Military history


Day of Decision QUIBERON BAY

NOVEMBER 20, 1759

IF ENGLAND HAD blazed with a thousand bonfires when the news of Louisbourg arrived, ten thousand lit the skies in late October, when word spread that Québec, too, had fallen. The news arrived in London at almost exactly the same time it reached Amherst on Lake Champlain. By then Pitt had almost given up hope; on October 15 the duke of Newcastle had observed that “with reason” Pitt “gives it all over, and declares so publicly.” In his last gloomy dispatches Wolfe had brooded on all the failures of the summer and confessed that he was “at a loss how to determine” his next move. “I am so far recovered [in health] as to do business,” his final letter had read, “but my constitution is entirely ruined, without the consolation of having done any considerable service to the State, or without any prospect of it.” Now, as he read the letter in which Townshend described the battle and the surrender of the city, Pitt’s mood swung abruptly from despair to exaltation, and he ordered the letter published in a Gazette Extraordinary. Quickly thereafter, to the accompaniment of bells and bonfires, cannon salutes and toasts, the news spread throughout the realm.1

The fact that Wolfe had died in the battle only made the victory somehow richer, more meaningful to the self-consciously sentimental members of the English ruling and middle classes. “The incidents of dramatic fiction could not be conducted with more address to lead an audience from despondency to sudden exultation” than the circumstances of the conquest, wrote that accomplished fictioneer, Horace Walpole. The “whole people” of Britain “despaired—they triumphed—and they wept—for Wolfe had fallen in the hour of victory! Joy, grief, curiosity, astonishment, were painted in every countenance: the more they inquired, the higher their admiration rose. Not an incident but was heroic and affecting!” In the end, Walpole thought, not even Pitt’s oratory could encompass so sublime an event. When on October 21 the secretary “pronounced a kind of funeral oration” in the Commons, his attempts to find “parallels . . . from Greek and Roman [hi]story did but flatten the pathetic of the topic. . . . The horror of the night, the precipice scaled by Wolfe, the empire he with a handful of men added to England, and the glorious catastrophe of contentedly terminating life where his fame began—ancient [hi]story may be ransacked, and ostentatious philosophy thrown into the account, before an episode can be found to rank with Wolfe’s.”2

As befit the leading figure of his class in this latitudinarian age, William Pitt paid his respects to the superintending hand of providence without any of the embarrassing apocalyptic zeal of the New England divines. Indeed Pitt had barely finished embalming Wolfe rhetorically with a proposition that Parliament erect a monument in his memory before he was thinking ahead to the campaigns that would, he hoped, end the war. He wanted as much as ever to reduce France from an imperial power to a merely European one. But could he induce the French to make peace without also offering them their empire back?

The situation of France in the autumn of 1759 was bad but by no means perilous. At the beginning of August, Prince Ferdinand had finally countered the big territorial gains that the duc de Broglie had made on the southern approaches to Hanover by recapturing the town of Minden and its strategic bridges over the Weser. Following his famous victory, in which the French lost nearly five thousand killed and wounded and several thousand captured, Ferdinand regained control over most of Hesse, pushing Marshal Contades’s army slowly back nearly seventy miles to the River Lahn, a tributary of the Rhine. There in September the two armies had dug in, ending what had been a frustrating and expensive campaign for the French.3

Of even greater expense and frustration had been the delays that France had suffered in staging its projected invasion of England. Shortly after the Battle of Minden, the French admiralty had tried to sneak its Toulon fleet past Gibraltar and up to Brest, where it was to join in the invasion attempt. The British fleet commander at Gibraltar, Admiral Edward Boscawen, gave chase and caught up with the French squadron near the Portuguese coast. Off the Bay of Lagos, in a running fight on August 18–19, Boscawen’s squadron captured three French battleships and forced two more onto the rocks; the rest of the fleet ran for Cádiz, where the British promptly blockaded them in. Thereafter the French continued to plan an invasion from their Channel ports, but they did so under increasing financial difficulties. In October a shortage of funds compelled the treasury to suspend “for a year the payment of orders upon the general receipts of the finances, . . . the bills of the general farms[,] . . . [and] the reimbursement of capitals”—a virtual admission of bankruptcy.4


The Battle of Minden, August 1, 1759. This popular, schematized view of the battle shows Prince Ferdinand and his staff looking on from conventionally rearing horses, at the climax of the battle. In the center British and Hanoverian infantry rout the French cavalry, then advance against the French line, forcing a general retreat. The massing and maneuver of armies was a characteristic of the Seven Years’ War in Europe, where (as at Minden) more than a hundred thousand men might clash in open-field encounters. The greatest battles in North America involved fewer than fifteen thousand combatants. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

But despite this unhappy state of affairs the French had not sued for peace, and remained unlikely soon to do so, for two reasons. First, they could still do England great damage if they could only launch their invasion fleet. The British had retained only a few thousand regulars to support the untested and still understrength militia; and, amazingly, they had done little to strengthen the home island’s coastal defenses. Second, the army of Prince Ferdinand could no longer threaten the French forces in western Germany, in part because the British could spare no men to reinforce him, and in part because after the Battle of Minden, Ferdinand had had to detach troops to reinforce his brother-in-law, Frederick II. And in Prussia, where the strategic balance of Europe remained delicately poised, the situation was fast becoming critical.

