The Napoleonic French and Spanish Navies


Battle of Grand Port. On 22-24 August 1810, a British squadron of 4 frigates entered the bay of Grand Port to eliminate a French fleet of 2 frigates, 1 corvette and a captured East Indiaman. Historically, this is the only clear naval victory the French could claim during the Napoleonic Wars. It is the only naval victory to be engraved on the Arc the Triomphe. From left to right: Bellone, Minerve, Victor (background) and Ceylon, detail from Combat de Grand Port, by Pierre Julien Gilbert

Like the Royal Navy, the French and Spanish suffered from structural problems, but found them harder to overcome. The former were starved of manpower and naval supplies. France lacked the materials needed to replace serious losses at sea and, with the British blockade, supplies of timber, rigging, and sails from the Black Sea and the Baltic dried up. The monarchy had stockpiled vast stores of timber, rope, and other supplies, but the entire store for the Mediterranean fleet at Toulon was incinerated when the British took the port in 1793, burned down the naval arsenal, and towed off thirteen ships of the line. By 1795, French shipbuilders no longer had enough timber to construct larger vessels. In 1805, even with their own problems, the British outnumbered the combined French and Spanish navies by two to one. Meanwhile, despite the size of the French population, the numbers of those ‘following the sea’ were small, not least because in what was still primarily an agricultural economy, the usual nurseries of naval seamen—deep-sea fishing and commercial shipping—were relatively small. In all, it has been estimated that France had a reserve of no more than 60,000 trained sailors by 1789. Both the old regime and the Revolution therefore suffered from chronic manpower shortages. Recruitment was systematic, but overstretched: the French had tens of ships, but not enough men to sail them properly. All men in maritime towns and villages had to register on rolls which were divided into ‘classes’. Every three to five years, each ‘class’ was obliged to serve a year at sea. In theory, this would provide the navy with a trained reserve, but in practice this deeply resented form of recruitment had little effect because men found ways to avoid it. The Revolution retained this system, so did little to address the underlying problem. During the Terror of 1793–4, all sailors and maritime workers were made liable to conscription, but such measures could only go so far in providing the navy with skilled sailors. The effectiveness of the British blockade was such that, while the British could train their recruits ‘on the job’ on the high seas, a French squadron which sortied from Brest in July 1795 consisted of crews two-thirds of whom had never been to sea before. In such circumstances, the losses of the experienced men in battle (at a rate of 10 per cent at the ‘Glorious First of June’ in 1794 and the Battle of Aboukir in 1798) were disastrous.

Apart from a paucity of skill and practice, French and Spanish crews also had little experience of gunnery at sea, which was combined with a technical difference from their British opponents. While British guns were fired with flintlocks, both French and Spanish navies used slow-burning matches. The precise moment of firing was therefore unpredictable and so aiming a cannon from a ship rolling in the ocean swell was impossible. Above all, French gunners had what some French commanders were beginning to regard as the bad habit of firing not at the hulls of the enemy ships, but at the rigging in order to disable them. The instinct to do so may have come from the fact that the more experienced men in the French navy were frequently recruited from privateers. When chased by enemy ships, French privateers would usually blast at the enemy’s masts and rigging in the hope of slowing down their pursuers. Some French captains tried to break this habit, which wasted hundreds of shots, but with little success. A story circulated that when a French shell actually smashed into the hull of an enemy vessel, the stunned British crew recovered from the shock when a sailor stood exposed in the ragged gash in the ship’s side, joking, ‘My God, I’ll be safest here, because they’ll never be able to fire two shots through the same hole!’ The British always fired at the hull, because it could kill off and demoralize enemy gunners. It also left the masts and rigging intact so that, when the ship was captured, it could be sailed off as a prize. Moreover, by aiming low, a British gun was more likely to hit something, rather than see the shot whistle harmlessly past the enemy’s masts and rigging.

In addition to these problems, the French Revolution has often been blamed for breaking down discipline, while also destroying the experienced officer corps inherited from the Bourbon monarchy. It is certainly true that the early years of the French Revolution were accompanied by a wave of mutinies and insubordination which, by 1791, drove away much of the demoralized officer corps of the royal navy. In October that year, 47 per cent of officers based in Brest, home of the French Atlantic fleet, were absent without leave. By the outbreak of the war in 1792, there remained only 42 of 170 captains. This dissolution of the French officer corps seriously undermined the navy just as the French Republic was about to go head to head against the maritime might of Great Britain. The Revolution had responded to the crisis in April 1791 by opening naval commissions to any seaman with five years of experience at sea, which was aimed primarily at drawing in officers from the merchant marine. Naval historians have subsequently claimed that the admission of civilian sailors was a blow to the professionalism of the French navy. Yet it is important not to overstate the damage caused in the long run. The upper ranks of the professional officer corps may have been severely thinned by flight and absenteeism, but of 530 lieutenants in the old navy, 356 remained at their posts and rose rapidly during the decade or so before Trafalgar. The leading French protagonists during the campaign of 1805—Villeneuve, Rosily, Decrès, Missiessy—had all been lieutenants in 1789. While it is true that the commercial seamen drawn into the officer corps had no experience of sailing the heavier naval vessels, if given the chance to train they might have learned to do so. Yet they never did get that opportunity, because from 1793, the French coast was blockaded by the Royal Navy.

