By Tom Anderson
Ask a writer—certainly an Anglophone one—which era they immediately picture when they hear the words ‘naval fiction, and it is very likely they will name the time of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
This conflict was often known as ‘the Great War’ in British sources throughout the nineteenth century, before it was displaced for that title by the First World War. It was not truly a single war but a series of conflicts driven loosely by the upheaval of the French Revolution, in which multiple coalitions formed, reformed and fell, with countries routinely switching sides. The exception to this was naval conflict between Britain and France, which, aside from the brief pause of the Peace of Amiens in 1802-3, continued for almost a quarter-century between 1792 and 1815. This aspect of the war reflected its global nature, with French and British interests clashing in India, the Caribbean and South America, as well as fighting in European waters.
However, a picture of two equal forces routinely clashing is a misleading one. France took heavy losses (relatively) early into the long period of conflict, losing experienced seamen, and the Revolutionary habit of turning on aristocratic (but experienced) captains and promoting inexperienced ones also took its toll. Whereas the navy of the Kingdom of France had been a serious threat to Britain throughout the 18th century, culminating in de Grasse’s crucial defeat of the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake (securing American independence), this would not persist past the first few years of the 19th with the defeat at Trafalgar in 1805.
Nonetheless, Napoleon reigned supreme on the Continent for what seemed like the foreseeable future following his great victory at Austerlitz shortly after Trafalgar. Britain and France were at an impasse, Britannia ruling the waves and Gallia dominating Europe. The so-called era of the ‘Wooden World’ is so iconic to Anglophone writers precisely because of the eerie stability of the following decade, with much of the French Navy permanently blockaded in port and British captains either on that blockade duty or conducting unorthodox single-ship missions in exotic climes.
The first Franco-British naval clash of the war was the so-called “Action of 18 June 1793” (no prizes for guessing when it happened!) in which the British frigate HMS Nymphe, under Captain Edward Pellew, defeated the French frigate Cléopâtre under Captain Jean Mullon, one of the remaining ancien régime commanders. Mullon died of his wounds during the battle, but remarkably Pellew went on to command many further actions throughout the conflict (becoming admiral in command of the East Indies Station based out of Penang in modern Malaysia) and survived well past the end of the long war.
This battle was an example of the type of clashes between those ships generally described as frigates, meaning medium-sized craft intended to operate independently around the world. Frigates were a French design in origin, dating from the mid-eighteenth century. Their design philosophy consisted of putting all their guns on a single deck well above the waterline, and leaving the lower deck for crew berths. This allowed the upper part of the hull to be lowered in height, giving the frigate superior sailing properties, as well as eliminating leaky gunports on the lower deck. Together, this meant that frigates could fight well even on rough seas, making them a globally capable ship.
By contrast, the year later (1794) saw the ‘Glorious First of June’, which was a fleet action between 25 British and 26 French ships of the line, commanded by Lord Howe and Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse respectively. This name is an abbreviation of ‘ships of the line of battle’, meaning ships large and heavily armed enough to be part of the line of battle tactic that had ruled the roost since its development by the Dutch in the 17th century. This simply meant that the two sides’ fleets would both form lines and then clash in parallel, presenting their broad sides (port or starboard, as opposed to fore and aft) to each other and blasting away with their cannons. The name ‘broadside’ became applied to these volleys of cannon fire as well, as in ‘give them broadside for broadside’. This hammering continued until a ship’s opponent was sunk, or more usually became battered enough to either be boarded or to surrender. Generally firepower alone (i.e. number of guns, and the weight of shot they could fire) was considered to be the key factor in this brutal duel, with speed or manoeuvrability being less relevant. Ships of the line were therefore big, heavy craft with many gun decks, whereas the more agile frigates were considered too lacking in firepower to take part in the line.
These tactics may seem rather simplistic and bloody, but they were driven by the technology of the time. Cannons generally had very short ranges and could not truly be ‘aimed’, so the answer was to close to short range in the line and simply hit the enemy with as much iron as possible. The exception was the small number of longer-barrelled and somewhat more accurate ‘chaser’ guns which ships generally carried at the bow and stern, referred to as bow chasers and stern chasers respectively. As the name implied, these were generally used in chases between lone ships over long ranges, with the pursuing ship firing its bow chasers to try to damage its fleeing opponent, and the latter firing back with its stern chasers. Both would be trying to knock out the others’ propulsion, i.e. by dismasting them or otherwise damaging their sailing rig. Even the chasers, however, had a very low chance of hitting at longer range, especially given the motion of the ships’ gundecks with respect to the sea. This was, generally speaking, an age before the mathematics of artillery were practical in a naval context.
This is one reason why ships were particularly vulnerable to coastal artillery batteries protecting towns or bases, with their fixed azimuth. The other reason was that those batteries could heat up cannonballs in furnaces and then fire the red-hot balls at the ships to set their wooden hulls and canvas sails alight. Because a cannonball was referred to as a ‘shot’, this is where we get the term hot shot. It was considered too dangerous to try heating cannonballs on wooden ships themselves, even though it would have made them more effective weapons against other naval foes.
British and French gunnery tactics in the line typically differed. British doctrine saw a focus on blasting away at the opponent ship’s hull directly, trying to unseat the enemy guns or hole the hull to sink it (although taking ‘prize ships’ was a far preferable outcome, with every crewman on the victorious ship getting a share of the money). The French, on the other hand, preferred to elevate their guns and attack their opponent’s rigging to disable their propulsion. Not a few engagements ended with the British victorious on paper, but with their own ship’s sails devastated and unable to capitalise on their victory.