Although Frederick had preserved Dresden against the besieging Austrians through the winter and had done what he could to rebuild his armies, with the return of marching weather in the spring, the Austrians and Russians had joined forces to reinvade the Prussian heartland. Frederick tried to stop them on August 12 at Kunersdorf, just east of Frankfurt an der Oder. The result had been sheer disaster. Attacking an enemy force of about seventy thousand with just fifty thousand men, Frederick lost more than nineteen thousand dead and wounded before his army collapsed under an Austrian counterattack and ran for its life. Incapable of re-forming his forces and also of reinforcing Dresden, Frederick gave up the city on September 12, and with it most of Saxony. Only the fortunate end of Austro-Russian cooperation—the Austrians set off to invade Silesia while the Russians remained in place to threaten Berlin—and the arrival of reinforcements from Ferdinand’s army allowed Frederick to hang on until the campaigning season ended.5

Desperate for any means to preserve his kingdom against the combined forces of two empresses who wanted nothing more than to efface it—and him—from the map of Europe, Frederick had begged Pitt to convene a peace conference. On October 30, with news of Québec still fresh, the British government had asked Prince Louis of Brunswick, the Dutch regent (a neutral, but also the brother of Prince Ferdinand), to invite the belligerent states to send emissaries to a general congress at Augsburg. There was, realistically, no reason to assume that the conference would even convene. The Austrians and Russians had the maddening Prussian exactly where they wanted him, and his position could only deteriorate with time. The issue was less clear for the French. Their finances were in disarray; they had lost Guadeloupe and their West African slaving stations; they seemed likely to lose Canada; and the war had gone badly in western Germany. But their armies were still intact, and still the largest in western Europe. England could do nothing to threaten France itself; and there remained the invasion card to play.

Two weeks after Prince Louis had issued his invitation to the Augsburg peace conference, the French made their move. All summer long the Royal Navy had kept up a close watch on the Brittany coast, as Admiral Sir Edward Hawke had found a way to maintain what had never before been possible, a continuous blockade. But not even the ingenious system that he and Anson had devised, of continuously refitting and resupplying the fleet by rotating ships home a few at a time, could keep the Channel squadron on station in the teeth of the Atlantic’s late-autumn gales. One of these, on November 7, drove Hawke back to seek shelter on England’s southwest coast and gave his counterpart, Admiral Herbert de Brienne, comte de Conflans, a chance to run southwestward from Brest to Quiberon Bay, where the French had lately reconcentrated the invasion army and its transports. Because the same storm had also blown the returning West Indies fleet of Admiral Bompar into Brest, on November 15 Conflans was able to put to sea with full crews and no fewer than twenty-one ships of the line. If he could collect the transports and troops and get back to sea before the British could reestablish their presence in the Channel, he would have at his disposal a force powerful enough to strike anywhere he chose along the coasts of Ireland or Scotland, where not even militia detachments stood guard.6

But Hawke was already heading back down the Channel with twenty-three ships of the line by the time Conflans made sail, and erratic winds kept the French fleet from making a direct approach to its destination; so that at dawn on November 20 both squadrons were closing in— the British from the northwest, the French from the south—on Quiberon Bay. Between eight and nine, with a new gale blowing up from the northwest, they sighted one another. Conflans headed for the shelter of the bay. Despite the heavy weather, the bay’s treacherous waters and narrow mouth, and the lack of pilots to guide his ships in, Hawke signaled his captains to attack.7

Rigid tactics, codified in standing instructions to which captains were expected to adhere without fail, ordinarily governed eighteenth-century naval engagements. The Fighting Instructions of the Royal Navy called for ships to form a line of battle parallel to (and if at all possible to the windward of) the enemy fleet, then to sail slowly ahead, with each ship in the line blazing away broadside at its enemy counterpart. Since the ability of naval officers to advance in the service depended more on conformity than on imagination, a slavish adherence to the Fighting Instructions was commonplace, and—because similar instructions governed the tactics of every European navy—naval battles tended to be inconclusive affairs in which roughly comparable forces, engaging in relatively calm weather, inflicted approximately equal damage on one another until one or the other of the admirals in charge signaled his ships to withdraw. For squadrons to attack squadrons (much less fleets to attack fleets) and fight until one had destroyed the other was virtually unknown.8

At Quiberon Bay, however, only Conflans tried to form a conventional line of battle. Hawke—one of the most imaginative, and certainly one of the boldest, officers in the Royal Navy—had ordered an attack under weather conditions so severe as to be all but unthinkable, in winds that would have made line-ahead battle tactics impossible. Trusting in the superior seamanship of his crews, Hawke therefore hoisted flags signaling “general chase”—in effect ordering his captains to attack at will— and then, despite high and rising winds, crowded on all the sail his ships could bear and bore down on the French without regard to the hazards of the bay or the ferocity of the gale.

