On this day in 1778, a Revolutionary War battle is fought just off the coast of France. Wait. A battle near France?! In the Revolution? Yes, you read that correctly.
The Battle of Ushant was a pretty big blow to the British Navy, mostly because the Royal Navy believed itself to be unbeatable. Making matters worse, it was the second such incident in a matter of months. American Captain John Paul Jones had also delivered an earlier humiliating blow at Whitehaven.
Let’s just say that the British didn’t quite know what to do with the situation.
The stage for the battle was set years before. In the years following the French and Indian War, the French had determined to “develop actively, but noiselessly, the Navy.” Perhaps they suspected that the peace they’d brokered with the British wouldn’t last? A more modern Navy was sure to come in handy at some point.
Unsurprisingly, then, the French Navy was vastly improved by early 1778. Perhaps making matters more interesting, France had entered the Revolution as American allies.
In the meantime, the British continued to take their naval superiority for granted. Maybe just a tad bit of hubris going on there?!
It wasn’t long before the French and British navies clashed. French Admiral Comte d’Orvilliers had sailed from the northwestern tip of France with 32 ships in early July 1778. At about the same time, British Admiral Augustus Keppel departed from southern England with 30 ships. The two spotted each other on July 23. Keppel was determined to fight, but d’Orvilliers was under orders not to unduly risk French ships.
“I will avoid a disproportionate action as well as I can,” he wrote, “but if the enemy really seeks to force it, it will be very hard to shun.”
For days, the British pursued the French. Early in the chase, the French lost two ships. Thus, they no longer had a numerical advantage over the British when the two sides finally engaged in battle on July 27.
The battle that followed raged for hours. In the end, the inconclusive outcome owed much to confusion and miscommunication among officers, particularly on the British side. Keppel found that his fleet was too crippled to pursue the French fleet, which had gotten a head start. The riggings on many British ships were ripped to shreds from the battle! The French had been deliberately aiming at their masts and sails.
Keppel had lost his chance at victory.
Both sides had taken heavy losses, although the French had lost slightly more. It wasn’t good enough. The English expected their Navy to decimate its foes! In this instance, there was an additional embarrassment: The extensive damage to the British sails left that fleet far less maneuverable than the French one.
The fallout from the battle was terrible, and people sought someone to blame. Keppel and another officer, Hugh Palliser, were both court-martialed. Both men were acquitted, but they also resigned their posts.
No one could then know it, but a far greater embarrassment was coming for the British at Yorktown.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1913)
David Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War (1998)
Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo (2004)
Theodore Savas, J. David Dameron, Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution (2006)