TYPES OF NAVAL OFFICERS
Drawn from the History of the British Navy
With Some Account of the Conditions of Naval Warfare at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, and of its subsequent development during the Sail Period
A. T. Mahan, D.C.L., LL.D. Captain, United States Navy
Author of the "Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783," and "Upon the French Revolution and Empire;" of "The Life of Nelson," and a "Life of Farragut"
London Sampson Low, Marston & Company Limited 1902 Copyright, 1893 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Copyright, 1901_ by A. T. Mahan. All rights reserved November, 1901 University Press . John Wilson and Son . Cambridge, U.S.A.
Although the distinguished seamen, whose lives and professional characteristics it is the object of this work to present in brief summary, belonged to a service now foreign to that of the United States, they have numerous and varied points of contact with America; most of them very close, and in some instances of marked historical interest. The older men, indeed, were during much of their careers our fellow countrymen in the colonial period, and fought, some side by side with our own people in this new world, others in distant scenes of the widespread strife that characterized the middle of the eighteenth century, the beginnings of "world politics;" when, in a quarrel purely European in its origin, "black men," to use Macaulay's words, "fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America." All, without exception, were actors in the prolonged conflict that began in 1739 concerning the right of the ships of Great Britain and her colonies to frequent the seas bordering the American dominions of Spain; a conflict which, by gradual expansion, drew in the continent of Europe, from Russia to France, spread thence to the French possessions in India and North America, involved Spanish Havana in the western hemisphere and Manila in the eastern, and finally entailed the expulsion of France from our continent. Thence, by inevitable sequence, issued the independence of the United States. The contest, thus completed, covered forty-three years.
The four seniors of our series, Hawke, Rodney, Howe, and Jervis, witnessed the whole of this momentous period, and served conspicuously, some more, some less, according to their age and rank, during its various stages. Hawke, indeed, was at the time of the American Revolution too old to go to sea, but he did not die until October 16, 1781, three days before the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, which is commonly accepted as the closing incident of our struggle for independence. On the other hand, the two younger men, Saumarez and Pellew, though they had entered the navy before the American Revolution, saw in it the beginnings of an active service which lasted to the end of the Napoleonic wars, the most continuous and gigantic strife of modern times. It was as the enemies of our cause that they first saw gunpowder burned in anger.
Nor was it only amid the commonplaces of naval warfare that they then gained their early experiences in America. Pellew in 1776, on Lake Champlain, bore a brilliant part in one of the most decisive—though among the least noted—campaigns of the Revolutionary contest; and a year later, as leader of a small contingent of seamen, he shared the fate of Burgoyne's army at Saratoga. In 1776 also, Saumarez had his part in an engagement which ranks among the bloodiest recorded between ships and forts, being on board the British flag-ship Bristol at the attack upon Fort Moultrie, the naval analogue of Bunker Hill; for, in the one of these actions as in the other, the great military lesson was the resistant power against frontal attack of resolute marksmen, though untrained to war, when fighting behind entrenchments,—a teaching renewed at New Orleans, and emphasized in the recent South African War. The well-earned honors of the comparatively raw colonials received generous recognition at the time from their opponents, even in the midst of the bitterness proverbially attendant upon family quarrels; but it is only just to allow that their endurance found its counterpart in the resolute and persistent valor of the assailants. In these two battles, with which the War of Independence may be said fairly to have begun, by land and by water, in the far North and in the far South, the men of the same stock, whose ancestors there met face to face as foes, have now in peace a common heritage of glory. If little of bitterness remains in the recollections which those who are now fellow-citizens retain of the struggle between the North and the South, within the American Republic, we of two different nations, who yet share a common tongue and a common tradition of liberty and law, may well forget the wrongs of the earlier strife, and look only to the common steadfast courage with which each side then bore its share in a civil conflict.
The professional lives of these men, therefore, touch history in many points; not merely history generally, but American history specifically. Nor is this contact professional only, devoid of personal tinge. Hawke was closely connected by blood with the Maryland family of Bladen; that having been his mother's maiden name, and Governor Bladen of the then colony being his first cousin. Very much of his early life was spent upon the American Station, largely in Boston. But those were the days of Walpole's peace policy; and when the maritime war, which the national outcry at last compelled, attained large dimensions, Hawke's already demonstrated eminence as a naval leader naturally led to his employment in European waters, where the more immediate dangers, if not the greatest interests, of Great Britain were then felt to be. The universal character, as well as the decisive issues of the opening struggle were as yet but dimly foreseen. Rodney also had family ties with America, though somewhat more remote. Caesar Rodney, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Delaware, was of the same stock; their great-grandfathers were brothers. It was from the marriage of his ancestor with the daughter of a Sir Thomas Caesar that the American Rodney derived his otherwise singular name.
Howe, as far as known, had no relations on this side of the water; but his elder brother, whom he succeeded in the title, was of all British officers the one who most won from the colonial troops with whom he was associated a personal affection, the memory of which has been transmitted to us; while the admiral's own kindly attitude towards the colonists, and his intimacy with Franklin, no less than his professional ability, led to his being selected for the North American command at the time when the home country had not yet lost all hope of a peaceable solution of difficulties. To this the Howe tradition was doubtless expected to contribute. Jervis, a man considerably younger than the other three, by the accidents of his career came little into touch with either the colonies or the colonists, whether before or during the Revolutionary epoch; yet even he, by his intimate friendship with Wolfe, and intercourse with his last days, is brought into close relation with an event and a name indelibly associated with one of the great landmarks—crises—in the history of the American Continent. Although the issue of the strife depended, doubtless, upon deeper and more far-reaching considerations, it is not too much to say that in the heights of Quebec, and in the name of Wolfe, is signalized the downfall of the French power in America. There was prefigured the ultimate predominance of the traditions of the English-speaking races throughout this continent, which in our own momentous period stands mediator between the two ancient and contrasted civilizations of Europe and Asia, that so long moved apart, but are now brought into close, if not threatening, contact.
Interesting, however, as are the historical and social environments in which their personalities played their part, it is as individual men, and as conspicuous exemplars—types—of the varied characteristics which go to the completeness of an adequate naval organization, that they are here brought forward. Like other professions,—and especially like its sister service, the Army,—the Navy tends to, and for efficiency requires, specialization. Specialization, in turn, results most satisfactorily from the free play of natural aptitudes; for aptitudes, when strongly developed, find expression in inclination, and readily seek their proper function in the body organic to which they belong. Each of these distinguished officers, from this point of view, does not stand for himself alone, but is an eminent exponent of a class; while the class itself forms a member of a body which has many organs, no one of which is independent of the other, but all contributive to the body's welfare. Hence, while the effort has been made to present each in his full individuality, with copious recourse to anecdote and illustrative incident as far as available, both as a matter of general interest and for accurate portrayal, special care has been added to bring out occurrences and actions which convey the impression of that natural character which led the man to take the place he did in the naval body, to develop the professional function with which he is more particularly identified; for personality underlies official character.
In this sense of the word, types are permanent; for such are not the exclusive possession of any age or of any service, but are found and are essential in every period and to every nation. Their functions are part of the bed-rock of naval organization and of naval strategy, throughout all time; and the particular instances here selected owe their special cogency mainly to the fact that they are drawn from a naval era, 1739-1815, of exceptional activity and brilliancy.
There is, however, another sense in which an officer, or a man, may be accurately called a type; a sense no less significant, but of more limited and transient application. The tendency of a period,—especially when one of marked transition,—its activities and its results, not infrequently find expression in one or more historical characters. Such types may perhaps more accurately be called personifications; the man or men embodying, and in action realizing, ideas and processes of thought, the progress of which is at the time united, but is afterwards recognized as a general characteristic of the period. Between the beginning and the end a great change is found to have been effected, which naturally and conveniently is associated with the names of the most conspicuous actors; although they are not the sole agents, but simply the most eminent.
