1761 - British expedition against Belle-Isle

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Campaigns >> 1761 - British expedition against Belle-Isle

The siege lasted form March to June 1761

Description

Opening of the Campaign

For the campaign of 1761, the British Royal Navy was deployed as follows:

  • Vice-admiral Francis Holburne at Portsmouth
  • Commodore Sir Piercy Brett in the Downs
  • Commodore Robert Swanton in the Channel
  • Sir Edward Hawke and Sir Charles Hardy in Quiberon Bay (till March when Commodore Keppel took charge of the squadron in the Bay of Biscay)
  • Vice-admiral Charles Saunders in the Mediterranean
  • Commodore lord Colville in North America
  • Rear-admiral Charles Holmes at Jamaica
  • Commodore Sir James Douglas and, at the end of the year, Rear-admiral Rodney on the Leeward Islands' station
  • Rear-admiral Stevens in the East Indies, until his death, when the command devolved on Rear-admiral Cornish

In January 1761, several British regiments were warned that they would soon campaign under Major-General Hodgson.

In the first months of 1761, admiral Sir Edward Hawke and Vice-admiral Sir Charles Hardy remained in the Bay of Biscay, watching the French ships in the Vilaine and Charente. To better effect their purpose, they stationed an inshore squadron, under Captain James Gambier, quite close to the mouth of the Vilaine.

On January 2, in spite of the precautions of the British, the night being dark and the breeze fresh, 2 French ships with a couple of frigates slipped out thence and, though chased by Gambier, escaped into Brest under the charge of a few brilliant young officers, who had volunteered for the service. After this evasion, the blockading force was needlessly large for the work remaining to be done.

At the end of January, when the menacing attitude of Spain could be ignored no longer, Anson had ordered Hawke to send home all his three-deckers. A week later he was told to bring them home himself.

In March, just as Pitt decided finally to send Keppel against Belle-Isle, Hawke struck his flag at Spithead, leaving behind him enough ships to observe the motions of the French.

The expedition, which had been prepared in 1760, and had been destined at one time for Bourbon and Mauritius, and later for the coast of France, was again brought forward in 1761. Pitt decided to make Belle-Isle and not the Mauritius the objective of his expedition. If war with Spain was coming, it would not do to send so considerable a part the British Navy into the Indian Ocean. There would be demand and use enough for it nearer home. Again, if Great Britain was really on the brink of peace with France, it was desirable to improve its position at once by a telling stroke before negotiations began.

Commodore Augustus Keppel was appointed to command the sea, and Major-General Studholm Hodgson the land forces. The latter had been one of Cumberland's numerous aides-de-camp both at Fontenoy and Culloden, and was a thorough Duke's man. In the present war he had commanded the first brigade for the failed raid on Rochefort, and been one of the famous council of war which, as Wolfe put it, decided unanimously "not to attack the place they were ordered to attack, and for reasons that no soldier will allow to be sufficient."

The squadron at first included 10 sail of the line, 8 frigates, 3 sloops, 3 bombs, and 2 fireships, but was eventually reinforced with 5 more sail of the line.

  • ships of the line
  • frigates
    • Lynn (44), Captain Walter Stirling
    • Launceston (44), Captain Edmund Affleck
    • Southampton (36), Captain Charles Antrobus
    • Melampe (36), Captain William Hotham
    • Adventure (32), Captain Matthew Moore
    • Actaeon (28), Captain Paul Henry Ourry
    • Flamborough (22), Captain Samuel Thompson
    • Aldborough (20), Captain Mitchell Graham
  • sloops
    • Escort (14), Commander Charles Ellys
    • Fly (10), Commander George Gayton
    • Druid (8), Commander John Luttrell
  • bomb-ketches
  • fireships

Hodgson's initial force consisted of about 7,000 men (its nominal force was 9,000, but the regiments were incomplete).

N.B.: surprisingly, Fortescue does not mention the 21st Royal North British Fusileers as part of the expedition. However, "Belleisle" is among the battle honours of this regiment and Clark, in his history of the regiment, mentions their presence at the actions of Port An-Dro and Pointe Locmaria, even specifying their losses in these engagements.

