DESCRIPTION: Sir Edward Hawke takes Royal George out of Torbay December 18 and December 28 fights a French fleet of five ships. They sink Lily and burn Rising Sun and Glory.
EARLIEST DATE: 1977 (Lehr/Best)
KEYWORDS: battle navy sea France
Nov 20, 1759 - "Sir Edward Hawke [defeats] the Brest fleet... at Quiberon Bay on the coast of France" (Lehr/Best)
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Lehr/Best 10, "Bold Hawke" (1 text, 1 tune)
cf. "Heart of Oak" (context of the Battle of Quiberon Bay)
NOTES: A 1760 Bodleian broadside, "Admiral Hawke's welcome to old England, on his compleating the ruin of the French navy," says about the battle that "Five Ships did, reluctant, the Combat sustain While eight, trembling, sneaked up the River Vilaine And the rest flew, like Feathers, all over the Main" -- shelfmark 5 Delta 278(16). Lehr/Best: "This battle was recorded in British history as one of the greatest naval victories of all time." Hawke had been driven to Torbay by a November gale, giving the French a chance to sail from Brest (Source: Royal Navy site re Royal Naval History "The Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759"). Torbay is in Devon, on the English Channel, though it may have tickled Newfoundlanders to transfer the base in their mind's eye to Torbay, seven miles north of St John's. - BS
Sir Edward Hawke (1710-1781) was, after Anson, the chief admiral of the late phase of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), and was to prove a brilliant innovator. Lacking political connections (he was the son of an unimportant barrister), he rose to the rank of captain on merit. Early in the war, he had disobeyed the orders of his commander, Admiral Mathews, at Toulon, capturing the only significant prize -- an affair resulting in a nasty set of charges and counter-charges (Herman, pp. 266-267). It nearly cost Hawke his job; he was slated to be "promoted" from active-duty Captain to half-pay (inactive) Rear Admiral. But George II himself objected, and Hawke was kept on (Herman, p. 271) -- and assigned to minor duties.
He then got lucky. He had been assigned to what amounted to a desk job, but briefly assumed command of the Western Squadron when Vice Admiral Warren came down with scurvy. And, during what was supposed to be a minor tour of duty, the French tried to break a convoy out of Brest. Hawke caught up with them and won a brilliant victory at the second battle of Cape Finisterre in October 1747 (Herman, pp. 271-273). From then on, his career was secure.
He took good advantage, revising naval tactics (modifying the line-ahead method of attack and also creating a system of blockade based on a few ships close in to watch for breakouts while the main fleet stood out to sea to guard against other fleets arriving) -- and solving the scurvy problem by having supply ships regularly bring fresh food to his ships on patrol. Never again would ships on patrol duty be forced to return to port every few weeks, though scurvy would still bother sailors on long-distance voyages (Herman, p. 280).
The Seven Years' War had initially gone well for France, but by 1759, they were taking a beating in Canada, and decided to try for an assault on Britain (yes, this sounds very much like Napoleon and the Trafalgar campaign; see Borneman, pp. 238-239). This required the French to concentrate their fleet.
The key to this was getting the force in Brest down to Quiberon Bay. Admiral Hawke was blockading the port. Eventually, helped by weather that troubled the British fleet the French got out (Mahan, pp. 300-301) -- but Hawke caught up with them at Quiberon Bay, chased them when they sailed toward shore, and inflicted a signal defeat.
As Mahan says (p. 304), "All possibility of an invasion of England passed away with the destruction of the Brest fleet. The battle of Novermber 20, 1759 was the Trafalgar of this war" (compare Borneman, pp. 242-243, which in fact quotes Mahan on the point).
Hawke was truly inspiring during the battle; his ship was in the van, and did much of the damage to the French, and Hawke forced his ship to keep fighting when the pilot and others expressed concern about the rocky conditions (Stokesbury, p. 143).
The bravado worked; although seven ships escaped, others had to throw away their guns to flee up a river, and several were destroyed in the battle, and Admiral Conflans's flagship destroyed itself on the rocks (Stokesburg, p. 144).
Quiberon Bay itself is the bay off Lorient in Brittany, which after the unification of France gradually became one of France's chief havens.
This song appears rather confused; the dates match neither Quiberon Bay nor Cape Finisterre, and neither do the circumstances. (E.g. Quiberon Bay went as it did largely because it was fought in terrible storms.) The description in the song may be based on the fact that the French fleet lost five ships at Quiberon Bay, though the names are wrong. The song is correct in calling Hawke's flagship the Royal George.
Hawke's exploits seem to have inspired several songs and poems; in addition to this and the broadside mentioned by Ben, C. H. Firth, Publications of the Navy Records Society , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 197, has an item called "Admiral Hawke," and on p. 217 prints "Hawke's Engagement," with "Lord Anson and Hawke" found on page 225. The Roud index lists a number of broadsides of "Admiral Hawke" and so forth. But this appears to be the only traditional song about Hawke, and even it barely survives. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Borneman; Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Harper Collins, 2006
- Herman: Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, 2004 (I use the 2005 Harper Perennial edition)
- Mahan: Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, 1890 (mine is a reprint edition, but -- astonishingly -- it does not say who is the modern publisher!)
- Stokesbury: James L. Stokesbury, Navy & Empire, Morrow, 1983
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