Category Archives: Napoleonic War

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759 by Nicholas Tracy

Popular convention seems to place the birth of the Royal Navy as 1805. Somehow the fleet simply transpired in time for the ‘Nelson touch’. Of course, this kind of blinkered view ignores the battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and St Vincent earlier in the same war, but also the hundreds of years of development beforehand. Of course Nelson is the greatest Admiral in British History, but he is by no means the only great Admiral, and certainly not the first. This book by Nicholas Tracy goes some way to redressing the balance.

Admiral Hawke is a virtual unknown in British History, even here in Portsmouth. My only slight memory of the name is that Charles Dickens lived in Hawke Street in Portsea early in his life. But for an Admiral who apparently saved Britain from invasion during Heart of Oak’s ‘wonderful year’, Hawke has been remarkably unsung for some time. Its quite possible that Hawke, and other earlier seamen, have been overshadowed by Nelson’s later heroics. Revered naval theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, thought the Battle of Quiberon Bay was as significant as Nelson’s victory in 1805, calling it ‘the Trafalgar of the Seven Years War’. It might, Tracy argues, have been more important than that.

The Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763 found Britain, Prussia and a coalition of smaller German states at war with France, Austria, Russia and Sweden. As my tutor at university used to say, ‘because they deserved it, and they needed the practise’. The Seven years war found Britain essentially involved in a world war, due to the early development of Empire. Britain and France were rivals for domination, particularly in India and North America. Britain and France were fighting in Canada, culminating in Wolfe’s death at Quebec. The Hanoverian Army defeated a large French force at the battle of Minden in Germany. Against this tumultuous strategic background, France planned to invade England. British strategy of blockading continental Europe were developed during this period. In order to cut France off from her possessions overseas, and to prevent her allies and neutral states trading with her, the Royal Navy kept a close watch on French Ports. In addition to the blockading ships, the British Admiralty maintained a powerful channel fleet in the event of the French breaking out and threatening to invade Britain.

Nicholas Tracy’s conclusion is that many of the aspects of the Royal Navy that we came to see in 1805 were born much earlier. There were some distinctly Nelsonian elements to the victory at Quiberon Bay – how the Admiralty and Hawke had laid down a central doctrine, but at the same time allowed their captains latitude to do what they thought best in the heat of battle. By comparison, the French fought by rigid obedience to orders that was unworkable in the pell-mell of a sea battle. The way that the British fought the battle – sailing into uncharted waters and into narrow channels in pursuit of the enemy also showed the kind of elan that later came to be expected of naval officers. Perhaps this new spirit of aggressiveness was caused by Byng’s execution some years earlier for supposed cowardice, and this is something that Tracy touches on. And, in yet another Trafalgar-like twist, the aftermath of the battle saw a terrible storm that sank several ships, including most of those captured by the British.

But Tracy does not focus just on the wooden walls and the salty sea dogs. Thanks to thorough primary and secondary research we are given a detailed and comprehensive persepctive of the context in British society and politics, and the situation across the channel too. One of the most important points to note is that the heavy defeat that France suffered in the Seven Years War led to the social unrest and upheaval that eventually brought about the French Revolution.

So, in essence, the same war that fine-tuned British naval strategy and traditions, but also the future war that would be its finest hour.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759 is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under maritime history, Napoleonic War, Navy, Uncategorized

The crew of HMS Victory at Trafalgar




Victory Crew

Originally uploaded by dalyhistory2010

Recently I mentioned the nationality of seamen in the Royal Navy at Trafalgar. Well, at the Dockyard today I snapped this information board about the crew of HMS Victory herself. Its a bit small, so heres the vital statistics again:

515 English, 88 Irish, 67 Scottish, 50 Welsh, 1 African, 1 Brazilian, 2 Danish, 4 French, 2 Indian, 6 Maltese, 1 Portuguese, 2 Swiss, 22 American, 2 Canadian, 7 Dutch, 2 German, 1 Jamaican, 2 Norwegian, 4 Swedish, 4 West Indian, 48 Unknown.

So out of a crew of 820, 720 came from the British Isles, and over 12% came from many other parts of the world. The 100 foreigners would have had all manner of reasons for joining the Royal Navy – many of them not by choice. But its clear that the Navy and maybe even contemporary society were a lot more diverse than is often thought.

Britannia did indeed rule the waves, but only with the help of some friends!

