by Michael Kirkby
Whilst watching an episode of the Hornblower series (Napoleonic maritime drama staffing Ioan Gruffudd, based on the books by C.S. Forester) the audience is provided with an excellent window into the life of the Royal Navy during the age of Nelson.
One particular episode, The Frogs and the Lobsters, sees the newly promoted Lieutenant Hornblower and his irascible mentor and ship’s captain Sir Edward Pellew (played by Ilkeston born actor Robert Lindsay) sent on an against-all-odds mission to land exiled Royalist troops supported by British infantry into France to raise an army of Royalist supporters and overthrow the newly founded Republican government that has deposed of the French King following the Revolution.
Both book and film of the affair were based on actual events that took place in 1795 under similar circumstances. Following the fall of Toulon, a Royalist stronghold, in 1793 to the French Republican army, many Royalist troops and sympathizers were forced into exile in Britain. However, not all Royalists quit France though and areas such as The Vendeè and Chouan in Brittany remained openly loyal to the Royalist cause.
Both the Chouan and Vendean approach to waging war on the Republicans differed greatly. The forces in the Vendeè were disciplined and a mobilized para military, who fought the Republican army in the field, the Chouans on the other hand, waged an underground guerilla war. Both forces were comprised mainly of Catholic peasants who did not want to see France become a newly liberal state which Republican rule threatened to bring. From their exile in England, King Louis XVIII conducted his counter revolutionary plans in the South of France with his brother the Comte d’Artois taking charge of the activities in Vendeè, Normandy and Brittany. Artois named Joseph de Puisaye, an officer in the Swiss Guards, head of operations in the Vendeè.
Puisaye took charge of plans to invade Brittany using the exiled émigré army and in Spring 1795 laid plans on the desk of the Admiralty to an expedition to the Quiberon peninsula on the coast of Brittany. Puisaye’s plan was to land troops and supplies and secure a foothold in France and wait for local Royalist supporters to join their expedition. Once the force was strong enough they would break out of the peninsula and join up with the Royalist supporters in the Chouan under General Francois Athanase Charette de la Contrie and together march on Paris, sweeping away all of the Republican army that opposed them along the way. It was decided that the invading force should all be French troops as this would secure loyalty from the people who might be cautious about allying themselves to British troops as they would view their presence as an invasion of foreign troops.
Whilst the landing troops would all be French Royalists there was still the small issue of being ferried across the channel. For this, the Royal Navy was chosen to work closely with the French Royalist commanders to safely carry them across the sea.
The commander chosen for the expedition was Sir John Borlase Warren, a member of parliament and experienced seaman.
Born in Stapleford, Nottinghamshire, Warren had attended Emmanuel College at Cambridge University in 1769 and attained his B.A. in 1773 and M.A. in 1776. Whilst conducting his studies Warren joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1777 during the outbreak of the American War of Independence and rose to Lieutenant a year later and was a Captain by 1781. Owing to his experience and capability at sea and his academic excellence, Warren was thought of as the ideal man to lead the expedition which required a mixture of caution, cool headedness and strict discipline.
To conduct the mission effectively, Warren commanded a squadron of 10 frigates and ships of the line, including his own, HMS Pomone, and also took charge of 2 luggers, 5 gunboats, 2 cutters and 55 transports carrying the Royalist émigrés. Warren’s fleet set off on the 13th June 1795 with the expectation that on the 15th it would meet up with the Channel Fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Alexander Hood, Lord Bridport, and together they would sail to Quiberon.
The voyage to Quiberon was no easy feat. Prior to joining up with Warren, Bridport had encountered the French Republican fleet under Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse and had engaged them in battle. Whilst Bridport had been successful, the encounter had taken its toll on Bridport’s fleet rendering him short of supplies, ammunition and he had to send some of his ships back to England due to heavy casualties and damage, rendering them unfit for further service. Warren too had encountered and beaten back an attempt by the French navy during the voyage but again, whilst this was successful, it had alerted the Republicans that something was afoot and a large Royal Navy presence was making its way toward Brittany.
On the 27th June the Royal Navy reached their destination at the village of Cramac and the 2,500 émigrés were landed in two divisions. At 1am on the 27th a small Republican force fired on the landing Royalists but were easily beaten back and by 3am all Royalist émigrés were back on French soil and the order was now given for all stores and supplies to be brought ashore to equip Puisaye’s force and the expected number of 16,000 Royalists coming to them. Three hundred British marines were also disembarked alongside the Royalist force.
The first few days of the landings appeared to be a success and Warren wrote to Bridport informing him that many locals had cheered, wept and ran out to greet the émigrés as they advanced up the peninsula offering them food and wine. It would seem that the landings had been a success.