It is in this sense more particularly that Hawke and Rodney are presented as types. It might even be said that they complement each other and constitute together a single type; for, while both were men of unusually strong personality, private as well as professional, and with very marked traits of character, their great relation to naval advance is that of men who by natural faculty detect and seize upon incipient ideas, for which the time is ripe, and upon the practical realization of which the healthful development of the profession depends. With these two, and with them not so much contemporaneously as in close historical sequence, is associated the distinctive evolution of naval warfare in the eighteenth century; in their combined names is summed up the improvement of system to which Nelson and his contemporaries fell heirs, and to which Nelson, under the peculiar and exceptional circumstances which made his opportunity, gave an extension that immortalized him. Of Hawke and Rodney, therefore, it may be said that they are in their profession types of that element of change, in virtue of which the profession grows; whereas the other four, eminent as they were, exemplify rather the conservative forces, the permanent features, in the strength of which it exists, and in the absence of any one of which it droops or succumbs. It does not, however, follow that the one of these great men is the simple continuator of the other's work; rather it is true that each contributed, in due succession of orderly development, the factor of progress which his day demanded, and his personality embodied.
It was not in the forecast of the writer, but in the process of treatment he came to recognize that, like Hawke and Rodney, the four others also by natural characteristics range themselves in pairs,—presenting points of contrast, in deficiencies and in excellencies, which group them together, not by similarity chiefly, but as complementary. Howe and Jervis were both admirable general officers; but the strength of the one lay in his tactical acquirements, that of the other in strategic insight and breadth of outlook. The one was easy-going and indulgent as a superior; the other conspicuous for severity, and for the searchingness with which he carried the exactions of discipline into the minute details of daily naval life. Saumarez and Pellew, less fortunate, did not reach high command until the great days of naval warfare in their period had yielded to the comparatively uneventful occupation of girdling the enemy's coast with a system of blockades, aimed primarily at the restriction of his commerce, and incidentally at the repression of his navy, which made no effort to take the sea on a large scale. Under these circumstances the functions of an admiral were mainly administrative; and if Saumarez and Pellew possessed eminent capacity as general officers on the battle-field, they had not opportunity to prove it. The distinction of their careers coincides with their tenure of subordinate positions in the organisms of great fleets. With this in common, and differentiating them from Howe and Jervis, the points of contrast are marked. Saumarez preferred the ship-of-the-line, Pellew the frigate. The choice of the one led to the duties of a division commander, that of the other to the comparative independence of detached service, of the partisan officer. In the one, love of the military side of his calling predominated; the other was, before all, the seaman. The union of the two perfects professional character.
The question may naturally be asked,—Why, among types of naval officers, is there no mention, other than casual, of the name of Nelson? The answer is simple. Among general officers, land and sea, the group to which Nelson belongs defies exposition by a type, both because it is small in aggregate numbers, and because the peculiar eminence of the several members,—the eminence of genius,—so differentiates each from his fellows that no one among them can be said to represent the others. Each, in the supremacy of his achievement, stands alone,—alone, not only regarded as towering above a brilliant surrounding of distinguished followers, but alone even as contrasted with the other great ones who in their own day had a like supremacy. Such do not in fact form a class, because, though a certain community of ideas and principles may be traced in their actions, their personalities and methods bear each the stamp of originality in performance; and where originality is found, classification ceases to apply. There is a company, it may be, but not a class.
The last four biographies first appeared as contributions to the "Atlantic Monthly," in 1893 and 1894. I desire to return to the proprietors my thanks for their permission to republish. The original treatment has been here considerably modified, as well as enlarged. I am also under special obligation to Mr. Fleetwood Hugo Pellew, who gave me the photograph of Lord Exmouth, with permission also to reproduce it. It represents that great officer at the age most characteristic of his particular professional distinction, as by me understood.
A T. MAHAN. OCTOBER, 1901.
Page I Introductory.—Conditions of Naval Warfare at the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century 3
II Progress of Naval Warfare during the Eighteenth Century Hawke: The Spirit 77
III Progress of Naval Warfare during the Eighteenth Century (Continued) Rodney: The Form 148
IV Howe: The General Officer, as Tactician 254
V Jervis: The General Officer, as Disciplinarian and Strategist 320
VI Saumarez: The Fleet Officer and Division Commander 382
VII Pellew: The Frigate Captain and Partisan Officer 428
* * * * *
Edward, Lord Hawke Frontispiece From an engraving by W. Holl, after the painting by Francis Cotes in the Naval Gallery at Greenwich Hospital.
PAGE Plan of Byng's Action off Minorca, May 20, 1756 48
George Brydges, Lord Rodney 148 From an engraving by Edward Finden, after the painting by W. Grimaldi.
Richard, Earl Howe 254 From a mezzotint engraving by R. Dunkarton, after the painting by John Singleton Copley.
John Jervis, Earl St. Vincent 320 From an engraving by J. Cook, after the painting by Sir William Beechey.
James, Lord De Saumarez 382 From an engraving by W. Greatbatch, after a miniature in possession of the family.
Edward Pellew, Lord Exmouth 428 From the original painting in the possession of Orr Ewing, Esq.
TYPES OF NAVAL OFFICERS
NAVAL WARFARE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
The recent close of the nineteenth century has familiarized us with the thought that such an epoch tends naturally to provoke an estimate of the advance made in the various spheres of human activity during the period which it terminates. Such a reckoning, however, is not a mere matter of more and less, of comparison between the beginning and the end, regardless of intermediate circumstances. The question involved is one of an historical process, of cause and effect; of an evolution, probably marked, as such series of events commonly are, by certain salient incidents, the way-marks of progress which show the road traversed and the succession of stages through which the past has become the present. Frequently, also, such development associates itself not only with conspicuous events, but with the names of great men, to whom, either by originality of genius or by favoring opportunity, it has fallen to illustrate in action the changes which have a more silent antecedent history in the experience and reflection of mankind.
The development of naval warfare in the eighteenth century, its advance in spirit and methods, is thus exemplified in certain striking events, and yet more impressively is identified with the great names of Hawke and Rodney. The period of nearly half a generation intervened between their births, but they were contemporaries and actors, though to no large extent associates, during the extensive wars that occupied the middle of the century—the War of the Austrian Succession, 1739-1748, and the Seven Years War, 1756-1763. These two conflicts are practically one; the same characteristic jealousies and motives being common to both, as they were also to the period of nominal peace, but scarcely veiled contention, by which they were separated. The difference of age between the two admirals contributed not only to obviate rivalry, by throwing their distinctive activities into different generations, but had, as it were, the effect of prolonging their influence beyond that possible to a single lifetime, thus constituting it into a continuous and fruitful development.
They were both successful men, in the ordinary acceptation of the word success. They were great, not only in professional character, but in the results which do not always attend professional desert; they were great in achievement. Each name is indissolubly linked with a brilliant victory, as well as with other less known but equally meritorious actions; in all of which the personal factor of the principal agent, the distinctive qualities of the commander-in-chief, powerfully contributed and were conspicuously illustrated. These were, so to say, the examples, that enforced upon the men of their day the professional ideas by which the two admirals were themselves dominated, and upon which was forming a school, with professional standards of action and achievement destined to produce great effects.
Yet, while this is so, and while such emphatic demonstrations by deeds undoubtedly does more than any other teaching to influence contemporaries, and so to promote professional development, it is probably true that, as a matter of historical illustration, the advance of the eighteenth century in naval warfare is more clearly shown by two great failures, for neither of which were these officers responsible, and in one only of which in fact did either appear, even in a subordinate capacity. The now nearly forgotten miscarriage of Admiral Mathews off Toulon, in 1744, and the miserable incompetency of Byng, at Minorca, in 1756, remembered chiefly because of the consequent execution of the admiral, serve at least, historically, to mark the low extreme to which had then sunk professional theory and practice—for both were there involved. It is, however, not only as a point of departure from which to estimate progress that these battles—if they deserve the name—are historically useful. Considered as the plane to which exertion, once well directed and virile, had gradually declined through the prevalence of false ideals, they link the seventeenth century to the eighteenth, even as the thought and action—the theory and practice—of Hawke and Rodney uplifted the navy from the inefficiency of Mathews and Byng to the crowning glories of the Nile and Trafalgar, with which the nineteenth century opened. It is thus, as the very bottom of the wave, that those singular and signal failures have their own distinctive significance in the undulations of the onward movement. On the one hand they are not unaccountable, as though they, any more than the Nile and Trafalgar, were without antecedent of cause; and on the other they serve, as a background at least, to bring out the figures of the two admirals now before us, and to define their true historical import, as agents and as exponents, in the changes of their day.
