Military Wiki
Action of 12 December 1782
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Combat de la Belle Poule et de l'Aréthusa.jpg
Combat de la Belle Poule et de l'Aréthusa" by Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy
Date17 June 1778
Location23 miles (37 km) south of The Lizard
Result Minor British success
 Kingdom of Great Britain  Kingdom of France
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Great Britain Augustus Keppel Kingdom of France Jean Clocheterie

4 ships

3 ships

Casualties and losses
1 ship damaged
44 casualties
1 frigate captured
1 corvette captured (both later released)
102 casaulties

The Action of 17 June 1778 also known as the Fight of the Belle Poule and Arethusa was a minor naval action that took place off the coast of France between Royal naval ships and French naval ships. The action was widely celebrated by both France and Great Britain and was the first between the two naval forces during the American Revolutionary War before a formal deceleration of war was even announced.[1]


On June 13, 1778, Keppel, with twenty-one ships of the line and three frigates, was dispatched to keep watch over the Brest fleet; Keppel was to prevent a junction of the Brest and Toulon fleets, more by persuasion if he could since both nations were not at war. The French 26-gun frigate, Belle Poule was on a reconnaissance along with the 26-gun frigate Licorne, the corvette Hirondelle, and the cutter Coureur, when on the 17th she encountered a large British squadron that included the HMS Arethusa at a point 23 miles (37 km) south of The Lizard.[2]

Commence of the action

Admiral Keppel, commanding the British fleet ordered that the French ships be pursued and returned to his flagship by any means since he did not want the French ships to see the British strength.[1]


Belle Poule coeffure

The Licorne did so, after being overhauled by two British ships HMS Milford a 28 gunner and the HMS America a 64 gunner. Licorne subsequently tried to escape during the night after having meditated on affairs, but surrendered after a brief combat with America a ship double her size.[1]

Meanwhile, the Arethusa and the cutter Alert reached the Belle Poule, accompanied by the French cutter Le Courier. The captain of the Belle Poule refused the order to sail back to the British fleet. The British fired a warning shot across his ship's bow, to which he responded with a full broadside.[3] Thus a furious, two hour battle between the two ships with Arethusa fighting a ship bigger than its own. The Belle Poule was eager to escape and soon began to cripple the Arethusa with topmasts hanging over the side, and canvas torn. The Arethusa lay shattered and soon lost her main mast.[4]

Soon the wind fell and the shot-torn loftier sails of the Belle Poule, however, yet held wind enough to drift her out of the reach of the Arethusa's fire. Both ships were close under the French cliffs and the Belle Poule, struggled into a tiny cove in the rocks, and nothing remained for the Arethusa but to cut away her wreckage, hoist what sail she could, and drag herself back under jury-masts to the British fleet.[5]

Meanwhile Coureur was overtaken by the British cutter Alert, and after some resistance finally cooperated with being taken to Keppel's flagship. Hirondelle on the otherhand escaped the engagement entirely.[3]


The Arethusa suffered 44 casualties from its 198 man crew, but its masts and rigging had been so severely damaged that it had to be towed by the newly arrived British ships.[3] As other British ships from the Keppel's fleet approached, the Belle Poule withdrew toward the French coast having lost 30 killed and 72 wounded, among which was her captain, Lieutenant Jean Isaac Chadeau de la Clocheterie.[6]

This battle was the first between British and French naval forces during the American Revolutionary War[3] and took place around three weeks before the formal declaration of war by France. Admiral Keppel himself was surprised by the reaction of the French captains as he only intended to speak with them, and then release their ships.[2]

The battle was widely celebrated in France as a victory; ladies of the high society invented the hairstyle "Belle Poule", with a ship on the top of the head.[7]

With the capture of the Licorne and the "Hirrondelle" it was also viewed as a victory in Britain and became the subject of a traditional Sea shanty, The Saucy Arethusa (Roud # 12675). The Arethusa is also the subject of a song on the Decemberists' album Her Majesty the Decemberists.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Syrett (1998), p.36
  2. 2.0 2.1 Dupuy p. 210
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Syrett (1998), p.38
  4. Jean Cornuault, Un panorama de la marine de Louis XV à Charles X (Paris, 2008), pp. 87-91.
  5. John Adolphus, History of England from the Accession to the Decease of King George the Third, vol. 3 (London, 1841), p. 5
  6. "No. 11886". 22 Jun 1778. 
  7. "Hair and Hairdos of the 18th Century". 2007. Retrieved 9 August 2008. 


  • Syrett, David (1998). The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War. Univ of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1570032386. 
  • Clowes, William Laird (2003). The Royal Navy: v. 4: A History - From the Earliest Times to 1900. Chatham Publishing. ISBN 978-1861760128. 
  • Dupuy, Richard Ernest (1977). The American Revolution: A Global War. David McKay Company. ISBN 9780679506485. 

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