The transports for the force numbered about 100 sail. Most of the regiments were quite unseasoned, and tow of them in so disgraceful a condition of discipline and equipment that Keppel wanted to leave them behind. To complete the trouble a large proportion of the officers were absent.

On March 25, Pitt sent secret instructions to Keppel for the expedition against Belle-Isle.

On March 29, this amphibious force sailed from St. Helen's. However, the constant reconnaissances that had been going on, and the long postponement of the enterprise, had given the French warning and time enough to reinforce the garrison and greatly strengthen its defences. Moreover, the military part of the expedition was far from what Pitt had intended. At the outset the king had vetoed the despatch of two old regiments, because, as he said, to Pitt's disgust, our safety at home was endangered in several quarters.

Owing to adverse weather it was not till April 6 that Keppel and Hodgson were off Belle-Isle. The island counted about 100 villages and a population of 5,000 inhabitants. Because of its strategic importance, it was heavily fortified: Gros Rocher redoubt (constructed by Vauban), entrenchments along some beaches, fortress of Palais... In the evening, Keppel detached 6 frigates to cruise between the island and the mainland to cut off its communication with the mainland.

Meanwhile, another squadron consisting of 13 sail of the line and 3 frigates under Captain Matthew Buckle, who had been Boscawen's flag-captain throughout the war; was sent from England to cruise off Brest to prevent the possibility of interference from that quarter. This force consisted of:

Map

Map of Belle-Isle - Source: "History of the British Army" volume II by J. W. Fortescue

Landing

Early on April 7, the British fleet passed the south end of the island close in, so as to enable the commodore and general to reconnoitre, and at noon it anchored in the road of Le Palais. The French beat the Générale and fired the cannon of Mérézel to call troops to their stations. The British commodore and general then reconnoitred more closely in a cutter, having first ordered the boats to be hoisted out, and the troops to be made ready to land. The inspection of the coast was not encouraging. Every accessible point was well entrenched and guarded by batteries. They found no place more suitable for a disembarkation than a bay near Pointe de Locmaria, on the south-eastern side, which they had remarked in the morning. Both Keppel and Hodgson thought they saw a chance. They were for attempting it on the spot, but the wind was southerly, almost dead on the landing-place, and it put an attack out of the question. They had to pass on, and at noon the whole fleet anchored in the road opposite Palais, the chief town and fortress of the island, which lay on the north-eastern shore facing the mainland. Not to waste time while the flat-boats were being prepared for the troops, the two chiefs at once proceeded together in a cutter to reconnoitre the extreme north end, where stood the little fishing port of Sauzon. But here, as everywhere, they found the garrison alert and formidably entrenched. "The coast," wrote the general," is the most inaccessible I ever saw, the whole island is a fortification." To both of them the task looked almost desperate.

"The enemy," wrote Hodgson, "have been at work upon it ever since Sir Edward Hawke appeared here in the winter, but all this is nothing. The fashion of the times required extraordinary measures. Therefore when we returned from our reconnoitring we agreed that Port An-Dro, on the south-east part of the island, was the most practicable place to attempt a descent." From Keppel's letter it appears Port An-Dro was the same little bay they had reconnoitred the previous day near Pointe Locmaria.

