A History of Sea Power
by William Oliver Stevens and Allan Westcott
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Graves's method followed the orthodox tradition exactly, and with the unvarying result. As the attacking fleet bore down in line ahead at an angle, the van of course came into action first, unsupported for some time by the rest. As the signal for close action was repeated, this angle was made sharper, and in attempting to close up the line several ships got bunched in such a way as to mask their fire. Meanwhile the rear, the seven ships under Hood, still trailing along in line ahead, never got into the action at all. Graves had signaled for "close action," but Hood chose to believe that the order for line ahead still held until the signal was repeated, whereupon he bore down. As the French turned away at the same time, to keep their distance, Hood contributed nothing to the fighting of the day. At sunset the battle ended. The British had lost 90 killed and 246 wounded; the French, a total of 200. Several of the British ships were badly damaged, one of which was in a sinking condition and had to be burned. The two fleets continued on an easterly course about three miles apart, and for five days more the two maneuvered without fighting. Graves was too much injured by the first day's encounter to attack again and de Grasse was content to let him alone. Graves still had an opportunity to cut back and enter the bay, taking a position from which it would have been hard to dislodge him and effecting the main object of the expedition by holding the mouth of the Chesapeake. But this apparently did not occur to him. De Grasse, who had imperiled Washington's campaign by cruising so far from the entrance, finally returned on the 11th, and found that the Newport squadron had arrived safely the day before. When Graves saw that the French fleet was now increased to 36 line-of-battle ships, he gave up hope of winning the bay and returned to New York, leaving Cornwallis to his fate. A little over a month later, October 19, the latter surrendered, and with his sword passed the last hope of subduing the American revolution.

This battle of the Capes, or Lynnhaven, has never until recent times been given its true historical perspective, largely because in itself it was a rather tame affair. But as the historian Reich[1] observes, "battles, like men, are important not for their dramatic splendor but for their efficiency and consequences.... The battle off Cape Henry had ultimate effects infinitely more important than Waterloo." Certainly there never was a more striking example of the "influence of sea power" on a campaign. Just at the crisis of the American Revolution the French navy, by denying to the British their communications by sea, struck the decisive blow of the war. This was the French revanche for the humiliation of 1763.


The British failure in this action was due to a dull commander in chief carrying out a blundering attack based on the Fighting Instructions. Blame must fall also on his second in command, Hood, who, though a brilliant officer, certainly failed to support his chief properly when there was an obvious thing to do. Perhaps if the personal relations between the two had been more cordial Hood would have taken the initiative. But in those days the initiative of a subordinate was not encouraged, and Hood chose to stand on his dignity.

Although the war was practically settled by the fall of Yorktown, it required another year or so to die out. In this final year a famous naval battle was fought which went far toward establishing British predominance in the West Indies, and which revealed something radically different in naval tactics from the practice of the time.

In the spring of 1782, Rodney was back in command of the West Indian station, succeeding Hood, who continued to serve as commander of a division. The British base was Gros Islet Bay in Santa Lucia. De Grasse was at Fort Royal, Martinique, waiting to transport troops to Santo Domingo, where other troops and ships were collected. There, joining with a force of Spaniards from Cuba, he was to conduct a campaign against Jamaica. It was Rodney's business to break up this plan. During a period of preparation on both sides, reenforcements joined the rival fleets, that of the British amounting to enough to give Rodney a marked superiority in numbers. Moreover his ships were heavier, as he had five 3-deckers to the French one, and about 200 more guns. The superiority of speed, as well, lay with Rodney because more of his ships had copper sheathing. A still further advantage lay in the fact that he was not burdened with the problem of protecting convoys and transports as was de Grasse. Thus, in the event of conflict, the advantages lay heavily with the British.

On the morning of April 8, the English sentry frigate off Fort Royal noted that the French were coming out, and hastened with the news to Rodney at Santa Lucia. The latter put to sea at once. He judged rightly that de Grasse would steer for Santo Domingo, in order to get rid of his transports at their destination as soon as possible, and on the morning of the 9th he sighted the French off the west coast of the island of Dominica. On the approach of the English fleet, de Grasse signaled his transports to run to the northwest, while he took his fleet on a course for the channel between the islands of Dominica and Guadeloupe. As the British would be sure to pursue the fleet, this move would enable the convoy to escape.

The channel toward which de Grasse turned his fleet is known as the Saints' Passage from a little group of islands, "les isles des Saintes," lying to the north of it. In the course of the pursuit, Hood, with the British van division of nine ships, had got ahead of the rest and offered a tempting opening for attack in superior force. If de Grasse had grasped his opportunity he might have inflicted a crushing blow on Rodney and upset the balance of superiority. But the lack of aggressiveness in the French doctrine was again fatal to French success. De Grasse merely sent his second in command to conduct a skirmish at long range—and thus threw his chance away.

The light winds and baffling calms kept both fleets idle for a day. On the 11th de Grasse tried to work his fleet through the channel on short tacks. Just as he had almost accomplished his purpose he discovered several of his vessels still so far to westward as to be in danger of capture. In order to rescue these he gave up the fruits of laborious beating against the head wind and returned. The following morning, April 12 (1782), discovered the two fleets to the west of the strait and so near that the French could no longer evade battle. The French came down on the port tack and the British stood toward them, with their admiral's signal flying to "engage to leeward." When the two lines converged to close range, the leading British ship shifted her course slightly so as to run parallel with that of the French, and the two fleets sailed past each other firing broadsides. So far the battle had followed traditional line-ahead pattern.

Just as the leading ship of the British came abreast of the rearmost of the French, the wind suddenly veered to the southward, checking the speed of the French ships and swinging their bows over toward the English line. At best a line of battle in the sailing ship days was an uneven straggling formation, and the effect of this flaw of wind, dead ahead, was to break up the French line into irregular groups separated by wide gaps. One of these opened up ahead as Rodney's flagship, the Formidable, forged past the French line. His fleet captain, Douglas, saw the opportunity and pleaded with Rodney to cut through the gap. "No," he replied, "I will not break my line." Douglas insisted. A moment later, as the Formidable came abreast of the opening, the opportunity proved too tempting and Rodney gave his consent. His battle signal, "engage the enemy to leeward," was still flying, but the Formidable luffed up and swung through the French line followed by five others. The ship immediately ahead of the Formidable also cut through a gap, and the sixth astern of the flagship went through as well, followed by the entire British rear. As each vessel pierced the broken line she delivered a terrible fire with both broadsides at close range.

The result of this maneuver was that the British fleet found itself to windward of the French in three groups, while the French ships were scattered to leeward and trying to escape before the wind, leaving three dismasted hulks between the lines. An isolated group of six ships in the center, including de Grasse's Ville de Paris, offered a target for attack, but the wind was light and Rodney indolent in pursuit. Of these, one small vessel was overhauled and the French flagship was taken after a heroic defense, that lasted until sunset, against overwhelming odds. De Grasse's efforts to reform his fleet after his line was broken had met with failure, for the van fled to the southwest and the rear to the northwest, apparently making little effort to succor their commander in chief or retrieve the fortunes of the day.

Rodney received a peerage for this day's work but he certainly did not make the most of his victory. Apparently content with the five prizes he had taken, together with the person of de Grasse, he allowed the bulk of the French fleet to escape when he had it in his power to capture practically all. On this point his subordinate, Hood, expressed himself with great emphasis:

"Why he (Rodney) should bring the fleet to because the Ville de Paris was taken, I cannot reconcile. He did not pursue under easy sail, so as never to have lost sight of the enemy, in the night, which would clearly and most undoubtedly have enabled him to have taken almost every ship the next day.... Had I had the honor of commanding his Majesty's noble fleet on the 12th, I may, without much imputation of vanity, say the flag of England should now have graced the sterns of upwards of twenty sail of the enemy's ships of the line."[1]

[Footnote 1: Quoted by Mahan, THE ROYAL NAVY (Clowes), Vol. III, p. 535.]

Sir Charles Douglas, who had been responsible for Rodney's breaking the line, warmly agreed with Hood's opinion on this point. Nevertheless, although the victory was not half of what it might have been in younger hands, it proved decisive enough to shatter the naval organization of the French in the West Indies. It stopped the projected campaign against Jamaica and served to write better terms for England in the peace treaty of January 20, 1783.

Tactically this battle has become famous for the maneuver of "breaking the line," contrary to the express stipulations of the Fighting Instructions. Certainly the move was not premeditated. Rodney may well be said to have been pushed into making it, and two of his captains made the same move on their own initiative. Indeed it is quite likely that, after the event, too much has been made of this as a piece of deliberate tactics, for the sudden shift of wind had paid off the bows of the French ships so that they were probably heading athwart the course of the British line, and the British move was obviously the only thing to do. But the lesson of the battle was clear,—the decisive effect of close fighting and concentrated fire. In the words of Hannay, "It marked the beginning of that fierce and headlong yet well calculated style of sea fighting which led to Trafalgar and made England undisputed mistress of the sea."[1] It marked, therefore, the end of the Fighting Instructions, which had deadened the spirit as well as the tactics of the British navy for over a hundred years.

