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The Royal Navy During the War of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War.htm

TheRoyal Navy During the War of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War

JohnB. Hattendorf

When a sailor was swimming on the surface of theopen ocean, his horizon was a mere1.1 miles away. But climbing to the maintop about 100 feet above the water on a 74-gun shipextended the distance he could see to nearly 12 miles. The heightof any object on the horizon,whether ship or shore, also increased that distance. Perched in the rigging of a large ship, a lookout mightsee the sails of another large shipat 20 miles, even if the ship was hull-down (with only its sails visible abovethe horizon).

Height was thekey. Yet a person's range of view could be affectedby many circumstances, such as fog or even loud distractions on deck. Atlong distances, the atmosphere could create strange refractions, causing mirages.

For a naval man, there is a direct analogybetween climbing the mast to extend the horizon at sea and climbing upthe hierarchy of command to view the wideroperations of the Navy. The top of the Royal Navy hierarchy was not in a shipat sea, but ashore, in London.It was only from there that one's vision was global, encompassing the Navy's numerous theaters of operation anddistant exploits. And it was from there that the Navy's basic directionsemanated everything from grand strategy to pay, from ship constructionto uniforms, from navigation charts to foodallowances. Officers of the Crown,including naval officers like Jack Aubrey, were ultimately governed byParliament, the King's Cabinet, and the King himself.

King, Cabinet, andParliament

For all thosewho served in the Navy, King George III stood at the pinnacle of command. Notonly was the King a symbol of sovereignty,but he also played a tangible role in day-to-day affairs. Maintainingthe prerogative of the Crown to appoint its own ministers, George III was animportant influence on national policies and was certainly able to prevent thegovernment from taking measures in which he did not acquiesce. Although afterhis first bout with insanity in 1788, George III began to leave an increasingamount of business to his ministers, he retained considerable influence overnational policy and ministerial appointments throughout the years of the FrenchRevolution and the Napoleonic wars.

In the King'sname and through his authority, the prime minister and the other ministers inthe Cabinet collectively exercised the executive power of government throughthe means provided by Parliament. In this, the Cabinet was controlled on oneside by the King and on the other by Parliament. When a cabinet was appointedand received the King's support, it could normally expect the support of amajority in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords as well as a victory in the next general election,providing that it did not prove incompetent, impose undue taxation, orfail to maintain public confidence. When any of these were joined by publicoutcry over a defeat in battle ordisappointment in foreign policies, Cabinet ministers were clearly in politicaldanger.

Because of itsrepresentative nature and its exclusive ability to initiate financial measures, the House of Commons was the stronger ofthe two Houses of Parliament, but the House of Lords, usually siding with the King, retained enormous power.Its assent was essential to the passage of any law. In the 18thcentury, when most Cabinet ministers, including the head of the Navy, wereLords, it was normal for the Cabinet's views to be more in harmony with those of the House of Lords. Together, the twocould kill inconvenient measures arising in the Commons.

The Cabinet dealt with questions of broad navalpolicy and strategy, including finance, ship construction, and logisticalsupport, obtaining funding fromParliament and sometimes even giving broad operational directives to theAdmiralty and to senior naval commanders.

TheLords Commissioners of the Admiralty

Traditionally, the Crownvested the powers and functions of the Admiralty in the office of Lord HighAdmiral. An ancient office of state, it had not been held by an individualsince 1709. Instead, these powers were delegated to a board of seven men whowere the "Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord HighAdmiral." Of these seven, three were usually naval officers, called professionalLords, and four civilians, or civil Lords. In theory, each commissioner wasequal in authority and responsibility, but in practice the person whose nameappeared first on the document commissioning the board was the senior member,or First Lord. During this period, the First Lord was more often a civilianmember of the House of Lords than a naval officer.

