Battle of La Hougue, 1692

In 1688 William III became king of England, after ousting James II in a bloodless revolution. James II, a Catholic, fled to France and sought assistance from the French monarch Louis XIV. Louis saw a chance to distract William from his campaigns on the continent and agreed to give him assistance, sending him with an army to Ireland in 1689. However William brought an army to Ireland and defeated James in 1690, forcing him to flee to France again. In 1692 Louis made another attempt to restore James to the throne, this time planning to land in England.

A fleet of transports and a French army were assembled at the port of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue in preparation. Admiral Tourville was to cover the invasion with a French fleet sailing from Brest, which was to be strengthened by a squadron from Toulon and the army was to be ferried across the channel to land on the south coast of England. In May Tourville was ordered to set sail and engage the enemy, despite the fact that his reinforcements from Toulon had not yet arrived.

Map showing the location of the Battle of Barfleur and other relavent places.

He had no choice but to obey his orders and so the fleet set out and sailed up the English Channel, meeting the Anglo-Dutch fleet, which was under the command of Admiral Russell, off Cap Barfleur on 29 May (New Style).

The French, with 44 ships of the line, were heavily out numbered by the Allies, who had 82. The was a hard-fought battle between the two fleets but by the end of the day neither side had lost any ships, although many were damaged.

In order to withdraw from the battle, Tourville had his fleet lower their anchors as the tide went out, keeping their sails set. Not realising this, the Allied ships were swept away by the tide, allowing the French to escape. Since the only deep-water ports on the north coast of France were at Saint-Malo and Brest, the French needed to withdraw to the west, but an inconvenient wind scattered their fleet of heavily damaged ships. 4 French ships headed northwards, before turning to the west and making for Brest.

6 withdrew to the south-east, of which 2 were badly damaged and had to be beached at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, 2 went to Le Havre and 2 made their way north round the British Iles (as the Spanish Armada had done) and eventually back to Brest.

The Battle of Barfleur, contemporary painting.

Most of the French fleet, pursued by the Allies, who were hampered by their own damaged vessels, made its way westward, and it was anchored in two groups by the morning of the 31st. The most easterly group consisting of 21 French ships under Pannetier, was to the west of Cap la Hague in the Alderney Race and the other group, 13 ships under Tourville, was off Cherbourg. At this point the weather conditions began to worsen and the French ships could no longer be held in place by their anchors. Pannetier's group headed south to Saint-Malo, escaping their pursuers by navigating the treacherous Alderney Race. Tourville, after beaching 3 of his most badly damaged ships including his flagship Soleil Royal at Cherbourg, was driven east and made for Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue.

Map showing the position of the French ships beached at Saint-Vaast-la-Hogue and the coastal fortifications.

When Tourville arrived with his 10 remaining ships, he found 2 ships that had been beached to the south of the town on the previous day and a large number of transports waiting to carry the army to England.

Tourville beached 6 of his ships on the Ile de Tatihou, thinking that they would be protected by the batteries there, although the Terrible was accidentally beached in a more exposed position than intended. The fortifications on the Ile de Tatihou consisted of an earthwork bastioned'trace and there were barracks on the island. The Fort de l'Ilet, on a small island south of Tatihou, was probably a small earthwork battery at this stage. Altogether there were 44 guns in these forts.

Tourville's remaining 4 ships were beached to the south of the town, along with the 2 that were already there. The ships on the south beach were protected by the Fort Saint-Vaast, which was situated on a tidal island jutting into the bay. Like the Ile de Tatihou, the Fort Saint-Vaast consisted of a bastioned trace, although it was masonary rather than earthworks. This fort mounted 68 guns.

Vauban'had recently visited (1686) and had recommended improvements to the coastal fortifications of the region, so it is reasonable to assume that all these fortifications were in good condition. In anticipation of the coming Allied attack, the army put together a number of hastily-constructed batteries with their artillery to provide additional firepower.

Russell's fleet, which had also been scattered by the weather and pursuit of the other elements of the French fleet, began to arrive on the evening of the 31 May. A close blockade of the bay was set up immediately to prevent any French ships from escaping. The Allies (mostly English ships came to Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue) spent most of the following day sounding the bay to find out the deepest channels to attack the beached French ships. Their objective was to destroy or cause as much damage as possible to the French ships by setting fire to them. Since the waters were two shallow for big ships to approach easily, Russell decided to use boat parties and fireships (ships packed with combustible material that could grapple an enemy ship and set fire to it), supported by larger ships standing farther off, for the attack.

