Battle of Quiberon Bay I

HMS “Royal George” first rate ship of the line launch at Woolwich in 1756

‘I was in great pain lest the enemy should have escaped you . . . Allow me to add that no man in England can be more pleased with your good fortune, nor more rejoice to see you reap those advantages from it which you so truly merit.’ Admiral Hawke’s letter to his fellow admiral on 14 September 1759, congratulating him on the victory at Lagos, must have been written with clenched teeth, for Hawke thought himself a better man than Boscawen and secretly resented the way his ‘brother’ officer had been given first refusal on the naval command of the expedition that accompanied Wolfe to the St Lawrence, and then been handed the Mediterranean command. In early September Hawke worried away about how he could sustain the close blockade of France’s Atlantic ports. At the moment he and the Admiralty were involved in a wrangle with the naval victuallers. Hawke and Boscawen might be driven by dreams of glory, but the victuallers were entrepreneurs who cared about the bottom line. The new system of supplying warships at sea was hazardous and there was a high wastage and damage rate, which ate into the entrepreneurs’ profit margins. Although Hawke was angry with the victuallers for their lack of patriotism, he realised that, with people outside navy discipline, conflict meant a war he could not win. He therefore issued two orders that in effect were a capitulation to the businessmen’s demands. He ordained that any merchant sustaining damage while loading should issue a certificate for the damages to the ship’s master, which would form the documentary evidence against which compensation would be paid. And he gave strict orders to his captains that they were never to impress seamen in the employment of the victuallers, who had a certificate of ‘protected’ status.

In September, then, Hawke was concerned mainly with the technicalities of continuing his innovation of close blockade. The French, by contrast, had to weigh the consequences of Lagos while still grappling with the implications of inter-service rivalry – that fatal malaise that had led them to assemble an army of invasion in one port and the accompanying fleet of warships in another. They had spent most of the year preparing an invasion force and supporting flotilla, hampered by money shortages, corrupt administrators and agents, and prima-donna admirals and generals, but so painfully protracted was the process that the enemy had had time to blockade the Atlantic ports and even master the art of revictualling at sea. Commodore Boys was patrolling outside Dunkirk, Rodney along the Normandy coast, Duff was watching Morbihan, while Hawke and Hardy hovered off Brest. Lagos was the writing on the wall and on any rational basis the French should now have jettisoned their invasion project. But there was a serious issue of credibility at stake. It was too late now to back down, and to disband d’Aiguillon’s army would be to make a public admission of naval impotence. Besides, the invasion of Britain was supposed to be the master-stroke that would redress the calamitous losses in India, the West Indies and Canada. If this project was abandoned, what was the fallback plan or worst-case scenario? The dreadful truth was that there was none. Not surprisingly then, after Lagos, Choiseul, Belle-Isle and Berryer bent all their energies to thinking up a new stratagem.

The odds against a happy outcome for France were massive, but a naval victory was not totally inconceivable and even one such triumph, followed by the landing of troops in Britain, could lead to an honourable peace. Louis XV and his ministers therefore decided to place all their bets on Admiral Conflans. This gamble was not totally unwarranted. Conflans had had his successes in the War of Austrian Succession and his record in the years 1740–48 was a good one; he had captured two ships of the line, one of them the prestigious Severn finally retaken by Hawke in October 1747. The Minister of Marine had marked him down as a possible star, promoting him from the rank of Lieutenant-General (thus leaving his eight peers behind him) to one of only two Vice-Admirals in 1756 and thence in 1758 to full Admiral, the only one at the top of the French naval tree. In the same year, in recognition of more than fifty valiant years at sea, Conflans received a baton as a Marshal of France, the first naval commander to be so honoured since Admiral Tourville in 1692. Such a promotion was supposed to be a reward for great exploits already achieved. It was an obvious objection to the theory, that Conflans had as yet accomplished nothing, but the marshalship was supposed to act as a morale-boosting fillip to the navy and as a strong hint to Conflans that great things were expected of him. On 26 August Conflans received his formal instructions from Louis XV, which basically enjoined him to get his fleet out of Brest and onto the open sea as soon as possible. Another set of instructions, of which Conflans must have been aware, was issued on the same day to Bigot de Morogues, who was to command a six-ship convoy assembling at Morbihan, which was to act as the escort for d’Aiguillon’s invasion force.

