The battle of Palermo, 2 June 1676. After the death of de Ruyter the larger French fleet under Duquense drove the demoralized Dutch and Spanish squadron into Palermo. Here a well-handled attack, directed by Tourville, drove them onshore, where they were destroyed by fireships. Colbert's fleet had won its first major victory.
By the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War France possessed the world's largest battle fleet. France, the most powerful European state, had a population twice that of England, and ten times that of the Dutch Republic, which provided a massive tax yield to fuel the ambitions of her king, Louis XIV (1643-1715), who wanted to expand the land frontiers of France.
Louis's Minister of Finance, the Marine, Colonies and Trade, Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-83), favoured a maritime empire. Although he indulged Colbert, Louis was more interested in Spain, and attacking the Protestant Dutch Republic, than advancing the interests of French merchants. France did not depend on overseas commerce, so a navy was useful, but hardly vital. Louis was simply not interested in the navy, and this proved critical, for when forced to choose between military and naval forces, he would always favour the army. The problem was exacerbated by the separate Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets. The French Navy never secured that place in the national, as opposed to regional, consciousness that gave the Dutch and English navies their strength. The interest groups representing commerce and colonies were simply too small to sustain Colbert's vision, while his king would always compromise on maritime issues if he could secure a fortress. England and the Netherlands, however, relied on the sea and responded to adversity with increased naval activity.
The French naval revival began in the 1650s, and by the mid-1670s Colbert had created a fleet, infrastructure, administration, bureaucracy and industrial base to outstrip England and Holland. Colbert also attacked Dutch commerce, using punitive tariffs to drive them out of French trade. Yet the French fleet was not built to attack Holland or England. Crucially, France did not develop a deep water harbour in the Channel. While Dunkirk was a formidable cruiser station, it could never support a battle fleet. Possibly Colbert anticipated acquiring Antwerp and the ScheIdt Estuary, relying on his master's continental ambitions to complete the French naval position. Instead, the main base development of Louis's reign took place at Rochefort, on the Atlantic coast, linked by the Canal du Midi to the Mediterranean. This reflected Louis's ambitions. Uninterested in commerce, his ultimate aim was to secure the throne of Spain for his family: A fleet to cut Spain off from the Spanish Netherlands and her Atlantic empire, which could also exclude the maritime powers from the Mediterranean, would be a key instrument. Louis encouraged the maritime powers to fight each other and patronized the restored Stuarts to secure control of the English fleet. However, increasing suspicion of French continental ambitions took England out of the war in 1674 and into alliance with the Dutch. Arguing with the Dutch over trade seemed a trifle petty when France was on the verge of continental hegemony.
Between 1665 and 1670 Colbert carried out the largest shipbuilding programme yet seen in western Europe. He built sixty-five battleships, taking France ahead of the combined fleets of England and Holland. Among them were ten three-deckers, the largest ships afloat. For the next twenty years the French had a battle fleet of 120-140,000 tons. The Dutch never matched these figures, and England did so only after 1690. However, manning and using this impressive fleet was more difficult than building it. French naval performances before 1690 were rarely better than adequate, reflecting the length of time it took to produce experienced sea-officers and trained personnel. Only hard-won sea experience could bring the French up to the front rank of naval powers.
The Dutch war of 1672-8 exposed the dilemma of French policy: Colbert wanted to supplant the Dutch in world trade; Louis wanted the Spanish Netherlands. The threat posed by these policies to the stability of Europe and the interests of the other major powers turned the Dutch struggle into a European war. After England left the war in 1674, the French did not attack the Dutch in the Channel. Instead Louis, revealing his true interests, sent his fleet to attack Spain. A small Dutch fleet under de Ruyter went to assist the Spanish, but de Ruyter was defeated and died of his wounds off Sicily in April 1676. Dutch seapower would never recover: it lacked the resources to match the ever larger fleets of France and England, while William of Orange was forced to sacrifice Dutch naval and maritime interests to support the land war. Unable to crush the Dutch, however, Louis made peace. The Treaty of Nymegen of 1678 restored Dutch territory and, significantly, cut many of Colbert's anti-Dutch tariffs. The French challenge had also produced a powerful reaction in London. The English 1677 programme provided thirty new battleships, including ten three-deckers. These ships demonstrated that the Stuart state had the political will to resist France.
In 1685 Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had given religious tolerance to the Protestant Huguenots. The subsequent exodus of artisans, merchants, seafarers, soldiers and administrators - some 200,000 people - to Holland, England, Sweden and the Protestant German states, weakened France and was a particularly serious blow to the maritime sector. Furthermore, Colbert's influence over the king had been waning for some time before his death in 1683. His son, the Marquis de Seignelay, succeeded to his portfolio, but died in 1690. Thereafter, the French Navy continued to lose influence and power. Seignelay had begun a major expansion in 1690, taking the fleet to 190,000 tons by 1695, but this was a brief, unrepresentative figure. By 1715 the fleet stood at no more than 100,000 tons, a figure that would fall by half within another five years. France could not afford to have both a fleet on this scale and the largest army in Europe. By raising the stakes for command of the sea after 1690 with an arms race, the English defeated the French challenge, but they did so in the legislature, rather than at sea.
The war of the League of Augsburg (1688-97) demonstrated both the success of Colbert's policy and the fragility of his navy. For all the 'naval' power it could mobilize in 1690, the French state lacked the maritime strength in depth for a long war. France simply could not mobilize the manpower and maritime resources to keep this force effective. In September 1688 Louis invaded the Rhineland, which enabled William of Orange to invade England and overthrow the unpopular Catholic regime of his father-in-law, James II. This ruined Louis's plans, which had relied on William and James neutralizing each other while he dealt with the German states. Consequently, the French reaction to William's move was slow and ill coordinated. The French sent troops and supplies to Ireland to support James, but after the drawn battle of Bantry Bay in 1689 they lost local naval superiority, enabling William, now King William III, to defeat James at the Boyne in July 1690. This was a critical victory, as the Anglo-Dutch alliance had just lost a major sea battle.