In August 1790, the National Assembly introduced a penal code for the navy, trying to relax some of the harsher punishments of minor infractions, while maintaining the discipline necessary for a military vessel. Punishments were formally calibrated according to the offence, removing some of the arbitrary power which captains had exercised over their crews. For some breaches of discipline, sailors were to be tried by a jury of their peers. Other cases were to be heard by courts martial. Nonetheless, some of the harshest penalties were retained, including flogging (which was abolished in the army in 1789), running the gauntlet, and the cale, by which the victim would be tied to a line lashed to the end of the yardarm, from which he would be repeatedly plunged into the water below. Punishments even for small transgressions could still include being tied to a mast or shackled in leg irons. Some French sailors had clearly expected a more radical overhaul of naval justice and their frustration was expressed in a mutiny in the roadstead off Brest that September. The target of the sailors’ ire was the harsher punishments, particularly those which they considered humiliating: the leg irons weighed down by trailing chains, for example, were likened to the chains worn by convicts who served in the penal galleys at Brest. The Assembly reacted to the mutiny by amending the Code, expunging some of the harsher punishments. Nonetheless, interference from the local authorities and from political clubs on shore continued to undermine the obedience of the sailors.

During the Terror, there was a concerted effort to restore discipline. Counter-revolution amongst the officers and the more intransigent breaches of discipline among the men were punished with death. In January 1794, for example, four mutineers had their heads sliced off by a guillotine erected on a pontoon in the roadstead of Brest, in front of the assembled fleet. The government’s naval expert, Jeanbon Saint-André, imposed a new penal code, which reserved the harshest of sanctions for defiance or disobedience, including being clapped in irons, flogged, imprisoned, or guillotined. The revolutionary government also sought to galvanize the sailors with patriotic fervour.

Discipline and motivation were all very well, but that had to be supported with material supplies. The provision of the scarce resources necessary for the navy could only continue if the Terror itself continued, with the economic controls associated with it. This was because the French economy of the mid-1790s was already struggling to meet the demands of the war on the continent. In 1793–4, the needs of both French maritime and territorial power could only be met from the threadbare French economy through coercion, that is, by terrorizing the population. Yet the Thermidorians (the republicans who toppled the Jacobins and ended the Terror in July 1794) were in no mood to continue with the draconian measures associated with the revolutionary dictatorship. They may inadvertently have prevented the Republic from building the revolutionary navy which was in the making.

The conflicting pressures of the war point to another major headache for the French—and it was perhaps the main reason why, for all the resources at its disposal, France was never able to obtain parity with the British. Geography ensured that, unlike Britain, France was ‘amphibious’, meaning a continental as well as a maritime state. The political desire to sustain both commitments was always there, but the wherewithal to do so was not. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the ravenous demands of the French war effort for men, money, and material could be met through exploiting the conquests in western and southern Europe, but this was of little use to the navy, since the territories conquered were not good sources of naval supplies, which came from the Baltic and the Black Sea. In any case, the expansionism which this involved, especially under Napoleon, committed France deeper and deeper to the continental war, as the great European powers, with British support, sought to cut France down to size. Despite the resources and political ingenuity at its disposal, France could be either a maritime or a territorial power. It could not be both.

The Spanish fleet suffered from similar structural problems. For one, despite its long coastlines, it faced a perennial shortage of manpower. In a system established in 1737, anyone who worked as a sailor or shipwright, even in such civilian activities as deep-sea fishing and ocean-going commerce, had to register on a list (matricula del mar) so that they could be called up in time of war, in return for which they were exempt from army conscription. By the French Wars, the numbers registered seemed to have hit a ceiling, at 65,000, which was not enough to man the Spanish navy, since the government’s own estimates required 110,000 men—and not all of those registered could be recruited as Spain still needed its fishermen, merchant sailors, and shipbuilders. Worse, the number of registrants dropped with the outbreak of war, while those who were already on the lists deserted in a flood: by 1808, the numbers on the register had shrivelled to 41,000 men.

The shortfall was made up of people who were semi-trained (if there had been time to train them) and some of whom had no experience of sailing at all: impoverished shepherds and landless peasants from such places as Castille and Extremadura. While British gunners needed 90 seconds to load, fire, sponge out, and reload a 32-pounder, their Spanish counterparts took five minutes. The captain of the Conde de Regla complained that of a crew of 500, no more than 60 had experience of the high seas, the rest being coastal fishermen or sailors ‘without training or any understanding whatsoever of a ship’s rigging or routine on board’—and there was no time to teach them. The situation was made desperate on the very eve of Trafalgar because yellow fever ravaged Spain’s ports, which decimated an already thinly spread pool of recruits.

There was also a shortage of naval stores: while the forests of the Asturias could supply most of the oak for Spanish hulls, Spain had serious difficulty in securing resin, tar, pitch, rope, and iron, which had to be imported from Russia and Sweden, supplies which were choked off by the British blockade while Spain was allied to France between 1796 and 1808, with only a brief period of peace in 1802–3. The situation was not this grim all the time: when they did have access to their empire, the Spanish built fine vessels. The colonial port of Havana produced some of the mightiest ships of line in the world, made from durable tropical wood like mahogany and teak, rather than European oak and beech: the Santisima Trinidad, captured by the British at Trafalgar and sunk in the storm which followed, was the largest vessel of the age. Yet, for all its virtues, the Spanish fleet was neither big enough, nor adequately manned to meet its long list of commitments, which included defending Spain’s overseas empire in the Americas and the Pacific, protecting its trade routes, and fighting the war in European waters.


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