Meanwhile Choiseul continued his unhappy collaboration with Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his representatives. He summoned Murray of Elibank on 2 August for a full-scale dressing-down of the Jacobites and their ‘Bonnie Prince’, mentioning a number of indiscretions committed both by individual supporters of the Stuart prince and by the man himself. Some of the complaints were pointless rants about matters over which Murray had no control anyway, such as the allegedly stupid and brutal behaviour of members of the Irish Brigade in French ports. Choiseul explained that twenty-four million francs had already been spent on the invasion project but that, because of unforeseen difficulties with barges and transports, the expedition was behind schedule. But he advised Murray that d’Aiguillon would soon be leaving for his headquarters in Brittany and suggested that the Stuart prince come to Paris to confer with the commander before he left. Needless to say, Charles Edward ignored the advice and remained sulking in his tent; his only significant action was to write to Belle-Isle to complain that he had heard nothing of French plans and that his ‘friends in England’ were growing impatient. Both France and the Jacobites were exaggerating the strength of their position. Versailles had secretly already decided to take no account of the Prince in its invasion plans, though he did have more drawing power in Scotland than they realised. For his part, the Prince kept up a mantra about ‘his friends in England’, for whose existence no documentary evidence can be found –nor did the Prince provide it to ministers at the time.

When news of Lagos came in, Mackenzie Douglas, always a shrewder reader of the runes than Murray, immediately saw its likely implication: the French might press ahead with the landing in Scotland but they would certainly abandon the descent on the English coast. But, as ever, Charles Edward continued to insist he was not interested in any scheme that did not involve the French landing in England. When this message was conveyed to him, Choiseul immediately assumed that there was a complete lack of interest in the Scottish expedition and therefore asked Murray, presuming that the Prince did not wish to journey to Scotland, to get his master to issue a manifesto, calling on the loyal clans to rise. Murray replied that he was not authorised to make any such declaration; he would have to consult the Prince. Choiseul, wearying of Charles Edward’s dog-in-the-manger attitude (he would not go to Scotland as in 1745 but did not want the French to go there without him either), decided to play him at his own double game. On 7 September he wrote to the Prince to tell him that all previous arrangements were unchanged (he even reiterated the tired old formula ‘everything will be for and with the prince and nothing without him’). But three days later d’Aiguillon received from Louis XV a true statement of Versailles’s attitude to the Jacobites: he was reminded forcibly that he was not to enter into any engagements whatever with the House of Stuart. A subsidiary anonymous memorandum contained the explanation: ‘This prince has not a steady enough head for him to direct an enterprise so momentous or for anyone to direct it when advised by him . . . He is surrounded by very dubious persons of both sex who, it appears likely, betray him at every point.’

On 13 September, the day Wolfe was winning glory on the Plains of Abraham, Belle-Isle wrote to d’Aiguillon with further, more detailed instructions. After making landfall at Glasgow, d’Aiguillon was to march to Edinburgh and make that city his principal base of operations. Once safely ensconced in Scotland, a second army under Soubise would follow (it is perhaps significant that Belle-Isle did not spell out whether Soubise’s army was still destined for England or had been switched to Scotland as the second wave). There are even hints in the letter that Belle-Isle was not entirely happy with the vanquished General of Rossbach being given such an important role, but both he and d’Aiguillon knew that Soubise was a puppet whose strings were pulled by La Pompadour. Two days later a personal letter from Louis XV, countersigned by Berryer, was delivered to Bigot de Morogues, captaining the Magnifique. He was ordered to take d’Aiguillon’s force to the west of Scotland, having first circumnavigated Ireland, to make landfall at Irvine on the Clyde. After conferring with local pilots and fishermen, Bigot de Morogues was to decide the exact spot for disembarking troops, always of course in consultation with d’Aiguillon. If for any reason a landing was not practicable, he was to sail round the north coast of Scotland to make another landfall on the east coast, where the army would be disembarked. In case of a major setback, he was to burn his ships and proceed to dry land to serve under d’Aiguillon. Both memoranda were long on daring strategic vision but short on practical detail. The cynical conclusion would be that they were both textbook examples of vagueness, where nothing had really been thought through and everything left to chance. Micawberism as military planning would be a good title for the two documents.

The vain and self-regarding Conflans exploded when he heard of these memoranda. If Bigot de Morogues was given such an independent command, this would mean that his battle fleet would lose six men-of-war and, in his opinion, the French squadron even at full strength was no match for the Royal Navy.

Moreover, without those six ships, the balance of power shifted subtly in favour of the army, so that in any joint enterprise d’Aiguillon, and not the Marshal-Admiral, would be the senior partner.

