On the Study of Naval History
By Rear-Admiral Stephen B. Luce, U. S. N.
Proceedings Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 2, Whole Number 41 in the year 1887
The term “Naval Tactics” has been used in such a general way as to lead to some confusion of ideas regarding its true meaning. Some writers restrict it to the evolutionary movements of a fleet, and such as are to be found in the Tactical Signal Book; others limit it to the manner of conducting a fleet in battle; while others again use the term in both senses, and often in such a careless way as to lead themselves and their readers into no little confusion. It is just as well that we should, in the very beginning, fully understand an expression which promises to be of frequent use.
Tactics has been well defined as the art of military movements. Naval Tactics is the art of conducting the military movements of a fleet. Battle being the chief object and end of a fleet, the order of battle constitutes the principal formation; and to bring the vessels composing a fleet, from any given order, to the order of battle, or any other order, is to perform an evolutionary or tactical movement. There are, besides the order of battle, various other orders and movements—such as chasing an enemy’s fleet; escaping from a superior force; protecting a convoy; navigating the high seas; anchoring; going in or out of port, etc., etc.
These several orders, or formations, formerly called the “orders of sailing,” etc., etc., were laid down in the Signal Book; and the methods of changing from one order to another were fully prescribed, a diagram accompanying each evolutionary signal number, showing the positions and movements of each individual ship. Thus, when, in 1790, Admiral Lord Howe rearranged the Signal Book of the English Navy, he introduced “instructions for the conduct of the fleet in the execution of the principal evolutions which were illustrated by figures.” These evolutions may be termed Elementary or Minor Tactics. In thus revising the Signal Book, Lord Howe rendered a great service to the English Navy, and the value of his work was generously acknowledged by Nelson. In his letter to Earl Howe of January 8, 1799, giving some account of the battle of the Nile, Nelson writes: “This plan” (of battle) “my friends” (the captains of the several ships composing the fleet) ” readily conceived by the signals, for which we are principally, if not entirely, indebted to Your Lordship “Later on in the same letter he speaks of Earl Howe as “our great master in naval tactics and bravery.” The term “naval tactics,” as here used by Nelson, is undoubtedly to be taken in connection with the revised Code of Signals, and refers to the Manual of Fleet Evolutions, which had been rearranged by Howe. Howe not only revised and greatly improved the Signal Book of the English Navy, including the Code of Tactical Signals, but he enjoyed the reputation of being indefatigable in the exercising of the fleet under his command in tactical evolutions, and the transmitting of orders by signals. He was, moreover, very exacting, requiring great precision in the execution of all maneuvers. But this seems to be the limit of Howe’s claim to be considered a tactician. He was skillful in Minor Tactics.
While Nelson was giving credit to Howe for a code of Minor Tactics, he, himself, was developing a system of Fighting Tactics (as it was formerly termed) till then little known in the English Navy. It was a system based upon sound military principles: that of beating the enemy in detail. In the letter just quoted. Nelson gives the gist of his plan of attack at the Nile. He says: “By attacking the enemy’s van and centre, the wind blowing along their line, I was enabled to throw what force I pleased on a few ships.” And it is this idea of placing two ships on one of the enemy, of doubling on him, that constitutes the merit of Nelson’s fighting tactics.
Here, then, we have two celebrated tacticians. First, Howe, constantly exercising the fleet in Minor or Elementary Tactics, and preparing a school of officers who were subsequently to second Nelson in the development of the higher school of Grand Tactics; and, secondly, Nelson, who may be said to have founded a school of Grand Tactics. For it should be remembered that in Howe’s great battle of the first of June (1794), he exhibited no such fighting tactics as was afterwards practised by Nelson. With his accustomed exactness he formed his line with great precision, and stood down for the French fleet, each ship steering for her opposite, with the intention that all should pass through and haul to the wind, to leeward of the French line. There is no hint of crushing any one part of the enemy’s force by overwhelming numbers; no indication of an intention of doubling on the van, or centre, or of placing the enemy between two fires. It was simply the old custom of placing ship against ship, and allowing a great fleet fight to resolve itself into a series of single engagements. The result was the customary indecisive battle, and consequent popular dissatisfaction. Howe, then, was not a tactician in the sense that Nelson was.
These two distinguished officers therefore represent the two different branches: the first Minor, Elementary, or Evolutionary Tactics; the second Fighting or Grand Tactics, or the Tactics of Battle. These two branches, so inseparably connected, and which together with Strategy form one science, should, for the purpose of our present studies, be held separate and distinct. Nelson was also a great strategist; but this again is a distinct branch, which will be considered further on. At present we have to do with Grand Tactics alone—that is to say, with Fleet Fighting and its history.
The Signal Book furnishes, as already observed, the necessary instruction in the evolutions of a fleet. But there is no recognized code of Grand Tactics. In the early days of sailing tactics the navies of England and France had their Fighting Instructions, the latter contained in the Ordonnance du Roi. But it is quite safe to say that no navy of the present day can claim what may be called a satisfactory system of Fighting Instructions; or, we might go so far as to say, a satisfactory fleet organization. It is in the hope of obtaining clear ideas of the latter, so as to enable us to organize a fleet on sound principles, that one part of our studies is to be directed. Another essential part is to study the great sea fights of history, that we may form clear conceptions of how to fight the fleet we have organized. This is our present business.
The plan of attack drawn up by Nelson during his pursuit of the French fleet to the West Indies contains the general principles which guided him in all his battles; principles which are in perfect harmony with the Science of War, and just as applicable now as they were then. In his memoranda he begins by enunciating the broad principle that it is the business of a commander-in-chief “to bring an enemy’s fleet to battle on the most advantageous terms.” One of these advantages he states to be “close action”; in other words, that the enemy is to be brought within effective range of his guns. He next assumes that the admirals and captains of the fleet will thoroughly understand his plan of battle; and, therefore, that few signals will be necessary.
This last expression has been, we may here remark parenthetically, misapplied and misunderstood.
Nelson closed the Signal Book because, having made his dispositions with great care beforehand, and fully instructed his captains as to his plan of battle, signals were no longer necessary. Battle once joined, every one was trusted to carry out his allotted part of the general plan.
Howe closed the Signal Book because he had no plan of battle beyond the simple method of the barbarian, to pit ship against ship.
It is easy to understand, therefore, how, when the opponents were fairly matched in military force, the results could be decisive in the former case and indecisive in the latter.
