During the 250 years immediately preceding 1830, the navies of the world did not greatly change in their material composition and in the technical requirements of their personnel. If Drake’s men had found themselves in Nelson’s Victory, they would, without prolonged training, have sailed and fought her with considerable efficiency. During these centuries, therefore, the development of materiel and personnel need not constantly engage the historian’s attention. On the other hand, the use of navies as instruments of national policy, and the consequent campaigns waged at sea, loom too large to be disregarded.
After 1830, however, the emphasis is exactly reversed. Now the great seafaring nations are no longer in endemic conflict, and the nations most usually at war are not the seafaring nations. So ‘operations’ fall naturally into the background, and, though fleets are still used as instruments of policy, that use is more indirect, less primarily warlike. There now occurs, however, a series of unparalleled revolutions in materiel which, extending inevitably to personnel, profoundly alters the whole nature of navies. Though Nelson’s men could have gone back two-and-a-half centuries without trouble, they would have been utterly bemused if called upon to go forward only a quarter of that period.
It is, therefore, the great evolutions in the ships themselves, their propulsion, weapons and equipment, and in their men which must be the main concern here. It is in the period from 1830 to 1870, indeed, that those changes were at their quickest and most bewildering, and in their results most decisive. The navies of 1830 were still, in essence, the navies of Nelson and Villeneuve: those of 1870 were already, in most respects, those of Fisher and von Tirpitz.
Further, at no other period in modem times has one navy so predominated in men’s minds over its rivals. Britain’s recent victory over her old sea-competitors, France and Spain, had been singularly decisive, while the newcomers in the race—Prussia, Japan, the U.S.A.—though destined later to take up the challenge, were as yet, navally speaking, in their infancy. Hence—in prestige even when not in sheer power—the Royal Navy, throughout the period, overshadowed all its rivals. No other nation was so situated that it regarded its fleet as its main weapon, whether for attack or defence, or even for the maintenance of the status quo. Priority of place, therefore, must go here to the Royal Navy, for to no other country was sea-power of even comparable importance.
Two lines, then, will be investigated: first, the vast and rapid changes in materiel which invaded all the world’s navies—perhaps the greatest revolution in all naval history; nothing less than the application of modem science and invention to the armed sea-forces: and second, a corresponding and almost equally radical change in the personnel of navies, especially in that paramount one, the Royal Navy.
The changes in materiel cover all that pertains to warships, and may be divided into four main subheadings, namely propulsion—the change from sail to steam; basic material—the change from wood to iron; offence—the revolution in the gun; and defence—the introduction of armour. These four, acting quickly and often interacting, revolutionised both ships and men.
That all came so quickly and simultaneously is not surprising. The common cause is the marked acceleration of technical skill which began in the latter part of the eighteenth century, leading to improvements of all kinds, but mainly perhaps in machine-making tools. But this new technology, especially in Britain, which led the way, was mainly confined to industry. Indeed, for a long time it was not applied at all to the art of war, so that, though Britain secured a long lead in industrial development based upon machinery, she held no such advantage where her naval forces were concerned.
The reason for this, too, is plain. Britain lacked any overriding motive for making naval changes. Her old ‘wooden walls’, with their masts, sails, and broadsides of smoothbore guns, had been allotted an important task in the nation’s policy, and had been altogether successful. It was only natural that the British, people and government alike, should feel that the Royal Navy, which had served them so long and so well, stood in no need whatever of drastic improvements.
Doubtless this was partly prejudice. Yet it was not prejudice alone which made Britain refuse to take the lead which might have been expected. There were two reasons which acted as brakes upon precipitate change. First, she held an immense lead in existing naval materiel. Why, then, deliberately sacrifice it by rendering her great navy obsolete? If the changes meant, as well they might, that she would have to start again at scratch alongside her potential enemies, why bring on the evil day a moment before it was necessary?
The other reason is often forgotten by those who accuse successive British governments of mere ostrichism. Many of these novelties were— then—far from perfect. It is easy to be wise after the event. Ultimately they proved themselves, and became thoroughly reliable. But the men of the ’twenties, ’thirties and ’forties could not be expected to sense a reliability which was not there. What they did see was much less reassuring: that iron, in nature, will not float; that the vast inefficient engines of the day were prone to cease turning altogether; that the earlier experiments with new guns, powders and projectiles led to shocking tragedies in explosions and conflagrations. The problem, thus viewed, seems almost to justify the governments in their caution. The old ‘wooden wall’, so long Britain’s first and principal weapon of war, certainly had this cardinal quality of reliability: to tamper with it by introducing admittedly less reliable apparatus was not—at any rate until the authorities were quite sure of the need—a justifiable risk.
Those very considerations which restrained Britain acted in exactly the opposite direction elsewhere, especially in France. There the old methods had been far from successful. She had repeatedly fought Britain with them, and had failed. Here, then, was the most cogent motive for experimenting—the urge of failure. France, therefore, will be found in the van of the new movement. The young American people, too, had special motives for entering the experimental lists. It was not that their battleships had been unsuccessful, like those of France—they had none. Their seagoing navy in their last war with Britain (1812-15) was very small—twenty-two ships, all cruisers. As new competitors for sea-power, they thought it only sensible not to compete at all in the old naval types, now obsolescent. The obvious short cut, should they ever want to take it, lay in that same policy which Britain herself dreaded—starting from scratch in the new race. In the ’sixties, too, the spur of actual war was added, with the Southern States so much the weaker in naval resources that only a tremendous effort of improvisation with new and half-tried weapons could possibly turn the scale. This was courageously attempted; and, though it failed, it forced the North to retaliate with equal enterprise. Here was the most fertile possible soil for rapid development.
The man who was more responsible than any other for the long sequence of material revolutions was a French artillery officer, Henri Joseph Paixhans. Setting to work as early as 1809 upon his startling ideas, over the next twenty years he conducted experiments and published pamphlets which had the profoundest influence upon the future. He advocated a perfectly new fighting force, designed for a completely new system of tactics—a large number of relatively small (and therefore cheap) ships, steam-driven, built of iron and armoured, and armed with a collection of heavy guns, uniform in weight and bore, firing heavy, hollow, explosive shells. He described in minute and convincing detail the success of the experiments made with such projectiles against the old ships; he revealed quite openly that the devastating results which he claimed were accepted as facts by the Ministry of Marine; and he loudly proclaimed his conviction that his projects, if accepted, would, swiftly and decisively, reverse the long tale of French defeats and British victories. Across the Channel his works were read with acute anxiety, and the Admiralty, though still unwilling to move, watched the shipbuilding and rearmament policy of France with growing suspicion. There was a longish pause, for Paixhans, far ahead of his time, was not heeded for a while. Yet it is clear, though no one realised it then, that his work was an amazingly prophetic blueprint of all that followed.
Of the great transitions, the first in time was the change in propulsion, in motive-power from sail to steam. It was made inevitable by the eighteenth-century improvements in the steam-engine. In all sea-use, whether for trade or war, the absence of ‘free movement’ in sailing ships—their inability, that is, to move at will in any direction—involved at best an immense waste of time, at worst serious danger. Most of all, this limitation was felt in enclosed waters, where there was no room to tack, and where ships and fleets might spend days and even weeks entirely immobilised. In the trading world where, even then, time was money, and engine-breakdown, though aggravating, would not necessarily prove fatal, there was no valid reason why free movement, once more possible, should not be restored at once. So steam invaded merchant-ships before warships. Its earliest use was to tow ships into the open sea: the first steamers were mostly tugs. But by 1830 steam was being used, as well, for pleasure-boats and even, in moderation, as auxiliary motive-power in merchantmen when the wind was contrary or absent.
