the glorious first of June


“It was a damned near-run thing, I must admit,’ said Jack, modestly; then after a pause he laughed and said, ‘I remember your using those very words in the old Bellerophon, before we had our battle.’


So. To celebrate the 1st of June lets step back in history.

This date marks one of what are often considered the 4 naval battles that defined British sea dominance. This one is simply referred to as The Glorious 1st of June.

The other three:

–          The Battle of the Saintes (known to the French as the Battle of Dominica) took place in 1782 and was a victory of a British fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney over a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse forcing the French and Spanish to abandon a planned invasion of Jamaica.

The battle is named after the Saintes (or Saints), a group of islands between Guadeloupe and Dominica in the West Indies. The French fleet defeated here by the Royal Navy was the same French fleet that had blockaded the British Army during the Siege of Yorktown. The battle is sometimes credited with pioneering the tactic of “breaking the line” (although for some reason Admiral Nelson seems to get credit for this maneuver at Trafalgar).

–          Battle of the Nile where Nelson, having sailed back & forth across the Mediterranean finally found the French navy in Abukir Bay and attacked. What made this battle special was first the French navy was anchored in a line across the bay so this was not a running battle at sea but rather an attack on a defensive line and second the British navy sank or captured all but 4 French ships in probably one of the most complete victories in naval history.

–          Trafalgar is where Admiral Nelson died and the British navy was victorious against larger odds of a combined Spanish/French fleet pretty much eliminating any major French naval threat during Napoleon period.

0580003981Interestingly (or at least to me) I recommended a book a long time ago called “The Billy Ruffian: the story of the Bellerophon” which was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line launched on 6 October 1786. She fought at three of these naval battles (basically getting leveled in two of them). She fought at the battle of The Glorious First of June in 1794, under the command of Captain William Johnstone Hope, where she lost 4 killed and 27 wounded. In 1798 she fought at the Battle of the Nile under Captain Henry D’Esterre Darby, who was wounded early in the action; she lost 49 killed and 148 wounded. She also fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, becoming one of the most famous British ships of the Napoleonic Wars.


The Glorious First of June (also known as the Third Battle of Ushant) of 1794 was the first and largest fleet action of the naval conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the First French Republic during the French Revolutionary Wars. The British Channel Fleet under Admiral Lord Howe attempted to interdict the passage of a vitally important French grain convoy from the United States, which was protected by the French Atlantic Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse. The two battle fleets first made contact on 28 May, some 365 nautical miles (673 km) off Ushant, Brittany. In the opening engagement Howe disabled the three-decker ‘Révolutionnaire’, 110 guns. On 29 May he cut the French line to leeward and for the next two days the fleets maneuvered in fog and out of contact until Howe brought the French to full action on June 1. The two forces clashed in the Atlantic Ocean, some 400 nautical miles (741 km) west of the French island of Ushant on 1 June 1794.

british navy June_1_1794_Order_of_Battle_Map

The action was the culmination of a campaign that had criss-crossed the Bay of Biscay over the previous month in which both sides had captured numerous merchant ships and minor warships and had engaged in two partial, but inconclusive, fleet actions. During the battle, Howe defied naval convention by ordering his fleet to turn towards the French and for each of his vessels to rake and engage their immediate opponent. This unexpected order was not understood by all of his captains, and as a result his attack was more piecemeal than he intended. Nevertheless, his ships inflicted a severe tactical defeat on the French fleet. The main action was the duel between the opposing flagships ‘Queen Charlotte’ (Howe’s flagship with 100 guns) and the ‘Montagne’ (Villaret-Joyeuse’s flagship with 120 guns) and includes the sinking of the ‘Vengeur du Peuple’, 74 guns. In the aftermath of the battle both fleets were left shattered and in no condition for further combat, Howe and Villaret returning to their home ports. Despite losing seven of his ships of the line, Villaret had bought enough time for the French grain convoy to reach safety unimpeded by Howe’s fleet, securing a strategic success.

Odd trivia note.

The French ships in this battle were flying the early Revolutionary naval ensign which places the French tricolor in the upper quadrant of the former Bourbon white naval ensign. This pattern was only in use from 1790 to May 1794, when it was replaced by the standard modern tricolor (which we see today). Villaret-Joyeuse’s ships had sailed without the new pattern and the ‘Glorious First’ was the only major action in which the French fleet flew its three-quarter-white predecessor.

I know. I know. Who cares.

But it’s the 1st of June.

Written by Bruce