Having defined and illustrated the two branches of Naval Tactics, let us now take a cursory view of its history.
In the ardor of pursuit of a new study, such as we have declared “Naval Warfare under Steam” to be, we must not be unmindful of the lessons of the past. “History,” it has been well said, “is Philosophy teaching by example.” We may add that history admonishes by its warnings. It is by the knowledge derived from the history of naval battles that we will be enabled to establish a number of facts on which to generalize and formulate those principles which are to constitute the groundwork of our new science.
“History, as a means of instruction in the art of war, is obviously of the highest value,” observes one military writer. “But,” he adds, “to make the study of history profitable, the mind ought, in the first instance, to be prepared so as rightly to distinguish between military events which may be analyzed and reasoned upon with advantage, and those which may be regarded merely as events in the world’s history destitute of any important bearing on the art of war.” It is only by a philosophical study of military and naval history that we can discover those truths upon which we are to generalize. “Thus,” as the writer just quoted states, “the victory at Wagram has been traced to the same primary cause by which the battles of Cannae and Pharsalia were gained, and the existence of fundamental principles, by which all the operations of war should be conducted, has been placed beyond doubt by the researches of Jomini and other military writers.” What has been done for military science is yet to be done for naval science. In the pride of an advanced civilization, we are too apt to look with contempt upon the old sailing tactics, and the battles fought under them. But even in these days of steam and electricity we may study with advantage the works not only of John Clerk and Paul Hoste, but of Thucydides and Herodotus.
Minor Tactics change with the change of arms or improvements in naval architecture.
Not so with Grand Tactics. But whether it was Phormio or Agrippa or Russell, a Nelson or a Perry, the victory has generally been with that leader who had the skill to throw two or more of his own ships upon one of the enemy. That is one of the most valuable lessons of all naval history, and that, it may be stated here, is one of the fundamental principles of our science. It is the capacity to carry out that principle that gives evidence of the skillful tactician. It is the ignoring of that principle that serves as one of the most impressive warnings of naval history.
Strategy is still less affected by the mutations of time and the advance of learning. Alexander the Great found it impracticable to reduce Tyre without the aid of a fleet. On the appearance of the Cyprian and Phoenician war galleys, the Tyrians called in their own vessels and sunk triremes in the channel ways to block the entrance to their harbors. Twenty-two centuries later the combined fleets of England and France, co-operating with the armies on shore, compelled the Russians to resort to the same expedient; that is, to close the harbor of Sebastopol by sinking vessels of war in the entrance. The Persian invasion of Greece taught the Athenians the necessity of having a navy. A navy was built, and at Salamis proved the salvation of the State.
England taught the United States the same lesson. Great strategic combinations it was found could not be formed without a navy; a navy was created—a navy small in numbers, but great in spirit—and the victories on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain proved its inestimable value. History is full of such parallels. The invasion of Britain was once rendered possible by reason of the strength of the Roman fleet. But from the time of the Invincible Armada to the day of Trafalgar it has been impossible through the constancy and devotion of the English Channel Fleet. And although there have been such radical changes in the means of carrying on naval warfare, yet the same strategy which enticed Nelson to the West Indies in the vain pursuit of the French Fleet might be practised again to-day.
There are certain general principles which are just as applicable to the management of a sea army of the nineteenth century as they were in the days of Salamis or Actium, of Trafalgar or Lake Erie. Hence, it may be stated in general terms that, while the principles of the Science of War remain unchanged, the rules of the Art of War vary with the implements of war.
The introduction of the rules of the military art into the conduct of a fleet, and the revival of the spur, the rostrum of the galley period, has not only brought us back to the same general system of tactics in use during the ancient civilization, but has rendered a quasi-military education indispensable to the naval officer.
The great captains who achieved success at the head of the armies of Greece and of Rome, carried with them their fighting tactics to the fleet, and on the decks of their galleys won the corona navalis for victories due to their military skill.
It was so in the Middle Ages. King Edward III., who was distinguished for his military abilities, defeated the French in the great battle of Sluys—a battle which, for the skillful manner in which it was fought, was thought worthy to be compared to the masterpieces of the ancient Athenian navy.
It was so at the dawn of modern civilization. Don John of Austria, who was essentially a soldier, gained at Lepanto one of the greatest naval battles of history.
It was so during the earlier period of English naval history. Blake, Monk, Popham, Deane, Prince Rupert and the Duke of York, all of whom held the highest commands during those terrible contests with the Dutch for the mastery of the narrow seas, were all men of military training. It was absolutely necessary, indeed, that men of military capacity should control the military movements of those large fleets on which the very existence of England depended, for the naval officer of that day knew little beyond the mere rudiments of his calling as a seaman.
As the navy of England developed into a distinct profession, the officers were sent to sea at a very early age and kept actively engaged, that they might become inured to the hardships and privations of ship life. With many undoubted advantages, the custom was open to certain objections. While it made them good, practical ‘seamen, it gave them the sailor’s proverbial distaste for acquiring knowledge through the medium of books. Thus they came to excel in all the practical details of their profession, but they knew little of the theory, or general principles, on which the science of that profession was based. To handle a ship in a seamanlike manner, and to preserve one’s station in the fleet, seems to have been the highest point to which the practical education of that day aspired. True, that was much—indeed, it was a great deal; the value of that instruction was scarcely to be overestimated. When we consider the size of the fleets; their protracted cruises; their long and tedious blockades through all the changes of seasons; the vicissitudes of weather, and the very poor sailing qualities of many or most of the ships before copper sheathing came into use, we cannot withhold our wonder and admiration for the skill, the devotion and courage of the English naval officers during those long naval wars which fill so large a space in the English history. But that severe school of practice, thorough as it undoubtedly was, proved wholly insufficient. The constant employment of the officers at sea, and the absence of a higher school, were an effectual bar to their acquiring even the rudiments of the military art. Generation after generation of English naval officers passed without the slightest attempt at methodical instruction in naval tactics. Such knowledge of the art as was acquired must have been by the process of absorption through observing the evolutions of the fleet and the maneuvers of one’s own ship. The Signal Book was the only manual of evolutions; and that was sedulously guarded from the eyes of the profane. For fear it might fall into the hands of the enemy, as it did on one or two notable occasions, or be surreptitiously copied by traitorous hands, it was heavily weighted with lead; and, when not in actual use, kept within the sacred precincts of the captain’s cabin, whence none but the elect might take it. In the event of defeat it was to be cast into the sea. Furthermore, the flag officers of the English Navy were, for over a century, heavily handicapped by the Fighting Instructions of 1665, which prescribed certain rules for the conduct of a fleet in battle—rules which proved to be not of general application, and not always in harmony with the principles of war. Unfortunately, these rules, insufficient as they were, received full confirmation by the mature judgment of two courts martial which may be numbered among the causes célèbres of the English Navy. The first was that of Admiral Thomas Mathews for his failure in the engagement with the Franco-Spanish fleet off Toulon in the spring of 1744. The second was the trial of Admiral John Byng for his failure in the battle with the French fleet off Minorca in May, 1756.
