Wednesday, 11 November 2020

A History of the Royal Navy, The Napoleonic Wars - Martin Robson


The Royal Navy of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars has not been front and centre of my focus with my previous collections of age of sail models, with my attention more drawn to the American War of Independence and particularly the interesting naval campaign fought between Hughes and Suffren, a period I will no doubt come back to in time.

Thus with my attention very much on the later period, with this current collection of 1:700th models, I have featured many recent book reviews that have been important in my reading to better inform the collection and the games I plan to run with it.

Perhaps the most fundamental understanding for anyone interested in sea warfare in this period is a solid grounding in the history of the most powerful naval force in history that came to pre-eminence at this time with a wealth of leadership talent and the ability to win and keep on winning even in the face of the occasional defeat and, at a time when great land powers were vying for the control of Europe, the Royal Navy was establishing Great Britain as the preeminent power at sea, paving the way for the largest empire the world has ever seen.

The British East Indiaman Warley  - Robert Salmon
The Warley is seen here in 1804 the same year she participated in the Battle of Pulo Aura taking part in the action of the 15th February that year when Commodore Dance bluffed Admiral Linois with his French raiding squadron in the Straits of Malacca that he faced British naval ships of the line rather than Indiamen. As well as defending the home island from invasion being its primary directive, protecting British trade, an imperative for a maritime nation was a key role for the Royal Navy

Dr Martin Robson is a specialist in British grand strategy, maritime global conflict and the Royal Navy during the age of sail, being a member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, Defence Studies Department, Kings College London at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and is also a friend of mine who likes to roll a few bones with the Devon Wargames Group when time permits and is a thoroughly nice chap.

I have to say that before reading this history, I had a reasonable grounding in most of the campaigns, battles and personalities involved in this remarkable time in history, but my motive to reacquaint myself with much of the content was to get a clearer understanding of some the lesser known actions and campaigns in the post Trafalgar period as Napoleon sought to interfere with British trade whilst seeking new opportunities to acquire ships to contest the control of the Royal Navy again in open battle. 

In addition, to really grasp what the Royal Navy was about in this period I wanted to better understand the strategic imperatives put upon the force and what the numbers say about the outcome in terms of ships and men lost to themselves and the various enemies encountered and the effects of war on British maritime trade alongside that of her enemies.

Thus it was surprising to find this remarkable little book produced in association with the National Museum of the Royal Navy and part of a chronological series covering the history of the force from 1660 which as Martin Robson observes in his acknowledgements was a significant challenge to put 22 years of conflict into 70,000 words, but I was very impressed with the level of detail achieved in the face of that challenging remit. 

The brig-sloop HMS Childers is fired at and hit by shore guns on the approach to Brest 2nd January 1793 - National Maritime Museum.

In his 'Introduction' to the book the author explains that the period of warfare that characterised the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars is neatly encapsulated, with the shots fired at and hitting brig-sloop HMS Childers from a land battery commanding the entrance to Brest on the 2nd January 1793, followed by a declaration of war on Britain a month later by the French Revolutionary government on the 1st February; to its end twenty-two years later between 6 and 7 am on the 15th July 1815 as a barge came alongside HMS Bellerophon off the French port of Rochefort to deliver the Emperor Napoleon with his formal surrender to Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland, later declaring; 

'If it had not been for you English, I should have been Emperor of the East. But wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way.'

The Emperor Napoleon's barge comes alongside HMS Bellerophon off Rochefort 15th July 1815.

The quote from Napoleon is highlighted for the nugget of truth it reveals in that the Royal Navy was primarily responsible for Napoleon's downfall in that it facilitated Britain's ultimate success in the wars and that to judge success or failure you need to carefully compare the outcomes with British war aims.

First and foremost, Britain had a primarily defensive objective in Europe that did not include occupation of territory, the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy or the defeat of France militarily and a restoration of order in that country.

The simple British war objective was driven by the French occupation and control of the Low Countries, modern day Belgium and Holland and the ports of Antwerp and Flushing which was a 'standing menace to England's safety' in terms of proximity for any French invasion fleet and negated the effectiveness of the fleet in the Western Approaches, which points to the attention this area was given by British military expeditions in 1809 and 1813-15 and why the independence of the Low Countries was the principle British war aim in Europe, and would continue to be so in the next global conflict of World War One against a different dominant European power.

The two other key areas of interest to Britain in Europe concerned free trade and access to European ports primarily in the Baltic, a major source of naval stores and a place to offer support to one of her principle allies, Russia, whilst also looking to control French influence in southern Europe and being able to support her other key ally, Austria, as well as Russia via the Mediterranean.

As the Introduction chapter highlights, Britain was on the periphery and not part of the European system and thus with her small professional army she would need to utilize diplomacy and money to organize her Continental allies to help secure her interests which involved her development as an Atlantic empire based on maritime commerce with her possessions in Canada, the West Indies and the East protected by the Royal Navy.

Thus, as the author points out, it was the Royal Navy that prevented a French invasion and it was the Royal Navy that negated French and Spanish naval power to facilitate the maritime trade and economic strength needed to subsidise allies in pursuit of Britain's interests on land.

From this succinct analysis the chapter closes with the proposition that the Royal Navy's war can be seen in two distinct phases, namely that between 1793 and 1805, characterised principally with blockade duties intermixed with occasional large fleet battles that allowed the Royal Navy to gain command of the seas and allowing Britain to sustain her own maritime trade whilst attacking that of her enemies, thus keeping Britain in the war.

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805 - Nicholas Pocock.
 Trafalgar a pivotal battle in naval history in so many ways, but also in terms of clearly delineating the shift to the second stage of the Royal Navy's war between 1795 to 1815. 

