Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Far Distant Ships, The Royal Navy and the Blockade of Brest, 1793-1815 - Quintin Barry

So the latest book to get pulled from JJ's library shelf is another interesting title from Helion & Company publishers, 'Far Distant Ships' by Quintin Barry, recalling in its title a quote from A.T. Mahan, and the American naval historian's summing up of the contribution made by the Royal Navy in the ultimate defeat of Napoleon when he wrote;

'Those far distant, storm beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the domination of the world'.

The description of this title contained within the fold of the dust jacket, accurately sums up the content of the book when it describes it tracing;

'the development of British naval strategy, as well as describing the crucial encounters between the rival fleets and the single ship actions which provided the press with a constant flow of news stories for its readers.'

With my current wargaming focus very much on the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic naval war, my hobby reading is understandably equally aligned to feed the enthusiasm for that focus and to inform on the games that I intend to play; and this book proved an excellent encouragement to the work, concentrating as it does on the pivotal command of the Royal Navy during this long war, separated by a single year of peace 1802-03 as the struggle resumed against Napoleonic France and the shift to an existential threat posed by the Emperor of the French to the continued existence of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at that time.

HMS Nymphe vs Cleopatre - Donald MacLeod
One of the first actions of the French Revolutionary War at sea was the dramatic clash between Nymphe and Cleopatre that demonstrated the capabilities of the new French naval force 

I stress that existential threat because the book, in its close look at the activities of the Admiralty and the different British administrations that came and went during this period, in relation to the command and direction of the Channel Fleet, really gets to the crux of the war between Great Britain and Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France, in that the latter, Napoleon, seems not, in his planning to invade Great Britain, to have fully understood the primary objective of the Channel Fleet or Western Squadron, namely the preventing of an invasion from the continent of the home island.

The control of the English Channel was paramount in that objective, so much so that its other missions of blockade, harassment of enemy trade and other shipping whilst protecting British and allied shipping and facilitating the defence or capture of overseas territories and associated military expeditions, were very much secondary, though important, and the somewhat complicated schemes Napoleon came up with to draw the Channel Fleet or large parts of it away from those vital home waters, and thus cause it to neglect its key objective seem to demonstrate his inability to fully grasp and master naval strategy.

Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Anson, developed the British strategy of close blockade of French ports during the Seven Years War
that would influence British practice into the late 18th and early 19th century - Thomas Hudson

The book logically starts its progress by looking at the position the British administration found itself in at the outbreak of war with Revolutionary France and the history of previous conflicts between the two nations that guided naval planning for it, principally the blockade strategy established by Admiral George Anson, later termed the 'Blue Water Policy', with the British fleet the main weapon with which Britain would wage war, maintaining a naval force to rival the combined strengths of its two main enemies Spain and France and to be able to conduct a close blockade of their principle bases.

This aggressive stance had worked well in the Seven Years War to gain control of the worlds oceans and pick off French colonies overseas, but was negated during the American War of Independence when the Royal Navy was stretched beyond its means, with the war to support in America as well as defending against multiple European enemies keen to take full advantage of British woes.

The victory at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 by Admiral Rodney and his breaking of the French line had regained the Royal Navy's supremacy and helped secure the eventual peace settlement to end the war on more favourable terms than would otherwise have been the case, but with the French Revolution and its disastrous effects on the French navy coupled with tactical advances in British naval thinking, the opening of the French Revolutionary War suggested that the gap in naval effectiveness may well have widened yet further that only the coming conflict would reveal.

Thus in 1793 we see the Royal Navy feeling out the new reality of naval war against the new look revolutionary French navy as epitomised by the melodramatic Captain Jean Mullon commander of the frigate Cleopatre and his battle with Sir Edward Pellew's Nymphe with the French skipper rousing the revolutionary fervour of his crew with his shouts of 'Vive la Republique' and his attempt at eating his own signal book, to avoid its capture, after his being ripped apart by a round shot on his own quarterdeck. Revolutionary zeal would prove a poor substitute for professional ability when it came to war at sea, as time would continue to prove.