The Instructions, on which, in a great measure, the judgment of the court in each case turned, were drawn up by the Duke of York (James II.) in 1665. (See “Fleets of the World,” No. I, Vol. III. Of Record of U. S. Naval Institute, before alluded to.)
This was during those severe contests with the Dutch for the mastery of the narrow seas in which the conflicts took place. The line of battle, which was then for the first time observed according to Paul Hoste, though certain authors maintain that it was known previously by the Dutch, consisted of the close-hauled line ahead, in practice seven points from the wind. Owing to the limited sea room and the dangerous coasts, the weather gauge was of the very first importance, and as a consequence it was necessary to preserve the order of battle with some degree of precision. When the field of operations was transferred to the broad ocean these conditions became greatly modified; yet, notwithstanding this, the Instructions continued to be binding, and were blindly observed to the frequent discomfiture of the English Navy. Thus, in Mathews’ fight off Toulon, his vice admiral, Lestock, accused him of ” rashness and precipitation in engaging the enemy before the line of battle was formed, contrary to the rules of war and the practice of our best admirals; therefore the sole miscarriage was chargeable on the admiral, who, by his imprudence in fighting, at first, at such a disadvantage, had endangered the whole fleet; and after, by a quite contrary conduct, suffered the enemy to escape.”
Mathews, though he had exhibited the highest gallantry, was found guilty and declared to be “incapable of holding any further employment in His Majesty’s service.”
Byng, on the other hand, failed from a too strict observance of the line of battle. Warned by the result of the former court-martial, he declared at the commencement of the battle that he “would not fall into that error with which Mr. Mathews was charged, and which proved his ruin,” that of engaging the enemy before his line of battle was formed. He was found guilty of the charges brought against him and condemned to death. He was said to have been “too great an observer of forms, of ancient rules of discipline and naval etiquette.”
During the Dutch wars the opposing fleets were no sooner out of port than they sighted each other: nor was it likely that the men who destroyed the shipping in the Thames, and whose guns were heard in London, would waste much time in maneuvering. Battle was joined with eagerness on both sides, and the fighting was of the most stubborn character. But on the broad Atlantic, or even in the Mediterranean, fleets might cruise week after week without falling in with each other. When they did the English instinctively maneuvered, as they had done in the Channel, for a windward position, which the French, committed to a different policy, and hampered by no such traditions, readily yielded. If the two fleets were on the same tack, and on parallel lines, the French would reduce sail, and under easy canvas await the enemy. If he came up astern, the van division of the English would first engage the rear of the French. The English could not use the lower-deck batteries in a fresh breeze, while the French, using their weather guns, could get all the elevation they needed. Firing high, they cut away the spars, rigging and sail of the English, which reduced their speed and threw the head of the line into confusion. Or, if the distance between the two lines was beyond the range of their guns, the English would stand on till the leading ships were abreast of each other, when they would run down to engage, each ship selecting her antagonist. But while they were standing down for the French, the latter would keep up a constant fire, raking their enemies as they approached; the English, meanwhile, unable to bring but a few bow guns to bear. When the English “brought by the wind,” so as to use their broadsides, the French would bear up, make sail, and, running to leeward, reform their line and await another attack; this, the English, by being cut up by the French fire, were seldom able to make. Or, the two fleets might cross on opposite tacks, firing distant broadsides in passing. Again, the French Government had early submitted the various problems which enter into shipbuilding to rigid mathematical discussion at the hands of their most eminent mathematicians. The French ships, therefore, were superior to the English in the essential quality of speed, and the French naval authorities had recognized at the very first the necessity of sheathing their ships with metal. For these reasons the French admirals found no difficulty in avoiding a battle when it did not suit their purpose to fight; and, as the resources of their country did not enable them to build and fit out ships with the rapidity with which it could be done in England, it was their policy to avoid decisive actions unless the chances were greatly in their favor; hence, it frequently occurred that they declined to bring on a general engagement.
The many indecisive battles which resulted from these several causes gave great dissatisfaction in England, and finally culminated in the court-martial of Admiral Keppel for his failure in the battle off Ushant in 1778.
As in the case of Mathews, the charges were brought by his vice admiral (Sir Hugh Palliser), the second in command, and mainly for the same reason. The first charge declared in effect “that on the morning of the 27th of July, 1778, having a fleet of thirty ships of the line under his command, and being in the presence of a French fleet of a like number of ships of the line, the said admiral (Keppel) did not put his fleet in the line of battle, or into any order proper for receiving or attacking an enemy; but, on the contrary, by making signal for several ships to chase, increased the disorder of his fleet, and whilst in the disorder he advanced to the enemy and made signal for battle, the enemy’s fleet being formed in a regular line of battle on that tack which approached the British fleet. By this unofficerlike conduct a general engagement was not brought about,” etc., etc.
A brief abstract from Admiral Keppel’s defense will show the line of his argument: “On my first discovering the French fleet at 1 P. M., July 23d, I made signal to form the order of battle, which being effected towards evening, the fleet was ‘brought to’ till morning, when, perceiving the French had gained the wind during the night, and carried a pressed sail to preserve it, I discontinued the signal for the time and made signal to chase to windward. If, by obstinately adhering to the line of battle, I had suffered the French to have separated from me; if the expected convoys had been cut off, or the coast of England had been insulted, what would have been my situation? Supported by the examples of Admiral Russel and other great naval commanders, who in similar situations had ever made strict order give way to reasonable enterprise, and particularly of Lord Hawke, who, rejecting all rules and forms, grasped at victory by an irregular attack, I determined not to lose sight of the French fleet by being outsailed, from preserving the line of battle,” etc., etc. The court found the charges malicious and ill-founded.