[Footnote 1: Rodney (ENGLISH MEN OF ACTION SERIES), p. 213.]

The tactical value of "breaking the line" is well summarized by Mahan in the following passage:

"The effect of breaking an enemy's line, or order-of-battle, depends upon several conditions. The essential idea is to divide the opposing force by penetrating through an interval found, or made, in it, and then to concentrate upon that one of the fractions which can be least easily helped by the other. In a column of ships this will usually be the rear. The compactness of the order attacked, the number of the ships cut off, the length of time during which they can be isolated and outnumbered, will all affect the results. A very great factor in the issue will be the moral effect, the confusion introduced into a line thus broken. Ships coming up toward the break are stopped, the rear doubles up, while the ships ahead continue their course. Such a moment is critical, and calls for instant action; but the men are rare who in an unforeseen emergency can see, and at once take the right course, especially if, being subordinates, they incur responsibility. In such a scene of confusion the English, without presumption, hoped to profit by their better seamanship; for it is not only 'courage and devotion,' but skill, which then tells. All these effects of 'breaking the line' received illustration in Rodney's great battle in 1782."[1]


Before we leave the War of American Independence mention should be made of Commodore Suffren who, as we have seen, left de Grasse with five ships of the line to conduct a campaign in the Indian Ocean in the spring of 1781. His purpose was to shake the British hold on India, which had been fastened by the genius of Clive in the Seven Years' War. But the task given to Suffren was exceedingly difficult. His squadron was inadequate—for instance, he had only two frigates for scout and messenger duty—and he had no port that he could use as a base in Indian waters. To conduct any campaign at all he was compelled to live off his enemy and capture a base. These were risky prospects for naval operations several thousand miles from home, and for the faintest hope of success required an energy and initiative which had never before appeared in a French naval commander. In addition to these handicaps of circumstance Suffren soon discovered that he had to deal with incorrigible slackness and insubordination in his captains.

In spite of everything, however, Suffren achieved an amazing degree of success. He succeeded in living off the prizes taken from the British, and he took from them the port of Trincomalee for a base. He fought five battles off the coast of India against the British Vice Admiral Hughes, in only one of which was the latter the assailant, and in all of which Suffren bore off the honors. He was constantly hampered, however, by the inefficiency and insubordination of his captains. On four or five occasions, including an engagement at the Cape Verde Islands on his way to India, it was only this misconduct that saved the British from the crushing attack that Suffren had planned. Unfortunately for him his victories were barren of result, for the terms of peace gave nothing in India to the French which they had not possessed before. As Trincomalee had belonged to the Dutch before the British captured it, this port was turned back to Holland.

Nevertheless Suffren deserves to be remembered both for what he actually accomplished under grave difficulties and what he might have done had he been served by loyal and efficient subordinates. Among all the commanders of this war he stands preeminent for naval genius, and this eminence is all the more extraordinary when one realizes that his resourcefulness, tenacity, aggressiveness, his contempt of the formal, parade tactics of his day, were notoriously absent in the rest of the French service. Such was the admiration felt for him by his adversaries that after the end of the war, when the French squadron arrived at Cape Town on its way home and found the British squadron anchored there, all the British officers, from Hughes down, went aboard the French flagship to tender their homage.[1]

[Footnote 1: "If ever a man lived who justified Napoleon's maxim that war is an affair not of men but of a man, it was he. It was by his personal merit that his squadron came to the very verge of winning a triumphant success. That he failed was due to the fact that the French Navy... was honeycombed by the intellectual and moral vices which were bringing France to the great Revolution—corruption, self-seeking, acrid class insolence, and skinless, morbid vanity."—THE ROYAL NAVY, David Hannay, II, 287.]

Although the War of American Independence was unsuccessfully fought by Great Britain and she was compelled to recognize the independence of her rebellious colonies, she lost comparatively little else by the terms of peace. As we have seen, her hold in India was unchanged. The stubborn defense of Gibraltar throughout the war, aided by occasional timely relief by a British fleet, saved that stronghold for the English flag. To Spain England was forced to surrender Florida and Minorca. France got back all the West Indian islands she had lost, with the exception of Tobago, but gained nothing besides. The war therefore did not restore to France her colonial empire of former days or make any change in the relative overseas strength of the two nations. Despite the blunders of the war no rival sea power challenged that of Great Britain at the conclusion of peace.

Meanwhile, just before the war and during its early years, an English naval officer was laying the foundation for an enormous expansion of the British empire in the east. This was James Cook, a man who owed his commission in the navy and his subsequent fame to nothing in family or political influence, but to sheer genius. Of humble birth, he passed from the merchant service into the navy and rose by his extraordinary abilities to the rank of master. Later he was commissioned lieutenant and finally attained the rank of post captain.[1] Such rank was hardly adequate recognition of his great powers, but it was unusually high for a man who was not born a "gentleman."

[Footnote 1: Full captain's rank, held only by a captain in command of a vessel of at least 20 guns.]

At the end of the Seven Years' War he distinguished himself, by his work in surveying and sounding an the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, as a man of science. In consequence, he was detailed to undertake expeditions for observing the transit of Venus and for discovering the southern continent which was supposed to exist in the neighborhood of the Antarctic circle. In the course of this work Cook practically established the geography of the southern half of the globe as we know it to-day. And by his skill and study of the subject he conquered the great enemy of exploring expeditions, scurvy. Thirty years before, another British naval officer, Anson, had taken a squadron into the Pacific and lost about three-fourths of his men from this disease. When the war of the American Revolution broke out, Cook was abroad on one of his expeditions, but the French and American governments issued orders to their captains not to molest him on account of his great service to the cause of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately he was killed by savages at the Sandwich Islands in 1779.

The bearing of his work on the British empire lies chiefly in his careful survey of the east coast of Australia, which he laid claim to in the name of King George, and the circumnavigation of New Zealand, which later gave title to the British claim on those islands. Thus, while the American colonies in the west were winning their independence, another territory in the east, far more extensive, was being brought under British sway, destined in another century to become important dominions of the empire. The Dutch had a claim of priority in discovery through the early voyages of Tasman, but they attempted no colonization and Dutch sea power was too weak to make good a technical claim in the face of England's navy.

Finally, when the results of a century of wars between France and England are summarized, we find that France had lost all her great domain in America except a few small islands in the West Indies. In brief, it is due to British control of the sea during the 18th century that practically all of the continent north of the Rio Grande is English in speech, laws, and tradition.

This control of the sea exercised by England was not the gift of fortune. It was a prize gained, in the main, by wise policy in peace and hard fighting in war. France had the opportunity to wrest from England the control of the sea as England had won it from Holland, for France at the close of the 17th century dominated Europe. In population and in wealth she was superior to her rival. But the arrogance of her king kept her embroiled in futile wars on the Continent, with little energy left for the major issue, the conquest of the sea. Finally, when the war of American Independence left her a free hand to concentrate on her navy as against that of England, France lost through the fatal weakness of policy which corrupted all her officers with the single brilliant exception of Suffren. The French naval officer avoided battle on principle, and when he could not avoid it he accepted the defensive. To the credit of the English officer be it said that, as a rule, he sought the enemy and took the aggressive; he had the "fighting spirit." This difference between French and British commanders had as much to do with the ultimate triumph of England on the sea as anything else. It retrieved many a blunder in strategy and tactics by sheer hard hitting.

The history of the French navy points a moral applicable to any service and any time. When a navy encourages the idea that ships must not be risked, that a decisive battle must be avoided because of what might happen in case of defeat, it is headed for the same fate that overwhelmed the French.


INFLUENCE OF SEA POWER UPON HISTORY, A. T. Mahan, 1890. A SHORT HISTORY OF THE ROYAL NAVY, David Hannay, 1909. THE ROYAL NAVY (vols. II, III), W. L. Clowes et al., 1903. ADMIRAL BLAKE, English Men of Action Series, David Hannay, 1909. RODNEY, English Men of Action Series, David Hannay, 1891. MONK, English Men of Action Series, Julian Corbett, 1907. ENGLAND IN THE SEVEN YEARS' WAR, J. S. Corbett, 1907. THE GRAVES PAPERS, F. E. Chadwick, 1916. STUDIES IN NAVAL HISTORY, BIOGRAPHIES, J. K. Laughton, 1887. FROM HOWARD TO NELSON, ed. by J. K. Laughton, 1899. MAJOR OPERATIONS IN THE WAR OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, A. T. Mahan, 1913. SEA KINGS OF BRITAIN, Geoffrey Callender, 1915.



