HISTORIEK  HISTORIQUE  HISTORIC

 

 

                            Horacio Nelson (II)

 

Understandably, life aboard a Royal Navy man-of-war did not attract very many volunteers. A few boys were lured to sea by dreams of glory, and some veteran seamen were attracted by recruiting posters that appealed to "True-Blue Hearts of Oak" to serve king and country amid "Old Shipmates and their Jolly Friends." And bounties were paid to sailors who had special skial.

      

The most effective recruiting, however, was done by force. Press gangs of half a dozen tough sailors commanded by a junior officer went through port towns dragging off almost any nautical-looking man they saw and "pressing" him into involuntary service. It was an early, and rough-and-ready, form of conscription into a harsh and dangerous world that few would enter willingly.

Once aboard their new ship, the pressed men were washed, deloused and divided into four groups. First were the able seamen, experienced sailors who could work aloft on the yardarms. They were paid a handsome sum for the era: 33 shillings a month. Second came the ordinary seamen, paid 23 shillings, sixpence, who knew enough to haul a line on deck. Next were the landsmen, who, at 17 shillings, sixpence a month, could do other jobs on the ship such as maintain the lower rigging or serve as the officers' servants. A special group was known as "idlers"— so called because they did not have to stand watch—who had the skill to do carpentry, make sails or serve as surgeon's mates; these men were paid about the same as able seamen.

Once at sea, the officers began molding this haphazard collection of men into an effective crew. The able seamen tuned the rigging, tightening and slackening it until the ship was properly trimmed. The carpenter and his mates made everything shipshape, plugging leaks and making the wooden patches they would use to repair shot holes during battle. The head gunner and his mates ladled powder into the bags called cartridges. The seaman who was euphemistically named the "captain of the head" made sure the officers' toilets in their stern quarters were maintained in a proper and sanitary condition.

On the three gun decks the gunners took particular care with the lashings to make sure that no gun would break loose. Except for actual combat, nothing could be more dangerous than a three-ton mass of iron on wheels breaking loose and careering wildly to and fro with each roll of the ship. Loose cannon had been known to smash clear through the side of a ship and to maim horribly gun crews that got in the way.

When ships were headed for war, the captains drilled their crews ruthlessly in the routine of preparing the vessel for battle. The speed at which its gunners could fire was a matter of great pride in the Royal Navy. One captain, Cuthbert Collingwood, who would be among Nelson's devoted "Band of Brothers" at the Battle of the Nile, drilled his gunners until the best of them could fire their cannon at the astonishing rate of three rounds every two minutes.

A 1780 Royal Navy recruiting poster promises enlistees jolly comradeship and cash bounties. In Nelson's era, bonuses for enlistment varied from 30 shillings to more than 25 guineas. Other rewards were available, as the fine print at the bottom explains, for "Discovering Seamen, that they may be impressed"— that is, for reporting to the authorities men who could beforced into service.

In June 1778, the great ship Victory, 19 years in preparation, was finally ready to proceed to sea. It was fortunate for England that this powerful vessel was at last complete, for by 1778 the challenge to the Navy and to Great Britain was mounting. The danger came not so much from the American rebels, whose navy was correctly perceived as more of a nuisance than a threat. The true menace came from Britain's neighbors across the Channel. The Admiralty well knew that France could be expected to aid the Americans—not because of any great affinity for the colonial revolutionaries but in order to strike at England. In fact, a treaty between France and the Americans was signed in February 1778.

The French had made gond use of the time since the Seven Years' War. Their navy, which had been virtually annihilated during that conflict, now included 74 major ships of the line. England at this stage had 69 ships of the line, but it was in for greater jeopardy than the numbers indicated. Eleven ships were in American waters, and of the rest only 35 were ready for sea. Most of the French warships were better designed and more heavily armed. Smarting from France's defeats in earlier naval wars, Louis XVI had lavished huge funds on the Navy, which was designated, for a time at least, "the first service of the realm." New academies of naval architecture were opened, a network of new dockyards was built, reserves of the finest timber were set aside. The sailing qualities of new French ships showed the result; they were generally faster and more maneuverable than their British counterparts, and more carefully constructed. Some of the French shipwright manuals and writings on design were translated into English, but complacent British shipwrights paid them little heed. They continued to build ships by what they called the "rule of King 's thumb," which meant in the traditional way without constant refinement.