In his official report of the battle the admiral had said: “The object of the French seemed to be the disabling of the King’s ships in their masts and sails, in which they so far succeeded as to prevent many of the ships of my fleet being able to follow me, when I wore to stand after the French fleet. They took advantage of the night and made off”. The wind and weather being such that they could reach their own shores before there was any chance of the King’s fleet getting up with them, the state the ships were in—in their masts, yards and sails—left me no choice of what was proper and advisable to do.” That was to return to Plymouth. The opinion of D’Orvilliers, the French admiral who had been opposed to Keppel, is valuable: “During the fight,” said he, “the English had the advantage, but after the firing ceased I out-maneuvered Mr. Keppel.”
The insignificant result of the battle and the court-martial which followed created great interest in England. But of the flood of literature that was poured upon the subject, the only publication that concerns us now is the pamphlet printed for private circulation by the Scotch country gentleman named John Clerk. Up to his time there had been so many great battles the results of which were wholly out of proportion to the numbers engaged, that Clerk was led to believe the French “had discovered some new system of tactics; and that the English practice, since it was always unsuccessful, must have been radically wrong.”
In his more elaborate treatise, which appeared in 1790, he states that “after an examination of the late engagements it will be found that the French have never shown a willingness to risk making an attack, but have invariably made a choice of the leeward position; and when extended in line of battle they have disabled the English fleets in coming down to the attack. Upon seeing the English fleet disabled, they have made sail and demolished the van in passing, and upon feeling the effect of the English fire they have withdrawn, at pleasure, either a part or the whole of their fleet, and formed a new line of battle to leeward. The French have repeatedly done this. It will be found, on the other hand, that the English, from an irresistible desire of making the attack, have as constantly courted the windward position, and have repeatedly had their ships so disabled, by making the attack, that they have not once been able to bring them to close with, to follow up, or even to detain, one ship of the enemy. Therefore there was every reason to believe that the French had adopted and put in execution some system which the English either had not discovered, or had not yet profited by the discovery.”
To illustrate his position he cites a number of cases, such as Byng’s unfortunate action, already referred to; Pocock’s battles with M. D’Achg in the East Indies in 1757; Admiral Byron’s engagement off Granada in 1779; Arbuthnot’s off the Capes of Virginia in 1781, and that of Graves about the same time and place. The last instance in the series is Lord Rodney’s engagement off Martinique, April 17, 1780: “Notwithstanding the personal gallantry of Lord Rodney the French fleet bore alternately away and escaped, while the English, from the damage sustained in hulls and rigging, were unable to continue the pursuit.”
Clerk further undertakes to show that whenever the French kept to windward, they were careful never to take the initiative and seek a battle, unless the odds were clearly in their favor.
This is illustrated by Rodney’s two engagements on the 15th and 19th of May, 1780, near Martinique; Sir Saml. Hood’s engagement of the 17th of April, 1781, near the same place, and by Admiral Keppel’s in 1778 off Ushant, already referred to. In each of these fights the fleets crossed on opposite tacks, exchanging their fire in passing. In the last case the French fleet, having the wind, ran down and reformed to leeward. Subsequently, in Arbuthnot’s fight off the Chesapeake, the French admiral put in practice the same tactics. “It is by such investigations only,” he says, “that it can be explained how two adverse fleets, amounting to thirty ships of the line each, carrying above 36,000 men, after having been brought in opposition of battle, and sustaining a furious cannonade from 4000 guns, besides musketry, have been brought to be separated again without effect, without the smallest apparent decision—that is, without the loss of a ship on either side, and sometimes without the loss of a man, although the encounter has often been said to have been within pistol-shot.”
On board the Ramilies, Admiral Byng’s flagship, in the fight with the French off Toulon, no one was even wounded.
Such, says an able English authority, in commenting upon Clerk’s essay, was the state of Naval Tactics at the beginning of 1782. “During the whole war our fleets had invariably been baffled, disabled, worsted. Our admirals adhered, invariably, to the established mode of attack, and endeavored to obtain a windward position before they began to engage. The French, relying upon our want of penetration to discover, or of skill to counteract, this new system of defense, never failed to accomplish the object of their expedition, and to disable our ships, while they preserved their own. Dispirited by the failure of our arms in the American war, we beheld ourselves uniformly baffled on our own element, and we began to apprehend a decay of spirit in our officers and seamen.” When we consider that this language was used by McArthur, the author of the well-known treatise on Naval Courts-Martial, and at one time Secretary to Admiral Lord Hood, it will add not a little to its significance.
Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Ekins remarks of Clerk: “In all his reasoning he shows with truth and success that our defeats were never owing to a want of spirit, but to a deficiency of tactical knowledge.”
“No lessons in tactics,” says one of the ablest naval essayists of the present day, “can be so valuable as those taught by the experience of the past. In no case has a victory been won over a fairly equal force where the ignorance of the one commander-in-chief, or the skill of the others, has caused the strength of the fleet to be dispersed and has spread the attack over the whole, instead of concentrating it against a part.”
“All the painfully notorious battles of the last century—notorious by reason of the bitter feeling and angry, tragical courts-martial which followed their want of success—come distinctly under this category. From the time of Mathews to the time of Rodney we were trammeled and bound to a false system which, when skillfully opposed, could not, and did not, lead to any results other than disappointment and loss. The attack was made in line against line, if possible, ship against ship; and in no one instance was it attended with success. That the individual ships were, for the most part, skillfully handled and gallantly fought, may be conceded; that they were, singly, superior to the ships of the enemy, may be fairly maintained, but collectively and as a fleet they were unable to accomplish anything.”
These are certainly very candid admissions; but they are fully justified by history.
Coming to us, as they do, from authors of high standing and of intimate knowledge of the subject, these statements are of the utmost value to the naval student; and we cannot feel too grateful to those gentlemen who have had the enlightened spirit, the sense of justice, and the love of truth, to give the plain facts, though it should not always rewound to the credit of the profession they so worthily represent.
We now come to the true cause of the difficulty under which the English labored, and to the secret of the so-called “new system” devised by the French. McArthur goes on to say, “Our officers were eminently distinguished by their gallantry and seamanship, but they had hitherto bestowed no adequate degree of attention upon Naval Tactics.” And yet, for the fifty years preceding the treaty of Paris of 1783, the English naval officers had been constantly engaged in war.
