Battles at Sea: The Paradox


First of June in 1794.

Here is an interesting question. If two fleets were to meet miles away from anywhere and destroy each other with no survivors or witnesses, and therefore no dispatches, would the battle’s impact on history be the same as if dispatches had been written? Or, to put it another way, what exact role do dispatches have in the formation of history?

Battles at sea have consequences, and they do so regardless of whether their course is subsequently related by admirals or others directly involved in them. Ships and sons fail to return home. The detritus of battle washes ashore. What is less obvious, though by no means less important, is that such documents may influence history and its interpretation more widely, and in ways that are only partially connected with the battle they describe. There are, after all, many ways to describe an event, and even the most apparently straightforward fact can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

These dispatches describe history, of course, but they also shape it, even now, and both that power and that process remain enigmatic. Besides, at the heart of this material lies a paradox. It was collated in an era of peace to celebrate the achievements of an earlier, war-mongering generation. The association between peace and war is explicit. The generation of naval officers, politicians and administrators who ran the navy in 1821, when the dispatches were first collated, and later in 1859, when they were bound into their magnificent velvet volume, knew an unprecedented period of peace. This was the age of Pax Britannica, when the size of the Royal Navy was as small as it had been for two generations. In 1812 there were 98 ships of the line crewed by 130,000 men. By 1817 no more than 13 ships of the line carried just 20,000 men. The once mighty British battle fleet was reduced to small squadrons of gunboats policing distant colonial coasts. Tristan de Cunha, Ceylon, Ascension Island, Trinidad, Tobago, St Lucia and Australia were all British territories from 1815. But those men who now ran the Admiralty also knew the preceding era of war, an apocalyptic age of violence and blood-letting. For them, the association between the one and the other, between war and peace, was transparent.

For us it is not so clear. Indeed, if one stops to consider, this collection of dispatches defies its own myth. By recording a generation of naval battles that ended almost a decade before the end of the war, it argues not for the triumph of naval battle, but for its ineffectiveness. It is, in fact, powerful proof that naval battles did not win wars.

By studying these battles in sequence, we can make new connections and we can appreciate the sheer scale of the challenge that faced the Royal Navy as the fortunes of war shifted and as new theatres of operations opened where others had been closed. We can see, for example, how the war turned sharply against Britain in the autumn of 1794 in spite of the victory on 1 June. We can see how Spain recovered sufficiently from defeat at St Vincent in 1797, and France from defeat at the Nile in 1798, to pose a significant Allied threat at Trafalgar in 1805. We can see how the destruction of the Spanish at St Vincent eased the naval threat in the Atlantic but encouraged a new theatre to open in the North Sea. We can see how the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 was irrelevant to the progress of the war and we can see how a crushing victory for Britain at Trafalgar did nothing to prevent France from sending powerful squadrons to sea in the following months, which in turn led to new naval threats in the Caribbean and East Indies and to battle at San Domingo in 1806.

The question that arises most forcefully from these dispatches, therefore, concerns the role of fleet battle in the shaping of history and, by demonstrating as it does the inability of decisive battle to bring about lasting peace, the collection necessarily draws our eye away from naval battle. Wars in this period were never brought to an end by apocalyptic battle but by negotiation. Military victories on land secured positions of strength from which to negotiate. Territory was the currency of war and it was armies and their soldiers that robbed the banks. The invasion threat under which the British laboured almost constantly between 1794 and 1815 can be understood in these terms. To seize a slice of British territory was not an end in itself but a desperate attempt by the French to secure a powerful bargaining chip. The very ability to wage such war, moreover, was governed by international politics and alliances which, themselves, were governed by money. Alliances were rarely offered freely but were purchased through vast subsidies.

So how does successful fleet battle fit into this picture? The Battle of the Nile had perhaps the most clearly defined strategic results. The British destroyed Napoleon’s invasion fleet and thus prevented his army from receiving the maritime support it needed to wage a successful campaign in Egypt. But most of the others have less obvious military results. The Battle of Copenhagen, it can be argued, was fought for nothing. The Tsar, who had pressured the Danes into joining an Armed Neutrality, was already dead. The remaining battles fit somewhere between these extremes and what they share must be measured in less clearly defined terms.