On April 8, Keppel and Hodgson set to work. To ease the difficulty of the task, Captain Sir Thomas Stanhope of the Swiftsure (70) was ordered to make a demonstration to the north against Sauzon with 2 battalions and the marines. In the morning, the wind being north-east, the real landing in force was made near Port An-Dro, after the Prince of Orange (60), Dragon (74), and Achilles (60), with 2 bombs, had silenced a four-guns battery at the entrance of the bay. Commodore Keppel gave the signal for the disembarkation from the Prince of Orange (60), to which he had shifted his broad pennant from the Valiant (74). The troops were shifted into flat-bottomed boats led by captain Matthew Barton. The troops were at once pushed forward for the strip of sand that had been marked for a footing. An attempt was then made to storm some French entrenchments which covered the landing-place. Above it rose the hills in an amphitheatre, where the French were entrenched up to the teeth. Under a destructive fire the troops moved in, and effected the landing with boldness and precision. But it was only to be brought to a hopeless standstill. The foot of the hill had been so cleverly scarped away that it was impossible to reach the French breastworks without scaling-ladders. Desperate attempts were made, but all in vain, and Generals Crauford and Carleton, who were in command, decided to retreat. Meanwhile a party of 60 grenadiers of the 36th Regiment of Foot , who landed at a little distance from the rest, succeeded in climbing up beyond the entrenchments, and formed on the top of the heights above the sea. Could they have been supported all might have gone well, but unfortunately their success was not seen in time. After a gallant attempt to hold their ground, they were overpowered by superior numbers and all but 20 were killed or taken prisoners. The troops then found it impossible to hold their ground or to mount the well-defended slopes in front of them, and, after a hot contest, had to retreat and re-embarked, having lost about 500 men, killed, wounded, and taken. The retiring boats were covered by the fire from the ships. It was a gallant but unhappy beginning. To make matters worse, as the troops were getting back to the fleet a severe gale blew up, lasting all night. In this action, the French lost 15 men killed and 70 wounded.

On April 9, the gale continued and in the end half the flat-boats on which a landing depended were lost. Both commodore and general became seriously discouraged. At first Keppel, in announcing the defeat to the Admiralty, had quietly informed them they were going to find a better place and try again. But that proved not so easy. After careful reconnaissances they could find no spot which gave any hopes of success. The island was in fact very strong by nature and skilfully fortified by art.

Bad weather for several days prevented any renewal of the attempt. Keppel and Hodgson wrote home to Pitt that they regarded it as quite impracticable to make good a landing. Seeing the situation Pitt was in at the moment, the repulse was a serious blow to his influence, but it does not seem that he lost heart for a moment. Instead of repining, he immediately ordered off 4 more battalions with a fresh supply of boats and military stores. So determined was he to succeed that, even at the risk of delaying the Martinique enterprise, he devoted to the Belle-Isle reinforcements some of the transports preparing to go out to New York to carry Amherst's troops to the West Indies, and for their escort he called for 5 more ships of the line.

A week later, Keppel and Hodgson were joined by a number of transports bringing on 4 troops of light dragoons which had not been ready to sail with the fleet. They at once decided to try again, since the new-comers would enable them to support a fresh attack with two feints instead of one. This was important, for the attempt was to be on a new plan. Both the commanders were still of opinion that all the ordinary landing-places were impregnable; but it was thought, says Keppel, "that by attempting a place where the mounting of the rocks was just possible," and where the French consequently had not thought of entrenching, they might succeed.

Such a chance seemed to offer at a point just to the southward of Port Locmaria, there stood a small work called Fort d'Arzic where some footing might be obtained by ascending the rocks, which being judged inaccessible had been left undefended. Here was to be the main attack, and Crauford, the second in command, was again entrusted with it. He was to be assisted by a feint, under Brigadier Hamilton Lambart, upon the little village of Sainte-Foy, which stood on the opposite or northern side of Pointe Locmaria, the eastern extremity of the island. This demonstration was to be supported by Stanhope from the sea with the Swiftsure (70), Hampton Court (70), Essex (64), and Lynn (44). At the same time the demonstration against Sauzon to the northward was to be repeated by the newly-arrived dragoons, with 2 of the line and some frigates.