French officers, on the other hand, seem to have paid great attention to Naval Tactics. Tourville, so highly eulogized by Macaulay, originated the best work on Naval Tactics (that of Paul Hoste) ever published.
D’Orvilliers, who fought the drawn battle with Keppel, was the author of a work on Tactics; and the Viscount de Grenier proposed a formation for battle and a system of tactics which was certainly a work of merit. The Viscount Morogues and others of more or less note had written on the same subject. Ramatuelle is worthy of careful study to-day.
Ramatuelle observes: “The French Navy has always preferred the glory of securing, or retaining, a strategic advantage, or a conquest, to the more brilliant, perhaps, but really less substantial feat of making prizes; and in that they approach nearer to the true ends of war. For what would the loss of a few ships be to the English? The principal aim is to attack them in their possessions, the source of their vast commerce and their powerful marine.”
The superiority of the French as tacticians is well illustrated by the battles fought by Sir George Pocock and Monsieur D’Achfe in the East Indies ; and, better yet, by the series of battles between the Bailli de Suffren and Sir Edward Hughes on the same station in 1782 and 1783.
Both commanders-in-chief, being remote from their respective Governments, and beyond the reach of instructions, were thrown upon their own resources, and obliged to rely solely upon their own judgment in the conduct of affairs.
De Suffren recovered the Dutch ports of Trincomalee, which the English admiral had captured a short time before, and after a series of actions raised the blockade of Cudalore and relieved the garrison. The conflicts were terminated by tidings of peace, leaving the French, on the whole, masters of the situation.
In all the higher attributes of a naval officer, save hard and persistent fighting, De Suffren proved himself to be superior to his adversary.
Still another and more familiar illustration is to be found in our own early history, when, at one of the most momentous periods of the Revolutionary War, an English admiral was fairly outgeneraled by his more skillful adversary. It was when De Grasse lured the English squadron away from the relief of Cornwallis. The late Centennial celebration at Yorktown has revived the memory of the historical incidents of that period.
At no time has the French Navy received full credit for its share in bringing a long and trying campaign to a successful termination.
While extensive preparations were being made by Washington in May, 1781, to capture New York, then occupied by the English, word was sent to De Grasse, in the West Indies, soliciting his cooperation. About the middle of May a message from De Grasse reached Newport, where a portion of the French forces and a French squadron then lay, saying that he had sailed, not for New York, but for the Chesapeake. This completely changed the whole plan of operations and made the army of Cornwallis the objective point. Con tinning the demonstration against New York, with a view to misleading the English commander-in-chief, the combined armies took up their march for Virginia, distant about four hundred miles, and in about one month’s time came within sight of the English at Yorktown. On the 14th of September, Washington held a consultation with De Grasse on board the Ville de Paris, when arrangements were made to prosecute the siege of Yorktown.
Clinton, meanwhile, learning that the French squadron under Count de Barras had sailed from Newport for the Chesapeake, dispatched Admiral Graves with his squadron to intercept him.
On reaching the Capes of Virginia, Graves was surprised to find the French squadron at anchor in the Bay. De Grasse, on his part, expecting to see the squadron of De Barras, was surprised to see the English ships. It was now that the skill of De Grasse displayed itself in the exercise of the highest order of strategy. He immediately proceeded to sea, and, practising the policy so often resorted to by the French, of allowing the English to gain the much-coveted weather gauge, he commenced a series of those indecisive actions which, as we have seen, so often characterized the naval battles of that day.
After each partial engagement the French would edge away to leeward, and, reforming the line of battle in a new position, await the attack. This maneuvering was kept up for five days; the English eager for a general and decisive battle, the French luring them away from the one objective point in the whole theatre of the war, the key of the entire plan of operations so laboriously prepared by Washington and his allies. At the end of about five days, judging the squadron under De Barras to be safe, De Grasse returned to the Chesapeake.
When Graves reached the Capes, he had the mortification of finding both French squadrons at anchor in the Bay, their united forces being much superior to his own. Completely outgeneraled, he returned to New York. The last avenue of escape left open to Cornwallis being thus closed by the French fleet, the destruction of the English army became inevitable.
To estimate die value of the service rendered by the French, and the full significance of the tactics of De Grasse, we have only to suppose that Admiral Graves, instead of following the French outside the Cape, had stood up the Bay for York River and effected a junction with Cornwallis. Notwithstanding the disparity of forces, the French having twenty-four ships of the line to nineteen of the English, he could have rendered his position so strong that the French, exercising their extreme caution, would not have ventured to attack, even when joined by De Barras with ten ships of the line. Moreover, Admiral Digby, with a squadron, shortly after arrived at New York, so that when thus reinforced the fleet of Admiral Graves consisted of twenty-seven ships. Had the English commander-in-chief succored the besieged army, as a French admiral would have done, had their relative positions been changed, it would have given an entirely different complexion to the whole campaign of Washington, if it had not completely frustrated it.
The position of Admiral Graves may be likened to that of an army interposed between the parts of an enemy’s extended lines in such a way as to be able to concentrate on either one of those lines before the other could be brought to its assistance.
Napoleon practised that species of tactics, which enabled him to beat his adversary in detail with brilliant success.
In this case before us, the objective point, Yorktown, was left open, so that the English admiral, without fighting, had only to sail in between the two French squadrons, establish himself in an impregnable position on the York River and render the relief so earnestly looked for by the English army. That De Grasse, with a numerically superior force, should have avoided a conflict with the English squadron, leads to the belief that the French must have been sensible of some inherent weakness, which is not fully explained by their known inability to refit their ships or replenish stores with the thoroughness and expedition of their adversaries. No doubt De Grasse was right in saying, on the occasion of his subsequent surrender to Rodney, that the English were, in naval matters, a hundred years ahead of them. We may accept, as the English have so candidly done, the practical knowledge of Naval Tactics. Their superior skill in handling their fleets was forced upon them as necessary to their existence: it was the instinct of self-preservation.