Ten years after the War of American Independence, British sea power was drawn into a more prolonged and desperate conflict with France. This time it was with a France whose navy, demoralized by revolution, was less able to dispute sea control, but whose armies, organized into an aggressive, empire-building force by the genius of Napoleon, threatened to dominate Europe, shaking the old monarchies with dangerous radical doctrines, and bringing all Continental nations into the conflict either as enemies or as allies. The dismissal of the French envoy from England immediately after the execution of Louis XVI (Jan. 21, 1793) led the French Republic a week later to a declaration of war, which continued with but a single intermission—from October, 1801, to May, 1803—through the next 22 years.

The magnitude of events on land in this period, during which French armies fought a hundred bloody campaigns, overthrew kingdoms, and remade the map of Europe, obscures the importance of the warfare on the sea. Yet it was Great Britain by virtue of her navy and insular position that remained Napoleon's least vulnerable and most obstinate opponent, forcing him to ever renewed and exhausting campaigns, reviving continental opposition, and supporting it with subsidies made possible by control of sea trade. In Napoleon's own words the effect of this pressure is well summarized: "To live without ships, without trade, without colonies, is to live as no Frenchman can consent to do." The Egyptian campaign, conceived as a thrust at British sources of wealth in the East, and defeated at the Nile; the organization of the northern neutrals against England, overthrown at Copenhagen; the direct invasion of the British Isles, repeatedly planned and thwarted at St. Vincent, Camperdown, and Trafalgar; the final and most nearly successful effort to ruin England by closing her continental markets and thus, in Napoleon's phrase, "defeating the sea by the land"—these were the successive measures by which he sought to shake the grip of sea power.

The following narrative of these events is in three divisions: the first dealing with the earlier engagements of the First of June and Camperdown, fought by squadrons based on home ports; the second with the war in the Mediterranean and the rise of Nelson as seen in the campaigns of St. Vincent, the Nile, and Copenhagen; the third with the Trafalgar campaign and the commercial struggle to which the naval side of the war was later confined. The career of Nelson is given an emphasis justified by his primacy among naval leaders and the value of his example for later times.

The effect of land events in obscuring the naval side of the war, already mentioned, is explained not merely by their magnitude, but by the fact that, though Great Britain was more than once brought to the verge of ruin, this was a consequence not of the enemy's power on the sea, but of his victories on land. Furthermore, the slow process which ended in the downfall of Napoleon and the reduction of France to her old frontiers was accomplished, not so conspicuously by the economic pressure of sea power, as by the efforts of armies on battlefields from Russia to Spain. On the sea British supremacy was more firmly established, and the capacities of France and her allies were far less, than in preceding conflicts of the century.

The French Navy Demoralized

The explanation of this weakness of the French navy involves an interesting but somewhat perplexing study of the influences which make for naval growth or decay. That its ineffectiveness was due largely to an inferior national instinct or genius for sea warfare, as compared with England, is discredited by the fact that the disparity was less obvious in previous wars; for, as Lord Clowes has insisted, England won no decisive naval victory against superior forces from the second Dutch War to the time of Nelson. The familiar theory that democracy ruined the French navy will be accepted nowadays only with some qualifications, especially when it is remembered that French troops equally affected by the downfall of caste rule were steadily defeating the armies of monarchical powers. It is true, however, that navies, as compared with armies, are more complicated and more easily disorganized machines, and that it would have taxed even Napoleonic genius to reorganize the French navy after the neglect, mutiny, and wholesale sweeping out of trained personnel to which it was subjected in the first furies of revolution. Whatever the merits of the officers of the old regime, selected as they were wholly from the aristocracy and dominated by the defensive policy of the French service, three-fourths of them were driven out by 1791, and replaced by officers from the merchant service, from subordinate ratings, and from the crews. Suspicion of aristocracy was accompanied in the navy by a more fatal suspicion of skill. In January, 1794, the regiments of marine infantry and artillery, as well as the corps of seamen-gunners, were abolished on the ground that no body of men should have "the exclusive privilege of fighting the enemy at sea," and their places were filled by battalions of the national guard. Figures show that as a result, French gunnery was far less efficient than in the preceding war.

The strong forces that restored discipline in the army had more difficulty in reaching the navy; and Napoleon's gift for discovering ability and lifting it to command was marked by its absence in his choice of leaders for the fleets. Usually he fell back on pessimistic veterans of the old regime like Brueys, Missiessy, and Villeneuve. An exception, Allemand, showed by his cruise out of Rochefort in 1805 what youth, energy, and daring could accomplish even with inferior means. Considering the importance of leadership as a factor in success, we may well believe that, had a French Nelson, or even a Suffren, been discovered in this epoch, history would tell a different tale. If further reasons for the decadence of the navy are needed, they may be found in the extreme difficulty of securing naval stores and timber from the Baltic, and in the fact that, though France had nearly three times the population of the British Isles, her wealth, man-power, and genius were absorbed in the war on land.

Aside from repulsion at the violence of the French revolution and fear of its contagion, England had a concrete motive for war in the French occupation of the Austrian Netherlands and the Scheldt, the possession of which by an ambitious maritime nation England has always regarded as a menace to her safety and commercial prosperity. "This government," declared the British Ministry in December, 1792, "will never view with indifference that France shall make herself, directly or indirectly, sovereign of the Low Countries or general arbitress of the rights and liberties of Europe."

In prosecuting the war, Great Britain fought chiefly with her main weapon, the navy, leaving the land war to her allies. A contemporary critic remarked that she "worked with her navy and played with her army"; though the latter did useful service in colonial conquests and in Egypt, the two expeditionary forces to the Low Countries in 1793 and 1799 were ill-managed and ineffective. The tasks of the fleet were to guard the British Isles from raids and invasion, to protect British commerce in all parts of the world, and, on the offensive, to seize enemy colonies, cut off enemy trade, and cooperate in the Mediterranean with allied armies. To accomplish these aims, which called for a wide dispersion of forces, the British naval superiority over France was barely adequate. According to the contemporary naval historian James, the strength of the two fleets at the outbreak of war was as follows:

Ships of the Aggregate line Guns broadsides ———————————————————————— British 115 8,718 88,957 French 76 6,002 73,057

Of her main fighting units, the ships-of-the-line, England could put into commission about 85, which as soon as possible were distributed in three main spheres of operation: in the Mediterranean and its western approaches, from 20 to 25; in the West Indies, from 10 to 12; in home waters, from the North Sea to Cape Finisterre, from 20 to 25, with a reserve of some 25 more in the home bases on the Channel. Though this distribution was naturally altered from time to time to meet changes in the situation, it gives at least an idea of the general disposition of the British forces throughout the war. France, with no suitable bases in the Channel, divided her fleet between the two main arsenals at Brest and Toulon, with minor squadrons at Rochefort and, during the Spanish alliance, in the ports of Spain.

Distant Operations

In the West Indies and other distant waters, France could offer but little effective resistance, and operations there may hence be dismissed briefly, but with emphasis on the benefit which naval control conferred upon British trade, the main guaranty of England's financial stability and power to keep up the war. Fully one-fifth of this trade was with the West Indies. Consequently, both to swell the volume of British commerce and protect it from privateering, the seizure of the French West Indian colonies—"filching the sugar islands," as Sheridan called it—was a very justifiable war measure, in spite of the scattering of forces involved. Hayti was lost to France as a result of the negro uprising under Toussaint l'Ouverture. Practically all the French Antilles changed hands twice in 1794, the failure of the British to hold them arising from a combination of yellow fever, inadequate forces of occupation, and lax blockade methods on the French coast, which permitted heavy reenforcements to leave France. General Abercromby, with 17,000 men, finally took all but Guadaloupe in the next year. As Holland, Spain, and other nations came under French control, England seized their colonies likewise—the Dutch settlements at the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon in 1795; the Moluccas and other Dutch islands in the East Indies in 1796; Trinidad (Spanish) in 1797; Curacao (Dutch) in 1800; and the Swedish and Danish West Indies in 1801. By the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 all these except Trinidad and Ceylon were given back, and had to be retaken in the later period of the war, Guadaloupe remaining a privateers' nest until its final capture in 1810. Though French trade was ruined, it was impossible to stamp out privateering, which grew with the growth of British commerce which it preyed upon, and the extent of which is indicated by the estimate that in 1807 there were from 200 to 300 privateers on the coasts of Cuba and Hayti alone. As for the captured islands, Great Britain in 1815 retained only Malta, Heligoland, and the Ionian Islands in European waters; Cape Colony, Mauritius, and Ceylon on the route to the East; and in the Caribbean, Demerara on the coast, Santa Lucia, Trinidad, and Tobago—some of them of little intrinsic value, but all useful outposts for an empire of the seas.

