Battle of Lagos

Despite warnings from his confidante, La Pompadour, that the invasion plans might founder on the rock of finance rather than under the guns of British warships, Louis XV was determined to press ahead, well aware that the descent on Britain was the only card he had left to play. He ordered Silhouette to find the necessary money and Silhouette responded with an issue of seventy-two million livres, financed by tax farming. Spain under its new king finally decided to make a loan, and the Court Banker and Farmer-General Jean-Josephe de Laborde received four million livres in Portuguese money, specifically earmarked by Madrid to finance Thurot’s landing in Ireland. Doubtless behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by Pompadour on behalf of her protégé Soubise explains the sequel to the 14 July 1759 conference. At the next meeting of the Council of State, on 22 July, Louis XV decided to suspend the Soubise expedition and reinstate the cross-Channel coup by Chevert, who would now depart for Maldon from Ostend, thus making use of the Austrian Netherlands card. To ensure that d’Aiguillon’s invasion force got to Scotland, Admiral La Clue was ordered to sortie from Toulon, evade the British under Boscawen and join Conflans at Brest. There they would have temporary local superiority over Hawke, which would give them time to embark d’Aiguillon’s troops.

In the Mediterranean, Boscawen had taken over from Rear-Admiral Thomas Broderick in May and had followed his predecessor’s policy of making audacious raids on the coast of France to disconcert the French and keep them guessing. With twenty-five ships (thirteen men-of-war and twelve frigates) under his command, he had official orders to maintain a close blockade of Marseilles and Toulon and secret ones making the safety of Gibraltar a priority, but nothing was said about an invasion. Boscawen’s unceasing activity made the French think that another descent in force on their coastline was envisaged by the enemy, so they deployed ten battalions of infantry between Toulon and Marseilles. Boscawen increased the fear and uncertainty by sending two frigates on a daring raid right under the shore battery at Toulon. In his seamanship and derring-do, Boscawen was another Hawke, but in personality no two more unlike commanders could be imagined. Where Hawke was socially and politically inept and gauche, Boscawen knew how to manipulate the Georgian elite system for maximum advantage. Still only forty-nine, he could count among his honours and achievements the following: Admiral of the Blue, Lord of the Admiralty, member of the Privy Council and General of Marines at a salary of £3,000 a year (roughly £200,000 in present-day terms). He enjoyed a happy home life, devoted to his intellectual wife Frances, who returned the compliment and bore him five children. The only attribute Boscawen did not possess was Napoleon’s essential: luck. He would die of a mysterious fever in January 1761, which his physicians ascribed to having spent too many years at sea.

At the end of June, Boscawen relaxed the blockade and headed west to the coast of Spain for water. On board his flagship, serving as a gunnery assistant, was one of the most remarkable figures of the eighteenth century, a black youth named Olaudah Equiano, later to be a notable writer and an inspiration for Afro-Americans. Equiano was the son of a chief in Benin, who had been captured by slavers when he was eleven. Having survived the notorious ‘Middle Passage’, he arrived in America where, in 1757, aged twelve, he was bought by a Royal Navy lieutenant named Michael Pascal. In 1759 Pascal was assigned to Boscawen’s command, and this was the reason for Equiano’s presence on the flagship. Equiano’s intellect and powers of recall were formidable and he memorably recollected the terrible gale that assailed Boscawen’s fleet at this juncture: ‘The sea ran so high that, though all the guns were well housed, there was great reason to fear their getting loose, the ship rolled so much; and if they had it must have proved our destruction.’

Since Boscawen remained in Salou Bay near Tarragona until the end of July, this would have been the ideal time for La Clue to clear from Toulon and head out through the Straits of Gibraltar to join Conflans at Brest. It was typical of the muddle, indecision and sheer bad fortune of the French that Louis XV’s order to this effect did not reach La Clue until the end of the month, by which time Boscawen had arrived at Gilbraltar for revictualling. For a whole month Boscawen took a huge risk and relied on ‘open blockade’: he left two frigates behind for surveillance duties, one off Malaga and the other cruising the Straits between Estrepona and Ceuta. His thinking was that La Clue might be tempted to sortie, and he (Boscawen) could then finish him off. On 3 August Boscawen received new orders, this time making the danger of invasion a priority and enjoining him at all costs to prevent the juncture of the Brest and Toulon fleets; he was expressly commanded to follow La Clue wherever he would venture, if he managed to get clear of the Straits into the Atlantic. As always the French took an unconscionable time to get to sea. It was 5 August before La Clue was finally convinced the British were not lurking in ambush outside Toulon and so set sail. He had twelve ships of the line and three frigates in his fleet, including his flagship, the eighty-gun L’Océan, the pride of the French navy. Although Louis XV had foolishly allowed his navy to decline during his reign, it was widely acknowledged that, in terms of shipbuilding, eighteenth-century French warships were the finest in the world, and L’Océan, a new warship launched at Toulon in 1756, was a prime specimen.