Such advantages, however, touched warships too. To be wind-bound, either in harbour or in the crisis of action, might be decisively dangerous. Thus here, too, steam could not be long excluded; at first, again, to provide towage, but soon to add to a ship’s manoeuvrability in action. The earliest of all steam warships was American—Fulton’s queer twin-hulled Demologos of 1814. The first Royal Navy steamer was the paddle-tug Monkey, purchased, with evident reluctance, in 1821. In 1822 the Comet and her sisters were built for the navy; but it is characteristic of authority’s attitude towards them that their names were omitted from the contemporary Navy List. The first to be so honoured were the Lightnings of 1827—paddle-tugs like the rest: even by 1830 there were no others. This was the considered policy of the country, and in 1828 Melville, then First Lord of the Admiralty, officially voiced it: ‘Their Lordships feel it their bounden duty to discourage to the utmost of their ability the employment of steam vessels, as they consider the introduction of steam is calculated to strike a fatal blow at the naval supremacy of the Empire.’ Britain might accept the tug for its obvious time-saving qualities, but she would not have a finger laid upon her beloved sail-of-the-line.
Progress, however, would not wait upon the First Lord and his old-world views. Across the Channel the fire-eating Paixhans fulminated, and, in Britain in 1830, the progressive Sir James Graham, with ‘Nelson’s’ Hardy as his naval adviser, succeeded Melville. More important, the perfection of the screw-propeller removed at last the real gravamen from the Admiralty’s objections.
Here, too, was something more than mere prejudice. In all ages of naval warfare there has been a certain conflict between power to move freely and fast, and power to hit hard: between mobility and punch. Long ago, in the days of the oar, mobility was in the ascendant. There was free movement, but hitting power was severely limited. Here lay the great weakness of the oared galley—it had no place for many or heavy guns. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all countries, failing to secure both, had followed the English in discarding free movement altogether in favour of heavy gunfire, adopting as their standard the high-sided sailing-ship with its broadside of effective artillery. This shelved the problem: it did not solve it. Nor, so far, had steam done so. It could confer a mobility greater than ever before, but the cumbrous paddles which transmitted it and the monstrous boxes which protected them masked much of the broadside, and detracted materially from its weight.
The screw, however, did no such thing, and its development in the early ’thirties by Sir Francis Pettit Smith in England and Captain John Ericsson in America went far towards providing a solution, and persuading the Admiralty to allow steam to invade its inviolate ‘wooden walls’.
Even so, their Lordships were not to be stampeded. The screw having made great progress in all merchant navies—and some fighting navies, such as the American, where Ericsson’s Princeton was laid down in 1842— they instituted in 1845 a series of official tests to decide, once and for all, the rival merits of screw and paddle. They prepared two sloops, of equal tonnage and engine-power; one the Alecto (paddle), the other the Rattler (screw). These competed first in ordinary steaming races, which the Rattler won. But the paddle’s many friends remained unconvinced. In towing at any rate, they asserted, their favourite must win. So the sloops were attached stem to stem and worked up to full steam ahead. The end of that strange tug-of-war found the Rattler towing her rival stern-first at two-and-a-half knots. The screw’s victory was complete.
During the next four years the Admiralty allowed some old battleships to be fitted with exceedingly low-powered auxiliary engines; not because they were convinced, but because the French were experimenting along these lines. During the ’forties the mantle of Paixhans had fallen upon the shoulders of Labrousse, another progressive officer. As early as 1841 he proposed a line-ship driven by screw: and though he too met with opposition, France was able to launch in 1850, to the designs of the great French Directeur du Materiel, Stanislas Dupuy de Lome, the Napoleon, in other respects old-fashioned but fitted from the start with an auxiliary screw. Thus challenged, Britain replied in 1852 with the Agamemnon, also screw-driven though equally old-fashioned otherwise.
The Crimean War caught both France and Britain with almost all their line-ships still sail-propelled, though they could be towed into action, if necessary, by steam tugs. The war was no good school for experiment because the Russians refused throughout to be lured into fleet actions. Yet the fighting did convince everyone that steam-power had come to stay. In the sea bombardment of Sebastopol on 17 October 1854, for instance, though but little credit accrued to the Allies, or damage to the enemy, the two out of ten British and three out of eleven French battleships which could steam were clearly more valuable, and less vulnerable, than the rest: and in an action of smaller ships at Odessa the steamers did much the better.
Yet this did not convince the Admiralty that sail must go. Rather, they concluded, ships must have both propellents—full-rig for ordinary cruising and auxiliary steam for emergencies. There was common prudence here, too. If the sailing-ship was tactically weak, lacking free movement, she was strategically very strong, possessing one strategic advantage unequalled before or since. She was pre-eminent in ‘sea-endurance’, enjoying a radius of action, independent of outside assistance, greater than either the oared galley before her or the steamship which followed. Unlike the former, her broad beam and deep draught left plenty of space for provisioning: unlike the latter, she required no fuel-space for her propellent, the wind. The early steamer, however, needed not only coal, but coal in vast quantities relative to the power developed; and she had to have it wherever she might be. This involved one, or both, of two costly accessories—tremendous fleets of colliers constantly in attendance, or widely-spread coaling-stations, also, ultimately, demanding many colliers. At first Britain had neither: nor could she venture upon a wholesale change to steam without them. Those continental nations whose naval occasions seldom took them far from home might, perhaps, risk it, but not so Britain, with her world-wide imperial commitments. She must first face, and solve, her coaling problem. So once again it was France, with her smaller oceanic interests, who set the pace.
In 1859 she produced La Gloire (5600 tons), also designed by Dupuy de Lome, which, though called a frigate, was, for that day, an immense steam-battleship, and a great advance on anything preceding it. Once more Britain must respond, and she did so with the Warrior (1860), perhaps the most revolutionary warship ever built, containing all sorts of novel features to which reference will later be made. Here must be recorded only her great size—9200 tons—and her complete set of screw-machinery. But—she remained a full-rigged sailing-ship.
Britain’s naval policy in the ’sixties becomes harder to defend: she lagged behind. She had her dilemma—one horn her coal problem, the other her rivals’ steam progress. But she was slow to escape from it, clinging overfondly to sail. She had to pay the penalty, and it was heavy. H.M.S. Captain, of nearly 8000 tons, was laid down in 1867, not without many misgivings, at the earnest solicitation of the forceful, but far from orthodox Captain Cowper Coles. She contained all the most modem improvements—even turrets—which made her very heavy: yet she had a dangerously low freeboard—in the event, under seven feet. Then, to crown all, she was not only full-rigged: she also had her rigging stopped off at a flying deck, set high to avoid interference with her guns. The accumulated instability thus produced proved suddenly fatal when she encountered a gale off Spain in September 1870. Failing to recover from a heavy roll, she turned right over, drowning Coles himself and all but eighteen of her company. Instantly a strong reaction set in, not only against full-rig, but against any rig at all. The resulting ship, the Devastation (see p. 286), carried nothing but one small signalling mast. It was thus, just as the period ends, that steam won its long battle with sail. Later, masts and yards reappeared, but no seagoing battleship thereafter carried anything like full-rig.
The tables were now turned. The warship had forged ahead of the merchantman. Figures for the latter show that, even in 1870, the great bulk of Britain’s total shipping remained sail-propelled. In that year, out of some 5 2/3 million tons, over 4\ million were under sail—a proportion of more than four to one in sail’s favour. Yet Britain had moved farther towards steam than any of her competitors: and this was sound policy, for, on the long view, the change to steam was almost pure gain to her. Sail involved masts, and the United Kingdom did not, and never could, supply that commodity indigenously—a fact which had, several times in the past, brought her face to face with disaster. But coal she could produce, ample for all her needs; and in turning from Scandinavia to Wales for her basic supplies, she covered one of the most vulnerable chinks in her armour.
The transition in basic material from wood to iron requires less description. It began later, ended earlier, and met with rather less conservative obstruction because it was more patently inevitable. What happened was that wood, even carefully seasoned oak, constantly invited to bear the new weight of ever heavier objects, began to reach the limits of its natural strength. The larger guns and, especially, the vast turning engines set up in ships a series of local strains, unevenly distributed throughout their frames, which racked them beyond endurance. Even iron strutting, reinforcing the overstrained parts, proved unsatisfactory: iron and wood did not happily consort together. The basic material must be of homogeneous texture, and that must be iron.
