The battle between British and French fleets fought in the Atlantic between 28 May and 1 June 1794 marked a key stage in the revolution in maritime tactics. It would culminate at Trafalgar in 1805 with one of the most-complete victories in naval history.
It is unsurprising that the British were in the forefront of this revolution. There were two reasons for this, one to do with the character of British naval personnel, the other with the technical nature of fighting at sea in the age of sail.
Whereas British Army officers were typically from titled backgrounds, naval officers were more likely to be middle class. The greatest of them all is a case in point: Nelson was the son of a Norfolk parson.
This meant that, while army officers were born to social position and had little to prove, naval officers were more often career professionals who had to make their own way in the world. The indolence and sense of entitlement that tended to pervade regimental messes was less in evidence in naval wardrooms. Men whose social advancement depended on merit – rather than connections and purchase – were more inclined to apply themselves to their work.
Royal Navy officers in the 18th century were drawn from the same social class as the scientists and engineers who drove the Industrial Revolution. And herein lies the second part of the explanation of British pre-eminence in naval tactics at the time.
A man-o’-war in the age of sail was a fighting machine of technical complexity and multiple moving parts. On the one hand, movement and manoeuvre depended on careful and frequent adjustment of an intricate arrangement of sails in relation to changing winds. On the other, gunnery required highly trained crews, more so than on land, for a warship was not only a floating battery, but also a rolling platform, such that the timing of a broadside was critical to its effect.
Sail power and firepower made huge demands on manpower. Crews on ships- of-the-line might be 600 or 800 strong. These were among the biggest workplaces of their age, with an exceptionally high proportion of skilled or semi-skilled men employed; the management, coordination, feeding, health, and well-being of such large workforces was a major challenge.
A world power: an industrial workshop
The British had a global advantage, for they were building the first ‘workshop of the world’, becoming a nation of ‘mechanicals’ (to use a contemporary word), a nation of practical, hands-on, can-do technicians. Mastery of sail, guns, and men came more easily to the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution than to the Continental subjects of absolute monarchs.
For sure, between the Battle of the Saintes and the Glorious First of June, the French Revolution swept away the ancien régime. This would enable the French to create a new kind of army, capable of conquering Europe. The levée en masse – a huge conscript army of citizen-soldiers inspired by the ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité – would, under Napoleon, carry their cause from Madrid to Moscow.
But navies were different. Revolutionary élan could not compensate for lack of expertise following the desertion or purging of most aristocratic naval officers. It took time to train new men; and, in fact, the French would never catch up with the British.
This precluded any major innovation in naval tactics by the French. With so many officers promoted from the ranks and learning the basics, they were hardly in a position to carry out a revolution in tactics. They were too preoccupied mastering the old to be able to imagine the new.
The essential conservatism of French naval doctrine continued, despite successive defeats, to the time of Trafalgar and beyond. The French would sail line astern on a parallel course with their opponents and engage in long-range cannonade. They would aim their broadsides high so as to destroy masts, spars, rigging. The intention was always to immobilise and capture enemy vessels.
Breaking the line
British admirals were aware of the limitations of these tactics. They were not a recipe for decisive battle. Not only was long-range fire less accurate and destructive, but whichever fleet was getting the worst of it could attempt to sail away with reasonable chance of success.
It is this that explains the central importance to evolving British naval tactics of ‘breaking the line’. Rodney may or may not have intended to break the line at the Saintes in 1782; Howe unquestionably did on the Glorious First.
At its simplest, breaking the line meant adopting a course at right angles to that of the enemy fleet, sailing straight into it, and then hammering away at ‘half a cable’s length’ (100 yards) or less. This had three advantages: it was very hard to miss; the shot impacted at near maximum velocity; and the shot, initially at least, when the line was first broken, would run the length of the enemy ship rather than beam-to-beam.
Howe’s flagship on the Glorious First, the Queen Charlotte, was a three-decked, 100-gun monster. Each broadside comprised 15 32-pdrs (lower gun-deck), 14 24-pdrs (middle gun-deck), and 15 18-pdrs (upper gun-deck). Muzzle velocity was around 1,750 feet per second.
Another heavily engaged British ship, the Queen, fired a total of 130 broadsides on 1 June, expending 25 tons of powder and 60 tons of round-shot. Though most of Howe’s ships-of-the-line played a more modest role, almost all were heavily engaged, and the combined gunpower of his fleet comprised an awesome 2,100 heavy cannon.
Smashing through enemy hulls, the shot was capable of splintering timbers, hurling guns across the deck, and, directly and indirectly, inflicting horrific injuries.
Lieutenant Codrington was on the Queen Charlotte during the battle. He saw one French cannonball shear through a seven-foot timber and crash into a gun. He saw another split off a large chunk of a gun which then killed one man and wounded ten others; one of the wounded had an eye knocked out and both hands smashed.
Lieutenant John Dillon of the Defence also bore witness to the effects of round-shot. One of the men serving in his gun section lost his arm close to the shoulder. Two others were killed by the wind of a shot that had lifted Dillon off his feet and thrown him backwards.
Dillon saw a cannonball strike a man called John Polly, who had just claimed that he was so short all enemy shot would pass over him.
The words had not been long out of his mouth when a shot cut his head right in two, leaving the tip of each ear remaining on the lower part of the cheek… The head of this unfortunate seaman was cut so horizontally that anyone looking at it would have supposed it had been done by the blow of an axe.
Little wonder that traumatised men sometimes went to pieces, becoming hysterical, or fleeing their posts and hiding themselves away. But most did not: most continued to man their guns as long as the battle lasted.
The duel between the Vengeur and the Brunswick, for example, continued for more than four hours. When the latter broke the line around 10 o’clock, she sailed so close to her opponent that the ships’ anchors became hooked together, locking the two vessels in a deadly embrace – so close that the Brunswick was unable to open her lower gun-ports and had to blast through them.
By the end, both ships had been reduced to immobilised hulks – and, unusually in a naval battle of this period, when very few ships were actually sunk, the Vengeur eventually keeled over and went to the bottom, taking 300 men with her.
The British paid great attention to gunnery. British gun-crews had better kit, were more highly trained, and seem, in consequence, to have achieved much higher rates of fire than the French.
Equipped with flexible staves for mounting the spoons, sponges, rammers, and worms with which the guns were operated, they were able to lower their ports while reloading. French gunners, by contrast, could often be seen leaning far out of their ports to reach the end of the muzzles.
Another British advantage was the use of a flintlock firing mechanism, in contrast to the slow matches used by the French. The effect was almost instantaneous detonation, enabling British gunners to choose the moment of discharge in relation to the roll of the ship.
The speed and efficiency of British crews compounded the advantage, for they are estimated to have fired at two or three times the rate of their French counterparts. (Much the same was true of British proficiency in sailing their vessels. Whereas French ships took 15 minutes to adjust sail in order to tack, British ships could manage it in five.)
Another critical difference was that the British fired their broadsides into the hulls of enemy vessels. To aim at masts, spars, and rigging, as the French did, implied a defensive attitude: the intention was to disable the enemy and, presumably, facilitate one’s escape. To aim at the hull was offensive: the objective then was to destroy the enemy’s firepower and render him defenceless. The French at sea were skirmishers; the British were seeking battles of annihilation.
That meant the British needed to get close. To get full advantage from their superior gunnery, and to be able to smash through the enemy’s hulls, they had to maximise muzzle velocity.
‘If you can lock the yardarms so much the better …’Admiral Richard Howe
This is what breaking the line was designed to achieve. This was Howe’s intent during the four-day battle from 28 May to 1 June. Speaking to the officers on board the flagship on the approach to battle on the final day, he told them:
I look to you to do the duty of the Queen Charlotte in engaging the French admiral. I do not wish the ships to be bilge and bilge, but if you can lock the yardarms so much the better, the battle will be the sooner decided.
To the rest of the fleet, he sent a series of signals, the first around 7.30am: ‘having the wind of the enemy, the Admiral means to pass between the ships in the line for engaging to leeward.’
An hour later, to ensure against misunderstanding, he sent a second: ‘Each ship independently to steer for and engage her opponent in the enemy’s line.’
An hour later again, a third: ‘To engage. If closer, a red pennant over the flag.’ And a red pennant was flown on the flagship to underline the message: every captain was to get his ship as close to the enemy vessel opposite as possible.