La Clue’s intentions were to approach the Straits of Gibraltar along the Barbary coast and then crowd on sail at night so as to pass through the narrow entrance undetected. At first luck was with him and he made good progress with the aid of a stiff easterly breeze. He was almost through the Straits undetected, east of Ceuta at nightfall, when a patrolling Royal Navy frigate spotted his ships and raised the alarm. La Clue had done well, since Boscawen’s fleet was still refitting, with his flagship Namur with sails still unbent and most of the crews on shore leave; Boscawen himself and his senior officers had so little sense of danger that they were away dining with the Governor of San Roque. But someone on the Admiral’s flagship, following previous orders, gave the signal to unmoor. The dinner party broke up instantly, and there was a stampede to get back to the ships. Boscawen’s speed of recovery was remarkable: by 10 p.m. eight vessels had got under way, and an hour later Boscawen was in full pursuit off Cabritra Point. This was a stunning feat of seamanship and it is hardly surprising that historians of the Royal Navy have always gone into rhapsodies about the achievement. In three hours an entire fleet, moored in a difficult harbour at night, with sails unbent and the Admiral absent, had set sail. La Clue had seen the British frigate signalling his presence and realised that his best-case scenario hopes were in vain. He was now involved in a race. He was confident that L’Océan could outstrip her pursuers. But what about the lesser ships in his fleet?

At midnight La Clue made a fateful decision. His standing orders had called for a rendezvous at Cadiz – a wise precaution in view of the differential speeds of his ships and the uncertain weather in the Atlantic, which might scatter them. So far he had been making way with all lights extinguished but now, with the wind set fair and confident that all his craft were tightly bunched around him, he signalled with his poop-lantern that the entire armada should instead make for Cape St Vincent. Why this signal was not seen by all is not clear, but no fewer than five men-of-war and three frigates (the Fantasque, Lion, Trito, Fier, L’Oriflamme, La Chimère, Minerve and Gracieuse) failed to obey the new signal and made for Cadiz, following the original instructions. Some have speculated that La Clue’s captains did not like the new order and deliberately ignored it, but the best testimony suggests that the hindmost vessels were too far away at midnight to read the signal and, by the time they caught up between 2 and 3 a.m., La Clue had extinguished the lantern for fear he was simply lighting the way for Boscawen. Once again Louis XV’s neglect of the French marine must take some part of the blame, for the French had no night-compass signals. The eight breakaway French ships spent the next day trying to find L’Océan, then gave up and put into Cadiz, convinced they would find the flagship there. Arriving on 19 August, they were at once bottled up by Admiral Brodrick and there they remained impotently until New Year’s Day 1760. When the French ships split up, Boscawen made the right decision: ignore the small fry and follow the flagship.

At 6 a.m. on the morning of the 18th, La Clue saw some ships toiling in his rear and, thinking they were his rearguard, stopped to let them catch up. Finally, when Brodrick’s division (Boscawen’s rearguard) also appeared on the horizon, a mere head count revealed that this must be the enemy. To his horror La Clue realised that his own rear was nowhere to be seen and he had foolishly waited for the enemy to close on him. Now, with just seven French ships to the leeward of him, some thirty miles short of Cape St Vincent, and their rearguard mysteriously vanished, Boscawen engaged in a metaphorical licking of the lips. In his own words: ‘The wind was strong at east; the weather fine, the water smooth; and we soon perceived that we gained exceedingly fast upon the enemy; which were plainly discovered to be seven large ships of the line, and one of them carrying a French admiral’s flag.’ He signalled his fleet as he later recalled: ‘the ships to engage as they come up, without regard to the line of battle. The enemy’s ships were formed in a line a-head and crowding away from us under a press of sail . . . we had a fresh gale and came up with them very fast.’

For five hours, from about 8 a.m. to i p.m., both fleets made fast progress to the north-west, with the British gradually gaining. Shortly afterwards both fleets showed their colours and Boscawen signalled to attack. Even so it was 2.30 p.m. before HMS Culloden came to close quarters with the seventy-four-gun Centaure, captain M. de Sabran Grammont.

Although he had brought the enemy to battle, Boscawen was not at first pleased with the progress of the engagement. His official report was terse: ‘About half past two, some of the headmost ships began to engage; I could not get up to the Océan till near four.’ But his private correspondence shows that he was displeased when five of his warships crowded in on the Centaure. In Boscawen’s mind, Brodrick and the rearguard could easily take care of the French rear, and in the meantime his best ships should be pursuing the flagship. Nor could he perform his favourite manoeuvre of attacking in inverted order, whereby each successive ship used its comrade already engaged as a shield and thus got alongside the next enemy vessel, until every single one of the enemy craft from rear to van was engaged in rotation. Olaudah Equiano recalled that Boscawen passed three French ships to get close to L’Océan and was fired on by all three but ‘notwithstanding which our admiral would not suffer a gun to be fired at any of them, to my astonishment, but made us lie on our bellies on the deck till we came quite close to the Océan, who was ahead of them all; when we had orders to pour the whole three tiers into her at once.’