On April 22 at daybreak the ships were in position and at work with the batteries, while the troops gathered at their stations. While two feints were made elsewhere, a new landing was launched under Major-general John Craufurd on Fort d'Arzic, under cover of the Sandwich (90), Dragon (74), Prince of Orange (60), 2 bombs, and 2 armed transports; Captain Barton, as before, leading in the boats. As planned feints were made by Brigadier-general Hamilton Lambart near Sainte-Foy and by the dragoons at Sauzon. Lambart was directed, if he saw any probability of success, to actually land, and to endeavour to hold his own. By 3:00 PM the French batteries, not without considerable damage to the ships, were silenced, and the attack began. Crauford made for Fort d'Arzic, where he found the French ready and in great strength to meet him. Lambart, however, reached the shore without a shot being fired, and finding himself unobserved, landed his force at Kerdonis about half-way between Sainte-Foy and Pointe Locmaria under cover of the Swiftsure (70), Hampton Court (70), Essex (64), and Lynn (44), and with the assistance of marines under Lieutenant-Colonel Mackenzie and Captain Murray. There was not a soul to oppose him, but above his head towered cliffs that the French regarded as defence enough. Lambart was of a different opinion. He had been told he might push home his feint if he saw a fair chance, and he thought he did. It was a case of the Heights of Abraham over again, and he had at least one good precedent to justify his daring. The grenadier company of the 19th Regiment of Foot led the way, scrambled up the rocks and succeeded in reaching the summit, still unobserved, holding their own on the summit until reinforced. A detachment of marines followed, and before the French, whose attention was absorbed in watching Crauford's column on the other side of the Pointe, could recover their surprise, more troops had joined the advanced parties. At last, from the height upon which the French were watching Crauford, they were attacked by half a battalion of French regular infantry, but posting themselves behind a low wall, they held their ground with a steady fire till Lambart himself joined them with another grenadier company and the rest of the marines. He immediately ordered an advance, attacked the French in flank, and forced them to retire under their guns at the top of the hill they had come from, capturing 3 guns. Below Captain Stanhope had been eagerly watching the attack from his ship, and the moment he saw the advance, he signalled for all his boats, manned and armed, to support Lambart's attack. The movement attracted Crauford's attention. With quick perception he saw what it meant, and promptly followed suit. Abandoning his own attack on Fort d'Arzic, he hurried back round Pointe Locmaria to his colleague's assistance. Thus, thanks to the quick appreciation of Stanhope and Crauford, Lambart soon found himself strong enough to press home his attack and sand to drive back the French. By 5:00 PM the whole of the British troops were landed, and before night Hodgson was securely posted with all his force on a height 5 km in the interior. There, as they lay upon their arms all night, they saw a great beacon fire reddening the sky in the centre of the island. It was the signal of the Brigadier Chevalier de Sainte Croix, the gallant and capable lieutenant-colonel of Bourbon Infanterie to whom the defence of the island had been entrusted, for all the troops and inhabitants to concentrate on Palais. He ordered his force to nail their guns and to retire to the plateau surrounding Palais. He had at his command 3 regular battalions and 1 of militia, numbering probably at this time nearly 3,000 men:

Indeed, with a strength numbering barely half what the British could land, it was useless for Sainte Croix to try to hold the whole island, but it was a force quite capable of a prolonged defence of the fortress. Accordingly, the French retired into the fortress of Le Palais and proceeded to strengthen the defences by erecting 6 redoubts.

On April 23, Hodgson and Crauford established their headquarters in Bangor while their troops encamped on the plateau between Bangor and Port Hallan.

On April 24, Hodgson issued a proclamation stating that the inhabitants could continue to live on the island and that all subsistance necessary to the army would be paid for.

Impact on the French plans

The Duc d'Aiguillon, at the first alarm, had arrived at Vannes, and was gathering a large force on the mainland. His intention was to throw in more troops, but the vigilance of the cruisers which Keppel had pushed forward put it out of the question.