It is, therefore, important to the comprehension of the changes effected in that period of transition, for which Hawke and Rodney stand, to recognize the distinctive lesson of each of these two abortive actions, which together may be said to fix the zero of the scale by which the progress of the eighteenth century is denoted. They have a relation to the past as well as to the future, standing far below the level of the one and of the other, through causes that can be assigned. Naval warfare in the past, in its origin and through long ages, had been waged with vessels moved by oars, which consequently, when conditions permitted engaging at all, could be handled with a scope and freedom not securable with the uncertain factor of the wind. The motive power of the sea, therefore, then resembled essentially that of the land,—being human muscle and staying power, in the legs on shore and in the arms at sea. Hence, movements by masses, by squadrons, and in any desired direction corresponding to a fixed plan, in order to concentrate, or to outflank,—all these could be attempted with a probability of success not predicable of the sailing ship. Nelson's remarkable order at Trafalgar, which may almost be said to have closed and sealed the record of the sail era, began by assuming the extreme improbability of being able at any given moment to move forty ships of his day in a fixed order upon an assigned plan. The galley admiral therefore wielded a weapon far more flexible and reliable, within the much narrower range of its activities, than his successor in the days of sail; and engagements between fleets of galleys accordingly reflected this condition, being marked not only by greater carnage, but by tactical combinations and audacity of execution, to which the sailing ship did not so readily lend itself.
When the field of naval warfare became extended beyond the Mediterranean,—for long centuries its principal scene,—the galley no longer met the more exacting nautical conditions; and the introduction of cannon, involving new problems of tactics and ship-building, accelerated its disappearance. The traditions of galley-fighting, however, remained, and were reinforced by the habits of land fighting,—the same men in fact commanding armies on shore and fleets at sea. In short, a period of transition ensued, marked, as such in their beginnings are apt to be, by an evident lack of clearness in men's appreciation of conditions, and of the path of development, with a consequent confusion of outline in their practice. It is not always easy to understand either what was done, or what was meant to be done, during that early sail era; but two things appear quite certainly. There is still shown the vehemence and determination of action which characterized galley fighting, visible constantly in the fierce effort to grapple the enemy, to break his ranks, to confuse and crush him; and further there is clear indication of tactical plan on the grand scale, broad in outline and combination, involving different—but not independent—action by the various great divisions of the fleet, each of which, in plan at least, has its own part, subordinate but contributory to the general whole.
The results, though not unimportant, were not satisfactory, for men were compelled to see that from various causes the huge numbers brought upon the field lapsed into confusion, and that battle, however well planned in large outline, resolved itself into a mere mass of warring units incoherently struggling one with another. There was lack of proportion between effort exerted and effect achieved. A period of systematization and organization set in. Unwieldy numbers were reduced to more manageable dimensions by excluding ships whose size and strength did not add to the efficiency of the order of battle; the powers and limitations of those which remained were studied, and certain simple tactical dispositions, fitted to particular emergencies, were recognized and adopted,—all tending to impart unity of movement and action, and to keep the whole in regulated order under the hand of the commander-in-chief, free from confusion.
To this point there was improvement; but reaction, as often, went too far. The change in accepted ideas is emphatically shown by a comparison of the Fighting Instructions of 1740 and 1756, when the crystallization of the system was complete but disintegration had not yet begun, with those issued in 1665 by the Duke of York, afterwards James II., at the beginning of the second of the three Anglo-Dutch Wars. His in turn are directly deducible from others framed shortly after the first war, in 1652-1654, when sail tactics had not passed the stage of infancy, and were still strongly affected by the galley tradition. There is here found, on the one hand, the prescription of the line of battle,—a single column of ships formed in each other's wake,—with the provision that if the enemy is to leeward, and awaits attack, the headmost squadron of the British shall steer for the headmost of the enemy's ships. This accords with the general tenor of the later Instructions; but there occurs elsewhere, and previously, the direction that, when the enemy is to windward, if the leading British Squadron finds it can weather any considerable part of them, it is to "tack and stand in, and strive to divide the enemy's body," and that, "being got to windward, is to bear down on those ships to leeward of them," which have thus been cut off.
The thing to be observed here is the separate, but positive, initiative prescribed for a portion of the fleet, with a view to divide the enemy, and then concentrate the whole fleet upon the fraction thus isolated. The British van takes a particular, but not an independent, action; for the other divisions contribute their part to the common purpose. "The middle squadron is to keep her wind, and to observe the motion of the enemy's van, which" [that is, "which" action of the middle squadron] "the last squadron—the rear—is to second; and both of these squadrons are to do their utmost to assist or relieve the first squadron, that divided the enemy's fleet." Evidently here we have tactical combination in order to decisive action; clearly contemplated also beforehand, not merely by a capable individual general, but by the consensus of professional opinion which such a paper as the Fighting Instructions necessarily reflects. The stamp of the galley period is upon this: strenuous and close battle, the piercing of the enemy's order, the movement of the squadrons differentiated, in order that they may in a real and effective sense combine, instead of being merely distributed, as they afterwards were by both the letter of the later Instructions and the tradition by which these became encrusted. Nor should there be overlooked, in this connection, the discretion allowed the centre and rear. They are to "keep their wind;" an expression which leaves optional whether to tack, or stand as they are, whether to engage the separated enemies to windward or to leeward, as occasion may offer, in support of the van. The provisions of 1665 afterwards disappear. In 1740, and even as late as 1781, they are traceable only in certain colorless articles, suggestive of the atrophied organs of a body concerning whose past use physiologists may speculate.
As in the restoration of sounder methods, with which we shall be concerned, this degeneration of ideals was a work of time. In June, 1666, the British met with a severe check in the Four Days Battle, in which Monk, a soldier, commanded in chief. This reverse is chiefly to be attributed to antecedent strategic errors, which made a portion only of the available British force bear the brunt of the first three days; but, among the inevitable criticisms, we find stress laid upon fighting in line as essential to success. This insistence upon the line as an effective instrument proceeded, among others, from Sir William Penn, a seaman, and was at that time in the direction of professional advance. The line had not yet obtained the general professional acceptance needed to establish and utilize its indisputable value. This process was gradual, but when effected it followed the usual laws of human development; from a valuable means, it became in men's estimation an exaggerated necessity. It came to pass in time that the line no longer existed for tactics, but tactics for the line, in which they found their consummation and end.
There intervened, however, a happier period,—one of transition,—and in the third Anglo-Dutch war, 1672-1674, we seem to find a close approach to just proportion between regularity of formation and decisive tactical purpose; in which the principle of the line is recognized and observed, but is utilized by professional audacity for definite and efficient tactical action, aiming at conclusive results. The finest exponent of this, the culminating epoch of naval warfare in the seventeenth century, is the Dutchman Ruyter, who, taken altogether, was the greatest naval seaman of that era, which may be roughly identified with the reign of Charles II. After that, naval warfare was virtually suspended for fifteen years, and when resumed in the last decade of the century, the traces of incipient degeneracy can already be noted amid much brilliant performance. From that time completeness of military achievement became in men's minds less of an object than accurate observance of rule, and in practice the defensive consideration of avoiding disaster began to preponderate over offensive effort for the destruction of the enemy.
In the development of tactical science, the French had played a leading part, as they usually have where reflective mental processes and formal evolution of ideas are concerned. Among admirals, the greatest name of this later period is the French Tourville, a master of the science of his profession, and gifted with a personal courage of the heroic type; while the leading exponent of Tourville's ideas, as well as historian of his achievements, was the French priest Paul Hoste,—chaplain to his fleet, and the father of the systematic treatment of naval evolutions. But with Tourville's name is associated not only a high level of professional management, but a caution in professional action not far removed from timidity, so that an impatient Minister of Marine of his day and nation styled him "poltroon in head, though not in heart." His powers were displayed in the preservation and orderly movement of his fleet; in baffling, by sheer skill, and during long periods, the efforts of the enemy to bring him to action; in skilful disposition, when he purposely accepted battle under disadvantage; but under most favorable opportunities he failed in measures of energy, and, after achieving partial success, superfluous care of his own command prevented his blows from being driven home.
