1760 - French expedition against the Irish Coasts
The campaign took place in February 1760
In October 1759, Boys' squadron, who was blockading a small French squadron at Dunkerque, was driven from his station by a gale. On October 15, Thurot, the French commander, seized the opportunity, slipped out and made to the northward. His small squadron, transporting about 1,300 troops under Brigadier-general de Flobert, consisted of 6 frigates or corvettes:
- Maréchal de Belleisle (44)
- Blonde (32)
- Terpsichore (26)
- Bégon (36)
- Amaranthe (18)
- Faucon (18)
Boys followed as soon as possible but was not able to overtake Thurot. Ultimately, Boys contented himself with cruising off the coast of Scotland with the object of preventing any sudden raid there. As Thurot's destination was unknown and as there were rumours that he contemplated a blow on some port on the east coast of England, the squadron in the Downs, under Commodore Sir Piercy Brett, was ordered to Yarmouth.
Indeed, Thurot went to Göteborg in Sweden, partly to procure stores, and partly, no doubt, to baffle pursuit or observation. There he remained for 19 days, going next to Bergen in Norway. On his way thither, one of his ships, the Bégon (36), was so damaged in a gale as to be obliged to return to France. The Faucon (18) also parted company early in the voyage.
On December 5, Thurot quitted Bergen and proceeded to the British seas, by way of Strömö (probably Streymoy), in the Faroe Islands.
On January 25 1760, Thurot's squadron (4 small vessels, the largest mounting less than 50 guns) reached the neighbourhood of the Irish coast. The weather confounded an intended descent near Londonderry, and scattered his squadron, so much so that the Amaranthe (18) never rejoined and returned in some distress to Saint-Malo. As the ships were by that time all in a sorry plight and more than one of them was almost mutinous, the captains implored Thurot to abandon the descent. But he refused.
On February 15 (or 17), Thurot's squadron put into Claigeann Bay, in the island of Islay in Argyleshire to refresh. In the evening, they showed British colours, inducing two gentlemen to go on board where they were detained. Soon after, some French vessels put off for the shore. On their way, they boarded and plundered two small sloops lying at anchor in the small bay of the island. The French crews then landed on the island.
While Thurot remained on the island of Islay, he behaved in every respect more like a friend than an enemy. He paid for everything he took, even beyond their value. He kept the best discipline and prevented pillaging as much as possible. During his sojourn on the island, Thurot was informed of the defeat of Conflans' fleet at the battle of Quiberon last November. Thurot's squadron was much too small to make any attempt of consequence on Scotland.
On February 19,Thurot left Islay.
On February 20, Thurot anchored in Belfast Lough, opposite Kilroot Point.
On February 21 around 11:00 AM, Thurot appeared with only 3 of his frigates, all showing British colours, off the Island of Magee, standing in shore for the Bay of Carrickfergus in Ireland. His forces consisted of:
- Maréchal de Belle-Isle (44) transporting 545 men
- Blonde (32) transporting 400 men
- Terpsichore (26) transporting 400 men
- land force under the command of Brigadier-general M. de Flobert (as of October 1759 but now reduced to only 1,345 men)
- Maison du Roi
- Infantry (1,000 men) from the following regiments (probably the same contingent who had served at Louisbourg in 1758):
- Hussars of an unidentified unit (50 men)
- Corps Royal de l'Artillerie (5 miners and 2 gunners)
At that time, the fortifications of the town were out of repair. Furthermore, the small garrison (4 newly-raised coys of the 62nd Strode's Foot) was out of town at exercise, about 1 km on the road to Belfast. At 11:00 AM, soldiers were sent back to relieve those guarding the French prisoners in the castle. The commanding officer, Lieutenant-colonel Jennings, informed of the appearance of these 3 vessels, instructed the two detachments taking part to the change of the guard to both remain in the castle. He then sent a lieutenant with a reconnoitring party to determine if these vessels were French or British.
By noon, the French frigates had put all their boats to sea.
Around 1:00 PM, the British reconnaissance party saw 8 boats landing armed men (these were 5 grenadier companies from the Gardes Françaises, Gardes Suisses, Cambis Infanterie, Artois Infanterie and I./Bourgogne Infanterie) who immediately took position on all dykes, hedges and rising ground. The lieutenant gave orders to his detachment to resist and ran to alarm Lieutenant-colonel Jennings. The latter immediately sent detachments to defend the gates of the town and gave instructions to remove the French prisoners to Belfast.
