Motto: "Intelligent co-operation is of infinitely more value than mechanical obedience."—HENDERSON
The period from 1778 until the battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, is in many respects the most remarkable, from a naval standpoint, of the world's history. During the first five years of this period a purely maritime war was waged between the two greatest naval powers, and latterly for twelve years Europe was in a continuous turmoil both ashore and afloat. Within this short epoch of twenty-seven years were fought more actions between large organized fleets than is recorded in history since the galley period. On the following page are shown in tabular form the principal naval battles of this interesting period.
Besides the major actions tabulated on next page there were also many engagements between smaller groups of ships.
In all this long list of battles only three can be considered as really decisive actions in the sense of resulting in the annihilation of one of the fleets as an organized force. It is true that Rodney's last fight terminated in the disordered retreat of the French, but not a single French ship was captured or sunk, and the fleet as such remained intact. The same general comment is applicable to the victory of Suffren over Hughes in their last encounter. Excepting the three Nelson successes (Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar), those of Rodney and Suffren were the only ones in which more than a slight advantage was gained by either side. In most cases the result was indecisive.
It is needless to dwell upon the completeness of the victories of Nelson. At the Nile but two French ships of the line out of the original thirteen escaped, the remainder being either blown up, captured or driven ashore. At Copenhagen, where the presence of shore batteries prevented reaping the full fruits of victory, five enemy ships, out of a total of seven, were punished very severely indeed. At Trafalgar but fourteen enemy ships out of thirty-three escaped capture or destruction, while the British lost no ships, and all were in good enough condition to weather the storm which shortly followed the fight, and to return shortly to England.
Measured by the success of contemporary fleet commanders, that of Nelson was truly amazing. Are the underlying causes of it of no greater than merely historical interest to us? Is there no lesson which we at this time can learn from him and apply in a practical fashion to the benefit of our own service today? His weapons of course were far different from those of the present, but it has become a platitude to say that the principles of warfare are immutable and quite independent of weapons. Certainly within the short hundred and odd years that have gone by since Trafalgar, there has been no change in the nature of man, which is, after all, the primary factor in war.
It would seem, then, that to examine the elements of Nelson's victories and to analyze his methods as compared with those of less successful contemporaries might be of profit to naval officers of this more modern age. It goes without saying, of course, that such brilliant achievement was probably the result of a number of factors in combination, rather than of but a single one. If these factors were present in comparable degree in the operations of other admirals of his time, then it cannot be in them alone, common to the many, that the essence of the great admiral's success lay. If on the other hand he possessed qualities or used methods radically different from other men and peculiar only to himself, it is but reasonable to assume that in them lies the difference between mediocrity and brilliance.
Of course there are certain well known, fundamentally necessary qualities, such as courage, tenacity, combative ardor, tactical insight, activity, and will power. With these Nelson was undoubtedly very highly gifted. Yet Suffren, Hughes, Rodney, Jervis and Hood were no mean men in these respects, and hardly enough inferior to Nelson to account for the difference in the degree of results attained. Similarly the quality of ships, weapons and subordinate commanders of these men were about on the same level with those of Nelson.
Many will say that each of the trio of great victories can be duly explained by the presence of genius on the spot. But we know that at the Nile and Trafalgar the preliminary signals were very few and very general in character, and that signals during the action to any ships, except those in the localized area of the flagship, were fewer still. This hypothesis does not furnish a satisfactory solution.
In one essential quality Nelson did far outshine the other admirals. He had the gift of a contagious personality capable of inspiring great personal loyalty. While this was an asset of high value, it was not, as the writer reads history, the one conspicuous difference between Nelson and the others, which mainly contributed to his unprecedented successes.
In order to furnish a better basis for opinion as to the somewhat elusive reason for the superlative merit of the great admiral, it is desirable first to examine his experience before reaching chief command, and to determine, if possible, what influence the earlier training may have had to produce the divine spark of genius exhibited in his later career.
NELSON'S SCHOOLING FOR CHIEF COMMAND
Although Nelson entered the British Navy in 1770, and his early service was attended by many minor engagements, both ashore and afloat, he was not so fortunate as to participate in any of the numerous fleet actions of the period until those fought by Hotham in 1795. His keen professional interest had been awakened long ere this however, and as early as 1782 Lord Hood, a very accomplished officer and tactician, and a good judge of men, is reported to have said that Nelson knew as much about naval tactics as any officer in the British fleet.