FirstLords of the Admiralty, 1788-1827

JohnPitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham - Jul. 16, 1788-Dec. 19, 1794

GeorgeJohn Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer - Dec. 19, 1794-Feb.19, 1801

AdmiralJohn Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent - Feb. 19, 1801-May 15, 1804

HenryDundas, 1st Viscount Melville - May 15, 1804-May 2, 1805

AdmiralCharles Middleton, Lord Barham - May 2, 1805-Feb. 10, 1806

Hon. Charles Grey, Viscount Howick - Feb. 10, 1806-Sep. 29, 1806

Thomas Grenville - Sep. 29, 1806-Apr. 6, 1807

Henry Phipps, 3rd Lord Mulgrave - Apr. 6, 1807-May 4, 1810

Charles Philip Yorke - May 4, 1810-Mar. 25, 1812

Robert Saunders Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville - Mar. 25, 1812-May 2, 1827

Source: J. C. Sainty, Admiralty Officials, 1660-1870 (1975).

In 1805, Lord Barham was the first to assignspecific duties to each of the professional Naval Lords, leaving thecivil Lords to handle routine business and sign documents. Under the LordsCommissioners of the Admiralty, the seniorofficial was the First Secretary of the Admiralty. Usually an electedmember of the House of Commons, he was the senior civil servant. More oftenthan not, it was the First Secretary whocommunicated the decisions of the Commissioners to naval officers in the fleet, although from 1783, a SecondSecretary assisted in carrying out the administrative burdens of the office.

The Admiralty Office

The heart ofthe Admiralty was the Admiralty Office on the west side of Whitehall. It was a neighbor of the War Office, whichadministered the Army at a buildingcalled the Horse Guards, both overlooking St. James's Park to the rear. Inthis location, the Admiralty wasclose to the nerve centers of national power: 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister's residence), the Treasury,the Houses of Parliament, St.James's Palace, and the residence of George III.

Designed by Thomas Ripley, the Master Carpenterto the Crown, the Admiralty Officewas built between 1725 and 1728 to replace one that had stood on the same site. Masked from the unruly mob on the street by a stone screen added in 1760, the brickbuilding's tall portico and smallcourtyard were often filled with arriving or departing naval officersand chastened messengers bringing news from the fleet.

It was a place where naval officers' careers weremade or lost. As O'Brian describes a visit by Jack Aubrey to seek a commissionfrom

Lord Melville in Post Captain, that tensionis palpable: "The plunge into the Admiralty courtyard; the waitingroom, with half a dozen acquaintancesdisconnectedgossip, his mind and theirs being elsewhere;the staircase to the First Lord's room and there, half-way up, a fatofficer leaning against the rail, silent weeping, his slab, pale cheeks all wetwith tears. A silent marine watched him from the landing, two porters from the hall, aghast."

The AdmiraltyOffice's oak-paneled boardroom was the site of the Admiralty Commissioners' daily meetings. Saved from the earlierbuilding, a working wind-direction indicator mounted on the wall over the fireplace served as a constantreminder of the fleets at sea, whilecharts covering the walls kept the Commissioners abreast of the various theaters of action. Together, theCommissioners deliberated at a longtable, preparing the fleet for war, selecting its commanders, and making officer assignments. Whilethe Board itself did not make strategic decisions, the First Lord wasinvolved in this process as a member of the Cabinet, and the AdmiraltySecretary often forwarded the Cabinet'sinstructions on strategy and fleet operations to the fleet commanders.

The Admiraltymanaged a wide range of other administrative andjudicial duties as well. For this, the First Secretary of the Admiraltysupervised a bustling office with many clerks, visitors, and activities, making it a prime target for spies;indeed, security leaks were aproblem.

In 1786, thegrowing Admiralty bureaucracy expanded into a new yellow brick building joinedto the Admiralty on the south. Here on theground floor were three large state rooms for the First Lord's officialentertaining. Above that, two floors housed mainly the private apartments of the First Lord but alsothe Admiralty Library.

The Admiralty was not the only office thatmanaged naval affairs. There were a variety of other boards and officesin London that dealt with specific aspectsof the Navy. The most important of these was the Navy Board.

The Navy Board

The Principal Officers and Commissioners of theNavy, who formed the Navy Board, worked in the Navy Office building atSomerset House in the Strand. They were concerned with three main areas: (1) the material condition of the fleet,including building, fitting out, andrepairing ships, managing dockyards, purchasing naval stores, andleasing transport vessels; (2) naval expenditure, including the payment of all salaries and auditing accounts;and (3) the health and subsistence of seamen. The last function was delegatedto subsidiary boards, also located atSomerset House:

The Sick and Wounded Board, or the Commissioners for taking care of Sick and Wounded Seamen and for the Exchanging of Prisoners of War.

