 A.m. the signal was made to seven of its fastest sailers to chase to windward, to get farther to windward by pressing sail, the object being so to place them
1 See note on preceding page.
2 A vessel is said to be on the port tack when she has the wind blowing on her port, or left side; on the starboard tack, when the wind is on the right side. Thus with an east wind, if she head north, she is on the starboard tack; if south, on the port.
■ See also note; post, p. 200.
relatively to the main body, as to support the latter, if an opportunity for action should offer.
At 9 A.m. the French admiral, wishing to approach the enemy and to see more clearly, ordered his fleet to wear in succession, — to countermarch. As the van ships went round (b) under this signal, they had to steer off the wind (be), parallel to their former line, on which those following them still were, until they reached the point to which the rear ship meantime had advanced (c), when they could again haul to the wind. This caused a loss of ground to leeward, but not more than d'Orvilliers could afford, as things stood. Just after he had fairly committed himself to the manoeuvre, the wind hauled to the southward two points,1 from south-west to south-south-west, which favoured the British, allowing them to head more nearly towards the enemy (BB). The shift also threw the bows of the French off the line they were following, deranging their order. Keppel therefore continued on the port tack, until all the French (BB), were on the starboard, and at 10.15, being nearly in their wake, he ordered his own ships to tack together (dd), which would bring them into line ahead on the same tack as the French; that is, having the wind on the same side. This put the British in column,2 still to leeward, but nearly astern of the enemy and following (CC). At this moment a thick rain-squall came up, concealing the fleets one from another for three quarters of an hour. With the squall the wind shifted back to southwest, favouring the British on this tack, as it had on the other, and enabling them to lay up for the enemy's rear after which (French BB) they were standing and could now bring to action. When the weather cleared, at 11, the French were seen to have gone about again, all the ships together, and
1 Twenty-two degrees.
* Column and line ahead are equivalent terms, each ship steering in the wake of its next ahead.
were still in the confusion of a partly executed manoeuvre (CC). Their admiral had doubtless recognised, from the change of wind, and from the direction of the enemy when last visible, that an encounter could not be avoided. If he continued on the starboard tack, the van of the pursuing enemy, whose resolve to force battle could not be misunderstood, would overtake his rear ships, engaging as many of them as he might choose. By resuming the port tack, the heads of the columns would meet, and the fleets pass in opposite directions, on equal terms as regarded position; because all the French would engage, and not only a part of their rear. Therefore he had ordered his ships to go about, all at the same time; thus forming column again rapidly, but reversing the order so that the rear became the van.
Keppel so far had made no signal for the line of battle, nor did he now. Recognising from the four days' chase that his enemy was avoiding action, he judged correctly that he should force it, even at some risk. It was not the time for a drill-master, nor a parade. Besides, thanks to the morning signal for the leewardly ships to chase, these, forming the rear of the disorderly column in which he was advancing, were now well to windward, able therefore to support their comrades, if needful, as well as to attack the enemy. In short, practically the whole force was coming into action, although much less regularly than might have been desired. What was to follow was a rough-and-ready fight, but it was all that could be had, and better than nothing. Keppel therefore simply made the signal for battle, and that just as the firing began. The collision was so sudden that the ships at first had not their colours flying.
The French also, although their manoeuvres had been more methodical, were in some confusion. It is not given to a body of thirty ships, of varying qualities, to attain perfection of movement in a fortnight of sea practice. The