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Trafalgar's Lost Hero
By Max Adams
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-71995-1
Chapter OneA large piece of plum cake
In the wars against France that began in 1793 and, with a short break in 1802, ended at Waterloo twenty-two years later, Britain had four supreme commanders in the field. By chance, each succeeded his predecessor for reasons of declining health (or death), and each emerged at a time when his special skills were exactly those needed, in exactly the right place.
The first of these was John Jervis, born in 1735 and by the start of the war already a vice-admiral. He had fought in the Seven Years' War against France which ended in 1763, and at Quebec had been entrusted with General Wolfe's dying message to his fiancee. By 1795 he was Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet and his naval philosophy was beginning to stamp itself on a generation of commanders. He was severe, demanding and a feared disciplinarian. He loathed corruption, disloyalty and cowardice, and his strategy for beating the French was to bring overwhelming naval force to bear against them, not just to keep them at bay but to destroy France as a sea power. Having lost control of the Mediterranean at the end of 1796, he defeated a Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent in February 1797, then sent Nelson to victory at the battle of the Nile a year later. In 1799 he briefly retired from active service, once more assumed command of the Channel fleet, then finally became First Lord of theAdmiralty in Henry Addington's government.
In this post he ruthlessly reformed naval administration and tackled the corruption then rife in the dockyards, but he was criticised by William Pitt for leaving the navy under-strength when war resumed in 1803. Nevertheless, he was given another active command in 1806 before finally retiring a year later at the age of seventy-one. He died in 1823. As supreme commander at sea, though, Earl St Vincent, as he then was, had effectively passed his baton to Nelson in 1798.
This son of a Norfolk parson, forty-one years old and already a famously wounded war hero, though with a very mixed record, was no great administrator like Jervis; still less a politician. He was a battle commander. His first great fleet engagement had been the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 under Jervis. Here, he brilliantly precipitated the action by plunging his ship Captain pell-mell into the enemy line. A year later he tracked down the French Mediterranean fleet at Aboukir Bay (in what became known as the battle of the Nile) and destroyed it, stranding Bonaparte and his army in Egypt and re-establishing British maritime control between Cadiz and Malta. In 1801 he fought another battle at Copenhagen; less necessary and less glorious, but equally effective in stamping British naval supremacy on the Baltic and North Sea which was so vital for trade.
After the illusory Peace of Amiens in 1802, the next three years concentrated the navy's purpose: to prevent, at all costs, invasion by Napoleon's army of England. The trick was at one and the same time to bottle the enemy up in her ports, and tempt her to come out and fight the decisive battle at a time and place of the Royal Navy's choosing. The Long Watch, as it was called, ended in overwhelming victory at Trafalgar. That battle is popularly thought to have destroyed forever the French maritime threat. It did nothing of the sort. But at the precise moment of Nelson's death the mantle of supreme battle commander fell on the shoulders of the fiftyseven-year-old Cuthbert Collingwood.
For the next four and a half years he blockaded, chased, outwitted; took, burnt and attempted to destroy the ships of the French fleet to ensure that Bonaparte did not regain control of the Mediterranean. He supported the Spanish uprising, prevented Sicily from falling into French hands, kept Turkey and Russia neutral, policed the Adriatic (and while he was at it stood by to rescue the Pope from Rome and the Archduke of Austria from Trieste). And all the while he had to deal with the bloody and incestuous politics of North Africa. These tasks required a man with skills that went far beyond those of a battle commander. Collingwood had to be both diplomat and statesman, in effect a viceroy, and it happened that he was the only man in the navy (apart, perhaps, from Saumarez in the Baltic, performing a similar role, though on a smaller scale) who could have carried it off.
At the point of his death, in March 1810, and by one of those ironies with which history is littered, the focus of the war moved from sea to land, from east to west; the Sepoy General Arthur Wellesley emerged as the surgeon who would lance Bonaparte's Spanish ulcer and later, as the Iron Duke, ultimately defeat him on the continent of Europe.
The reputations of Wellington and Nelson speak for themselves. Nelson was a professional hero, Wellington a soldier/statesman in the tradition of Marlborough. St Vincent is not nearly so popularly known as his achievements deserve; but he is at least recognised by serious historians as a major influence on British maritime strategy during the Napoleonic wars. Neglect of Collingwood is harder to fathom, though the historian Piers Mackesy, writing of the war in the Mediterranean at this period, did not underestimate him:
The splendour of the navy's work in the theatre after Trafalgar has been obscured by the absence of fleet actions; and the name of Lord Collingwood has equally been dimmed by his inability to bring an enemy fleet to battle. The fights were small, fierce encounters of sloops and gunboats, cutting-out expeditions, attacks on batteries. Only once did the enemy come out in force. Yet the scale was heroic; and over the vast canvas towers the figure of Collingwood.