The scent of war was in the air when on March 12, 1778, the Victory's first captain was rowed out to where she was moored off Gillingham, near Chatham. He was Sir John Lindsay, a hero of the Seven Years' War who was to hold this command only briefly: his assignment was to take the Victory down to Portsmouth, where she was to become the flagship of Vice Admiral Augustus Keppel. But now Lindsay was piped aboard the Victory. He read his commission to the assembled officers. His pennant was hoisted. And the Victory was finally commissioned.

There followed two months of hectic préparation. Ballast was sent ashore, to be replaced with supplies: 45 tons of biscuit, 25 tons of pork, 10 tons of flour, 50 tons of beer—and the 35 tons of powder and 120 tons of shot that were the reason for the Victory's existence. The master, who was in charge of sailing and navigation, the boatswain and the carpenter scurried about fitting out the ship for sea. The purser supervised the loading of stores, and the gunner, the stowage of ammunition and the positioning of the guns.

The Victory's marines—a captain, a sergeant, a corporal and 55 privates—came smartly aboard on April 11. The vessel was nearly ready for sea now, and spruced up for a special royal visit. On April 25, as the warship's cannon fired their first 21-gun salute, King George III came alongside in the yacht Royal Charlotte. On Monday, April 27, His Majesty spent three hours aboard, inspecting the ship and her crew. Then, nearly 20 years from the day her keel was laid down, the Victory dropped her mooring to proceed down harbor to the sea.

His face alight with anticipation, a lad signs on with the Royal Navy in this 1794 engraving after Henry Singleton. Such boys, aged 12 to 17, were taken aboard as servants and apprentices. Despite their abysmally humble station, they were in a way the Royal Navy's secret weapon as they matured into highly skilled seamen.

En route around the southeastern tip of England the crew shook down. The able seamen became used to the vessel's rigging, her gun crews were formed, and some semblance of order was brought to the ship.

On May 14, the day after her arrival, Admiral Keppel was piped aboard for inspection. One of Britain's most illustrious admirals, Keppel was 53, a Young age for the Royal Navy. As a 15-year-old midshipman in 1740, he had sailed under Commodore George Anson on a historic circumnavigation of the globe, and had won promotion to lieutenant for his excellent service. His progress through the ranks was swift. At 34 he had commanded the 74-gun ship of the line Torbay at the victorious Battle of Quiberon Bay during the Seven Years' War; later in that war, he led a brilliant assault to capture the heavily fortified Belle-Île-en-Mer in the Bay of Biscay. He had won his rear admiral's flag in 1762, after playing a leading role in the capture of Havana from France's Spanish ally.

Keppel had been a vice admiral for eight years and now had been placed in command of a fleet forming up as England's line of defense in the Channel. Not only was France joining in the American war, but there were reports that she was also planning an invasion of England. To forestall such an attack, Keppel was given 21 ships of the line and four frigates. According to the fourth Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, it was "a noble fleet." Regarding his command more objectively, Keppel noted that some of the ships were not in a satisfactory state when "looked at with a seaman's eye." He had chosen the best of them, the Victory, as his flagship. Next day, he transferred his flag from the Prince George, a 90-gun first-rater, on which he had been waiting. By custom, commanding admirals also brought their own favored captains aboard their flagships. Keppel's choice was Captain Jonathan Faulknor of the Prince George. Aboard the Victory, Captain Lindsay signed the ship's log over to Faulknor and then went to replace him as commander of the Prince George.
Responding to his admiral's wishes, one of Faulknor's first actions was to order the nme Victory removed from the flagship's stem. Keppel believed that in battle a ship's name was of no use to anyone save the enemy; the gilt letters were removed as well from the other ships in the fleet.
Nearly a month passed before Keppel's force was ready. At last, on June 13,1778, the Victory led the flotilla out past Spithead and into the Atlantic. Keppel sent his smaller, faster frigates on ahead; the frigates were known as the eyes of the fleet, and their vital task was to scout for enemy ships. For the next four days the Victory's crewmen, along with those of the rest of the fleet, were ordered into intensive practice for the battles that would come.