Problems soon began to arise for the mission when it became apparent that Puisaye and the other Royalist commanders, the Comte d’Hervilly and Comte de Sombreuil, were at logger heads and could not agree on an effective course of action. It was even discovered that d’Hervilly, whilst second in command to Puisaye, was considered more experienced and capable a leader and had privately been given permission to over-rule any bad decision made by Puisaye.
The internal politics within the Royal Navy were also equally bitter as Bridport made no attempt to hide his resentment that Warren had been given command of this expedition as a mere commodore, whereas Bridport, a full admiral, thought the leadership of the task should have fallen to him.
Upon learning that the landings had been a success, Bridport informed Warren that he would be taking the Channel Fleet back to England for repair after their engagement with Villaret-Joyeuse.
Warren wrote back to Bridport pleading with him to remain as Bridport’s presence was holding off Villaret-Joyeuse’s fleet from trapping Warren’s squadron in the Bay of Quiberon. Another issue facing Warren and the Royal Navy was that far more Royalists were converging on the area than anticipated, in numbers far greater than the number of supplies could be brought ashore to sustain them. The Royalist commanders were also pressing Warren for cannons which he needed to secure permission from the elusive Bridport for.
With tensions building on all sides, it was decided that on 3rd July the Royalist force would assault Fort Penthievre. The assault was a success and allowed the Royalists to establish a forward base and supply depot for the breakout into France. Three days later news arrived that Republican commander General Lazare Hoche was close to Nantes with 12,000 men. That same day a Republican attempt to retake the fort was beaten back by the use of Royal Navy gunboats and a Royalist counter attack.
Puisaye’s inactivity to break out of the peninsula had allowed more Republican forces under Hoche, numbering now at around 20,000, to converge on the area cutting off further reinforcement for the Royalists from Charette’s Chouans.
The lack of discipline or cohesion of the Royalists were further compounded by the increasing number of Chouan guerrillas joining their numbers. The Chouans refused to fight like regular troops and only interested in attaining arms and supplies to fight their own agenda. They had also brought with them large numbers of women, children and civilians who required regulation, feeding and supplying, which the plans had not accounted for.
On the 11th July 5,000 Royalists broke out and attacked the Republicans holding the north of the peninsula. They were successful but only succeeded in driving the Republicans back to an entrenched position they had dug in the bottle neck of the peninsula effectively cutting off all reinforcements to the Royalists.
Warren was becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of communication and support from Bridport and the ineffectiveness of the Royalists. On the 16th July he took matters into his own hands and issued his own cannons to support the attack on Hoche’s right flank when the Royalist army attempted to break out of the peninsula.
In what was a 3 point attack, the main Royalist force would attack by land, simultaneously 1,100 Chouans assembled into gunboats to attack in the east, and a further 5,000 Royalists would attack the Republican force on the Sainte Barbe. The main Royalist force met heavier resistance than expected and they were forced to retire suffering close to 300 casualties including the Comte d’Hervilly amongst their number. The Republicans pursued the retreating Royalists until they were stopped by the combined force of British gunboats and marines who opened fire into their flanks.
No further attack could be made until Warren had received more ships, reinforcements and supplies. Warren at this time had already lost 3 of his 10 ships due to blockading duty and an outbreak of scurvy. Unbeknownst to Warren, the Admiralty were in the process of preparing to send another fleet to support him, this time 4 regiments of British troops, the 12th, 78th, 80th and 90th Foot, were also being dispatched with more Royalists on transports.
Due to the recent failure to break out of the peninsula the Royalist enthusiasm began to crack with dozens of Chouan guerrillas deserting daily. Late on the 20th July a party of Royalist troops (suspected recruits from Republican prisoners of war) sneaked out of Fort Penthievre and returned a short time later with a force of Republicans who entered through a side entrance. Completely surprised, the Royalists garrison was completely routed by the Republicans, a good deal of the garrison fled, joined the Republicans, and those who stood their ground and fought were killed. Puisaye, who was stationed in the fort, fled back to the British ships. Fort Penthievre was now back in Republican hands.
On the 21st it was apparent that the expedition was not going to succeed, little or no ground had been gained and the little discipline and enthusiasm the Royalist cause had had before the expedition was now totally gone, made even worse by the dwindling numbers of Royal Navy ships. The Royalists had suffered over 1,000 casualties and the expedition had cost the British government 10,000 arms, magazines and supplies for well over 40,000 Royalists which were left abandoned on the beaches and the fort. In addition to the 1,000 casualties, 6,263 Royalist supporters were captured and arrested of which 748, mainly Chouan guerrillas, were shot on the orders of General Hoche.
