Warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries I

By the middle of the seventeenth century it was becoming obvious that, as far as Europe was concerned, a new world economic order had come into being. The conquest of the Americas and the exploitation of their resources created a trading zone across the Atlantic and stimulated economic and commercial growth. The great sailing ships with their heavy broadsides of cannon had reached beyond Islam, so that the new wealth derived from the Americas could be traded for the traditional commodities of the East – silks, jewellery, spices, fine pottery and, later, porcelain. The Mediterranean was no longer the centre of the European world. England set up the Honourable East India Company in 1600, Holland sponsored the United East Indies Company and France quickly followed. Islamic merchants had long monopolised the trade in West African slaves, and they continued to be important. However, Europeans now competed for this human trade to feed labour into the sugar industries of the West Indies and South America, and the plantations of the Carolinas, generating enormous profits. Industrial growth and new inventions multiplied, while improved agricultural techniques enhanced food supply dramatically. By the end of the seventeenth century steam engines were in use in England, and in 1712 the efficient Newcomen model was introduced.

Not all of this was peculiarly European. The Ottomans encouraged their own traders. Chinese products were sought after the world over, while both they and the Indians had trading companies to match anything in Europe. But in some of the states of Western Europe the intensification of economic production, mercantile, industrial and agricultural, was remarkable. This prosperity extended to states which were not directly involved in the Atlantic trade: Scandinavia, for example, supplied France, Holland and England with timber for their growing fleets while Germany traded intensely with the lands of the Atlantic littoral. Peter the Great (1682–1725) imitated western development in order to modernise the economy of Russia. This new wealth enabled relatively small states to create military power to rival great empires.

The European expansion was as violent and competitive as that of other empires. The ruthlessness that in the ancient world produced the smoking ruins of cities and the enslavement of entire populations now applied itself to the exploitation of the native peoples of the Caribbean and North and South America. Successful trading nations tried to exclude others by force from the benefits of ‘their’ trade or tried to take over their trade. The Portuguese had been the first to break into the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century, but they were elbowed aside by the Dutch and later the French and English, all of whom were firmly established in the area by the late seventeenth century. Spain and Portugal seized the New World in the sixteenth century, but despite their resistance Holland, France and England had forced their way into the Caribbean by the end of the seventeenth century. In North America, England and France profited from the divisions of the native tribes to establish colonies and then fought one another for supremacy. But as long as the empires of the Ottomans, the Mughals and the Qing remained strong, the European predators were peripheral in Asia.

The overseas ambitions of some European states complicated the intense rivalries of a deeply divided continent which focused on a shifting galaxy of powers. In the seventeenth century Austria, France, England, Holland, Spain, Poland, Sweden and Prussia were all important. In the eighteenth century Russia under Peter the Great established an autocratic bureaucracy to make Russia into a great military power, displacing Sweden in northern Europe. By the mid-century Spain, Holland and Sweden occupied secondary positions while at its end Poland had ceased to exist altogether, partitioned by Russia, Austria and Prussia.

The new wealth had significant political and military consequences. Holland was a merchant republic and her entire policy was dedicated to the interests of trade. The commercial skill of the Dutch created a new means of war finance which enabled a very small country to defy bigger powers like France, while continuing to expand abroad. Holland had a population of less than two million in 1700, but it supported the double burden of a great fleet to protect its trade and an army to hold its frontiers. Like any other state it was driven to borrow, but Dutch merchants understood the need to guarantee payment in order to safeguard future credit, and out of this they developed deficit finance. In England landed aristocrats dominated political affairs, but they recognised the value of its growing mercantile and colonial power. England copied Dutch financial methods with the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 and the institution of the National Debt, a kind of permanent state deficit which paid a fairly low rate of interest to lenders who were confident of their income. This provided a highly flexible instrument for war finance, because borrowing could be stepped up at need and the costs spread over long periods.