Again the merchants led the way: their problem was relatively simple. Trade demanded fast roomy ships, to carry large engines and heavy goods in hold. Nor were they likely to be fired upon—an important factor, as will shortly be seen. So iron was being used for trading craft—mostly small—as early as 1815, though as a material for warships it had reached only the discussion stage in the ’twenties—Paixhans’ small-ship fleet was to be of this metal. In the ’thirties it made great progress in commercial shipbuilding, and in 1839 I. K. Brunei dared to lay down the first iron liner, the Great Britain. In that year, too, the East India Company acquired two iron-built gunboats, one of which, the Nemesis, proved very successful in the China War; and in 1840 the Dover (Packet) became the first iron ship in the Royal Navy. The U.S.A. followed, laying down in 1842 the Princeton. It must have looked, just then, as though the new material would carry all before it, especially when, in 1843, the Admiralty, with unusual enterprise, ordered six iron paddlewheel frigates.
But there came a reaction, due, for once, not to official caution but to unofficial—indeed, uninformed—conservatism. The cry was, ‘hands off our Wooden Walls’, and the Admiralty had to bow to the storm. An artillery trial, held in 1849, led to an adverse report on the splinter-effect of gunfire on iron hulls. Maybe the wood ‘interest’ was exerting undue influence here. But the immediate result was decisive: the iron frigates were relegated to the status of unarmed transports; and in that capacity one of them earned tragic immortality—the Birkenhead, lost off South Africa in 1852. Yet suspicions are perhaps dangerous, for France, experimenting along similar lines (again rather ahead of Britain) came at about the same time to much the same conclusions and also reverted to wood. Here Russia took the lead: just as Britain and France were retreating, she began, in 1850, to order from England a series of iron gunboats.
The next advance also came from Russia. At Sinope, in November 1853, her Black Sea squadron, with its new shell-firing guns, annihilated a Turkish wooden fleet. The western powers, notably Britain, were slow in assimilating the lessons of this significant incident: yet there was thereafter a growing school of thought which questioned the finality of the 1849 report. For Sinope revealed a somewhat overlooked characteristic of wood which, once shellfire won the day, would surely develop into a fatal weakness. Iron will not burn: wood will. It was possibly fortunate that the Russians refused fleet action when war came, for not one allied ship was built of iron.
After the war France once more took the lead. In 1858 she laid down La Gloire, already mentioned. Her hull was not of iron, it is true, but she was armoured; and that decided Britain. Her reasoning was, for once, highly logical. She was already almost convinced that the future lay with iron. There was the Sinope argument of combustibility, and the ‘weight’ argument of engines and guns. But now the last straw was being added, and it was very weighty indeed. If wood was barely strong enough to sustain the required engines and guns, how could it possibly sustain yet another and even heavier weight—armour? So the British laid down the Warrior and armoured her, as they had to do: but, going one better than their rivals, they boldly built her entirely of iron.
Thus, quite suddenly, came the end of the wood-iron controversy. Other countries instantly followed Britain’s lead. After 1861 no battleship was built of anything but iron until, in 1885, mild steel took its place.
On the long view, ‘wood to iron’ was as beneficial to Britain as was ‘sail to steam’. Several times, in ‘wooden’ days, Britain had been brought to the verge of disaster by the shortage of home-grown ship-timber. But, once iron displaced it, that particular danger departed for ever. There was incomparably more iron under the surface of Britain than there were oak-trees on it.
The accompanying improvements in offence, in the gun, were no less revolutionary. The smooth-bore, roundshot-firing, cast-iron pieces had had a long innings, with no basic changes in the weapons themselves, though some not inconsiderable improvements in their mountings. There was, in fact, no essential difference in manufacture or mechanism between the newest of the pieces which went down in the Mary Rose in 1545 and a standard ship-gun of three centuries later. Nor was the latter appreciably improved in either range or accuracy. The principal reason for this apparently curious stagnation was, again, lack of inducement to change. This was particularly true in Britain. Tactical experience, as interpreted by all her greatest fighters, had taught them to seek the closest possible action, and so to pound the enemy as to induce in him the will to surrender. Under such conditions long ranges and accuracy were of quite secondary importance. This attitude was epitomised by Nelson himself. Hearing that a friend was sending him a man who had an idea about aiming guns, he wrote: ‘As to the plan,... I shall of course look at it, or be happy, if necessary, to use it: but I hope we shall be able, as usual, to get so close to our enemies that our shot cannot miss the object.' The italics are not Nelson’s; but the sentiment, among all British officers of his day, was universal and unchallenged.
What changed all this at last was the replacement of the solid roundshot by the hollow shell filled with explosive or incendiary material. Here again, not unexpectedly, the French were the pioneers. To them the solid shot had proved no infallible battle-winner. Paixhans again was in the van. The guns he advocated were shell-throwers: not mortars, already old in use, which lobbed over shells at short ranges, but ordinary low-trajectory guns. Nor were there to be exceptions: all solid shot was to be abolished, and one standard pattern of shell substituted. There were no half-measures about Paixhans. He got his way, but at first only in part. The voice of public opinion was raised against the explosive and incendiary shell. Such arms, Paixhans himself admitted, were regarded as ‘odieuses’. Such humanitarianism is highly creditable (though another motive may have been intermingled with it—uncertainty of the shell’s reliability). Whatever the reason, however, the evil day was postponed: in 1829 his idea of standardisation was adopted, but it was not until 1837 that shellfire was accepted in principle.
This was the signal for cataclysmic changes. Britain was far behind: she had not even standardised her armaments. But now, having discovered that not only France, but also Denmark, Holland, Russia and Sweden were adopting these novelties, she was forced into action. Fortunately, she had by then acquired a gunnery centre where experiment, practice and training were possible. It was situated in H.M.S. Excellent, in Portsmouth harbour, started in 1830, and made a permanent institution in 1832. But Britain, like her rivals, did not go all the way: she adopted two types, standardising both—the old-fashioned solid-shot long gun, and the newfangled short shell-firer. This was not mere conservatism. Unquestionably the old gun still retained three paramount advantages—much longer range, considerably greater accuracy and far higher penetration than the shell-gun as it then was.
For the shell was still only a hollow roundshot. It was formidable enough against the old ship, with unprotected wood as its only defence; and this the world learnt from Sinope in 1853. But iron material, with quite a thin layer of the new armour (even then the subject of experiment) would no doubt have been a good enough answer to the globular shell. What the war experience of the Crimean campaigns taught—and this was their principal contribution to the progress of arms—was that the shell itself was capable of immense improvement: which, when it came, led almost instantly to both the modern gun and the modem shell. These two revolutionised all, remedying the old shell’s weaknesses and creating a weapon far longer-ranged, more accurate and more penetrating than had ever existed before.
Progress here came almost too late to allow of trial in the Crimean War, though, towards the end, the British did produce the Lancaster, which fired a projectile designed to rotate, not by means of rifled grooves in the barrel, but by a lengthwise twist in a barrel itself slightly oval. It was too crude: but in the same year there appeared a gun which emphatically was not—an even more significant revolution in gunnery than the Warrior was in ship-construction.
The great names here are Whitworth and Armstrong. The former introduced into gunmaking the essentially modern quality of precision: where, earlier, men had worked in fractions of inches, Whitworth was thinking in terms of thousandths, and even ten-thousandths, thus translating gunfounding and gunnery from the realm of somewhat airy art to the status of very exact science. Armstrong was essentially the inventor. His was the gun of 1855 which was the first truly modem weapon. It fired an elongated cylindrical shell, designed to rotate on its long axis by the rifling in the barrel; but it was also revolutionary in its structure. It discarded the old principle of casting in one piece, and adopted that since followed in all later artillery. It was a built-up mechanism, made of different components—an inner barrel of forged iron, reinforcing cylinders on the outside, and, between the two, a jacket of long iron bars, wound at white heat to form a spiral cylinder, and shrunk on the inner barrel. It was also a breech-loader. But here it was comparatively unsuccessful, the breech-closing apparatus being its weakest feature. Thus, though the rest of Armstrong’s ideas were adopted, the new guns which emerged remained muzzle-loaders. It was the French who made the key-invention here—the principle of the ‘interrupted thread’. Indeed, Britain at this point fell some years behind her rivals, being almost the last of the naval powers to re-adopt the breech-loader, in 1880.