Tourville, though a brilliant seaman, thus not only typified an era of transition, with which he was contemporary, but foreshadowed the period of merely formal naval warfare, precise, methodical, and unenterprising, emasculated of military virility, although not of mere animal courage. He left to his successors the legacy of a great name, but also unfortunately that of a defective professional tradition. The splendid days of the French Navy under Louis XIV. passed away with him,—he died in 1701; but during the long period of naval lethargy on the part of the state, which followed, the French naval officers, as a class, never wholly lost sight of professional ideals. They proved themselves, on the rare occasions that offered, before 1715 and during the wars of Hawke and Rodney, not only gallant seamen after the pattern of Tourville, but also exceedingly capable tacticians, upon a system good as far as it went, but defective on Tourville's express lines, in aiming rather at exact dispositions and defensive security than at the thorough-going initiative and persistence which confounds and destroys the enemy. "War," to use Napoleon's phrase, "was to be waged without running risks." The sword was drawn, but the scabbard was kept ever open for its retreat.
The English, in the period of reaction which succeeded the Dutch wars, produced their own caricature of systematized tactics. Even under its influence, up to 1715, it is only just to say they did not construe naval skill to mean anxious care to keep one's own ships intact. Rooke, off Malaga, in 1704, illustrated professional fearlessness of consequences as conspicuously as he had shown personal daring in the boat attack at La Hougue; but his plans of battle exemplified the particularly British form of inefficient naval action. There was no great difference in aggregate force between the French fleet and that of the combined Anglo-Dutch under his orders. The former, drawing up in the accustomed line of battle, ship following ship in a single column, awaited attack. Rooke, having the advantage of the wind, and therefore the power of engaging at will, formed his command in a similar and parallel line a few miles off, and thus all stood down together, the ships maintaining their line parallel to that of the enemy, and coming into action at practically the same moment, van to van, centre to centre, rear to rear. This ignored wholly the essential maxim of all intelligent warfare, which is so to engage as markedly to outnumber the enemy at a point of main collision. If he be broken there, before the remainder of his force come up, the chances all are that a decisive superiority will be established by this alone, not to mention the moral effect of partial defeat and disorder. Instead of this, the impact at Malaga was so distributed as to produce a substantial equality from one end to the other of the opposing fronts. The French, indeed, by strengthening their centre relatively to the van and rear, to some extent modified this condition in the particular instance; but the fact does not seem to have induced any alteration in Rooke's dispositions. Barring mere accident, nothing conclusive can issue from such arrangements. The result accordingly was a drawn battle, although Rooke says that the fight, which was maintained on both sides "with great fury for three hours, ... was the sharpest day's service that I ever saw;" and he had seen much,—Beachy Head, La Hougue, Vigo Bay, not to mention his own great achievement in the capture of Gibraltar.
This method of attack remained the ideal—if such a word is not a misnomer in such a case—of the British Navy, not merely as a matter of irreflective professional acceptance, but laid down in the official "Fighting Instructions." It cannot be said that these err on the side of lucidity; but their meaning to contemporaries in this particular respect is ascertained, not only by fair inference from their contents, but by the practical commentary of numerous actions under commonplace commanders-in-chief. It further received authoritative formulation in the specific finding of the Court-Martial upon Admiral Byng, which was signed by thirteen experienced officers. "Admiral Byng should have caused his ships to tack together, and should immediately have borne down upon the enemy; his van steering for the enemy's van, his rear for its rear, each ship making for the one opposite to her in the enemy's line, under such sail as would have enabled the worst sailer to preserve her station in the line of battle." Each phrase of this opinion is a reflection of an article in the Instructions. The line of battle was the naval fetich of the day; and, be it remarked, it was the more dangerous because in itself an admirable and necessary instrument, constructed on principles essentially accurate. A standard wholly false may have its error demonstrated with comparative ease; but no servitude is more hopeless than that of unintelligent submission to an idea formally correct, yet incomplete. It has all the vicious misleading of a half-truth unqualified by appreciation of modifying conditions; and so seamen who disdained theories, and hugged the belief in themselves as "practical," became doctrinaires in the worst sense.
It would seem, however, that a necessary antecedent to deliverance from a false conception,—as from any injurious condition,—is a practical illustration of its fallacy. Working consequences must receive demonstration, concrete in some striking disastrous event, before improvement is undertaken. Such experience is painful to undergo; but with most men, even in their private capacity, and in nearly all governmental action where mere public interests are at stake, remedy is rarely sought until suffering is not only felt, but signalized in a conspicuous incident. It is needless to say that the military professions in peace times are peculiarly liable to this apathy; like some sleepers, they can be awakened only by shaking. For them, war alone can subject accepted ideas to the extreme test of practice. It is doubtless perfectly true that acquaintance with military and naval history, mastery of their teachings, will go far to anticipate the penalty attaching to truth's last argument—chastisement; but imagination is fondly impatient of warning by the past, and easily avails itself of fancied or superficial differences in contemporary conditions, to justify measures which ignore, or even directly contravene, ascertained and fundamental principles of universal application.
Even immediate practical experience is misinterpreted when incidents are thus viewed through the medium of a precedent bias. The Transvaal War, for instance, has afforded some striking lessons of needed modifications, consequent upon particular local factors, or upon developments in the material of war; but does any thoughtful military man doubt that imagination has been actively at work, exaggerating or distorting, hastily waiving aside permanent truth in favor of temporary prepossessions or accidental circumstance? It is at least equally likely that the naval world at the present time is hugging some fond delusions in the excessive size and speed to which battle-ships are tending, and in the disproportionate weight assigned to the defensive as compared to the offensive factors in a given aggregate tonnage. Imagination, theory, a priori reasoning, is here at variance with rational historical precedent, which has established the necessity of numbers as well as of individual power in battle-ships, and demonstrated the superiority of offensive over defensive strength in military systems. These—and other—counterbalancing considerations have in past wars enforced the adoption of a medium homogeneous type, as conducive both to adequate numbers,—which permit the division of the fleet when required for strategic or tactical purposes,—and also directly to offensive fleet strength by the greater facility of manoeuvring possessed by such vessels; for the strength of a fleet lies not chiefly in the single units, but in their mutual support in elastic and rapid movement. Well tested precedent—experience—has here gone to the wall in favor of an untried forecast of supposed fundamental change in conditions. But experience is uncommonly disagreeable when she revenges herself after her own fashion.
The British Navy of the eighteenth century in this way received an unpleasant proof of the faultiness of its then accepted conclusions, in the miscarriages of Mathews off Toulon, in 1744, and of Byng off Minorca, in 1756. So fixed were men's habits of thought that the lessons were not at once understood. As evidenced by the distribution of censure, the results were attributed by contemporary judges to particular incidents of each battle, not to the erroneous underlying general plans, contravening all sound military precedent, which from the first made success improbable, indeed impossible, except by an inefficiency of the enemy which was not to be presumed. These battles therefore are important, militarily, in a sense not at all dependent upon their consequences, which were ephemeral. They are significant as extreme illustrations of incompetent action, deriving from faulty traditions; and they have the further value of showing the starting point, the zero of the scale, from which the progress of the century is to be measured. In describing them, therefore, attention will be given chiefly to those circumstances which exhibit the shackles under which fleet movements then labored, not only from the difficulties inherent to the sea and sailing ships, but from the ideas and methods of the times. Those incidents also will be selected which show how false standards affected particular individuals, according to their personal characteristics.