France was an aristocratic state whose leaders saw the need to foster economic development, but without ever acquiring real understanding of how it worked, and this was crucially important for war finance. France failed to develop deficit financing because aristocratic participation and quiescence in the state were much more important in a crisis than satisfying creditors. In this way the needs of 260,000 tax-exempt nobles dominated a population of 19 million. War threw the finances of Louis XIV (1643–1715) into crisis and this influenced military activity. In 1695 Louis wrote to Catinat, his commander in Italy:

the only difficulty that presents itself for pursuing offensive war is the considerable sum of money it requires … and after having examined the state of my finances … I have, despite myself, been obliged to resolve to pursue only defensive war during the coming year.

Denain, July 1712; defeat ended Austrian and Dutch hopes of a breakthrough in Northern France

After 1709 during the War of Spanish Succession (1701–14) the French suspended virtually all offensives to save money. More subtly, throughout this long war much French activity was limited to occupying land outside France, upon which they then levied ‘contributions’ offsetting as much as 25 per cent of military costs. In 1789 war finance precipitated the French Revolution.

The effect of new groups sharing in power or, in the case of some traditional monarchies, being catered for by those in power, was to extend the sense of belonging to the state and having a vested interest in its military success. We speak of ‘France’ as if it were a monolith, but communications were poor and the reach of government machinery limited, so for many the state was very remote, and some subjects did not even speak French. Further, the military and those who served in it had always been the instruments of the elite, and soldiers were usually separate from the mass of the population and often entirely foreign. The great achievement of the major European regimes between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was to create standing armies, establishing a state monopoly on violence. Such ‘nationalised’ armies were, if not popular, at least bearable and even at times a matter of pride.

The new armies sprang from the security needs of monarchs. The mercenary armies of the early seventeenth century were dangerously independent. The Swedish model of the ‘state commission army’, a standing force recruited from native peoples and tied to state authority by an articulated command structure, showed the way ahead. Instead of being intermediaries, aristocrats could be drawn into service as officers dependent on royal patronage, while those who remained defiant could be intimidated. These fundamental political developments underpinned the new regular armies. The French monarchy set the pace. It was a dynastic state, but it had always been centralised, so that the creation of a military bureaucracy to control and support its new model army was practicable. The key figures were the intendants who supervised military administration and travelled with the armies, controlling all aspects of military infrastructure. There were limits to what the state could do and the intendants had to supervise the private contractors, munitionnaires, who provided food and dealt with others such as those who managed the artillery.

Monarchs had to compromise with the practices of the old armies. Captains and colonels continued to profit from ‘their’ companies and regiments so it was necessary to ensure that they were supplying uniforms, or cash allowances in lieu, for the troops. There was undoubtedly much peculation: soldiers were convinced suppliers cheated on both quantity and quality, while there was an obvious temptation for officers to claim to have more men than were actually in the ranks. By modern standards this was a complex and messy system of support, but it was an enormous improvement on what had gone before. Soldiers seem to have been relatively well fed and this motivated them to fight. Monarchs replaced civilian contractors with specialist corps of gunners, engineers and pioneers who were vital in sieges and in the preparation of camps and bridges. Across Western Europe, in response to the needs of trade and industry, roads were improved and bridges were built, thus speeding the movement of troops. Improved supply and well-organised support had tactical and even strategic implications. Under Louis XIV French armies built up stockpiles of food and equipment over the winter in frontier fortresses, enabling them to take the field earlier than their enemies. Gradually European armies were catching up with the Ottomans.

The most obvious military consequence of the new wealth was an increase in the number and size of forces. Every petty German ruler now had his miniature army. Under Louis XIV France was a superpower with a peacetime army of 150,000, expanded to 279,000 during the Dutch War of 1672–8 and reaching a peak of 420,000 in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Austrian regular force in 1699 stood at 59,000 but under the pressure of war had reached 135,000 by 1705: in 1761 it numbered over 200,000 and by the French Revolution about 300,000. Under the Great Elector in the late seventeenth century, the Prussian army numbered 30,000, rising to 40,000 under his immediate successors, but Frederick the Great (1740–86) had an army of 83,000 at the start of his reign. These are paper figures, but the scale of battles reflects the overall rise: at Breitenfeld in 1631, 40,000 Swedes confronted the same number of imperial troops; at Neerwinden (Landen) in 1693, 80,000 French fought 50,000 Dutch; at Malplaquet, Marlborough’s 86,000 defeated 75,000 French.