Conflans bombarded Choiseul, Belle-Isle and Berryer with letters of protest, revealing himself a true prima donna and principal player in the inter-service rivalry stakes. Choiseul and Belle-Isle were in a dilemma. They had, so to speak, put all their eggs in the Conflans basket, and so to repudiate him or fail to give him what he wanted quite obviously would jeopardise the entire enterprise. Conflans was confirmed as the supreme leader of the expedition, with Bigot de Morogues firmly under his command; there would be a united fleet and no separate naval support for d’Aiguillon. But since Conflans now had to engage the blockading British and escort d’Aiguillon’s army, the ministers had to think up some ingenious way of squaring the circle. They came up with the lame suggestion that Conflans must attack the blockading squadrons but that, after that, it would be left to his discretion whether he kept to sea or returned to Brest, ready to make a fresh sortie when the Morbihan flotilla was ready. It was thought so important to keep Conflans sweet that on 14 October Louis wrote to his Marshal-Admiral, modifying his earlier (26 August) orders at the Admiral’s request. So much for Bourbon absolutism. Tactful and almost deferential, the King reassured Conflans and reminded him that the paramount objective was the safety of the Morbihan flotilla. Louis included a Parthian shot by saying that, if Conflans were to accompany d’Aiguillon instead of Bigot de Morogues, he must then either go the whole way with him to Scotland or detach six warships (plus some frigates and corvettes) to convey the flotilla to safe anchorage in Scotland.

Meanwhile at Dunkirk a subsidiary expedition under the famous corsair François Thurot was being assembled. A protégé of Belle-Isle, Thurot had won a great reputation as an intrepid privateer. In 1757, in his flagship the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, named for his protector, and commanding a small group of frigates he had harried British commerce on the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Baltic, perfecting the technique of never staying long enough in any one area to be tracked down by the Royal Navy. Sweeping in huge arcs from Lough Swilly in Ireland to Bergen in Norway and the Faeroe Islands, Thurot took many prizes and severely disrupted trade between Liverpool and North America. His success in 1758, when France was on the retreat in most theatres in the world, determined Belle-Isle to use him in the great 1759 invasion project. Lionised at Versailles, where he was received by Louis XV and became a great hit with the ladies, Thurot was in 1759 at the very peak of his achievement and reputation. Belle-Isle’s idea was to employ him on a feint to Ireland that would keep the enemy guessing and that could bring him and his financial backers great riches. The conquistadores had gone to the New World to serve God and grow rich; Thurot, a latterday conquistador, aimed to serve France and grow rich.

Thurot raised the capital for his venture in an early example of public-private initiative, securing 500,000 livres from Berryer as the state’s contribution and attracting large amounts of capital from private investors and banks in Paris, St Malo, Boulogne and Dunkirk. Apart from the forty-four-gun flagship, his flotilla contained the thirty-eight-gun Begon, the twenty-four-gun Terpsichore and the eighteen-gun Amaranthe, as well as a small cutter, the Faucon. Meanwhile 1,500 troops were earmarked for the Irish venture, under the command of Brigadier Flobert. Unfortunately, right from the start Thurot and Flobert did not get on. Flobert despised the great corsair for his humble origins and resented having to be under his command. When Belle-Isle realised that there was bad blood between them, he should immediately have replaced Flobert; instead, for reasons unknown, he simply decided that the two men should exchange copies of their written instructions. It was pellucidly clear from Louis XV’s orders that Thurot was to be the unquestioned leader. But Flobert was not Thurot’s only problem. The long wait at Dunkirk ate into his financial reserves and soon his creditors began clamouring for their money. It was only when the Prince de Soubise wrote a letter pledging payment of any debts incurred by Thurot that a Dunkirk merchant withdrew his threat to impound the Maréchal de Belle-Isle as surety for unpaid bills.

By the summer of 1759 Louis XV had another of his changes of mind. He decided to reinstate Soubise as commander of an expedition to England, and gave Chevert a consolation prize by making him Intendant of Dunkirk; there, if it was thought necessary to reinstate the Maldon coup de main, Chevert would be on hand. Now aged sixty-four, General François Chevert was, like Thurot, a man of no ‘birth’, the bravest of the brave and the toughest of the tough. Old enough to be Thurot’s father (Thurot was just thirty-three in 1759), he was a good choice to liaise with the privateer and make straight his ways. Chevert was given the difficult task of ensuring that none of Thurot’s creditors prevented him from leaving Dunkirk, while not appearing to flout the spirit of the law. When pressed hard by a Thurot creditor named Tugghe, Chevert passed the buck to Belle-Isle, who ‘leaned on’ the merchant as only an ancien régime grandee could, telling Tugghe he should waive his claims for the time being, ‘it being very detrimental that Thurot’s departure should be held up for any reason other than the winds’. Unfortunately, by the time Thurot was finally ready to sail, on 6 September, the British blockading squadron was in place outside Dunkirk, with Commodore Boys having three men-of-war, thirteen frigates and seven cutters on station outside the port. As a consequence Thurot’s fleet sat idle in Dunkirk Roads, waiting for favourable winds, while all the time the embarked soldiers languished and fell sick in their cramped bunks aboard ship. By the end of September Chevert told Thurot that if the fleet did not get away soon, the troops would have to be brought ashore. As it was, when Thurot did get the chance to sail at a moment’s notice, he had to leave 360 of his troops behind.