In Admiral Mathews' action, in February, 1744, an allied fleet composed of sixteen French ships-of-the-line and twelve Spanish lay in Toulon, waiting to sail for a Spanish port. The British, in force numerically equal, were at anchor under the Hyeres Islands, a few miles to the eastward. They got underway when the allied movement began on February 20th; but anchored again for the night, because the enemy that day came no farther than the outer road of Toulon. The next morning the French and Spaniards put to sea with a wind at first westerly, and stretched to the southward in long, single column, the sixteen French leading. At 10 A.M. the British followed, Vice-Admiral Lestock's division taking the van; but the wind, shifting to east, threw the fleet on the port tack, on which the rear under Rear-Admiral Rowley had to lead. It became necessary, therefore, for this division and the centre to pass Lestock, which took some time with the light airs prevailing. Two or three manoeuvres succeeded, with the object of forming the fighting order, a column similar and parallel to that of the enemy, and to get closer to him. When night fell a signal was still flying for the line abreast, by which, if completed, the ships would be ranged on a line parallel to the allies, and heading towards them; consequently abreast of each other. It would then need only a change of course to place them in column, sides to the enemy; which, as before said, was the fighting order—the "line of battle."
The line abreast, however, was not fully formed at dark. Therefore the admiral, in order to hasten its completion, soon afterwards made a night signal, with lanterns, for the fleet to bring-to,—that is, bring their sides to the wind, and stop. He intended thereby that the ships already in station should stand still, while the others were gaining their places, all which is a case of simple evolution, by land as by sea. It was contended by the admiral that Vice-Admiral Lestock's division was then too far to the right and rear, and hence too distant from the enemy, and that it was his duty first to get into his station and then to bring-to. To this the vice-admiral on his trial replied, first, that he was not out of his station; and, second, that if he were, the later signal, to bring-to, suspended the earlier, to form line abreast, and that it was therefore his business, without any discretion, to stop where he was. Concerning the first plea, a number of witnesses, very respectable in point of rank and opportunity for seeing, testified that the vice-admiral did bring-to three or four miles to the right and rear of his place in the line abreast, reckoning his station from the admiral's ship; yet, as the Court peremptorily rejected their evidence, it is probably proper to accept the contemporary decision as to this matter of fact.
But as regards the second plea, being a matter of military correctness, a difference of opinion is allowable. The Court adopted as its own the argument of the vice-admiral. Without entering here into a technical discussion, the Court's ruling, briefly stated, was that the second signal superseded the first, so that, if the vice-admiral was in the wrong place, it was not his duty to get into the right before stopping; and that this was doubly the case because an article of the Night Signals (7) prescribed that, under the conditions of the alleged offence, "a fleet sailing before the wind, or nearly so, if the admiral made the signal for the fleet to bring-to, the windward ships should bring-to first." Therefore, if Lestock was to windward, as the charge read, it was his duty to bring-to first and at once. It is evident, however, that even the Sailing Instructions, cast-iron as they were, contemplated a fleet in order, not one in process of forming order; and that to bring-to helter-skelter, regardless of order, was to obey the letter rather than the spirit. Muddle-headed as Mathews seems to have been, what he was trying to do was clear enough; and the duty of a subordinate was to carry out his evident aim. An order does not necessarily supersede its predecessor, unless the two are incompatible. The whole incident, from Lestock's act to the Court's finding, is instructive as showing the slavish submission to the letter of the Instructions; a submission traceable not to the law merely, but to the added tradition that had then fast hold of men's minds. It is most interesting to note that the unfortunate Byng was one of the signers of this opinion, as he was also one of the judges that sentenced Mathews to be dismissed from the navy, as responsible for the general failure.
During the night of the 21st the allies, who had stopped after dark, appear again to have made sail. Consequently, when day broke, the British found themselves some distance astern and to windward— northeast; the wind continuing easterly. Their line, indifferently well formed in van and centre, stretched over a length of nine miles through the straggling of the rear. Lestock's ship was six miles from that of Mathews, whereas it should not have been more than two and a half, at most, in ordinary sailing; for battle, the Instructions allowed little over a half-mile. Accepting the Court's finding that he was in position at dark, this distance can only be attributed, as Lestock argued and the Court admitted, to a current—that most convenient of scape-goats in navigation. The allies, too, had a lagging rear body, five Spanish ships being quite a distance astern; but from van to rear they extended but six miles, against the British nine. It was the distance of the British rear, not straggling in van or centre, that constituted this disadvantage.
Mathews wished to wait till Lestock reached his place, but the allies were receding all the time; and, though their pace was slackened to enable the five sternmost Spaniards to come up, the space between the fleets was increasing. It was the duty of the British admiral to force an action, on general principles; but in addition he believed that the French intended to push for Gibraltar, enter the Atlantic, and join their Brest fleet, in order to cover an invasion of England by an army reported to be assembling at Dunkirk. Clearly, therefore, something must be done; yet to enter into a general engagement with near a third of his command out of immediate supporting distance was contrary to the accepted principles of the day. The fleet was not extended with that of the enemy, by which is meant that the respective vans, centres, and rears were not opposed; the British van being only abreast of the allied centre, their centre of the allied rear, Lestock tailing away astern and to windward, while the dozen leading French were some distance ahead of both bodies. Now the Fighting Instructions required that, "If the admiral and his fleet have the wind of the enemy, and they have stretched themselves in a line of battle, the van of the admiral's fleet is to steer with the van of the enemies, and there to engage them." There was no alternative course laid down; just as there was no punishment alternative to death in the Article of War under which Byng was shot.
Yet the indications all were that to wait for this most formal and pedantic disposition, which ignored every principle of warfare, would be to throw away the chance of battle. The French, fresh from port and clean-bottomed, out-sailed the bulk of the British, as did the Spaniards, though to a less degree; and it was part of Lestock's defence, admitted by the Court, that, doing his utmost, his division, as a whole, certainly could not get abreast the allied rear. Lestock, indeed, directly submitted to the Court that the commander-in-chief was at fault in not waiting till his line was thus extended and formed, and then all bearing down together, in line abreast; although by his own contention no such issue could have been reached that day, unless the allies were obliging enough to wait. "I aver, and I shall die in this opinion, that no man that is an officer, who knows his duty, will make the signal for line abreast to steer down upon an enemy, until the fleet has been stretched and extended in a line of battle, according to the 19th Article of the Fighting Instructions. Can it be service," he adds, "to bear down so much unformed and in confusion, that the van cannot possibly join battle with, or engage the van of the enemy, the centre with the centre, and the rear with the rear?"
Mathews not being then on trial, the Court in its finding did not reply directly to this question; but indirectly it left no doubt as to its opinion. "The Admiral, by bearing down as he did upon the rear division of the combined fleet, excluded the Vice-Admiral from any part of the engagement, if he could have come up; for if both lines had been closed, when the Admiral engaged the Real, there would have been no more than one ship of the enemy's fleet for the Vice-Admiral and his whole division to have engaged." Again, "It does not appear that the Vice-Admiral was in any part the cause of the miscarriage of his Majesty's fleet in the Mediterranean; the bringing on of the general engagement according to the 19th Article of the Fighting Instructions ... not depending upon him." Sixteen officers of the rank of captain and above signed these opinions, and there is no denying the words of the 19th Article; yet one wonders to see no recognition of the necessity of using your opportunity as you find it, of the moral effect of an approaching reserve, which Lestock's division would have constituted, of the part it may take in improving or repairing the results of an action—taking the place of injured friends, preventing injured foes escaping, turning doubtful battle into victory. But no; these commonplaces of to-day and of all time were swamped by the Fighting Instructions. It will be seen in the sequel what a disastrous moral influence Lestock's aloofness exercised upon a few timid captains, and not improbably upon the entire subsequent course and worst errors of his unfortunate superior.