Armies were still reduced in peacetime, but only on a partial basis: the half-pay officer kicking his heels and hoping for a war which would recall him to the colours is a cliché of eighteenth-century literature. Ordinary soldiers were still paid off in large numbers as quickly as possible, and some of those retained acted as part-time farmers. However, it is very impressive that France could afford a peacetime establishment of 150,000. Of course such numbers never came together in a single force. Many were needed to garrison fortresses and protect roads. But the chief limitation on numbers in armies was different.

Logistics imposed a limit on the size of individual armies. Away from its base, no army could carry all the supplies it needed so ‘contributions’ were vital. This was increasingly a bureaucratic and orderly process because pillage threatened the discipline upon which all armies depended, and ravaging could drive peasant populations from the land and even convert them into guerrillas. ‘Contributions’ left the countryside stable, if impoverished. Moreover, armies usually offered credit payment, and generally this produced some compensation in the end. It is difficult to see how else armies could have been supplied with food. Ammunition and guns had to be transported, and officers were permitted to bring lavish amounts of baggage, as befitted their aristocratic status. To carry more than a few days’ supplies of food on top of this would have compromised an army’s mobility. Forage for horses was so bulky that under almost any circumstances it had to be found locally. On the move an army could feed itself, at least in the prosperous farming communities of Western Europe, though extorting ‘contributions’ took time and effort, so it was usual to pause to stockpile food in magazines which could then supply the army for the first part of its next advance. An army besieging could not forage, so lines of communication had to be established and guarded. A major siege was labour-intensive and armies were relatively small, so that it would demand all the efforts of a realm for a fighting season, but it was the only way to secure conquest. For example, at the siege of Lille, August to 22 October 1708, Marlborough needed 3,000 horses to drag a siege-train of 80 heavy cannon and 20 mortars, escorted by 2,500 cavalry and 5,000 foot. Half his army was retained to keep open lines of communication.

On the 1st August 1759, the 37th Foot fought at The Battle of Minden, during the Seven Years’ War.

The pattern of European war which emerged by the end of the seventeenth century and which would endure well into the nineteenth was remarkably like that which had dominated warfare since ancient times: infantry stood in close order and engaged their enemy at very close quarters when, unless one side gave way, the fight with edged weapons became decisive. This at first seems rather surprising after four centuries of gunpowder weapons. However, it was based on the possibilities and limitations of the 6-foot-long, 11-pound smoothbore flintlock musket with its lug bayonet. This was very inaccurate because the ball was smaller in diameter than the bore and so bounced, producing an erratic flight. At 150 metres, in ideal conditions, a carefully aimed weapon would hit a target equivalent to three men six foot tall only five times out of ten shots. But conditions were rarely ideal in the frightening surge of battle, so that soldiers preferred to fire as close as 50 metres. Loading was so slow that a surviving attacker could charge across this distance long before a soldier could prepare his weapon for a second shot, and, of course, a man on horseback could do this even more quickly. The individual infantryman was, therefore, very vulnerable, and needed the shelter of his comrades with their ‘porcupine’ of bayonets. But at 50 metres volley-fire could inflict appalling casualties on a close-packed enemy. Linear formations two or three ranks deep could bring most fire to bear upon an approaching enemy, so that units formed themselves into line as a prelude to battle, which is why we still speak of ‘infantry of the line’.

