British Naval Power

British military expenditure focused on its fleet. The rise of the big-gun ship in the sixteenth century meant that temporary use of converted merchantmen was not viable. So, just as standing armies were becoming fashionable across Europe, permanent directly controlled fleets came into being. The ship-of-the-line, which would dominate warfare until the mid-nineteenth century, was a multi-decked wooden box constructed in such a way as to carry the maximum number of cannon while retaining manoeuvrability. By the late eighteenth century, the two-deck ‘74’, named for the number of guns, was the staple of the line of battle. By sailing in line and delivering their broadsides, fleets of this kind could drive an enemy from the seas, exposing his commerce to attack and isolated outposts and colonies to annexation. In many ways the ships-of-the-line and the infantry of the line were parallels, units designed to work together to deliver savage close-range volley-fire against their enemies. And after the cannonade boarding parties armed with edged weapons were vital to seize enemy ships. Lighter ships had their uses, preying upon or protecting trade, but naval domination depended on the ships-of-the-line.

The British, because of their geographic location, quickly appreciated the connection between commerce, industry and naval supremacy, and grasped the notion that force could exclude rivals from these important sources of wealth. An elaborate structure mobilised and sustained maritime power. The Board of Admiralty coordinated the work of many specialist boards like the Navy Board which was primarily in charge of dockyards, the Board of Victualling, the Ordnance Board and the Commission of Sick and Wounded. The fleet was hideously expensive. In 1664 parliament voted £2.5 million for the Dutch War, the largest single tax before the eighteenth century, but even so by 1666 the Admiralty had spent £3,200,516. This debt, and the lack of success, persuaded Charles II (1649–85) to negotiate for peace and to lay up the fleet, but before negotiations were finished the Dutch admiral, De Witt, made a great raid on the Medway ports, burning a number of ships-of-the-line and towing away the flagship, the Royal Charles. This disaster triggered a parliamentary inquiry, but essentially cemented the consensus of support in parliament which continued to vote money for the fleet.

Between 1688 and 1715 the number of cruisers designed to protect commerce rose from eight to sixty-six and ships-of-the-line from 100 to 131. At a time when most armies had only one cannon per 500 men, the greatest of these ships carried eighty. The 3,000 oaks needed for a man-of-war had to come from inland forests, and road transport more than doubled costs. Masts were imported from New England, spars and pitch from the Baltic and hemp from far overseas. When the French wars prevented the import of the best sails from Brittany, a competition, eventually successful, was held to provide substitutes of good quality. To accommodate and service such ships, stone docks had to be built and protected with great forts. The new Plymouth Yard, completed in 1700, cost £67,000 and by 1711 the royal dockyards were employing 6,488 officers and men. The navy was by far the greatest single enterprise in the British Isles.

Manning was a major problem because in peacetime many ships were mothballed and men paid off – there were limits to the peacetime navy just as there were to peacetime armies. Ships were relatively complex weapons systems and navigation was a delicate art, so that officers had to be educated. For the younger sons of petty gentry and bourgeoisie the navy offered good training and an honourable career, but one that, unlike the army, did not involve heavy investment in the purchase of a commission. And unlike the Church, the law and the academic life, a long and expensive education and a predisposition to scholarly activity were not required. For families, the prospect of unloading a young son at the age of 12 to be a petty officer was attractive. Moreover, such was the demand for special skills that non-commissioned officers and merchant sailors could earn commissions. The distinguished explorer Captain James Cook (1728–79), a farm manager’s son, served on Whitby coal ships before entering the Royal Navy in 1755 and, indeed, his famous ship, the Endeavour, was a converted collier. Officers were usually paid in arrears but with reasonable regularity, and the commander of a major ship-of-the-line could expect 20 shillings per day. Prize money from captured enemy shipping offered prospects of real wealth. In 1758 Captain Elliot took a French privateer, receiving £2,000 as his share. As against this, periods of half-pay were common when ships were decommissioned after wars.

But recruiting the ‘other ranks’ was a major problem, because ships ran on human expertise which took time to develop: native skills had always been a brake on military development. In peace, demand for manpower was fairly stable and time could be taken to train, but when war came ships had to be commissioned and men found quickly. The obvious source was the merchant marine, but in time of war this competed with the navy for trained seamen. There was a limit to what the government could afford to pay. As a consequence, conscription was introduced in the form of the ‘press-gang’ which operated in the streets of ports or at sea by boarding. Its prey was not just anybody – the law allowed ‘pressing’ only of sailors and the navy wanted skilled men. In a sense ‘the press’ was a tax on the huge success of British shipping which had been promoted by legislation such as the Navigation Acts of 1660 and 1663. Manning the navy was a perennial problem, but so it was for the main enemies, France and Holland. A substantial navy was bound to be expensive. In the second half of the seventeenth century France poured enormous resources into building a fleet. French ships in the eighteenth century were highly regarded and often used as models by the British, but their fine design gave relatively few additional advantages compared with the brute English drive to build and keep at sea numerous warships.