The Boardroom at the Admiralty circa 1810 with map scrolls on the wall and the wind gauge at the end of the room

Part of the scene setting then takes a look at the structure of the Admiralty and its key characters at the outbreak of war considering their responsibilities overseeing the fundamentals of strategy and resourcing of a Royal Navy that during the critical years 1804 to 1805 would see its budget increase from £12,350,600 to an eye-watering £18,864,000. The role of First Lord or Lord High Admiral and Board of Commissioners and the two Naval Secretaries is examined together with the politics and interestingly Royal patronage and influence from a King and later Prince Regent taking a close interest in the advancement of individuals within the corridors of power.

On the opposite side of the channel the French navy had suffered serious damage from the Revolution, with naval ports badly affected by the disruption, with ships crews displaying violent indiscipline and a National Assembly, seemingly intent on fueling the dissent by undermining the command of its officers for having the slightest hint of any nobility within their ranks, in-spite of any ability or patriotic zeal, with the November 1791 establishment at Brest showing it short of 30 captains and 160 lieutenants.

The loss of experienced officers was partly made up by the recruitment in 1792 of merchant marine officers of five years 'sea-time' to fill the gap with the inevitable effects on battle efficiency; then, to compound these ill-effects, a further decree abolished the corps of seaman gunners on the grounds that such a body created an aristocracy among seamen, thus, in the interests of equality, it was deemed that any artilleryman should be able to serve aboard ship!

By 1793 and the outbreak of war, the French navy had lost three quarters of its officer corps and many ships of the line were now commanded by former sub-lieutenants and squadrons by former lieutenants.

A contemporary view of the Port of Brest

Thus having set the organisational scene, Quintin Barry then takes a look at the port of Brest, the principle French naval base that would occupy the attention of the Admiralty and the British Channel Fleet throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, with a clear description of its characteristics in terms of its excellent shipping capacity and sheltered harbour, its extremity from other French centres that would have to supply it, but also its excellent position for giving access to the wider sea lanes of the Atlantic and beyond as well as the English Channel and Irish home waters.

Of course one of its key features was its approaches facing out west, thus requiring an easterly wind to allow the French fleet to sail but with a westerly prevailing wind just as capable of keeping them in port. These aspects also affected the British Channel and Irish squadrons, with any squadron off Brest likely to be blown off station just as a French force would be looking to take advantage of such a wind.

As well as prevailing winds off a stormy North Atlantic coast, the approaches to Brest were also made more difficult for any blockading force by the many treacherous rocks, shoals and currents that characterised it; and these facts created a sincere debate among senior British naval commanders as to whether it was better to keep the French fleet as securely bottled up as best it could be by a close blockading force of frigates and ships of the line; or better still to keep British ships of the line at anchor in a sheltered home base on standby to intercept a French squadron attempting to sail, using frigates to warn of a sailing and thus bringing them to battle in open water, whilst in the meantime protecting the ships and crews from the ravages of the weather and extended time at sea.

This key disagreement stands out throughout the book as it tracks its way among the key personalities of the commanders at various times throughout the war as they struggled to counter the new French and later Franco-Spanish approaches to projecting their forces towards key objectives, be that invading Ireland, the British mainland, West Indian possessions or supporting offensives in the Mediterranean, whilst seeking to avoid action with the Royal Navy unless on favourable terms or when unavoidable.

The book then tracks these key engagements as well as the more minor naval actions that characterised the war waged by the Channel and Irish squadrons alongside the roving frigate squadrons of Sir Edward Pellew and Sir John Warren, whilst drawing excellent pictures of the key commanders and their decisions, their clashes with one another, together with an assessment of their overall contribution.

I really enjoyed this aspect of the book, showing, as always, the huge egos that are so characteristic of senior commanders from whatever service and era and the inevitable politics that come to the fore in support of or despite the military capabilities of the individuals involved.

