Pellew blockading Brest in 1796
Pellew blockading Brest in 1796


The following is retold from Mahans "The influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire".

This story concerns the illfated first French invasion of Ireland in 1796, in which neither French nor British performed particularly well. Ireland was in turmoil after attempts to introduce moderate reform had failed. Two agents of the non-sectarian United Irishman, Arthur O'Connor and Lord Edward Fitzgerald had been in contact with the French minister in Hamburg. Early in 1796 Theobald Wolfe Tone, Secretary of the United Irishman and a undisillusioned believer in the principles of the French Revolution travelled via America to Paris, where Carnot, the military planner in the Directory, gave him the rank of adjutant-general in the French army. Carnot was convinced that a French invasion would meet with success; although he counted on support from the disaffected natives he was realistic enough to realise that a substancial French force and adequate supplies would be needed for the real work. 20,000 soldiers, under the ambitious General Hoche were planned to sail from Brest. After various delays the expedition was to sail in December 1796: A fleet of 43 ships, including 16 sail-of-the-line eventually departed with 15,000 soldiers. The initial French Admiral, Villaret Joyeuse, filled with pesimism about the chances of his fleet surviving the blockading British and the winter weather en route to Bantry Bay on the southwest coast of Ireland was replaced at the last moment by Morard de Galles. To reduce the number of ships in the convoy, and thus hopefully decrease the chance of detection, the ships-of-the-line carried 600 soldiers each and the frigates 250 each.

Bridport, the Admiral of the Channel fleet had established himself at Spithead; as under his predesessor, Lord Howe, the main body of the fleet was in port in the winter. It was assumed that the French could not leave Brest, on the French west coast, in the prevailing westerly wind. If the wind shifted to the east, it was assumed the British fleet could be on station in time to prevent any escape. Unfortunately Spithead was sigularly unsuitable for this policy, being not only 200 miles from Ushant, the island at the head of the Iroise channel leading to Brest, but also 150 miles eastwards. Furthermore, when the wind was from the southeast, favourable to going down the Channel, three deckers couldn't make the initial dogleg from the anchorage to the outer roads only three miles distant.

In addition to the normal westward route through the Iroise channel, there is a southern route through the narrow Passage du Raz.

On the 15th December, Morard de Galles took his fleet, with an east wind from the harbour to the roads at the head of the Iroise channel. Although the wind had been easterly and the weather fair for six weeks, there were only three British frigates in the vicicity. Th evident activity in Brest has caused the blockading fleet at sea to be increased to 15 sail-of-the-line, but Admiral Colpoys, the commander had failed to take account of Lord St Vincent's maxim (Well up with Ushant in an easterly wind), and had allowed his fleet to drift 50 miles to westward.

Sir Edward Pellew, the officer commanding the three frigates, sent one to alert Colpoys, but in the event he was only reached three days after the French had sailed.

When the Fench began to lift their anchors on the 16th, Pellew dispatched the second frigate to Pellew, remaining behind in his: Indefatigable, a prize.

In addition to the normal westward route through the Iroise channel, there is also a southern route through the narrow Passage du Raz. Morard de Galles, knowing that Colpoys was in the vicinity of Ushant, to westward, decided at the last minute to take the fleet through this passage. At three o'clock on the gloomy and squally afternoon the fleet was finally under sail. As it would not reach the Passage before nightfall, and the wind backed southwards, Morard de Galles again changed his mind and signaled the fleet to put before the wind and leave via the Iroise channel after all. In the confusion and growing darkness most of the fleet missed the signal and continued for the Passage de Raz. Realizing what was happening, Morard de Galles sent a corvette to stop the ships heading for the Passage du Raz but her signals were not understood. At this point Pellew, who, we remember was in a French prize and thus easily mistaken for a member of the expedition, attached himself to the leading ships and confused the signals of Morard de Galles by himself making random gun signals and burning blue lights.

If fact, with the exception of one 74, the Seduisant, which ran onto the rocks, all the French ships eventually managed to leave Brest without encountering Colpoys' fleet, akthough split into three groups. As the captains had been given sealed orders to be opened if they came detached from the fleet, most of the ships, although not the Fraternite, the frigate Bearing Hoche and Marard de Galles, eventually came together and reached Bantry Bay on the 21st. Unfortunately the east wind, which had helped the ships on the way, combined with the poor seamanship of the French and the mass of soldiers getting in the way to make it impossible for the remaining 35 ships to beat their way to northeastward up Bantry Bay. "I believe", wrote Tone, "that we have made 300 tacks, and have not gained 100 yards in a straight line". When a storm caused anchors to drag and cables to part, the commanding officer, Rear-Admiral Bouvet, decided to abandon the expedition. By the 14th of January thirtyfive ships were back in Brest, five had been wrecked and six had been captured by the British.

Despite Pellew's timely dispatch of messagers, both Colpoys, too far westward of Ushant, and Bridport, in Spithead, only learned of the escape on the 22nd December, after the French had arrived at Bantry Bay. No concerted fleet action was possible. The ships that had been captured were taken by a 64 and a group of frigates which happened to be in Cork on the 29th December.

Bridport returned to Spithead and in Parliament the ministry maintained that all that could have been done, was done. Only when St Vincent took over the Channel fleet in 1799 did things change: the efficient blockade was set up which prevented Napoleons invasion of England and eventually lead to Trafalgar.

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