The Keppel Affair

On October 15th, 1778, a letter appeared in the Whig General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, which was to prove a catalyst in one of the most notable causes celebres in naval history, the Keppel-Palliser affair.

The letter made specific accusations which had been in the air for three months, ever since the inconclusive action off Ushant between Admiral Keppel's Channel Fleet and the French, that the battle had been thrown away by the insubordination of Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, Keppel's rear divisional commander.

Anonymously penned, the charges brought to the boil the simmering national discontent over the war against America in its battle for independence and the Tory ministry, whilst the subsequent courts martial effectively ended the careers of both protagonists. The charges could, within the straitjacket of the Admiralty Fighting Instructions, with their draconian penalties for failure in action, have added two more names to Admiral Byng's in the list of national scapegoats. (Byng was court-martialed in 1757 for cowardice during the Seven Years War and shot). The letter read:

The principal cause of Mr Keppel's not re-attacking the French, at half-past three in the afternoon (being at the time totally refitted from the damages sustained in the morning) was Sir H-- P--'s not joining him agreeable to a signal to form the line, he being at that time four miles to windward with his division.

Mr Keppel, observing a non-compliance, made other signals for the respective ships of Sir H-- P--'s division to bear down to him, which in complying with. Sir H-- P-- called them back into his wake.

Keppel, according to the letter, kept the signal to form line flying and, to reinforce his order, sent a frigate to summon Palliser to take his station as:

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