In defence, armour was the inevitable sequel to the Armstrong gun. Indeed, the lesson had been there for the learning since 1788, when Sir Samuel Bentham, commanding a Russian squadron, had destroyed a superior Turkish fleet in the Black Sea by lobbing incendiary shells at it. The lesson was that the shell meant fire, the age-old enemy of wooden ships: and that at all costs it must be kept out. Paixhans, in his day, showed that he realised it, by advocating, even in the ’twenties, both iron material and armour. But he did not convert his countrymen to his way of thinking. Nor were other pioneers more successful. As early as 1842 the U.S. Congress had appropriated money to build a shot-and-shell-proof steamer, which, however, was never completed; and, in France in the following year, Labrousse had proposed, in vain, a fast iron frigate with an armoured bridge. All had to wait, in fact, until the second exposition of the shell’s peculiar power at Sinope in 1853.
Even then Britain hung back; but not so France, presided over by Napoleon III, himself a considerable artillery expert. His ‘floating batteries ’, hurriedly ordered, were just ready to be tested under war conditions, at the bombardment of Kinbum on 17 October 1855. They were small cut-down wooden vessels, lined with iron plates fastened to a 17-inch wall of timber, and they answered their limited purpose admirably. The Russian roundshot bounced off them; their shells burst on impact and left barely a scar. It was clear from that single encounter that armour was the answer to shell. But that was only the beginning of the great battle now developing. Defence was momentarily in the ascendant: here was the challenge to offence to catch up. Just as the floating battery was the immediate result of the old shell fired from the old smooth-bore one-piece cannon, so the new shell, fired from the new built-up gun, was the immediate result of the floating battery. So, of course, it has gone on ever since, this see-saw strife between thrust and parry.
The British seemed unimpressed even by the evidence of Kinburn. Though they produced similar floating batteries, as in duty bound, indeed improving them a little by bolting the armour-plates on to iron hulls, they would not take the next logical step—to apply the armour principle to capital ships. But the French, as ever more logical, produced La Gloire, extending all round her water-line a belt of 4 3/4-inch armour-plate. The British, though they might ignore Kinburn, could not ignore the existence across the Channel of a battleship which they could not sink. So they replied with the Warrior, thus regaining the lead; for, as we saw, her construction was of iron where her rival’s was of wood.
By 1860, then, the great struggle of gun v. armour—attack v. defence— was joined. Its results soon eliminated all surviving features of the old ship. First, it was found impossible to clothe the whole of a big ship with armour thick enough to keep out the shells from the new guns. The only answer was to erect some sort of ‘citadel’ or strong-point wherein to collect all the ship’s essentials. This instantly affected that 350-year-old institution, the broadside. Once the ‘citadel’ or ‘casemate’ idea was accepted, the unarmoured bow and stern must be cleared of all guns and engines, and left only to confer sufficient buoyancy. Hitting-power must be concentrated in the central armed part: while, as compensation for the inevitable reduction in their numbers, guns must be much larger, with heavier projectiles.
For another reason, too, the broadside was becoming obsolete. It had always had one characteristic weakness—a severely limited field of fire. Its guns all pointed (with but slight deviations) in one direction—at right angles to the ship’s course. To fire, therefore, one had to aim with the whole ship, altering course, not towards the enemy, but half away. With the new manoeuvrability and far fewer guns this seemed intolerably inefficient. The guns must be mounted to move independently of the ship, traversing the greatest possible arc—ideally, 360 degrees.
It was the ‘citadel’ principle combined with the ‘mobile gun’ idea which, in the ’sixties, produced the ‘turret’—a heavily armoured, revolving casemate which, while affording the guns protection, would also introduce all-round fire. It is this which gives such significance to the first encounter, in Hampton Roads on 9 March 1862, between two armoured ships, Ericsson’s Monitor and the Confederates’ Merrimac.
Both were, essentially, freaks, designed and built in great haste to fight rather than to steam, and both were correspondingly unseaworthy. The Merrimac was merely a large floating—but fixed—casemate, clad in four inches of iron over twenty-two inches of wood, armed with ten guns only, mostly smooth-bore, and a formidable ram. The Monitor was simply a revolving turret which floated—just: her freeboard was two feet—clothed in eight-inch armour, and carrying a pair of enormous—eleven-inch— smooth-bore guns. In itself the encounter was strangely indecisive: ship-damage and casualties were negligible, though the ships engaged in close fight for four hours. Nor is this surprising, for the new defensive armour was here pitted against the old offensive gun. The action’s importance lies rather in its influence on the development of two weapons.
The first was the ram. Both ships possessed one, and, on 8 March the Merrimac had sunk the North’s wooden sloop Cumberland with hers. In doing so, however, she left it in her victim: which was the reason, perhaps, why, when she struck the Monitor next day, she did no damage. The Monitor also tried to ram, but narrowly missed. The evidence of the weapon’s efficacy against iron was thus extremely slender. Yet it made a great impression, which seemed to be confirmed four years later when, on 20 July 1866, off Lissa in the Adriatic, the enterprising Austrian admiral Tegetthoff drove his flagship at full speed into one of the best of the Italian ships, the armoured Re d'Italia, piercing her armour, tearing a hole which measured 300 square feet, and sinking her instantly. Thus by 1870 the ram was at the height of its popularity. That soon faded, however—as soon as the new attack caught up with defence and revealed the weapon’s fatal limitation, its negligible range. It was certainly deadly, yet useless when faced by a gun capable of sinking its carrier long before it could close.
The more lasting lesson of Hampton Roads was the efficacy of the turret and the all-round fire-power which it conferred. This was not a purely American invention, since Captain Coles’s plans for the first British turret-ship, Prince Albert, had been approved before news of Hampton Roads reached Britain; and it had not won a complete victory even by 1870. It was still competing with another development of the casemate principle known as the ‘central battery’. But its victory was in sight, for in 1869 Britain laid down the warship with which this account will close. The turret-battleship Devastation, designed by Coles’s rival, Sir E. J. Reed, and completed in 1873, was such a combination of all that was new as to justify for her the title of ‘first modem battleship’.
So vanished the ‘line’ ship of 1830, propelled by sail alone, built only of wood and possessed of no other protection whatever; with its broadside of many nearly-fixed, smooth-bore, cast-iron cannons firing solid, non-exploding roundshot, the heaviest of which seldom weighed more than 32 pounds or did any damage beyond 400 yards. Here instead was a monster of four times the tonnage, moved only by steam-driven propellers; of all-iron frame, protected by a ten-inch armour-belt; with revolving turrets clad in fourteen-inch armour and housing four thirty-five-ton built-up, mechanically operated, rifled guns, each of which discharged a cylindrical rotating shell, armour-piercing and explosive, weighing 700 pounds and capable of inflicting heavy damage at 4800 yards, and of carrying nearly 10,000 yards. The one was essentially a Victory; the other, in essentials though not in details, a Dreadnought.
Those characteristic modem weapons, the mine, the submarine and the torpedo, cannot receive detailed treatment here because they became really formidable only after 1870. Yet all first appeared before that date. The floating mine, laid defensively, but not tested by use, in Kiel Harbour in 1848, was first seriously exploited by Russia, in the Baltic in 1855. Bran’s submarine, Le Plongeur, was launched in 1863, and the first fatal submarine casualty was the Federal Housatonic, sunk in 1864 by one of the South’s diminutive semi-submersibles called ‘Davids’. Already, too, intrepid Americans on both sides were taking suicidal risks with primitive torpedoes lashed to spars or towed at an angle behind light craft. The earliest ‘fish’ torpedo, even, first thought of in Austria, was developed by Whitehead in 1866.