Specialised cannonballs (shot) were also used for certain tactics. ‘Bar shot’ and ‘chain shot’ described two cannonballs joined by a bar or chain, both loaded into the same cannon and fired at the enemy rigging. The idea was that the balls would pass either side of a rope and the bar or chain would scythe through it and cut it, potentially damaging the enemy’s sail rig. Of course, sometimes they could hit enemy sailors, too, with particularly nasty results.
These were all solid shot, but sometimes ships would also fire explosive shells (which is where the traditional ‘cartoon bomb’ image comes from, with a fuse burning down). In one of the Hornblower novels, the titular protagonist impresses his crew by going up to a shell that has just landed and pinching out the fuse before it can detonate. Finally, British ships in particular sometimes carried specialised guns called carronades (named after the Carron ironworks in Falkirk, who built them). Carronades were large, bulbous, short-range cannons which fired a large number of cannonballs of various sizes all at once (including anti-infantry canister fire) with a small gunpowder charge and therefore not much recoil. Known as ‘smashers’, they were horribly devastating against enemy ships at very close range.
To return to the ‘Glorious First of June’, in many ways it summed up the dichotomy of the war. Both sides claimed victory. The British had won an unquestionable tactical victory by capturing 6 French ships and sinking a seventh at the cost of none of their own, but the French had achieved their strategic goal of successfully defending a grain convoy from the United States which was needed to stave off famine in the fragile Republic. Many battles throughout the conflict fall into this category of a spectacular British win which nonetheless did nothing to change the broader strategic situation. Even Trafalgar in 1805 is claimed to come under this heading by some historians, who point out that Napoleon had most probably abandoned any serious plans to invade Britain by the time Nelson defeated Villeneuve’s combined Franco-Spanish fleet anyway.
At Trafalgar, Nelson adopted a relatively radical tactic by attacking the Franco-Spanish lines edge-on rather than fighting line against line. He divided his own fleet in two and used them to cut the Franco-Spanish force into three parts, helping cut off the signal flag communication usually used to coordinate the traditional line. Nelson did this because he knew individual British seamanship was generally superior by this point in the conflict, and the British would fight more effectively in a communications ‘blackout’. This was demonstrated by the fact that the battle was a victory despite Nelson himself being fatally wounded quite early in it. Trafalgar is undoubtedly the most iconic British naval victory not simply because of its one-sided triumph against the odds, or Nelson’s ingenious tactics, or even the flag signal ‘England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty’—but the fact that Nelson conveniently died at his moment of triumph and became an heroic martyr beloved by the public.
This is a period in which naval terminology became solidified and foreshadowed what would come later. With the Longitude Problem solved, ships travelling around the world to distant stations was more feasible, though still very dangerous. Line-of-battle ships would eventually become abbreviated to battleships in the new century (in my series Look to the West, I instead have it become abbreviated to lineships). Frigate remains as a classification today, albeit one which has changed considerably from its original meaning.
A commander earlier in the eighteenth century had been Edward Vernon, who wore grogham coats and was known as Old Grog. When he introduced diluted rum for his crews, it was dubbed ‘grog’ by association and someone who had drunk too much of it was said to be groggy, a term we retain today. Many more terms that remain in our language date from this time.
Many works of fiction stem from this era, as I covered in my article on the Cochrane family, who inspired a number of them. Frederick Marryat, C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian all wrote of this era. Other writers reimagine its tropes in a futuristic setting, some less subtly than others (David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is explicitly inspired by Forester’s Hornblower). Jack Campbell, author of the ‘Lost Fleet’ series, appropriates the nickname ‘Black Jack’ for his protagonist from Admiral John ‘Black Jack’ Jervis, later Earl St Vincent for his victory at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797. The meaning in Jervis’ case was decidedly a negative one, reflecting his unpopular reputation as a strict disciplinarian. Discipline was particularly important in an era where a sailor breaking into the rum storage at the wrong time could doom a ship isolated from outside contact if a storm appeared five minutes later; but sometimes commanders grew paranoid at the idea of mutiny, particularly given that this was the age of Revolution, and cracked down repressively with punishments such as being flogged with the ‘cat o’ nine tails’. Best known is the mutiny on the Bounty against Captain Bligh in 1789 (actually before the outbreak of war) but much less well known is the 1797 mass strike of Royal Navy sailors in Nore and Spithead, part of which took explicit inspiration from the French Revolution. Some historians consider this the closest that Britain has ever been to revolution sincee the 1660 restoration of the monarchy.
Though the long war finally came to an end in 1815, the Wooden World seemed remarkably solid. Steam technology, though famously dismissed by Napoleon, had been developed during the war, and as early as 1822 the first Royal Navy steamship, HMS Comet, crossed the Atlantic. But conservative admiralties and other factors meant that as late as the Crimean War of the 1850s (where Britain and France were allies against Russia), naval battles looked more like Trafalgar than what would come after. Wooden ships with primary sail propulsion were still the order of the day. It would be the Battle of Kinburn in 1857, where the French deployed three experimental ‘ironclad batteries’, which changed opinions. Though the French craft were barely functional as mobile ships (hence the name) they proved almost invulnerable to Russian cannon fire, even as cannons were growing more sophisticated and aimable. Sails and masts would persist for a while, but the French and British frantically began building the first true ironclad warships, France’s La Gloire and Britain’s Warrior and Black Prince. Shortly afterwards, river-based ironclads would prove decisive in the American Civil War.
The age of wooden ships and canvas sails had come to an end. Now came the Age of Steam.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth