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THE NAVAL WAR IN EUROPEAN WATERS, 1779. ALLIED FLEETS INVADE THE ENGLISH CHANNEL. RODNEY DESTROYS TWO SPANISH SQUADRONS AND RELIEVES GIBRALTAR
IN June, 1779, the maritime situation of Great Britain had become much more serious by Spain's declaring war. At the same moment that d'Estaing with twenty-five ships of the line had confronted Byron's twenty-one, the Channel fleet of forty sail had seen gathering against it a host of sixty-six. Of this great number thirty-six were Spanish.
The open declaration of Spain had been preceded by a secret alliance with France, signed on the 12th of April. Fearing that the British government would take betimes the reasonable and proper step of blockading the Brest fleet of thirty with the Channel forty, thus assuming a central position with reference to its enemies and anticipating the policy of Lord St. Vincent, the French Ministry hurried its ships to sea on the 4th of June; Admiral d'Orvilliers, Keppel's opponent, still in command. His orders were to cruise near the island of Cizarga, off the north-west coast of Spain, where the Spaniards were to join him. On the 11th of June he was at the rendezvous, but not till the 23d of July did the bulk of the Spanish force appear. During this time, the French, insufficiently equipped from the first, owing to the haste of their departure, were consuming provisions and water, not to speak of wasting pleasant summer weather. Their ships also were ravaged by an epidemic fever. Upon the junction, d'Orvilliers found that the Spaniards had not been furnished with the French system of signals, although by the treaty the French admiral was to be in chief command. The rectification of this oversight caused further delay, but on the 11th of August the combined fleet sighted Ushant, and on the 14th was off the Lizard. On the 16th it appeared before Plymouth, and there on the 17th captured the British 64-gun ship Ardent.
Thirty-five ships of the Channel fleet had gone to sea on the 16th of June, and now were cruising outside, under the command of Admiral Sir Charles Hardy. His station was from ten to twenty leagues south-west of Scilly; consequently he had not been seen by the enemy, who from Ushant had stood up the Channel. The allies, now nearly double the numbers of the British, were between them and their ports, — a serious situation doubtless, but by no means desperate; not so dangerous for sailing ships as it probably will be for steamers to have an enemy between them and their coal.
The alarm in England was very great, especially in the south. On the 9th of July a royal proclamation had commanded all horses and cattle to be driven from the coasts, in case of invasion. Booms had been placed across the entrance to Plymouth Harbor, and orders were sent from the Admiralty to sink vessels across the harbour's mouth. Many who had the means withdrew into the interior, which increased the panic. Great merchant fleets were then on the sea, homeward bound. If d'Orvilliers were gone to cruise in the approaches to the Channel, instead of to the Spanish coast, these might be taken; and for some time his whereabouts were unknown. As it was, the Jamaica convoy, over two hundred sail, got in a few days before the allies appeared, and the Leeward Islands fleet had similar good fortune. Eight homeward bound East Indiamen were less lucky, but, being warned of their danger, took refuge in the Shannon, and there remained till the trouble blew over. On the other hand, the stock market stood firm. Nevertheless, it was justly felt that such a state of things as a vastly superior hostile fleet in the Channel should not have been. Sir John Jervis, afterward Earl St. Vincent, who commanded a ship in the fleet, wrote to his sister: "What a humiliating state is our country reduced to !" but he added that he laughed at the idea of invasion.
The French had placed a force of fifty thousand men at Le Havre and St. Malo, and collected four hundred vessels for their transport. Their plans were not certainly known, but enough had transpired to cause reasonable anxiety; and the crisis, on its face, was very serious. Not their own preparations, but the inefficiency of their enemies, in counsel and in preparation, saved the British Islands from invasion. What the results of this would have been is another question, — a question of land warfare. The original scheme of the French Ministry was to seize the Isle of Wight, securing Spithead as an anchorage for the fleet, and to prosecute their enterprise from this near and reasonably secure base. Referring to this first project, d'Orvilliers wrote: "We will seek the enemy at St. Helen's,1 and then, if I find that roadstead unoccupied, or make myself master of it, I will send word to Marshal De Vaux, at Le Havre, and inform him of the measures I will take to insure his passage, which [measures] will depend upon the position of the English main fleet [dependront des forces superieures des Anglais]. That is to say, I myself will lead the combined fleet on that side [against their main body], to contain the enemy, and I will send, on the other side [to convoy], a light squadron, with a sufficient number of ships of the line and frigates; or I will propose to M. de Cordova to take this latter station, in order that the passage of the army may be free and sure. I assume
1 An anchorage three miles to seaward of Spithead.
that then, either by the engagement I shall have fought with the enemy, or by their retreat into their ports, I shall be certain of their situation and of the success of the operation." 1 It will be observed that d'Orvilliers, accounted then and now one of the best officers of his day in the French navy, takes here into full account the British "fleet in being." The main body of the allies, fifty ships, was to hold this in check, while a smaller force — Cordova had command of a special "squadron of observation," of sixteen ships of the line — was to convoy the crossing.
These projects all fell to pieces before a strong east wind, and a change of mind in the French government. On the 16th of August, before Plymouth, d'Orvilliers was notified that not the Isle of Wight, but the coast of Cornwall, near Falmouth, was to be the scene of landing. The effect of this was to deprive the huge fleet of any anchorage, — a resource necessary even to steamers, and far more to sailing vessels aiming to remain in a position. As a point to begin shore operations, too, as well as to sustain them, such a remote corner of the country to be invaded was absurd. D'Orvilliers duly represented all this, but could not stay where he was long enough to get a reply. An easterly gale came on, which blew hard for several days and drove the allies out of the Channel. On the 25th of August word was received that the British fleet was near Scilly. A council of war was then held, which decided that, in view of the terrible increase of disease in the shipping, and of the shortness of provisions, it was expedient not to reenter the Channel, but to seek the enemy, and bring him to battle. This was done. On the 29th Hardy was sighted, being then on his return up Channel. With the disparity of force he could not but decline action, and the allies were unable to compel it. On the 3d of September he reached Spithead. D'Orvilliers
1 Chevalier, "Marine Franchise," 1778, p. 165. Author's italics.
soon afterwards received orders to return to Brest, and on the 14th the combined fleet anchored there.
The criticism to be passed on the conduct of this summer campaign by the British Ministry is twofold. In the first place, it was not ready according to the reasonable standard of the day, which recognised in the probable cooperation of the two Bourbon kingdoms, France and Spain, the measure of the minimum naval force permissible to Great Britain. Secondly, the entrance of Spain into the war had been foreseen months before. For the inferior force, therefore, it was essential to prevent a junction, — to take an interior position. The Channel fleet ought to have been off Brest before the French sailed. After they were gone, there was still fair ground for the contention of the Opposition, that they should have been followed, and attacked, off the coast of Spain. During the six weeks they waited there, they were inferior to Hardy's force. Allowance here must be made, however, for the inability of a representative government to disregard popular outcry, and to uncover the main approach to its own ports. This, indeed, does but magnify the error made in not watching Brest betimes; for in such case a fleet before Brest covered also the Channel.
With regard to the objects of the war in which they had become partners, the views of France and Spain accorded in but one point, — the desirability of injuring Great Britain. Each had its own special aim for its own advantage. This necessarily introduced divergence of effort; but, France having first embarked alone in the contest and then sought the aid of Spain, the particular objects of her ally naturally obtained from the beginning a certain precedence. Until near the close of the war, it may be said that the chief ambitions of France were in the West Indies; those of Spain, in Europe, — to regain Minorca and Gibraltar.
In this way Gibraltar became a leading factor in the con