Thurot And His Ships

French corsair and naval officer François Thurot.

View of Carrickfergus in the late eighteenth century. Francis Thurot briefly seized the port in 1759 after a diversionary attack.

‘The Gallant Action off the Isle of Man where the brave Captain Elliott defeated Thurot 28th of February 1760’. The action took place off Bishop’s Court between Captain Elliott and the French Captain Thurot the former smuggler with connections to the Isle of Man. The picture was published in 1780 by James Mocgowan and William Davies.

At Dunkirk an expedition under the famous corsair François Thurot was being assembled. A protégé of Belle-Isle, Thurot had won a great reputation as an intrepid privateer. In 1757, in his flagship the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, named for his protector, and commanding a small group of frigates he had harried British commerce on the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Baltic, perfecting the technique of never staying long enough in any one area to be tracked down by the Royal Navy. Sweeping in huge arcs from Lough Swilly in Ireland to Bergen in Norway and the Faeroe Islands, Thurot took many prizes and severely disrupted trade between Liverpool and North America. His success in 1758, when France was on the retreat in most theatres in the world, determined Belle-Isle to use him in the great 1759 invasion project. Lionised at Versailles, where he was received by Louis XV and became a great hit with the ladies, Thurot was in 1759 at the very peak of his achievement and reputation. Belle-Isle’s idea was to employ him on a feint to Ireland that would keep the enemy guessing and that could bring him and his financial backers great riches. The conquistadores had gone to the New World to serve God and grow rich; Thurot, a latterday conquistador, aimed to serve France and grow rich.

The one minor blemish on the Royal Navy’s glorious record in 1759 was its inability to track down Thurot. British cruisers withdrew from Ostend in mid-October, allowing Thurot to escape. The thinking was that even if he broke out, he must be making for Newcastle or the east coast of Scotland, so he could easily be picked up later by vessels cruising between Yarmouth and the Dutch island of Texel. But on 17 October Thurot and his ships, with 1,100 troops on board, gave the English frigates the slip and vanished into the mists of the North Sea. He then entered the Kattegat strait and anchored at Gothenburg on 26 October, declaring: ‘I am here for political reasons and out of caution.’ The circumspection was warranted. Commodore Boys learned from the Dutch that Thurot had headed north-east from the Texel and therefore made straight for Edinburgh with eight frigates; another squadron was stationed off Yarmouth just in case Thurot tried to double back and make a landing on England’s east coast. But by now the secret of Thurot’s real destination was out, leaked both by British agents in Dunkirk and in Gothenburg. The Duke of Bedford, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was notified accordingly. Meanwhile Thurot wrote confidently to Belle-Isle: ‘Do not be surprised if you hear nothing from me for a very long time; I am planning to lose the enemy. The advancing season may delude the English into thinking that the project is abandoned. All these preparations are necessary because of the preparations which the English have undertaken.’

On 14 November the French fleet sailed from Gothenburg, only to be caught next day in a ferocious storm, which scattered the ships. In accordance with the secret instructions Thurot had given to each of his captains at Dunkirk, he headed for Bergen, designated as the first rendezvous point in the event of separation; failing that, there would be a second rendezvous in the Faeroe Islands. In Bergen Thurot waited for three weeks with four ships, hoping in vain that the Begon and the Faucon would rejoin him. But the masters of these two vessels had sustained such heavy damage in the storm that they disregarded Thurot’s instructions and sailed haltingly back to Dunkirk. The loss of the Begon was an especially heavy blow, since she carried 350 men – a quarter of the landing force. Yet Thurot decided to press on, pausing only to write to Belle-Isle ‘to expect no further news of me, but of my success or total destruction.’ He cleared from Bergen on 5 December but did not fetch the Faeroes until 28 December, battling high seas and severe gales all the way. Supplies were running low and the men were suffering from the unbearably cramped conditions below deck. Mutiny was in the air when a council of officers voted almost unanimously on New Year’s Day 1760 to turn back. But Thurot insisted that the honour of France demanded a landfall in Ireland and in this he was backed by Cavenac, Flobert’s second-in-command.

