After Britain and France went to war in the spring of 1778, America became a sideshow to the main event. Britain and France had been traditional enemies for centuries. Part of it was the whole Catholic-Protestant rift that had divided Europe. Part of it was conflicting claims over each other’s countries. King George III still held the title of King of France, a claim that dated back more than 400 years. Although the British Channel kept the two kingdoms separated, there was a continuing rivalry between the two countries that simply would not end.
|Battle of Ushant
In the hundred years prior to this war, Britain and France had faced off in at least five major wars, totaling 39 years of fighting. These were a continuation of centuries more fighting between the two kingdoms.
In the Seven Years War, the British Navy had dominated the French at sea. That was a big reason why France lost North America. In the intervening years, France focused on rebuilding her navy to compete with the British. France, which had three times the population of Britain, thought that Britain could fall if France could crush its navy.
The first major naval engagement took place in the English Channel. The fight took place about 100 miles west of the island of Ushant. That battle still gets its name from the island because calling it a battle out in the middle of the ocean doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The two fleets were pretty evenly divided, each having about 30 ships of the line plus some smaller vessels. The battle was not particularly decisive, but it does give me the opportunity to talk about the two navies and the role they played in Britain and France. To help with that, I want to give a little background on the two flee commanders who fought the battle of Ushant: Admiral Augustus Keppel, and Louis Guillouet, the comte d'Orvilliers.
In 1778, the 53 year old Admiral Keppel was a highly experienced officer with over four decades at sea. His grandfather had immigrated to Britain from the Netherlands as a top aide to William of Orange. When William and Mary took the throne in Britain, Keppel continued his service to the new king and received appointment as the First Earl of Albemarle.
The earl married Lady Anne Lennox who would become Admiral Keppel’s mother. She was the daughter of the First Earl of Richmond, who was in turn the illegitimate son of King Charles II. So despite his family only having arrived in Britain two generations earlier, Keppel was tied to some of the most important families in Britain.
Keppel, however, would not inherit his father’s title. That would go to his older brother George Keppel, who fought in the Seven Years War and eventually became a general. His brother would die relatively young, but not before bearing a son, William, to take the family title.
Augustus Keppel went to sea in 1735, when he was only nine or ten years old. He served on a variety of ships as he grew to adulthood. His early adventures as an ensign included service in the Mediterranean under Commodore George Clinton, the father of future General Sir Henry Clinton. He also participated in a cruise around the world, during which he became an acting lieutenant at age sixteen.
Just over two years later, as the War of Austrian Succession began, Keppel, at age nineteen became captain of his first ship. Keppel continued to do well as a commander. By the end of the war, he was commodore of a small fleet.
In 1754, Keppel, served briefly as Commander-in-Chief of North America and had the responsibility of delivering Major General Edward Braddock and his army to Virginia, where they would press British claims in the Ohio Valley.
Around this same time, Keppel’s father died, moving his brother George to the House of Lords. Captain Keppel took the family’s seat in the House of Commons. But as the Seven Years War began, Keppel returned to the fleet. In his second war, Keppel once again performed with distinction, leading the line of battle against the French along with Captain Richard Howe at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759.
Later he would command the Jamaica station with a fleet of ships, and would oversee the return of Cuba to the Spanish at the end of the war.
Following the end of the war, Keppel returned to London where he received appointments as Lord of the King’s Bedchamber, and as a Lord of the Admiralty. He retained his seat in Parliament, although he did not speak much unless the issue involved naval matters.
Keppel did line up politically, however, with the Whigs, who opposed the administration’s policies in North America. His political views resulted in his losing most of his political appointments, and finding himself without any naval command when the American Revolution began. In January of 1778, with the war with France imminent, the crown, once again, needed his skills as a naval commander. He received appointment as admiral and took command of a fleet at Portsmouth. There, he had to rush to repair ships and assemble a crew to face the new French threat. His fleet put out to sea, in search of French fleets.
The fleet that he would find was commanded by Louis Guillouet, the comte d'Orvilliers. The Comte’s came from a noble French family. His father served as Governor of French Guiana, where he grew up. At the time the South American outpost was tiny, with only a few hundred colonists and a few thousand slaves. It had changed hands several times between the French, the British, and the Dutch.
Because d’Orvilliers did not have family or other close connections at Versailles, his move up the ranks was rather slow. Even so, he married the daughter of his fleet commander and began to move up in rank. In 1757, his fleet traveled to Louisbourg to help end the British siege there.
Despite the weaknesses of the French Navy in the Seven Years War, d’Orvilliers came out with his reputation intact. He became a Commander in the order of St. Louis and had become a key leader in France’s naval elite. He was, by this time, getting up in years though. In 1778, d’Orvilliers was 68 years old, but commanded a fleet of ships protecting the French coast.