One of the witnesses in the ensuing Courts-Martial testified that the commander-in-chief, under these perplexing circumstances, went into the stern gallery of the flag-ship Namur, and called to Captain Cornwall of the Marlborough, next astern, asking what he thought. Cornwall replied he "believed they would lose the glory of the day, if they did not attack the Spaniards,"—i.e., the allied rear-centre and rear,—"the Vice-Admiral—Lestock—being so far astern." To which the admiral said, "If you'll bear down and attack the Real,"—the Real Felipe, Spanish flag-ship,—"I'll be your second." This was about one o'clock, and the signal to engage had been made two hours earlier, probably with the double object of indicating the ultimate intention of the movements in hand, and the immediate urgency of forming the line. The admiral's words betray the indecision of an irresolute nature and of professional rustiness, but not of timidity, and Cornwall's words turned the scale. The course of the flag-ship Namur had hitherto been but a little off the wind, "lasking" down, to use the contemporary but long obsolete expression, in such manner as to show the admiral's desire to engage himself with the enemy's centre, according to the Fighting Instructions; but now, in hopelessness of that result, she kept broad off, directly for the nearest enemy, accompanied closely by the Norfolk, her next ahead, and by the Marlborough. Rear-Admiral Rowley, commanding the van, imitated the admiral's example, bringing the French ship abreast him to close action. He also was thoroughly supported by the two captains next astern of him, the second of whom was Edward Hawke,—afterwards the brilliant admiral,—in the Berwick. Two British groups, each of three ships, were thus hotly engaged; but with an interval between them of over half a mile, corresponding to the places open for six or seven other vessels. The conduct of the ships named, under the immediate influence of the example set by the two admirals, suggests how much the average man is sustained by professional tone; for a visible good example is simply a good standard, a high ideal, realized in action.
Unfortunately, however, just as Hawke's later doings showed the man able to rise above the level of prescribed routine duty, there was found in the second astern of the Namur a captain capable of exceptional backwardness, of reasoning himself into dereliction of clear duty, and thus effecting a demonstration that the example of timidity is full as contagious and more masterful than that of audacity. The flag-ships and their supporters ranged themselves along the hostile line to windward, within point-blank range; according to the 20th Article of the Fighting Instructions, which read, "Every Commander is to take care that his guns are not fired till he is sure he can reach the enemy upon a point-blank; and by no means to suffer his guns to be fired over any of our own ships." The point-blank is the range of a cannon laid level, and the requirement was necessary to efficient action in those days of crude devices for pointing, with ordnance material of inferior power. Even sixty years later Nelson expressed his indifference to improvements in pointing, on the ground that the true way of fighting was to get so close that you could not miss your aim. Thus Mathews' captain placed the Namur, of ninety guns, within four hundred yards—less than quarter of a mile—of the Spanish flag-ship, the Real Felipe, of one hundred and ten guns; and Cornwall brought the Marlborough immediately in the wake of the Namur, engaging the Spanish Hercules. But the Dorsetshire, which should have followed the Marlborough, was stopped by her commander, Captain George Burrish, at a distance which was estimated by several witnesses to be from half a mile to nearly a mile from the enemy, or, to use a very expressive phrase then current, "at random shot." The Court-Martial, however, in pronouncing upon this point, decided that inasmuch as a bar-shot came on board the Dorsetshire in this early part of the engagement, she must be construed to have brought to within extreme point-blank. In view of the mass of testimony to the greater distance, this seems to have been simply giving the benefit of a doubt.
Thus situated, the action between the Namur and Marlborough on the one side, and the Real Felipe and Hercules on the other, was for some time very hot; but the Marlborough, moving faster than the Namur, closed upon her, so that she had to get out of the way, which she did by moving ahead and at the same time hauling to windward, till she reached as far from the Spanish line as the Dorsetshire had remained. The Court in this matter decided that, after the admiral had thus hauled off, the Dorsetshire was in a line, or as far to leeward—towards the enemy—as the admiral. The Marlborough was thus left alone, exposed to the fire of a ship heavier than herself, and also to that of the Hercules, which was able to train upon her a considerable part of her battery. Under these circumstances, it was the duty of the Dorsetshire, as it was the opportunity of her commander, by attacking the Hercules, to second, and support, the engaged ship; but she continued aloof. After two hours—by 3 P.M.—the main and mizzen masts were cut out of the Marlborough, and she lost her captain with forty-two men killed, and one hundred and twenty wounded, out of a crew of seven hundred and fifty. Thus disabled, the sails on the foremast turned her head towards the enemy, and she lay moving sluggishly, between the fleets, but not under control. The admiral now sent an officer to Burrish—the second that morning—to order him into his station and to support the Marlborough; while to the latter, in response to an urgent representation by boat of her condition, and that she was threatened by the approach of the hitherto separated ships of the Spanish rear, he replied that the Namur was wearing and would come to her assistance.
When Burrish received his message, he sent for his lieutenants on the quarter-deck, and spoke to them words which doubtless reflect the reasoning upon which he was justifying to himself his most culpable inaction. "Gentlemen, I sent for you to show you the position of our ships to windward," (i.e. the ships of the centre division behind him, and Lestock's division), "likewise those five sail [Spanish] of the enemy that are astern of us. I have my orders to engage the Real, and you see I am bearing down for that purpose." The lieutenants remarked that he could do so with safety. To this he rejoined, with a curtness that testifies to the uneasiness of his mind, "I did not send for you to ask your opinions, but only to observe that not one of our ships is coming down to my assistance, in order to cut those five sail off, and in case those five sail should oblige me to haul my wind again, and leave the Marlborough, that you may be able to indemnify my conduct, if called in question." One witness also testified that he "was angry that Admiral Lestock's division did not bear down,"—which was just enough,—and that "he thought it most advisable to keep his station;" meaning by this, apparently, to remain where he was. His cross-examination of the evidence was directed to prove the danger to his ship from these remaining Spaniards. This anxiety was wholly misplaced, and professionally unworthy. Quite independent of orders by signal and message, he was bound, in view of the condition of the Marlborough, to go to her relief, and to assume that the three English ships of the centre division, in his rear, would surely sustain him. To base contrary action upon a doubt of their faithfulness was to condemn himself. Four ships to five under such conditions should be rather a spur than a deterrent to an officer of spirit, who understands the obligation of his calling.
Till this, the Dorsetshire had been under her three topsails only. She appears then to have stood down under more sail, but very slowly, and here occurred another disaster which was largely chargeable to her being out of her station. Seeing the desperate state of the Marlborough, Mathews, who throughout managed blunderingly, with the single exception of the original attack, had thought to aid her and divert the fire of the Real by sending against the latter a fire-ship. It was elementary that vessels of this class needed energetic support and cover in their desperate work. Small in size, of no battery-force except against boat attacks, loaded with combustibles and powder, success in the use of them under an enemy's guns required not only imperturbable coolness and nerve, but the utmost attainable immunity from the attention of the enemy. This could be secured only by a heavy and sustained fire from their own fleet. With the Norfolk, Namur, Marlborough, and Dorsetshire in close line, as they should have been, and heavily engaged, a fire-ship might have passed between them, and, though at imminent hazard even so, have crossed the four hundred yards of intervening water to grapple the hostile flag-ship; but with the Marlborough lying disabled and alone, the admiral himself acting with indecision, and the Dorsetshire hanging aloof, the attempt was little short of hopeless. Still it was made, and the Anne Galley—such was her odd name—bore down, passing close by the Dorsetshire.
It became doubly the duty of Burrish to act, to push home whatever demonstration was in his power to make; the fire-ship, however, went by him and was permitted to pursue her desperate mission without his support. The Real, seeing the Anne approach, bore up out of her line, and at the same time sent a strongly-manned launch to grapple and tow her out of the way. This was precisely one of the measures that it was the business of supporting ships to repel. The captain of the fire-ship, thrown upon his own resources, opened fire, a most hazardous measure, as much of his priming was with loose powder; but the launch readily avoided injury by taking position directly ahead, where the guns would not bear. The crew of the Anne were now ordered into the boat, except the captain and five others, who were to remain to the last moment, and light the train; but from some cause not certainly demonstrated she exploded prematurely, being then within a hundred yards of the Real. It is necessary to say that the Court-Martial acquitted Burrish of blame, because he "had no orders to cover the fire-ship, either by signal or otherwise." Technically, the effect of this finding was to shift an obvious and gross blunder from the captain to some one else; but it is evident that if the Dorsetshire had occupied her station astern of the Marlborough, the fire-ship's attempt would have been much facilitated.
The Court decided unanimously that Burrish "ought to have borne down as far to leeward as where the admiral first began to engage, notwithstanding that the admiral might be hauled off before the Dorsetshire got so far to leeward." The point upon which the line should have been formed was thus established by the Court's finding. The subsequent proceedings of this ship need not be related. She now came slowly into close action, but that part of the enemy's order was already broken, and their rear vessels, the fear of which had controlled her captain, passed by as they came up without serious action.