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Filed under Napoleonic War, Navy, out and about, social history, Uncategorized

Guthrie’s War: A Surgeon of the Peninsula and Waterloo by Michael Crumplin

I’m not the greatest of people with squeamish stuff – graphic descriptions of nasty wounds make me toes curl. I studied ‘medicine through time’ for GCSE History, and even then medical history, although interesting, would make my stomach churn. Yet despite that, I could never deny that Medical History is interesting. Its at an intersection between history and science. And more often than not, most medical advances are inspired by war. And this book is a prime of example of a skilled medic who honed his skills during war time.

George Guthrie is one of the unsung heroes of the Napoleonic Wars. Not only was he one of the most forward thinking surgeons of his time, he also kept detailed case records and statistics, which here are edited by Michael Crumplin, himself a retired surgeon.

There are some pretty gruesome cases described here. Its not surprising that terrible wounds shock us, as most Hollywood films show the hero being shot cleanly through the heart, saying ‘tell Jane that I love her’ and then lolloping his head to one side. As Guthrie shows, bullets do not make nice neat holes, neither do swords. As a Historian I would be pretty much lost trying to make sense of some of the more scientific details, so its a smart move for Guthrie’s account to be edited by a doctor.

War gives the surgeon many more opportunities to examine the human anatomy, that in peacetime would only come from dissecting dead bodies. And the opportunity to get to grips with complex trauma wounds led to discoveries and innovations – Guthrie found that when amputating limbs a tourniquet was not always necessary, and that all an assitant needed to do was apply firm pressure on the right arteries. Guthrie also developed an understanding of how to run hospitals with minimising the risk of infection and disease in mind.

We often find that the treatment and suffering of wounded during wars brings about a national outcry – particularly the Crimean War, the First World War and to a lesser extent the current Afghan War and Help for Heroes. The Napoleonic Wars might not have caused a revolution in nursing like the Crimea, nor the forming of charities such as after 1918. But its effects were more subtle – slowly, the authorities began to see the importance of good medical services to warfighting. Much as Wellington won his battles partly through solid logistical organistation, he also made medical services an inherent part of planning, and not just a bolt-on.

Interestingly, it seems that Guthrie came up opposition from his contemporaries, particularly on his policy of only amputating when absolutely necessary. If we believe other contemporary accounts – such as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and also accounts of Naval surgery, it would seem that Napoleonic military surgeon’s were knife-happy butchers.

Maybe the historical convention that all Napoleonic-era military surgeons were butchers needs to be re-thought? There also seems to be a convention that the only Napoleonic doctor with any kind of forward-thinking was the Empereur’s personal surgeon, Dr Larrey. Yet this account of Guthrie’s war service suggest that medical science in the British Army was not as barbaric as we might immediately think.

Guthrie’s War is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Napoleonic War, Uncategorized

The untold Battle of Trafalgar

I watched this documentary on Channel 4 on Monday night.

It portrays the crew of the Royal Navy ship of the line HMS Bellerophon and her crew at the Battle of Trafalgar. While I would like to believe that the story told in the programme is ‘untold’, sadly I think that previous research has already made the same points. I’m not sure how the programme makers can claim that it is based on the same research, when a full register of seamen who served at Trafalgar has been available since at least 2005 on the National Archives website here.

It has long been known that the Royal Navy was an ‘equal opportunities’ employer, long before the term was even dreamt up. And a quick glance at the database on the National Archives website shows that a fair proportion of Trafalgar sailors were not English. Many seem to have come from Ireland. Aside from England and Scotland, men onboard the Bellerophon on 21 October 1805 came from… Portugal, West Indies, Ireland, Prussia, Holland, America, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Malta, Canada and India.

I haven’t got my copy of Peter Goodwin’s Nelson’s Victory: 101 Questions and Answers immediately to hand, but I recall that one of the 101 questions was about the composition of the crew. As far as I can remember, a large proportion of the crew was non-British – possibly a larger proportion than the Bellerophon – and was possibly more diverse too.

Perhaps we need to give bygone times more credit for their lack of prejudice? This common wisdom that back in the dark ages everyone was prejudiced against each other, and now we’re striving to some kind of equality utopia, is pretty blinkered. Its just a shame that it takes a documentary based on reycled research that is freely available to anyone and everyone!

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Filed under Napoleonic War, Navy, On TV, social history, Uncategorized

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

I must confess to being quite tired of narrative military history. As much as ‘the history of…’ accounts are important, in that they are the building blocks of history, they can be rather dry and predictable. I much prefer to read books that either take a long view and look at trends, changes and continuities, or attempt to drill down and investigate mysteries, explode myths or answer questions.

Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to pick up this book by John Keegan for the princely sum of £2.99. John Keegan is one of the main figures in late twentieth century school of military historiography, alongside other figures such as Basil Liddell Hart, John Terraine and Michael Howard. Among Keegan’s books that I have read and enjoyed are Churchill’s Generals – a study of senior British Army officers in the Second World War – and Six Armies in Normandy – A look at the national contingents that fought in the Battle of Normandy.

I often feel that military histories that look at just one battle, at one particular point in time, are like listening to one particular second in a much longer symphony. What becomes before and after makes all the difference, by isolating it we remove it from its natural habitat. Therefore I much admire this work, which sees Keegan looking at the human experience of war over hundreds of years. To do this in detail is a tall order, so three case studies are used – Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme. Each provides an extremely useful yardstick for comparison to what came before and what came after – what changed, and why? What stayed the same?

Keegan does very well to make some very complex events more understandable – such is the essence of well-written history, after all. An approach that I particularly like is breaking each battle down into the different kinds of combat that were experiences – ie at Agincourt various combinations of Archer, footsoldier and knight; at Waterloo infantry, cavalry and artillery; and at the Somme infantry, artilley and to a lesser extent machine gunners. What is noticeable is how the change in combat was motivated by technology – from Agincourt to Waterloo the development of gunpowder, and from Waterloo to the Somme by rifling, more efficient high explosives and machine guns.

Against this framework looks at more human factors – how the social composition of the armies in question evolved, and how the development of weapons changed the type of wounds that a soldier might expect to suffer. Keegan even considers such interesting points as historical trends in looting. A salient point, however, is one that seems obvious to us only after we read it – that over the time in question battles involve more and more people, over a bigger and bigger space, and lasted for longer and longer. Such was the evolution towards total war.

Critics of Keegan might point out that he gives little consideration to political factors, but personally I find his refreshing. Im not sure if any Tommy Atkins was particulary worried about politics when lying wounded in the Mud at Agincourt, Waterloo or the Somme. As important as Clausewitz’s maxim is about war being the pursuit of politics through other means, does politics really have to overshadow every facet of military history? If we are studying strategy, yes. But when it come to the face of battle, no.

My only criticism is that the Somme was coming up for 100 years ago, and thus Keegan’s arguments are somewhat adrift, bearing in mind we are now in the nuclear age. Perhaps a new edition including an example from the Second World War might be pertinent, and put the Somme in greater context than leaving it as a bookend?

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Filed under Book of the Week, historiography, Medieval history, Napoleonic War, World War One

The British Army’s supporting arms in the Second World War

Sappers erecting a Bailey Bridge under fire over the River Rapido in Italy, May 1944

Sappers erecting a Bailey Bridge under fire over the River Rapido in Italy, May 1944

One thing that is really striking about my Portsmouth World War Two dead research is just how many soldiers were members of the various supporting arms, who maybe don’t get the credit that they deserve.

In Wellington’s day, the Army consisted in the main of Infantry and Cavalry, with Artillery in support. These three might be termed the ‘teeth’ arms, and due to their low-technology status they only required support in the field from services such as the Royal Engineers, the Commassariat and the Army Wagon Corps.

With the Industrial Revolution, and the increased mechanisation of warfare, the Army required many more men and services to support it in wartime. Winston Churchill might have scoffed the amount of cooks and bottle washers in the Eighth Army in the Desert, but it took a lot of manpower to keep hundreds of tanks running. Churchill simply divided the total strength of the Eighth Army by the amount of men in the ‘teeth arms’, and concluded that the remainder must be superfluous. An example of how out of touch Churchill could be regarding military matters. Warfare had advanced since Wellington’s day – the Generals of 1914-1918 had struggled getting to grips with technological change. A smaller proportion might have been ‘ront-line’ troops, but those that were better armed than their ancestors, and needed support arms to maintain them.

The Royal Artillery seems to have had a first class reputation during the Second World War, and was frequently one of the reasons that the British Army was able to fight battles without too heavy losses – particularly important given the dearth of replacements available by 1944. Many men served in the Royal Artillery, from the various Light, Medium and Heavy Field Regiments, Anti-Aircraft units, Searchlight Batteries and Coastal Artillery. They served in every theatre, as shown by the Gunner’s motto, Ubique – everywhere. Wherever the British Army fought, its guns went with it. Almost as many Portsmouth men died serving in the Artillery as did serving with the local Hampshire Regiment.