Thurot took on what provisions he could and waited for favourable winds. Finally, on 26 January, the four frigates set sail for Ireland and, four days later, sighted the northern coast. Again short of food, Thurot decided to attack the city of Derry (Londonderry) but once again the winds and waves were against them, so that it was 7 February before they reached the entrance to Lough Foyle. At a council of war Thurot laid out his plans: he would land Flobert and the troops outside the city, while he sailed into the port to destroy enemy shipping. But Flobert refused to go along with the plan, claiming that the landing point was too far from Londonderry and they would be attacking the town blind, in total ignorance about the size of its garrison or the strength of the defences. Grudgingly he agreed to a modified plan, whereby 200 men under Cavenac would support Thurot’s attack on the harbour. For three days Thurot waited for favourable winds that would waft him into Lough Foyle, but in vain. When a breeze did finally appear it was in the form of an adverse wind, followed by a gale, which drove the ships far to the north; once again the fleet was scattered and the Amaranthe took advantage of the excuse provided by storm and separation to set a course for France round the west coast of Ireland. Seriously short of provisions and now down to three vessels manned by near-mutinous sailors, Thurot reluctantly agreed to abandon his attack on Londonderry. He ordered a return to Bergen, prior to a homeward track down the North Sea, but only after the army commander on the Terpsichore told him that his ship intended to return to France, whatever commands Thurot gave.

On 13 February the winds reversed their direction, so Thurot announced that the ships would make their way home through the Irish Sea; in reality he was still hoping to find a pretext for another attempt on Londonderry. Colonel Rusilly, the contumacious commander on the Terpsichore, saw what Thurot’s game was and led an outright mutiny, forcing the ship’s captain to steer away to Scotland. An angry Thurot brought the Maréchal de Belle-Isle alongside and threatened to rake her unless Rusilly surrendered. The Terpsichore struck and it was agreed that Thurot’s orders would now be obeyed, provided he landed to take on provisions. Thurot agreed and secretly set a course for Londonderry. But Flobert was no fool and discovered they were not on a track for France. There was another crisis, this time with Flobert threatening to arrest Thurot and take over command himself. When Thurot defied him to do his worst, Flobert tried to get his Grenadiers to arrest Thurot, but they hesitated and, while they were still undecided, Thurot read out Louis XV’s instructions, making it clear that his arrest would be an express act of mutiny attracting the death penalty. The revolt subsided, but the sailors and soldiers remained sullen and uncooperative, so Thurot reluctantly gave the orders to set course for Scotland. He reminded Flobert, however, that there was no question of being able to land troops and seize provisions – the option open to them in Ireland – since Louis XV’s express orders forbade any attack on Scotland, as a possible ally; all they were allowed to do in Scotland was pay for supplies by cash or credit. Flobert gloomily accepted that they would have to return to France via the Irish Sea.

Once again Thurot duped his followers. On 20 February he informed Flobert that he intended to enter Carrickfergus Bay that evening, prior to an attack on Carrickfergus and Belfast. His motive was not so much the glory of France, which he urged his officers to uphold – there had been a gloomy dinner on the evening of 15 February while anchored off the Scottish island of Islay, when a local MacDonald laird gave them news of Quiberon – as loot; the money paid to ransom a city like Belfast would surely be considerable. As a corsair, Thurot was also a businessman and he realised that if he returned to France empty-handed he would be a ruined man. Once again Flobert opposed the plan, but finally agreed to a landing on the understanding that Carrickfergus alone should be attacked; Flobert argued, plausibly enough, that they lacked the manpower to overwhelm both Belfast and Carrickfergus at the same time.

On 21 February French forces at last set foot on Irish soil. The remaining 600 men were given the last of the brandy before rowing ashore in longboats. The local British commander, Colonel Jennings, had only 200 men to defend Carrickfergus, but decided to make a stand. The British defenders were soon flushed out of the village of Kilroot and the French pursued them into Carrickfergus, where they quickly gained control of the town except for the castle, into which the British troops retreated. When the French guardsmen tried to break down the gates of the citadel with axes, they took such heavy casualties that they soon withdrew, Flobert being among the wounded. Since Cavenac was absent, Commandant du Soulier now assumed command. He threatened to raze the town if the garrison in the castle did not surrender. Jennings did not like the odds and was soon induced to sign articles of capitulation.