It is significant that all these novelties were first exploited, even when not initiated, outside Britain: and for the same reason as before. All were, at first, the weapons of lesser sea powers, wishing to secure the coveted command of the sea without the expense of maintaining vast fleets and elaborate ships. All were calculated to take the enemy’s major pieces by a judicious sacrifice of pawns. In every case, therefore, Britain held back at first, but, in the interests of self-preservation, had in the end to follow, sometimes to catch up, and, occasionally, to lead.
Nelson and his predecessors handled comparatively simple weapons in comparatively simple ships. The naval profession in their day was not, indeed, entirely unscientific, but the basic qualifications required in it were still almost entirely such abstractions as valour, leadership, discipline, devotion and experience: not technical knowledge of highly specialised and complicated installations. This was still so in 1830.
By 1870, however, the ships and their contents had become miracles of complex mechanisms, all of which someone on board must understand and work. So personnel obviously had to change with materiel. Yet it had a harder—because a double—task to face: while acquiring the new specialised, scientific knowledge, it must lose none of its old abstract qualities. As the great American Farragut said, iron in the ships was less important than iron in the men.
Up to 1815 there remained, in the British service, the time-hallowed division of all personnel under the big headings of‘commissioned officer’, ‘warrant officer’, and ‘men’ (or, as we should now say, ‘ratings’).
Between these grades were steps great and high, and not often surmounted. The commissioned officers were by far the most important, both in status and authority. They were all ‘executive’ (that is, responsible for ‘command’, whether in peace or war) and ‘military’ (that is, the prime participants in all the fighting). And they were the only officers who were. They included all admirals, captains, commanders and lieutenants, and no others. Already the grade of sub-lieutenant (so-called since 1860, but first established as a substantive grade under the name of ‘mate’ in 1840) was emerging, and the grade of midshipman was fully established. But these latter were not commissioned officers. They were, officially, ratings, yet not in practice so treated, being really commissioned officers in embryo. The warrant-officer group—the ‘departmental’ officers—was larger than at present because it contained not only men like boatswains, gunners and carpenters (now ‘Special Duty Officers ’, though essentially the same as they were), but also all those ‘branch’ officers—as pursers, surgeons, chaplains and instructor officers—who are now appointed by ‘commission’. That important branch, the engineers, was non-existent. All the rest were ratings, from whom the captain of a ship was entitled to select a number to act as petty officers: but even these were, strictly speaking, only locally and temporarily promoted.
By 1830 this arrangement had changed but little. Between ‘commission’ and ‘warrant’ there still loomed that high and seldom-mounted step. The very uniforms, the very buttons worn by each category were quite different. The unique prestige of the commissioned officers in the hierarchy of ship life remained unshaken.
The whole corps of commissioned officers was still essentially a privileged class—almost a social clique or club—jealously guarding its rights; very exclusive; even harder to enter, probably, than it had been during the great wars, when sheer demand for quantity sometimes watered down the ‘quality’. But now, when few were required, the still universal practice of ‘interest’, or ‘protection’, tended to close the doors against all but those whom the members themselves regarded as socially suitable— that is, their own relatives and friends. There was thus a great tendency towards naval heredity—a characteristic always prone to appear in old fighting services. The constant recurrence of certain surnames in mid-nineteenth-century navy lists reveals this as pre-eminently the epoch of ‘naval families’.
Yet, during the ’thirties and ’forties, the profession was distinctly precarious, offering neither constant employment nor a decent competence upon retiring. The average officer was, indeed, much more often out of employment than in it. Even the principles of rank and seniority were not theoretically recognised, though the latter was strictly—too strictly— applied in the upper categories. It was still the rule that, on being ‘posted captain ’, every man took his place upon the ladder of seniority, nevermore to pass, or be passed by, a fellow-officer. This and three other factors—the late great wartime expansion with its legacy of a very overcrowded navy list, the keeping of so few ships in commission, and the absence of any proper system of retirement—all rendered inevitable a formidable block in promotion. By the early 1840’s, when things were at their worst, septuagenarians were commanding fleets, and captains and lieutenants, all old in proportion, were officering ships; while aspirants for commissions—mates and midshipmen—often obtained no commission at all, remaining, if they stuck it, to become old and soured men. This was doubly unsatisfactory. While over-old men were employed, those in their prime were too often overlooked, and, while waiting, had perforce to find other occupation. Hence the phenomenon of officers serving under foreign flags, like Abney Hastings (Greece) and Sir Charles Napier (Portugal), or serving in private employ, like McClintock (elucidator of Franklin’s fate) and the brothers Allen (explorers of the Niger). Pleasanter symptoms of the same complaint, too, appear in men like Marryat, Chamier and Howard, who could find ample time between commissions to write novels about their first love, the navy.
Such a state of things furnished an ideal seed-bed for patronage. ‘Interest’ was still the prerequisite of success, and even of employment. During the wars most officers had ultimately obtained work, because so many ships were in commission. One used interest—then—to obtain a good command: but now it needed a very potent interest to obtain employment at all. In this somewhat sinister atmosphere, in fact, the right kind of interest became all-important, and it is instructive—but not easy—to see what that kind was. For juniors—up to lieutenants—it was essential to be ‘protected’ by admirals or captains, whose influence still, in practice, filled up most of those vacancies. But even here the very great might sometimes unexpectedly stoop to reward some lucky junior, especially if he were of a ‘naval family’. In 1841, for instance, Captain Thomas B. Sulivan received the following official communication from the Board of Admiralty itself: ‘As a special mark of their Lordships’ approbation of your services on the Brazil station, My Lords have been pleased to promote your son... to the rank of Commander...’ This was pure ‘naval’ interest—the best kind; for its recipients usually justified their promotion, as young Sulivan certainly did. Yet it shows clearly how deep-rooted was the practice, and how unquestioningly it was accepted at all levels.
Captains and higher officers had to be proteges of more political personages. The First Lord was probably the safest of all, for he was the immediate fount of appointments. Otherwise parliamentary interest was the best. This unhealthy influence grew gradually weaker after the first Reform Bill, but only gradually. Captain Sir William Dillon, for example, though a capable officer, went from 1819 to 1835 without employment of any kind, even though, throughout the period, he had the active interest both of the duke of Sussex, whose equerry he was, and of the ‘Sailor Prince’, the duke of Clarence himself. Yet, despite such advantages, he failed, even when Clarence became, in 1827, the (last) holder of the resuscitated office of Lord High Admiral. He succeeded in the end, and was given a ship, but only after his royal backer had been reigning monarch for five years. Dillon, naturally embittered, quotes cases of officers preferred to himself, and makes the reason for their preference sufficiently clear. Their ‘protectors’, being in Parliament, were able to strike something very much like a bargain with the dispensers of employment, having somewhat to trade in exchange for services rendered! That such a system, based so frankly upon nepotism and patronage, should produce such good results is surprising to the twentieth-century mind. That the material was good is sure: what is harder to judge is how much better it might have been had more competitive methods obtained. As it was, however, the officer-personnel remained, as before, confined to the governing classes; and, as the successive Reform Bills gradually enlarged those classes, so—but always a little later—was the commissioned-officer class itself enlarged.
The excessive age of all officers naturally did not pass unnoticed, and was often deplored. But no real remedy was devised until it became intolerable; until, that is, war-clouds began to gather, and the test of active service loomed large. The remedies were to hand, and had long been clear to thoughtful men. The main one was for authority to admit at last that the navy was a whole-time profession, and, therefore, that the naval officer should be cared for all the time: not only when employed but also both when unemployed and when not required any more. Up till 1860 the strictly official view—fortunately not always put strictly into practice—was that an officer was only such when actually employed. As a practical expedient, it is true, he had for long been ‘retained’ between-whiles: otherwise he would simply not be available when wanted. So the institution of half-pay was already there, though on a distinctly mean scale. But that was all. The obligation to give him retired pay remained unrecognised, though a very few lucky individuals received it as an act of grace. This is not surprising. The idea of pensioning the part-time labourer belongs rather to the 1940’s than the 1840’s.
These two cognate principles—the right of a naval officer to more or less continuous employment while serving, and to be retired with adequate after-care when no longer required—won recognition at almost the same time, and, in so doing, revolutionised the profession.
