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The Royal Navy During the War of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War
John B. Hattendorf
WHEN A SAILOR WAS swimming on the surface of the open ocean, his horizon was a mere 1.1 miles away. But climbing to the maintop—about 100 feet above the water on a 74-gun ship—extended the distance he could see to nearly 12 miles. The height of any object on the horizon, whether ship or shore, also increased that distance. Perched in the rigging of a large ship, a lookout might see the sails of another large ship at 20 miles, even if the ship was hull-down (with only its sails visible above the horizon).
Height was the key. Yet a person's range of view could be affected by many circumstances, such as fog or even loud distractions on deck. At long distances, the atmosphere could create strange refractions, causing mirages.
For a naval man, there is a direct analogy between climbing the mast to extend the horizon at sea and climbing up the hierarchy of command to view the wider operations of the Navy. The top of the Royal Navy hierarchy was not in a ship at sea, but ashore, in London. It was only from there that one's vision was global, encompassing the Navy's numerous theaters of operation and distant exploits. And it was from there that the Navy's basic directions emanated—everything from grand strategy to pay from ship construction to uniforms, from navigation charts to food allowances. Officers of the Crown, including naval officers like Jack Aubrey, were ultimately governed by Parliament, the King's Cabinet, and the King himself.
King, Cabinet, and Parliament
For all those who served in the Navy, King George III stood at the pinnacle of command. Not only was the King a symbol of sovereignty, but he also played a tangible role in day-to-day affairs. Maintaining the prerogative of the Crown to appoint its own ministers, George III was an important influence on national policies and was certainly able to prevent the government from taking measures in which he did not acquiesce. Although after his first bout with insanity in 1788, George III began to leave an increasing amount of business to his ministers, he retained considerable influence over national policy and ministerial appointments throughout the years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
In the King's name and through his authority, the prime minister and the other ministers in the Cabinet collectively exercised the executive power of government through the means provided by Parliament. In this, the Cabinet was controlled on one side by the King and on the other by Parliament. When a cabinet was appointed and received the King's support, it could normally expect the support of a majority 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, or fail to maintain public confidence. When any of these were joined by public outcry over a defeat in battle or disappointment in foreign policies, Cabinet ministers were clearly in political danger.
Because of its representative nature and its exclusive ability to initiate financial measures, the House of Commons was the stronger of the 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 18th century, when most Cabinet ministers, including the head of the Navy, were Lords, it was normal for the Cabinet's views to be more in harmony with those of the House of Lords. Together, the two could kill inconvenient measures arising in the Commons.
The Cabinet dealt with questions of broad naval policy and strategy, including finance, ship construction, and logistical support, obtaining funding from Parliament and sometimes even giving broad operational directives to the Admiralty and to senior naval commanders.
The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty
Traditionally, the Crown vested the powers and functions of the Admiralty in the office of Lord High Admiral. An ancient office of state, it had not been held by an individual since 1709. Instead, these powers were delegated to a board of seven men who were the "Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral," or "Admiralty Board." Of these seven, three were usually naval officers, called professional Lords, and four civilians, or civil Lords. In theory, each commissioner was equal in authority and responsibility, but in practice the person whose name appeared first on the document commissioning the board was the senior member, or First Lord. During this period, the First Lord was more often a civilian member of the House of Lords than a naval officer.
First Lords of the Admiralty, 1788-1827
John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham Jul. 16, 1788-Dec. 19, 1794
George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer Dec. 19, 1794-Feb. 19, 1801
Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent Feb. 19, 1801-May 15, 1804
Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville May 15, 1804-May 2, 1805
Admiral Charles 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 assign specific duties to each of the professional Naval Lords, leaving the civil Lords to handle routine business and sign documents. Under the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, the senior official was the First Secretary of the Admiralty. Usually an elected member of the House of Commons, he was the senior civil servant. More often than not, it was the First Secretary who communicated the decisions of the Commissioners to naval officers in the fleet, although from 1783, a Second Secretary assisted in carrying out the administrative burdens of the office.
The Admiralty Office
The heart of the Admiralty was the Admiralty Office on the west side of Whitehall. It was a neighbor of the War Office, which administered the Army at a building called the Horse Guards, both overlooking St. James's Park to the rear. In this location, the Admiralty was close 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 Carpenter to the Crown, the Admiralty Office was 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 brick building's tall portico and small courtyard were often filled with arriving or departing naval officers and chastened messengers bringing news from the fleet.
It was a place where naval officers' careers were made or lost. As O'Brian describes a visit by Jack Aubrey to seek a commission from Lord Melville in Post Captain, that tension is palpable: "The plunge into the Admiralty courtyard; the waiting room, with half a dozen acquaintances—disconnected gossip, his mind and theirs being elsewhere; the staircase to the First Lord's room and there, half-way up, a fat officer leaning against the rail, silent weeping, his slab, pale cheeks all wet with tears. A silent marine watched him from the landing, two porters from the hall, aghast."
