A Brief History
On February 22, 1744, the British Royal Navy began an engagement with Spanish and French naval ships in a sea battle off the coast of Toulon, France in the Mediterranean Sea, a battle that was a defeat for the British and one of the most humiliating fiascos in Royal Navy history, The Battle of Toulon. While we do not believe we are Anglophiles per se, we do have great respect for the Royal Navy and its long tradition of courage at sea and its many accomplishments. In fact, the only national navy we would place alongside the Royal Navy is the United States Navy. And yet, even Babe Ruth did not hit a home run every time he came to the plate, and at Toulon, the Royal Navy struck out!
Perhaps “struck out” is too harsh a term. It seems the failure of the Royal Navy at Toulon, while definitely a defeat, was not as catastrophic as the Parliament and Admiralty seemed to take it. Accustomed to British mastery of the seas, perhaps even spoiled by historic Royal Navy success, the British people more or less expected victory as a routine event. At Toulon, the British suffered only the loss of a “fireship” and damage to 10 of their 39 ships present compared to the Spanish-French loss of a single ship-of-the-line (that was scuttled after suffering severe damage. Compounding the embarrassment of the defeat, the British not only had more ships (39 to 33), they also out gunned the enemy ships by 2280 guns for the British vessels to only 1806 guns for the Spanish-French ships. The expectation of victory was so high among the British, that Admiral Thomas Mathews, the commander of the Royal Navy ships at the battle, along with 6 other British ship captains were court martialed for their actions on February 22-23, 1744, and dismissed from the service.
The setting for the battle was the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), in which the monarchies of Europe were violently divided as to who the “proper” heir to the throne of Austria should be. Britain was on the side of Maria Theresa of Austria as heir to the Austrian throne, while France and Spain were backing Charles, Elector of Bavaria to assume the throne. Admiral Mathews was assigned as commander of the British Mediterranean fleet, with an old rival, Rear Admiral Richard Lestock as his #2. Mathews had requested Lestock be reassigned elsewhere, and Lestock had also asked to be reassigned away from Mathews’ command. The Admiralty refused both requests, leaving both sea dogs rather unhappy.
Mathews was also tasked with diplomatic duties in the theater, and his fleet managed to bottle up the Spanish fleet at the French port of Toulon. (Note: The author has been to Toulon a couple times and found the place entertaining.) The British set up a blockade, keeping the Spanish in port while allowing French ships to pass freely in and out of port. It should be noted that while Britain and Spain were officially at war, Britain and France were NOT at war with each other, though supporting separate sides in the Austrian Succession question.
On February 21, 1744, a combined Spanish-French fleet sailed from Toulon, boasting 27 ships-of-the-line, the capital ships of their day. The British, with 30 ships-of-the-line, sailed to follow the enemy fleet. The British ships not only outnumbered and outgunned the Spanish-French ships, they were also generally larger ships. On February 22, 1744, Mathews tried to form his battle line and attack the enemy fleet, but unfavorable winds and some miscommunication failed to properly form the ships for battle, with darkness intervening in bungled attempt at making ready for battle. Daybreak found the British ships out of proper formation and separated too widely to be effective. Mathews faced the possibility of the Spanish escaping past Gibraltar to the Atlantic from which they could attack Britain itself.
As Mathews ordered the flag indicating “attack” hoisted, the previous signal flag “form the battle line” was not taken down, creating confusion among the British ships. Lestock, in charge of about half the British ships, is said to have delighted in Mathews’ bungling and continued to form the battle line instead of joining in the attack. Lestock’s ships basically sat out the battle, watching from a safe distance, most unusual for the Royal Navy to say the least. The sea battle raged for hours, with the Spanish ships taking the measure of the British fleet, while the French ships stood by idly watching. Then, around 5 pm, the French fleet joined in the battle which was obviously going favorably for the Spanish. Believing their fleet was about to be surrounded by the French, some of the British captains decided to flee the battle scene to avoid disaster, especially in the absence of clear instructions from Mathews. The rout was on!
While the British ships fled one way, the Spanish-French fleet went the other way, as it was the goal of the Spanish to escape in the first place. About 142 Spanish-French sailors were dead, and about 149 British seamen had perished. While not a crushing defeat on paper, the battle was a morale busting fiasco by Royal Navy standards when victory by the superior British force could reasonably be expected. The chagrin in Britain was extreme, as demands for investigation and explanation flew. France, emboldened by the victory over the British, declared war on Britain, and the Spanish, instead of invading Britain, joined France in invading Austrian Netherlands.
One of the key points being discussed in analyzing the Battle of Toulon were the British Articles of War, the guidelines for conduct in combat by British military men, similar to the American “Code of Conduct.” Several British captains were accused of failing to assist other British vessels engaged with the enemy, including Lestock, though through political connections, Lestock managed to avoid condemnation and was allowed to remain in the Royal Navy. So pervasive was political interference in the court martial process, the Articles of War were amended to prevent future naval courts from suffering such interference. An example of a passage that was amended follows:
1661 Articles “Every Captaine and all other Officers Mariners and Souldiers of every Ship Frigott or Vessell of War that shall in time of any fight or engagement withdraw or keepe backe or not come into the fight and engage and do his utmost to take fire kill and endamage the Enemy Pirate or Rebells and assist and relieve all and every of His Majesties Ships shall for such offence of cowardice or disaffection be tried and suffer paines of death or other punishment as the circumstances of the offence shall deserve and the Court martiall shall judge fitt.”
1749 Articles “Every Person in the Fleet, who thro’ Cowardice, Negligence or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdrawn, or keep back, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty’s Ships, or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending and being convicted thereof by the Sentence of a Court Martial, shall suffer Death.”
(This change later became critical in 1757 when a career Royal Navy officer of solid reputation, Admiral Byng, was executed by firing squad for taking his little fleet to Gibraltar for repairs instead of sailing to Minorca to try to prevent its capture during the 7 Years War. The case is controversial to say the least.)
While the Royal Navy has not prevailed at every single battle in its long history, it does have an enviable reputation as a fearless and effective fighting force. In modern times, the Falklands War of 1982 provides an insight into the value of the Royal Navy as the long arm of the British military. While it is not necessarily the worst defeat in Royal Navy history, the Battle of Toulon is definitely one of the most humiliating.
Question for students (and subscribers): What naval battle would you nominate as the worst Royal Navy defeat ever? Do you think Admiral Mathews should have been dismissed from the service? Should Rear-Admiral Lestock have been punished? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Browning, Reed. The War of the Austrian Succession. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.
The featured image in this article, an engraving by Blas Ametller of Franco-Spanish fleets off Toulon (engraving), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924. See this page for further explanation.