In the Channel and Bay of Biscay, the first year of war passed quietly. Lord Howe, commanding the British Channel fleet, had behind him a long, fine record as a disciplinarian and tactician; he had fought with Hawke at Quiberon Bay, protected New York and Rhode Island against d'Estaing in 1778, and later thrown relief into Gibraltar in the face of superior force. Now 68 years of age, he inclined to cautious, old-school methods, such as indeed marked activities on both land and sea at this time, before Napoleon had injected a new desperateness into war. Both before and after the "Glorious First of June" the watch on the French coast was merely nominal; small detachments were kept off Brest, but the main fleet rested in Portsmouth throughout the winter and took only occasional cruises during the remainder of the year.

The Battle of the First of June

Though there had been no real blockade, the interruption of her commerce, the closure of her land frontiers, and the bad harvest of 1793, combined to bring France in the spring following to the verge of famine, and forced her to risk her fleet in an effort to import supplies from overseas. On April 11 an immense flotilla of 120 grain vessels sailed from the Chesapeake under the escort of two ships-of-the-line, which were to be strengthened by the entire Brest fleet at a rendezvous 300 miles west of Belleisle. Foodstuffs having already been declared subject to seizure by both belligerents, Howe was out on May 2 to intercept the convoy. A big British merchant fleet also put to sea with him, to protect which he had to detach 8 of his 34 ships, but with orders to 6 of these that they should rejoin his force on the 20th off Ushant. Looking into Brest on the 19th, Howe found the French battle fleet already at sea. Not waiting for the detachment, and thus losing its help in the battle that was to follow, he at once turned westward and began sweeping with his entire fleet the waters in which the convoy was expected to appear.

The French with 26 ships-of-the-line—and thus precisely equal to Howe in numbers—had left Brest two days before. The crews were largely landsmen; of the flag officers and captains, not one had been above the grade of lieutenant three years before, and nine of them had been merchant skippers with no naval experience whatever. On board were two delegates of the National Convention, whose double duties seem to have been to watch the officers and help them command. To take the place of experience there was revolutionary fervor, evidenced in the change of ship-names to such resounding appellations as La Montagne, Patriote, Vengeur du Peuple, Tyrannicide, and Revolutionnaire. There was also more confidence than was ever felt again by French sailors during the war. "Intentionally disregarding subtle evolutions," said the delegate Jean Bon Saint Andree, "perhaps our sailors will think it more appropriate and effective to resort to the boarding tactics in which the French were always victorious, and thus astonish the world by new prodigies of valor." "If they had added to their courage a little training," said the same commissioner after the battle, "the day might have been ours."

The commander in chief, Villaret de Joyeuse, who had won his lieutenancy and the esteem of Suffren in the American war, was no such scorner of wary tactics. Thus when the two fleets, more by accident than calculation on either side, came in contact on the morning of May 28, 1794, about 400 miles west of Ushant, it would have been quite possible for him to have closed with the British, who were 10 miles to leeward in a fresh southerly wind. But his orders were not to fight unless it were essential to protect the convoy, and since this was thought to be close at hand, he first drew away to the eastward, with the British in pursuit.

The chase continued during the remainder of this day and the day following, with partial engagements and complicated maneuvering, the net result of which was that in the end Howe, in spite of the superior sailing qualities of the French ships, had kept in touch with them, driven his own vessels through their line to a windward position, and forced the withdrawal of four units, with the loss of but one of his own. Two days of thick weather followed, during which both fleets stood to the northwest in the same relative positions, the French, very fortunately indeed, securing a reenforcement of four fresh ships from detachments earlier at sea.

Now 26 French to 25 British, the two fleets on the morning of the final engagement were moving to westward on the still southerly wind, in two long, roughly parallel lines. Confident of the individual superiority of his ships, the British admiral had no wish for further maneuvering, in which his own captains had shown themselves none too reliable and the enemy commander not unskilled. Possibly also he feared the confusion of a complicated plan, for it was notorious (as may be verified by looking over his correspondence) that Howe had the greatest difficulty in making himself intelligible with tongue or pen. His orders were therefore to bear up together toward the enemy and attack ship to ship, without effort at concentration, and with but one noteworthy departure from the time-honored tactics in which he had been schooled. This was that the battle should be close and decisive. The instructions were that each ship should if possible break through the line astern of her chosen opponent, raking the ships on each side as she went through, and continue the action to leeward, in position to cut off retreat. "I don't want the ships to be bilge to bilge," said Howe to the officers of his flagship, the Queen Charlotte, "but if you can lock the yardarms, so much the better; the battle will be the quicker decided." The approach was leisurely, nearly in line abreast, on a course slightly diagonal to that of the enemy. At 10 A. M. the Queen Charlotte, in the center of the British line, shoved past just under the stern of Villaret's flagship, the Montagne, raking her with a terrible broadside which is said to have struck down 300 of her men. As was likely to result from the plan of attack, the ships in the van of the attacking force were more closely and promptly engaged than those of the rear; only six ships actually broke through, but there was hot fighting all along the line.

Famous among the struggles in the melee was the epic three-hour combat of the Brunswick, next astern of Howe, and the Vengeur, both 74's. With the British vessel's anchors hooked in her opponent's port forechannels, the two drifted away to leeward, the Brunswick by virtue of flexible rammers alone able to use her lower deck guns, which were given alternately extreme elevation and depression and sent shot tearing through the Vengeur's deck and hull; whereas the Vengeur, with a superior fire of carronades and musketry, swept the enemy's upper deck. When the antagonists wrenched apart, the Brunswick had lost 158 of her complement of 600 men. The Vengeur was slowly sinking and went down at 6 P. M., with a loss of 250 killed and wounded and 100 more drowned. "As we drew away," wrote a survivor, "we heard some of our comrades still offering prayers for the welfare of their country; the last cries of these unfortunates were, 'Vive la Republique!' They died uttering them."

Out of the confusion, an hour after the battle had begun, Villaret was able to form a column of 16 ships to leeward, and though ten of his vessels lay helpless between the lines, three drifted or were towed down to him and escaped. Howe has been sharply criticized for letting these cripples get away; but the battered condition of his fleet and his own complete physical exhaustion led him to rest content with six prizes aside from the sunken Vengeur. The criticism has also been made that he should have further exerted himself to secure a junction with the detachment on convoy duty, which on May 19 was returning and not far away. If he had at that time held his 32 ships between Brest and Rochefort, with scouts well distributed to westward, he would have been much more certain to intercept both Villaret's fleet and the convoy, which would have approached in company, and both of which, with the British searching in a body at sea, stood a good chance of escape. Howe's hope, no doubt, was to meet the convoy unguarded. The latter, protected by fog, actually crossed on May 30 the waters fought over on the 29th, and twelve days later safely reached the French coast. Robespierre had told Villaret that if the convoy were captured he should answer for it with his life. Hence the French admiral declared years later that the loss of his battleships troubled him relatively little. "While Howe amused himself refitting them, I saved the convoy, and I saved my head."

Though the escape of the convoy enabled the French to boast a "strategic victory," the First of June in reality established British prestige and proved a crushing blow to French morale. A British defeat, on the other hand, might have brought serious consequences, for within a year's time the Allied armies, including the British under the Duke of York, were driven out of Holland, the Batavian Republic was established in league with France (February, 1795), and both Spain and Prussia backed out of the war. Austria remained England's only active ally.

During the remainder of 1794 and the year following only minor or indecisive encounters occurred in the northern theater of war, lack of funds and naval supplies hampering the recovery of the French fleet from the injuries inflicted by Howe. Ill health forcing the latter's retirement from sea duty, he was succeeded in the Channel by Lord Bridport, who continued his predecessor's easy-going methods until the advent of Jervis in 1798, instituted a more rigorous regime. It was not yet recognized that the wear and tear on ships and crews during sea duty was less serious than the injurious effect of long stays in port upon sea spirit and morale.

French Projects of Invasion

With their fleets passive, the French resorted vigorously to commerce warfare, and at the same time kept England constantly perturbed by rumors, grandiose plans, and actual undertakings of invasion. That these earlier efforts failed was due as much to ill luck and bad management as to the work of Bridport's fleet. Intended, moreover, primarily as diversions to keep England occupied at home and sicken her of the war, they did not altogether fail of their aim. Some of these projects verged on the ludicrous, as that of corraling a band of the criminals and royalist outlaws that infested France and dropping them on the English coast for a wild campaign of murder and pillage. Fifteen hundred of these Chouans were actually landed at Fishguard in February of 1798, but promptly surrendered, and France had to give good English prisoners in exchange for them on the threat that they would be turned loose again on French soil.

Much more serious was General Hoche's expedition to Ireland of the winter before. Though Hoche wished to use for the purpose the army of over 100,000 with which he had subdued revolt in the Vendee, the Government was willing to venture a force of only 15,000, which set sail from Brest, December 15, 1796, in 17 ships-of-the-line, together with a large number of smaller war-vessels and transports. Heavy weather and bad leadership, helped along by British frigates with false signals, scattered the fleet on the first night out. It never again got together; and though a squadron with 6,000 soldiers on board was actually for a week or more in the destination, Bantry Bay, not a man was landed, and by the middle of January nearly all of the flotilla was back in France. The British squadron under Colport, which had been on the French coast at the time of the departure, had in the meanwhile been obliged to make port for supplies. Bridport with the main fleet left Portsmouth, 250 miles from the scene of operations, four days after news of the French departure. During the whole affair neither he nor Colport took a single prize.

