October Book Choice: The Glorious First of June
The History Today Book Choice recommendation for October is The Glorious First of June: Fleet Battle in the Reign of Terror (Quercus), the concluding volume in Sam Willis’ ‘Hearts of Oak Trilogy’. Here the author talks to Paul Lay about his work.
The Glorious First of June is the final part of a trilogy. Can you explain how we got here?
I wanted to make a major, multi-volume contribution to the history of the sailing navy but was anxious to get away from the traditional chronological narrative. I therefore decided to write the biographies of a ship, of a man and of a battle, an approach that would allow me to dissect the period from a variety of different perspectives. The first of this ‘Hearts of Oak Trilogy’ was the biography of the ship, subject of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. The second was a biography of Admiral Benbow, a man immortalised in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the third book focused on one of the most fascinating fleet battles of the Age of Sail, The Glorious First of June.
What makes this battle so interesting?
The Glorious First of June was fought during the French Revolution, at the very height of the Reign of Terror. With Louis XVI lying headless in a pauper’s grave and France torn apart by civil war, the reins of power were seized by Maximilien Robespierre, who set out to regain control of France with the guillotine and mob violence. As the blood flowed through the streets of France, the British and French fleets met in an encounter that swiftly became known as the hardest-fought battle of the Age of Sail. Remarkably, it was witnessed by a professional maritime artist, Nicholas Pocock. His images are widely considered the most accurate depictions of sailing warfare ever produced.
The hero of the First of June is Admiral Lord Howe, a relatively obscure figure. What qualities did he bring to battle?
Howe had no interest in commanding the British fleet in the summer of 1794 and only returned to the fleet after a direct request from his friend, George III. Howe was old and ill, though a tough and experienced man. A political failure, he was nonetheless a thorough seaman and adored by the sailors. The problem he faced in June 1794 was tactical as much as strategic and perfectly suited his mind. Howe had been a great innovator in signalling, tactics and sailors’ health, all of which were crucial ingredients in the coming battle. Most notably, Howe attacked the French in an entirely novel way, by breaking the French line at numerous points along its chain.
Did the weather affect the battle?
The major problem that hounded both fleets at the First of June was fog. The title of the battle is in fact misleading. The first of June was the final act in a week-long struggle and there were several occasions when both fleets were scattered by poor weather conditions. The French fleet at the battle is believed to have been full of pressed men in fear of the guillotine and poorly skilled. The evidence suggests, however, that the French seamanship in several crucial situations was impressive. Conversely, there are numerous instances of the British failing to retain cohesion at critical moments. We now know that the British fleet was actually poorly manned and only some of the British captains had trained their men in the rigorous way that we have come to expect.
Attitudes to hygiene were crucial to the well-being of sailors. The Royal Navy seems to have been rather better at this than the French.
The battle was a significant British victory but there was a major sting in the tail. In comparison with the British, the French ships were filthy and their crews sickly. When the British fleet returned home, the ships’ holds crammed with enemy sailors, the sickly French sailors began to infect the British crews. No provision had been made to cope with such a scale of victory and most of the French sailors were forced to remain on the British warships for several weeks. The result was that the British fleet was infected with typhus and its operational capabilities crippled. It did not get to sea again that summer.
The victory had a considerable impact on the governance of Britain, especially for the Younger Pitt. This appears to have been timely in light of the goings on in France.
The victory eased concerns about a French invasion, which had been hanging over Britain for months. Initially the British had supported the humanitarian ideals of the French Revolution – that is until they killed their king and became caught in the grip of Robespierre. From that moment on, the British were terrified that the French would export their extremism. Victory at sea provided respite. British trade was also made more secure and merchants more confident. The fleet victory was proof that Pitt’s maritime policy would work, and it strengthened his position for the challenging months ahead. Soon the British were faced with the distinctly troubling proposal of a war against France and Spain combined.
The Glorious First of June: Fleet Battle in the Reign of Terror
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