Napoleonic War at Sea


After Nelson’s utter destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir in 1798, Bonaparte wrote that ‘the fates seem to have decided to prove to us that, if they have granted us hegemony on land, they have made our rivals the rulers of the waves’. This was partly because the Royal Navy was by far the largest of any in the eighteenth century: in 1795, the British fleet had 123 ships of the line as against the next largest, the French, which could muster 56 (already down from 73 at the outbreak of war). Nonetheless, size alone could not account for the success of the British navy at securing maritime dominance: when the French had other maritime powers like the Spanish (76 ships of the line) and the Dutch (28) as allies (as they did at various stages during the wars), they could potentially stretch the Royal Navy’s capacity to breaking point, since its responsibilities included the defence of home waters, keeping watch on enemy fleets in European seas, the protection of sea lanes and of the empire, and their use in amphibious (‘combined’) operations.

So quality also counted, particularly in Britain’s sailors, for the very scale of the navy’s commitments ensured that even the rawest of recruits soon tasted life at sea. From 1793, the navy blockaded the French coast, giving the British crews a wide experience of sailing a vessel in all kinds of weather and seas. British ships may have been more sluggish than their sleeker French or Spanish counterparts, but what they lacked in speed was more than compensated for by the skill of their crews in handling a vessel in the most difficult of conditions. In combat, the ability of a British crew to steer their ship close to the enemy allowed them to make use of their superior gunnery, since they also had more experience of firing at sea. The role of the Royal Navy in cooperating with the army in combined operations is often neglected. During the Seven Years War, the Admiralty had approved a design for a flat-bottomed landing craft which remained the basic vessel for such operations. The most dramatic during the Napoleonic Wars was undoubtedly the withdrawal of General Sir John Moore’s army from the Spanish port of La Coruña in January 1809. Naval support was also one of the essential ingredients for ultimate allied success in the Peninsular War. The very survival of Wellington’s army when lodged behind the lines of Torres Vedras around Lisbon was dependent upon the Royal Navy’s ability to feed and supply the 420,000 soldiers and civilians by transporting grain from North America, cattle from North Africa, and saltpetre from Bengal. Between 1808 and 1813, the navy kept up a steady flow of muskets, pistols, cartridges, and artillery pieces to arm not just the regular forces, but also the Spanish guerrillas. Wellington acknowledged the role of the navy when he commented that ‘our maritime superiority gives me the power of maintaining my army while the enemy are unable to do so’.

The main problems confronting the British were twofold: the Royal Navy faced persistent difficulties of manning its vessels and there was the wear and tear of relentless campaigning at sea. The latter arose mainly because of one of the navy’s greatest, if unglamorous, achievements: the dogged blockade of the French coast, which took its toll in wrecks and damages. By Trafalgar only 83 out of 136 ships of the line were fit for service: ‘I wish we had peace’, lamented William Marsden, Secretary to the Admiralty in January 1805, ‘and could lay our ships up in dock. They are worn out like post-horses during a general election.’ The government responded with an intensive programme of shipbuilding, but numbers were also made up by prizes—which always accounted for at least a quarter of the navy’s strength. Within four years, the navy had 113 seaworthy ships of the line, to which were added the 596 cruisers, which had trebled in number since 1793, as the navy used every sinew to prosecute the war: it was the only time in history before the Second World War that one navy deployed half of the world’s warships (the US Navy outstripped that achievement in 1945).

The navy’s shortages of manpower arose because men were understandably reluctant to serve out of self-preservation, a natural aversion to iron discipline, and the higher rates of pay offered by merchantmen and privateers. Wartime absences from home and even from any land at all could last for a very long time, since a ship might be at sea for months—even years—without putting into port. Still, perhaps two-thirds of sailors were volunteers, including deserters from European navies and blacks, some of whom had escaped from slavery. Volunteers were drawn by the promise of prize money for the capture of an enemy ship, although the lion’s share went to the officers. While criminals were never accepted as recruits, joining the navy was one way for debtors to get out of prison, since the Admiralty paid off the money which they owed, provided it came to no more than £20. Yet there were never enough volunteers, so the Impress Service was created in 1793 to use varying degrees of ‘persuasion’ in Britain’s ports: it was certainly unjust, but it ensured that the ships of the Royal Navy were well (if not always fully) manned. Parties from ships of the line would seize sailors from in-bound merchant vessels, while on shore an officer would establish his headquarters (usually in a tavern), where volunteers would be accommodated and the less fortunate souls who had been press-ganged would be locked up. Small, auxiliary vessels called tenders would sit in the harbour to transport the recruits to the naval bases at Portsmouth, Plymouth, and the Nore. Meanwhile gangs of sailors, who were paid incentives for every man recruited, were sent out to persuade, cajole, and force men into the King’s service. Those who were pressed were usually people with seafaring skills—often they were sailors already, for the bounty was higher for a seaman than for a landlubber. Violence was actually rare, but the arrival of a press gang in a port was certainly a time to draw breath: the magistrates, with an anxious eye on public order, did their best to frustrate the recruiting parties—even to the point of throwing the officers in the clink. The gangs tended to fall on the least influential people in society, but they provoked local hostility nonetheless. William Henry Dillon, a lieutenant in the Impress Service, commented on his soul-destroying work in Hull in 1803:

In this performing my unpleasant duties, I soon experienced the ill will of the mob. On one occasion I was assaulted by a shower of brickbats: on another, a volley of either musket or pistol balls was fired into my room one evening as I was reading at my table.