The battlefleets with masses of ships and great weights of cannon dominate our vision of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century naval warfare just as mass infantry formations are central to our view of land warfare. But there was an equivalent to the light troops of the armies of this period. The great ships were clumsy, relatively slow, and could only undertake long journeys with great difficulty and careful preparation. In 1693 an Anglo-Dutch fleet, allied against Louis XIV of France, was ordered to escort through the Channel a convoy of merchant ships from both countries bound for Smyrna. The allies had recently won a substantial fleet action over the French at Barfleur-sur-Hogue in 1692, and this may have inspired the governments to order the departure of this convoy at short order. The great battle fleet, however, was short of provisions and accompanied its charges only beyond Brest. The French ambushed the convoy off Cape St Vincent, capturing or sinking ninety-two ships in a disaster which cost more than the total losses of the Great Fire of London in 1666. By the late 1690s the French realised that they could not match the building programmes of their Anglo-Dutch enemies and so could not challenge them in fleet actions. Instead they resorted to the guerre de course, war against commerce, which, as the Smyrna incident shows, could be highly effective. Privateer captains fitted out their ships at their own expense, though with government aid. Prizes, captured ships and cargoes, were divided between the state and the privateer captains. This stimulated the British to build cruisers, later called frigates, fast light ships which could take on privateers.

HMS Bellerophon was a 74 gun English warship – a third rater

Clausewitz commented rightly that ‘Very few of the new manifestations in war can be ascribed to new inventions.‘ This was about to change under the impact of new wealth and new technology. ‘England,’ Napoleon is supposed to have remarked, ‘is a nation of shopkeepers.‘ But in that despised nation a revolution in wealth production was taking place which would also transform the battlefield. Cheap wool and cotton garments, often produced by coal-driven machinery, dressed armies. Iron, and increasingly steel, offered the prospect of mass production of better weapons. In 1809 Napoleon had offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could invent a good method of preserving food to feed the troops. A Frenchman, Appert, devised bottling, but it was in England that Peter Durand developed the much more robust tin. By the 1850s widespread production was bringing down costs and making tins the practical means to feed armies which had been sought in 1809. On 15 September 1830 the Liverpool MP and former minister, William Huskisson, was killed by the locomotive Rocket. This was an accident, but the railway would lead to literally millions of deaths. In 1859 Napoleon III of France chose to intervene on behalf of the nascent Italian kingdom against Austria, whose armies were badly surprised by the speed with which the new French railways transported their army to war in the plain of the Po. Industrial development made it possible to clothe, feed, arm and transport armies in a way hitherto impossible. Moreover governments soon had the means to control them over long distances. In 1844 Morse connected Washington and Baltimore with his electric telegraph, providing instant communication irrespective of distance. By 1875 London was at the centre of a network of over a million miles of electric telegraph and connected to virtually all the major world centres.

The new technology had an enormous effect upon navies too. The application of steam power to shipping had begun in the late eighteenth century, and by 1833 a screw-driven vessel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western, was plying the North Atlantic, and European navies were experimenting with steam power. A French artillery officer, H-J. Paixhans, invented a high-velocity flat trajectory gun firing a 60-pound explosive shell of 22 cm (8.5 in.). By 1838 this was sufficiently developed to be recognised as a threat to all navies, and in the early 1840s an American, Dahlgren, improved it. On 30 November 1853 a Russian squadron armed with thirty-eight Paixhan guns totally destroyed a Turkish fleet at Sinope, demonstrating the vulnerability of ‘wooden walls’. This attack on Turkey was one of the factors which precipitated the Crimean War (1854–6), in which the Anglo-French navies swept the Black Sea clear of Russian ships, but were quite unable to overwhelm the port of Sebastopol whose artillery was reinforced by many of the new naval cannon. This failure gave urgency to the quest to develop iron ships. In 1859 France launched La Gloire, a wooden steam screw-driven ship clad in iron, but a year later this was trumped by the British Warrior, an entirely iron-built ship of immense strength, capable of more than 14 knots. These ships were still partly dependent on sail, but the end of the long tyranny of wind was now in sight. The Crimean War brought other signs of things to come.

A colonial empire was the ‘must-have’ status symbol of the early twentieth century, and the need for it could be rationalised by reference to acquiring strategic places and materials. How far the mass of German people worried about this is uncertain, but the Leagues waxed indignant, and they operated with the sympathy of ruling powers. The new Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888–1918) was easily influenced by this atmosphere and lacked the strength to direct policy. One unfortunate consequence was the Anglo-German naval race. In 1897 Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz became naval secretary. He established the Navy League in 1898 and in that year an ambitious naval construction campaign was begun. The British Empire, whose very basis was naval supremacy, perceived this as a threat and reacted very strongly. After the failure to resolve the tensions by negotiation in 1901, the British accelerated their building programme. Even more seriously, in 1904 Anglo-French negotiations launched a series of understandings known as the Entente Cordiale which gradually drew Britain into association with the Franco-Russian alliance, giving them the name of the Entente powers. Tirpitz achieved naval expansion by exploiting German political culture, but the costs were high.

