The Battle of the Glorious First of June

Tue 1 Jun 21

Battles are usually named after the nearest town, as in Hastings, or the commanding officer’s HQ, as in Waterloo. In the case of sea battles the nearest coastal feature, for example Cape Trafalgar, is usually chosen.

On 1 June 1794, the British and French Fleets began an exchange of gunfire, out in the Atlantic, more than 400 miles from the French coast. Both the French and the British decided therefore to opt for the time rather than the place – Bataille du 13 Prairial An 2 for the French, using their new Revolutionary calendar, and the Battle of the Glorious First of June for the British.

For some months before the battle the Royal Navy had been successfully blockading the French ports and after a poor grain harvest the previous summer France was threatened with serious famine. In response to this a convoy of French ships laden with grain set sail from the United States in April 1794. Admiral Richard Howe, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet, was under orders to intercept the convoy.

After a month of cat and mouse manoeuvring and minor skirmishes, the two fleets lined up in the conventional parallel formation, but from then on Lord Howe’s battle plan departed from convention and his captains had orders to individually turn towards the French line and ‘rake’ the ships either side as they passed through. In the event many captains could not, or did not, execute these orders successfully. Even so, by the end of the day the British had captured or sunk seven French ships without losing any. A tactical victory for the British but meanwhile the grain convoy continued on its way and arrived safely in France on 12 June.

Fast forward to 1847 when the British Government decided to issue medals to surviving army or navy men who could prove that they had been present at battles or military actions between 1793 and 1840. The first medal to be given to all ranks ‘just for being there’ was known as the Naval General Service (NGS) Medal and covered 231 possible naval engagements ranging from minor ‘boat actions’ to full scale battles including, of course, the Glorious First of June. Each action merited its own ‘bar’ attached to the ribbon.

Greenwich Hospital records show that more than 1350 Pensioners successfully applied for the NGS medal in 1847. Although more than 50 years had elapsed since the battle, 54 of the Pensioners who applied were entitled to the First of June ‘bar’. Notable among these was Richard Libertine, a 23-year-old Able Seaman from Devon who was on HMS Orion on 1 June 1794. He was subsequently at Trafalgar as well as four other actions and was one of just five men to achieve six bars on his medal ribbon. He was admitted as an In Pensioner to Greenwich Hospital aged 57 in 1817 and died there in 1851. His medal was sold at auction in 2015 for £50,000.

At least six officers of Greenwich Hospital had also taken part in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, two of whom were Governors: James Gordon, thought to have been the inspiration for Captain Hornblower, and Robert Stopford. Of the other four, William Browell, Edward Rotherham, Robert Larkam and John Willett Payne, the last named has an interesting note in the register of officers identifying him as a former lover of Emma Lyons, later Emma Hamilton.