Even so small a force cooperating with rebellion in Ireland might have proved a serious annoyance, though not a grave danger. Invasion on a grand scale, which Napoleon's victorious campaign in Italy and the peace with Austria (preliminaries at Loeben, April, 1797) now made possible, was effectually forestalled by two decisive victories at sea. Bonaparte, who was to lead the invasion, did not minimize its difficulties. "To make a descent upon England without being master of the sea," he wrote at this time, "is the boldest and most difficult operation ever attempted." Yet the flotilla of small craft necessary was collected, army forces were designated, and in February of 1798 Bonaparte was at Dunkirk. All this served no doubt to screen the Egyptian preparations, which amid profound secrecy were already under way. The Egyptian campaign was an indirect blow at England; but the direct blow would certainly have been struck had not the naval engagements of Cape St. Vincent (February, 1797) and Camperdown (October, 1797) settled the question of mastery of the sea by removing the naval support of Spain and Holland on the right and left wings.

The Battle of Camperdown

Admiral Duncan's victory of Camperdown, here taken first as part of the events in northern waters, is noteworthy in that it was achieved not only against ever-dangerous opponents, but with a squadron which during the preceding May and June had been in the very midst of the most serious mutiny in the history of the British navy. In Bridport's fleet at Portsmouth this was not so much a mutiny as a well organized strike, the sailors it is true taking full control of the ships, and forcing the Admiralty and Parliament to grant their well justified demands for better treatment and better pay. Possibly a secret sympathy with their grievances explains the apparent helplessness of the officers. The men on their part went about the business quietly, and even rated some of their former officers as midshipmen, in special token of esteem. At the Nore, however, and in Duncan's squadron at Yarmouth, the mutiny was marked by bloodshed and taint of disloyalty, little surprising in view of the disaffected Irish, ex-criminals, impressed merchant sailors, and other unruly elements in the crews. In the end 18 men were put to death and many others sentenced.

Duncan faced the trouble with the courage but not the mingling of fair treatment and sharp justice which marked its suppression by that great master of discipline, Jervis, in the fleet off Spain. On his own ship and another, Duncan drew up the loyal marines under arms, spoke to the sailors, and won their allegiance, picking one troublesome spirit up bodily and shaking him over the side. But the rest of the squadron suddenly sailed off two days later to join the mutineers at the Nore, where all the ships were then in the hands of the crews. With his two faithful ships, Duncan made for the Texel, swearing that if the Dutch came out he would go down with colors flying. Fortunately he was rejoined before that event by the rest of his squadron, the mutinous ships having been either retaken by the officers or voluntarily surrendered by the men.

The whole affair, among the ships in Thames mouth, was over in a month's time, from mid-May to mid-June, so quickly that the enemy had little chance to seize the advantage. The Dutch, driven willy-nilly into alliance with France and not too eager to embark upon desperate adventures in the new cause, were nevertheless not restrained from action by any kind feeling for England, who had seized their ships and colonies and ruined their trade. When at last, during a brief withdrawal of Duncan, their fleet under Admiral de Winter attempted a cruise, it was in a run-down condition. Aside from small units, it consisted of 15 ships (4 of 74 guns, 5 of 68, 2 of 64, and 4 under 60), against Duncan's stronger force of 16 (7 of 74, 7 of 64 and 2 of 50). The Dutch ships were flat-bottomed and light-draft for navigation in their shallow coastal waters, and generally inferior to British vessels of similar rating, even though the latter were left-overs from the Channel Fleet.

On the morning of the Battle of Camperdown, October 11, 1797, the Dutch were streaming along their coast on a northwest wind bent on return into the Texel. Pressing forward in pursuit, Duncan when in striking distance determined to prevent the enemy's escape into shallow water by breaking through their line and attacking to leeward. The signal to this effect, however, was soon changed to "Close action," and only the two leading ships eventually broke through. The two British divisions—for they were still in cruising formation and strung out by the pursuit—came down before the wind. Onslow, the second in command, in the Monarch, struck the line first at 12:30 and engaged the Dutch Jupiter, fourth from the rear. Eighteen minutes later Duncan in the Venerable closed similarly to leeward of the Staten Generaal, and afterward the Vrijheid, in the Dutch van.

The two leaders were soon supported—though there was straggling on both sides; and the battle that ensued was the bloodiest and fiercest of this period of the war. The British lost 825 out of a total of 8221 officers and men,[1] more than half the loss occurring in the first four ships in action. The British ships were also severely injured by the gruelling broadsides during the onset, but finally took 11 prizes, all of them injured beyond repair. Though less carefully thought out and executed, the plan of the attack closely resembles that of Nelson at Trafalgar. The head-on approach seems not to have involved fatal risks against even such redoubtable opponents as the Dutch, and it insured decisive results.

[Footnote 1: As compared with this loss of 10%, the casualties in Nelson's three chief battles were as follows: Nile, 896 out of 7401, or 12.1%; Copenhagen, 941 out of 6892, or 13.75%; Trafalgar, 1690 out of 17,256, or 9.73%.]

Duncan's otherwise undistinguished career, and the somewhat unstudied methods of his one victory, may explain why he has not attained the fame which the energy displayed and results achieved would seem to deserve. "He was a valiant officer," writes his contemporary Jervis, "little versed in subtleties of tactics, by which he would have been quickly confused. When he saw the enemy, he ran down upon them, without thinking of a fixed order of battle. To conquer, he counted on the bold example he gave his captains, and the event completely justified his hopes."

Whatever its tactical merits, the battle had the important strategic effect of putting the Dutch out of the war. The remnants of their fleet were destroyed in harbor during an otherwise profitless expedition into Holland led by the Duke of York in 1799. By this time, when naval requirements and expanding trade had exhausted England's supply of seamen, and forced her to relax her navigation laws, it is estimated that no less than 20,000 Dutch sailors had left their own idle ships and were serving on British traders and men-of-war.[1]

[Footnote 1: For references, see end of Chapter XIII, page 285.]



In the Mediterranean, where the protection of commerce, the fate of Italy and all southern Europe, and the exposed interests of France gave abundant motives for the presence of a British fleet, the course of naval events may be sufficiently indicated by following the work of Nelson, who came thither in 1793 in command of the Agamemnon (64) and remained until the withdrawal of the fleet at the close of 1796. Already marked within the service, in the words of his senior, Hood, as "an officer to be consulted on questions relative to naval tactics," Nelson was no doubt also marked as possessed of an uncomfortable activity and independence of mind. Singled out nevertheless for responsible detached service, he took a prominent part in the occupation of Corsica, where at the siege of Calvi he lost the sight of his right eye, and later commanded a small squadron supporting the left flank of the Austrian army on the Riviera.

In these latter operations, during 1795 and 1796, Nelson felt that much more might have been done. The Corniche coast route into Italy, the only one at first open to the French, was exposed at many points to fire from ships at sea, and much of the French army supplies as well as their heavy artillery had to be transported in boats along the coast. "The British fleet could have prevented the invasion of Italy," wrote Nelson five years later, "if our friend Hotham [who had succeeded Hood as commander in chief in the Mediterranean] had kept his fleet on that coast."[1] Hotham felt, perhaps rightly, that the necessity of watching the French ships at Toulon made this impossible. But had the Toulon fleet been destroyed or effectually crippled at either of the two opportunities which offered in 1795, no such need would have existed; the British fleet would have dominated the Mediterranean, and exercised a controlling influence on the wavering sympathies of the Italian states and Spain. At the first of these opportunities, on the 13th and 14th of March, Hotham said they had done well enough in capturing two French ships-of-the-line. "Now," remarked Nelson, whose aggressive pursuit had led to the capture, "had we taken 10 sail and allowed the 11th to escape, when it had been possible to have got at her, I should not have called it well done." And again of the second encounter: "To say how much we wanted Lord Hood on the 13th of July, is to say, 'Will you have all the French fleet, or no action?'" History, and especially naval history, is full of might-have-beens. Aggressive action establishing naval predominance might have prevented Napoleon's brilliant invasion and conquest of Italy; Spain would then have steered clear of the French alliance; and the Egyptian campaign would have been impossible.

[Footnote 1: DISPATCHES, June 6, 1800.]

The succession of Sir John Jervis to the Mediterranean command in November, 1795, instituted at once a new order of things, in which inspiring leadership, strict discipline, and closest attention to the health of crews, up-keep vessels, and every detail of ship and fleet organization soon brought the naval forces under him to what has been judged the highest efficiency attained by any fleet during the war. Jervis had able subordinates—Nelson, Collingwood and Troubridge, to carry the list no further; but he may claim a kind of paternal share in molding the military character of these men.