In attack, infantry formations were usually preceded by light-3 pounder cannon firing canister, a can of small shot which burst as it emerged from the muzzle, spreading a dense and lethal spray effective up to 400 yards. The infantry fired as close to the enemy as possible before charging in with the bayonet. The consequences of such close-quarter encounters could be ghastly. At Malplaquet in 1709 Marlborough with an army of 86,000 attacked 75,000 French: casualties were 21,000 and 12,000 respectively. To deliver volley-fire like this demanded close control. The characteristic unit of the infantry in this age was the regiment of around 2,000–3,000 men, broken down into battalions, ranging in numbers from 500 to 1,000, which formed the basic tactical unit. These were subdivided into companies of about 200 controlled by officers, with sections under the command of NCOs. Discipline was the key to making men stand and fight – the blast of a close-quarter volley could decimate a battalion. It was widely observed that the unit which fired last usually won any encounter. At the battle of Fontenoy in 1745 a French officer called to his English opposite number: ‘Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers!’ The assumption underlying this invitation was that his own men were so regimented that they would absorb the shock and casualties of a volley, and then be in a position to deliver their own – all because they were so tightly disciplined. And beyond the volley lay the encounter with edged weapons.

Maurice de Saxe (1696–1750) was a progressive and experienced soldier of German birth who had fought in the armies of Austria, Russia and France, in the last rising to the rank of marshal. He thought that in the clash of battalions, the last to fire would be the victor, and urged attacking units to endure defending fire, to deliver their own volley at point-blank range, and to charge in with the bayonet. To the end of his life he believed that pikemen had their place on the battlefield. In this he was not alone. In 1702 a British soldier of Marlborough’s army complained that

My size made me a pikeman against my will, though indeed I liked that service, and thought it the most becoming and manly of all. There was an encouragement [to induce a brisk and smart motion in charging] of half a crown to everyone that should break a pike in that motion, and I had the good fortune to break two before I left the regiment.

Frederick the Great of Prussia was dismissive of firepower and urged his infantry to move swiftly to close quarters. There was plenty of pragmatic evidence that man-to-man battle at close quarters, or at least its prospect, was the ultimate physical and psychological weapon which broke defenders. In 1745 ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, the Stuart pretender to the English throne, won an extraordinary success at the battle of Prestonpans when his Highland swordsmen overran English regulars who were unnerved by their wild charge. As late as the battle of Busaco in 1809, an ensign with the British Guards reported the repulse of a French attack: ‘In the centre where at last the enemy made his grand push, we charged when he was within 100 yards, and our fire was reserved until they were flying.‘

Infantry were the backbone of eighteenth-century armies, but cavalry usually accounted for about 30 per cent of fighting men, a rather higher percentage than in the Middle Ages when ratios of 1:5 were common. They became increasingly specialised. Light cavalry were used for reconnaissance, to screen the movements of troops and in the business of plundering enemy territory. Heavy cavalry, often still equipped with the breastplate, hovered close to the infantry battalions, ready to use their speed to charge home if gaps opened in the enemy line. At Landen in July 1693 it was a cavalry charge which brought the French victory. In 1745 at Hohenfriedberg a chance charge by the Bayreuth dragoons saved the day for the Prussian army which was hard pressed by the Austrians. Cavalry regiments varied in size but quite normally numbered about 1,000 horsemen, divided into ten companies which were combined into squadrons.

Discipline was the means by which European armies overcame the limitations of their gunpowder weapons and maximised their power. In the eighteenth century armies still fought in phalanxes, but they enjoyed the enhanced killing range of gunpowder weapons which acted as a kind of longsword. But this could only be successful if it was accompanied by sensible organisation and enforced, and this is why corps of officers became vital. France had a numerous petty and often impoverished aristocracy whose cultural inheritance was contempt for labour and even trade. For such young men, commissions in the forces offered what they considered an honourable way of making a living. Pay was not good and often irregular, but officers were provided with servants from the other ranks and enjoyed considerable status in society. Moreover, if a man was promoted to company commander he could expect to make money, taking a cut from the administration of supplies and even charging for promotions. In the messes of regiments these young officers cultivated a warrior ethic centred around the notion of honour and its consequence – the duel. Rising young soldiers became clients of great men at court through whose influence they might hope to buy commissions and become colonels, with far greater hopes of profit from control of a whole regiment. Such patrons often inserted men of birth into these positions, and their wealth supported the troops, thus offsetting some of the crown’s costs.

