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Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century

Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare

Sam Willis
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century
    Book Description:

    Our understanding of warfare at sea in the eighteenth century has always been divorced from the practical realities of fighting at sea under sail; our knowledge of tactics is largely based upon the ideas of contemporary theorists [rather than practitioners] who knew little of the realities of sailing warfare, and our knowledge of command is similarly flawed. In this book the author presents new evidence from contemporary sources that overturns many old assumptions and introduces a host of new ideas. In a series of thematic chapters, following the rough chronology of a sea fight from initial contact to damage repair, the author offers a dramatic interpretation of fighting at sea in the eighteenth century, and explains in greater depth than ever before how and why sea battles (including Trafalgar) were won and lost in the great Age of Sail. He explains in detail how two ships or fleets identified each other to be enemies; how and why they manoeuvred for battle; how a commander communicated his ideas, and how and why his subordinates acted in the way that they did. SAM WILLIS has lectured at Bristol University and at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. He is also the author of ‘Fighting Ships, 1750-1850’ (Quercus).

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-637-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. 1-6)

    In The Tempest William Shakespeare was responsible for the greatest stage direction ever penned: ‘Enter mariners, wet.’ Shakespeare’s audience was discerning. They expected authenticity and accuracy in the portrayal of the maritime world, and would not be insulted by anything as improbable as a dry mariner in a storm. Very little has changed since, and an ever-increasing body of fine scholarly literature portrays our maritime past with an impressive degree of accuracy. For those who like more flesh on the bones of their story, a fine and continuing tradition of naval fiction exists which has translated well to television and...

  2. (pp. 7-26)

    Any sea fight necessarily began with the meeting of two ships or fleets. It was a critical time: it tested the seamanship and decision-making skills of the officers, dictated the tactics that would be most effective, and provided opportunities for tactical advantage to be won or lost. It was also a particularly delicate situation for the captains concerned. A captain needed to exercise prudence to prevent a potential enemy from taking advantage of any inaction on his part, and also to avoid assaulting friends and countrymen. Hundreds of lives, great wealth, and personal and professional reputations were all at stake....

  3. (pp. 27-35)

    Once two ships or fleets had made initial contact, one of two things would then happen: they would prepare to engage, or one would flee and the other would chase. It was rare indeed for two ships or fleets to meet and both be intent on action, and usually the aggressive party in some way had to force action on his enemy. The captains of both ships, therefore, now turned their minds to the question of speed.

    As a general rule, the captains of single ships in chase did not need to concern themselves with station keeping or the principles...

  4. (pp. 36-52)

    It has been argued that once a chase had been established, with both ships sailing as fast as they could, the only chance of escape for a slower craft rested on ‘shifts of wind, squally weather, or the blunders of the chaser’.² It is a statement that implies both a passive role for the captain of the escaping ship and a sense of inevitability in the outcome of the chase, both of which are unjust. The outcome of any chase, however ill matched the ships or fleets, was characterised by a marked unpredictability; it was an activity in which everything...

  5. (pp. 53-67)

    At this stage of the engagement, if two fleets had sighted each other, the maintenance of cohesion was critical. In cohesion lay security and power but its achievement was a multi-layered and permanent problem in the age of sail. Its foundations were the ability of a ship to maintain her station in a fleet, and then to continue do so when manœuvring in the face of the enemy, under fire, in unpredictable wind, weather and sea conditions, and with a damaged rig and a crew depleted in numbers and strength through injury and fatigue. The potential problems of such manœuvring...

  6. (pp. 68-82)

    The problems of fleet cohesion caused by the difficulty of station keeping were further compounded by the practical limitations of communication. The principal problem of signalling at sea was visibility. Fog, mist, rain, hail, sleet, snow, wind and even sunlight could be a nuisance, as it was difficult, if not impossible, to make out colours and patterns of flags if they were ‘up sun’. A summer haze would have a similar effect, rendering colours very indistinct even at a short distance; as the sun went down, so colours became gradually more difficult to make out.² For a signal to be...

  7. (pp. 83-97)

    A large part of the challenge in trying to understand fleet battle lies in determining why captains acted as they did; it is the root cause of understanding success or failure in any battle. The signalling and communication system is, of course, a very important part of that, but it is only a part. The inherent problems of station keeping alone dictated that fleet captains were required to use their own initiative constantly when in company with other ships, and the flaws in the signalling system similarly required a degree of interpretation of signals that was permanent and significant: the...

  8. (pp. 98-112)

    The inherent problems of fleet cohesion and unity of action were formidable, and translated into a magnified significance in the ‘upwards’ power, influence and role of the subordinate in determining fleet efficiency. There was a constant need for initiative from each captain, both to keep station and to act in the absence of signals or to interpret those made. That is why one anonymous contemporary was careful to include subordinate initiative in his explanation of how to achieve success in a sea fight:

    The success of a sea-fight depends on the talent of the commander-in-chief for making arrangements, on that...

  9. (pp. 113-128)

    How a commander actually chose to attack an enemy was another matter entirely, and remained very much open to debate. The means by which a victory could be achieved, or, more often, an explanation of why it was not achieved, were popular topics among both naval officers and civilians, particularly in the aftermath of indecisive actions such as the battles of Toulon (1744) and Ushant (1778). One such heated discussion ended up with carefully ballasted models being sailed up St James’s Canal to demonstrate an argument.² Central to any such discussion was position in relation to the wind. In any...

  10. (pp. 129-138)

    Position in relation to the wind was only one part of fleet tactics, and there was far more to occupy the mind of a fleet commander concerning the way he was going to use his fleet in battle. At their most basic, fleet tactics can be divided into two categories according to their intended offensive or defensive goal. The choice between the two was governed by strategic concerns such as the defence of a port, harbour or convoy, and also by circumstance. The relative size, design, performance and skill of the enemy; their numbers, geographical position, confidence and courage; their...

  11. (pp. 139-151)

    Once two fleets or ships became engaged, their behaviour was governed by an entirely separate type of tactic. The ‘grand’ tactics of fleet manœuvre and positioning made way for the tactics of fighting – the means by which two ships or fleets sought to inflict damage on each other.

    It has long been accepted that British sailors preferred to target the hull of their enemy, and there is certainly a great deal of evidence for the British gunners targeting the hull alone. Captain Middleton’s order book from August 1775 is specific that: ‘In firing against an enemy, the guns are to...

  12. (pp. 152-169)

    Essential to the debate over tactical choice is the question of damage. It was inevitable that performance capability fluctuated during battle, but the way in which it did so is largely unknown. If it is considered at all, then it is in the context of gunnery tactics. It is thus widely accepted that to fire high was to cause damage to the rig, disable and to target the manœuvrability of the enemy alone. It was the more defensive tactic,² and was even viewed by some as ineffective.³ On the other hand, firing low was to cause damage to the hull...

  13. (pp. 170-171)

    It is widely accepted that warfare at sea is very specific and exacting in its requirements, and warfare at sea under sail even more so, but our understanding of how and why that was the case is far from complete. The study of sailing warfare has existed for too long in a vacuum, divorced from the realities of practical capability; yet it is those realities which defined and described the nature of seafaring under sail, and which provide the key to understanding the nature and development of fighting tactics.

    At the heart of these realities are the twin issues of...