The rocky coastlines of Brittany have witnessed numerous encounters between battleships of the French, Dutch, Spanish and English. This extract recounts an attack by the English and Dutch on Brest foiled by the French in June 1694. During the long-running naval wars, spies and counter espionage were as important as the firepower of the battleships. Expecting Brest to be unguarded as the French fleet sailed to Spain, the Dutch and English planned to land a strong army from the sea, in order to take Brest, an important French naval base.
36 warships, 12 fireships and 40 transports were mustered in Portsmouth to carry 10,000 soldiers south to Brest. Meanwhile, Vauban was organising strong defences of the city and rocky coastline, including the construction of a tower, not completed until 1696, but armed for this battle in June 1694 with nine 24-pounders and three mortars firing 30cm. balls.
On 17 June, the English sent scouts to check the French positions and found them to be formidable. However, the commanders Berkeley and Tallish decided to attack in the morning. At dawn on 18 June the Anglo-Dutch fleet, approaching the French coast, was shrouded in fog. However, postponing the attack enabled the French cavalry to advance and bombard the approaching fleet as the fog lifted mid-morning:
“It soon appeared that the enterprise was even more perilous than it had on the preceding day appeared to be. Batteries which had then escaped notice opened on the ships a fire so murderous that several decks were soon cleared. Great bodies of foot and horse were discernible; and, by their uniforms, they appeared to be regular troops. The young Rear Admiral [Carmarthen] sent an officer in all haste to warn Talmash. But Talmash was so completely possessed by the notion that the French were not prepared to repel an attack that he disregarded all cautions and would not even trust his own eyes. He felt sure that the force which he saw assembled on the shore was a mere rabble of peasants, who had been brought together in haste from the surrounding country. Confident that these mock soldiers would run like sheep before real soldiers, he ordered his men to pull for the beach. He was soon undeceived. A terrible fire mowed down his troops faster than they could get on shore. He had himself scarcely sprung on dry ground when he received a wound in the thigh from a cannon ball, and was carried back to his skiff. His men reembarked in confusion. Ships and boats made haste to get out of the bay, but did not succeed till four hundred seamen and seven hundred soldiers had fallen. During many days the waves continued to throw up pierced and shattered corpses on the beach of Brittany. The battery from which Talmash received his wound is called, to this day, the Englishman’s Death.”
‘History of England’ by Thomas Babington Macauley
Plan of the Attack of Camaret Bay, on the Coast of Bretagne, thro which lies the Harbour of Brest.
A: The fleet at anchor.
B: Ships appointed to attack the Batteries of the Enemy which are observed by using the Boats of the Cahn.
C: The same ships cannonading the Batteries of the Enemy and favouring the descent.
D: Boats of soldiers for the descent.
E: Rocks on which seven of our ships stranded.
F: Intrenchments of the Enemy defended by Infantry.
G: Battery playing upon the back part of the Intrenchment.
H: Round Tower mounted with cannon.
L: Batteries of Mortars.
M: Cavalry posted to observe us.
N: Cavalry that arrived after our retreat
O: Ships of the Enemy disarmed in the river of Brest
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). A decision of 23 December 1697 exempts the States of Brittany and inhabitants of Camaret ‘fully from contributing to ‘fouages, tailles’ and other taxes which arise in the other parishes of the Province of Brittany’.