The Admiralty Office's oak-paneled boardroom was the site of the Admiralty Commissioners' daily meetings. Saved from the earlier building, a working wind-direction indicator mounted on the wall over the fireplace served as a constant reminder of the fleets at sea, while charts covering the walls kept the Commissioners abreast of the various theaters of action. Together, the Commissioners deliberated at a long table, preparing the fleet for war, selecting its commanders, and making officer assignments. While the Board itself did not make strategic decisions, the First Lord was involved in this process as a member of the Cabinet, and the Admiralty Secretary often forwarded the Cabinet's instructions on strategy and fleet operations to the fleet commanders.
The Admiralty managed a wide range of other administrative and judicial duties as well. For this, the First Secretary of the Admiralty supervised a bustling office with many clerks, visitors, and activities, making it a prime target for spies; indeed, security leaks were a problem.
On the other hand, the Admiralty itself had need of foreign intelligence, which Admiralty officials obtained in several ways. Some of it came from the ordinary sources of government intelligence: Post Office officials in London and Hanover who opened foreign letters and diplomatic agents and colonial officials abroad who forwarded information to the secretaries of state, who in turn forwarded it to the Admiralty. The Admiralty's own sources included the reports of officers abroad, who supplemented their observations with information from merchant seamen and others in the ports they visited. Additionally, the First Lords often privately employed spies to make secret reports. When Lord Spencer became First Lord in 1794, one of his first observations about the Admiralty was the need to assign a clerk the specific responsibility of coordinating the different sources of foreign intelligence.
In 1786, the growing Admiralty bureaucracy expanded into a new yellow brick building joined to the Admiralty on the south. Here on the ground floor were three large state rooms for the First Lord's official entertaining. Above that, two floors housed mainly the private apartments of the First Lord but also the Admiralty Library.
The Admiralty was not the only office that managed naval affairs. There were a variety of other boards and offices in London that dealt with specific aspects of the Navy. The most important of these was the Navy Board.
The Navy Board
The Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy, who formed the Navy Board, worked in the Navy Office building at Somerset House in the Strand. They were concerned with three main areas: (1) the material condition of the fleet, including building, fitting out, and repairing ships, managing dockyards, purchasing naval stores, and leasing 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 delegated to subsidiary boards, also located at Somerset 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.
The Ordnance Board
An entirely independent board at the Ordnance Office with locations both at the Tower of London and at the Warren, next to Woolwich Dockyard down the Thames from London, the Ordnance Board was responsible for supplying both the Army and the Navy with guns and ammunition. Headed by the Master-General of the Ordnance, this board contracted with private foundries to make 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 principal channel of communication on sea affairs, in determining with the Navy Board and its subsidiaries the specifications of armaments for naval vessels and in coordinating the timely delivery and convoy of supplies as well as the construction and victualing 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, and ships. Today, as then, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many men were in the Navy. Parliament authorized a certain number in its annual vote, a certain number were assigned to vessels, and then there were actual musters, where the men on board each ship were counted. These muster counts varied from month to month and often were not completely kept or fully compiled for the Navy as a whole. The following figures, however, give an approximation (no figures are available for 1814 and 1815).
Ships and Tactics
The Navy of this period was made up of a wide variety of ships with specific roles to play. Some were designed for combat, others for support activities. The most important combat vessels were those designed to fight an organized enemy fleet in a line of battle; they were called line-of-battle ships or ships of the line.
Battle Tactics. Navies had developed the line of battle in the 17th century. Simply described, it involved sailing ships in a line, bow to stern, as the most efficient way of concentrating their gunfire, at the same time protecting the ships' weakest points. The bow and stern were the least protected parts of the ship, carrying only a few guns, and volleys received there could damage the ships' weakest structural points if aimed low at the rudder, stern, or bow, or, if aimed high, could travel the whole length of the deck, killing men and wreaking havoc with the sails and rigging.
It was these factors that made the tactic known as "crossing the T" so effective. In this maneuver, one battle line passed, at a 90° angle, ahead of the opposing battle line, each ship firing its broadsides at the enemy ships' bows and masts and along their decks. This maneuver was not an easy one to undertake because the approaching 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 the swiftest approach and the advantage of choosing 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 the British preferred the weather gauge, the French more often preferred the lee, because they tended to concentrate on reaching a destination to get troops or to convoy merchant ships rather than on seeking battle.
Excerpted from A Sea of Words by Dean King, John B. Hattendorf, J. Worth Estes. Copyright © 2000 Dean King. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 10, 2012
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