Paintings by Jan Carel Donatus van Beecq
William III would never have invaded England if he had listened to admirals who pointed out inconvenient difficulties, and the more Torrington complained, the less the king trusted him. His chosen naval adviser was his Secretary of State the Earl of Nottingham, formerly a member of the 1679 Admiralty Board, a Tory politician of sanguine temperament who prided himself on his knowledge of the Navy. Behind Nottingham stood Russell, another sea officer who had deserted James II, but an old enemy of Torrington. Together they made plans for 1690. Though naval finance and victualling were in a state of collapse, there was no one in Whitehall now who cared much about such things. A substantial part of the fleet was in the Mediterranean under Vice-Admiral Henry Killigrew, and Nottingham assumed it would neutralize the French Toulon squadron. A small force under Rear-Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was sent to the Irish Sea – much too small, as he pointed out, to stop the French controlling the Irish Sea if they chose, and cutting off the English army in Ireland. This was the more critical since William III himself landed in Ireland in June 1690 with fresh troops. None of this disturbed Nottingham and the Privy Council in London, advising Queen Mary in her husband’s absence. Meanwhile the French elaborated grand but vague plans for the united Brest and Mediterranean fleets to enter the Channel.
In May the French Toulon squadron succeeded in evading Killigrew off Cadiz, and on 13 June the united French fleet sailed from Brest and entered the Channel. Torrington sailed from the Nore ten days later, already gloomily convinced that the French would be stronger. On the 25th he sighted them off the Isle of Wight, and reckoned them almost eighty ships of the line (the true figure was seventy-five on the day of battle), against his own fifty-six. Torrington had been a lieutenant in the Four Days’ Battle as well as the admiral at Bantry Bay; he knew the consequences of fighting against odds and being driven into port. On the other hand he was convinced that he did not have to fight. ‘Most men were in fear that the French would invade, but I was always of another opinion, for I always said that whilst we had a fleet in being, they would not make the attempt.’ In London Nottingham, discreetly encouraged by Russell, saw no cause for alarm. The French fleet could not possibly be as large as Torrington claimed, and only the admiral’s pessimism, defeatism or treachery could account for his reports. The final straw was Torrington’s announced intention to retreat to the Gunfleet. No one had forgotten who had last retreated to the Gunfleet to keep his ‘fleet in being’ in the face of a threatened invasion, and they evidently did not trust God to be on their side a second time. Rather than risk a ‘Catholic wind’, Torrington was ordered to fight whatever the odds, and Russell was sent down to the fleet with secret orders to supersede him if he refused.
Torrington received his orders on 29 June and called a council of war of his flag-officers, which concluded that they had no option but to obey. Next day the allies formed line of battle, and with the wind behind them, bore down to attack the French. We have no minutes of the council of war, and we do not know how Torrington meant to fight. Nor do we know whether Admiral Cornelis Evertsen commanding the Dutch squadron, which formed the van, correctly understood Torrington’s intentions, though he knew some English. It seems likely that Torrington meant to exploit the windward position and avoid disaster by fighting at long range. His squadron in the centre seems to have been to windward of the others, more distant from the enemy; possibly he meant his van and rear to cover the extremities of the longer French line, while he threatened the French centre, but the wind was light and the arrangement may equally have been accidental. At all events the Dutch squadron ran straight down into close action, leaving the leading division of the French fleet unmarked: ‘a notable blunder, for professionals, which I saw at once I might exploit,’ wrote Chateau-Renault commanding the French van. The leading French division doubled on the Dutch squadron and inflicted heavy losses on them, including one ship captured, two sunk and many badly damaged. When the tide turned late in the afternoon, by which time there was almost no wind, Torrington ordered the Dutch to anchor and with his own squadron anchored to leeward, covering them from the French, who were slow to react and were carried out of action by the ebb. Over the next few days the defeated allied fleet retreated up the Channel, stopping the tides for want of wind. The French pursued with extreme caution in strict line of battle, but even so it was necessary to burn seven more Dutch and one English ship to avoid capture.
