Battle of Camaret

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Attack on Brest
Part of the Nine Years' War
Plan of the Attack of Camaret Bay.jpg
English plan of the battle of Camaret
Date 18 June 1694
Location Brest, France
Result French victory
 Dutch Republic
Commanders and leaders
Thomas Tollemache,
Marquess of Carmarthen
Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban
10,000-12,000 men
36 ships of the line
12 bomb vessels
80 transport ships[2]
Several hundred
Casualties and losses
1 ship of the line,[3]
2 other ships,
800 killed or wounded in the landing,
400 killed on the warships,
466 captured[4]
45 wounded[4]

The Battle of Camaret was an amphibious landing at Camaret Bay on 18 June 1694 by the English and Dutch in an attempt to seize the French port of Brest and destroy part of the French fleet stationed there, as part of the Nine Years' War.[5] It was successfully opposed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (in his only ever field command).


At the start of 1694, Louis XIV decided to take the fight to the Mediterranean and Spain. Aiming to support Maréchal de Noailles in the capture of Barcelona and to force Spain to sign a peace treaty, Tourville sailed out of Brest on 24 April with 71 ships of the line and Chateaurenault's squadron followed him on 7 May.[4] Informed of this fact, the English and Dutch planned to take Brest, thinking that this would be easy in the absence of Tourville and his fleet, and to land a strong army of occupation there of 7,000 to 8,000 men.

After Tourville's victory at Lagos in 1693, William III of England had sent an expedition to take reprisals against Saint-Malo and planned to mount other similar operations against other French ports.[6] Having got wind of the plan against Brest via spies, Louis XIV made Vauban military commander of Brest and the four lower-Breton dioceses, from Concarneau to Saint-Brieuc.[7]


A fleet was assembled in Portsmouth under command of Admiral Berkeley, consisting of 36 warships, 12 fireships and 40 transport ships, carrying an invasion army of 10,000 soldiers under command of general Thomas Tollemache.

Vauban started immediately to organize the defence of the city and the rocky coast around it. The bad weather kept the English fleet in its harbour for a month, giving the French just enough time to prepare a warm reception.

General preparations[edit]

Vauban, commander of Brest

In fact, in 1685, well before the start of the Nine Years' War, Louis XIV had charged Vauban with inspecting the coast from Dunkirk to Bayonne.[8] Of his first stay at Camaret, Vauban wrote in his memoir of 9 May 1685:

Fort de Bertheaume with the Roscanvel peninsula in the background

Just after the war began and, having inspected the sites already, he decided first to set up a defensive position at Bertheaume and to build a "tour de côte" at Camaret, the unique example of its type.[9] Vauban's first designs foresaw the building of a round tower, but once he arrived he decided to make it a polygonal tower. While work on the tour de Camaret began in 1689, and forewarned by their spies and realising the importance of the works, the English wished to destroy the building. When in 1691 sixteen Anglo-Dutch vessels were sighted in Camaret Bay, five French frigates happened to be present and routed the enemy fleet.[8] Due to the fallible means at their disposal for the defence of a space covering several hundred kilometres of coast (a few hundred miles), Vauban decided to set up forts in several places, maintained by militia forces but able to be quickly reinforced by regular troops stationed in the rear.[10]

Preparations for the attack[edit]

General Talsmash, commander of the landing forces

At the start of 1694, having got wind of Tourville leaving Brest with 53 ships of the line, William III believed Brest would be easily taken and decided to launch his attack on it. As the historian Prosper Levot writes, this attack

William III's plan was to have the majority of the Anglo-Dutch fleet, under the orders of admiral Russell, sail towards Barcelona to fight Tourville and to have the rest of it, under the orders of John Berkeley, land an invasion force (under lieutenant-general Thomas Tollemache) at or near Brest and take control of the Goulet and roadstead of Brest.[4] The English that Brest's fate mainly depended on control of the goulet, remembering the 1594 attempt on Brest (in which a Spanish force of only 400 had held off over 6,000 troops under John VI of Aumont for over a month in the siege of Crozon.[4][11]

In the face of more and more precise English threats, Louis XIV made Vauban "supreme commander of all French land and sea forces in the province of Brittany".[8] Vauban had already been lieutenant-général des Armées since 1688 and accepted the new post on one condition: that he would not be "honorary [i.e. unpaid] lieutenant-general of the Navy".[8] The statement on the fortifications by the engineers Traverse and Mollart, dating to 23 April 1694, showed only 265 cannon and 17 in place.[12] When Vauban received the royal directives at the start of May, Brest was defended by around 1,300 men and 6 battalions, one cavalry regiment and one dragoon regiment in reinforcements en route.[13]

