Battle of Ushant (1778)

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Battle of Ushant
Part of the Anglo-French War
Combat d'Ouessant juillet 1778 par Theodore Gudin.jpg
Combat d'Ouessant juillet 1778, Théodore Gudin
Date27 July 1778
Location48°33′37″N 7°22′58″W / 48.56028°N 7.38278°W / 48.56028; -7.38278
Result Indecisive
 Great Britain  France
Commanders and leaders
Augustus Keppel
Hugh Palliser
Comte d'Orvilliers
Comte de Guichen
29 ships of the line 30 ships of the line
Casualties and losses
407 killed
789 wounded[1]
126 killed
413 wounded[1]

The Battle of Ushant (also called the First Battle of Ushant) took place on 27 July 1778,[2] and was fought during the American Revolutionary War between French and British fleets 100 miles (160 km) west of Ushant, an island at the mouth of the English Channel off the north-westernmost point of France. "Ushant" is the Anglicised pronunciation of "Ouessant".

The French commander was under orders to avoid battle if possible, in order to maintain a fleet in being.[3] The commanders of the two squadrons of the British fleet were already personally and politically at odds with each other, and failed to make a concerted attack on the French.[4]

The battle, which was the first major naval engagement in the Anglo-French War of 1778, ended indecisively with no ships lost on either side and led to recriminations and political conflicts in both countries.


The British had a fleet of thirty ships-of-the-line, four frigates, and two fire-ships commanded by Admiral Augustus Keppel, in HMS Victory, which sailed from Spithead on 9 July.[5] The French fleet had thirty-two ships-of-the-line, seven frigates, five corvettes and one lugger, commanded by Vice-Admiral Comte d'Orvilliers, who had sailed from Brest on 8 July.[6] Keppel sighted the French fleet west of Ushant at just after noon on 23 July.[6] Keppel immediately ordered his battleships into line and set off in pursuit. At around 7 o'clock in the evening, the French fleet went about and began heading towards the British. Keppel, who did not wish to engage at night, had his ships hove to in response.[7] In the morning, d'Orvilliers found himself to the north-west of the British fleet and cut off from Brest, although he retained the weather gage. Two of his ships, standing to leeward, escaped into port, leaving him with thirty ships-of-the-line.[7] Keppel tried for three days to bring the French to action but d'Orvilliers declined, maintaining his position upwind and heading into the Atlantic.[7]


At 6 a.m. on 27 July, with the British fleet roughly line-abreast, Keppel gave the order for the rear division, several miles away under Sir Hugh Palliser, to chase to windward. At 9 a.m., the French, who had hitherto been sailing in the same direction, several miles to windward, went about once more. As the rearmost ships of the French fleet were tacking however, the wind changed allowing the British to close the gap between them and their quarry.[7] At 10:15 the British were slightly to leeward, line-ahead on the same course as the French. A little later, a change in wind direction brought about a rain squall which cleared at around 11 o'clock. A further change in wind direction to the south-west gave advantage to the British which d'Orvilliers sought to negate by ordering his ships about. The French, now heading towards the British in a loose formation, would pass slightly to windward.[8]

The French ships were a few points off the wind and d'Orvilliers ordered them close hauled which caused the French line to veer slightly away from the British. The battle began at 11:20 when the fourth French ship in the line was able to bring her guns to bear. Keppel, who wished to save his salvo for the enemy flagship, received the broadsides of six French ships without reply. Once he had engaged the 110-gun Bretagne, he continued to attack the next six ships in the French line.[8]

As the British van under Robert Harland passed the end of the French line, Harland ordered his ships about so as to chase the French rearguard, including the Sphinx.[8] Palliser's ten ships at the rear had not formed line of battle but were instead in a loose irregular formation. This was in part due to Keppel's earlier order to break off and chase the French ships to windward. Palliser's division therefore was badly mauled, having allowed itself to be attacked piecemeal.[9] At 1 p.m. Victory passed the last French ship and attempted to follow Harland but was so badly damaged in the masts and rigging that Keppel had to wear round and it was 2 p.m. before his ships were on the opposite tack. It was about this time that Palliser in Formidable emerged from the battle, downwind of Keppel's division.[citation needed]

Meanwhile, the French line had tacked and was now heading south on the starboard tack and threatening to pass the British fleet to leeward. The French practice of firing high into the rigging had left several of the British ships disabled and it was this group that Keppel now stood down towards whilst making the signal, 'form line of battle'.[9] By 4 p.m., Harland's division had gone about and joined Keppel's ships in line but Palliser would not or could not conform and his ships, misunderstanding Keppel's intentions, formed line with their commander, several miles upwind from the rest of the British fleet. D'Orvilliers did not however attack the British fleet while it was divided into three sections but instead continued his course, passing the British fleet to leeward.[10]

At 5 p.m., Keppel sent the sixth-rate, HMS Fox to demand that Palliser join the main body of the fleet and when this failed, at 7, Keppel removed Palliser from the chain of command by individually signalling each ship in Palliser's division.[11] By the time those ships had joined Keppel, night had fallen and, under cover of darkness, the French fleet sailed off. By daylight the French were 20 miles away and with no chance of catching them, Keppel decided to return to Plymouth to repair his ships.[11]