But meanwhile Boscawen had a fight on his hands with the Centaure, which battled tigerishly for five hours. Two hundred French mariners were killed or wounded in the furious combat, while Captain de Sabran Grammont himself was wounded in nine places. And when Boscawen got the Namur close enough to L’Océan around 4 p.m. so that a running fight developed, Namur had the worse of the encounter and had to sheer off after half an hour, but not before she had inflicted severe casualties of eighty-six dead and more than 100 wounded on the French. Olaudah Equiano was carrying powder to the guns during the fight and described the encounter as grim and deadly:

I ran a very great risk for more than half an hour of blowing up the ship. For, when we had taken the cartridges out of the boxes, the bottom of many of them proving rotten, the powder ran all about the deck, near the match tub; we scarcely had water enough at the last to throw on it. We were also, from our employment, very much exposed to the enemy’s shots; for we had to go through the whole length of the ship to bring the powder.

La Clue, with one arm broken and the other seriously wounded, temporarily handed over command to the Comte de Carne Marcein. Disabled, having lost mizzen mast and both topsail yards, Boscawen’s flagship fell astern and as it did so he encountered the Centaure, which was now (7.15 p.m.) striking after its battering by five Royal Navy ships. While L’Océan crowded on sail, Boscawen had to transfer his flag to the Newark. He ordered a general chase that would last all night, with the fifty-gun Guernsey in the British van. The heroic captain de Sabran Grammont was meanwhile taken prisoner to Gibraltar.

For the French it was now a case of sauve qui peut. By the morning of 19 August, La Clue had at L’Océan’s side only the three seventy-four-gun ships Redoutable, Téméraire and Modeste; the other two were making way on independent tracks, one bound for Rochefort, the other for the Canaries. Boscawen reported: ‘I pursued all night and in the morning of the 19th saw only four sail standing in for the land of Lagos.’ Unable to escape his pursuers but determined not to surrender, La Clue ran his magnificent flagship onto the rocks, with flag flying and every sail set; ‘every mast went by the board and fell over the bows,’ the watching Boscawen reported. The Redoutable followed suit, but the Téméraire and the Modeste anchored under the guns of some Portuguese batteries in Lagos Bay. In flagrant disregard of Portuguese neutrality, Boscawen sent his ships in to take the French vessels as prizes. L’Océan and Redoubtable were put to the torch where they lay. It seems there was still plenty of gunpowder on board L’Océan, for Olaudah Equiano describes the sequel: ‘About midnight I saw the Océan blow up, with a most dreadful explosion. I never beheld a more awful scene. In less than a minute the midnight for a certain space seemed turned into day by the blaze, which was attended with a noise louder and more terrible than thunder, that seemed to reveal every element around us.’

Carne Marcein and his officers were taken prisoner; La Clue escaped captivity, having previously taken himself off to Lisbon on a cutter. Lagos was a stunning victory for Britain. The French lost five ships and 500 killed and wounded as against casualties of 252 for Boscawen, but it was in its strategic implications that the battle was so decisive. Conflans was now on his own against the combined might of the Royal Navy and the chances of a successful French invasion considerably diminished. Unable to find the other two French vessels, Boscawen reported his success to Pitt and Hawke and announced on 20 August that he was returning home, leaving Brodrick and seven ships on patrol.

The demoralised French were reduced to unseemly three-way polemics between La Clue, the Ministry of Marine and the captains of the ships that had run into Cadiz. A marathon of epistolary self-exculpation and blame-shifting ensued, with La Clue pointing the finger at the captains now bottled up in Cadiz and they in turn protesting that the Admiral had not made his intentions plain, had changed his mind and then not sent clear signals. La Clue blithely wrote to Choiseul that he was not guilty but simply unlucky; all that seamanship could do he had done but the caprice of Fortune had undone him. French public opinion expressed itself disgusted with the whole affair, from which no one except Captain de Sabran Grammont had emerged with credit; indeed, he was universally conceded to have performed as valiantly as warriors of old and was expressly singled out for plaudits by his British captors in Gibraltar. As always, the French government proved absurdly indulgent towards its failed admirals. La Clue was made Lieutenant-General in 1764 and Castillon, one of the captains who skulked in Lagos, was promoted in 1765. The Marquis de Saint-Aignan, the lacklustre commander of the Redoutable, went on to reach the highest rank in the navy.

The gloom in Paris contrasted with the euphoria in London, where news of the great victory arrived on 6 September. Even the congenitally downbeat Duke of Newcastle allowed himself to breathe new optimism: ‘Now Boscawen will come back,’ he wrote, ‘with seven ships and three French ones, and two regiments from Gibraltar. I own I was afraid of invasion till now.’ Adam Smith, revelling in the success of his book on moral sentiments, told his friend Gilbert Elliott (in a letter dated 10 October) that he was very pleased about Lagos but nobody took the threatened invasion seriously anyway. Arriving almost simultaneously with the news of the victory at Minden in Germany, Boscawen’s tidings convinced Pitt that Providence was with the British this year. But he and Newcastle forgot the ancient wisdom about cornered rats. Now almost out of options, Choiseul and his ministers would fight desperately to ensure that d’Aiguillon and his invasion force got to Scotland.


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