Whilst the initial expedition had been a failure there was still an opportunity to consolidate and launch another attack from the mouth of the Loire River. On 20th July the Ilè d’Hoedic surrendered without opposition to Warren which he planned to use as a new forward base off the French mainland. From here he could safely store supplies, station troops, and make plans without being harassed by an approaching superior enemy. He also had control of the coast so long as Bridport remained to cover his rear from the French fleet.
On the 11th August Warren received news that a new plan was being put in place to land Royalists on the island of Noirmoutier. General Charette’s forces in The Vendeè were still active and a new Royalist excursion looked promising here. Unfortunately, Warren had lost a further two ships from his squadron and if his new objective was to be a success, he desperately needed more ships.
With Bridport still threatening to quit the mission and take the Channel Fleet home, and Puisaye determined to go back to the mainland to join the remaining Royalists, Warren was left with little option but to inform the Admiralty that unless reinforcements arrived by the 10th September, he would need to begin embarking the remaining troops, destroy the fortifications of the islands under the control of the Royal Navy and transport all the civilians to Guernsey and Jersey.
The Admiralty quickly wrote back confirming that Major General Doyle was on his was with the four British regiments and more reinforcements and supplies, and begged Warren to hold his position a little while longer. Again, Warren turned to Bridport for advice but, receiving no response, felt there was now no other option for him but to begin the re-embarkation of the Royalist troops and to begin destroying the fortifications on Hoedic.
The reinforcements did arrive as promised but by then it was too late. With the majority of the Royalist force back on their transports and the fortifications destroyed, the attack had lost its momentum and any forward base was now rendered indefensible.
On the 19th September, Bridport, who since the beginning of the expedition had been pestering the Admiralty to allow him to return home with the Channel Fleet for reasons of his own personal illness, was allowed to come back and was replaced by Admiral Harvey who took control of the Channel Fleet.
Back in France, Warren, Harvey and the newly arrived Doyle and his 4,000 reinforcements devised a final cast of the die to land the Royalist army at Bourgneuf Bay on the Ilè de Yeu. A spot had been found that was protected from enemy fire and like on Hoedic, afforded a good foothold to land stores, supplies and station the troops for a full on amphibious assault.
It was whilst the preparation for the assault was in place, Warren intercepted dispatches from an American vessel that that the French were planning an attack on San Domingo in the West Indies. The captured dispatches were sent hastily to the Admiralty who in light of this new threat informed Warren that they would need to requisition some of his ships and troops to be sent to the West Indies,.
On the 27th September Warren, Doyle and the senior naval and infantry officers met in Warren’s cabin on the Pomone to discuss the future of the doomed expedition. It was decided to completely abandon the attack on Noirmoutier but at the request of the Comte d’Artois the Royalist troops should still try launch an assault from the Ilè de Yeu.
The Ilè de Yeu fell without opposition and by the 12th October all troops had been disembarked. However, quite quickly it became apparent that the Ilè de Yeu was not the ideal landing base as Warren had been informed as he could not get the landing crafts close enough to transport the troops from the island to the coastline. By this time, Warren, completely fatigued with the whole expedition wrote home to England to say that the expedition had lost all momentum and was doomed to failure. The British government was also forced to acknowledge that as enthusiastic the Royalist cause was, it lacked the initiative, discipline and drive to raise the whole county in rebellion. As a last act to salvage the expedition, Warren was ordered to still land any men, arms and stores for those who wanted to join up with General Charette’s forces and to embark and bring home any British troops stationed on Ilè de Yeu.
With the expedition in complete tatters, on the 5th December Warren was so exhausted and broken by the futility of his task that he wrote to the Admiralty requesting that he be replaced as the commander of the expedition and be allowed to return home to recuperate. The following week all British troops were removed from the Ilè de Yeu and embarked onto the Navy transports homeward bound.
Whilst the expedition was an utter disaster, the French Royalists in France still continued to resist the Republican ideology through regular armed resistance. In March 1796 Charette was captured, and because he had quickly back-tracked over the signing of the Treaty of la Jaunaye in February 1795, he was summarily executed by firing squad on the orders of General Hoche.
Upon his return to England, Warren returned home to his family seat at Stapleford Hall, Nottinghamshire, to recuperate. He would remain here until March 1796 until he returned back on duty in his new role as Commodore, where he would continue to rise through the ranks of the Royal Navy for the period of the Napoleonic Wars in the following two decades.
- Fleet Battle and Blockade: The French Revolutionary War 1793 – 1797
(Caxton Pictorial Histories, Chatham Publishing, 1996)
- N. Tracey and M. Robson, The Age of Sail Vol. II
This Disastrous Affair: Sir John Borlase Warren and the Expedition to Quiberon Bay, 1775 by Tom Wareham (Conway Maritime Press, 2003)