1st Battle of Ushant

Bataille d'Ouessant

27th July 1778
Part of : The American War of Independence (1775/04/19 - 1784/01/14)
Previous action : Encounter at Sandy Hook 22nd July 1778
Next action : Second Battle of Pondicherry 10th August 1778


Great Britain

British Fleet, Augustus Keppel
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Van, Sir Robert Harland
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Monarch 74Joshua Rowley
Hector 74Sir John Hamilton
Centaur 74Philips Cosby
Exeter 64John Neale Pleydell Nott
Duke 90William Brereton
Queen 90Isaac PrescottSquadron Flagship
Shrewsbury 74Sir John Lockhart Ross
Cumberland 74Joseph Peyton
Berwick 70Isaac Townsend
Stirling Castle 64Robert Carkett
Center, Augustus Keppel
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Courageux 74Constantine John Phipps
Thunderer 74Robert Boyle
Sandwich 90Sir Richard Edwards
Valiant 74John Leveson Gower
Bienfaisant 64John Macbride
Victory 100Sir John LindsayFleet Flagship
Foudroyant 80John Jervis
Prince George 98Sir John Lindsay
Vigilant 64Robert Brice Kingsmill
Terrible 74Sir Richard Bickerton
Vengeance 74Michael Clements
Rear, Hugh Palliser
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Worcester 64Mark Robinson
Elizabeth 74Frederick Maitland
Robust 74Alexander Arthur Hood
Formidable 98John BazelySquadron Flagship
Ocean 90John Laforey
America 64Lord Edward Michael Pakenham (2nd Baron Longford)
Defiance 64Samuel Granston Goodall
Egmont 74John Carter Allen
Ramillies 74Sir Robert Digby
Frigates and other vessels
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Arethusa 32Samuel Marshall
Milford 28Sir William Chaloner Burnaby
Proserpine 28Evelyn Sutton
Andromeda 28Henry Bryne
Fox 28The Hon. Thomas Windsor
Le Lively 16 
Pluto 8James Bradby
Alert 10 
Vulcan 8Thomas Lloyd

Royaume de France

French Fleet, Louis Guillouet (Comte d'Orvilliers)
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Van, Louis Charles de Besné (Comte du Chaffault)
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Couronne -> 1792 Ça Ira 80François-Pierre Huon de KermadecSquadron Flagship
Duc de Bourgogne -> 1792 Peuple -> 1794 Caton 80  Detached before the action and did not engage
Glorieux 74 
Le Palmier 74Chevalier César-Henri Boscal de Réals
Bien Aimé 74 
Le Dauphin Royal 74 
Vengeur 64 Claude-Marguerite François Renart de Fuchsamberg (3rd Marquis d'Amblimont)
L'Alexandre 64 
L'Indien 64 
Le Saint Michel 60 
L'Amphion 50 
Center, Louis Guillouet (Comte d'Orvilliers)
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Bretagne -> 1793 Révolutionnaire 100 Hervé Louis Joseph Marie Duplessis-Parscau (Comte Duplessis-Parscau)Fleet Flagship
Ville de Paris 90Jean Baptiste Charles Henri d'Hector, comte d'Estaing
L'Orient 74 
Fendant 74 de Vaudreuil (Marquis de Vaudreuil)
Le Magnifique 74 
L'Actif 74 
Refléchi -> 1793 Turot 64 
L'Eveillé 64 
L'Artesien 64 Charles Sochet (Seigneur Des Touches)
L'Actionnaire 64 
Rear, Louis Philippe Joseph d'Orleans
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Le Saint Esprit -> 1794 Scipion 80Chevalier Toussaint-Guillaume Picquet (Comte de la Motte)Fleet Flagship
Robuste 74Chevalier François-Joseph Paul de Grasse (Comte de Grasse)
Le Conquérant 74 François-Aymar Monteil (Comte de Monteil)
L'Intrépide 74 
Le Zodiaque 74 
Le Diadème -> 1792 Brutus 74 
La Solitaire 64 
Le Roland 64 
Le Sphinx 64 
Triton 64 Ligondes (Comte de Ligondes)
Fier 50 
Frigates and other vessels
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
La Sensible 34 
L'Andromaque 32 
Junon 32 
L'Iphigenie 32 
Nymphe 32 
Le Surveillante 32 
La Sincere 32 
Perle 18 
Hirondelle 16 
Serin -> 1783 Courrier de L'Europe 14 
L'Ecureuil -> 1783 Courrier de L'Amerique 12 
La Favorite 10 
Lunette 4 