The contrast between the bickering, indecision, negativity and self-destructive impulses of the French and the aplomb of the British in the autumn of 1759 can hardly be over-stated. Between 21 August and 22 October the bellringers at York Minster were paid four times for celebrating victories, beginning with Minden and ending with Quebec. If anything, the British were over-confident. Pitt, animated by Minden, wanted to send 10,000 new troops to Europe and ostentatiously refused to be distracted from his objectives in Europe and North America by the French invasion threat. The Duke of Newcastle, who always fumed and fretted whenever an invasion threat from France loomed, thought Pitt rash to the point of folly and his words to his crony Earl Hardwicke on 25 October, reporting Pitt’s triumph with the news of Quebec, do not sound entirely happy: ‘No one will have a majority at present against Mr Pitt. No man will, in the present conjuncture, set his face against Mr Pitt in the House of Commons.’ Pitt’s argument, made again and again to a sceptical Newcastle, was that the habit of being mesmerised by French invasion threats was precisely what had led to the absurdly defensive strategy in 1756 and hence the loss of Minorca. The situation was utterly unlike that in 1745–46, both as regards the Jacobites and North America. In the War of Austrian Succession Britain had to abandon the conquest of Canada after taking Louisbourg, because the French hit back by invading the Low Countries. This time they did not have to worry about French designs on the Low Countries, precisely because of the reversal of alliances.

Hawke was still on ceaseless patrol outside Brest. Having perfected the technique of revictualling at sea, he was now mainly concerned with maintaining the health of his 14,000 sailors and, in particular, preventing scurvy. His correspondence with the Admiralty is full of references to beer, bread and fresh meat. Although the importance of vitamin C was not yet appreciated, the sailors’ improved diet just enabled them to scrape by without contracting the dread disease. Although vegetables sometimes featured in the ships’ menus, the all-important greens and citrus fruit did not; ironically apples, low in scorbutic acid, were plentifully supplied. Some have speculated that Hawke’s personal hygiene-mania helped to ward off typhus, but whether the ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ ethos of the Admiral percolated to the lower decks must be considered doubtful. But it is clear that Hawke had to battle throughout his blockade with dishonest provisioners and peculating officials: there are frequent complaints about the shortage of cheese and, especially, about poor-quality beer – often so bad that ships’ captains simply ordered it thrown overboard. Bread was another problem: sometimes loaves were found to be crawling with weevils and maggots and thus threatening to contaminate all the good bread. Although the Admiralty responded to Hawke’s complaints about the beer by ordering wine to replace it, they could do little to prevent swindling contractors supplying stinking and brackish water, and since it was customary on board to mix Guernsey wine with water, Hawke often found himself back at square one in terms of providing his men with a decent beverage.

By September the Royal Navy’s efforts had shifted away from bottling up Conflans’s warships to finding and destroying the transports. On 26 August, Hawke announced this new bearing in policy (explicitly mandated by the Admiralty) when he ordered Reynolds to cruise between Port Louis and Nantes and attempt to destroy the French flat-bottoms and other troop carriers; he was not to get diverted into chasing enemy cruisers. Reynolds began by blocakading Nantes with a ship of the line and twelve cruisers. Evidently Reynolds did not act with the élan Hawke required, for in mid-September we find the Admiral proposing that Reynolds come under Duff’s command. But before this change could be implemented, Reynolds reported that he was in pursuit of the Nantes transports, which had emerged from the Loire and given him the slip and, accompanied by three frigates, were sailing north to join the troopships at Vannes. Hotly pursued, the French found refuge at Auray, where Reynolds could not pursue them. Both Auray and Vannes were secure havens for Morbihan, an extensive inlet on the north-east side of Quiberon Bay, which was indented by shoals and islets, and led to Vannes and Auray by a series of narrow, twisting channels. To penetrate this labyrinth required the services of expert pilots, and none was available to the British.

Duff meanwhile arrived at the entrance to Morbihan on 22 September and conferred with Reynolds. Together they and other captains landed on the island of Meaban at the entrance to the Morbihan gulf and climbed to an eminence from where there was a clear view of the Auray river. Having viewed the maze for himself, Duff made the obvious conclusion that the Royal Navy could not harm the transports where they were; on the other hand, he could not see how the French could ever sortie from their fastnesses onto the open ocean. Duff therefore left most of his squadron in Quiberon Bay to watch the French flotilla and took up station in the Rochester with some frigates off the Île de Croix, where he could bottle up St Louis.

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