On October 15th, 1778, a letter appeared in the Whig General advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, which was to prove a catalyst in one of the most notable causes celebres in naval history, the Keppel-Palliser affair.
The letter made specific accusations which had been in the air for three months, ever since the inconclusive action off Ushant between Admiral Keppel's Channel Fleet and the French, that the battle had been thrown away by the insubordination of Vice-admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, Keppel's rear divisional commander.
Anonymously penned, the charges brought to the boil the simmering national discontent over the war against America in its battle for independence and the Tory ministry, whilst the subsequent courts martial effectively ended the careers of both protagonists. The charges could, within the straitjacket of the Admiralty Fighting Instructions, with their draconian penalties for failure in action, have added two more names to Admiral Byng's in the list of national scapegoats. (Byng was court-martialed in 1757 for cowardice during the Seven Years War and shot).
The letter read:
The principal cause of Mr Keppel's not
re-attacking the French, at half-past
three in the afternoon (being at the
time totally refitted from the damages
sustained in the morning) was Sir H-- P--'s
joining him agreeable to a
signal to form the line, he being at that
time four miles to windward with his
Mr Keppel, observing a non-compliance, made other signals for the respective ships of Sir H-- P--'s division to bear down to him, which in complying with, Sir H-- P-- called them back into his wake.
Keppel, according to the letter, kept the signal to form line flying and, to reinforce his order, sent a frigate to summon Palliser to take his station as:
... they only waited for him and his
division coming down to renew the
action. It was night before the division
did come down, so the occasion was
lost by the French disappearing next
morning. Mr Keppel's situation is not
to be expressed when he found himself
defeated in the fair prospects he had.
The correspondent added:
... these facts will appear in every log book in the fleet; so that if an inquiry into this affair was to take place, his conduct would bear the strictest scrutiny, as hitherto no visible reason has appeared as an excuse in Sir H-- P-- for
The challenge was thus thrown down and the parliamentary status of the two protagonists -- Keppel represented Windsor in the Whig interest and Palliser was Tory member for Scarborough -- ensured an escalation of the quarrel. The political element had, in truth, been there from the start and the squalid cock-fight which the case became only damaged the service further.
The Honourable Augustus Keppel, Admiral of the Blue, younger son of the Earl of Albemarle, had last exercised a sea command fifteen years earlier during the Seven Years War -- which had left Britannia triumphant afloat, but disinclined to maintain the fleet in constant readiness to keep the fruits of her victories. Ageing ships of the line were laid up and insufficient new keels put down. A beached' Keppel threw all his energies into his political career, becoming naval spokesman for the Rockinghamites -- who formed the, parliamentary opposition to Lord North and `the King's Friends' -- and in 1765 a Lord of the Admiralty in the short-lived Whig Administration.
It was with reluctance that Keppel accepted the king's commission to command the Channel Fleet on the outbreak of hostilities with the American colonists. Not only would he be carrying out the policies of his sworn political opponents, the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Lord George Germain, Colonial Secretary, but if the French declared war in support of the Americans he knew he would be expected to deliver a crushing victory over their fleet. …