Battle of Ushant
On July 8, 1778 Vice Admiral comte d’Orvilliers left Brest, on the coast of France. His fleet of thirty-two ships of the line and nine frigates had sailed into the Atlantic in hopes of disrupting trade between Britain and its colonies.
At the same time, British Admiral Keppel had been tasked with finding and destroying the French fleet in order to keep Britain’s trade routes open. Keppel originally left Portsmouth in June with a handful of ships in search of the enemy. While at sea, he was able to stop a ship that told him the French had a fleet of thirty two ships of the line at Brest, more than double what Keppel expected. He turned around and went back to Portsmouth for reinforcements.
Britain, at this time, had over-extended its navy. Lord Sandwich had assured Parliament that they had dozens of ships of the line ready to go. Keppel had found only six ready for service when he took command at Portsmouth in May.
Keppel set out again on July 9, the day after d’Orvilliers had set sale. Keppel had collected a fleet of twenty-four ships of the line. A few days later, six more ships joined his fleet, already at sea. After two weeks at sea the two fleets caught sight of each other about 100 miles west of Ushant. The French expected a much smaller fleet. Even though the two fleets were about equal in size, the French began evasive maneuvers.
Two of the French ships managed to sail back to Brest before the British got between the fleet and the French coast. For the next few days, both fleets sailed southwest, with the French trying to keep the British at a distance.
On the morning of July 27, the winds shifted and the fleets were only a few miles apart. British second in command, Admiral John Campbell, ordered a contingent of the fleet under third in command, Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, to sail toward the French Fleet. Palliser, who was a Lord of the Admiralty, had not been given notice of these orders and took offense when he found out another Admiral had ordered part of his fleet into battle.
|British Line at Ushant
So, as I said, the formations for both sides were a mess. But by the time the fog cleared enough to see the enemy, they were practically on top of each other. A firefight raged for about two hours. Palliser’s ships took the brunt of the French fire, while Keppel’s flagship the Victory went after the French flagship.
As the ships jockeyed for position, d’Orvilliers ordered an attack on the five most damaged British ships. The French captains, however, were slow to respond and the British realized what they were trying to do. Keppel repositioned his ships to protect the damaged ships and continue the battle. Later in the battle Keppel individually signaled ships under Palliser’s command and ordered them to join his lines, thus once again cutting Palliser out of the chain of command.
Eventually darkness fell. Keppel spent the night working on repairs, and keeping an eye on the French fleet nearby. At dawn the following day, the British realized that the lights from the French ships came from only three ships. The rest of the French fleet had sailed away that night and were making their way into Brest. Keppel figured he could at least capture the three damaged ships left behind, but then discovered those ships were in relatively good condition. They were three of the fastest French ships and quickly escaped the pursuing British.
Fighting from the previous day resulted in about 400 British dead and 800 wounded. No ships had sunk, but most had to limp back to Portsmouth for repairs. The French reported 126 killed and just over 400 wounded. All of their ships also managed to return to port for repairs. By most accounts, the battle was considered a draw.
Following the return of the French fleet to Brest, d’Orvilliers permitted one of his officers, the duc de Chartres to deliver news of the battle to Paris and Versailles. The duc was a distant cousin of the King. He arrived early in the morning and requested that the King be awoken so that he could announce the victory. Great celebration of the French victory at sea swept across Paris.
|duc de Chartres,
Two captains from the fleet who had fled back to Brest days before the rest of the fleet fought the battle, faced a court of Inquiry. Captain Rochechouart came from a powerful French family and was cleared of all charges. Captain Trémigon was admonished but continued to serve. He would go on to command a much larger ship and would be killed in battle later in the war.
If the reaction to the battle in France was a confused mess, the reaction to the battle in London became a much larger confused mess. Keppel was unhappy with the performance of Palliser. But since Admiral Palliser was a Lord of the Admiralty and a favorite Lord Sandwich, Keppel decided to be political about the matter and praised Palliser in his reports to the Admiralty. He thought that a critical report would only divide the ranks at a time when everyone should be united in the war effort.
At the same time though, Keppel began badmouthing Palliser’s performance to his Whig friends around London. Keppel and Pallisser were both members of Parliament who sat on opposing political factions, but had been on good terms personally.
In October, Palliser heard the rumors circulating that Keppel was critical of Palliser’s performance. A Whig newspaper had published articles which vaguely accused Palliser of cowardice or intentionally sabotaging the battle for political reasons. Palliser confronted Keppel and demanded he sign a document praising his contact at Ushant. Keppel, of course, refused.
The issue blew up in Parliament, creating greater divisions between the political factions. The Earl of Bristol in the House of Lords called on the Earl of Sandwich to conduct an inquiry into the charges. Sandwich hoped the whole thing would blow over. He argued that Ushant was pretty much a British victory and that leaders should not be squabbling with each other. He also got Keppel to keep his mouth shut, saying no more than that he was content with the course and the result of the battle, although he did say he would not serve with Palliser again.