Government at last acknowledged him as its permanent servant in 1860, when it made an unspectacular change in the wording of the commission which it gave him. Hitherto, each time he was employed he had received a document known as a ‘ship commission’, appointing him to a specified post in a specified ship for a specified time: for example, he was still, technically, plain John Smith, Captain (pro tempore) of a named warship: not, in his own right and all the time, Captain Smith, R.N.
Now, however, all was changed. By a quiet, unpublicised order-in-council he was to have—what his descendant still has —a ‘general commission’, valid during his whole tenure of the rank he had reached. Now he was appointed ‘Captain [or Commander, or Lieutenant] in Her Majesty's Fleet'. The difference is all-important. The first left his employment casual: the second made him a whole-timer.
The other change is a corollary of the first. Now that he is accepted as a permanent employee he must be allowed—indeed, where necessary, ordered—to retire (with proper provision for his support) when his time comes. It was this absence of ordered retirement, principally, which had caused the great post-war block: for so long as no officer retired, but merely (if not required) ceased to be employed, only one event ever withdrew him from the promotion scramble—his death. This is why in 1840 the first twenty captains on the fist had been captains in 1806 and the senior commander had been one for forty-six years; while in 1841 the senior lieutenant died, having been for sixty-three years a lieutenant!
The remedy again was simple—to split the list into two parts, ‘active’ and ‘retired’: to retain as ‘active’ all likely to be employed again, and to ‘retire’ all not likely. This could be done, without injustice. Such octogenarian officers were never employed: they were merely keeping promotion from their juniors. By a series of big ‘retirements’—especially those of 1847, 1851 and 1864—the axe fell, and a healthy flow of promotion was at last established. But only in 1870 were ‘Active’ and ‘Retired’ Lists published separately. By that year, then, the old part-time post-holder had vanished, and the modem whole-time rank-holder had come.
Meanwhile, changes just as decisive were happening at the other end of his career—his entry and preliminary training. For centuries the would-be officer had gone first to sea as the protege of some captain. This ‘captain’s servant’ method had indeed been the only one until, in 1676, Samuel Pepys inaugurated an entry which would now be called ‘Admiralty Nomination’. But even Pepys’s scheme did not touch the great majority of candidates for executive command, who continued to enter as captain’s servants until 1794, when the name—but not its essential nature—changed to ‘First Class Volunteer’. In such a set-up nepotism and interest played their foreordained part, contributing materially to the retention of the caste system.
The small minority not entered by arrangement with individual officers —called, in Pepys’s day, ‘Volunteers-per-Order’, or, familiarly ‘King’s Letter Boys’—survived throughout the eighteenth century. Their representatives in 1829 were the eighty students of the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, who were still the only people in the profession in whose original appointment the Admiralty had any say. By 1830 the College was almost at its last gasp as a training-place for youngsters. Serving admirals and captains never liked it: it cut right across one of their most cherished vested interests—the right to select their successors. The Admiralty itself, however, usually supported the College students, partly because it had selected them, but mainly because nowhere else was there any theoretical instruction at all. And it was, paradoxically enough, just this necessity for such instruction, born of the new technical specialisation, which killed the College as a training establishment. In 1829, to meet this very need, older officers, hitherto totally untrained in any modern sense, were admitted to the courses along with the boys; and, eight years later ousted them altogether. Thereafter, for a few years, all volunteers went straight to sea.
This change was not quite so retrogressive as it sounds, in either training or entry: for, with it, the Admiralty introduced some theoretical training at sea by providing a regular supply of university-trained naval instructors; and, on the entry side, almost at the same time (January 1838), an examination for all volunteers, College-trained and officer-chosen alike, was unobtrusively introduced. It was the thin end of the wedge because, though the examination itself was at first a mere farce, its very existence implied the examiner’s—that is, the Admiralty’s—right to fail a candidate, and therefore, in the last resort, to select him. In 1839 an examination—this one a reality—was instituted for the next grade, the midshipman, so that thereafter the Admiralty had secured the right to select all but the youngest of the ‘young gentlemen’. Thereafter the senior officers’ vested interest died hard, whittled down gradually by a long series of small cuts, two only of which occur in or before 1870. In 1848 the government restricted the number of nominations that each senior officer could make: next, in 1870, it ordained that the number of nominations was to be twice the number of vacancies, the final result to be determined by examination. This ‘limited competition’ was a great blow to officer-nomination, for now it was no longer certain that the officers’ choices would ever be admitted. It was a long step towards the inevitable concept of open competition, having its counterpart in similar rules governing the army and the civil service. But the fight went on into the present century, and terminated in complete victory for the state only in 1913. Meanwhile, training too had advanced, as it had to in face of the revolution in materiel. In 1857 the policy of putting all volunteers—after 1843 known officially as naval cadets—untrained into seagoing ships was completely reversed: all, now, were to start in a training ship. The Illustrious, first selected for the purpose, soon gave way (1859) to the Britannia, which, after several experiments, cast permanent anchor in the Dart in 1863.
Here the U.S.A. led Britain by many years. In 1845 the energetic Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft, established at Annapolis the naval academy which still flourishes there. He was going far beyond the practice of Britain, for Portsmouth had never trained more than a fraction of her officers; nor, even, was the Britannia so theoretically ‘educational’ as Annapolis, though perhaps more practically ‘naval’. It was only when the colleges of Osborne (1903) and Dartmouth (1905) were founded that, for the first time, all British cadets received their initial training on shore.
Meanwhile the old college at Portsmouth persevered with its new (but older) scholars. As specialisation grew, the courses multiplied, and the dockyard buildings became too small to hold them. In the late 1860’s the number of pensioners in Wren’s great hospital at Greenwich was dwindling, partly through the absence of wars and wounds but mainly because they were being granted out-pensions in lieu of residence. Thus, when the hospital was closed in 1869, the R.N. College, Portsmouth, could be transferred thither. This move, made in 1873, gave the navy, for the first time, a centralised home for the theoretical study of naval science.
Within the brief bounds, then, of our period the whole process of entry and training was revolutionised. In 1830 the system was as it had been in Pepys’s day: for all but the very few, entry by interest; practical training afloat, but theoretical training—nowhere. By 1870 the necessity of specialisation had established, in most essentials, the modem system.
All, so far, has concerned only the ‘executive’ or ‘military’ officers— the admirals, captains and lieutenants. These, moreover, were in 1830 the only officers whose status was established by virtue of the king’s commission: the only commissioned officers. Between them and all the others—all appointed by ‘warrant’—was fixed a great gulf, both ‘service’ and social. Yet, here again, by 1870 a tremendous change had occurred: the jealously guarded privilege of appointment by commission had escaped from the exclusive clique which monopolised it, and spread to other branches—masters, for instance, paymasters, surgeons, chaplains, naval instructors and, perhaps most significant of all, engineers.
The masters—the navigating experts—led the way when, in 1832, their more senior representatives came to be appointed by commission. A like privilege came to paymasters, surgeons and chaplains in 1843, and to naval instructors in 1861. The position of the engineers was different, and —for some time—difficult. They went afloat, naturally, only with their steam-engines, and were first officially established only in 1837, when no engineer was a commissioned officer. In the reform of 1843 they were overlooked, but the most senior received commissions in 1847; and thereafter, as their numbers and technical qualifications grew, they rose in rank and status, albeit a good deal more slowly than they hoped. In 1870 the most senior engineer ranked with a senior captain.
Throughout our period the executive and the engineer officers were recruited from different social strata, and much of the jealousy which admittedly existed between them was due to this fact. The newcomers, essentially technicians, were playing a considerable part in widening the class-basis of all officers, and both were aware of it. The engineer could not but feel that he had a big future in an all-steam navy: the executive could not but fear it. So, for the rest of the century, the one pressed upwards while the other strove to keep him down. It was perhaps no accident that, from 1847 to 1903, the navy continued to call its senior engineers, not captains (or admirals), but ‘inspectors [or chief inspectors] of machinery afloat’. None the less, this infiltration into the once exclusive territory of the ‘naval families’ is symptomatic of the times. It was one direct result of the new technical age, and it made an irreparable breach in the stronghold of privilege.