Captain Collingwood on the Barfleur, among the most aggressive of Howe’s captains, has left a crisp account of what followed:
Nothing could exceed the grandeur of the scene… About 10, the battle began from one end of the line to another, nearly at the same time. A more furious onset was never or more obstinately resisted. Before 12, they fled, leaving the seas covered with wrecks and seven noble ships to be captured by us.
A limited victory
But the truth is that the Glorious First of June was a limited tactical victory and a strategic failure. The French admiral, Villaret-Joyeuse, was operating under the direct orders of Robespierre, the leading member of the Committee of Public Safety, the Jacobin-dominated government in Paris. His mission was to ensure safe passage of a grain convoy from the Americas, for the food was desperately needed at home, where the French Republic was under siege. The fleet, in effect, was expendable.
A British officer later reported a comment made by Villaret-Joyeuse on the outcome of the battle:
he only gave battle when he knew that the convoy was near at hand, and that it would fall prey to the British fleet unless that fleet was disabled by action, or busied in securing prizes. For he had made up his mind to the loss of a few ships: ‘What did I care,’ he said, ‘for half a dozen rotten old hulks which you took?’
There is little doubt that the French crews fought hard, and that Villaret-Joyeuse managed the battle well, bringing support to endangered ships during the fighting, and successfully retiring his fleet once his mission was accomplished.
Many British officers were surprised and disappointed that Howe did not order a vigorous pursuit. Perhaps the British fleet was indeed too battered. Or perhaps it was too distracted by the lure of prizes. Or perhaps the admiral was simply too exhausted after four days of battle and lost his grip.
What went wrong?
Operational analysis reveals other problems. ‘Black Dick’ – to give him his nickname in the fleet – lacked the personality to build a genuine ‘band of brothers’. He seems to have lacked confidence in his captains and to have kept them at arm’s length. Nelson would later consider bonding with his officers, to develop mutual trust, common understanding, and unity of purpose, essential. Until then, he said, ‘I would sooner have thought of flying than attacking the French in their position.’
Tight command and control was hard enough in any sort of naval action; it was supremely so in the kind of ‘pell-mell’ battle (as Nelson described his Trafalgar plan at a pre-battle conference of captains) implicit in any attempt to break the line. In the resulting close-quarters mêlée, each ship became absorbed in its own private duel; as long as it lasted, sometimes for hours, it effectively ceased to be part of any real collective.
Study of the archives has revealed that many British captains interpreted Howe’s signals as merely permissive. The log of the Ramillies, for example, records the first signal as follows: ‘No.34, the Admiral intends to pass through the enemy’s line; captains to act as circumstances will admit to engage to windward or to leeward.’ Many, in consequence, were slow to engage at close-quarters.
The formation of the British fleet no doubt contributed to the misunderstanding. Howe required his fleet, sailing line astern, to turn 90 degrees and ‘charge’ the enemy in line abreast. But this meant that ships ended up crowding one another and jostling for position. Some ships’ logs record angry exchanges of signals.
The problem became more acute as the British closed with the French: there were too many ships trying to sail through narrow gaps in the opposing line. And, as the firing rose to a crescendo, and the entire battle-space was shrouded in smoke, friendly fire incidents became frequent.
This is not to apportion blame. Howe, even at 68, was a bold, thrusting, aggressive commander; he had fire in his belly, and his intention was to smash and seize as many French ships as possible. He was an enthusiastic practitioner of the new British way of war at sea.
But tactics have to be learnt in practice, and the tactics of the Glorious First of June were in fact a hybrid, an awkward combination of traditional line astern and an attempt to break the line. The old framework had not yet been wholly discarded.
At Trafalgar, of course, Nelson formed his fleet into two columns, sailing at right angles to the enemy line, and thus broke the line in two places. Each column was headed by an admiral (the other was Collingwood). Each captain knew that his mission was to chose a target, close with it, and smash it with close-range broadsides. Each, sailing line astern, was free to manoeuvre to achieve this.
Trafalgar, a true battle of annihilation, was the culmination of a revolution in naval tactics engineered by three generations of fighting admirals, among whom Hawke, Rodney, and Howe stand out as true precursors of Nelson. •
ALL images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.