Such opposition, paradoxically, existed alongside support for the war itself—it was just that, understandably, people did not want to have to leave their homes and jobs, nor lose valued members of their communities, to fight it. Magistrates did sometimes see the arrival of the Impress Service as an opportunity to get rid of paupers and petty criminals, but the difficulty then was in persuading the gangs to accept them.

One has good cause to suppose that in such an isolated world as a warship at sea, such a rag-bag collection of often reluctant men could only be forced into performing the arduous, muscular work of sailing a wooden ship and of standing firm in battle by the lash. Yet the image of an eighteenth-century naval vessel as ‘a sort of floating concentration camp’ has been overdrawn. Instead, the British navy was a reflection of British society: it was governed by a hierarchy that ruled through a mixture of repression, concessions, moral control, and acquiescence ‘from below’. Some historians—and there are dissenting voices—have argued that British society had a ‘disordered cohesion’ and this, the naval historian Nicholas Rodger suggests, is a term which aptly describes the navy itself. Naval life was, by the orderly standards of a modern fleet, chaotic, but what kept the men in line was less the brutality of discipline than a strong sense of common purpose with their officers and an awareness of the dangers which awaited them. In such circumstances, a brutal officer was a weak and inefficient officer, since he could only command obedience through violence.

In any case, imposing the harsher punishments was difficult: according to the regulations (the Articles of War), a captain could only impose a maximum sentence of a flogging with twelve lashes. Anything more required the time-consuming and unpredictable process of a court martial—and such tribunals proved remarkably reluctant to convict. A court martial could impose the death penalty for twenty offences (including desertion and striking an officer), but this was actually milder than the sanguinary justice meted out to British civilians on shore, who could find themselves dangling from the gallows for no less than 200 types of crime. Naval courts martial tended to impose death sentences on two offences only—murder and (probably reflecting religious scruples) buggery—although the alternative sentences (of several hundred lashes, for example) could scarcely be described as a light alternative. In general, however, a ship’s captain depended more on the men’s conviction that obedience was the best way to ensure survival, rather than on a persistent use of force. A ship could not function if the men were reduced to unthinking beasts of burden ruled by the lash: fighting at sea demanded a great deal of personal initiative. Perhaps a model commander in terms of his approach to discipline was a Captain Twisden of the British frigate Révolutionnaire in 1801:

His ship was a pattern of order and discipline, and splendidly manned; and of both ship and crew he was justly proud. … Captain Twisden did not punish as often, or as severely, as I have known some far less efficient officers to do; but his discipline was regular and systematic, never acted upon by whim or caprice.

If French army officers were noted for their aggression, courage, and initiative, they had their maritime counterparts in the British navy. Confidence in their ships and their men bred a fiery and determined brand of command in the Royal Navy, which relied heavily on the personal initiative of individual commanders. On the eve of Trafalgar, Nelson’s orders to his officers made it crystal clear that, in the smoke and confusion of battle, in which signals from his flagship would be obscured, he relied upon his captains to seize the opportunities as they arose: ‘No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.’


Naval combat strained every human nerve to the limits of its endurance. The physical danger was desperately close: a single broadside from an eighteenth-century three-deck warship would send a half ton of metal into the hull of an enemy ship. At point-blank range in the close quarters of naval combat, this was devastating. Cannon balls, jagged wooden splinters, and fragments of iron from canister shot spun on unpredictable trajectories through the cramped spaces in the gun decks. The metal shot might ricochet between the decks before finally being spent: it did not have to strike a man to kill him, since the shock alone of a near miss would do the same. The concussion of cannon was deafening: in some close engagements, men lost their hearing for life, though they tried to protect their ears by binding rags around their head. And all this was experienced in near-darkness on the gun decks, where, according to one British writer, it was ‘as if all the tenants of the lower regions, black from smoke, had broken loose and gone mad’. The feeble light let in by the gun ports was obscured by the barrels of the cannon—and, at close range, the hull of the enemy ship. The interior was filled with the sulphurous smoke from the gunfire and sometimes from burning wood and sail. The momentary light from muzzle flashes compounded the vision of hell. Outside, the atmosphere was equally outlandish. ‘Bursting forth from the many black iron mouths, and whirling rapidly in thick rings, till it swells into hills and mountains, through which the sharp red tongue of death darts flash after flash, and mingling fire, the smoke rolls upward like a curtain, in awful beauty.’ Before the killing and the maiming relented, the dead and wounded lay amongst the wreckage of gun carriages, trapped beneath fallen debris and, on the exposed quarter decks, pinned down by fallen masts, or tangled in shredded rigging and sails. The surgeon’s post was a scene of agony and butchery as limbs were amputated and blood seeped across the decks. ‘And ever and anon, amid the breaks of the cannon’s peal, the shrieks and cries of the wounded mingled with the deep roar of the outpoured and constantly-reiterated “hurra! hurra! hurra!” A chorus of cataracts sweep over the rippled smiles of the patient, passionless, and unconscious sea. Sulphur and fire, agony, death and horror, are riding and revelling on its bosom.’



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