The defeat of Beachy Head caused panic in England, and serious damage to the alliance. In the prevailing atmosphere of paranoia, no one attributed it to mistaken orders or overwhelming odds. Even before the battle, William, Mary and their ministers had been suspicious of Torrington; now they assumed that his deliberate treachery explained everything. ‘In plain terms, by all that yet appears,’ Nottingham informed William on 3 July, ‘my Lord Torrington deserted the Dutch so shamefully that the whole squadron had been lost if some of our ships had not rescued them.’ Nottingham of course was anxious to shift the blame, but no one disputed his interpretation. Queen Mary wrote a grovelling apology to the States-General, offering to replace their lost ships, and William III assured them that Torrington would be punished. How to do it was not so obvious. Parliamentary impeachment would be slow and highly inflammatory of the political atmosphere, but the Admiralty Board struggled to avoid the responsibility. It took an Act of Parliament confirming the Board’s power to try a peer before Torrington’s court martial finally assembled at Chatham in December. To the outraged astonishment of William and his ministers, the court acquitted him. Most of its members were his old followers from the Mediterranean, there was no evidence of treachery, and the senior Dutch witness, Rear-Admiral Gillis Schey, contributed little but incoherent rage. Torrington’s acquittal was popular among the English seamen, who regarded him as a political sacrifice to the Dutch (who ‘through their own rashness and stupidity… were so roughly handled by the French fleet’), and cheered him up the river to London. Next day William dismissed Torrington from the Navy, but he could do no more. Meanwhile the question of replacing him had proved no less difficult. The Admiralty Board wanted Russell, but he preferred influence to responsibility. The Queen and her Council fell back on the Cromwellian expedient and chose a triumvirate of Killigrew, Sir John Ashby and Sir Richard Haddock.
Meanwhile the much-feared French invasion had not happened, because no invasion had been prepared. The marquis de Seignelay, who had succeeded his father Colbert as naval minister, urgently needed the political credit of a glorious victory, but had thought no further. Four days before the battle, he had written to the commander-in-chief, the comte de Tourville:
My confidence that you will gain a victory is such that I congratulate you in advance on the glory that you are going to acquire on that occasion; but since we must not stop there, I shall be content if you will let me know as soon as possible after the battle your thoughts on the employment of the fleet for the rest of the campaign.
It was rather late in the year to be raising the question of strategy for the first time, particularly with an admiral whose many good qualities were undermined by a profound reluctance to take risks. Moreover Seignelay, like most people in the new English government, knew little of naval logistics, and was impatient with Tourville’s excuses when he returned to port with victuals exhausted and a large proportion of his men sick. The sole profit of a great French victory was glory – and a raid which burned the village of Teignmouth35 with several fishing boats.
During the Channel campaign, the fate of nations was all to play for in Irish waters. William III defeated James II’s army at the battle of the Boyne on the day after Beachy Head, and James subsequently withdrew to France, but William and his army remained in Ireland, dependent on lines of supply which Shovell was too weak to protect against serious attack. A fortnight before Beachy Head, James’s Irish minister the Earl of Tyrconnel had assessed the naval situation with gloomy prescience:
The want of a squadron of French men of war in St George’s Channel has been our ruin, for had we had that since the beginning of May, the Prince of Orange had been confounded without striking a stroke, for he could have sent hither neither forces nor provisions, and Schomberg’s army would have starved, if they did not desert him… It’s to be feared their fleet will only triumph in the English Channel, for some days shoot a great many cannons into the English shore, and so return in August into their own ports.
It was not the victorious French but the defeated allies who used the sea to support their Irish forces. Strenuous efforts were made to refit and strengthen the fleet, and on 17 September the joint admirals sailed with a substantial amphibious expedition which in one month succeeded in taking Cork and Kinsale, the two principal ports on the south coast of Ireland.