Austrian and Prussian cuirassiers at the Battle of Lobositz on 1st October 1756

By contrast, the Hapsburg monarchy was a personal union of diverse and separate lands centred on Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, whose rulers had established a claim to the throne of the loose agglomeration of Germanic principalities, lordships and free cities known as the Holy Roman Empire. It did not form a coherent and centralised state like France, but a dynastic dominion, and in each of its lands the Estates, essentially representative of the nobility and Church, were anxious to preserve their own privileges. Service in the regular army never enjoyed great cachet amongst the nobles of the Hapsburg lands, especially those of Austria and Bohemia, partly because they could enjoy careers in local administration under the Estates, which they dominated.

However, the higher nobility controlled all senior commands because they could purchase commissions, and especially colonelcies, for their younger sons, and thus had an enormous advantage in the promotion race. But the lower-level officers were mainly commoners, often drawn from the peoples of the Ottoman frontier for whom war was a way of life. Moreover, Austria was prepared to recruit from all over Europe, as exemplified by its most famous soldier, Prince Eugene (1663–1736), born in Paris and rejected by the French army before moving on to the Hapsburgs. Even in the late eighteenth century foreigners sometimes raised entire regiments for the monarchy. The result was a less homogeneous and coherent officer corps than the French.

The Hohenzollern dynasty of Prussia, like the Hapsburgs, had scattered lands. East Prussia was separated by Polish territory from the family inheritance of Brandenburg, while Cleves and Julich lay far to the west on the Rhine. Frederick the Great Elector (1740–88) was conscious of being surrounded by hostile neighbours. He decided that he needed a standing army to fight off potential challenges and to grasp swiftly any opportunities for expansion which might present themselves. He therefore took steps to centralise government and, because his lands lacked great aristocrats, broke the power of local assemblies and drew in the aristocracy by making them officers. The despotism of Peter the Great similarly drove Russian aristocrats into the army.

The other ranks were filled by the poorest and least educated of the European population, inducted by a number of mechanisms. Service in the French army was voluntary, often stimulated by recruitment bonuses. But this was inadequate for the major expansion during the War of the Spanish Succession, so Louis XIV reinforced his standing army by resurrecting the ancient right of the king to call all free men to arms, creating a reserve force drawn from unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 40 selected by lot. In practice, middle-class people and substantial peasants could easily get exemptions, so most soldiers came from among the poorest in society. During this war the system provided about half the levies to Louis’s armies. It was, however, very unpopular, so in more normal times the state tempted volunteers by offering recruitment bonuses. The legal maximum of 60 livres was often exceeded and might, in time of war, reach 500 livres, five or six times an annual agricultural wage. But armies were rarely homogeneous. The French royal guard was Swiss, and many regiments recruited heavily from the German principalities.

Prussia, after the reforms of 1733, had a very systematic form of conscription. The whole realm was divided into districts rated by the number of hearths in each. Every regiment drew its soldiers from the district in which it was based, and each company recruited from an allocated subdivision or canton. In principle, every able-bodied man was eligible but conscription on such a scale would have bankrupted the state. As a result, the system was very selective. Exemptions were granted to the economically active and important; in short, the middle class. Since the system was supervised by landlords, in practice they decided which of the peasants were called to war.

