Royal Navy 1803

Goodbye My Lads by Fred Roe.
Lord Nelson waves goodbye to the crowd at Portsmouth. Lord Nelson joins his ship HMS Victory before the battle of Trafalgar.

Becalmed – HMS Victory in the Doldrums by Ivan Berryman.
Two of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s ships lie becalmed together, bathed in the soft glow of the setting sun. The 74-gun HMS Captain basks ahead of the mighty HMS Victory, the ship that would ultimately lead the British fleet into battle against the combined might of the Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar in 1805.

At the time of the renewed outbreak of war in 1803, however, the Royal Navy was also a highly professional force. It was (in contrast to the army) in the hands of the educated sons of gentlemen of modest means, like Nelson. Relations between officers and men were, particularly under Nelson, generally excellent. At the top Pitt had appointed, as First Lord, Admiral Sir John Jervis, who had taken his new title of St Vincent from the battle which had saved England in 1797. A close second only to Nelson, it was ‘Jarvie’ to whom Britain owed most for her survival, then victory, at sea. Already aged sixty-nine in 1803, he had joined the navy the week of his fourteenth birthday, and by the time he was twenty-four he had witnessed Wolfe’s assault at Quebec, in command of the Porcupine. He was a square, oak-like, small figure, but with twinkling eyes, a man of irresistibly forceful personality, and with a dread reputation as a most stern disciplinarian. It was reputed that he had once administered a dozen lashes to a captain of the maintop who had failed to uncover during ‘God Save the King’.

During the alarming mutinies in Spithead and the Nore of 1797, which could have devastated the fleet had they spread, St Vincent (then Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean) had had to act with extreme measures. On the Marlborough, a ‘very bad ship’, he ordered a mutineer to be hanged from the yard-arm by his own shipmates; a launch with a ‘smashing carronade’ was sent alongside to blow the ship out of the water in case the order was refused. In another ship under his command, two homosexuals were hanged for their ‘unnatural crime’. Four mutineers were ordered to be hanged immediately, but, as it was a Sunday, St Vincent’s second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Thompson, proposed a delay. He was promptly sacked. The word went round: ‘If old Jarvie hears ye, he will have you dingle-dangle from the yard arm at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.’ Yet, though severe, ‘Jarvie’ was not a cruel man, and was respected both for his rigid sense of justice and for his hatred of unfairness. Like Montgomery in a later world war – and though quite out of phase with his own times – he was much harder on the officers than on the men; and he was correspondingly loved for it.

Having suffered a crushing blow during the ‘Terror’, when the guillotine had almost wiped out its officer corps, the French Navy had never really recovered. The quality of the French ships was often superior to that of the ageing British vessels, worn out by years of service (Nelson’s Victory, for instance, had been laid down in the 1760s), but discipline on board ship was poor. Perhaps more than to any other factor, the ability of British ships to stay at sea, and endure longer than the French – which would eventually decide the war – could be ascribed to that fierce, almost inhuman, discipline maintained by St Vincent. Under him, too, far-reaching reforms of pay and conditions were also carried out. When commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, he found more than one of his exhausted men-of-war to be worn out by nonstop operations: ‘altogether in such a crazy and infirm state, as to be totally incapable of a passage back to England’. After the period of the ‘Phoney Peace’ in 1802, Addington had imposed certain ill-chosen economies, and the navy’s ships were in a terrible state when St Vincent took over as First Sea Lord; but somehow he was able to transform its ‘hulks of dubious wood and canvas into a fighting fleet’ – and just in time to meet Napoleon’s greatest threat to England. An unflappable figure, it was ‘Jarvie’ who, during the 1803 invasion scare, had declared challengingly, ‘I don’t say the French can’t come. I say they can’t come by sea.’

Body and soul, he stood for the all-out, offensive blockade of Napoleon’s ports. He was replaced, briefly, by Lord Melville, who was in turn to be succeeded in April by Lord Barham. Very much Pitt’s appointee, Barham (previously Admiral Sir Charles Middleton) had resurrected the navy after the war with America. Although aged seventy-eight, he was still full of vigour, and knew more about reactivating ships than anybody in the business. In the short time that was to elapse before the ultimate showdown at Trafalgar, Barham was to prove the greatest naval administrator since Pepys.

Just below came a galaxy of brilliant sea commanders: ‘Billy-go-tight’ Cornwallis, the sixty-year-old Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet; Collingwood, who had served so long at sea it was said his children scarcely knew him; Cotton, Calder, Cochrane and Pellew – and, above, the genius of the frail but fearless Nelson. It was they who maintained the superb standards boasted by the navy of that day. Ships-of-the-line, though minute by twentieth-century measurements, then represented the pinnacle of the high-tech and constructional skill of their age; Nelson’s Victory, for example, had been six years in building (it was already forty years old at the time of Trafalgar); it had required the felling of 2,500 oaks, had 27 miles of rigging and 4 acres of sail, displaced 3,500 tons, carried 104 guns and had cost £63,176 (about £3 million in today’s money). After decades of hard training, the British handling of these exquisite, yet primitive, pieces of equipment was unsurpassable, and so was the tactical seamanship of the commanders. When it came to the crucial factor of gunnery, nobody could concert a broadside with such deadly efficacy; it was something that Napoleon’s navy, for all its enthusiasm, could never emulate.

Yet, on the outbreak of war in 1803, England could count no more than fifty-five capital ships against France’s forty-two, though because Addington’s declaration had taken Napoleon by surprise only thirteen of these latter were ready for immediate service. Nevertheless, the margin was still uncomfortably slim by the critical spring of 1805 when – with Spain and Holland aligned against her as well – Barham had only eighty-three battleships in commission, and many of those badly in need of repair. But the spirit made up for much; putting to sea in May 1803, Nelson wrote to Emma Hamilton, ‘I have no fears,’ and the following year (to his friend, Alexander Davison):

I am expecting the French to put to sea – every day, hour and moment; and you may rely that, if it is within the power of man to get at them, it shall be done; and I am sure that all my brethren look forward to that day as the finish of our laborious cruise.

Of 1803–5 it could be said with truth that only the Royal Navy of St Vincent, Barham and Nelson stood between Napoleon and world domination. Fortunately for Britain, although sailors like the courageous, doomed Villeneuve would do their best, the French Navy, however, was never a high priority with Napoleon, any more than the German Navy was with Adolf Hitler, which was the fundamental reason why both would ultimately be defeated. Certainly, had the Royal Navy proved unable to prevent Napoleon landing a substantial force in England, her prospects would have been dim, for the British Army came out of a very different mould from the navy. It was, according to one contemporary description:

lax in its discipline, entirely without system, and very weak in numbers. Each colonel of a regiment managed it according to his own notions, or neglected it altogether; professional pride was rare; professional knowledge even more so. Never was a kingdom less prepared for a stern and arduous conflict.


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