As a general rule, British naval victory made it more difficult for her enemies to secure their own maritime trade and to target that of other nations, which in turn made it more difficult for them to fund the war. British success also made it more difficult for her enemies to launch amphibious operations to secure the territory required to force a peace. British naval victory therefore strangled her enemies’ ability to wage war and to negotiate from a position of strength. British trade, meanwhile, became more secure. With more money to hand, more troops could be raised, more alliances bought and more ships built. Moreover, control of the sea lanes in turn increased the ability of the Royal Navy to launch military operations overseas.

Naval victories were, if you like, starbursts in a war of attrition that enabled the war to be won. It is no coincidence that the eight naval victories in this book were followed by Wellington’s 15 land victories, without a defeat, in Spain. The undeniable public attraction of those naval starbursts, meanwhile, generated its own influence on events. Everyone in Britain loved naval victory; they could never get enough of it. Every naval victory was appreciated by the public because it made both them as individuals and the nation feel more secure. The Navy kept them safe; the Navy kept them free; the Navy kept them British. The victories were also understood in terms of wealth; naval victories secured trade and trade generated money. Naval victory therefore generated public support for the navy and public support translated into political support. Money was found and infrastructure improved and ships were built. The relationship was symbiotic. Go and visit the great surviving naval dockyards at Plymouth or Chatham and you will be amazed by the facilities constructed: the rope walks, the dry docks, the victualling yards. Yes, these facilities were the foundation of British naval victory but they were also created because of British naval victory.

The relationship between the Navy and the public is central to the influence of naval victory upon history. As you sit and read the Admirals’ letters, imagine yourself as a direct descendant of a member of the public sitting and reading the published versions of these letters in 1794 or 1805, when everything was fresh and raw and a general and detailed perception of the battle was still elusive. What actually happened in the battle was far less important than what the dispatch described. The dispatch had already acquired an agency of its own.

That said, one of the most significant characteristics of these dispatches is their inaccuracy, an inaccuracy sometimes wilfully achieved. More often than not the fog of war has insufficiently cleared for numbers of captured ships or casualties to be accurate, but occasionally one’s gaze is deliberately drawn in certain directions. Collingwood’s Trafalgar dispatch is a masterpiece of such manipulation, giving as it does the false impression of absolute cohesion. In some respects, therefore, to search for the ‘truth’ behind the casualty figures or to plot with utmost care the track of a particular ship is rather to miss the point of naval battle and the dispatches that describe it. Naval battle was infinitely intricate, governed by the relationship between unpredictable bursts of wind and miles upon miles of rigging, and manipulated by thousands of men, each with their own motivation, desires and fears. But the story of naval battle was a blunt, unsubtle, instrument of propaganda. It did not necessarily matter if a dispatch was inaccurate; indeed, these dispatches support the argument that it is impossible to fight a war and tell the truth at the same time. The detail was always far less important than the overall message of absolute and repeated British victory.

The Uncertain

An inevitable casualty of such a broad message is any sense of doubt in the narrative we read, for here are seven battles and here are seven overwhelming British victories. One can be easily forgiven for presuming that, after the first one or two, the result was somehow viewed as inevitable; that in some way these battles were won even before they were fought. There is, of course, some value in this approach because it encourages us to appreciate the roles of the bureaucrats and administrators, the manufacturers and suppliers who rode the tides of paperwork to ensure that the ships were repaired, manned and victualled and the men fed, clothed and healthy. It was these individuals and organisations that laid the foundation for British naval victory.

Yet the dispatches themselves often highlight precisely what was uncertain, what was not inevitably to lead to naval victory. They emphasise the unpredictable role of wind, weather and damage; they remind us of the occasions when random events tipped the battle one way or another; above all, they remind us of the presence of an enemy intent on preventing the British from having their own way. The letters are clearly written by men who have fought a fierce and prolonged duel against a proud enemy. One can sense the adrenaline coursing through their bodies as they composed the letters; one can appreciate their relief at being alive and their delight at being victors. All of this helps to freshen our perspective of the battles by highlighting the choices that were available to the participants, the uncertain paths, the tumbling circumstance that guided the results.