The object of Clerk, to refer once more to the “Treatise on Naval Tactics,” was to point out the grave defects of the English Fighting Instructions and to suggest the remedy. There seems to be no doubt that the English naval officers profited by the lesson, and, the ice once broken, there was no longer any hesitation in putting in practice the principal suggestion thrown out by the author, and one which is conformable to one of the oldest and best-known rules of the art of war—viz.: to inflict upon the enemy a decisive blow by concentrating an overwhelming force upon a given point of his line, thus beating him in detail. It was to just such a maneuver that Rodney owed his success on the 12th of April, 1782. How far Rodney was indebted to Clerk for the tactics which gave him the battle, it is unnecessary to discuss. Suffice here to say that in the memoirs of that officer the claim of Clerk is wholly denied; and that Sir Howard Douglas, in an able pamphlet, claims the honor in behalf of his father, who was Rodney’s flag captain. Moreover, it has been pointed out by Clerk himself that the same maneuver was performed by De Suffern, though not with equal success, in the battle with Sir Edward Hughes off Ceylon, in the East Indies, the very same day of Rodney’s victory in the West Indies (April 12, 1782). The same tactics were referred to by Paul Hoste long before. They had been practised by Count d’Estrees when, in 1673, he cut through Prince Rupert’s line.
It is quite certain, however, that the essay became an accepted authority, and led to a change in the Fighting Tactics of the English Navy. Thus it came that the naval battles of the French Revolution opened a fresher and brighter chapter in the history of English Naval Tactics.
Lord Howe, upon whom devolved the labor of reorganizing the English fleet and the Signal Book, after ten years of peace, led off in 1794 with the victory of the 1st of June. This was followed by the defeat of the Spanish squadron off Cape St. Vincent in 1797, where Nelson played so conspicuous a part; and in the same year Duncan, in two irregular columns, smashed through the centre and rear of the Dutch line at Camperdown, winning a brilliant victory.
The period culminated in Nelson and Trafalgar.
It is but fair to say here that it is claimed for Hawke, and with justice, that he founded the school of which Nelson became the most brilliant exponent.—(“Life of Hawke.”)
The English naval officers had, at last, begun to study Naval Tactics, leaving no longer to the French the monopoly of that secret of success. It is interesting to know that Nelson not only studied Clerk’s Naval Tactics, but that it was his custom to give out to his captains problems in tactics for their solution. This had the tendency of leading their thoughts into those channels best calculated to prepare them for any emergency of battle that might arise, thereby laying down in advance the foundations for victory.
As the history of naval warfare may be divided into the three great periods of Oars, Sails, and Steam, so it is convenient for our present purpose to divide the history of Naval Tactics under Sail into three periods. The first begins shortly after the peace of Westphalia, 1648, which terminated the Thirty Years War, and includes the three Dutch wars, when the English and Dutch contended for the sovereignty of the seas. It was during this time that James, Duke of York, originated the Naval Tactics of the English Navy and first established a regular order of battle (page 18, Vol. III., No. I. Record of U. S. Naval Institute). It ended in 1673 with the defeat of De Ruyter by Prince Rupert. During this period the principal commands in the English fleet were held by officers who had enjoyed the advantages of a military training, and the battles were of the most decisive character.
The second period includes the times referred to by Clerk: the War of Succession, beginning in 1712; the war with Spain in 1718; the Spanish War in 1739; the war with France in 1744; the Seven Years War, from 1756 to 1763; and the American War, ending with the treaty of Paris in 1783. During this period the fleets of England were commanded by seamen pure and simple, who, ignoring the science of their profession, permitted themselves to be hampered by a set of arbitrary and insufficient rules. The battles fought during this period were, with few exceptions, indecisive.
The third and last period is characterized by a close attention to Naval Tactics and decisive battles.
It may be said to begin with Rodney’s victory in 1782, and end with Nelson and Trafalgar in 1805.
The conclusion, which is not at all strained, is that the landsman with a military training was more capable of conducting the military movements of a fleet than the mere sailor who knew nothing of the science of war.
Charnock, in speaking of the Earl of Sandwich (Admiral Montague), says that “at the age of 30 (1655), bred to the Army, he was appointed joint commander of the fleet with Blake, a man undoubtedly possessed of the highest gallantry, but, like himself, totally unacquainted with every principle of Naval Tactics; yet under these very men, even at their first outset in their new profession, the British flag spread everywhere a terror and commanded a respect which, without intending to depreciate in the smallest degree the merits of their successors, we may truly say the greatest professional skill has never yet enhanced.” It is evident that their ignorance of “every principle of Naval Tactics” was amply supplied by their knowledge of Military Tactics, which enabled them to direct those more extended movements of a fleet comprehended in the term Grand Tactics, or the Tactics of Battle.
Prince Rupert and the Duke of Albemarle (Admiral George Monk) were styled “His Majesty’s Generals at Sea.” Monk may have excited the mirth of his sailors by calling out, “Wheel to the right,” or “left,” when he wished to tack ship; but he defeated the celebrated Dutch admirals, Van Tromp and De Ruyter, and was one of the best naval administrators England has ever had. Monk, it should be said, had enjoyed, during the earlier years of his life, a short experience at sea.
On the other hand, it was said of Sir Edward Hughes, a typical officer of the middle part of the eighteenth century, that he could handle his ship to admiration, but knew little about managing a fleet. Much the same may be said of Admiral Byng. A part of the evidence given on his trial conveys a valuable lesson. Captain Gardiner, of the Ramilies, 90, the flagship of Admiral Byng, testified that “he advised Mr. Byng repeatedly to bear down, but without effect; for that on the day of the action the admiral took entire command of the ship upon himself”; which means that he had no conception of the duties of his high office of commander-in-chief of a fleet. So of Mathews: he understood the practical part of his profession better than the theory, and “knew better how to fight, himself, than to command others to fight.”
We cannot refrain from giving here a couple of pen-and-ink portraits of two distinguished officers whose services have been referred to. Of De Suffren the writer says: “He was cool and daring in action, crafty in policy, of ready wit, and of singular genius as a tactician, with much practical skill, added to a vast fund of theoretical skill: the most illustrious officer, without exception, that had ever held command in the French Navy.” Opposed to him was Sir Edward Hughes: “Brave, skilled in his profession, of the old school, not fitted to receive new ideas, opinionated, perverse, with but little idea of tactics and less of policy, he was still, at all times, ready for battle. He did not know much about maneuvering a fleet, but he could handle his own ship to admiration; he had not much judgment as to the proper, time to fight, but when he did fight, he did so with a courage that was proof against all odds.”