The duc de Chartres, Louis Philippe II d'Orléans, a French Prince du sang, (Prince of the royal blood), who took part in the battle, requested permission to carry news of its outcome to Paris and Versailles. He arrived there early on the morning of 2 August, had Louis XVI woken and announced a victory. Chartres was widely celebrated and received a twenty-minute standing ovation when he attended the Paris Opera. An effigy of Admiral Keppel was burnt in the gardens of his family residence, the Palais-Royal.[12] Chartres then returned to Brest to rejoin the fleet. Fresh reports of the battle and Chartres' role then began to arrive in the French capital. Far from a victory, it was now reported as being at best indecisive, and Chartres was accused by d'Orvilliers of either misunderstanding or deliberately ignoring an order to engage the enemy.[13]

Chartres was soon mocked by street ballads in Paris, and the embarrassment led to his eventual resignation from the Navy. He subsequently tried to gain permission to take part in a planned invasion of Britain the following year, but he was refused by the King.[14]

The captains of Alexandre and Duc de Bourgogne, Trémigon and Rochechouart, were subject of an inquiry for their failure to take part in the battle after they got separated from the fleet in the night of 23 to 24 July. Rochechouart was also the commanding officer of the Second Division of the White-and-Blue squadron. Trémigon was admonished, and Rochechouart was cleared.[15]


A violent quarrel, exacerbated by political differences, broke out between the British commands. This led to two courts-martial, the resignation of Keppel, and great injury to the discipline of the navy. Keppel was court-martialled but cleared of misconduct in action. Much was made of the alteration of log books and missing notes.[16] Palliser was criticised by an inquiry before the affair turned into a squabble of party politics.[17]

Order of battle[edit]

French Fleet[edit]

The French line of battle was in reversed order (the Régiment du Dauphin provided a detachment of marines during the battle).[18]

Admiral Orvilliers' fleet[18][19][20]
Division Ship Guns Commander Casualties Notes
Killed Wounded Total
Escadre bleue
Third Division Diadème 74 La Cardonnie [1]
Conquérant 74 Monteil Division flagship
Solitaire 64 Briqueville
First Division Intrépide 74 Beaussier de Chateauvert [2]
Saint-Esprit 80 Lamotte-Picquet (Chef d'Escadre)
Orléans (Lieutenant général)
Division and Squadron flagship
Zodiaque 74 Laporte-Vezins
Second Division Roland 64 Larchantel
Robuste 74 De Grasse (Chef d'Escadre) Division flagship
Sphinx 64 Soulanges
Escadre blanche
Third Division Artésien 64 Sochet-Destouches
Orient 74 Hector Division flagship
Actionnaire 64 Proisy [3] [4]
First Division Fendant 74 Rigaud de Vaudreuil
Bretagne 110 Parscau du Plessix
Orvilliers (Lieutenant général)
Division, Squadron and Fleet flagship
Magnifique 74 Brach
Second Division Actif 74 Estienne d'Orves
Ville de Paris 90 Thomassin de Peynier (Flag captain)
Guichen (Chef d'Escadre)
Division flagship
Réfléchi 64 Cillart de Suville
Escadre blanche et bleue
Third Division Vengeur 64 Amblimont
Glorieux 74 Beausset Division flagship
Indien 64 Lagrandière
First Division Palmier 74 Boscal de Réals
Couronne 80 Huon de Kermadec (flag captain)
Du Chaffault de Besné (Lieutenant général) (WIA)[21]
Division and Squadron flagship.[20] First officer Bessey de la Vouste killed.[22]
Bien-Aimé 74 Aubenton
Second Division[Note 1] Éveillé 64 Botderu
Amphion 50 Denis de Keredern de Trobriand [5]
Dauphin Royal 70 Nieuil
Reserve Triton 64 Ligondès
Saint Michel 64 Mithon de Genouilly
Fier 50 Turpin du Breuil
Reconnaissance and signals
Frigates Junon 32
Sibylle 32
Fortunée 32
Résolue 32
Sensible 32
Nymphe 32
Danaé 32
Corvettes and lighter units Sylphide 12
Hirondelle 12
Lunette 4
Curieuse 10
Favorite 10
Espiègle 4 or 6
Casualties: 163 killed, 517 wounded, 680 total[21]


  1. ^ The Second Division of the White-and-Blue squadron was under Rochechouart, with his flag on Duc de Bourgogne, [15] who had detached from the fleet.[20]


  1. ^ a b Chack 2001, p. 398.
  2. ^ "1st Battle of Ushant, 27th July 1778". Three Decks' Forum. Simon Harrison.
  3. ^ Mahan 1913, p. 83.
  4. ^ "The indecisive Battle of Ushant 1778". The Dawlish Chronicles. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  5. ^ The Defence of Admiral Keppel. J. Almon. 1779.
  6. ^ a b Syrett 1998, p. 40.
  7. ^ a b c d Syrett 1998, p. 41.
  8. ^ a b c Syrett 1998, p. 42.
  9. ^ a b Syrett 1998, p. 43.
  10. ^ Syrett 1998, pp. 43–44.
  11. ^ a b Syrett 1998, p. 44.
  12. ^ Ambrose 2008, p. 76.
  13. ^ Ambrose 2008, pp. 76–77.
  14. ^ Ambrose 2008, p. 79.
  15. ^ a b Naval History Division (2019), p. 1130.
  16. ^ Blandemore 1779, passim.
  17. ^ Rodger 2005, pp. 337–338.
  18. ^ a b Troude (1867), p. 7.
  19. ^ Lacour-Gayet (1905), pp. 615–617.
  20. ^ a b c Chack (2001), p. 379.
  21. ^ a b Lacour-Gayet (1905), p. 132.
  22. ^ Lacour-Gayet (1905), p. 615-617.