How far Burrish's example influenced the captains immediately behind him cannot certainly be affirmed. Such shyness as he displayed is not only infectious, but saps that indispensable basis upon which military effectiveness reposes, namely, the certainty of co-operation and support, derived from mutual confidence, inspired by military discipline, obedience, and honor. It is well to note here that the remoteness of Lestock's division thus affected Burrish, who evidently could not understand either its distance or its failure to approach, and who, being what he was, saw himself threatened with want of that backing which he himself was refusing to the Marlborough. While he was blaming Lestock, hard things were being said about him in Lestock's division; but the lesson of Lestock's influence upon Burrish is not less noteworthy because the latter forfeited both duty and honor by his hesitation. It is to be feared that the captain of the Essex, following the Dorsetshire, was a coward; even so Burrish, an old captain, certainly did not cheer his heart by good example, but rather gave him the pretext for keeping still farther off. The rearmost two ships of the division but confirm the evidences of demoralization, and the more so that their captains seem from the evidence to have been well-disposed average men; but the five Spanish vessels approaching, with the Dorsetshire and the Essex holding aloof, was too much for their resolution—and not unnaturally. The broad result, however, was lamentable; for four British ships feared to come to the aid of an heroic and desperately injured consort, in deadly peril, because five enemies were drawing nigh.
Upon these four therefore fell, and not unjustly, the weight of national anger. Burrish was cashiered, and declared forever incapable of being an officer in the Navy. Norris, of the Essex, absconded to avoid trial. The two others were pronounced unfit to command, but, although never again employed, mitigating circumstances in their behavior caused them to be retained on the lists of the Navy. It is not too much to say that they were men just of the stamp to have escaped this shame and ruin of reputation, under more favorable conditions of professional tone.
Concerning the vice-admiral's action at this time, which had its share in the ruin of these captains, another curious instance of men's bondage to the order of battle transpires. The three rear ships of his squadron were clean, that is, relatively fast; and they were rearmost for this very reason of speed, because, when the division led on the other tack, they, as headmost ships of the fleet, would be ready to chase. Nevertheless, when the admiral sent to Lestock in the forenoon to hurry him into line, no order was given to these ships to press ahead. Why? Lestock answers that to send those ships ahead, out of the place in the line prescribed to them by the commander-in-chief, was breaking the line, which should expose him to condign punishment; and this opinion the Court also adopts: "The [only] messages sent to the Vice-Admiral by the Admiral's two lieutenants were to make what sail he possibly could, and to close the line with his division; no signal was made for him to chase with his division, or send ships of his division to chase; without which, while the signal for the line of battle was flying, and more especially after the messages brought him, he could not, without breach of duty, either have chased or sent ships to chase out of the line." It is to be noted that the word "chase" is here used in the strictest technical sense, not merely to exclude Lestock from diverting a ship to some other purpose than that of the engagement, but even from shifting her place in the general order in the view of furthering the engagement; for the Court says again: "The Vice-Admiral could not send any ships of his division to the relief of the Namur and Marlborough without breaking the order of battle, there being four ships of the Admiral's division" (to wit, the Dorsetshire and that crowd) "stationed between the Vice-Admiral's division and the Marlborough, which four ships might have gone to the assistance of the Marlborough."
The second in command thus had no liberty to repair either the oversights of his superior, or the results of obvious bad conduct in juniors; for Burrish's backwardness was observed throughout the rear. There was a long road yet to travel to Nelson's personal action at St. Vincent and Copenhagen, or to his judicious order at Trafalgar, "The Second in command will, after my intentions are made known to him, have the entire direction of his line." Even that great officer Hood, off the Chesapeake in 1781, felt himself tied hand and foot by the union flag at the mizzen peak,—the signal for the line. Only the commander-in-chief could loose the bonds; either by his personal initiative alone, and vigilant supervision, as did Hawke and Rodney, or by adding to this the broad view of discretion in subordinates which Nelson took. Before leaving this subject, note may be taken of a pettifogging argument advanced by Lestock and adopted by the Court, that orders to these three ships to press ahead would have resulted in nothing, because of the lightness of the wind then and afterwards. True, doubtless, and known after the fact; but who before the event could predict the uncertain Mediterranean breeze, or how much each foot gained might contribute to the five minutes which measure the interval between victory and defeat. It is not by such lagging hesitations that battles are won.
It is a trivial coincidence, though it may be noted in passing, that as it was the second astern of the commander-in-chief on whom fell the weight of the disgrace, so it was the second astern of the commander of the van who alone scored a distinct success, and achieved substantial gain of professional reputation. Hawke, at first bearing down, had come to close action with the Spanish Neptuno, a vessel nominally of less force than his own ship, the Berwick. The Neptuno was at length driven out of her line, with a loss of some two hundred killed and wounded. Thus left without an immediate antagonist, Hawke's attention was attracted by another Spanish vessel, the Poder, of the same nominal force as the Neptuno, and following her in the order; with which four or five of the seven British ships, that should have closed the interval between Mathews and Rowley, were carrying on a distant and circumspect engagement, resembling in caution that of the Dorsetshire and her followers. He carried the Berwick close alongside the new enemy, dismasted her, and after two hours compelled her to strike her flag; the only vessel in either fleet that day to surrender, and then only after a resistance as honorable to Spain as that of the Marlborough had been to Great Britain. Her commander refused to yield his sword to any but Hawke, who also took possession of the prize with a party from his own ship; thus establishing beyond dispute, by all customary formalities, his claim to the one trophy of the day. The occurrences through which she was afterwards lost to the British, so that only the honor of the capture remained, and that to Hawke alone, must be briefly told; for they, too, are a part of the mismanagement that has given to this battle its particular significance in naval history.
As the unlucky fire-ship bore down, Mathews began wearing the Namur,—turning her round, that is, from the wind, and therefore towards the Marlborough and her opponents. In this he seems to have had first in view supporting the fire-ship and covering the Marlborough. Boats were ahead of the latter towing her from the enemy. As she was thus being dragged off, but after the fire-ship blew up, the Namur passed between her and the hostile line; then, hauling to the wind on the starboard tack, she stood north towards Lestock's division. This movement to the rear was imitated by the British ships of the centre,—the Dorsetshire and others,—and, beyond a brush with the rear five Spanish vessels as they came up, the action in the centre here ceased.
This retrograde movement of Mathews and his division drew the centre away from the van. At about the same time the allied van, composed wholly of French ships, seeing the straits of the Poder and the Real, tacked—turned round—to come down to their assistance. This imposed a like movement upon the British van, lest it should be engaged apart from the rest of the fleet, and perhaps doubled on, by a number of perfectly fresh ships. The Poder, having lost her chief spars, could not be carried off, nor was Hawke able even to remove the men he had thrown on board. She was therefore retaken by the French. Lieutenant Lloyd, the officer in charge, escaped with a part of the prize crew, taking with him also a number of Spanish prisoners; but a junior lieutenant and some seamen were left behind and captured. The Berwick being compelled to follow her division, Lloyd could not rejoin her till the following day, and sought refuge for that night on board another ship.
The next day, February 23d, Mathews had another chance. As he did not pursue during the night, while the allies continued to retire, he was a long way off at daylight; but his fleet was now united, and the enemy retreating. He need therefore have no anxiety about the crippled Marlborough, but could follow freely; whereas, the enemy being pursued, their injured ships both retarded the movement and were endangered. In the course of the day, the Poder had lagged so far behind that Admiral Rowley, who had recognized Hawke's enterprise the day before, directed him to move down upon her. As he approached, the French ship in company abandoned her, but in taking possession Hawke was anticipated by the Essex, which Mathews himself had ordered to do so. The captain of the Essex got hold of the Spanish flag, with some other small trophies, which he afterwards refused to give up unless compelled; and, as Mathews would not give an order, Hawke never got them. Thus curiously it came to pass that the one man who above several misdemeanants distinguished himself by bad conduct, amounting to cowardice, and who ran away to escape trial, kept the tokens of the single achievement of the day from him whose valor had won them. The Poder herself was set on fire, and destroyed.