Sir Charles Ekins, in commenting upon the want of success of Admiral Graves, remarks that, “unfortunately, the fate of Mathews and Byng was still fresh in the recollection of our naval commanders; and as in those cases disgrace or punishment alike awaited both the daring and the cautious, the conducting of a fleet in the presence of an enemy became a duty at once perilous and perplexing.”
It is curious to note, as we may here, how the traditions of the English Navy seem to have completely usurped the place of original investigation. Keppel justified his conduct as having been formed on that of Russell, Hawke, and other great commanders, and the sentences inflicted upon Mathews and Byng affected generations of their successors.
The great lesson to be drawn from this cursory review of the history of Naval Tactics under Sail is, that the highest achievements of a navy are to be secured when, to the practical training from boyhood in all the details of the naval profession, there is added proper instruction in the science and art of war.
We must pause here for a moment to disclaim any intention of undervaluing the character of those many great seamen whose deeds embellish and adorn the pages of English naval history.
Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher (Lord Howard was not a seaman in the sense that Drake was), aided by the elements, scattered the Invincible Armada; but they lived before any regular system of tactics had been devised. And Anson, Hawke and Boscawen won their victories for the most part by superior numbers, wherein skill and tactics had little part. The battle of Quiberon, fought in bad weather, on a dangerous and unknown coast, must, however, stand out as a brilliant and exceptional victory.
If history be that “vast Mississippi of falsehood” Arnold has called it, the earnest student in his search for truth must carefully weigh the evidence, for and against, before concluding on the respective merits of the Fighting Tactics of the English and the French Navies of the last period of Tactics under Sail. Much praise is undoubtedly due to Nelson and his school; but what was the condition of the French Navy during the Revolution and the Consulate? Says an English naval essayist on this point: “The French, by their careful study of, and attention to, the details of naval architecture, of strategy and tactics, held their own against us for nearly one hundred years—not brilliantly, perhaps, but at any rate sufficiently—and it was not till the close of the century, when the study of tactics had been, in a measure, forced upon us, that we recovered our old superiority. As we improved, the French, victims of anarchy and internal confusion, deteriorated, and thus, by the happy combination on our part of tactical study, practical skill, and constant experience; on the part of the enemy of ignorance and presumption, we won those great victories which mark the annals of the end of the last century and the beginning of this.”
These “great victories,” then, were not due wholly to the prowess and skill of the English, but in a measure to the deterioration of the French; how great a measure that was, English writers themselves tell us.
But let us continue our study of English Naval Tactics.
In 1827 was fought, at Navarino, the last great fleet fight under sail; and the year after appeared the second edition of “Naval Battles,” by Rear-Admiral Ekins, from which we make the following extract. He quotes another English admiral of distinction who uses this language: “If I commanded an English fleet opposed to a French one, I should not have the least objection to their cutting my line. I should probably myself break all order of battle, in order to prevent their cutting off any particular ships, and then, behold, the old story: I have them in action, ship to ship. This is the great secret of our tactics; that of the French to prevent it.
“I fairly own,” he continues, “that I hope close action, ship to ship, will ever be the first object of a British naval commander-in-chief. And Admiral Ekins adds, with a burst of fine enthusiasm: “This is bravely said by the gallant son of a noble chief, and let the British Navy say, Amen!” This may be admirable as a specimen of rhetoric, but, certainly, very poor tactics. The passage is not without value, however, as corroborative of one of two theories: Either the English had been betrayed into over-confidence by the demoralized condition of the French Navy, and the consequent ease with which victories over it were gained, rendering skillful tactics unnecessary—and there is much to support this view—or, that after Trafalgar the English Navy relapsed into what has been well called the “Dark Age” of Naval Tactics. As late as 1828 two distinguished British admirals coolly tell us that the secret of their tactics is “close action, ship to ship”—a principle directly opposite to what their own Nelson and his school taught. His teaching, and the teachings of all great captains, both on shore and afloat, is to put two against one. To understand this fundamental principle is to understand the very root and groundwork of Grand Tactics; and to be able to carry out this principle in battle, is to exhibit the highest skill as a tactician. What, then, must we say of the Ekins school? Sir Samuel Hood, with twenty-two ships, when standing in to engage the French fleet of thirty-three sail of the line under De Grasse (anchored at Basseterre, St. Christopher, in 1772), designed to throw the whole weight of the attack on the head of the French column and crush that before the rear, which would have been thrown out, could possibly come to its succor. The French, notwithstanding their superiority, as a whole, no doubt escaped an overwhelming defeat by getting under way and standing out to sea. The same plan of battle was carried out at the Nile. The head of the French column was doubled upon and crushed, while the rear was completely thrown out of action. What Nelson meant by writing to Duncan, after Camperdown, that he (Nelson) had profited by his (Duncan’s) example, is not precisely clear. In the battle of Camperdown, October 12, 1797, Duncan made signal to form line ; but, not waiting for all the ships to come up, he and his vice-admiral, Onslow, led down on the enemy in two irregular columns, not unlike the manner in which Nelson and Collingwood led the attack on the allied fleets off Trafalgar. In both cases the entire English fleet did not cut through the enemy’s line, but some “brought to” to windward, thus placing the enemy between two fires.
Nelson, in his general order (dated on board the Victory off Cadiz, Oct. 18, 1805), divided the fleet into two lines, sixteen ships in each line, with an advanced squadron of eight of the fastest-sailing two decked ships, which eight ships, added, if wanted, to either of the two lines (as the commander-in-chief might direct), would swell that line to twenty-four ships. Those eight ships constituted the reserve. Having made his general disposition, he adds—and here lies the gist of the whole matter—”The impression of the whole British fleet must be made (with the intention of overpowering it) on that portion of the enemy’s line rearward from the third or fourth ship ahead of its commander-in-chief presumed to be in the centre. I will suppose the twenty enemy’s ships ahead untouched.” That is to say that, by doubling on the enemy’s centre and rear, he threw the entire van out of action. And yet, nearly a quarter of a century after Nelson’s splendid illustration of a well-known principle of the science of war, we find two distinguished admirals of the British Navy telling us that the secret of their tactics is to “place ship against ship.”
Leaving the sail period, let us now consider the state of Naval Tactics at the present day.
In an exhaustive article on the subject, which appeared a few years ago, the very able writer declared that, in the British Navy, Naval Tactics “had not been so much neglected as despised.” Just think of that! “Not so much neglected as despised.” He says: “In that service no tactical maxim has ever been held in so much honor as the simple phrase which asked only for a fair field and no favor.”