If judged by the conservative standards of the day, Hawke’s order to initiate a general melee represented a decision of incredible audacity—or foolhardiness. Its effect on Conflans and his captains was almost stupefying. The British, swarming around them like wolves around sheep, kept the French from forming a defensive line; then, through a short and sanguinary afternoon, fought in no discernible order. Ships collided, crashed onto rocks, ran aground, and bombarded one another with convulsive fury in a virtually indescribable action. Throughout the battle, no British crew fought more fiercely than that of the ninety-gun Magnanime, which led the chase into the bay; nor was any captain more aggressive in the attack than her commander, Richard, Viscount Howe. Perhaps there was an element of vengeance in his conduct, an intention to pay the French back for his brother’s death at Ticonderoga. At any rate, before the day was out, the Magnanime alone had sunk one eighty-gun ship, the Thésée, and made a wreck of another, the Formidable.

At evening, in the midst of the storm, darkness came on so suddenly that the combatants broke off contact and anchored without attempting to regroup. Only when the light gathered the next morning, as the storm still howled, did the result of Hawke’s attack become clear. Only two French ships had made it back to sea and run before the gale for shelter farther down the coast. Two had been sunk; one had been taken; a fourth had run aground; a fifth had limped off to sink while trying to escape. The tempestuous dawn also disclosed to Admiral Conflans that in the darkness he had anchored his flagship, the Soleil Royale, in the midst of several British ships. After running aground in a vain attempt to escape he refused to surrender and ordered her abandoned and burned. Seven French vessels, aided by the high storm tide, had made it into the mouth of the Vilaine River.

Because the storm had not abated, Hawke hesitated to renew his attack: and wisely so, for although his fleet had somehow made it through the battle of the previous day without losing a ship, two vessels ran aground after the action was over and had to be abandoned. Hawke’s restraint on the twenty-first allowed the remaining five French ships to straggle into the Vilaine estuary before the day was out—but only after their crews had lightened them by heaving guns and tackle overboard. Hawke tried for the next few days to get at the refugees, but in the end contented himself with ravaging the nearby coasts and withdrawing to resume the blockade. For all practical purposes, however, the French vessels that escaped destruction at the Battle of Quiberon Bay might as well have been sunk, for the shallow Vilaine would become their prison. Of the twelve ships that crossed its bar and took shelter under the shore batteries, only three would ever make it out. The rest would remain trapped in the mud, never to serve again. All in all, the Royal Navy had lost two ships and about 300 men in the battle and its aftermath; the French had seen their last effective squadron on the Atlantic destroyed, along with the lives of perhaps 2,500 sailors.

Hawke had delivered a smashing blow to French sea power and forestalled all hope of invading the British Isles. Even though he professed disappointment at the outcome—he felt cheated by the short and stormy day of the battle, believing that “had we had but two hours more daylight, the whole [enemy fleet] had been destroyed or taken”—Hawke had won the only truly decisive battle of the year. The Royal Navy could now destroy French seaborne commerce at will, prevent all attempts to reinforce France’s overseas garrisons, and fear not the slightest harassment along Britain’s coasts. Although few contemporaries realized it, the Battle of Quiberon Bay, and not the more celebrated Battle of Québec, was the decisive military event of 1759.9

HAWKE’S VICTORY was decisive in another sense as well, for it clarified Pitt’s understanding of how he should proceed. The prospective conference at Augsburg could go ahead, and if the French were inclined to make peace, so much the better. If they were not, Britain could continue the war against what was left of the French empire on its own terms. With the specter of invasion laid to rest, more British troops could be sent to reinforce Ferdinand or employed in colonial ventures. The public credit, which had been under threat on two notable occasions during 1759, now seemed likely to remain secure. The economy was booming as it had in no previous war, while so many victories rendered open political opposition unthinkable. Even though the estimates that Newcastle submitted to the Commons for 1760 called for the largest budget yet— fourteen million pounds, half of which would have to be borrowed—the M.P.s acquiesced with barely a wince, equably agreeing even to levy a new tax on malt, something unimaginable in ordinary times.10 With such security on all fronts, it only remained to sustain Frederick and Ferdinand while stripping the bones of the French empire bare. Another campaign like the last one, surely, would bring the Most Christian King’s ministers to the table, irrespective of what the Austrians and Russians wished.

Accordingly, the instructions that Pitt sent to Amherst and the governors in North America on January 7, 1760, were the simplest yet. He ordered the governors to ask their assemblies to approve at least the same level of exertion as in the previous year and promised the same subsidies and support, under the same conditions, as before. To Amherst he gave almost complete discretion in designing operations for the conquest of Canada. The commander in chief could use the forces at his disposal to mount a single campaign or several, as he wished; he could build or repair what forts he pleased to secure the conquests already obtained.11 Pitt’s directions were simple, for once, because there was only one objective left for Amherst to conquer: Montréal.

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