Between Jervis and Nelson in particular there existed ever the warmest mutual confidence and admiration. Yet the contrast between them well illustrates the difference between all-round professional and administrative ability, possessed in high degree by the older leader, and supreme fighting genius, which, in spite of mental and moral qualities far inferior, has rightly won Nelson a more lasting fame. As a member of parliament before the war, as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1801 to 1803, and indeed in his sea commands, Jervis displayed a breadth of judgment, a knowledge of the world, a mastery of details of administration, to which Nelson could not pretend. In the organization of the Toulon and the Brest blockades, and in the suppression of mutiny in 1797, Jervis better than Nelson illustrates conventional ideals of military discipline. When appointed to the Channel command in 1799 he at once adopted the system of keeping the bulk of the fleet constantly on the enemy coast "well within Ushant with an easterly wind." Captains were to be on deck when ships came about at whatever hour. In port there were no night boats and no night leave for officers. To one officer who ventured a protest Jervis wrote that he "ought not to delay one day his intention to retire." "May the discipline of the Mediterranean never be introduced in the Channel," was a toast on Jervis's appointment to the latter squadron. "May his next glass of wine choke the wretch," was the wish of an indignant officer's wife. Jervis may have been a martinet, but it was he, more than any other officer, who instilled into the British navy the spirit of war.

In the Mediterranean, however, he arrived too late. There, as in the Atlantic, the French Directory after the experiments of 1794 and 1795 had now abandoned the idea of risking their battleships; and while these still served effectively in port as a fleet in being, their crews were turned to commerce warfare or transport flotilla work for the army. Bonaparte's ragged heroes were driving the Austrians out of Italy. Sardinia made peace in May of 1796. Spain closed an offensive and defensive alliance with the French Republic in August, putting a fleet of 50 of the line (at least on paper) on Jervis's communications and making further tenure of the Mediterranean a dangerous business. By October, 26 Spanish ships had joined the 12 French then at Toulon. Even so, Jervis with his force of 22 might have hazarded action, if his subordinate Mann, with a detached squadron of 7 of these, had not fled to England. Assigning to Nelson the task of evacuating Corsica and later Elba, Jervis now took station outside the straits, where on February 13, 1797, Nelson rejoined his chief, whose strength still consisted of 15 of the line.

The Battle of Cape St. Vincent

The Spanish fleet, now 27, was at this time returning to Cadiz, as a first step toward a grand naval concentration in the north. A stiff Levanter having thrown the Spanish far beyond their destination, they were returning eastward when on February 14, 1797, the two fleets came in contact within sight of Cape St. Vincent. In view of the existing political situation, and the known inefficiency of the Spanish in sea fighting, Jervis decided to attack. "A victory," he is said to have remarked, "is very essential to England at this hour."

As a fresh westerly wind blew away the morning fog, the Spanish were fully revealed to southward, running before the wind, badly scattered, with 7 ships far in advance and thus to leeward of the rest. After some preliminary pursuit, the British formed in a single column (Troubridge in the Culloden first, the flagship Victory seventh, and Nelson in the Captain third from the rear), and took a southerly course which would carry them between the two enemy groups. As soon as they found themselves thus separated, the Spanish weather division hauled their wind, opened fire, and ran to northward along the weather side of the British line; while the lee division at first also turned northward and made some effort to unite with the rest of their company by breaking through the enemy formation, but were thrown back by a heavy broadside from the Victory. Having accomplished his first purpose, Jervis had already, at about noon, hoisted the signal to "tack in succession," which meant that each ship should continue her course to the point where the Culloden came about and then follow her in pursuit of the enemy weather division. This critical and much discussed maneuver appears entirely justified. The British by tacking in succession kept their column still between the parts of the enemy, its rear covering the enemy lee division, and the whole formation still in perfect order and control, as it would not have been had the ships tacked simultaneously. Again, if the attack had been made on the small group to leeward, the Spanish weather division could easily have run down into the action and thus brought their full strength to bear.

But against an enemy so superior in numbers more was needed to keep the situation in hand. Shortly before one o'clock, when several British vessels had already filled away on the new course, Nelson from his position well back in the column saw that the leading ships of the main enemy division were swinging off to eastward as if to escape around the British rear. Eager to get into the fighting, of which his present course gave little promise, and without waiting for orders, he wore out of the column, passed between the two ships next astern, and threw himself directly upon the three big three-deckers, including the flagship Santisima Trindad (130 guns), which headed the enemy line. Before the fighting was over, his ship was badly battered, "her foretopmast and wheel shot away, and not a sail, shroud or rope left";[1] but the Culloden and other van ships soon came up, and also Collingwood in the Excellent from the rear, after orders from Jervis for which Nelson had not waited. Out of the melee the British emerged with four prizes, Nelson himself having boarded the San Nicolas (80), cleared her decks, and with reenforcements from his own ship passed across her to receive the surrender of the San Josef (112). The swords of the vanquished Spanish, Nelson says, "I gave to William Fearney, one of my bargemen, who placed them with the greatest sangfroid under his arm."

[Footnote 1: Nelson's DISPATCHES, Vol. II, p. 345.]

For Nelson's initiative (which is the word for such actions when they end well) Jervis had only the warmest praise, and when his fleet captain, Calder, ventured a comment on the breach of orders, Jervis gave the tart answer, "Ay, and if ever you offend in the same way I promise you a forgiveness beforehand." Jervis was made Earl St. Vincent, and Nelson, who never hid his light under a bushel, shared at least in popular acclaim. It was not indeed a sweeping victory, and there is little doubt that had the British admiral so chosen, he might have done much more. But enough had been accomplished to discourage Spanish naval activities in the French cause for a long time to come. They were hopelessly outclassed; but in their favor it should be borne in mind that their ships were miserably manned, the crews consisting of ignorant peasants of whom it is reported that they said prayers before going aloft, and with whom their best admiral, Mazzaredo, had refused to sail. Moreover, they were fighting half-heartedly, lacking the inspiration of a great national cause, without which victories are rarely won.

The defeat of the Spanish, as Jervis had foreseen, was timely. Mantua had just capitulated; British efforts to secure an honorable peace had failed; consols were at 51, and specie payments stopped by the Bank of England; Austria was on the verge of separate negotiations, the preliminaries of which were signed at Loeben on April 18; France, in the words of Bonaparte, could now "turn all her forces against England and oblige her to a prompt peace."[1] The news of St. Vincent was thus a ray of light on a very dark horizon. Its strategic value, along with the Battle of Camperdown, has already been made clear.

[Footnote 1: CORRESPONDENCE, III, 346.]

The British fleet, after refitting at Lisbon, took up a blockade of the Spanish at Cadiz which continued through the next two years. Discontent and mutiny, which threatened with each fresh ship from home, was guarded against by strict discipline, careful attention to health and diet, and by minor enterprises which served as diversions, such as the bombardment of Cadiz and the unsuccessful attack on Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands, July 24-25, 1797, in which Nelson lost his right arm.

The Battle of the Nile

Nelson's return to the Cadiz blockade in May, 1798, after months of suffering in England, was coincident with the gathering of a fresh storm cloud in the Mediterranean, though the direction in which it threatened was still completely concealed. While Sicily, Greece, Portugal and even Ireland were mentioned by the British Admiralty as possible French objectives, Egypt was apparently not thought of. Yet its strategic position between three continents remained as important as in centuries past, controlling the trade of the Levant and threatening India by land or sea. "The time is not far distant," Bonaparte had already written, "when we shall feel that truly to destroy England we must take possession of Egypt." In point of fact the strength of England rested not merely on the wealth of the Indies, but on her merchant fleets, naval control, home products and manufactures, in short her whole industrial and commercial development, too strong to be struck down by a blow in this remote field. Still, if the continued absence of a British fleet from the Mediterranean could be counted on, the Egyptian campaign was the most effective move against her that offered at the time. It was well that the British Admiralty rose to the danger. Jervis, though he pointed out the risks involved, was directed to send Nelson with an advance squadron of 3 ships, later strengthened to 14, to watch the concentration of land and naval forces at Toulon. "The appearance of a British fleet in the Mediterranean," wrote the First Lord, Spencer, in urging the move, "is a condition on which the fate of Europe may be stated to depend."

Before a strong northwest wind the French armada on May 19 left Toulon—13 of the line, 13 smaller vessels, and a fleet of transports which when joined by contingents from Genoa, Corsica, and Civita Vecchia brought the total to 400 sail, crowded with over 30,000 troops. Of the fighting fleet there is the usual tale of ships carelessly fitted out, one-third short-handed, and supplied with but two months' food—a tale which simply points the truth that the winning of naval campaigns begins months or years before.