      

On the fifth day Keppel's reconnoitering frigates came racing back to report. The signal flags snapping from the yardarms spelled action: the enemy was coming out of the harbor of Brest. France had committed herself to another naval war with England.

The first skirmish gave precious little foretaste of what was to become a titanic clash of sea power. The enemy so eagerly announced by Keppel's frigates turned out to be nothing more than a light French scouting squadron consisting of two frigates, a corvette and a small lugger. The French frigate Belle Poule opened the war by slamming a 20-gun broadside into the British frigate Arethusa, and after four hours of fighting, the Belle Poule fled into a rocky bay on the Brittany coast. The corvette and Fugger likewise beat a rapid retreat. But the second French frigate, the Licorne, tarried a trifle too long and was soon captured. She was brought as a prize under the looming stern of the Victory. And it was then that Admiral Keppel received the first of a number of nasty surprises.
From papers aboard the Licorne, he learned that the French had no fewer than 32 great ships of the line in the harbor at Brest. And this mighty fleet, mounting close to 3,000 guns, would soon come out to challenge the British. Keppel was among the most courageous of Royal Navy admirals. But he was no fool. He knew that his 21 ships, only a few of them 100-gun first-raters, were no match for the French at this stage. He dared not jeopardize Britain's only defense, its ramparts of wood. Ordering a defensive maneuver, he cracked on sail for a dash to Portsmouth, anchored at Spithead on june 27, reported his news and pleaded with the Lords of the Admiralty for reinforcements.

There followed 12 days of frantic activity in the Portgmouth dock-yards. Three more ships of the line were made ready for sea. Another six were promised from the escort of an incoming West Indies convoy, which was expected momentarily. On July 9, Keppel in the Victory made sail and led the Grand Fleet out to sea once again. Two days later, in mid-Channel, the promised reinforcements arrived. The admiral now had 30 powerful ships of the line, only two fewer than the French; the odds had narrowed more to his liking.

Keppel set course to cruise south of Brest. The Admiralty had given him two assignments. One was to interpose himself in a blocking position between the French fleet and the fleet of France's Spanish ally at Cadiz. It was a measure of rising English confidence—or conceit—that no one regarded this as positioning Keppel squarely between the jaws of a trap. Keppel's second mission was to watch for two more richly laden British convoys due to arrive shortly—from the East Indies this time, carrying Chinese tea, porcelain and silk. Spies on the Continent had reported that the French were also aware that these convoys were soon expected; their loss would be a devastating psychological Blow to England at the very start of the war. What Keppel did not know was that on July 8, a day before he had hauled up his anchors at Spithead, all 32 French ships of the line, under the Comte d'Orvilliers, one of France's premier admirals, had sailed out of Brest to intercept the East Indian convoys. It seems incredible that this armada could slip from its base and reach the open Atlantic without being spotted by one of the British frigates patrolling off the coast of France. But the nature of naval warfare in the 18th Century—with huge expanses of water, relatively slow, small ships and every imaginable weather condition—was such that hundreds of vessels could sail around for weeks groping for one another.

For a fortnight the two fleets patrolled back and forth in the open Atlantic south of England and west of France, two vase armadas stretching as much as a mile or more across the sea, each unaware of the other's position. On the afternoon of July 23, 1778, they Pound each other.

The British fleet was 100 miles off the French coast, due west of Ushant, when the first lookouts high in the swaying tops called down that they had sighted sails on the horizon. Then there were more sails, and more and more until the entire French fleet was arrayed before the British. If Keppel was surprised at encountering his enemy on the open ocean, he was also pleased; he had the weather gauge in the southwesterly wind—that is, the British fleet had the wind behind it, which gave it many more options and much greater maneuverability than the French. As dusk fell, Keppel field to his course to be ready for battle in the morning. Meanwhile, in case the French should attempt a surprise attack during the night, he ordered all ships cleared for action.