The same general causes influenced the nature of the men and their terms of service. Hitherto Britain’s naval personnel had been essentially part-timers: almost all seamen, but by no means necessarily fighting seamen. There was not in 1830—and never had been—any form of longterm service in the navy. The majority were merchant-seamen and man-of-warsmen, the former in peacetime, the latter in war. The transition from one to the other had been accomplished, mainly, by the operation of the impressment system, not dead even in 1830, though well past its prime. It was a bad system, often and justly censured, and it was at its worst during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, because these crises, longer and larger than preceding ones, had stretched Britain’s sea-personnel to breaking-point, and beyond. Long before they ended, the whole seafaring population had proved numerically insufficient. As a result, non-seamen had perforce been imported into the navy in order to complete crews: which expedient, in its turn, showed up the faults of the impressment system. Leaving things too late, and then using unwise and unfair methods, the state obtained, at great cost, only the dregs of the land population.
The root trouble was that the naval service was too unattractive to entice volunteers. This created a vicious circle. Impressment involved forcible detention: many thus coerced would escape if they could: free men’s shore-leave was therefore impossible, so that the ships became virtual prisons. But free men are not prone to volunteer for prison: so they must be forcibly recruited—pressed.
Another evil was that impressment allowed the government to ignore ordinary economics. Shipowners, always subject to competition, had to maintain current standards of living and wages: but the government, with forcible recruitment behind it, did not. When war came, the average seaman was not unpatriotic; but, as between the two services, the prospects offered him were fantastically unequal: in the merchant service, relative comfort and safety, and very good pay (for in wartime he was a commodity in short supply, with both merchant and Admiralty in the market); in the crown’s service, wounds and death, gross overcrowding and quite uneconomic pay, iniquitously doled out: in a merchantman, no forcible abduction, no imprisonment; in a warship, both—his imprisonment supplemented with brutal and brutalising punishments. There were never nearly enough volunteers: the wonder was that there were any.
Thoughtful men such as William Pulteney (in 1786), Captain Marryat (in 1822) and many others were often suggesting possible or partial remedies. No one contemplated abolishing the whole press system: that reform, unaccompanied by others, would have been impossible, since war-crews had to be found—the men themselves admitted that. But two suggestions were made: first, that all seamen should be registered, so that the great naval burden might be distributed evenly among them; and second, that named limits should be put upon the length of any man’s service. There were also suggested better pay, a better system of payment, and the institution of regular pensions. Such reforms would have rendered the naval seaman’s life more bearable, and, by removing some of the scarcely credible hardships, improved voluntary recruitment. But they remained suggestions.
The situation grew better after 1815, but only because, the war being over, many seamen could be discharged. No conscious cure was attempted. Impressment was not abolished—indeed, in principle, has never been abolished. Yet, unconsciously, the first—rather obvious—step was taken towards breaking the vicious circle. Beginning from 1797, when the men forced its hand, government gradually improved both the pay (and its disbursement) and the general living conditions in H.M. ships. These measures, combined with the smallness of the peacetime demand, enabled the royal service gradually to compete with the merchant service, naturally and economically, so that its wants could be supplied by voluntary recruitment. The government always realised that, other things being equal, the volunteer was more valuable than the conscript: at last that desirable state of things was happening.
This position had been reached by 1830, but it was a precarious one. Most of the navy’s seamen were now volunteers: but still only because the demand was small, not because the problem was solved. It was not until 1836 that Sir James Graham, after some years at the Admiralty, at length secured the long-discussed reforms—registration and limited service (five years maximum).
Thus the worst features of impressment disappeared. Voluntary recruitment, for the first time in British history, became the norm. But what would happen when, or if, an emergency arose? Such appeared imminent in the early ’fifties, and the question had to be faced.
The answer was long-term service, one of the most important events in British naval history. In 1853, and only then, Britain did what France had done nearly a century earlier, and what Pepys had begun to do for English officers nearly two centuries before—inaugurated the new profession of naval rating. Now at last a man could join the Royal Navy and make a full career of it, knowing beforehand all his conditions of service— the time, the pay, the pension.
This new and excellent scheme arose, ostensibly, out of difficulties, real and anticipated, in manning the fleet for the Crimean War. Yet the reform was overdue for another reason, and, war or no war, must have come. That reason was—as before—the impact of science upon the navy, with its ever-pressing need for training and specialisation. Hitherto a seaman had been invited—often compelled—to oscillate between the two branches of the sea-service—a practicable movement because the difference between them was comparatively small, and he could master the rudiments of the war-part in a reasonable time. Henceforward, however, the war-part would become so complex that he must be encouraged to make a career out of the navy alone. It had, indeed, ceased to be an economic proposition to haul men in as required, retain them for a bare year or two, and thereafter turn them off without ceremony. Now, once acquired, they must be trained. Moreover, this specialising process was evidently in its infancy: it would grow with the years. So long-term service was established; and, with it, a fleet reserve, into which ratings would pass when their service term was over. The scheme had its teething troubles. Memories of the bad old days still lingered among seamen, and at first their response was far from good. But a regard for their interests was potentially there, and in the end they responded. Here is the genesis, surprisingly modem, of that well-loved, that most institutional figure, the British bluejacket— ‘blue’ because the state, putting him for the first time into official uniform, chose to perpetuate that colour (as well as that cut of jacket and bell-bottomed trousers) which chanced just then to be the fashion.
The new name coincided with an immense change of status. Hitherto, seamen had been a race apart—rough, uncouth, apparently callous: at sea held down, and often broken, by an iron discipline; on shore, where they were rarely allowed, behaving like escaped lunatics: yet simple men, warm-hearted and intensely loyal to each other: a race who kept themselves to themselves, mistrusting landsmen and, by a natural corollary, mistrusted—even vaguely feared—by landsmen. Under such conditions a seaman did not normally leave the sea: no landsman would employ him. This only served to isolate him the more, and to keep alive the mutual suspicions, bred of mutual ignorance. ‘Once a seaman always a seaman’ was a saying as true as it was old. But when ‘pressed man’ became ‘volunteer’ everything changed. The old bad discipline could be relaxed. Already an Act of 1847 had modified the more sanguinary eighteenth-century enactments, and given to courts martial, for the first time, discretionary powers to award a mitigated sentence. Other acts followed, all superseded in 1866 by the Naval Discipline Act, under which, with trifling alterations, the navy is governed today. Thereafter flogging—most symbolic of the old order—quickly died out. The act forbade more than four dozen strokes: the Admiralty, in various Instructions, discouraged courts martial from ordering it, and made execution of sentence dependent upon their express sanction. In 1871 it was ‘suspended’ in peacetime, and in 1879 at all times. This is characteristically British: to this day it remains ‘suspended’, not abolished.
Simultaneously, while shedding the more undesirable traits which a bad system had fostered, the bluejacket contrived to retain the more endearing ones—his simplicity, loyalty and warm-heartedness. Thereupon, with remarkable suddenness, the nation’s attitude to him completely changed. It had always loved the navy, recognising it as its first line of defence. It even professed to love its sailors—generically; but not as individuals. These it had only known as madcap rum-swillers who fit their pipes with pound notes, or bought gold-watches and fried them. But now the curse of over-much strong drink was itself removed by reductions in the rum issue. In 1824 the rum-ration was cut from 1/4 pint rum+ 3/4 pint water twice daily, to the same quantity once daily, tea being substituted for the evening issue. In 1826 the ration was increased by one-fifth, and the evening issue reintroduced. In 1850 the existing ration was halved again, the evening issue stopped, and all hands given a monetary allowance ‘in lieu’. Jack Tar came ashore not only much more regularly, but also with much less inducement to drown his woes, so that people, getting to know him, liked what they knew. Thus, from being almost a pariah he became almost a pet. Moreover, he was no longer compelled to face dangers and hardships afloat: he volunteered. So he became, generically at any rate, a hero. He was taken unreservedly to the people’s heart. Before he knew where he was, he found himself prime favourite of music-hall and light opera—the ‘lively little man in navy-blue’, the ‘Jack Ahoy whom all our hearts adore’. And, to his everlasting credit, it did not turn his head.