The Commissioners of the Victualling, who were responsible for acquiring, storing, and delivering food supplies to the fleet.

The Transport Board, which hired merchant vessels to carry troops and supplies, took over from the Sick and Wounded Board the responsibility for prisoners of war in 1796. The two boards merged in 1806. Originally composed of three senior naval officers, the Transport Board also included a civil administrator and a physician after 1806.

TheOrdnance Board

An entirelyindependent board at the Ordnance Office with locations both at the Tower of London and at the Warren, next to WoolwichDockyard down the Thames from London, the Ordnance Board was responsible forsupplying both the Army and the Navy with guns and ammunition. Headed by theMaster-General of the Ordnance, this board contracted with private foundries tomake cannon; supervised gunpowder plants at Faversham and Waltham Abbey;managed the arsenal at Woolwich, where guns were received, tested, and issued;and appointed and supplied gunners to ships.The Ordnance Board worked closely with the Admiralty, its principalchannel of communication on sea affairs, in determining with the Navy Board and its subsidiaries the specifications of arma-

ments for naval vessels and in coordinating thetimely delivery and convoy of supplies as well as the construction andvictualing of Ordnance vessels.

The Size of the Navy

Together,these offices and boards managed the support and direction of a large number of officers, seamen, andships. Today, as then, it isdifficult to ascertain exactly how many men were in the Navy. Parliament authorized a certain number in itsannual vote, a certain number wereassigned to vessels, and then there were actual musters, where the men on board each ship werecounted. These muster counts variedfrom month to month and often were not completely kept or fully compiled for the Navy as a whole.

Ships andTactics

The Navy of the period was made up of a widevariety of ships with various specific roles to play. Some were designed forcombat, others for supportactivities. The most important combat vessels were those designed to fight anorganized enemy fleet in a line of battle; they were called line-of-battleships or ships of the line.

Battle Tactics

Navies had developed the line of battle in the17th century. Simply described, itinvolved sailing ships in a line, bow to stern, as the most efficient way ofconcentrating their gunfire, at the same time protecting the ships'weakest points. The bow and stern were theleast protected parts of the ship, carrying only a few guns, and volleys received there could damage theships' weakest structural points if aimed low at the rudder, stern, orbow, or, if aimed high, could travel the whole length of the deck, killing menand wreaking havoc with the sails andrigging.

It was thesefactors that made the tactic known as "crossing the T" so effective. In this maneuver, onebattle line passed, at an angle, through the opposing battle line, eachship firing its broadsides at the enemy ships' sterns, bows, and masts andalong their decks. This maneuver was not an easy one to undertake because theapproaching ships were themselves vulnerable to heavy gunfire. It helped to have the weather gauge, that is to say,to be to windward of the opposing fleet, because that allowed theswiftest approach and the advantage ofchoosing when to initiate the engagement. But one could not always dictate one's position when encountering an enemy, or, for that matter, predict wind shifts.In general, however, while theBritish preferred the weather gauge, the French more often preferred the lee, because they tended toconcentrate on reaching a destinationto get troops or to convoy merchant ships rather than on seeking battle.

There were some other significant nationaldifferences in naval gunnery. Mostprominent among them, perhaps, was the fact that in general the French fired at the masts, rigging,and sails of British ships, aimingto disable the enemy's motive power, while the British usually fired on the French warships' hulls. Itwas far more difficult to hit thehull of an enemy ship, but piercing the hull often created the heaviest damage, possibly sinking the ship.

Most battles took place at relatively closerange. They often didn't begin untilthe ships were as close as 1,000 yards, and sometimes this distance was reduced to 500 yards when theguns were double-shotted (firing two rounds at once). Closer ranges weretermed "musket shot range" (within 300 yards) and "pistol shotrange" (within 50 yards).

Sometimes, ships of the line were engaged inblockade operations, designedeither to keep the enemy's ships in port or, alternatively, to draw them out to fight. There were twotypes of blockades: close and open.An open blockade, usually by smaller ships of the line off an enemy port, such as Toulonin the Mediterranean or Brest innorthwestern France, gave the impression that the port was not carefully watched or that there was a chance ofbattle success for the enemy. At thefirs...