Notes on Action


On the afternoon of July 23rd the two fleets sighted each other, about a hundred miles west of Ushant, the French being then to leeward. Towards sunset, the latter were standing south-west, with the wind at west-north-west, and bore north-east from the British, who were lying-to, heads to the northward. The latter remaining nearly motionless throughout the night, and the wind shifting, d'Orvilliers availed himself of the conditions to press to windward, and in the morning was found to bear north-west from his opponent. Their relative positions satisfied for the moment both admirals; for Keppel found himself interposed between Brest and the French, while d'Orvilliers, though surrendering the advantage of open retreat to his port, had made it possible, by getting the weather-gage, to fulfil his promise to keep the sea and yet to avoid action. Two of his ships, however, the Due de Bourgogne, 80, and a seventy-four, were still to leeward, not only of their own main body, but also of the British. Keppel sent chasers after them, for the expressed purpose of compelling d'Orvilliers to action in their support, and it was believed by the British that they were forced to return to Brest, to avoid being cut off. They certainly quitted their fleet, which was thus reduced to twenty-seven effective sail. From this time until July 27th the wind continued to the westward, and the wariness of the French admiral baffled all Keppel's efforts to get within range. The latter, having no doubts as to what was expected of him, pursued vigorously, watching his chance.

On the morning of the 27th the two fleets were from six to ten miles apart, wind west-south-west, both on the port tack, steering north-west, the French dead to windward. The latter were in line ahead, the British in bow-aud-quarter line; that is, nearly abreast each other, but so ranged that, it' they went about together, they should have been in line ahead. Moth fleets were irregularly formed, the British especially so; for Keppel rightly considered that he would not accomplish his purpose, it' he were pedantic concerning the order of his going. He had therefore signalled a "General Chase," which, by permitting much individual freedom of movement, facilitated the progress of the whole. At daylight, the division commanded by Sir Hugh Palliser the right wing, as then heading - had dropped astern; and at 5:30 A. M. the signal was made to seven of its fastest sailers to chase to windward, the object being so to place them, relatively to the main body, as to support the latter, if an opportunity for action should offer.

At 9 A. M. the French admiral, wishing to approach the enemy and to see more clearly, ordered his fleet to wear in succession. to countermarch. As the van ships went round under this signal, they had to steer off the wind, parallel to their former line, on which those following them still were, until they reached the rear ship, when they could again haul to the wind. This caused a loss of ground to leeward, but not more than d'Orvilliers could afford, as things stood. Just after he had fairly committed himself to the manoeuvre, the wind hauled to the southward two points, which favoured the British, allowing them to head more nearly towards the enemy. Keppel therefore continued on the port tack, until all the French were on the starboard, and at 10.15, being nearly in their wake, he ordered his own ships to tack together. At this moment a thick rain-squall came up, concealing the fleets one from another for three quarters of an hour. With the squall the wind shifted back, favouring the British on this tack, as it had on the other, and enabling them to lay up for the enenry's rear. When the weather cleared, at 11, the French were seen to have gone about again, and were still in the confusion of a partly executed manoeuvre. Their admiral had doubtless recognised, from the change of wind, and from the direction of the enemy when last visible, that an encounter could not be avoided. If lie continued on the starboard tack, the van of the pursuing enemy, whose resolve to force battle could not be misunderstood, would overtake his rear ships, engaging as many of them as he might choose. By resuming the port tack, the heads of the columns would meet, and the heels pass in opposite directions, on equal terms as regarded position. Therefore he had ordered his ships to go about, all at the same time; thus forming column again rapidly, but reversing the order so that the rear became the van.

Keppel so far had made no signal for the line of battle, nor did he now. Recognising from the four days chase that his enemy was avoiding action, he judged correctly that he should force it, even at some risk. It was not the time for a drill-master, nor a parade. Besides, thanks to the morning signal for the leewardly ships to chase, these, forming the rear of the disorderly column in which he was advancing, were now well to windward, able therefore to support their comrades, if needful, as well as to attack the enemy. In short, practically the whole force was coming into action, although much less regularly than might have been desired. What was to follow was a rough-and-ready fight, but it was all that could be had, and better than nothing. Keppel therefore simply made the signal for battle, and that just as the firing began. The collision was so sudden that the ships at first had not their colours flying.