In examining conditions in other countries we must make a firm distinction between impressment as a method—the forcible and inequitable recruitment of seamen for war-service—and impressment as a principle— the right of any sovereign state to summon its own citizens to defend it in time of peril. For while the method was confined almost exclusively to Britain the principle was, and is, wellnigh universal. It is in fact the conscription or ‘direction’ of today, and has never been abolished anywhere when danger really threatened. Thus the U.S.A. can claim, with proper pride, that they never had the former. Indeed, their naval effort never having been commensurate with Britain’s, it was unnecessary. Nor did they have to tighten, to the point of brutality, its concomitant prison-discipline. During the long wars, therefore, when British impressment was at its peak, naval conditions in the United States compared favourably with Britain’s, and many British seamen deserted to American ships, being thereby largely responsible for the war of 1812-15. Otherwise, the traditional discipline was much the same, the U.S.N. having unconsciously absorbed that of its parent, the R.N.
But, by the ’thirties and ’forties, when Britain’s strain was eased, the reverse probably became true. Herman Melville, whose influence certainly helped to persuade Congress to abolish flogging in 1850, attributed this, in the main, to the rawness of contemporary American officers, whom he compares unfavourably with those of Britain. But even America could not escape the principle of forcible recruitment, and the ‘drafting’ system of the Civil War was essentially this. It remains true, however, that the American seaman never, like his British brother, swung so violently from one extreme to another, so that, when the reaction came, Jack Tar’s amazing metamorphosis was not reproduced. As the individual enlisted man had never been so suspect, so he has never been so universally idealised.
The French managed better and more logically. They had to, for they suffered throughout from one serious weakness—a chronic shortage of all seamen, naval or mercantile. So, from 1769, they organised nine divisions of trained seamen-gunners, some 10,000 strong, who were essentially long-service men. This was over and above their Inscription maritime, which was much the same thing, in full operation, as the oft-advocated but never-achieved British Register of Seamen; and this they retained throughout. The irresponsible regime of the Terror, however, abolished the seamen-gunners, gratuitously throwing away this great advantage, and paying a terrible price therefor in inefficiency and insubordination. But later governments soon realised this, and by 1830 had a system which was already practically conscription, especially after 1835 when the ‘Levee permanente’ was instituted. This called up all seamen automatically as they reached the age of twenty, and so provided a constant pool of trained naval men, in spite of small overall numbers. In 1839, for instance, the active Inscription maritime totalled only 45,000, of whom 18,000 were, at the moment, in warships and the rest in merchantmen. But, though by 1844 the effective Inscription maritime still stood only at 46,000, no less than 55,517 seamen had actually done their naval training since 1835. Moreover, British officers in touch with French personnel during the Crimean War were greatly impressed by both its efficiency and the system which produced it.
Other countries never had recourse to the British impressment method, at least on anything like the same scale. It was patently bad, and, their total sea-efforts being so much smaller, they had no need for it. Rather, they followed, on the whole, a policy similar to that employed in the recruitment of their armies. Those who, like the U.S.A., could manage to do so, adopted the voluntary principle; but the ‘military’ powers, mainly those of Europe, followed the French example of bringing their naval recruitment into line with, indeed making it a part of, their military policy of conscription.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Graham’s new Register contained, by 1839, 167,013 names. There were also 21,450 apprentices, almost all of whom would become seamen, making in all nearly 190,000 ‘in the pool’. But, of these, probably no more than 4 per cent had served in the navy. There would also be, it was realised, another serious drain on naval seamen if war came. The privateer system was still universally recognised, and, in an average year during the Napoleonic War, some 47,000 potential man-of-warsmen had been lost through this alone. Unwillingness to face so dangerous a depletion was a prime reason why Britain favoured the abolition of the whole privateering business; and this was duly achieved by international agreement in the Declaration of Paris of 1856; very soon, that is, after the introduction of long-term service.
This—after its teething troubles—met Britain’s immediate needs. But it posed another problem—a corollary. The French had now, in their Levee permanente, a true reserve, based upon conscription. Could Britain devise one on the voluntary basis which now obtained in her navy itself? It was a question which had to be answered because now, for the first time, the Royal and Merchant navies, ceasing to draw upon a common source of supply, were setting out as separate entities along diverging roads. No more, upon emergency, could authority hustle unwilling, un-war-trained seamen into the fleet—the new ships and their fitments were too highly technical for that. Nor would the fleet reserve, however excellent in quality, provide the quantity for any major expansion. There was only one answer, and, fortunately, it was quickly found. The Royal Naval Reserve was formed: for ratings in 1859; for officers in 1861. This in effect reforged the old link between Royal and Merchant navies. But the new was infinitely more equitable than the old. As the naval men were volunteers, so were the naval reserve men—merchant officers and seamen, or fishermen, who, while continuing their normal callings, volunteered to spend a few weeks annually acquiring at least the rudiments of the new, complex war technique. It was a brilliant success, not only in itself, but as providing a model for that other great wartime source of supply, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, founded by Act of Parliament in 1903.
The rise in prestige of the British bluejacket is partly responsible for one great difference still existing between the Royal Navy and its continental neighbours. Originally all powers—Britain included—recruited mainly from sea-board provinces: the press indeed could by law operate only in the sea-shires, and its right of seizure was confined to seafaring persons. There has been but little change in continental recruitment areas: but in Britain the new long-term voluntary profession became attractive, and honourable per se. In the ’fifties and ’sixties men began, in increasing numbers, to join the navy from all parts of the island, until its personnel ceased—not entirely, yet relatively to other lands—to be territorially confined at all.
The officers too were affected, though less so. Here the prestige of the service, by virtue of its great record, had been high enough, even in the eighteenth century, to induce good men to join it from inland manor house and rectory, as well as from the halls of the governing class. During the nineteenth century these widening tendencies grew, until it would be difficult today to indicate on a map which shires provide the bulk of the officers. But in France and other continental countries where the army always held pride of place, the navy has tended to remain provincial, and in prestige somewhat below the army. In Britain it is neither.
To carry through such revolutionary changes, of personnel and materiel alike, another revolution—in administration and direction—was essential: and it took place, again almost exactly within our period. Between 1832 and 1872 the Royal Navy acquired its modem government—the new Admiralty.
Till 1832 direction and administration had been all but separate things, the Admiralty being responsible for the former, the Navy Board for the latter. Such machinery had often creaked ominously. It was barely adequate for the simple Old Navy: it could never have sufficed for the New. In 1832 Sir James Graham amalgamated the two, making each subordinate member of the new board individually responsible for a single administrative department to a chief himself responsible to Parliament—the First Lord. This led to much greater administrative efficiency; but at first it went too far—it nearly destroyed the Admiralty’s original function of direction. For the First Lord, now always a civilian and a political figure, though he obtained admirable technical advice from his naval subordinates, found them too busy with their respective departments to advise him effectively on more general policy. This at times— notably during the Crimean War—led to the unhappy situation of a First Lord interfering too much, and—in a literal sense—ill-advisedly, with the admiral afloat: and it almost led to the abolition of the office of First Lord itself during the early ’sixties, and again during the troubled tenure of Hugh Childers (1868-71). But, just in time, the right balance was achieved. The undoubted advantage of strict departmental responsibility was maintained, as it had to be. Without a Second Sea Lord, responsible for the intricacies of personnel, and a Third Sea Lord (after 1869 called Comptroller), responsible for materiel, the baffling problems and crises of that transitional age could scarcely have been tackled. But when George Goschen, in 1872, put administration and direction in their modem perspective, he created in effect the modem Admiralty. His three ‘principles’ were: ‘supremacy of the First Lord’, ‘personal responsibility of the other members to the First Lord’, and ‘utilisation of the full Board as a general council of advice’. Thus direction and administration, like materiel and personnel, had their great revolutions after 1830, and had all but assumed their modem shape by 1870.