The first light of July 24 brought another surprise for Keppel. The French fleet was not where he expected it to be. D'Orvilliers had outsmarted him. Under cover of darkness the French admirai, in a brilliant feat of seamanship, and making the most of his faster, superior ships, had worked almost his entire fleet upwind of the British. Now he, not Keppel, had the weather gauge and the choice to force or refuse battle.

There was one consolation: the new position placed the British fleet between d'Orvilliers and the coast of France. D'Orvilliers could no longer make a run for home without affording the British a crack at him. Nevertheless, d'Orvilliers enjoyed a decided tactical advantage —so long as he could hold his upwind position.

      

Studying the enemy's disposition, Keppel spotted what he thought might be a small flaw, something that might give him a chance to engage the French after all. Two of the French vessels, it appeared, had not quite achieved the weather gauge, and were still struggling into the wind. Some of the British ships at the rear of the formation remained upwind of them. Keppel ordered a signal to the Victory 's masthead, and two British men-of-war peeled off to engage the French stragglers.

Keppel now focused on d'Orvilliers's flagship, the 110-gun Bretagne, hoping that the French admiral would come about and hurry to the rescue of his endangered vessels. But d'Orvilliers did not take the lure; instead of swooping down to protect his two ships, he left them to their own devices. The swift French vessels promptly turned tail and fled for home, soon leaving their British pursuers astern. Keppel signaled his ships to return. At least he had evened the odds: now there were 30 French ships of the line to oppose his 30.

      

Happily "out of discipline" while anchored in home port, the crew of a British man-of-war relaxes below decks in this 1782 drawing by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. Most captains forbade shore leave to forestall desertion, and instead ferried the entertainment out to the sailors. Wrote one ship's chaplain: "Nothing can possibly be more awkwardly situated thon a clergyman in a ship of war."

But d'Orvilliers refused to bring his fleet downwind to meet the British. For three days he carefully maintained his weather gauge while Keppel, with mounting anger and frustration, followed in dogged pursuit. Westward into the Atlantic the two fleets sailed, every ship stripped and ready for action.

Suddenly, at 10 a.m. on the third day, a black squall came racing across the water from the west. It burst on the British fleet almost before sails could be furled, gunports closed and the big guns lashed down. Sheets of rain sluiced across the decks. Lines slatted and sails boomed. On the Victory's louver gun decks the men held fast to the restraining gear as the massive cannon surged against the storm. In the bowling wind and smashing seas, Keppel lost sight of the other ships. For more than an hour, as the gale buffeted the big flagship, visibility was virtually nil. Then, as quickly as it had cone, the rain raced off to the east.

Keppel and the men aboard the Victory watched the edge of the squall swirling away across the ocean, revealing ship after ship as it departed. And with the return of visibility, Keppel had yet another surprise: the entire French fleet was sailing straight for him!

The wily French admiral had seen the squall coming and, knowing that he could take advantage of the change in the weather, had turned bis fleet around and headed in the opposite direction, eastward toward France. But d'Orvilliers was not maneuvering for a face-to-face fight to the death: that had proved catastrophic to the French in the Seven Years' War. Instead, he was about to employ a new naval tactic of hit-and-run, of raking the enemy, particularly in the vulnerable sails and rigging, and then racing away, either to maneuver for another swift strike or to flee for home if that seemed the better alternative.

Being on opposite tacks perfectly suited d'Orvilliers's purpose. At a closing speed of perhaps 12 knots, the engagement promised to be a short one, as such things went. But now the winds took a role in events. The lingering gusts of the squall died to light breezes, and the two fleets began to move past each other at a much slower pace.

The delighted Keppel did not even have time to raise the preparatory signal. He immediately ordered the standard flags for battle: "Line Ahead" and "Engage." His ships had spread out during the three-day chase, and the squall had driven some of them out of the line of battle. But there was no time to reform.

Below decks aboard the Victory and all the other ships of the Grand Fleet, gun crews snatched away the heavy restraining gear that had been secured during the storm. With the swiftness and sureness that came from constant drill, the gunports were opened, the wooden plugs pulled from the cannon muzzles, powder and shot rammed home, and the long iron snouts run out the ports. Unlike the French gunners, who preferred to fire high, the British went for the enemy's hull, on the principle that the way to win a battle was to hole ships and kill men. The Victory's gunners, taking a length of burning fuse and blowing on the end until it glowed, waited for the beginning of the downward roll. Then the gun captain yelled "Fire! "—and each gunner touched off his cannon, sending a bail roaring across the water at 1,200 feet per second.

