Fate, Fortune or Faithlessness? Camaret Bay June 18th, 1694. Part 3

Possibly Lord Carmarthen running the Gullet

Consequence of perfidy

When the Allied fleet arrived in Camaret Bay it immediately came under fire from the forts around Camaret village and those at Bertheaume Bay on the northern shore opposite. The plan was for men o’ war to run the narrow channel called the ‘Gullet’ between the two headlands and sail into the anchorage at Brest. This gap was exactly one mile wide meaning that any ship attempting to force passage would be subject to a hail of fire from multiple compass points. A private yacht captained by the thrill seeker Lord Carmarthen ran the gauntlet to prove the point and came out to report the defences were far more formidable than expected. This daredevil failed to spot all of Vauban’s numerous positions and the thousands of troops massed behind both Brest and Camaret Bay awaiting any landing should the batteries fail to halt the fleet.

Bombardment by at least eight large ships of the line from the English and Dutch fleets made little impression.

It was agreed that Tollemache himself would lead the assault at Camaret and first capture the small fort there before the rest of the invasion force landed behind him and pushed inland to reach Brest on the north shore. It all went badly wrong from the beginning. Eight ships of the line trying to provide cover fire for Tollemache’s vanguard came under sustained and heavy cannon and mortar fire as they sailed inshore. Casualties on the battleships were enormous with over 400 men killed or injured during the action and some vessels described as being surrounded by mortar shells which’ lashed the waves to foam’. The bay took on the aspect of an intensive naval battle.

17th century landing craft. Tollemache led the way and hit the beach under heavy fire.

Tollemache rowed boldly on with about two battalions worth of grenadiers and infantry whose boats were under fire continuously on the run up to the beach. French accounts describe the English disembarkation as confused. They counter charged with marines under de Langeron and Horse under du Plessis whilst the English vanguard fused and threw grenades in a desperate effort to stay alive. Boats were sunk by direct hits, some infantry forged on whilst others retreated to the transports. Fresh waves in transit turned back towards the fleet whilst thousands of reinforcements sat tight in their craft waiting for the order to hit the beach.

French defensive forces were not restricted to local militia. Vauban had what he needed to be successful.

Tollemache was struck by a cannonball in the thigh or groin whilst leading the attack. Attempts to get off the beach disintegrated into a shambolic rout with over 700 men lost. An eye witness stated that less than 100 of the landing party made it back to the boats and got out. At least one Dutch man o’ war was sunk at anchor and several English ships had their rigging and masts shot to pieces.

The French were well dug in.

The raid ended in complete failure. Tollemache died of his wounds about a week later after they turned gangrenous. He and his fellow officers knew for sure that they had been betrayed and the recriminations began. Putting to one side the moral issues associated with the affair the personal experience of the ordinary soldiers caught up in the inferno must have been beyond belief. Although artillery was becoming more common on the battlefield the intensity of the defensive fire offered by the French must have exceeded the wildest nightmares of any 17th century soldier.