History of HMS Victory, Early Career – Part Two

Fight of the Belle-Poule and HMS Arethusa.
Chrono date: 
1778 Mar 15

As it happened, in 1765 England was at peace with all the world, so the Victory lay quietly at her moorings at Chatham for 13 years, but in 1778, when war with France became imminent, she was commissioned by Captain Sir J. Lindsey on 15th March, and on Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel being appointed to the command of the Channel Fleet he selected her as his flagship, and she was sent round to Portsmouth, where, on May 16th, she hoisted his flag. On the 7th June Keppel sailed from St. Helen’s, with 21 sail of the line, 3 frigates, and 3 sloops, having Sir Robert Harland and Sir Hugh Palliser as his Vice-Admirals. His position was a peculiar and delicate one, as war was not yet declared, though all chance of peace being maintained was at an end, but it was known that large and rich fleets of merchantmen from our East and West Indian possessions were on their way home, and it was unadvisable to allow any French frigates to cruise at large and carry intelligence of their whereabouts to Brest; besides this.

Admiral Byron with a small squadron was on the point of sailing to reinforce our fleet on the American coast, and Keppel was expected to cover his path. Under these circumstances, when two French frigates hove in sight on the 17th June, Keppel determined to detain them; one, the Licorne, submitted after firing one broadside, but the other, the Belle- Poule, attempted to escape, was pursued, and after a long chase, brought to action by the HMS Arethusa, Captain Marshall. The two frigates were nearly equal in force, and after one of the most desperate contests on record, the fight terminated by the Belle-Poule drifting amongst the rocks of her own coast, leaving the Arethusa a dismantled hulk, to be found by the HMS Valiant, and towed home. This action is perpetuated in the well-known sea song, the “Saucy Arethusa.”

H.M.S.Victory at sea, 1793; attributed to artist Monamy Swaine.

From the Licorne, Keppel learnt the unexpected and unpleasant intelligence that the French fleet in Brest amounted to 32 sail of the line and 12 frigates; as his own only numbered 21, prudence dictated a return for reinforcement, and he very unwillingly turned his back on France, anchoring at St. Helen’s on the 27th of June, and detaining, another French frigate, the Pallas, on his way.

On the 10th of July, war being now declared, he again sailed, with 25 sail of the line, and was joined off Plymouth by 5 more, making his total force 30 of the line and 4 frigates; with these he now proceeded in search of the French Admiral D’Orvilliers, who, with 32 ships of the line and many frigates, had left Brest a few days before, hearing that the expected British merchant fleets were at hand. The object of the French was, of course, the capture of these rich prizes, and they naturally wished to avoid a meeting with the British men-of-war before this was accomplished. On the other hand, the English longed for the battle, as the shortest and safest mode of saving their convoys. So when the two fleets sighted one another on the 23rd, the French, being to windward, did their best to avoid an engagement, and held their wind; on which Keppel finding he had no chance of overtaking them if he kept his line of battle, hoisted the signal for a general chase, and kept it flying.


History of HMS Victory  – Part One

History of HMS Victory, Early Career – Part Two

History of HMS Victory, Engagement with the French off Ushant – Part Three

History of HMS Victory, Siege of Gibraltar – Part Four

History of HMS Victory, Occupation of Toulon – Part Five

History of HMS Victory, Imminent peril of the Victory – Part Six

History of HMS Victory, Battle of Cape St. Vincent – Part Seven

History of HMS Victory, Blockade of Toulon – Part Eight

History of HMS Victory, Nelson’s pursuit to the West Indies - Part Nine

History of HMS Victory, Battle of Trafalgar – Part Ten

History of HMS Victory, Death of Nelson – Part Eleven

History of HMS Victory, Damage sustained by Victory – Part Twelve

History of HMS Victory, Victory again in Active Service – Part Thirteen

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