How, therefore, can we reconcile this perspective of unpredictability and uncertainty with our understanding of how these victories were won? This is where the detail of battle has its value because the deeper one digs, the more uncertain the picture becomes. When we talk of gunnery, do we mean long distance or point blank? Is the enemy to windward or to leeward? How did developments in chemistry alter the potency of the gunpowder for each fleet? How did changes in gunnery equipment impact on gunnery efficiency? When we talk of seamanship, are we talking about repairing ships in action or the ability to maintain cohesion in fog? Are we talking about the ability to manoeuvre a ship with a disabled foremast, or the ability to engage from the lee position? In terms of leadership, are we talking about admirals commanding captains across vast expanses of ocean, about petty officers commanding sailors in the darkness of the gun decks or even about the leadership of seamen with no official rank but who nonetheless acted as natural leaders?

Each battle must be considered in its own right, each individual duel within each battle, even each ship on its own. Every ship was after all manned to varying degrees of completeness. For example, while a ship could be numerically well-manned, a large portion of her men could be soldiers or inexperienced landsmen rather than trained sailors. A portion of her crew might be suffering from a debilitating illness, be it typhus or scurvy. Nonetheless, even if we bear in mind that exceptions to every one of these following statements can be found in the seven battles in this book, it is generally the case that British gunners could fire with more accuracy and for longer than their enemies; that British hulls could better withstand a broadside than their enemies’; that British sailors could better cope with the carnage surrounding them; and that British sailors could repair their ships with greater efficiency both during and after battle. Most importantly of all, it seems that British sailors themselves knew all of this. They had come to recognise it in the previous war, the War of American Independence, and they had had their suspicions confirmed in 1794 in the first of these actions, The Glorious First of June. Simply put, British sailors knew that, if they could engage their enemy close enough and for long enough, the enemy’s guns would, eventually, fall silent.

And yet all of this was soon to change. Seapower certainly changed the nature and direction of the Napoleonic wars but the Napoleonic wars also changed the nature of seapower.

The Change

Napoleon’s war against Britain continued after 1806 and he began new wars: against Portugal in 1807, Spain in 1808 and Russia in 1812. In that period the Royal Navy continued to fight the French, but it also fought the Danish, Russian and Ottoman navies. Lest we forget, Britain also went to war with America between 1812 and 1815. None of those conflicts, however, produced another fleet battle on the scale of those fought between 1794 and 1806. Too many people had tried to play with fire and been burned. No one was willing to spend the money on constructing a fleet and then, of all things, risk it in pitched battle with the British. Before very long, however, the coming of steam propulsion changed everything all over again, consigning the entire age of sailing warfare, rather than just the story of British dominance, to the past.

Steam-powered ships became bigger and armoured and their guns fired explosive shells unimaginable distances. Changes in technology also began to affect the way that military campaigns were reported. In 1850 the first under-sea telegraph cable was laid between Dover and Calais, allowing news to be passed rapidly to and from the continent. Five years later a cable linked Sweden, Denmark and Germany, and three years after that another was laid across the Atlantic. The ease with which a fleet’s activities could be reported over great distances was therefore changing although, surprisingly, we are still uncertain of the identity of the first naval battle reported by telegraph. It is likely to have been one of the naval battles of the Crimean War (1853–6), depending on the capability of the Russian telegraph system in different locations. We are on firmer footing with radio. Thomas Edison filed a patent as early as 1885 which described the ‘Means for transmitting signals electrically’, and the first battle between fleets to make significant use of wireless was fought 20 years later, when the Japanese destroyed the Russian battle fleet at Tsushima in 1905.

The last letters in this collection, therefore, mark neither the end of sailing warfare nor the end of the era of handwritten dispatches. However, they do mark the last significant fleet battle between British and French fleets in a war that had, by then, lasted 13 years and which was part of a longer tradition of naval warfare between the two countries that can be traced back over a century through the War of American Independence (1775–82), the Seven Years War (1755–62), the War of the Austrian Succession (1739–48) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13) to the Nine Years War of 1688 to 1697. Moreover, none of the fleet battles that followed San Domingo in 1806, and very few that preceded The First of June in 1794, stands comparison with any of those fought between 1794 and 1806. It was an intense sliver of history, a period of unmatched ferocity at sea, a period that characterised and shaped the history of the world and a period populated by men whose achievements and sacrifices deserve the widest possible recognition.

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