But things were not working out well for Thurot. He had lost nineteen men killed and thirty wounded during Flobert’s absurd charge of the gates and still there was no likelihood of substantial financial returns, unless he pressed on to Belfast. Once again Flobert objected, arguing that his own soldiers were too weak to march to Belfast; that the garrison there was at least 600 strong; that the local militia was being called out; and that Carrickfergus could not even supply them with enough food as it was. Thurot therefore sent a message to Belfast, demanding food. The Mayor of Belfast agreed, but stalled, hoping for reinforcements to arrive. General Strode, commanding the Belfast garrison, did not think his men were strong enough to hold out and sent urgent pleas for reinforcement to Bedford in Dublin. Bedford received the news with consternation. He had stationed all his troops in the south of Ireland, expecting that d’Aiguillon might land there, and since Quiberon had assumed that the heat was off. He wrote to Pitt that he should expect the fall of Belfast and said he would not reinforce it, since he suspected a French feint prior to a main blow that would fall on Dublin or Cork. Meanwhile at Carrickfergus Thurot’s anger with Flobert’s intransigence boiled over into an irate slanging match, with both men threatening court-martial proceedings when they got back to France. Flobert displaced his rage onto the Mayor of Belfast. When supplies had still not arrived on 23 February, he sent the Mayor a threatening letter promising the stone-by-stone destruction of Belfast if the provisions did not arrive by 10 a.m. next day. The Mayor sent a single wagon full of salted beef; this was the only food the French obtained during their entire stay in Ireland.

Despairing of making any further progress, seeing his bluff called, unaware of Bedford’s pusillanimous attitude and fearful that it must be only a matter of time before Royal Navy vessels found them, Thurot reluctantly began re-embarking his men on 25 February, but he did not manage to complete his sailing preparations until the evening of the 26th. In the end it was midnight on the night of 27–28 February before he cleared from Carrickfergus Bay, as he was detained by strong contrary winds. They were only four hours out to sea when Thurot’s worst fears were realised: three thirty-six-gun Royal Navy frigates came upon them. Seeing that flight was impossible, Thurot signalled the Blonde and Terpsichore to rally, but they bolted, leaving the Maréchal de Belle-Isle to fight alone. Abandoned so ruthlessly, Thurot knew his only chance lay in boarding one of the frigates and capturing her; the troops on board his ship, evidently superior to anything the frigates possessed, made this seem anything but quixotic. But before he could implement this plan, the British gunners disabled the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, shooting away both the mizzen mast and the bowsprit. Thurot’s ship started taking on water and was likely to sink but he refused to strike, despite the fervent pleas of his officers. He was urging his gunners to fire a final broadside when he was shot in the chest and killed instantly. The British commander, Captain John Elliott, ordered Thurot to be buried at sea and took the floating hulk of the Maréchal de Belle-Isle as a prize. He reported five British dead and thirty-one wounded as against 250 French casualties; 1,100 French prisoners were taken to Whitehaven, Belfast and Kinsale.

Thurot’s raid, uncannily prefiguring the landing in Ireland in 1798 of Humbert and the French with similarly small forces, achieved nothing significant either militarily or financially. Some historians have claimed that Thurot might have been able to achieve great things, had he had a military commander of talent instead of the useless Flobert, an officer so lacklustre that even Cavenac, his deputy, openly despised him. But the real effect of the Irish venture was on French morale. Like the Hoche landing in 1796 and the Humbert adventure two years later, it proved that the Royal Navy was not infallible and that it was eminently possible for French forces to land in the British Isles. France went wild with joy over the capture of Carrickfergus – a joy only slightly dented by news of Thurot’s defeat and death. His exploits conjured up memories of the great days of the French corsairs, when men like Jean Bart, Dugay-Trouin and the Comte de Forbin were much-feared figures in the Channel. France had once again shown that it was not only England that could produce Francis Drakes. Thurot was installed as a great hero in the French pantheon, a position confirmed even in the Revolutionary era of the 1790s.

Madame de Pompadour may have exaggerated when she said that France would have won at Quiberon if Thurot rather than Conflans had commanded, but it is true that he represented a kind of indomitable fighting spirit that would next be seen in the person of John Paul Jones. For all that, Carrickfergus in 1760 was no more than a sideshow to a sideshow. By the main battle at Quiberon the British had made themselves masters of the world.


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