Reviewed by James P. Rife, M.A.
Amateur historian, ship modeler, and rocket scientist Mark Lardas packs much into Osprey’s latest addition to its excellent ‘Campaign Series’ of reference books, The Glorious First of June 1794. This was the British name for the first major fleet action against the French Navy since the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782. In only ninety-six pages, Lardas concisely recounts the events of that campaign, the key commanders on both sides, the three-day battle itself, and its aftermath, while placing everything within the larger context of the French Revolution. This is no small feat considering the complexity of the overall subject matter, the number of vessels involved, and the chaotic political and economic dynamics of the time. Lardas succeeds admirably.
The action takes place from Autumn 1793 through June 1794 when France was gripped by the Reign of Terror, civil war, and foreign invasion, and its revolution was faltering. Facing mass starvation following a ruined harvest, and with the rest of Europe and Britain imposing a virtual embargo against the revolutionaries, the ruling National Convention turned to its former American allies for relief. So, in April 1794 a huge convoy of well over a hundred French merchantmen, carrying enough grain to feed 600,000 people for four months, left the Chesapeake Bay bound for Brest. The convoy had to get through or the Revolution was finished.
The Royal Navy, commanded by the venerable Admiral Sir Richard Howe, saw a prime opportunity to not only crush the French at sea and end the Revolution but also to win military glory, a hoard of prize money, and promotions for his officers. Howe therefore took his fleet to sea in early May and ordered his Atlantic squadrons to pursue the French convoy. The French fleet at Brest, commanded by Contre-Amiral Louis Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse, departed two weeks later with the mission of meeting and escorting the convoy to safety. Villaret had also ordered his detached light squadrons to protect the convoy as it made the harrowing voyage across the Atlantic. A running bluewater skirmish ensued during what became known as the Atlantic Campaign of May 1794.
On May 28 Howe and Villaret’s main battle fleets finally met some 400 miles west of Ushant, the western most point of French territory past the English Channel, and over the next four days engaged in several hot but inconclusive actions. Neither fleet was at its best. After twelve years of relative peace, the British suffered from a manpower shortage, inexperienced or insubordinate captains, and run-down warships. Meanwhile, the French Marine Nationale had been consumed by the Revolution, with many of its most experienced officers and seamen meeting Madame Guillotine, and its ship crews infected with ill-discipline and mutiny. Further, the notorious Committee for Public Safety saddled Villaret with an incompetent minder, undermining the admiral’s command authority and threatening his life should he fail. Indeed, as Lardas wryly notes, “the Marine Nationale was 150 years ahead of its time” by incorporating “a concept other navies would not use until the 20th century: political officers.” Therefore, while its ships-of-the-line were bigger and better than those of the British, the French Navy was then a shadow of its former self.
The climactic battle occurred on June 1 after Howe ordered his captains to use the weather gage to turn into Villaret’s line of battle and bear down on the French ships individually. The British warships were to pass through the French line, rake their bows and sterns with rolling broadsides, break it into pieces, and then come about for close-quarters action. The unorthodox plan broke down though when some of Howe’s captains either missed the signal or else disobeyed him. But in the end the British achieved a tactical victory by sinking seven French ships and inflicting over 7,000 casualties while losing none their ships and suffering only about 1,200 casualties. Still, after retreating to Brest, Villaret was able to declare a strategic victory (and save both his neck and arguably the Revolution) since the convoy arrived unscathed while Howe was distracted. Consequently, the French called it “La Bataille du 13 prairial an 2,” using the Revolutionary calendar.
Writing crisply, Lardas ably retells the story of this rather messy campaign by falling back on his skill as a technical writer, engineer, and modeler. He organizes the book topically and logically with the chapters focusing on the opposing commanders, the opposing navies, the opposing plans, and the campaign itself, including an introduction and a brief discussion of the aftermath and the battlefield today. Lardas also provides a useful chronology to show the dates of events during the May campaign, and his detailed diagrams and maps are very effective for following the various fleet actions. Finally, Edouard Groult’s artwork depicting key moments during the battle are gorgeous and set this book above others in the Campaign Series.
If there are any quibbles to be had, then the lack of endnote citations makes it difficult to track Lardas’ specific sources throughout his narrative, although he does provide a short bibliographic essay and notes that most of his 19th century sources can be found online. Also, in his discussion of the battle’s aftermath, Lardas gives short shrift to the bitter controversy that engulfed the Royal Navy for years afterward, claiming that only Captain Anthony Malloy of the Caesar “came off badly” with whispers of cowardice. This is not altogether accurate since there were other officers who were slighted by Howe in his reports and denied accolades.
These are just minor issues however, and likely due to publisher space restrictions, considering that Osprey books are meant to be short and rather un-academic for the lay-reader and hobbyist markets.
Ultimately, Lardas’ short history is a great addition to the Campaign series and a useful reference for naval historians unfamiliar with the French Revolutionary wars. It is also a nice resource for amateurs who do not have the time to invest in full-scale academic treatments of the subject.
James P. Rife is a senior historian with SJR Research LLC, based in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and a member of the Naval Historical Foundation, the U.S. Naval Institute, the Naval Maritime Historical Society, and the Society for Military History.
The Glorious First of June 1794 (Mark Lardas, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2019).