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The Glorious First of June: Fleet Battle in the Reign of Terror

Sam Willis

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Hearts of Oak Trilogy, Prose: non-fiction, Maritime history, Napoleonic Wars

The story of the first major naval battle of Britain's 'Great Wars' with France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

France, early summer 1794. The French Revolution has been hijacked by the extreme Jacobins and is in the grip of The Terror. While the guillotine relentlessly takes the heads of innocents, two vast French and British fleets meet in mid-Atlantic after a week of skirmishing.

The French, in ships painted blood-red and bearing banners proclaiming 'la Republique ou la mort!' are escorting an American grain convoy to Brest to feed a starving population. Their ships are manned by a mutinous revolutionary mob that will fiercely defend their nascent Republic. The British, under the command of Lord Howe, a radical innovator and tactical genius, are bent on destroying it.

Both sides would claim victory in the ensuing battle; and both had reason to do so. For the French, it represented a strategic success since the convoy and its precious cargo made it safely through. But this outcome came at a heavy material cost. In purely numerical terms 'the Glorious First of June' was the greatest British naval victory over her oldest enemy for more than a century: six French ships were captured and another sunk; 4,200 French sailors were killed and 3,300 wounded - ten per cent of their entire maritime workforce. These were physical blows from which the French navy would never truly recover, the battle an important precursor of the decisive British victories that would soon follow.

In The Glorious First of June Sam Willis not only tells, with thrilling immediacy and masterly clarity, the gripping story of an epic and complex battle, he places it within the context of The Terror, the survival of the French Revolution and the growth of British sea-power.

The Glorious First of June is the last in 'The Hearts of Oak trilogy' and, like The Fighting Temeraire and The Admiral Benbow, is another thrilling account of the Age of Sail by one of our most exciting young historians.

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