Supremacy at sea: finance, aggression and national commitment.

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Trafalgar -The Penultimate Naval Victory.

In the last analysis Britannia came to rule the waves because the British navy was better financed than any of its rivals. Once disagreements with the Crown were overcome and a productive taxation and borrowing system established, Parliament never stinted on the navy because the whole country was convinced that national survival depended on it.

‘To the question, what shall we do to be saved in this world? There is no other answer but this, Look to your moat. The first article of an Englishman’s creed must be, that he believeth in the sea. ‘

So wrote Lord Halifax in his Rough Draught of a New Model at Sea, published in 1694. No other European state possessed this utter conviction of the importance of maritime power to its very existence – not even Holland which increasingly diverted resources to its fortress barrier – and this was the crucial psychological difference both in financing and fighting the war at sea.

No continental Power possessed the resources to fight a war a l’outrance simultaneously on land and sea, and Britain always, usually successfully, sought continental allies to force its enemies to divert their main resources to their land frontiers, because being continental Powers their natural inclination was to strengthen their armies. In the wars between 1689 and 1713 France only spent 1/8th as much on its navy as on its army. In consequence between 1695-7 French naval shipbuilding slowed dramatically. In 1707 it stopped altogether. In contrast Britain spent 7/8ths as much on its navy as on its own and allied armies in these wars which became predominantly continental.

The classic case of this priority crisis for France came in 1760 when with £ 7 million going to its army. It could only spare £ 1/2 million for its navy and virtually abandoned the maritime and colonial struggle of the Seven Years’ War.

Faced with this handicap. superior French naval administration and better ship design were of no avail. Financial shortages had an all-pervasive and disastrous effect on French strategy and tactics. In the interests of conserving limited resources their fleet was usually demobilized and only prepared for sea for specific expeditions. This left the initiative to the British navy which kept at sea and gained an enormous advantage in sea-training and practice at fleet-maneuvers. So that, whereas the better designed French ships were individually faster than their British counterparts, British squadrons were collectively faster because of better training. The French also sought to avoid battle wherever possible because of the cost of repairs and instead sought their strategic ends in other ways.

All this put the French, and Spanish also at a disadvantage when actually forced to battle in the eighteenth century. It bred a defensive and rather defeatist spirit which contrasted to the perpetual aggressiveness of a British navy convinced that only through seeking and winning battles could the national trade and territory be ensured, eager for the social and financial rewards of success, secure that battle damage would be readily repaired at any cost in the naval dockyards, and in the course of time brimming with the confidence of repeated success. It was in these circumstances that the severe discipline and constant gun-drill of the British navy paid off. Time and again eyewitnesses of fleet actions recorded that the British ships maintained a heavier. more accurate, and more sustained fire than their opponents. Together with the expertise acquired at collective manoeuvring this gunnery superiority enabled the British navy to develop the devastating tactic of breaking through the enemy line in the late eighteenth century and ensure the decisive victory which British admirals so often sought.

From about 1693 onwards France indeed abandoned the attempt to command the seas through fleet action and. since the Dutch also cut back their battlefleet about the same time, no other continental Power had the strength to do so. Whereas Britain maintained a fleet of above 120 battleships, for much of the eighteenth century France maintained only 60-70. The alternative was to raid British commerce in a guerre de course but though this at times cut deep inroads into British commerce, it never bit hard enough to bring Britain to its knees and it had a corollary in that it left the maritime initiative to Britain to attack France’s coast and colonies and virtually bring French overseas trade to a standstill. Only a battlefleet in control of the Channel or off the Thames could have effectively stifled British commerce, but when towards the end of the eighteenth century the French government sought to increase its battlefleet to bring the command of the seas into serious contention once more, the financial effort contributed to the collapse of the Ancien Regime and to the French Revolution.

Ultimately the Bourbons paid the penalty for failing to realise, as British statesmen, merchants and gentry did, that naval command of the seas and mercantile wealth were inseparably connected. The one supported the other. By adopting the guerre de course France virtually abandoned its merchant marine for the duration of each war. In so doing it deprived itself of the trained seamen and commercial wealth necessary to sustain a very large navy and it fell so far behind in the naval arms race as to be unable to catch up without enormous financial and political repercussions. There was no short cut to supreme naval power. It had to be bought by heavy financial investment which did not shirk at the price. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries only Britain was prepared to make and sustain that sort of investment because only Britain was committed to a total belief in the importance and connection of trade and naval strength to the national welfare and because only Britain, as an island, had both the absolute need and the opportunity to make such a total commitment.

In making this investment Britain took a great step forward towards modern times. The build-up and maintenance of the Royal Navy were immensely important in shaping the development of the British state. They expanded the size of the British government, the extent of its intervention in the economy, and its interference with the lives of its subjects both for money and for manpower. Perhaps they made such extension of government power politically acceptable and paved the way for its further extension. The economic stimulus of building this navy, together with both the overseas sources of raw materials and tradeable commodities and also the overseas markets which it then won and kept, were substantial contributory factors towards the economic lead which Britain won over its continental counterparts in the eighteenth century, and which took it into industrialisation. The growth of the early modern British state was built on its seapower.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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