Glorious First of June

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The Glorious First of June was a naval battle fought over several days culminating on June 1, 1794 between a British fleet under Lord Howe and a French fleet under Admiral Louis Villaret-Joyeuse. While a tactical victory for the British, it was a strategic victory for the French as a vital food convoy was able to reach France.



Between 1780 and 1790, France, Spain, Great Britain and Holland spent funds they didn't necessarily have to increase the size of their respective battle fleets. France and Holland added an additional 50,000 tons in battleships to their fleets while Spain increased its fleet by 40,000 tons and Great Britain's grew by 80,000 tons. The numbers are impressive when considering that the larger navies were building new three and four decked ships and arming them with more than one hundred guns; however, while the French in particular had the ships, she did not have the men trained to handle them, nor the money to actually launch them. Britain however had mostly recovered from the loss of the American colonies by 1787 and she was building at a furious pace to keep the French and Spanish navies in check.

By 1791, Louis XVI was in trouble in France. In July of 1789, the Bastille prison was taken by revolutionaries and by 1791 a new Constitution, curtailing the powers of the king, was in place. The National Assembly was formed in the spring of 1792 and in August of that year the royal family was imprisoned after trying to escape France. In December, Louis XVI was tried for treason and found guilty; he was beheaded in January 1793 and France was declared a republic. The new Republic declared war on Great Britain and Holland on 1st February, 1793. Subsequent to this declaration, Great Britain sent ships to blockade the French port of Brest with others to patrol the Mediterranean around Toulon.

The Glorious First of June

The French fleet under the command of Admiral Louis Villaret-Joyeuse was sent from Brest to protect a shipment of grain coming from America. Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse's fleet consisted of twenty-six ships ranging from smaller 18-gun frigates to seventy-fours and one hundred plus guns ships of the line. His flagship was the Montagne. Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse slipped past the Brest blockade in May of 1794, while the British were cruising the Atlantic looking for the grain convoy consisting of 117 ships.

The British fleet was under the command of Admiral Lord Howe. Howe's fleet consisted of twenty-five ships, mostly large seventy-fours and one hundred gun ships of the line; his flagship was HMS Queen Charlotte. Howe knew about the grain shipment, and had been sent from Spithead to intercept the French convoy. When he discovered Villaret-Joyeuse was not in Brest, Howe set course for the Atlantic to find the grain convoy.

Howe and his fleet cruised the Atlantic for eight days without finding either the grain convoy or Villaret-Joyeuse. On May 28, 1794, Howe was four hundred miles from Ushant when he came upon Villaret's fleet. There was an exchange of gunfire, but firing stopped due to a dark night and very heavy seas.

Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse had control of the action on May 29, 1794 as his fleet had the weather gage; but Villaret chose not to engage Howe directly. Howe, however, did manage to cut the French line and separate the last five ships of Villaret's fleet. The British took two and damaged the other three, gaining the weather-gage for the next day.

Howe was poised to take the French fleet the next day, but fog and drizzle only allowed for the occasional glimpse of sails and the sound of bells, he couldn't engage in the bad weather. The ships sailed within a few miles of each other for the next two days waiting for the weather to clear; Villaret used the opportunity to lead the British to the north and west away from the presumed course of the grain convoy.

Howe still controlled the weather-gage on June 1, 1794. The fog cleared during the night and with the morning clear and sunny, Howe pressed home his attack. Howe's plan was to cut the French line in several places to windward, thus preventing any of the French ships from escaping. The plan however was beyond the sailing ability of many of Howe's captains; although seven of Howe's ships did succeed in breaking the French line and the French were forced to engage.

Howe's carefully scripted plan was upset by so many of his ships not able to break through, and the battle became a free for all. Both French and British ships were badly damaged and in some cases, sunk, but before the day was out, it was clear that British gunnery was superior and Villaret broke off leaving six ships behind as prizes. The butcher's bill for the engagement was predictably high with 1500 French killed and another 2000 wounded. The British fleet fared some what better with only 287 killed and another 800 wounded. An additional 3000 French were taken in the prize ships as prisoners.


The engagement was known as the Battle of the First of June as it was fought far from any landmark to name it. It was immortalized as The Glorious First of June after the playwright Richard Brinsley created a new production for the Royal Theater called The Glorious First of June and the name stuck.

Both sides claimed the Glorious First as a victory. The British claimed a tactical victory through winning the engagement and succeeding in breaking the French line and taking or sinking seven of Villaret's ships in addition to the five taken or damaged at the end of May. The French claimed a strategic victory as Villaret fulfilled his mission of protecting the grain convoy. While Howe was fighting far to the north and west, the grain fleet succeeded in arriving in Brest intact.

Howe was initially criticized for not pressing home his advantage and chasing the disabled French ships, but after three days of fighting and hard sailing, Howe and his ships were not up to the task, many ships were dismasted or otherwise damaged, his crews were exhausted and they could not pursue the escaping French.

Villaret confessed years after the battle that he acted the way he did to preserve his head. According to an account given to Captain Brenton, a naval historian, Villaret had been told that the grain convoy must arrive in Brest or he would pay the price of failure at the guillotine. He told Captain Brenton the loss of a few ships was minimal when he considered that he had saved both the convoy and his life. "While your admiral amused himself refitting them, I saved my convoy and I saved my head."

In the Canon

  • HMS Surprise -- Norton pg 113: The cook on Surprise, Johnson, is three legged as his own two had been shot away at the Glorious First of June and he added a third "seized to his bottom" in addition to the two the hospital provided.
  • Clarissa Oakes -- Norton pg 103: Clarissa asks Lt. West, to describe his part in the Glorious First of June to Mr. Martin. West was wounded in the battle. (The following pages also contain a description of the engagement)


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