The news of the British success came as a serious shock to Versailles. The exact extent to which it modified the French plans is as usual difficult to determine. By heroic exertions Choiseul was collecting a vast force of 120,000 men, which was to form two armies under Soubise and Broglie, and finally crush those of Ferdinand and the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick. Such numbers were of course overwhelming, and Ferdinand had been forced to retreat again out of Hesse, but not before he had destroyed all Broglie's advanced magazines. Such a loss must necessarily delay the opening of the campaign, and on the top of it came the news of Belleisle. The Court at Versailles was very anxious about it. It was seen that once the island was entirely in British hands, it could be used as a place d'armes to alarm the whole coast from Brest to Bayonne. To increase the trouble there was serious discontent in Bretagne, and it is said there was a proposal to recall at once 30 bns from Germany. This was certainly not done. It seems, however, that it was found necessary to provide D'Aiguillon with 22 bns and 8 sqns, and Pitt received from the Dutch ambassador at Paris intelligence that the whole line of Soubise's corps was altered. That is to say, that the Normandie troops had to be moved into Bretagne, those of Picardie into Normandie, those of Flandres into Picardie, and these, finally, had to be replaced from Soubise's active army. We also know that an inquiry was held as to why D'Aiguillon had too few troops to reinforce Sainte-Croix while the sea was open, and the answer was that Choiseul, in order to swell Soubise's army, and in spite of the protest of the War Office, had recalled troops which Maréchal de Belleisle, while he was in office, had considered absolutely necessary for the defence of the coast. The one hope of relief now was to get a squadron to sea to engage Keppel's attention, and the result was that, instead of being able to devote all his resources to answer Pitt on land, Choiseul had to order the most strenuous efforts to be devoted to the ships at Brest and Rochefort.

Naval operations

These last preparations Keppel soon detected for himself. He heard that 7 ships of the line were being brought forward at Brest and 8 at Rochefort, and the news was confirmed from home. The danger naturally caused him some anxiety, and drew from him a highly interesting expression of what he regarded as the correct strategy to meet the occasion. Assuming the two French divisions were under orders to combine against him, he said he intended to keep practically his whole force concentrated at Belle-Isle; but as soon as the expected reinforcement which Pitt had ordered arrived, he would send a squadron to Rochefort to stop that division mobilising. He could not, however, conceal his apprehension that the French ships might get to sea before he could blockade their ports effectually. "Indeed," he added, "the confining them at Brest is so very precarious that it cannot be depended upon, and therefore I should imagine Captain Buckle and his ships being called here would answer the purpose better than his remaining there unless ships could be spared to make him as strong as the Brest ships, while the King's squadron, (meaning his own), after despatching one to Rochefort, remains equal to both the enemy's squadrons at Brest and Rochefort." He concluded by saying he was going to order Buckle to fall back on him if the French came out and were superior.

The principle that was guiding him was practically that on which Pitt had been acting all along. Where a military force was engaged in coastal operations from a sea base, it was not a just risk to trust to the blockade of the enemy's fleets at their points of departure. The covering fleet itself ought to be equal to them, or so disposed as to ensure concentrated equality with any concentration which the enemy might be in a position to make at the point of operation. On this principle therefore he acted till, at the end of April, his reinforcements began to arrive.

By April 31, 6 additional ships of the line had joined Keppel and he at once detached Stanhope with a division of 7 ships of the line and 1 frigate, besides fireships and bombs, to prevent the Rochefort ships getting out into the Basque Roads, to destroy the works on Isle d'Aix near Rochefort and also to keep his eye on Bordeaux.

Stanhope's squadron consisted of:

Siege

Meanwhile Hodgson quickly overran the island as the French retired and seized all the defenceless ports. He was then obliged to lie idle for 15 days, being unable to land his heavy artillery owing to continual gales. As soon as the weather permitted the necessary stores and material were landed.

Hodgson then sat down to besiege Palais, securely covered by Keppel's fleet.

On May 2, batteries were erected at Ramonette, Bordilia and Rosbosser against the town of Le Palais and in the preliminary operations before the place, some marines, under Captain David Hepburn, greatly distinguished themselves.

During the next week, 2 more ships of the line joined Keppel, and he thereupon sent away to Ushant 5 to bring Buckle's blockading force superior to that which was said to be in Brest. Though only a captain, Keppel now had some 20 ships of the line and as many cruisers under his broad pendant, so that, with 8 left for himself, he was able to enjoy the disposition he wanted.

With the arrival of the additional ships, detachments of several regiments of foot (about 3,000 men) gradually reinforced Hodgson's force. These detachments belonged to the following regiments:

On May 10, the British started to erect a battery at Port Hallan. All batteries opened on Palais, firing night and day.

On May 13 at 5:00 AM, a party of 200 British rushed from the vale of Port Hallan and stormed two advanced redoubts. Sainte-Croix gave orders to all his troops to retire from Palais to the citadel. Hodgson sent a messenger ot Sainte-Croix and they both agreed to avoid bombarding the town.