The French also, although their mamruvres had been more methodical, were in some confusion. It is not given to a body of thirty ships, of varying qualities, to attain perfection of movement in a fortnight of sea practice. The change of wind had precipitated an action, which one admiral had been seeking, and the other shunning; but each had to meet it with such shift as he could. The British being close-hauled, the French, advancing on a parallel line, were four points off the wind. Most of their ships, therefore, could have gone clear to windward of their opponents, but the fact that the latter could reach some of the leaders compelled the others to support them. As d'Orvilliers had said, it was hard to avoid an enemy resolute to fight. The leading three French vessels hauled their wind, in obedience to the admiral's signal to form the line of battle, which means a close-hauled line. The effect of this was to draw them gradually away from the British, and, if imitated by their followers, to render the affair a mere touch at a single point indecisive. The fourth French ship began the action, opening fire soon after eleven. The vessels of the opposing fleets surged by under short canvas, firing as opportunity offered, but necessarily much handicapped by smoke, which prevented the clear sight of an enemy, and caused anxiety lest an unseen friend might receive a broadside. "The distance between the Formidable, 90, and the Eginont, 74, was so short," testified Captain John Laforey, whose three-decker, the Ocean, 90, was abreast and outside this interval, " that it was with difficulty I could keep betwixt them to engage, without firing upon them, and I was once very near on board the Egmont." The Formidable, Palliser's flagship, kept her mizzen topsail aback much of the time, to deaden her way, to make room for the Ocean, and to allow the ships behind her to close. "At a quarter past one," testified Captain Maitland of the Elizabeth, 74, " we were very close behind the Formidable, and a midshipman upon the poop called out that there was a ship coming on board on the weather bow. I put the helm up, . . . and found, when the smoke cleared away, I was shot up under the Formidable's lee. She was then engaged with the two last ships in the French fleet, and, as I could not fire at them without firing through the Formidable, I was obliged to shoot on." ! Captain Bazely, of the Formidable, says of the same incident, "The Formidable did at the time of action bear up to one of the enemy's ships, to avoid being aboard of her, whose jib boom nearly touched the main topsail weather leech of the Formidable. I thought we could not avoid being on board."

Contrary to the usual result, the loss of the rear division, in killed and wounded, was heaviest, nearly equalling the aggregate of the other two. This was due to the morning signal to chase to windward, which brought these ships closer than their leaders. As soon as the British van, ten ships, had passed the French rear, its commander, Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland, anticipating Keppel's wishes, signalled it to go about and follow the enemy. As the French column was running free, these ships, when about, fetched to windward of its wake. As the Victory drew out of the fire, at 1 P.M., Keppel made a similar signal, and attempted to wear, the injuries to his rigging not permitting tacking; but caution was needed in manoeuvring across the bows of the following ships, and it was not till 2 P.M., that the Victory was about on the other tack, heading after the French. At this time, 2 P.M., just before or just after wearing, the signal for battle was hauled down, and that for the line of battle was hoisted. The object of the latter was to re-form the order, and the first was discontinued, partly because no longer needed, chiefly that it might not seem to contradict the urgent call for a re-formation.

At this time six or seven of Harland's division were on the weather bow of the Victory, to windward (westward), but a little ahead, and standing like her after the French; all on the port tack. None of the centre division succeeded in joining the flagship at once. At 2.30 Palliser's ship, the Formidable, on the starboard tack passed her to leeward, the last of the fleet apparently out of action. A half-hour after this the Victory had been joined by three of the centre, which were following her in close order, the van remaining in the same relative position. Astern of these two groups were a number of other ships in various degrees of confusion, some going about, some trying to come up, others completely disabled. Especially, there was in the south-south-east, therefore well to leeward, a cluster of four or five British vessels, evidently temporarily incapable of manoeuvring.

This was the situation which met the eye of the French admiral, scanning the field as the smoke drove away. The disorder of the British, which originated in the general chase, had increased through the hurry of the manoeuvres succeeding the squall, and culminated in the conditions just described. It was an inevitable result of a military exigency confronted by a fleet only recently equipped. The French, starting from a better formation, had come out in better shape. But, after all, it seems difficult wholly to remedy the disadvantage of a policy essentially defensive; and d'Orvilliers' next order, though well conceived, was resultless. At 1 P.M. he signalled his fleet to wear in succession, and form the line of battle on the starboard tack. This signal was not seen by the leading ship, which should have begun the movement. The junior French admiral, in the fourth ship from the van, at length went about, and spoke the Bretagne, to know what was the commander-in-chief's desire. D'Orvilliers explained that he wished to pass along the enemv's fleet from end to end. to leeward, because in its disordered state there was a fair promise of advantage, and by going to leeward presenting his weather side to the enemy he could use the weather lower-deck guns, whereas, in the then state of the sea, the lee ports could not be opened. Thus explained, the movement was executed, but the favourable moment had passed. It was not till 2.30 that the manoeuvre was evident to the British.