“Plenty of sea room and a willing enemy,” he continues, “was a formula which adequately expressed the aspirations of a body of men strong in their confidence of their superior seamanship and of their undoubted valor and endurance.” Evidently, for such men, if such indeed there be in the English Navy, the lessons of Hawke and Nelson have been given in vain.
As late as 1872 there were a number of English writers who agreed in thinking that, notwithstanding their magnificent fleet of ironclads, they were still “no more than groping after something definite which it was hoped might arise at a future time.” They had not yet a perfectly settled drill to guide them in their fleet evolutions.
Another author, writing about the same time, says: “The naval student is brought face to face with the great difficulty of modern Naval Tactics—the choice of weapons. What would be the English choice, should war come upon us now? It is somewhat painful to note that we have no choice. We vaguely hope that a wise choice will in some way be disclosed to us, and we do not take a great deal of trouble to see how things point. The position we hold is dangerous and improper.” He continues: “While each of the four modern naval weapons, the gun, the ram, the Harvey torpedo, and the Whitehead torpedo, has its advocates, the great mass of naval men simply look on.”
In the English Naval Prize Essay of 1879 the author says: “Evolutions are not tactics. Evolutions are simply fleet drill: the Signal Book is a drill book.” He then proceeds to criticise the Signal Book, winding up with the remark: “Are there no broad principles which might be shadowed forth in the Signal Book ? At present, it must be admitted, we are groping in the dark. Our evolutions and maneuvers have no direct bearing on battle formations. … Modern naval warfare has so changed,” he says, “and is in such a state of transition, that, failing a direct order from higher authority to deal with tactics, modern Signal-Book committees have agreed to ignore them, except so far as an occasional verbal change in an old signal might be adapted to modern warfare.” Here, then, lies the whole trouble: the English have made no serious effort to get up a modern Code of Fighting Instructions. The essayist is not without words of praise, however, for the Signal Book, deficient as it is. “If,” says he, “we turn to the definitions, we see a great improvement has taken place in recent editions, the terms ‘ guide of a fleet,’ ‘ guide of a column,’ and others, being comparatively new. The term ‘ column ‘ is also new, and is now used to mean ‘ any number of ships in a distinct body, whether in line ahead, line abreast, or otherwise.’ The word,” he adds, ” has been objected to, with justice, as having a forced meaning, but at least it describes clearly a body of ships in any formation, and this was previously much required.”
Further on he says: “Alluding to the old Signal Book” (and the new one, he tells us, is a mere transcript with a few extra notes and observations), “we ask if we are right in supposing that all these signals, evolutions and maneuvers are intended as a groundwork for tactics? And, if so, where are the tactics?”
Another writer asks the same question: “But are even the evolutions prescribed for the squadrons sufficient? If battle is their object, where are their formations or plans of attack which they recommend?” The former essayist answers the question himself by saying: “We have been living in peaceable times, and battle and action signals have been dropping out of the Signal Book. What remains of just ten articles of instructions for action which are mostly obsolete.”
It must be admitted that these remarks of English Prize Essayists hold out small encouragement to hope for much instruction in tactics from the English Navy. And there is reason to believe that other navies are pretty much in the same unsettled state as to the best system of Steam Tactics, both Minor and Grand. Commander Hoff, who has taken great pains to gather together under one cover all that is latest and best of the published opinions on the subject, quoting from English, French, German, Italian, and Russian and Belgian writers, comes to the deliberate conclusion that “all of them are more or less unsatisfactory.”
The conclusion forced upon us is inevitable—that we must begin de novo and build up this science for ourselves.
We might very well conclude here, but for one or two remarks of the distinguished officers just quoted which require a passing notice.
One writer says: “Evolutions are not tactics, though they may form the basis on which tactics are founded.” And again, speaking of the Signal Book as a manual of drill in fleet evolutions, he asks, “Where are the tactics?” And again, another officer asks, in speaking of fleet evolutions in the Signal Book, “If battle be their object, where are their plans of attack?”
To these several remarks we may repeat that “Tactics is the Art of Military Movements.” This applies to the movements of a fleet, or its evolutions. Hence, the evolutions laid down in the Signal Book do constitute, in themselves, what is known as Minor Tactics. Further, that the writers quoted have confounded two distinct branches, viz.: Minor or Elementary Tactics, which is limited to evolutions (see Introduction), and Grand Tactics, or the Tactics of Battle. This distinction is made by military writers, and it would be well for us to adopt it, here and now, for our Naval Terminology. We will thus avoid any confusion of ideas. In the English Navy they had for generations of flag officers the Fighting Instructions, and in France the Ordonnance du Roi, to both of which reference has been made. These comprised the Grand Tactics of the Sail Period. The great want now felt in both those navies are modern Fighting Instructions. That is what they are striving for. But, as we have said, and say again, nobody, to our knowledge, has arisen, so far, who has shown himself competent to draw them up.
Now, Elementary Tactics, or the system of fleet evolutions laid down in the Signal Book; Grand Tactics, or the manner of forming a fleet for battle, and for conducting it in battle, and Strategy, together constitute the science of naval warfare; and that is what we are now to study.
In starting out with a new study, it is not desirable to retain the terminology of an obsolete system. The English and French have both fallen into this error. The English still cling to the terms line ahead, line abreast, and line of bearing; while the French retain the terms used by Paul Hoste. Now, strictly speaking, the term line of bearing, having reference to the wind, is inapplicable to steam tactics. It was a line six points from the direction of the wind, and a fleet was on the starboard, or larboard, line of bearing according as the ships composing it could fetch, by a simultaneous movement, into the line of battle on the starboard or larboard tack. The term is a convenient and expressive one, however, and having been adopted by writers on steam tactics, it should have a modified and precise definition given it.
Unhampered by traditions as we are, let us at once adopt the shorter, simpler, and equally expressive terms of Line, Column and Echelon, and their derivatives, to express the various formations of a fleet. We shall then avoid such clumsy expressions as line ahead in single column, and many similar ones common to writers of the day.
Our terminology should be precise, our definitions clear. Where old terms will answer, it is certainly well to retain them, even if the sense must be modified. But when we are actually wanting in terms, we may be safe in taking such as have passed into the currency of military literature.
Our attention, then, will be first directed to Elementary Tactics; next, to the Tactics of Battle, and lastly, to Strategy.