For 1691 the three admirals were replaced by Edward Russell. As an outspoken enemy of the Stuarts he seemed politically safer than the other admirals, but until 1689 he had never commanded anything more than a single ship, and he was cantankerous and obstructive even in his most amiable moods. In France Seignelay died in the autumn of 1690, and his replacement, the comte de Pontchartrain, saw more hope in attacks on allied trade than sterile fleet victory. Tourville was therefore sent to sea with orders to cruise between Ushant and the Scillies, intercept the rich allied Mediterranean convoy expected home in July, and fight the allied main fleet if it was encountered in more or less equal force. He was not to go far from Brest, especially not up the Channel. Even this was too bold for Tourville, who would have much preferred to stay in port. Not until 17 June was he finally forced to sea by imperative orders. Almost at once his scouts warned him of the approach of the Mediterranean convoy from one direction, and Russell’s fleet from the other. Hastily abandoning waters so full of alarming opportunities, he fled into the Bay of Biscay. There Russell, with a smaller fleet, pursued him in late July, but Tourville’s excellent scouting allowed him to evade the allies and return to Brest on 4 August. Meanwhile smaller French squadrons several times escorted troops and supplies to Ireland, where James’s forces still held Limerick, but in the absence of the main fleet the communications of the English army were not disturbed, and Limerick finally surrendered on 13 October. The English government, seriously afraid that Parliament would vote to abandon the war as soon as Ireland was subdued, was desperate for a naval victory. To Russell’s fury, he was therefore forced to keep the main fleet at sea into September, losing two big ships wrecked, when a smaller squadron of two-deckers could have protected trade and covered Ireland just as well.
William III’s English government was visibly weak and divided, and the Navy’s loyalty was widely suspect. In France James II persuaded Louis XIV that the moment was ripe for decisive intervention, and a substantial French army was assembled on the Côtentin Peninsula. The plan provided for the Toulon squadron to arrive at Brest in the spring, permitting the united French fleet to sail in April to dominate the Channel before the English and Dutch could join forces. The troops would then be landed in Dorset. Though Tourville had not got to sea before June in the past three years, neither Louis XIV nor Pontchartrain took his logistical difficulties very seriously. They had to use Tourville, who was their only admiral with the seniority and experience to command the main fleet, but they were familiar with his excuses for inactivity, and they assumed that imperative orders were the solution to all the difficulties he raised. They finally forced Tourville to sea on 2 May, still without the Mediterranean ships and many of those from Atlantic ports.
The threat of a French landing was known to William III, who was already planning one of his own in France, and strenuous efforts were made to prepare the allied fleet. Its different elements were assembled at St Helen’s (the outer anchorage of Spithead, at the eastern end of the Isle of Wight). It was a bold decision to use an open anchorage only a few days’ sail from Brest, and when the allies joined on 12 May, Tourville was already entering the Channel. Off Plymouth on the 15th he was joined by reinforcements bringing his strength up to forty-four ships of the line. The allied line eventually amounted to eighty-two ships, but Tourville had not received warning that the Dutch and English had joined, and was still expecting to meet an English force not much bigger than his own, and actively disloyal to William III. On 19 May, north-east of Cape Barfleur, Tourville sighted his enemy ahead and to leeward, and ordered an immediate attack. It is something of a mystery why he did so. His orders obliged him to fight even the united allied fleet, but only if he met it while covering his actual landing, which was not the case. It is true the orders contained phrases reflecting on his courage, but he had received similar orders in the past, and injured honour had never yet stung him into action. Perhaps the most likely explanation is the simplest: the morning was foggy, and he was committed to battle before he realized the odds against him.
At first the battle went well for Tourville in spite of the odds. His fleet was concentrated and composed largely of big ships, it was handled with great tactical skill in a bold attack on the allied centre pressed to close range; Shovell ‘never saw any come so near before they began to fight in my life’. The allied line was extended, not to say scattered, and it was some time before the van and rear could work round to envelop the French. By evening, however, Tourville’s situation was desperate, his line was disintegrating, and it was high time to disengage. During the night and the next day the main body of French ships retreated westwards, and on the 21st twenty-two ships were able to round Cape de la Hague and escape through the Race of Alderney towards St Malo. Another group failed to round Cape Barfleur and took refuge in the bay of St Vaast-la-Hougue on the eastern side of the peninsula. The laggards of the main fleet, still anchored near Cape de la Hague when the tide turned on the morning of the 21st, were driven from their anchors by the force of the flood tide and swept back eastwards. Three big ships, including Tourville’s badly damaged flagship the Soleil Royal, were beached near Cherbourg, and burned next day by English fireships. Twelve more were run close inshore at St Vaast, where shore batteries and the invasion force camped near by gave them some protection. The English took time to prepare their attack, but on the 23rd and 24th boats and fireships burned all twelve ships of the line, besides some of the troop transports in harbour. The fighting was so close inshore that in one incident the bowman of an English boat pulled a French cavalryman off his horse with a boathook.