Admiral Alexander Hood, 1st Viscount Bridport

Some of those characters seem to tower over others, such as Admiral Alexander Hood, Lord Bridport who took command of the Channel Squadron after the retirement of Lord Howe and fought the Battle of Groix off Brest in 1795. A brilliant commander if somewhat marred by his inability to recognise and encourage brilliance in others, and a keen proponent of Howe's distant blockade, with the Admiral keen to take plenty of time ashore enjoying the comforts of Bath, and having constantly to be 'encouraged' by George, 2nd Earl Spencer, perhaps a saint among First Lord's of the Admiralty for patient administration, to return to sea and command his fleet during the blockade.

Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St Vincent

Likewise Admiral Sir John Jervis, Lord St Vincent, another brilliant naval commander, whose command in the Mediterranean squadron and victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 made him an obvious choice to command the Channel Squadron and later to become First Sea Lord at the Admiralty. I got the impression that Barry is not a fan of Sir John as much as I am, and for all his faults with a strong sense of discipline and probity that made him the scourge of lax captains and officers and profiteering naval contractors benefiting from friends in high places, Sir John was a leader of the highest abilities recognising those traits in others and encouraging and opening doors for them that might not have been the case. Names such as Nelson, Pellew, Warren, Cornwallis and Cochrane befitting from Jervis's high opinion which stands testimony to his talent for recognising such talent in others.

His appointment under the Addington administration after Pitt the Younger had resigned in the face of  opposition from the King to Catholic emancipation and the inclusion of Ireland in the Act of Union, designed to pacify Irish support for further French invasion attempts, was not without controversy. On his first meeting with the King he highlighted his support for Catholic emancipation, and the King gracefully accepted Jervis's candid honesty, agreeing to disagree but welcoming him to his new command, during which he changed the strategy to one of close blockade of Brest and the other Atlantic bases later to be taken up by his successor and friend Admiral Sir William Cornwallis.

Admiral Sir Williiam Cornwallis & Admiral Charles Middleton, Lord Barham

Perhaps the other two giants of the period that don't get half the recognition that they should, but are well described in Barry's account, are Lord Cornwallis and Lord Barham who, with all the attention focused on Nelson, are easily overlooked in their brilliant management of the strategy that put paid to Napoleon's attempted invasion and set up the crushing victory of Trafalgar.

Rather like Lord 'Stuffy' Dowding and his command of RAF Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain in 1940, another battle to resist an existential threat in another century, the quiet unassuming commands of Cornwallis and Barham and the masterful application of their response to the various moves by Napoleon and his Franco-Spanish fleets show through and help illustrate how Napoleon was completely out of his league versus these two naval commanders when trying to bring his undoubted talents as a land commander to command at sea.

Post Trafalgar the book continues with a look at the ongoing strategy of containment and Napoleon's attempts to rebuild and refocus his naval strategy, now with a navy that seemed to have lost the will to even put to sea, except for a few determined or reckless exceptions, but now with a naval commitment to support Wellington's Peninsular War and prevention of interference from the United States with the War of 1812 and minor attacks against British merchant shipping.

This book makes a welcome addition to my Age of Sail library focusing as it does on a particular command within the Royal Navy of that time, namely the Channel Squadron, with good coverage of the major and minor naval engagements that occurred in the area of this command, together with a comprehensive look at the commanders and the naval forces involved in the struggle.