Arriving in Brest on 23 May 1694, Vauban knew that the balance of power was in his favour. He expanded the extensions being made on strong points along the coast and reinforced those already in existence. In mid-June he inspected the defences under his command and noted that the baie de Douarnenez and above all Camaret would allow landings by large numbers of troops. He ordered them reinforced.[14] Aiming to prevent any landings, and with no warships at his disposal, he equipped scores of chaloupes to defend the goulet and armed militias with weapons requisitioned by the navy. The cavalry regiments and dragoons were positioned at Landerneau and Quimper and, to enable the fast transmission of information, Vauban organised a communications code in the form of signals.[15] In a letter to Louis XIV on 17 June 1694, he reported:


The English fleet attacks

17 June 1694[edit]

Profile and plan of the tour de Camaret

The Anglo-Dutch fleet (of 36 ships of the line, 12 bomb vessels, 80 transport ships and around 8,000 soldiers[16]) under Berkeley finally set out and signals reached Vauban on the evening 17 June that the fleet was in the mer d'Iroise. It anchored halfway between Bertheaume and le Toulinguet near Camaret Bay, close to the mouth of Brest harbour.

Rear admiral the Marquess of Carmarthen (accompanied by John Cutts) approached the coasts to check on the French positions and possible landing places. On his return

. Unknown to the English, at this point the promised French reinforcements had still not arrived and Vauban wrote the following letter to the king at 11pm on 17 June:

18 June 1694[edit]

Spire of the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Rocamadour

On the morning of 18 June, a thick fog settled over this part of Brittany, blinding both sides and leading the English to postpone the attack. This aided the French "for a cavalry corps commanded by Monsieur de Cervon and part of the militia only arrived at Châteaulin at 9 o'clock".[4] Thus it was only at around 11 o'clock, when the fog lifted, that Carmarthen could advance with eight ships to attack the Tour de Camaret and protect the 200 longboats loaded with soldiers heading for the beach at Trez-Rouz. The Tour de Camaret, supported by the batteries at Le Gouin and Tremet, brought down such fire that two ships were set on fire and the others badly damaged. Despite this surprise, the English retaliated, with several shots reaching the tower. In this encounter a cannonball shot off the top of the spire of the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Rocamadour.

Meanwhile, Tollemache landed on the beach at Trez-Rouz at the head of 1,300 men, including French Huguenots, and was met with heavy fire. Wavering for a moment, they were then charged by 100 men of independent companies and 1,200 coastguard militiamen.[9]

Macaulay wrote in his History of England:

Tollemache was carried back towards the squadron by one of the few longboats still afloat. The French counter-attack repulsed the enemy back to the sea, and the landing troops were unable to retreat further since the falling tide had left the longboats high and dry. Only ten of these boats were able to rejoin the rest of the English fleet.[9]

The English losses were considerable:

Since that date the landing beach, stained red with blood, has been known as Trez Rouz (red beach). The nearest cliff to where Talmash landed, or the battery which fired the shot that hit him, is still known as Maro ar saozon (the Englishman's death).[19]

When battle was joined Vauban found himself at Fort du Mengant and only reached the battlefield itself when it was all over.[8] In a letter to M. de Pontchartrain from Camaret on 18 June, he wrote:


The Anglo-Dutch fleet bombards Dieppe

Talmash died of his wounds on his return in Plymouth and England public grief and indignation for the treachery were loudly expressed. After this defeat, the Anglo-Dutch fleet put about and sailed back up the English Channel, bombarding ports such as Dieppe and Le Havre in reprisal. Le Havre was severely damaged in a 5-day bombardment, from 26 to 31 July 1694. In September, the same fleet attacked Dunkirk and Calais, but their fortifications meant they could fight off the attacks and suffered only minor damage.[20] This attack gave Vauban the chance to fortify the coasts around Brest, installing a battery at Portzic, another on île Longue, a third at Plougastel etc...[21]

To celebrate the victory, Louis XIV struck a medal engraved "Custos orae Armoricae" (guard of the coast of Armorica) and "Angl. et Batav. caesis et fugatis 1694" (the English and the Dutch routed and put to flight 1694).[22] By a decision of 23 December 1697 the States of Brittany exempted the inhabitants of Camaret "fully from contributing to fouages, tailles and other taxes which arise in the other parishes of the Province of Brittany".[9]

The "Camaret Bay letter"[edit]

Searching for a scapegoat after this bloody defeat, the English often accused Marlborough, disgraced around this time by William III for other reasons, of treason. He was accused of sending a letter to the deposed James II in May 1694 forewarning him of the attack on Brest.[23] This is what came to be known as the Camaret Bay letter, and it ran as follows:

The letter only exists in a French translation and Winston Churchill claimed in his biography of Churchill (his ancestor) that it was a forgery aimed at damaging Marlborough's reputation and that the duke never betrayed William III.[24] Even if it is practically certain that Marlborough sent a message across the Channel at the start of May describing the imminent attack on Brest, it is equally certain that the French already knew of the plans for the Brest expedition via other sources.[25] David Chandler concluded "the whole episode is so obscure and inconclusive that it is still not possible to make a definite ruling. In sum, perhaps we should award Marlborough the benefit of the doubt".[25]


