Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century, The Art of Sailing Warfare - Sam Willis

In my year review for 2019 as part of my plans for this year I mentioned some of the models and books I received over Xmas that were part of my early year modelling and reading plans with a promise to review this title as soon as I had finished it.

Well I started reading Sam Willis' book almost as soon as I had unwrapped it and found it an engrossing read.

The book is entitled as focused on the eighteenth century, but the content very much applies to the early nineteenth century as the Royal Navy became dominant in the period up to 1815.

So what to say about this particular book and why I found it so engrossing.

Perhaps I can find no better way of summing up the content than by quoting the author himself in his thinking behind writing this title. The book as described by Willis, in his preface, is a history of sailing warfare that 'was faithful to the practical realities of life at sea in the eighteenth century' and that with research started at sea before moving to the archives and museums, resulted in a series of essays designed to provide a thematic interpretation of fighting at sea.

Thus the book is laid out in a chronological narrative of two ships or fleets, meeting, engaging in a chase and escape, manoeuvring for position in an engagement, right through to the aftermath of battle.

In the process of describing the intricacies of each of these quite separate but linked steps, Willis makes careful reference to actual accounts referring to the experience of the men who did this for real with a notable reference to the many court martial records of the events, judged by the officer's peers, who in their recorded judgements either agreed with, or not, the actions taken, with an explanation of their thinking. 

The book is beautifully illustrated by Jamie Whyte with line drawings of the ships and their equipment pertinent to the text, together with nine glorious maps of the various naval theatres of the period. This example used to illustrate the layout of the standing rigging.

Alongside the accounts there are many battles quoted from the period to illustrate the results of the various actions taken which can at first seem quite overwhelming until you realise there is a copiously notated reference at the back of the book outlining the battles referenced and the key events in them. That said I did find myself thumbing through my copy of Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail by Brian Tunstall and Nicholas Tracy by Conway Maritime Press for extra insight, together with the excellent maps that particular title contains, but much of that kind of extra information is also quite readily available on the net.

As Willis points out, his book is very much Royal Navy centred given that most accounts come from a very extensive amount of firsthand source material and he also points out the omissions from the subjects covered such as the techniques involved with fighting at anchor or the practicalities of the immediate aftermath of battle.

That said this books covers a wealth of information in a very detailed and easy read that takes a landlubber like me through a very practical narrative of how these men practiced the art of sailing warfare and informs the way I imagine my model ships would have performed in reality.

Some of the standout references for me was covering how these men started to identify friend from foe in the days of limited optics and communications between ships meeting on the high seas; and the way the intent of a strange ship could be determined by the way its sails were set or how it reacted to seeing a stranger itself. 

The approach made by a stranger either to windward or larboard and how they approached, head on or presenting the broadside could cause one vessel to misinterpret the intentions of the other and occasionally cause friend to fire at friend if not done correctly or other factors prevented other ways to ascertain a strangers identity.

Even the shape of the ship helped the informed observer identify the likely nationality of a strange vessel, or even which friendly ship it was if part of a local squadron, and given that specific sail settings were observable from a much greater distance than signal flags, the setting of topsails could enable a signalling process over much greater distances by the simple process of setting the topsail at a certain shape or lowering and raising it several times.

Identifying friend from foe, reading a strangers intent and managing pursuit and evasion were all part of the skill set for a ship commander in the age of sail

When a ship or group of ships chose to run from a stranger and a chase developed, opposing ships could easily loose sight of one another over a long distance pursuit, and with the intervals of nightfall, the commander of the chasing ship would have to fall back on some basic deductions to work out the likely course of his prey once it had passed over the horizon, centred around where they were likely heading for, best course to maintain the best speed with the prevailing wind, to avoid being contacted again.

It is amazing how these simple techniques often enabled the pursuer to pick up the trail of a previous contact and how the better trained crew could often out-sail the faster ship with a poorly trained crew, and thus bring it to action.

