After completing my previous book on the war in the North Sea during the First World War, which was published last December, I turned to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as a subject for a further book on naval history. Lasting from 1793-1815, these Wars saw the Royal Navy confirm its reputation as the most powerful and successful navy in the world; they imposed huge demands on the navy, its ships, its men and its administration.
My book concentrates on the Royal Navy’s blockade of Brest – the strategically vital port from which the French Navy could menace the United Kingdom. As with my previous book, I have examined, in particular, the way in which critically important decisions were taken. I have also made extensive use of the many valuable collections of documents published by the Navy Records Society. It was no great surprise to find that the correspondence between the senior commanders, and theirs with the Admiralty, was just as bad tempered and argumentative as was to be seen in the similar documents of the First World War. The admirals felt that the administration paid insufficient attention to their needs, while at the Admiralty, there was persistent dissatisfaction with the way in which orders were executed.
Nonetheless, it was the Royal Navy’s operations such as those around Brest which led Admiral Mahan famously to write: ‘Those far distant, storm beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the domination of the world’. The blockade required a constant watch on the port, from which at any time the French fleet, or part of it, might emerge to carry out offensive operations – especially against the coastline of England and Ireland. The British Admiralty was particularly sensitive to the possibility of a descent on the southern coast of Ireland; in fact, the French were able to make their escape from Brest on many occasions. It was, of course, easier for single ships or small squadrons to do so, but sometimes a substantial force emerged, as for instance in 1794, when the French sent out a large fleet to cover the arrival of a vitally important transatlantic grain convoy. This led to the battle known as the ‘Glorious First of June’, when Lord Howe won a significant victory over the French fleet, led by Villaret-Joyeuse, but failed to prevent the convoy getting safely in.
A key responsibility of the Channel Fleet was the protection of British trade. This was hampered by the shortage of frigates with which to hunt down the French ships that preyed on British merchantmen. The convoy system that was introduced – involving large numbers of merchantmen escorted by warships – was an important factor in meeting the threat.
The Channel Fleet was led, at various times, by a number of self-willed and assertive commanders. Howe’s successor was the acerbic Lord Bridport; the two men cordially disliked each other. History has not been kind to Bridport, but I suggest that he has generally been underrated. He was followed by the arrogant St Vincent, and then by the supremely competent Cornwallis, who was, perhaps, the ablest of all the fleet’s commanders. Day in, day out, it was the ambition of each of them to win a major fleet action, but for most of the time, as their correspondence showed, their attention had to be focused on the grinding reality of blockading – in all weathers – a notoriously dangerous coastline. Their contribution to Britain’s ultimate success, however, can be said to have been at least as valuable as the winning of a spectacular sea battle.
Far Distant Ships. The Blockade of Brest 1793-1815 by Quintin Barry is available for pre-order here.