The double battle of Barfleur-La Hougue was a notable allied victory, but in that age of discontent, few were happy with it for long. Russell thought the French ships and officers better than his own, and regretted that his subordinates Sir John Ashby and Philips van Almonde (commanding the Dutch fleet) had not risked a pursuit through the Race of Alderney to catch the rest of the French fleet before it reached St Malo. Russell’s subordinate admirals quarrelled with him and with each other. Russell was angry at being made to keep his big ships out to the end of August, indeed constantly grumbling at the risks of taking them down Channel at all in ‘weather fitting only for Laplanders to be at sea with’. ‘This storm,’ he wrote to Nottingham at the end of June,
has confirmed me in my former opinion, that no fleet of ships, being so many in number, nor of this bigness, ought to be ventured at sea but where they may have room enough to drive any way for eight and forty hours, or where they may let go an anchor and ride. In the Channel six hours, with a shift of wind, makes either side a lee shore, and had not Providence put it in my head in the morning early to bring to, but have run four leagues further over on the French coast, God knows what account you would have had of the fleet… This and a Dutch war are very different, for then bad weather was nothing, the fleet having it in their power to anchor, but now we keep the sea a thousand accidents attend it.
The government in London, bombarding him with unrealistic and contradictory instructions, expected him to mount an immediate attack on St Malo. As Lord Carmarthen, his leading minister, warned William III,
The omitting to endeavour it will be looked upon as an unpardonable crime in us not to advise and will have the worst consequences with a Parliament if it should fail for want of a due prosecution; amongst other ill humours which it will create, it will most certainly and unavoidably make them never give more for the support of any troops beyond seas.
Ministers and Parliamentarians were very displeased to be told that its dangerous approaches and heavy fortifications made an attack impossible.
Elsewhere in the world the first years of the naval war were equally disappointing. In the West Indies there were heavy losses to French privateers. Commodore Lawrence Wright arrived with thirteen warships and some transports in June 1690, but found it impossible to establish a good relationship with Christopher Codrington, Governor of the Leeward Islands, who demanded authority over both troops and ships. Codrington was a man of more energy than tact or talent, but his strategic ideas were sound: ‘All turns on mastery of the sea. If we have it, our islands are safe, however thinly peopled; if the French have it, we cannot, after the recent mortality, raise enough men in all the islands to hold one of them.’ Together they succeeded in recapturing the island of St Kitts and the Dutch island of St Eustatius in July, but the arrival of a French squadron forced the abandonment of an attempt on Guadaloupe in May 1691. Wright presently went home on sick leave (‘how justifiably I shall not say’ was the comment of the Secretary of the Admiralty) and was arrested on his return. In January 1692 Captain Ralph Wrenn arrived with reinforcements, and on 11 February was attacked off Barbados by the comte de Blenac. Though the French had double the numbers, Wrenn was able to cover the escape of his convoy and disengage without loss, but soon afterwards he and many of his men died of yellow fever, and the bulk of the squadron was sent home in April. In effect the two navies had cancelled one another out and achieved nothing.
In New England there were virtually no regular warships present, but Sir William Phips, now Governor of Massachusetts, organized an expedition which captured Port Royal, Acadia (now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia) in May 1690. Emboldened by this success, the colony improvised an expedition with not less than thirty-two ships against Quebec. It arrived before the city on 6 October, very late in the season, and the chaotic ‘siege’ fell apart after only a week, but it failed by only a narrow margin, for if it had arrived even a week earlier it would have found no defence prepared. The English capture of Port Royal being more or less balanced by the French capture of Casco, in these waters too, neither side was able to do the other essential damage.
This was the story of the opening years of the war at sea. The great fleets of which everyone had hoped and expected so much, proved to be difficult to use effectively in unforeseen circumstances. Governments whose experience was irrelevant and whose attention was elsewhere failed to produce any coherent naval policy, while the admirals found it easier to fight battles than to win them, and easier to win them than to achieve any lasting advantage. Only one naval operation was an unequivocal victory of enormous strategic consequences, one mounted in defiance of all common sense and professional experience, and achieved without fighting: the Dutch invasion of England in 1688.