As soon as Keppel recognised his opponent's intention, he wore the Victory again, a few minutes after 3 P.M., and stood slowly down, on the starboard tack off the wind, towards his crippled ships in the south-south-east, keeping aloft the signal for the line of battle, which commanded every manageable ship to get to her station. As this deliberate movement was away from the enemy, Palliser tried afterwards to fix upon it the stigma of flight, a preposterous extravagancy. Harland put his division about at once and joined the Admiral. On this tack his station was ahead of the Victory, but in consequence of a message from Keppel he fell in behind her, to cover the rear until Palliser's division could repair damage and take their places. At 4 P.M. Harland's division was in the line. Palliser's ships, as they completed refitting, ranged themselves in rear of the Formidable, their captains considering, as they testified, that they took station from their divisional commander, and not from the ship of the commander-in-chief. There was formed thus, on the weather quarter of the Victory, and a mile or two distant, a separate line of ships, constituting on this tack the proper rear of the fleet, and dependent for initiative on Palliser's flagship. At 5 P.M. Keppel sent word by a frigate to Palliser to hasten into the line, as he was only waiting for him to renew the action, the French now having completed their manoeuvre. They had not attacked, as they might have done, but had drawn up under the lee of the British, their van abreast the latter's centre. At the same time Harland was directed to move to his proper position in the van, which he at once did. Palliser made no movement, and Keppel with extraordinary if not culpable forbearance, refrained from summoning the rear ships into line by their individual pennants. This he at last did about 7 P.M., signalling specifically to each of the vessels then grouped with Palliser (except the Formidable), to leave the latter and take their posts in the line. This was accordingly done, but it was thought then to be too late to renew the action. At daylight the next morning, only three French ships were in sight from the decks; but the main body could be seen in the south-east from some of the mastheads, and was thought to be from fifteen to twenty miles distant.

Though absolutely indecisive, this was a pretty smart skirmish; the British loss being 133 killed and 373 wounded, that of the French 161 killed and 513 wounded. The general result would appear to indicate that the French, in accordance with their usual policy, had fired to cripple their enemy's spars and rigging, the motive-power. This would be consistent with d'Orvilliers' avowed purpose of avoiding action except under favourable circumstances. As the smoke thickened and confusion increased, the fleets had got closer together, and, whatever the intention, many shot found their way to the British hulls. Nevertheless, as the returns show, the French hit were to the British nearly as 7 to 5. On the other hand, it is certain that the manoeuvring power of the French after the action was greater than that of the British.

Both sides claimed the advantage. This was simply a point of honour, or (if credit, for material advantage accrued to neither. Keppel had succeeded in forcing d'Orvilliers to action against his will; d'Orvilliers, by a well-judged evolution, had retained a superiority of manoeuvring power after the engagement. Had his next signal been promptly obeyed, he might have passed again by the British fleet, in fairly good order, before it re-formed, and concentrated his fire on the more leewardly of its vessels. Even under the delay, it was distinctly in his power to renew the fight; and that he did not do so forfeits all claim to victory. Not to speak of the better condition of the French ships, Keppel, by running off the wind, had given his opponent full opportunity to reach his fleet and to attack. Instead of so doing, d'Orvilliers drew up under the British lee, out of range, and offered battle; a gallant defiance, but to a crippled foe.

Time was thus given to the British to refit their ships sufficiently to bear down again. This the French admiral should not have permitted. He should have attacked promptly, or else have retreated; to windward, or to leeward, as seemed most expedient. Under the conditions, it was not good generalship to give the enemy time, and to await his pleasure. Keppel, on the other hand, being granted this chance, should have renewed the fight; and here arose the controversy which set all England by the ears, and may be said to have immortalised this otherwise trivial incident. Palliser's division was to windward from 4 to 7 P.M., while the signals were flying to form line of battle, and to bear down in the Admiral's wake; and Keppel alleged that, had these been obeyed by 6 P.M., he would have renewed the battle, having still over two hours of daylight. It has been stated already that, besides the signals, a frigate brought Palliser word that the Admiral was waiting only for him.


TRN3 The Royal Navy : a history from the earliest times to the present Vol IIIWilliam Laid ClowesDigital Book
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