There was no time to see what damage the bail had caused. The moment the cannon reached the end of its violent recoil, the gun crew leaped forward to clean it and load it for the next shot. By now even the slowest of the Victory's gun crews could clean, Joad, aim and fire a cannon in less than two minutes. And on this particular morning in the cold Atlantic it was well that they could.

Despite the light airs, the two fleets were passing each other at a combined speed of six knots. Keppel shortened sail to slow down, but no ship was opposite another for more than two or three minutes. Still, that meant that in running along the line each French ship and each English ship was fired on, and that the two fleets would take about an hour in ail to pass each other.

The heavy cannon balls from the British ships were not doing as much damage to the French hulls as they would have if Keppel had closed the range between the two lines. Meanwhile, the French gunners were cutting up the British rigging with their high-flying chain and bar shot. The Victory, in the center of the British line, had already suffered considerable damage when d'Orvilliers's flagship, the Bretagne, came down opposite her. As the two flagships rolled past each other, the Victory's gunners scored their best shot of the day; in one thundering broadside they blew open three of the Bretagne' s gun ports, making a wide gap in her side and killing many of her crewmen. But the French gunners responded by chopping up so much of the Victory's rigging that her masts began to sway perilously.

By 2 p.m. the two fleets were out of range and the firing had died. The Victory's masts were threatening to topple. Smoke swirled through her gurn decks, and wounded men lay on the improvised litters in the cockpit waiting for the surgeon to remove splinters of wood or cut away smashed limbs. Gunners mopped sweat from their bare chests and stuffed wads into their ears, which were bleeding from the concussion of the cannon.

On the quarter-deck Keppel began to assess the damage to his fleet. Those in the rear seemed to be hurt worst. And as Keppel watched, d'Orvilliers appeared to be rounding up as if ready for another engagement. Keppel decided to oblige him and signaled to the fleet to form line ahead on the other tack.

At the head of the British line Vice Admiral Sir Robert Harland, commander of the "van," or front squadron, was already coming about. But the Victory, sorely damaged, had to be brought about gently before the wind, nursing her tattered rigging. By 3 p.m. Keppel had his van and center ready; but the ships of his rear had not joined the line. The commander of the rear was Vice Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser. His ship, the Formidable, had been damaged more heavily than Keppel realized from a distance. Her foremast had been shot away and she was scarcely under way; since Admiralty regulations required ail the vessels in a squadron to remain with the leader, the 90-gun Ocean and the 74-gun Elizabeth could not abandon the Formidable and hurry to join Keppel.

Keppel might have done without the rear and ordered Harland up to the front for an immediate attack. However, he doggedly refused to risk further action until he had his entire fleet in a straight line-ahead formation. Fie waited impatiently for Palliser in the crippled Formidable to bring up the ships of the rear. Three hours passed, and Keppel sent a frigate racing back, ordering them to join the line. Still Palliser delayed white he made emergency repairs. It was dusk before the three vessels of the rear formation joined the rest of the fleet.

Keppel could see that the French had retained—and tightened—their line of battle. Though they had suffered many casualties and considerable damage, their sails and rigging were in better shape than those of the British. Consequently, they could maneuver more effectively. Keppel judged that they were ready to renew the battle. But he decided, with darkness approaching, that it was too late for another engagement. He ordered the fleet to keep in formation until dawn, to stay alert for a possible French attack. Through the night he led his fleet upwind, in hopes of regaining the weather gauge. And through the night the Victory's crew stood to general quarters, trying to keep awake after the exhausting day. Across the water they could see three lanterns, which they took to be the lights of the French fleet still waiting for them.

With the dawn Keppel ruefully discovered that the crafty d'Orvilliers had outsmarted him yet again. Only three French ships, the ones that had shown the lights, were anywhere near him. While they had served as decoys, d'Orvilliers had coolly sailed off with the bulk of his fleet, and the three remaining ships were now crowding on sail to rejoin the main body of its escape eastward toward France.