On May 14, the British seized all remaining redoubts surrounding Palais and transformed them into batteries to fire on the citadel.

From May 16, the citadel of Palais was subjected to a furious bombardment.

By June 5, two large breaches had been formed in the walls of the citadel of Palais and preparations were being made for storming it.

On June 6, the Chevalier de St. Croix, governor of the place, assembled his council of war and decided to capitulate.

On June 7, the white flag was hoisted and negotiations undertaken for the surrender of Palais after a most gallant defence. These negotiations lasted until June 10.

On June 11, the British took possession of Le Palais. At 6:00 AM, Sainte-Croix was allowed, as he richly deserved, to march out through the breach with all the honours of war, and was conveyed to Lorient with all that was left of his force. The 90 coastguards who had remained with the French garrison were equally authorised to leave Belle-Isle with their family.

In these operations, the British lost about 310 killed and 500 wounded, besides many men who died of disease. During the whole proceedings the most perfect harmony prevailed between the naval and the military chiefs. The naval dispatches were sent home by captain Samuel Barrington, who, upon his arrival, was, as was then usual in such cases, presented by the King with ₤500.

Hodgson established himself at Palais, Crauford at Sauzon and a third commander at Locmaria.

Thus Belle-Isle was secured as a place of refreshment for the fleet while engaged in the weary work of blockading the French coast. The island was held during the remainder of the war.

Other operations

From then on, the preparations for the expedition against Martinique were pushed on without disguise, and Keppel was told to attempt some place on the French coast within striking distance of Belle-Isle.

Captain Stanhope discovered no ships in the Basque Roads but, in pursuance of the commodore's directions to prevent the mobilisation of the Rochefort division, he launched a raid against the Island of Aix. According to orders, Captain Peter Parker of the Buckingham (70), in company with the Monmouth (64) and Nassau (64), assisted later by the Actaeon (28), Fly (10) and Blast (8), and by the boats of the squadron destroyed for the third time the works on this island. The French prames from the mouth of the Charente endeavoured to interfere with the operations.

On June 21 and 22, the destruction of the works on Isle d'Aix was completed with very little loss. Nevertheless Keppel felt doubtful about the possibility of a descent on the mainland. Lorient and Port Louis were tempting, he said, "but everywhere, as far down as Bordeaux, the alarm has caused a formidable concentration of troops." This was of course well, so far as it went. It was part of Pitt's object to draw troops away from Westphalia, where the campaign was opening in form. In fact, only a few French regiments had been moved down from Soubise's army. The bulk of the coastal defence force came from the central provinces and from Languedoc and Provence. By these means Choiseul considered he rendered the coast safe, and vowed that no landing in Oléron, Rhé, or any of the neighbouring French islands should induce him to recall a single man from Germany. He was even prepared to risk the Martinique expedition striking in Normandy rather than weaken Soubise's push for Hanover.

Still the pressure by the blockade alone was severe. Sir Thomas Stanhope continued on the station during the rest of the year, his ships being occasionally relieved.

In December, the French made an ineffectual attempt to destroy Stanhope's squadron by means of fireships. Soon afterwards lord Howe succeeded Stanhope in the command.

References

This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Clark, James: Historical Record and Regimental Memoir of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, Formerly Known as the 21st Royal North British Fusiliers: Containing an Account of the Formation of the Regiment in 1678 and its Subsequent Services until June 1885, Edinburgh, Scotland: Banks & Co., 1885, pp. 1-22.
  • Clowes, Wm. Laird, The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 232-237
  • Corbett, Julian S.; England in the Seven Years' War – A Study in Combined Strategy, Vol II; New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1907; pp. 154-170, 176
  • Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 521-522.

Other sources

Société historique de Belle-Île-en-Mer: Diaporama sur la prise de Belle-Île

Acknowledgements

Duane C. Young, Ph.D. for supplying information on the presence of the 21st Royal North British Fusileers in this expedition

Jean-Pierre Loriot for the order of batlle of the French garrison of Belle-Isle