An attack against the north group of ships was launched at dawn the next morning (2 June) with boats and two fireship. The Terrible, which was in a more exposed position, was the first to be reached, being grappled by one of the fireships. The fireship crew, realising that the Terrible was unoccupied, did not set their ship alight but boarded the Terrible and set fire to her, before moving on with the fireship.

Meanwhile the other fireships were coming under fire from the batteries, especially those on Tatihou and the islet, but the fire from the supporting ships dismounted a number of the French cannon and significantly reduced their effect.

The Battle of La Hougue.

The French did not make a determined effort to defend the ships once they had been reached and the English boat crews boarded and set fire to the remaining 5 ships without much difficulty.

Having dealt with the ships on the north beach, the English turned their attention to the 6 ships on the south beach. A similar attack, made in boats with larger ships giving supporting fire, was launched against these ships at dawn on 3 June. Although the fortifications of the Fort Saint-Vaast were more substantial, they were more distant from the beached ships, so the French fire from that quarter was less effective than that of the Tatihou and islet batteries on the previous day. When the boats reached their targets, the English boarded them and set fire to them. One account claims that before the ships were fired, the boarding parties used the guns on board to attack the French batteries on the mainland, but this seems unlikely.

Following up on this success, the English launched another attack later the same day against the transports in the harbour. This attack was met by fire from the batteries on the mainland on the left, by fire from the Fort Saint-Vaast on the right and by fire from some of the smaller ships that were in the harbour. The two fireships that were sent in ran aground next to the Fort Saint-Vaast and had to be abandoned, but the boat crews were able to enter the harbour, destroy a number of transports and capture some others. However, most of the transports survived the attack since they were farther into the harbour and could not be reached.

When the English withdrew, all 10 of Tourville's ships of the line at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue had been burned under the nose of the French forts, the army and James II, who watched the attack on the south beach. Furthermore, the three ships that he had abandoned at Cherbourg had also been burned by the Allies. All hopes of invading England were dashed and the French did not regain control of the Channel for the rest of the war. However, their lost ships were quickly replaced and Tourville fought and won a major battle at Lagos in the following year.

Another result of the battle was a major programme of coastal fortification all along France's north coast. If the English could board beached ships at Saint-Vaast, which was already heavily fortified, when the army was standing by, it seemed that there was nothing stopping them from landing a sizeable force, which would have opened another front for the French armies to fight on. The security of the coasts of Brittany and Normandy was essential for Louis' foreign policy. Vauban was to give his attention to the problem, fortifying various possible landing sites including Saint-Vaast itself.

It seems that the reason for the relative ineffectiveness of the fortifications when the English attacked was due to the exposed nature of the guns and gunners, especially in the earthwork batteries on Tatihou and the islet. Vauban addressed this problem by devising a new form of coastal battery, a circular tower with guns mounted high on its roof as well as on lower levels.

Vauban's plans for the towers at Fort Saint-Vaast (left) and Tatihou (right).

The height of the tower allowed enemy ships to be sighted more easily and the guns on the roof were able to fire farther than those at sea level. At close range, the guns on the upper level could target the rigging of a ship, whilst those at the water level could pummel a ship's hull. At Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, Vauban built two of these towers, one on the high ground in the centre of Fort Saint-Vaast and another on the Ile de Tatihou. The towers were built at the end of the 17th century.

The Battle of La Hougue also demonstrated the need for a fortified harbour at Cherbourg. Vauban had advised this in 1686 and work had begun on improving the town's medieval fortifications and constructing a naval harbour, but three years later Louvois'and others persuaded the king that this was a bad idea, reasoning that the proximity of Cherbourg to England would present the inviting target of a bridgehead for an invasion of France. Work at Cherbourg was stopped and the fortifications that had been completed were razed. Ironically, a fortified harbour at Cherbourg would have enabled Tourville to retreat in safety after the Battle of Barfleur, instead of being forced to take shelter under the batteries at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue when unable to reach Saint-Malo or Brest. Had Cherbourg been available, there is little doubt that Tourville's fleet would have been able to withdraw from the battle without any casualties to fight another day. Vauban later advised the construction of a naval harbour at Saint-Vaast, but this was also rejected. Interestingly, Cherbourg was made into a naval harbour in the 18th century and is still used by the French navy today.

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