Because the warship is a specialised weapons system it has always been extremely expensive. The wooden ships of the Nelson era had at least lasted a long time: HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, was commissioned in 1765 and remained in service until 1812. But by the 1840s the pace of change was accelerating. Steam power was introduced, and the experience of the Crimean War prompted the British to produce the iron-built Warrior. But for the world’s premier navy technological progress produced conundrums. Big, inefficient engines needing vast quantities of coal were hardly suitable for a fleet whose ships had to travel to far-flung imperial stations, so sails continued to be necessary. Iron armour and muzzle-loading guns were immensely heavy and made ships clumsy, but they were essential. In 1862 the Confederacy had built the Merrimack, a steam-driven iron-plated ship with ten guns, which threatened to destroy the Union fleet in Chesapeake Bay. But to the rescue came the USS Monitor, a small iron steamship with two heavy muzzle-loaders in a rotating turret. The two fought out a drawn battle, but demonstrated that iron vessels with heavy guns were deadly against other ships.

The problems arising from all this became clearly visible in 1870 with the sinking in the Channel of the Captain. This British battleship had 8-in. armoured sides, and mounted four 25-ton 12-in. guns in two turrets protected by 10-in. armour, and although she was steam-powered she also had a full rig of sails. Her freeboard (distance above water level) was only a little over 6 feet. The committee of inquiry established that she had failed to trim her sails in a rising wind. Gradually the problems were overcome. Steel offered greater protection for lighter weight, commercial developments like the triple expansion engine used less coal and drove ships faster, while the establishment of a worldwide network of coaling stations made refuelling easier. Recoilless rifled breech-loaders made of steel using smokeless powder were lighter and easier to work.

The naval race came at a bad time for Britain. Until the 1870s she had dominated the world’s tropics cheaply with a dispersed fleet of assorted ships. But the onset of ‘colonial mania’ in the late nineteenth century meant that European powers like France carved out numerous colonies, effectively reducing Britain’s inexpensive and informal dominion and forcing costly conquest in competition with other empires. At the same time the growth of railroads cut the advantages of sea-power and enabled continental states like America, Germany and Russia to develop their economic potential. The British share of world trade fell from 25 per cent in 1860 to 17 per cent in 1898. British firms failed to invest in the new technology, and as a result Britain fell behind in steel production and machine-tools. In the booming chemical industry her pre-eminent firm was Brunner Mond (later Imperial Chemical Industries) whose founders, significantly, were German. In optics and many other fields Britain lagged badly behind Germany and the United States. It is not difficult to perceive the sense of ebbing power. In 1897 Kipling chose to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in ‘Recessional’, a poem replete with this sense of failure:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire: Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

But at governmental level this simply reinforced the determination to dominate at sea.

War in the second half of the nineteenth century was transformed by two interacting forces – the French Revolution with its ideas of nationalism and democracy, and the huge surge in industrial development. This last gave rise to an extraordinary technological revolution which utterly changed the conduct of war. In 1854 Britain went to war against Russia with a fleet of ‘wooden walls’. In 1906 she launched HMS Dreadnought, a steel battleship of 17,900 tons capable of 21.6 knots and carrying ten 12-in. guns with ranges of over 12,000 metres.

On 1 October 1906 the Anglo-German naval race entered a new dimension when the British launched HMS Dreadnought. The Germans responded to this challenge by launching dreadnoughts of their own, and technology developed apace, so that by 1910 Superdreadnoughts were mounting 13.5-in. guns. In 1912 Britain laid down the first of the Queen Elizabeth class of 27,000 tons firing 15-in. guns and powered by oil. The world went dreadnought-mad and the British became the primary builder of such monsters. By the start of World War I she had conclusively won the naval race, with 32 battleships and 10 battle cruisers to Germany’s 21 + 8, but at a price. Dreadnought cost £1.79 million but Queen Elizabeth raised this to £2.5 million and the naval estimates went up from £18.7 million in 1896 to £40.4 million in 1910, inevitably limiting what Britain could afford to spend on her army. This mighty battle fleet brought little assurance because the floating mine, fast torpedeo-armed gunboats and, above all, submarines, threatened the behemoths. The pressure of the naval race forced Britain into an alliance with Japan in 1902, enabling her to withdraw ships from the Pacific, while also leaving the Mediterranean to France. By 1907 a series of understandings with Russia ended tensions over imperial ambitions with that power.

HMS Dreadnought British Battleship 1907


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