"When the battle rages loud and long,
And the stormy winds do blow."
T HE French had been beaten by the English in the East and in the West by land. Now they were to be beaten again by the English, this time by sea, and off their own coast. France was threatening an invasion of England, when Sir Edward Hawke was given command of an English fleet, with orders to blockade the French fleet and destroy the ships if possible.
How, through wild storms and tempests, the English sailor kept his dogged watch, and how, finally, he destroyed the fleet with "heroic daring," and by so doing saved his country, is one of the most thrilling stories in history.
Born in the year 1705, Hawke had been at sea ever since he was a small boy.
"Would you like to be a sailor, Ned?" he had been asked.
"Certainly, sir," the boy had answered quickly.
"Are you willing to go now, or to wait till you are bigger?"
"This instant, sir," replied the little hero.
His mother grieved bitterly over his departure from home.
"Good-bye, Ned," she said, with difficulty controlling herself. "I shall expect you soon to be a captain."
"A captain," replied the boy with derision; "Madam, I hope you will soon see me an admiral."
He rose quickly in the service. More than once he distinguished himself in sea-fights. He had more than fulfilled the traditions of the British navy, lately disgraced by the behaviour of the British Admiral Byng, who for the loss of Minorca had been tried and shot on the deck of his own ship.
Pitt had chosen Wolfe to carry out his plans at Quebec; he now chose Hawke to sail against the French, and so frustrate the threatened invasion of England.
It was in the middle of May 1759 that Hawke hoisted his flag and sailed from Torbay, to fulfil his difficult task. The French fleet, under Conflans, the ablest of French commanders, was lying snugly in the well-sheltered harbour of Brest, while more ships lay to the south at the mouth of the Loire. Hawke was to block all the ships in the harbour of Brest, and prevent their joining the others. He sailed over to the French coast, and there for six months he doggedly blockaded the French fleet. But it was a stormier season than usual. His officers and men died of disease, the bottoms of the ships grew foul, the vessels were battered by autumn gales and knocked about by the high rolling seas from the Bay of Biscay. Still the British sailor stuck to his post. Autumn drew on. Again and again the wild north-west gales drove him from his blockading ground at the mouth of the harbour of Brest; again and yet again he fought his way back.
On November 6, a tremendous gale swept over the English fleet. For three days Hawke stood his ground, but he was forced to run back to the shores of England for shelter. Two days later he put to sea again, but the wind was blowing as furiously as ever, and he was again obliged to put back to Torbay. His own ship was rotten and water-logged, so he shifted his flag to the Royal George and struggled out again into the storm.
He was just too late. The French fleet had escaped, and the ships were even now running gaily with the wind behind them down the west coast of France to join the rest of the fleet. Conflans' daring plan might have succeeded had he not had against him a man whose genius, patience, and resolution were proof against the wildest waves and the fiercest winds. In the teeth of the gale Hawke fought his way across the channel to France to find the harbour empty, his prey gone. On ran the French ships before the gale. Very soon the white sails of the English might have been seen hurrying after them. With the waves breaking over their decks, weighed down by the weight of sail, battered by the wild wind that whistled through their rigging, the English ships ran on, every hour bringing them nearer and nearer to the enemy.
"I will attack them in the old way," cried Hawke, "and make downright work of them."
As night drew on, the wind blew harder than ever. Conflans now devised a bold plan. He ran his ships coastwards, among islands and shoals of which he knew the English to be ignorant. It was a wild stretch of dangerous coast, on which the huge Atlantic waves broke with a roar as of thunder, tossing their white foam high into the air. The wind blew with ever-increasing fury, and the night was black as pitch. Only the genius of a Hawke could save the fleet in such a night. But to the successor of Drake and Hawkins all things were possible. "Where there is a passage for the enemy, there, is a passage for me. Where a Frenchman can sail, an Englishman can follow," cried Hawke. "Their pilot shall be our pilot. If they go to pieces on the shoals, they will serve as beacons for us. Their perils shall be our perils."
"And so, on the wild November afternoon, with the great billows that the Bay of Biscay hurls on that stretch of iron-bound coast, Hawke flung himself into the boiling cauldron of rocks and shoals and quicksands. No more daring deed was ever done at sea."
The battle began, and the roar of the guns answered the din of the tempest. The wildly rolling fleets were soon hopelessly mixed up together. Ship after ship went down with its guns and its crews, but the flagship with Hawke on board was making for the white pennant which flew from the mast of Conflans' ship. Soon the two great ships had begun their fierce duel. Night fell before the battle was ended,—a wild night filled with the shrieking of the gale, and morning broke no less wild and stormy. Seven French ships had run for shelter to the coast, two had gone to pieces on the rocks. But in the very centre of the English fleet lay the flagship of Conflans, battered and helpless. In the darkness and confusion of the night the French commander had mistaken his friends for his foes, and anchored unconsciously in the middle of the English fleet.
As the misty grey dawn showed him his mistake, Conflans cut his cables and made for the shore. The battle of Quiberon was over. The French ships were too much damaged to put to sea any more, and Hawke was free to sail home to receive the honours that a joyous England was ready to bestow upon the faithful and brave Admiral who had saved her from a French invasion.