The gale from which the French found shelter under Sardinia and Corsica fell later with full force on Nelson to the westward of the islands. His flagship the Vanguard lost her foremast and remaining topmasts, while at the same time his four frigates, so essential in the search that followed, were scattered and failed to rejoin. Having by extraordinary exertions refitted in Sardinia in the short space of four days, he was soon again off Toulon, but did not learn of the enemy's departure until May 31, and even then he got no clue as to where they had gone. Here he was joined on June 7 by the promised reenforcements, bringing his squadron to 13 74's and the Leander of 50 guns.

The ensuing search continued for two months, until August 1, the date of the Battle of the Nile. During this period, Nelson appears to best advantage; in the words of David Hannay, he was an "embodied flame of resolution, with none of the vulgar bluster that was to appear later."

Moving slowly southward, the French flotilla had spent ten days in the occupation of Malta—the surrender of which was chiefly due to French influence among the Knights of St. John who held the island—and departed on June 19 for their destination, following a circuitous route along the south side of Crete and thence to the African coast 70 miles west of Alexandria.

Learning off Cape Passaro on the 22d of the enemy's departure from Malta, Nelson made direct for Alexandria under fair wind and press of sail. He reached the port two days ahead of Bonaparte, and finding it empty, at once set out to retrace his course, his impetuous energy betraying him into what was undoubtedly a hasty move. The two fleets had been but 60 miles apart on the night of the 25th. Had they met, though Bonaparte had done his utmost by organization and drill to prepare for such an emergency, a French disaster would have been almost inevitable, and Napoleon, in the amusingly partisan words of Nelson's biographer Southey, "would have escaped those later crimes that have incarnadined his soul." Nelson had planned in case of such an encounter to detach three of his ships to attack the transports.

The trying month that now intervened, spent by the British fleet in a vain search along the northern coast of the Mediterranean, a brief stop at Syracuse for water and supplies, and return, was not wholly wasted, for during this time the commander in chief was in frequent consultation with his captains, securing their hearty support, and familiarizing them with his plans for action in whatever circumstances a meeting might occur. An interesting reference to this practice of Nelson's appears in a later characterization of him written by the French Admiral Decres to Napoleon. "His boastfulness," so the comment runs, "is only equalled by his ineptitude, but he has the saving quality of making no pretense to any other virtues than boldness and good nature, so that he is accessible to the counsels of those under him." As to who dominated these conferences and who profited by them we may form our own opinion. It was by such means that Nelson fostered a spirit of full cooperation and mutual confidence between himself and his subordinates which justified his affectionate phrase, "a band of brothers."

The result was seen at the Nile. If rapid action lost the chance of battle a month before, it did much to insure victory when the opportunity came, and it was made possible by each captain's full grasp of what was to be done. "Time is everything," to quote a familiar phrase of Nelson; "five minutes may spell the difference between victory and defeat." It was two in the afternoon when the British, after looking into Alexandria, first sighted the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, and it was just sundown when the leading ship Goliath rounded the Guerrier's bows. The battle was fought in darkness. In the face of a fleet protected by shoals and shore batteries, with no trustworthy charts or pilots, with ships still widely separated by their varying speeds, a less thoroughly drilled force under a less ardent leader would have felt the necessity of delaying action until the following day. Nelson never hesitated. His ships went into action in the order in which they reached the scene.

The almost decisive advantage thus gained is evident from the confusion which then reigned in Aboukir Bay. In spite of the repeated letters from Bonaparte urging him to secure his fleet in Alexandria harbor, in spite of repeated soundings which showed this course possible, the French Admiral Brueys with a kind of despondent inertia still lay in this exposed anchorage at the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. Mortars and cannon had been mounted on Aboukir point, but it was known that their range did not cover the head of the French line. The frigates and scout vessels that might have given more timely warning were at anchor in the bay. Numerous water parties were on shore and with them the ships' boats needed to stretch cables from one vessel to another and rig gear for winding ships, as had been vaguely planned. At a hurried council it was proposed to put to sea, but this was given up for the sufficient reason that there was no time. The French were cleared for action only on the out-board side. Their admiral was chiefly fearful of attack in the rear, a fear reasonable enough if his ships had been sailing before the wind at sea; but at anchor, with the Aboukir batteries ineffective and the wind blowing directly down the line, attack upon the van would be far more dangerous, since support could less easily be brought up from the rear.

It was on the head of the line that the attack came. Nelson had given the one signal that "his intention was to attack the van and center as they lay at anchor, according to the plan before developed." This plan called for doubling, two ships to the enemy's one. With a fair wind from the north-northwest Captain Foley in the Goliath at 6 p.m. reached the Guerrier, the headmost of the thirteen ships in the enemy line. Either by instant initiative, or more likely in accordance with previous plans in view of such an opportunity, he took his ship inside the line, his anchor dragging slightly so as to bring him up on the quarter of the second enemy vessel, the Conquerant. The Zealous, following closely, anchored on the bows of the Guerrier; the Orion engaged inside the fifth ship; the Theseus inside the third; and the Audacious, passing between the first two of the enemy, brought up on the Conquerant's bow. With these five engaged inside, Nelson in the Vanguard and the two ships following him engaged respectively outside the third, fourth and fifth of the enemy. Thus the concentration on the van was eight to five.

About a half hour later the Bellerophon and the Majestic attacked respectively the big flagship Orient (110) in the center and the Tonnant (80) next astern, and against these superior antagonists suffered severely, losing in killed and wounded 390 men divided about equally between them, which was nearly half the total loss of 896 and greater than the total at Cape St. Vincent. Both later drifted almost helpless down the line. The Culloden under Troubridge, a favorite of both Jervis and Nelson, had unfortunately grounded and stuck fast on Aboukir shoal; but the Swiftsure and the Alexander came up two hours after the battle had begun as a support to the ships in the centre, the Swiftsure engaging the Orient, and the Alexander the Franklin next ahead, while the smaller Leander skillfully chose a position where she could rake the two. By this time all five of the French van had surrendered; the Orient was in flames and blew up about 10 o'clock with the loss of all but 70 men. Admiral Brueys, thrice wounded, died before the explosion. Of the four ships in the rear, only two, the Guillaume Tell under Admiral Villeneuve and the Genereux, were able to cut their cables next morning and get away. Nelson asserted that, had he not been incapacitated by a severe scalp wound in the action, even these would not have escaped. Of the rest, two were burned and nine captured. Among important naval victories, aside from such one-sided slaughters as those of our own Spanish war, it remains the most overwhelming in history.

The effect was immediate throughout Europe, attesting dearly the contemporary importance attached to sea control. "It was this battle," writes Admiral de la Graviere, "which for two years delivered over the Mediterranean to the British and called thither the squadrons of Russia, which shut up our army in the midst of a hostile people and led the Porte to declare against us, which put India beyond our reach and thrust France to the brink of ruin, for it rekindled the hardly extinct war with Austria and brought Suvaroff and the Austro-Russians to our very frontiers."[1]

[Footnote 1: GUERRES MARITIMES, II, 129.]

The whole campaign affords an instance of an overseas expedition daringly undertaken in the face of a hostile fleet (though it should be remembered that the British were not in the Mediterranean when it was planned), reaching its destination by extraordinary good luck, and its possibilities then completely negatived by the reestablishment of enemy naval control. The efforts of the French army to extricate itself northward through Palestine were later thwarted partly by the squadron under Commodore Sidney Smith, which captured the siege guns sent to Acre by sea and aided the Turks in the defense of the fortress. In October of 1799 Bonaparte escaped to France in a frigate. French fleets afterwards made various futile efforts to succor the forces left in Egypt, which finally surrendered to an army under Abercromby, just too late to strengthen the British in the peace negotiations of October, 1801.

Nelson's subsequent activities in command of naval forces in Italian waters need not detain us. Physically and nervously weakened from the effects of his wound and arduous campaign, he fell under the influence of Lady Hamilton and the wretched court of Naples, lent naval assistance to schemes of doubtful advantage to his country, and in June of 1800 incurred the displeasure of the Admiralty by direct disobedience of orders to send support to Minorca. He returned to England at the close of 1800 with the glory of his victory somewhat tarnished, and with blemishes on his private character which unfortunately, as will be seen, affected also his professional reputation.

The Copenhagen Campaign

Under the rapid scene-shifting of Napoleon, the political stage had by this time undergone another complete change from that which followed the battle of the Nile. Partly at least as a consequence of that battle, the so-called Second Coalition had been formed by Great Britain, Russia, and Austria, the armies of the two latter powers, as already stated, carrying the war again to the French frontiers. It required only the presence of Bonaparte, in supreme control after the coup d'etat of the Eighteenth Brumaire (9 Nov., 1799), to turn the tide, rehabilitate the internal administration of France, and by the victories of Marengo in June and Hohenlinden in December of 1800 to force Austria once more to a separate peace. Paul I of Russia had already fallen out with his allies and withdrawn his armies and his great general, Suvaroff, a year before. Now, taken with a romantic admiration for Napoleon, and angry when the British, after retaking Malta, refused to turn it over to him as Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, he was easily manipulated by Napoleon into active support of the latter's next move against England.