By 3:00 PM, the French force (about 1,000 men) had landed unopposed. Their piquets were now formed and the entire force now marched on the town. Meanwhile the vanguard consisting of the Gardes Suisses, the grenadiers, 20 hussars and 20 Volontaires Étrangers, made themselves master of the gates of the town despite the resistance of the British garrison. The French then pursued the British garrison up to the market place where the latter formed and offered a vigorous defence. Finally, running out of ammunition, Lieutenant-colonel Jennings retired into the castle with the garrison The French immediately occupied the market place. The French frigates then entered deeper into the bay. Meanwhile, the French infantry had attacked the gates of the castle, knocked them open and penetrated into the castle. Lieutenant-colonel Jennings with 50 men managed to drive the French back. However, Jennings was in no position to support another assault and soon surrendered. The garrison marched out with the honours of war, provided that an equal number of French prisoners would be freed. Another article of the capitulation stipulated that the town of Carrickfergus would supply the French with provisions. The latter, not satisfied with the execution of this last article, plundered the town. The French had lost about 50 men in the action.
The French made several small prizes in the Lough, rifling and afterwards burning them.
On February 22, Thurot sent a messenger to Belfast, under a flag of truce, to buy provisions, threatening to burn Carrickfergus if his demand was refused. Thurot also threatened to advance on Belfast and to burn the town as well. The inhabitants of Belfast agreed to sell provisions to the French.
Meanwhile, the news of Thurot's raid on Carrickfergus had spread throughout Ireland and along the western coast of England. Some 1,200 militia were assembled at Liverpool to defend the harbour. The undefended harbour of Whitehaven, where there were some 200 vessels, also feared an attack. The gentlemen of the region hurriedly raised 600 men. British warships were sent from several ports in search of Thurot's small squadron. The Duke of Bedford, Governor of Ireland, sent expresses to all the principal ports in the northern part of Ireland to inform the captains of any of ships of the Navy that might be there of what had happened and to order them to march on Carrickfergus. At Kinsale one of these expresses found the frigates Aeolus (32) of Captain John Elliot, Pallas (36) of Captain Michael Clements and Brilliant (36) of Captain James Loggle which had been driven from their station with Hawke's fleet on the coast of France. These at once put to sea and went north.
On February 25 at 8:00 PM, Thurot re-embarked his troops.
On February 26 at 7:30 AM, Thurot signaled to sail but the wind rising, departure was postponed. An 18-pdr gun was transported from the castle to the Maréchal de Belle-Isle (44) while 18 other guns were spiked. Furthermore, 200 powder barrels and 800 grenades were thrown to sea. The same day, at Dublin, the senior officer, Captain John Elliot, learned that the French were still at Carrickfergus. That same evening, he found himself off the mouth of Belfast Lough, but, the wind being contrary, he could not get in.
On February 27, the French burned several vessels in the harbour of Carrickfergus. At 10:00 PM, Thurot finally sailed from Carrickfergus for France, bringing a few hostages (the mayor and some gentlemen) to guarantee the agreed upon exchange of French prisoners.
On February 28 at 4:00 AM, Elliot got sight of Thurot's squadron as it rounded Copeland Island and gave chase. At 6:00 AM, Elliot caught up Thurot's squadron. At 9:00 AM, off the isle of Man, Elliot got up alongside Thurot's vessel. A few minutes later, the vessels of both squadrons were engaged. Almost immediately, the Blonde (32) and Terpsichore (26) abandoned combat and tried to escape, leaving the Maréchal de Belle-Isle (44) and Thurot alone against the 3 British frigates. The engagement lasted about 90 minutes before the 3 French vessels were forced to strike their colours. Thurot had been killed by a cannonball during the engagement and his vessel, the Maréchal de Belle-Isle (44), who had lost 155 men killed, was so badly damaged that it was feared she could sink before reaching the nearest harbour. In this action, the French lost 300 men killed or wounded while British losses were trifling:
N.B.: in his journal a Swiss soldier pretends that the Blonde (32) suddenly turned back, approached the Maréchal de Belle-Isle (44) and fired a broadside, killing Captain Thurot. This supposed treason seems very unlikely since land troops were embarked aboard each French ship...
The French prisoners were brought to Ramsey on the Isle of Man then to Belfast where they arrived on March 2. On May 10, they were freed and transported to France.
The three victorious British captains were unanimously voted the thanks of the Irish House of Commons and the Blonde (32) and Terpsichore (26) were purchased into the Royal Navy.
This article consists essentially of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 486-490
- Anonymous, Apologie du capitaine Thurot, extraite de différents Journaux de ses Navigations sur les Côtes d'Irlande & d'Écosse, pendant les années 1757 & 1759, London, 1778
- Clowes, Wm. Laird, The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 229-231
- Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 501.