The Prussian cantonal model produced highly disciplined soldiers whose service life was spent in groups who had known one another from birth, under the supervision of officers drawn from the landlord families who ruled their families in civilian life. Once they were trained, soldiers were often sent home to support themselves on the land, so relieving the state of the costs of their upkeep. Soldiers enjoyed enhanced status in the community for which they could sometimes speak, and this mitigated the harshness of the system and inculcated a degree of pride in it. This integration of home and service life created a highly disciplined force. But Prussia had a small population, and in time of war recruited soldiers from all over Germany and Central Europe. In 1729 Hanover came near to war with Prussia over the activities of aggressive recruiting officers. More than a third of the Prussian army were foreigners, though such men were retained only as long as war lasted, then dismissed to save money. Prisoners of war were routinely incorporated into victorious armies. In 1760–61 the Prussians were so desperate for men that they inducted prisoners at the point of capture. The regiments of the Russian army were conscripted, theoretically for life, from amongst the serfs. In practice landlords oversaw this process and the result was, as elsewhere, an arbitrary form of selective conscription.

The training of soldiers, necessarily in view of the poor quality and unwillingness of many of those inducted, focused on discipline. The tactics of the age required soldiers to march in column and then, when battle threatened, to deploy into line, a relatively complex manoeuvre. The business of loading and firing in frightening and distracting conditions was dinned into men, and they learned to respond to sudden changes in orders coming from their officers. Drill conditioned soldiers to perform their functions and to obey their commanders. Discipline mattered much more than skill: few infantrymen would have fired more than five live shots from their muskets before going into action. Draconian punishments were the order of the day. Frederick the Great ordered that NCOs should kill any man who turned in flight. Flogging continued in the British army throughout the nineteenth century, and ‘Field Punishment No. 1’ by which men were shackled to a wheel, into the twentieth. Even so, all armies suffered from appalling levels of desertion, which was in fact so prevalent that it was generally treated very mildly.

Infantry of the line, backed up by cavalry and artillery, were at the core of eighteenth-century armies, but it must not be thought that military development was everywhere the same even within Europe. Russia converted its army to a western model in order to fight the Swedes and others, but on the Black Sea steppe, where it confronted the Crimean Tatars, the Ottomans and other Mongol successor states, cavalry, especially the Don Cossacks, remained very important, supported by military settlements along the frontier. Similar methods underpinned the Russian expansion beyond the Urals and across Siberia, because they were well suited to the task of driving outward the frontiers in the forest-steppe. In Austria the Ottoman frontier was held by fortresses supported by military settlements. Mounted raiding was a way of life for both sides, and as a result Austrian cavalry was good, both on the battlefield and in harassing, and indeed the European vogue for hussars was copied from the huszár, a particular kind of Hungarian light cavalry. Frederick the Great of Prussia came to dread the ‘Croatians’, the generic name for Christians settled along the Ottoman border by the Hapsburgs. They made excellent light infantry who, in broken countryside, could inflict major damage on their enemies. During the eighteenth century skirmishing forces like these became increasingly important.

The British military structure was another variant. British elites were deeply suspicious of a large standing army because they feared the monarchy might use it to deprive them of their privileges and liberties. Accordingly they preferred to pay continental powers, like Austria, to fight against France, whose imperial ambitions conflicted with British interests all over the globe. But others were not always willing to fight Britain’s battles, and recipients tended to take the money and use it for their own ends, so that it became important to put armies in the field to influence events. The British filled their ranks with mercenaries, and Hanover, where their royal family originated, was a useful recruiting base. During the American Revolution men were raised from neighbouring lands in Germany; these ‘Hessians’ were much reviled by the American insurgents, but they were good soldiers. The purely British army was made up of volunteers, but the term voluntary is a relative one, and contemporaries had few illusions about the methods of recruiting officers, as satirised in Farquhar’s famous play, The Recruiting Officer (1706). Moreover, impressing men from the jails was not uncommon. The duke of Wellington was essentially correct, though perhaps harsh, when he described the British army: ‘People talk of their enlistment from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink.‘ British officers were recruited from the younger sons of the nobility and from the gentry; great aristocrats preferred other careers. But officers had to purchase their commissions or find a patron wealthy enough to do so, maintaining a certain social exclusivity. It is notable that most of the military figures of the eighteenth century came from the gentry or impoverished noble families.

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.

HMS “Royal George” (3), 100-guns first rate ship of the line launch at Woolwich in 1756

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.

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