CHAPTER 4. THE BATTLE OFF BREST.
When Bligh's expedition returned, Europe was staggering under the shock of the French Revolution. The head of Louis XVI was severed in January; the knife of Charlotte Corday was plunged into the heart of Marat in July; Marie Antoinette, the grey discrowned Queen of thirty-eight, mounted the scaffold in October. The guillotine was very busy, and France was frantic amid internal disruption and the menace of a ring of foes.
The English governing classes had been clamouring for war. It seemed to many political observers that it was positively needful to launch the country into an international struggle to divert attention from demands for domestic reform. "Democratic ambition was awakened; the desire of power, under the name of reform, was rapidly gaining ground among the middling ranks; the only mode of checking the evil was by engaging in a foreign contest, by drawing off the ardent spirits into active service and, in lieu of the modern desire for innovation, rousing the ancient gallantry of the British people."* (* Alison, History of Europe, 1839 2 128.) French military operations in the Netherlands, running counter to traditional British policy, were provocative, and the feeling aroused by the execution of Louis immediately led Pitt's ministry to order the French Ambassador, Chauvelin, to leave London within eight days. He left at once. On February 1st, acting on Chauvelin's report of the disposition and preparations of Great Britain, France formally declared war.
Flinders was with Bligh, peacefully landing breadfruit trees in the West Indies, when this momentous opening of a twenty-two years' conflict occurred. When the expedition reached England, every port and dockyard on the south coast was humming with preparations for a great naval struggle. The Channel Fleet, under Lord Howe's command, was cruising in search of the enemy's ships of war. Flinders' patron, Pasley, who had hoisted his broad pennant as commodore on the Bellerophon, was actively engaged in this service. In October, 1793, he was detached by Howe to look for five French vessels that had some time before chased the British frigate Circe into Falmouth. Howe himself, with a fleet of 22 sail, put to sea later in the same month. On November 18 his squadron sighted six French ships of the line and some frigates, and gave chase. But they were seen late in the day, and soon darkness prevented an engagement. On the following morning the enemy was again sighted by the chasing squadron under Pasley; but the Latona signalled that the French were in superior strength, and the British detachment retired.* (* James, Naval History, 1837 1 60.) Howe's cruise was barren of results, and the British fleet returned to Torbay. Naval operations were suspended for several months.
Flinders naturally took advantage of the earliest opportunity to report himself to the friend who had first helped him into the King's Navy. Pasley, who was promoted on April 12th, 1794, to the rank of Rear-Admiral of the White, again welcomed him on board the Bellerophon and, hearing from Captain Bligh excellent accounts of his diligence and usefulness, appointed him one of his aides-de-camp. It was in this capacity that he took part in the great battle off Brest on June 1st, 1794, signalised in British naval history as "the glorious First of June."
Lord Howe, with the Channel Fleet (thirty-four ships of the line and fifteen frigates) put to sea on May 2nd with two purposes: first, to convoy to a safe distance from the probable field of hostilities a squadron of 148 British merchantmen bound for various ports; second, to intercept and destroy a French fleet which was known to be convoying a large company of provision-ships from America. War, bad harvests, the disorganization of industry, and revolutionary upheavals, had produced an acute scarcity of food in France, and the arrival of these vessels was awaited with intense anxiety. To prevent their arrival, or to destroy the French squadron, would be to strike a serious blow at the enemy. Howe had under him a fleet eager for fight; against him, a foe keenly aware how vitally necessary to their country was the arrival of the food-ships.
The French fleet (twenty-six ships of the line) under the command of Villaret-Joyeuse, put to sea from Brest on May 16. Some foggy days intervened. On the 28th Howe sighted them. The French admiral formed his ships in a close line. Howe's plan was first to get his fleet to windward of the enemy, then to sail down, pierce his line, and engage his vessels to leeward.
The Bellerophon was in action shortly after coming within striking distance, on the 28th May. Pasley, at six o'clock in the evening, attacked the French rear, his immediate antagonist being the Revolutionnaire, 110 guns. A hot duel, maintained with splendid intrepidity by the British rear-admiral, continued for over an hour and a quarter, for the other ships of the British fleet were unable to get up to support the fast-sailing Bellerophon. She was severely handled by her large antagonist, and was hampered in her ability to manoeuvre by a shot which injured her mainmast. Pasley therefore, on a signal from the Admiral, bore up. The Revolutionnaire was now attacked from a distance by the Russell, the Marlborough and the Thunderer, and endeavoured to make off, but was blocked by the Leviathan. The Audacious (74) took up the work which the Bellerophon had commenced, and, laying herself on the lee quarter of the Revolutionnaire, poured a rain of shot into her. The fight was continued in a rough sea far into the twilight of that early summer evening; until, about 10 o'clock, the Revolutionnaire was a mere floating hulk. Her flag had either been lowered or shot down, but she was not captured, and was towed into Rochefort on the following day. The Audacious was so badly knocked about that she was of no use for later engagements, and was sent home.