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.