Stained glass window in the église Saint-Rémi

In the north transept of the parish church of Saint-Rémi, partly obscured by the organ pipes, there is a large stained-glass window showing the battle, designed by Jim Sévellec.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
    • "...the standard of France was white, sprinkled with golden fleur de lis..." (Ripley & Dana 1879, p. 250).
    • On the reverse of this plate it says: "Le pavillon royal était véritablement le drapeau national au dix-huitième siecle...Vue du chateau d'arrière d'un vaisseau de guerre de haut rang portant le pavillon royal (blanc, avec les armes de France)" (Vinkhuijzen collection 2011).
    • "The oriflamme and the Chape de St Martin were succeeded at the end of the 16th century, when Henry III., the last of the house of Valois, came to the throne, by the white standard powdered with fleurs-de-lis. This in turn gave place to the famous tricolour" (Chisholm 1911, p. 460).
  2. ^ (in French) Ernest Lavisse, Louis XIV : histoire d'un grand règne, 1643-1715, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1908 (reiss. 1989), 1222 p. (ISBN 2-221-05502-0), p. 767
  3. ^ Ernest Lavisse, op. cit., p.768
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Levot, Prosper (1865). Histoire de la ville et du port de Brest (in French). Volume 2 - Le port depuis 1681. Brest. p. 387. 
  5. ^ Also referred to as the Brest expedition
  6. ^ Pujo, Bernard (1991). Albin Michel, ed. Vauban (in French). Paris. p. 374. ISBN 2-226-05250-X. 
  7. ^ Blanchard, Anne (2007) [1996]. Vauban (in French). Paris: Fayard. p. 686. ISBN 2-213-63410-6. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Toudouze, Georges-Gustave (1967). Camaret et Vauban (in French). Paris: Alpina. p. 95. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Toudouze, Georges-Gustave (1993) [1954]. Camaret Grand'Garde du littoral de l'Armorique. Res Universis, coll. « Monographies des villes et villages de France » (in French). Paris: Gründ. p. 100. ISBN 2-7428-0241-X. ISSN 0993-7129. 
  10. ^ Bernard Pujo, op. cit., p.192
  11. ^ Levot, Prosper (1864). La ville et le port jusqu'en 1681, Volume I: Histoire de la ville et du port de Brest (in French). Brest. p. 387. 
  12. ^ Régis de l'Estourbeillon, ed. (1910). Revue de Bretagne, de Vendée & d'Anjou - La défense des côtes de Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle (in French). Brest. p. 334. 
  13. ^ Bernard Pujo, op. cit., p. 191
  14. ^ Anne Blanchard, op. cit., p. 334
  15. ^ Bernard Pujo, op. cit., p. 193
  16. ^ We cite here the most probable numbers. Different authors cite the following estimates:
    • 41 ships of the line, 14 fire ships, 12 bomb vessels, 80 vaisseaux de transport (G.-G. Toduouze, Camaret, Grand'Garde du littoral de l'Armorique)
    • 36 ships of the line, 12 bomb vessels, 80 small ships carrying 8000 men (P. Levot, Histoire de la ville et du port de Brest)
    • 36 ships of the line, 12 bomb vessels (Rapin-Thoyras, Histoire d'Angleterre)
    • 29 sail of line, 27 frigates, bomb-ketcher, fire-ships and tenders (The United Service Journal)
    • 36 ships of war, without reckoning the bomb-ketches and the infernal machines (The Monthly Review')
    • 36 ships of the line, 12 bomb vessels and transports carrying around 8000 soldiers (Revue maritime et coloniale)
  17. ^ a b History of the Reign of William III. 4. 1857. p. 522. 
  18. ^ Lozac'hmeur, Pierre (1968). Camaret : Son histoire, ses monuments religieux. 
  19. ^ Lécuillier, Guillaume (2006). Les étoiles de Vauban: La route des fortifications en Bretagne Normandie (in French). Paris: Edition du huitième jour. p. 166. ISBN 2-914119-66-6. 
  20. ^ Anne Blanchard, op. cit., p.335
  21. ^ Bernard Pujo, op. cit., p.195
  22. ^ Commemorative battle
  23. ^ Macaulay, Thomas Babington (1864). The History of England, Vol. 4 : From the Accession of James the Second. London. p. 829. 
  24. ^ Churchill, Winston (1933–1938). Marlborough: His life and times, Book One. London: University Of Chicago Press. p. 1050. ISBN 0-226-10633-0. 
  25. ^ a b Chandler, David (1973). Marlborough as Military Commander. London. p. 368. 


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 48°16′36″N 4°35′44″W / 48.2767°N 4.5956°W / 48.2767; -4.5956