One aspect of modelling fleet actions in Age of Sail games is the best ways of recreating signalling to capture the issues of command and control between multiple ships where a commander is attempting to bring a greater number of ships into action against a portion of an enemy fleet.

Nelson briefing his ships captains before Trafalgar

This aspect of naval warfare also caused much contemplation among the actual commanders themselves as outlined by Willis detailing the gradual adoption of standard operating procedures after some notable failures.

Willis points out some interesting aspects of this art of command, highlighting the difficulties for captains in mastering the techniques of manoeuvring in company with other ships in their squadron or division, taking into account the vagaries of their individual ships that could impact on their ability to keep station at the prescribed distance in the line of battle.

When it came to manoeuvring for action, historians focus on 'The Fighting Instructions', the codified list of what a captain should do in response to a specific signal from his respective commander, I say respective, because a captain had a first expectation of command to his direct commander before the fleet commander, another factor that could lead to confusion.

However the fighting instructions were just one part of the understanding between a senior admiral and his captains, which also included written instructions, those additional points that a specific admiral may issue that would either supersede the signal book, or add to it, and then there was the doctrine that governed what a captain should do in the event of a lack of orders for one reason or another.

The Court Martial documents help flesh out the view of this doctrinal approach where senior captains would take a view of the actions of a captain before them based on their understanding of what would have been most appropriate for the situation. An example would be the failure of a captain to come to the support of the ship nearest to him in the line assailed by an overpowering number of the enemy, something that was almost a given expectation in the Royal Navy.

To help captains in their approach to a likely imminent encounter with the enemy, it became standard for commanding admirals to meet with their captains to outline their plan and intent for battle to guide them in the actions to take when signalling and other communication became impractical. This developed into such a guiding principal  that the Admiralty started to take a very dim view of commanding admirals that failed to take this basic approach and then suffered a humiliating setback.

French Admiral Villeneuve, commander of the Combined fleet at Trafalgar

This aspect of command is where Nelson stands out among his peers in the way he was able to communicate his intent to such an extent that all his captains felt empowered as a unit to take the initiative in such circumstances, but not so that they would take actions that were of their own thinking but rather that of their commander; so much so that Admiral Villeneuve paid Nelson the compliment that he created a fleet of Nelsons, with captains very able at interpreting what their commander would expect of them in almost any given situation, with the great admiral famous for his comment about the least worst thing a captain could do would be to put his ship alongside that of the enemy.

The one aspect that helped confound this aspect of command and control at sea was that during the long periods of peace that separated the periods of war, these skills and abilities were often lost and lessons and skills had to be relearned as part of the build up to another war. This explains why fleets had to have time at sea to practice their manoeuvres and learn to understand their commander, their fellow captains, and their ships and crews abilities.

To add to these challenges, any movement of groups of ships between the different fleets could add to the time needed for this understanding to develop as the expectations of the admiral commanding the Channel Fleet could be quite different from that commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, and battle was not a good place to discover those differences as Willis illustrates with examples.

These are just some of the fascinating aspects of the realities of naval warfare of this period covered in this book, and I came away with a much deeper understanding of them after reading it and with a much better understanding of what could go wrong and why, when a commander sought to bring his ship or ships into action in a particular way and what the 'Command Factor' contained in some rules for the period are attempting to model in their differentiation.

Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century is 251 pages including the index and list of references.

The contents are;

List of Illustrations


1. Contact
2. Chase and Escape I: Speed and Performance
3. Chase and Escape II: The Tactics of Chasing
4. Station Keeping
5. Communication
6. Unwritten Rules
7. Command
8. The Weather Gage
9. Fleet Tactics
10. Fighting Tactics
11. Damage

Appendix: Fleet Battles
Glossary of Nautical Terms

This book seems readily available from most good book dealers from around £20 and is a welcome addition to any collection of reference books on the subject.

Next up, the 1:700th ships get their fist roll out with a selection of three scenarios trying out some rules to use with the models.


  1. Thanks for this in depth review of this book, It looks so good, ordered mine as soon as I finished reading your review

    1. Hi Jef,
      Great, I hope you enjoy the read.