In 1690 both the English and the Dutch had been slow to mobilize their fleets, enabling the French to combine their Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets at Brest under Vice Admiral Anne Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville (1642-1701), perhaps the greatest French admiral. Tourville was ordered to destroy the allied fleet. He had seventy ships to meet the allies' fifty-seven, and an even greater firepower superiority. The allied commander, Arthur Herbert, Earl of Torrington, recognized that defeat would be disastrous for the new regime and skilfully avoided battle. He knew that while he had a 'fleet in being' the French would not try to invade. Unfortunately, Torrington's enemies persuaded Queen Mary that he was being unduly cautious and the Crown Council William had left to advise her during his absence in Ireland ordered him to give battle.
The fleets finally engaged off Beachy Head on 10 July 1690. Under the circumstances Torrington's attempt to fight a partial battle, enough to satisfy those at a distance, without taking undue risks, was logical. But the Dutch van squadron ignored its orders and launched a furious assault on the French. While the English rear squadron had the advantage over its opposite number, Tourville used his numerical superiority to double on the head and rear of the Dutch, while in the centre Torrington fought a holding action. In the evening the wind died and Torrington ordered his fleet to anchor without taking in sail, outwitting Tourville, whose fleet drifted past. Remarkably only one Dutch ship was captured, when, having lost her anchors, she drifted into the French line. When Torrington tried to escape past the French to the Thames, to deter an invasion, ten more allied ships were taken or burnt, all but one from the crippled Dutch squadron. Although it was the odds that had defeated Torrington, he was made a scapegoat to save the alliance with the Dutch. However, his 'fleet in being' became a key concept in naval thought, and his tactical ideas became the core of new Fighting Instructions. Both the English and French introduced permanent flag signal codes in 1693 to convey an admiral's instructions to his fleet. While the system remained limited, and almost impossible to use once the firing started, it was an advance on sending messages by boat.
For all the glory of Beachy Head, Tourville's victory was singularly devoid of strategic impact, as the French were not ready to invade. After burning a fishing village, Tourville had to put back to Brest, his crews decimated by sickness. More important objectives, like supporting James's army, were impossible to achieve: the endurance of fleets at this time was determined more by the deterioration of food and water, and the rapid spread of disease, than the weather. Here the French invariably suffered more than the allies, with the insanitary state of their ships reflecting their limited sea experience. In 1691 Tourville, now heavily outnumbered by a revitalized allied fleet, switched his attention to allied convoys.
In 1692 the French finally assembled an army to invade England. Louis believed a battle would clear the path for an invasion, and expected some English officers would desert to the Stuart cause. Tourville, like Torrington in 1690, was ordered, against his better judgement, to engage a superior enemy. As the Toulon squadron failed to reach Brest in time, and he was also short of seamen, Tourville entered the Channel with only forty-four ships.
Sighting Admiral Sir Edward Russell's allied fleet of eighty-eight ships off Cape Barfleur on 29 May 1692, Tourville accepted his fate and directed his flagship, Le Soleil Royal, to engage Russell's HMS Britannia. The two great three-deckers became the core of the battle, with other ships drifting in and out of their duel. After ten hours the wind increased and Tourville disengaged. Although his flagship had been rendered almost unmanageable by her English opponent, his fleet remained united. The next morning Russell sighted the French, by now somewhat reduced by ships breaking off for Brest, and ordered a pursuit. That night twenty French ships ran through the treacherous Alderney race to safety, but fifteen remained on the Normandy coast. Three were aground at Cherbourg and twelve close inshore at La Hougue, where the French invasion army had assembled. On 2 June, with James II watching, Admiral Rooke led a boat attack that destroyed the French ships, most of which were three-deckers· of the heaviest class. The ex-king had the mortifying experience of watching a fleet that he more than anyone had helped to build, destroy his last hope for restoration. It was entirely in character, however, that he cheered the English seamen.
The suffering of the wounded persuaded Queen Mary to convert the incomplete Royal Palace at Greenwich into a naval hospital and long-term accommodation for disabled and elderly seamen. It remains to this day the finest tribute ever paid by a grateful nation to its sailors.
The loss of fifteen ships at La Hougue was a serious blow to French prestige, particularly when so many of them were named for the king, but they were replaced with ease. Between 1691 and 1692 France launched almost 100,000 tons of battleships, and by 1695 the French fleet was even larger than it had been in 1690 (190,000 tons compared to 122,000 tons). Yet the fleet was never used. After a famine and a financial crisis in 1693-4 France had to concentrate her resources on the army. Furthermore, she had neither the men nor the equipment to put the ships to sea. A close allied blockade denied her access to Baltic naval stores and Swedish cannon. The French had been short of 2,000 cannon when the war broke out, and were never able to catch up. Once the invasion of England had been abandoned there was no worthwhile role for a battle fleet. In 1695 Marshal Vauban advised shifting to an attritional strategy, attacking allied commerce with naval squadrons and privateers. The privateering effort involved the loan of state warships, and mobilized a peculiarly economical form of maritime power. In 1693 Tourville's fleet had located the annual Levant and Mediterranean trade, the Smyrna convoy, off Cape St Vincent, defeated the escort and taken eighty ships. While this was disaster for the allies, it did not affect their ability to continue the war. Sea denial strategies are necessarily inconclusive, unless they can be converted into sea control. This was simply beyond the power of France, now that England had finally put in place the financial and political structures necessary to harness her own strategic potential.