Wellington was the son of an earl, learning his craft on the playing fields of Eton, and in India in the Mahratta wars. But in an era when birth mattered at least as much as talent, it is remarkable that St Vincent, Nelson and Collingwood all came from much more ordinary backgrounds, and all went to sea at the same age. St Vincent was the son of a politically unconnected barrister, who gave the young John Jervis £20 at the age of thirteen - but never a penny more after that - and sent him off to join the navy. His poverty as a midshipman meant that he spent more time on the lower decks than he did with other officers. His education was a practical one: years and years of apprenticeship at sea.
Nelson's family were genteel country folk. They had no wealth, but there were useful connections, through the Suckling family - Nelson's uncle Maurice was a Comptroller of the Navy - and the Walpoles. Without this influence Nelson could not have been made post-captain at the extraordinarily young age of twenty. Even so, he served his time in the midshipman's berth from his early teens, and one of his outstanding traits as a commander was his understanding of both officers and men.
Cuthbert Collingwood's family had no money, but they were from ancient Northumbrian stock. An earlier Sir Cuthbert had been involved in the Reiver wars of the late sixteenth century, at a time when the Anglo-Scottish border was ruled, if that is the right word, by rival warlords and their clans. These were hard people, used to fighting and robbing and sleeping with one eye open. Sir Cuthbert Collingwood was a man of some consequence, able to raise eight hundred or even a thousand men to go raiding against families with whom he was feuding. He was kidnapped on one occasion by a Scots war party after a raid went horribly wrong, but he was not averse to meting out justice to his own: he executed seventeen of his tenants to prevent another feud from starting.
One of his descendants, George Collingwood, was heavily implicated in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715: he was executed at Liverpool and his Eslington estate was forfeited, in a nice irony, to the Greenwich Hospital for Seamen. The Admiral's side of the family had never been anything other than loyal Hanoverians. His father, also Cuthbert, was a Newcastle trader, respectable but not wealthy. He had been apprenticed to a merchant, and then set up in business for himself. When the business went bankrupt, his debtors were distillers, oil-men, soap-boilers and druggists. His wife, Milcah, who hailed from near Appleby in Westmoreland, bore him ten children.
The first seven of these were girls, of whom three survived into adulthood and ripe old age: Mary (1738-1815), Eleanor (1739-1835) and Dorothy (1741-1830). The last three were boys: Cuthbert, born on 26 September 1748; Wilfred, baptised on 11 October 1749, and John, baptised on 1 June 1750. The choice of the first two boys' names is interesting. Cuthbert was clearly a family name, but it harked back to a very ancient period, when St Cuthbert, the exemplar of the ascetic monk, was a reluctant Bishop of Lindisfarne. St Wilfred was a seventh-century contemporary: Bishop of Hexham, but of an entirely different stamp. While Cuthbert had been brought up in the spiritual, insular Irish tradition of Iona, Wilfred was a Romanist who sought to reflect God's glory in his own earthly splendour. It was Wilfred whose counsel prevailed at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, spelling the end of the Irish church in Britain. The two naval brothers were, by all accounts, as different as these two in character, but they were held together by the bond of a service which was at least not riven by doctrinal dispute.
Cuthbert Collingwood was born in a house in Newcastle on a street called the Side. It is a steep, narrow street that runs up from the Quayside at Sandhill, past Dog Leap Stairs, up under the shadow of the medieval Black Gate, and towards the fourteenth-century cathedral of St Nicholas, where Cuthbert was baptised. The houses were all torn down in the nineteenth century, at which time the Collingwoods' house belonged to a tobacco manufacturer, but above a doorway of the Victorian redbrick office which stands there now is a bust of Cuthbert, Lord Collingwood, which most natives of the city pass by without noticing. The house lay within a biscuit's toss of city walls which had last been manned against the Scots as recently as 1745. Just two years before Cuthbert was born, the last battle on British soil had been fought at Culloden, and Geordies (a name derived from the army nickname King George's Men) would have been well aware that one of the prime objectives of the Young Pretender's attempted invasion of England was to strangle the coal trade between Newcastle and London by taking that city.