The books contents consist of 351 pages with the following content:

List of illustrations, (19 of key battles and portraits of commanders)
List of Maps;
1. Brest and Environs
2. The Channel Ports
3. Biscay and Southern Ireland
4. The Glorious First of June 1794
5. Calder's Action, 22nd July 1805
6. Basque Roads: The Fireship Attack, 11th April 1809
7. Basque Roads: The Aftermath, 12th April 1809

1. The Outbreak of War
2. The Admiralty
3. Brest and the French Navy
4. Ships
5. The Grain Convoy
6. The Glorious First of June
7. Cornwallis's Retreat
8. The Ille de Groix
9. Closer Blockade
10. Ireland
11. Bridport: Commander in Chief at Last
12. Mutiny
13. Frigates
14. Bompart
15. Bruix
16. Bridport Strikes his Flag
17. St Vincent
18. Cornwallis
19. Peace
20. The Blockade Resumed
21. Napoleon and the Admirals
22. Prelude to Trafalgar
23. Barham
24. Calder's Action
25. Trafalgar
26. The Return of St Vincent
27. Gambier
28. Keith
29. Health and Welfare

General Index
Index of Ships

As I said, I really enjoyed the read, and although not agreeing with all of Mr Barry's assessments of some of the key personalities, found it a very informative and interesting treatment of the subject.

If I were to mention two slight criticisms it would be to highlight an issue I have encountered with other publications from Helion, which is a number of type and spelling errors that are rather silly and are perhaps evidence of a cost saving on the proof reading side of publication, and the other would be with the maps that are good as they go but lack the detail contained in the text describing where certain capes, shoals and passages are, that are not on them. This was only sorted out with my finding other maps in other books to work out exactly where these positions mentioned are, such as the map of Brest from Mahan's history included in this review.

Other than that, if you are interested in this aspect of the naval war during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, then you might find this book a jolly good read.

Far Distant Ships is shown with a list price of £25 from Helion but I have seen new copies available for under £8 at Amazon which frankly is a steal.


  1. Thanks for posting. Not my current area of interest but noted for the future as this area has a lot of interest for me. I spent a couple summers sailing to Brest with my dad and have good memories of the harbour entrance. Also there’s a terrific scenario feature HMS Indefatigable, Pellew and a invasion fleet for Ireland.

    1. Hi Peter,
      Than you, glad you enjoyed the read. Not being a sailor myself, I rarely get to experience seeing a major historical naval base other than when passing through on the occasional ferry trip.

      I think you get a different view on the seaward side of these places and start to appreciate better the difficulties presented to an enemy aggressor when seeing the defences often still in place, let alone the potential hazards under the water alluded to by the positioning of channel buoys and the occasional above water rocky outcrop.

      Leaving for Santander, Spain, last year on the Biscay ferry from Portsmouth, gave such an opportunity, and I was picturing the contemporary painting of Henry VIII's fleet battling with the French at the time of the Mary Rose sinking with the layout of the harbour very much as you see it from a ship today.

      I too have Pellew and my new model of Indefatigable in mind for a few games, hopefully in the not to distant future.


  2. Although Helion's quality control may not be perfect, they have produced some cracking books on Napoleonic subjects in the past couple of years. I think you've sold me on this one - I currently have a resurgent interest in the period as I'm spending the lockdown re-reading the Aubrey/Maturin saga!

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      Great, I think the book is well worth a read, and I agree entirely with your comments on Helion's contribution to miltary subjects, previously lacking in much written work and I purposefully complimented them for filling the void when I reviewed 'By Fire and Bayonet' back in February; as there are plenty of 'safe publishers',-no names- around who simply churn out reprints of past work or books that simply quote from previous work without really bringing much in the way of new thoughts or contribution to the current body of work already out there.

      That said, I am sure there are cost considerations involved when writing for a niche market such as you and I and others who find this stuff fascinating, and as a supporter of Helion books, with several of their titles on my shelf, I can't say this is the first time I have noticed this issue, not that it would ever put me off picking up other titles from them in future.

      That said I think it is worth mentioning, and if Helion are looking for proof readers who work at very fair rates, I can always be approached via the blog!

      Ah yes, Aubrey and Maturin, what a good choice, I'm currently serving aboard HMS Calypso in 'The Ramage Touch' which makes for a pleasant excursion of an evening before lights out.