The British fleet continued to follow during the 23d, and at nightfall was within three or four miles of the enemy, when Mathews again stopped. The allies, continuing to withdraw, were next morning nearly out of sight, and further pursuit was abandoned.
Thus ended this almost forgotten affair, which in its day occasioned to an unusual degree the popular excitement and discussion which always follow marked disaster, and but rarely attend success. Besides the particular missteps of Lestock and the individual captains, which have been mentioned, Mathews's conduct was marked by serious failures in professional competency. The charge preferred against him which seems most to have attracted attention, and to have been considered most damaging, was taking his fleet into action in a confused and disorderly manner. It is significant of professional standards that this should have assumed such prominence; for, however faulty may have been his previous management, the most creditable part of his conduct was the manner of his attack. He did not wait for a pedantically accurate line, but by a straightforward onslaught, at a favorable moment, upon a part of the enemy,—and that the rear,—set an example which, had it been followed by all who could do so, would probably have resulted in a distinct and brilliant success. He was justified—if he reasoned at all—in expecting that Lestock could get into action as soon as the French van; or, at the least, before it could reverse the conditions which would have ensued from a vigorous encounter upon the lines of Mathews's attack. It is most doubtful, indeed, whether the French van would have ventured to engage, in the case supposed; for the French admiral, writing to the French ambassador in Spain, used these words: "It is clear, in the situation I was in, it could not be expected that a French admiral should go to the assistance of the Spaniards; neither could the vanguard of the fleet do it without running the hazard of being surrounded by the vanguard of the English, which had the wind of them; but as soon as the English left me I drew together all the ships of both squadrons, and sailed immediately to the assistance of the Real Felipe, in doing which I was exposed to the fire of the whole English line; but happily the English did not punish my rashness as it deserved." Evidently De Court shared to the full the professional caution which marked the French naval officers, with all their personal courage; for if it was rash to pass the hostile line after it wore, it would be reckless to do so before.
Considered simply as a tactical situation, or problem, quite independent of any tactical forethought or insight on the part of the commander-in-chief,—of which there is little indication,—the conditions resulting from his attack were well summed up in a contemporary publication, wholly adverse to Mathews in tone, and saturated with the professional prepossessions embodied in the Fighting Instructions. This writer, who claims to be a naval officer, says:
"The whole amount of this fight is that the centre, consisting of eleven ships-of-the-line, together with two of-the-line and two fifty-gun ships of the Rear-Admiral's division [the van], were able to destroy the whole Spanish squadron, much more so as three of those ships went on with the French [the allied van], and four of the sternmost did not get up with their admiral before it was darkish, long after the fire-ship's misfortune, so that the whole afternoon there were only five, out of which the Constante was beat away in less than an hour; what then fifteen ships could be doing from half an hour past one till past five, no less than four hours, and these ships not taken, burnt, and destroyed, is the question which behooves them to answer."
In brief, then, Mathews's attack was so delivered that the weight of thirteen of-the-line fell upon five Spanish of the same class, the discomfiture of which, actually accomplished even under the misbehavior of several British ships, separated the extreme rear, five other Spanish vessels, from the rest of the allies. Whatever the personal merit or lack of merit on the part of the commander-in-chief, such an opportunity, pushed home by a "band of brothers," would at the least have wiped out these rear ten ships of the allies; nor could the remainder in the van have redeemed the situation. As for the method of attack, it is worthy of note that, although adopted by Mathews accidentally, it anticipated, not only the best general practice of a later date, but specifically the purpose of Rodney in the action which he himself considered the most meritorious of his whole career,—that of April 17, 1780. The decisive signal given by him on that occasion, as explained by himself, meant that each ship should steer, not for the ship corresponding numerically to her in the enemy's order, but for the one immediately opposite at the time the signal was made. This is what Mathews and his seconds did, and others should have imitated. Singularly enough, not only was the opportunity thus created lost, but there is no trace of its existence, even, being appreciated in such wise as to affect professional opinion. As far as Mathews himself was concerned, the accounts show that his conduct, instead of indicating tactical sagacity, was a mere counsel of desperation.
But after engaging he committed palpable and even discreditable mistakes. Hauling to windward—away—when the Marlborough forced him ahead, abandoned that ship to overwhelming numbers, and countenanced the irresolution of the Dorsetshire and others. Continuing to stand north, after wearing on the evening of the battle, was virtually a retreat, unjustified by the conditions; and it would seem that the same false step gravely imperilled the Berwick, Hawke holding on, most properly, to the very last moment of safety, in order to get back his prize-crew. Bringing-to on the night of the 23d was an error of the same character as standing north during that of the 22d. It was the act of a doubtful, irresolute man,—irresolute, not because a coward, but because wanting in the self-confidence that springs from conscious professional competency. In short, the commander-in-chief's unfitness was graphically portrayed in the conversation with Cornwall from the quarter gallery of the flag-ship. "If you approve and will go down with me, I will go down." Like so many men, he needed a backer, to settle his doubts and to stiffen his backbone. The instance is far from unique.
In the case of Byng, as of Mathews, we are not concerned with the general considerations of the campaign to which the battle was incidental. It is sufficient to note that in Minorca, then a British possession, the French had landed an army of 15,000 men, with siege artillery sufficient to reduce the principal port and fortress, Port Mahon; upon which the whole island must fall. Their communications with France depended upon the French fleet cruising in the neighborhood. Serious injury inflicted upon it would therefore go far to relieve the invested garrison.
[Transcriber's Note: This illustration shows on a map the positions of the fleets and their ships at various times in the action. Critical positions on the map are marked with codes such as "B1" and "F2", which will be referred to below in the text. This illustration is available in the HTML version of the e-book.]
Under these circumstances the British fleet sighted Minorca on the 19th of May, 1756, and was attempting to exchange information with the besieged, when the French fleet was seen in the southeast. Byng stood towards it, abandoning for the time the effort to communicate. That night both fleets manoeuvred for advantage of position with regard to the wind. The next day, between 9 and 10 A.M., they came again in view of each other, and at 11 were about six miles apart, the French still to the southeast, with a breeze at south-southwest to southwest. The British once more advanced towards them, close hauled on the starboard tack, heading southeasterly, the enemy standing on the opposite tack, heading westerly, both carrying sail to secure the weather gage (B1, F1). It appeared at first that the French would pass ahead of the British, retaining the windward position; but towards noon the wind changed, enabling the latter to lie up a point or two higher (B2). This also forced the bows of the several French vessels off their course, and put them out of a regular line of battle; that is, they could no longer sail in each other's wake (F2). Being thus disordered, they reformed on the same tack, heading northwest, with the wind very little forward of the beam. This not only took time, but lost ground to leeward, because the quickest way to re-establish the order was for the mass of the fleet to take their new positions from the leewardmost vessel. When formed (F3), as they could not now prevent the British line from passing ahead, they hove-to with their main-topsails aback,—stopped,—awaiting the attack, which was thenceforth inevitable and close at hand.
In consequence of what has been stated, the British line (B2-B3)—more properly, column—was passing ahead of the French (F2-F3), steering towards their rear, in a direction in a general sense opposite to theirs, but not parallel; that is, the British course made an angle, of between thirty and forty-five degrees, with the line on which their enemy was ranged. Hence, barring orders to the contrary,—which were not given,—each British ship was at its nearest to the enemy as she passed their van, and became more and more distant as she drew to the rear. It would have been impossible to realize more exactly the postulate of the 17th Article of the Fighting Instructions, which in itself voiced the ideal conditions of an advantageous naval position for attack, as conceived by the average officer of the day; and, as though most effectually to demonstrate once for all how that sort of thing would work, the adjunct circumstances approached perfection. The admiral was thoroughly wedded to the old system, without an idea of departing from it, and there was a fair working breeze with which to give it effect, for the ships under topsails and foresail would go about three knots; with top-gallant sails, perhaps over four. A fifty-gun ship, about the middle of the engagement, had to close her lower deck ports when she set her top-gallant sails on the wind, which had then freshened a little.