With widespread damage to their rigging, the British ships had no hope of overhauling the enemy. On July 28 Keppel decided that his fleet was in such disorder aloft that it was unwise even to remain off a hostile coast. He made for home.

Aboard the British fleet 506 men had been killed or wounded, 35 of them on the Victory. No ships had been lost, but on July 31 when the Grand Fleet reached Spithead, it sailed into a storm of criticism and recrimination. Keppel blamed Palliser for disobeying orders. Both demanded a formal court-martial, and both were exonerated.

The controversy exposed an unpleasant—and exceedingly dangerous—situation within the Royal Navy: it had become politicized. Palliser was an outspoken conservative Tory and Keppel an ardent liberal Whig. Emotions ran high at the trials. Jubilant Whigs wore light-blue ribbons in their hats with KEPPEL in gold letters; Whig ladies of fashion had made and distributed the hats. As Keppel departed from the court, a band marched before him playing He Comes, He Comes, The Hero Comes. So controversial did the issue become that Keppel refused to serve under the ruling Tory Government. He bitterly hauled down his flag, left the Victory and retired to await the downfall of the Tories.

As for Admiral d'Orvilliers, in late July he made it safely back to Brest, and a hero's welcome. He had been at sea challenging British rule for the better part of a month, and though he had lost 674 men through death or wounds, not a French skip had been sunk. In the sense that he had outmanoeuvred the British and then fought them to a standoff, the Battle of Ushant was the first French success in more than a decade—since the Seven Years' War.
Ushant proved a vastly important point about the changing nature of naval warfare. By refusing to attack the enemy in anything but the traditional, sacrosanct line-ahead formation, Keppel had assured d'Orvilliers's escape. The lesson, however, was utterly lost on the hidebound British Admiralty; in fact, one of the criticisms of Keppel's tactics was that he had come into battle in the first instance without reassembling his disordered line. But how he could have accomplished this with the French line already plowing past him the Admiralty did not say.

The merest boy of a captain I ever beheld" is how one amazed midshipman described 24-year-old Horatio Nelson, captain of the frigate Albemarle, in 1782. This portrait by John Rigaud was begun when Nelson was 18 and a second lieutenant; it was set aside unfinished when the young officer shipped out to the West Indies in 1777. Upon his return to London four years later, the portrait was completed—now with a captain's proud insignia on the uniform sleeve.

The clear message of the Battle of Ushant was that the old textbook tactics were no longer good enough. French skips were much improved. And the French hit-and-run tactics—crippling the enemy rigging and running away—could not be countered by the powerful but inflexible line of battle that had served the Royal Navy so well up to now. But the Admiralty had not recognized the message. And now England was plunged into a naval war in which only a major change of tactics could save her from disaster.

Fortunately for England, the Royal Navy, seemingly so tradition minded, would come up with the new tactics needed to meet and defeat the French in the long series of great engagements that would stretch almost 30 years into the future, from Ushant in 1778 to Trafalgar in 1805.

A chief designer of the new tactics would be the same Horatio Nelson who had arrived, age 12, at the docks of Chatham in 1771. At the time of the Battle of Ushant, Nelson was serving with the West Indies station, the small fleet in the Caribbean that was trying to deal with the privateers of France and of the rebellions American colonies, which were preying on British shipping. Now 20 and a lieutenant, Nelson was rising fast in the service. His boldness and initiative had been recognized by Captain William Locker, master of the Lowestoffe, on which Nelson was serving. Locker soon recommended the young Nelson to Sir Peter Parker, newly assigned to command the West Indies station. Parker, equally impressed with the young officer, gave Nelson his first command in the winter of 1778, the brig Badger. But it was the advice given to him by Captain Locker that Nelson would never forget: "Always lay a Frenchman close and you will beat him." Bold, aggressive, close-in fighting would become Nelson's trademark—and the essence of the new tactics that would make the Royal Navy once again supreme. But it would still be a while before the Royal Navy was prepared to break with its traditional ways, and in the meantime it was fated to suffer further embarrassment.

 

 

 

 

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