Palliser would not let the matter go. He said he had nothing to fear from a court of inquiry and that he had obeyed all of Keppel’s commands that day. That was too much for Keppel, who then made clear that Palliser had refused to respond to his flag to join the fleet after it had been flying for five hours.
With that, Palliser got approval from Sandwich to bring charges against Keppel. The charges accused Keppel of failing to marshal his fleet, fighting in an un-officer like manner, making scandalous haste in quitting, making sail away from the enemy, giving them an opportunity to rally, and presenting the appearance of flight disgraceful to the British flag.
These charges were reminiscent of charges brought twenty years earlier against Admiral John Byng. In that instance, Byng had fought a half hearted battle against the French and Minorca before retreating back to Granada. Keppel had sat on the court martial that had found Admiral Byng guilty and sent him to the firing squad. Since Byng had been a Tory and Keppel was a Whig, some saw this as a time for political payback. Now Keppel was literally fighting for his life.
Most Whigs saw the trial a despicable political attack. Some naval officers took leave and refused to fight while the trial proceeded. In January 1779, the navy conducted its inquiry against Admiral Keppel. Most of the ship captains who participated in the battle served as witnesses at trial and mostly backed Keppel. The court exonerated Keppel and generally pointed the finger at Palliser for his failures that day.
|Adm. Keppel Pub Sign
Sandwich persuaded Palliser to resign his government offices and his seat in Parliament. But by this time the Whigs were smelling blood. They condemned the Admiralty for failing to provide Keppel with proper intelligence and support before the battle, then unfairly blaming him for a less than complete victory. The house also narrowly voted down a motion to kick Palliser out of the navy. The King even suggested to Lord North that he consider replacing Sandwich with Admiral Howe, who had returned from America. North demurred and stood by his First Lord of the Admiralty.
In April, 1779 the navy bowed to pressure and court martialed Palliser. Whigs accused the Admiralty of stacking the deck in favor of Palliser by sending out to sea all the officers who were against Pallier and putting only his friends on the court martial. Keppel, though, also wanted the matter to go away. He refused to prosecute the case against Palliser and only appeared as a reluctant witness. The court martial became more of a court of inquiry that, in the end, exonerated Palliser with only a few minor errors in judgment.
The Keppel affair revealed growing political cracks in the British government that only got worse over time. It also created divisions among naval officers that left scars for a generation. For a relatively indeterminate naval battle that did not sink a single ship, the Battle of Ushant would have political ramifications that would last for years.
Next week: we turn to another court martial, this one in America as Charles Lee must answer for his behavior at Monmouth.
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Hiscocks, Richard, The Battle of Ushant – 27 July 1778 – and the Political Aftermath, 2016: https://morethannelson.com/the-battle-of-ushant-27-july-1778-and-the-political-aftermath
Hon. Augustus Keppel 1st Viscount: https://morethannelson.com/officer/hon-augustus-keppel-1st-viscount-keppel
The indecisive Battle of Ushant 1778 – and its farcical aftermath, the guillotine and a “Citizen King” https://dawlishchronicles.com/2018/10/19/the-indecisive-battle-of-ushant-1778
Chaline, Olivier. “Admiral Louis Guillouet, Comte d’Orvilliers (1710–92): A Style of Command in the Age of the American War.” Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World: The Age of Reform and Revolution, 1700–1850, edited by Richard Harding and Agustín Guimerá, University of Westminster Press, London, 2017, pp. 73–84. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv5vddxt.11
Pritchard, James. “French Strategy and the American Revolution: A Reappraisal.” Naval War College Review, vol. 47, no. 4, 1994, pp. 83–108. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44642697
(from archive.org unless noted)
[Anonymous] The anti-palliseriad, or, Britain's triumphs over France: dedicated to the Honorable Augustus Keppel, Admiral of the British fleet, London : Printed for J. Bew, 1779.
The Trial of the Honourable Augustus Keppel, Admiral of the Blue Squadron: At a Court Martial, Londone: Printed by J. Wilkes, Breadhower, and Peadle 1770.
Blanchard, W. Trial Of The Augustus Keppel, London, J. Almon, 1779.
Hunt, Robert M. The Life of Sir Hugh Palliser, London: Chapman and Hall, 1844.
Keppel, Thomas Robert The Life of Augustus, viscount Keppel, Admiral of the White, and first lord of the admiralty in 1782-3, London: H. Colburn, 1842.
Palliser, Hugh The Defence of Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser Bart: at the court-martial lately held upon him, with the court's sentence, London: Printed for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1779.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
O'Shaughnessy Andrew Jackson The Men Who Lost America, Yale Univ. Press, 2013.
Syrett, David The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1998 (book recommendation of the week).
Thomas, Peter D.G. Lord North. Allen Lane, 1976.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.