Following Trafalgar, the naval war was more about reaping the rewards that control of the sea gave in terms of maintaining a close blockade whilst projecting British power around the globe that would allow Britain to shape her demands in the inevitable peace talks that would form a post war settlement.

Thus the book sets out its stall to assess the contribution made by the Royal Navy to Britain's rise to global superpower status in 1815 and what follows in the nine chapters covering the history of the period is a neatly segmented walk through the key events, battles and personalities involved always looking at the contribution made to the guiding war aims outlined in the introduction.

The summary to the walk through of the battles and actions of the period, which I found pacey and informative, is then pulled back to the original set up, namely to consider the success of the Royal Navy in terms of those national war aims with some fascinating statistics outlining the results of twenty-two years of warfare.

Thus in conclusion, in those twenty-two years the Royal Navy fought and won six major battlefleet actions, and in among the dozen or so squadron and multiple single ship and cutting out actions, escorted thousands of British merchant ships, attacked enemy commerce and facilitated at least sixty-eight major amphibious operations, hauling guns overland, and putting supplies and ammunition ashore.

In the process it suffered the loss of 6,500 men in combat, 13,000 to shipwreck and fire, and between 70-80,000 men lost to sickness, disease and accidents on board.

By 1815 the Royal Navy was at its zenith in terms of strength and power with 884 warships, possessing in tonnage 609,300 tons more than the rest of the world's warship tonnage put together.

During the war the Royal Navy lost 166 warships to enemy action, but in return captured or destroyed 712 French, 196 Spanish, 172 Dutch, 85 Danish, 17 American, 15 Turkish and 4 Russian ships amounting to a grand total of 1,201 enemy warships.

In terms of British trade, in 1793 British exports and re-exports amounted to £20.4 million and imports to £19.3 million, which by 1814 had grown to £70.3 million and £80.8 million respectively, with trade to the British West Indies doubling in that period and with the British merchant fleet becoming the carrier of choice rising from 18,068 ships registered at 1,986,000 tons in 1793 to 21,869 ships at 2,478,000 tons in 1814.

When the American government declared war in 1812, the Royal Navy had to respond to yet another demand on its power to allow Britain to maintain the status quo in terms of her territorial possessions in North America whilst defending her maritime interests in support of her European war aims. The statistics again are compelling with regard to the Royal Navy's success with British merchant tonnage protected against the attentions of the American cruisers and privateers rising from 20,637 ships, 2,263,000 tons in 1812 to 21,449 ships, 2,414,000 tons in 1814, this accompanied by the destruction of the American merchant fleet on the global shipping routes reduced from its high point in 1812 with a tonnage of 667,999 involved in foreign trade to just 56,626 tons by 1814, leaping back to 700,000 tons in 1815. 

The Bombardment of Algiers, 27th August 1816 - George Chambers senior
The attack on Algiers by Sir Edward Pellew, then Lord Exmouth, was unfinished business left over from the 'Great War' and underlined the role of the Royal Navy post war for the next one-hundred years, of securing British overseas trade and clearing the seas of marauders and pirates rather than engaging in major fleet actions. 

The naval war effectively bankrupted the American economy with its stranglehold on American trade seeing American imports declining from $78,778,540 in 1812 to just $12,967,849 in 1814, to bounce back in 1815 and the peace to $85,356,680 and thus responsible for the collapse in tax revenue raised on import duties and thus allowing Britain to shape the war and control its outcome.

Britain's trade balance also contributed to her war aims of supporting her allies in spite of spiralling war costs that saw her provide £60 million to her allies during the wars with £2,156,513 to Prussia that made sure Blucher's army was able and ready to make its timely appearance at Waterloo (Lucy Worsley, please note), all due to maritime security through British sea power.

This book is a great reference source of all the campaigns conducted by the Royal Navy in this period  and liberally sprinkled with clear maps together with period illustrations to support the text leads the reader through, chronologically the various actions.

However as the author points out in the Introduction, this volume can in no way encompass all the aspects of such a dense period of activity and thus he makes clear he does not include detail on developments in ship design, social conditions and administrative reform, highlighting 'A History of the Royal Navy: The Age of Sail' by Andrew Baines for a deeper look at those subjects and I would echo that in terms of looking in more detail at the individual campaigns covered, that specific books on them will only add to the outline of events given here, for example the Grey-Jervis expedition of 1794 has all the key statistics and principle events covered in two pages, but for students of that specific campaign I would also recommend 'By Fire and Bayonet' by Steve Brown as highlighted in my review of his book back in February

Martin Robson's book is a great reference work covering the activities of the Royal Navy's war at sea from 1793 to 1815 in a very readable way and I really enjoyed it and the pointers it gives to further research into lesser known campaigns of the period plus loads of background to any campaign ideas for the age of sail naval wargamer.

A History of the Royal Navy, The Napoleonic Wars by Martin Robson is 273 pages containing the following:

Introduction: 'Wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way.'
Chapter 1: Home Waters, 1793-1802
Chapter 2: The Mediterranean, 1793-1802
Chapter 3: The Global War, 1793-1802
Chapter 4: The Invasion Threat, 1802-1805
Chapter 5: The Battle of Trafalgar, 1805
Chapter 6: Home Waters and the Baltic, 1805-15
Chapter 7: The Mediterranean and the Peninsular War, 1805-15
Chapter 8: Economic Warfare, 1805-15
Chapter 9: The War of 1812
Epilogue: Algiers 1816
Conclusion: 'Lords of the Sea'


Additionally there are two tables detailing the number of ships at specific times, fifty six illustrations and battle maps plus eight colour plates.

There are five strategic maps covering the Atlantic, Caribbean, Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far East

The book is hard cover and has a recommended retail price of £30 and at the time of writing Amazon have it on for £28.50 including delivery costs.