Newcastle in 1748 was still essentially a medieval city. At its heart lay the 'new' castle built by William the Conqueror's son Robert in 1080, after ten years of rebellion and destruction had laid waste most of the northern counties. For the next six hundred years Newcastle was a border town, garrisoned by the King's troops against the threat of invasion from Scotland. In 1644 it held out under siege for three months before being taken by Parliamentary troops, and for two years after that the counties of Northumberland and Durham were occupied by Scottish forces.
In 1748 the city still had walls which entirely enclosed it, from Close Gate and Westgate in the west to Sand Gate in the east, from the River Tyne in the south to Newgate and Pilgrim Street in the north. During Collingwood's lifetime most of the walls would disappear as the town boomed in the early wealth of the industrial revolution. Ancient houses would be torn down to build grand new streets; bridges would span wooded denes; street lights, mains water and sewers would appear. Cuthbert would miss most of it.
In 1748 the castle dungeon was still being used as the county gaol, where prisoners were chained to the walls and exhibited by the gaoler for twopence a piece. The Side, where the Collingwoods lived, was close enough to the Quayside, an infamous haunt of 'coarse and impudent wenches', to be primarily mercantile. It was 'from one end to the other filled with shops of merchants, goldsmiths, milliners, and upholsterers'. The Quayside itself was permanently ranged with vessels of every kind: keels, which carried coal from upriver down to sea-going colliers near the river's mouth at Shields; coasters, barges, sloops, fishing cobles and ferry boats. From the bottom of the Side, beneath the towering walls of the castle, a single bridge spanned the river to Gateshead and the Great North Road. This ancient bridge, like that of medieval London, was still lined with shops and houses. Across it, once a week, the South Mail coach would come, 'guarded by a man before on horseback with a drawn sword and, behind, by another with a charged blunderbuss'.
Since 1711 Newcastle had boasted a newspaper: the Courant, joined by the Journal in 1739. Newspapers would be read by subscribers, very often shared amongst the patrons of dozens of coffee houses (more numerous even than today), and merchants kept a very close eye on news from across the world. Regional papers of the eighteenth century were necessarily less parochial in outlook than their modern equivalents. Parliamentary debates were frequently reported in great detail. In the week Collingwood was born in 1748 the paper contained dispatches from St Petersburg, Rome, Dresden, Stettin and elsewhere, wherever there were British interests-which indeed spread across the world. There was a report that nineteen privateers had sailed from 'Havannah', and there was anticipation that peace might soon be signed with France and Spain at Aix-la-Chapelle. The paper also contained news that locusts had appeared in Orkney, and that at the Assembly Room in Durham there was to be a concert on the Cymbalum, the only instrument of its kind in England. There were advertisements too: for Daffy's Elixir and Dr Bateman's Pectoral Drops.
Newcastle was on the cusp of great things. Although the town had been shipping coal to London for hundreds of years, the engineering achievements that would liberate the region's latent wealth were in their barest infancy, supporting a population of only twenty thousand people and as yet untarnished by industrial pollution, labour strikes and unemployment. John Wesley, building in Newcastle the second Methodist chapel in England in 1742, liked it very much: 'If I did not believe there was another world I should spend all my summers here.' Coal was plentiful and still easy to win at shallow depths: Daniel Defoe reported his impressions of 'Mountains of Coal' to an ignorant London audience. Getting the coal to the river was another matter: for miles around, the countryside was laced with wooden wagon ways, the coal hauled by horses across the world's first 'railway' bridges and embankments to reach the Tyne and the Wear. The North's first coking plant had just been opened at Chester-le-Street, and where Thomas Newcomen's 'atmospheric' steam engines were in use, they were used for pumping water: either out of mines, or from streams into millponds to keep water-wheels turning.
Coal export from the River Tyne was still primarily aimed at the domestic market in London. Its use as the power to drive the steam age would have to wait for developments in steam engineering and iron-making technology. The lush pastures and easily tilled glacial soils of Northumberland's hills and plains, for so long neglected because of border warfare, had yet to become, as they soon would, the most productive land on the planet. And the region's greatest resource, its engineers, were either infants or had not been born. The main impetus behind these developments would be war.
Excerpted from Trafalgar's Lost Hero by Max Adams Excerpted by permission.
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