The Royal Engineers also gained a first class reputation for their sterling work in many theatres, from the Desert to the Jungle. There were a wide range of Sapper units – Field Companies and Regiments, Dock operating companies, General Construction units, Fortress Companies, Railway Companies, Advancied Field Companies and Assault units. They operated frequently under enemy fire, for example throwing up Bailey Bridges in remarkable time. Often they put down their tools and also fought as infantry, particulary at Arnhem Bridge. So far I have found at least 32 Portsmouth men who died serving with the Royal Engineers in the Second World War.

One innovation in the Second World War was the formation of REME, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. This new Corps specialised in working on vehicles and machinery, and many men were transferred from other Corps upon its formation. 4 Portsmouth men died serving with REME.

The Royal Corps of Signals was another unit that went everywhere that the Army did. Maintaining communications was a vital part of warfare in the Second World War, in particular in the highly mobile fighting that frequently occured. At least 10 Portsmouth men died serving with the Royal Signals between 1939 and 1947.

Other Corps such as the Royal Army Service Corps, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Royal Army Medical Corps, down to the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Royal Army Chaplains Department, along with the Gunners, Sappers, REME and Scaleybacks provided strong support to the Infantry and Armour. The men who died serving in these units are proof, if any is needed, that the Infantry Private or the Armoured Trooper needed the Gunner to lay down fire support, the Sapper to build his bridges, the REME to fix his engine or his rifle, the Signals to keep up communications, and the medics to treat him.

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Filed under Army, Arnhem, Napoleonic War, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

Thoughts on Leadership

Wellington - the Iron Duke

Wellington - the Iron Duke

My recent post on Leadership and Command in the Falklands War got me thinking about leadership in a broader sense.

I’m sure we’ve all worked with enough managers in our time that simply make us think ‘how in the name of hell did someone think they would make a good manager?’. Tescos in particular seem to be fine proponents of this art – promoting any old person who’s hung around long enough without any thought as to if they actually have the people skills or the brain cells for the job. Some of the biggest mistakes I have seen are the ‘I now have a fancy job title, im going to shout at you all until you do what I want’ style of management, closely followed by the ‘I’m going to make you look small, so I feel big’ style of bullying.

You can take a lot from military history that informs good leadership. Perhaps because command during war is the sharpest test of leadership anyone could face, and in that white hot crucible the factors that make a good leader tend to shine out. There are some shining examples of both good and bad leadership throughout the ages. Why shouldn’t we draw lessons from Montgomery’s plan for Alamein, and apply them to that new corporate strategy? Why can’t we look at the Duke of Wellington’s strategy at Waterloo, and use the same kind of defensive approach when we’re under fire at work?

Writers such as Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz give us some rather deep but useful theories for leadership. And then there are some fantastic examples through the ages of how and how not to do it. Oliver Cromwell, the Duke of Marlborough, Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, Brian Horrocks, John Frost, Montgomery, Eisenhower, Bill Slim and more recently Sandy Woodward, Julian Thompson and Mike Jackson all offer useful examples of leadership in difficult situations. And whats more interesting, is that they all have slightly different styles and approaches, and some are good in different situations. Churchill was a great orator and inspirer, but in terms of real decisions and policies, maybe he wasnt so great. Wellington was a resolute commander and his men trusted him, but he was rather cold and aloof. Monty was a great thinker and cared about his men, but his prickly manner alienated his colleagues and superiors. By reading about them all, you can imagine different scenarios.

So for me, what qualities shine out that make a good leader? Firstly, you should never expect your staff to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Of course this helps if you have actually been there and done it yourself, or if you still do regularly. Having a fancy job title doesnt mean you cant roll your sleeves up every now and then. Secondly, rather than just shouting at people all the time, why not think ‘how can I get more out of these people?’ – some people respond to a firm hand, some people need a quiet chat. People have different strengths and weaknesses – use them. Thats cos all people are different. Morale IS vital too – if you treat people like dirt, you can’t expect them to go above and beyond for you. People do appreciate a genuine thank you, or a tin of biscuits every now and then. And don’t treat people like idiots – explain things to them so they know what’s going on. Don’t take all the credit for other people’s work – without them you’re nothing. And don’t feel threatened by people under you – its the mark of a good leader if they inspire and develop their staff. You won’t get it right all the time, we’re all human. But think about it, don’t just bumble along day to day, stand back and think ‘am I doing this right? what could we try different?’

I do wonder what exactly they teach on some of these corporate management training courses…

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Filed under Army, debate, Falklands War, Napoleonic War, Navy, social history, World War Two