This was the Armed Neutrality of 1800, the object of which, from the French standpoint, was to close to England the markets of the North, and combine against her the naval forces of the Baltic. Under French and Russian pressure, and in spite of the fact that all these northern nations stood to suffer in one way or another from rupture of trade relations with England, the coalition was accomplished in December, 1800; Russia, Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark pledging themselves to resist infringements of neutral rights, whether by extension of contraband lists, seizure of enemy goods under neutral flag, search of vessels guaranteed innocent by their naval escort, or by other methods familiar then as in later times. These were measures which England, aiming both to ruin the trade of France and to cut off her naval supplies, felt bound to insist upon as the belligerent privileges of sea power.

To overcome this new danger called for a mixture of force and diplomacy, which England supplied by sending to Denmark an envoy with a 48-hour ultimatum, and along with him 20 ships-of-the-line, which according to Nelson were "the best negotiators in Europe." The commander in chief of this squadron was Sir Hyde Parker, a hesitant and mediocre leader who could be trusted to do nothing (if that were necessary), and Nelson was made second in command. Influence, seniority, a clean record, and what-not, often lead to such choices, bad enough at any time but indefensible in time of war. Fortunately for England, when the reply of the Danish court showed that force was required, the two admirals virtually changed places with less friction than might have been expected, and Nelson "Lifted and carried on his shoulders the dead weight of his superior,"[1] throughout the ensuing campaign.


When the envoy on March 23 returned to the fleet, then anchored in the Cattegat, he brought an alarming tale of Danish preparations, and an air of gloom pervaded the flagship when Nelson came aboard for a council of war. Copenhagen, it will be recalled, is situated on the eastern coast of Zealand, on the waterway called the Sound leading southward from the Cattegat to the Baltic. Directly in front of the city, a long shoal named the Middle Ground separates the Sound into two navigable channels, the one nearer Copenhagen known as the King's Deep (Kongedyb). The defenses of the Danish capital, so the envoy reported, were planned against attack from the northward. At this end of the line the formidable Trekroner Battery (68 guns), together with two ships-of-the-line and some smaller vessels, defended the narrow entrance to the harbor; while protecting the city to the southward, along the flats at the edge of the King's Deep, was drawn up an array of about 37 craft ranging from ships-of-the-line to mere scows, mounting a total of 628 guns, and supported at some distance by batteries on land. Filled with patriotic ardor, half the male population of the city had volunteered to support the forces manning these batteries afloat and ashore.

Nelson's plan for meeting these obstacles, as well as his view of the whole situation, as presented at the council, was embodied in a memorandum dated the following day, which well illustrates his grasp of a general strategic problem. The Government's instructions, as well as Parker's preference, were apparently to wait in the Cattegat until the combined enemy forces should choose to come out and fight. Instead, the second in command advocated immediate action. "Not a moment," he wrote, "should be lost in attacking the enemy; they will every day and hour be stronger." The best course, in his opinion, would be to take the whole fleet at once into the Baltic against Russia, as a "home stroke," which if successful would bring down the coalition like a house of cards. If the Danes must first be dealt with, he proposed, instead of a direct attack, which would be "taking the bull by the horns," an attack from the rear. In order to do so, the fleet could get beyond the city either by passing through the Great Belt south of Zealand, or directly through the Sound. Another resultant advantage, in case the five Swedish sail of the line or the 14 Russian ships at Revel should take the offensive, would be that of central position, between the enemy divisions.

"Supposing us through the Belt," the letter concludes, "with the wind northwesterly, would it not be possible to either go with the fleet or detach ten Ships of three and two decks, with one Bomb and two Fireships, to Revel, to destroy the Russian squadron at that place? I do not see the great risk of such a detachment, and with the remainder to attempt the business at Copenhagen. The measure may be thought bold, but I am of the opinion that the boldest measures are the safest; and our Country demands a most vigorous assertion of her force, directed with judgment."

Here was a striking plan of aggressive warfare, aimed at the heart of the coalition. The proposal to leave part of the fleet at Copenhagen was indeed a dangerous compromise, involving divided forces and threatened communications, but was perhaps justified by the known inefficiency of the Russians and the fact that the Danes were actually fought and defeated with a force no greater than the plan provided. In the end the more conservative course was adopted of settling with Denmark first. Keeping well to the eastern shore, the fleet on March 30 passed into the Sound without injury from the fire of the Kronenburg forts at its entrance, and anchored that evening near Copenhagen.

Three days later, on April 2, 1801, the attack was made as planned, from the southward end of the Middle Ground. Nelson in the Elephant commanded the fighting squadron, which consisted of seven 74's, three 64's and two of 50 guns, with 18 bomb vessels, sloops, and fireships. The rest of the ships, under Parker, were anchored at the other end of the shoal and 5 miles north of the city; it seems they were to have cooperated, but the south wind which Nelson needed made attack impossible for them. Against the Danish total of 696 guns on the ships and Trekroner fortification, Nelson's squadron had 1014, but three of his main units grounded during the approach and were of little service. There was no effort at concentration, the British when in position engaging the whole southern part of the Danish line. "Here," in the words of Nelson's later description, "was no maneuvering; it was downright fighting"—a hotly contested action against ships and shore batteries lasting from 10 a. m., when the Elephant led into position on the bow of Commodore Fischer's flagship Dannebroge, until about one.

In the midst of the engagement, as Nelson restlessly paced the quarterdeck, he caught sight of the signal "Leave off action" flown from Sir Hyde's flagship. Instead of transmitting the signal to the vessels under him, Nelson kept his own for "Close action" hoisted. Colonel Stewart, who was on board at the time, continues the story as follows: "He also observed, I believe to Captain Foley, 'You know, Foley, I have only one eye—I have a right to be blind sometimes'; and then with an archness peculiar to his character, putting the glass to his blind eye, he exclaimed, 'I really do not see the signal.'" It was obeyed, however, by the light vessels under Captain Riou attacking the Trekroner battery, which were suffering severely, and which could also more easily effect a retreat.

Shortly afterward the Danish fire began to slacken and several of the floating batteries surrendered, though before they could be taken they were frequently remanned by fresh forces from the shore. Enough had been accomplished; and to end a difficult situation—if not to extricate himself from it—Nelson sent the following summons addressed "To the brothers of Englishmen, the Danes": "Lord Nelson has orders to spare Denmark when no longer resisting; if the firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set fire to the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them."

A truce followed, during which Nelson removed his ships. Next day he went ashore to open negotiations, while at the same time he brought bomb vessels into position to bombard the city. The cessation of hostilities was the more readily agreed to by the Danes owing to the fact that on the night before the battle they had received news, which they still kept concealed from the British, of the assassination of the Czar Paul. His successor, they knew, would be forced to adopt a policy more favorable to the true interests of Russian trade. The league in fact was on the verge of collapse. A fourteen weeks' armistice was signed with Denmark. On April 12 the fleet moved into the Baltic, and on May 5, Nelson having succeeded Parker in command, it went on to Revel, whence the Russian squadron had escaped through the ice to Kronstadt ten days before. On June 17 a convention was signed with Russia and later accepted by the other northern states, by which Great Britain conceded that neutrals might engage in trade from one enemy port to another, with the important exception of colonial ports, and that naval stores should not be contraband; whereas Russia agreed that enemy goods under certain conditions might be seized in neutral ships, and that vessels under naval escort might be searched by ships-of-war. In the meantime, Nelson, realizing that active operations were over with, resigned his command.

In the opinion of the French naval critic Graviere, the campaign thus ended constitutes in the eyes of seamen Nelson's best title to fame—"son plus beau titre gloire."[1] Certainly it called forth the most varied talents—grasp of the political and strategical situation; tact and force of personality in dealing with an inert commander in chief; energy in overcoming not only military obstacles but the doubts and scruples of fellow officers; aggressiveness in battle; and skill in negotiations. In view of the Czar's murder—of which the British Government would seem to have had an inkling beforehand—it may be thought that less strenuous methods would have served. On the contrary, however, hundreds of British merchant vessels had been seized in northern ports, trade had been stopped, and the nation was threatened with a dangerous increment to her foes. Furthermore, after a brief interval of peace, Great Britain had to face ten years more of desperate warfare, during which nothing served her better than that at Copenhagen the northern neutrals had had a sharp taste of British naval power. Force was needed. That it was employed economically is shown by the fact that, when a renewal of peace between France and Russia in 1807 again threatened a northern confederation, Nelson's accomplishment with 12 ships was duplicated, but this time with 25 of the line, 40 frigates, 27,000 troops, the bombardment of Copenhagen, and a regular land campaign.

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