To estimate the view held by Nelson at a later period on some tactical questions, let us consider his own comments on the operations of Hotham's fleet in 1795 against the French. Referring to a three days' chase which resulted only in a detached engagement between the Agamemnon (his own ship) and the Ça Ira, he says: "On looking around," before opening fire, "I saw no ship-of-the-line within several miles to support me." In discussing this situation Mahan says "it seems difficult to imagine that among all the other thirteen captains . . . . none could have been present on the spot to support so promising an attempt, had there been 'common' that sort of emulation which takes a man ever to the front." Picture similar reflections in Nelson's keen mind during three long days of chase. Is it improbable that then and there conviction arose in him as to the prime necessity among fleet captains for "common emulation"?
Commenting upon the partial fleet action of the following day, he says: "I went on board Admiral Hotham as soon as our firing grew slack in the van, and the Ça Ira and the Censeur had struck, to propose to him leaving our two crippled ships, the two prizes and four frigates, to themselves, and to pursue the enemy; but he, much cooler than myself, said, 'We must be contented; we have done very well.' Now, had we taken ten sail, and had allowed the eleventh to escape, when it had been possible to have got her, I could never have called it well done." Here is seen the conception of the annihilation of the enemy fleet as a whole, which doctrine he so strongly insisted on in after years to his captains.
Four months later the same fleets again engaged in a partial fleet action, upon which Nelson commented as follows: "The scrambling distant fire was a farce, but if one (French ship) fell by such a fire, what might not have been expected had our whole fleet engaged? Improperly as the part of the fleet which fired got into action, we took one ship; but the subject is unpleasant and I shall have done with it." Mahan thinks it probable that the poor work of Hotham in this fight may have been responsible in part for the opening sentence of the famous "Memorandum," to wit: "Thinking it almost impossible to bring a fleet of forty sail of the line into a line of battle in variable winds, thick weather, and other circumstances which must occur, without such loss of time that the opportunity would probably be lost of bringing the enemy to battle in such a manner as to make the business decisive." Mahan also thinks that this fight may have inspired another great principle of the immortal "Memorandum." Rear Admiral Man was the senior officer of the advance force which succeeded in bringing part of the French fleet to action. Hotham was so far astern as to be unable to see the state of affairs in the van, yet he made signal to cease action and Man obeyed. Nelson blamed Hotham, but not Admiral Man, saying of the latter: "He is a good man in every sense of the word." Considering Nelson's disgust over the whole affair it is not too much to assume that this incident had some influence on that part of the "Memorandum" which read originally: "The second in command will in fact command his line and, after my intentions are made known to him, have the entire direction of his line to make the attack upon the enemy, and to follow up the blow until they are captured or destroyed." Mahan says of this: "Whether such words be regarded as the labored result of observation and reflection, or whether as the flashes of intuition, with which genius penetrates at once to the root of the matter, without the antecedent processes to which lesser minds are subjected, in either case they are instructive when linked with the events of his career here under discussion, as corroborative indications of natural temperament and insight, which banish altogether the thought of mere fortuitous valor as the one explanation of Nelson's successes."
The next fleet action in which Nelson was personally engaged was that of Cape St. Vincent in 1797, in which he won promotion to the grade of rear admiral by his celebrated act of taking initiative and responsibility far beyond that countenanced by the custom of the day.
There is a popular belief concerning this act of Nelson, that the initiative displayed had no other justification than that of the immediate tactics of "position," coupled perhaps with the fact that the outcome was brilliantly successful. Commander Schofield has pointed out, however, that Nelson's initiative in this case was not unrestrained nor wholly independent. A close analysis of the circumstances shows that it was the expressed plan of Jervis to prevent a junction between the two detachments of the enemy. Nelson had knowledge of this general plan. Through an error of judgment the maneuver of tacking the British fleet in succession was begun too late to ensure the success of the general plan of preventing the junction. Being in a position to observe this fact more accurately than could the Commander-in-Chief from his position, Nelson merely complied with the spirit of the general plan instead of executing an order for interior maneuver issued for the sole purpose of accomplishing the broader objective. Considered from this aspect Nelson's course had in it none of the elements of insubordination common to unrestrained independent initiative. On the other hand it was loyal and subordinate in the broadest and best sense, and it would be a bigoted critic indeed who would be unwilling to concede that this type of initiative is not only justifiable but very desirable from every point of view.
Now it seems clear from what has been said that Nelson's tactical sense had reached a high state of development even before he came into chief command. This of course stood him in good stead in the serious work that was in store. It is apparent, too, that, even at this time, he recognized the necessity for sound tactical knowledge on the part of all captains. The incidents cited lead also to the belief that his ideas had taken definite form on such questions, as (1) the undesirability of the commander-in-chief directing in action the detailed movements of all his forces; (2) the necessity for mutual and more or less automatic support, as occasion required, between ships of the same side in action; (3) the advisability of entrusting proper initiative to subordinates.
But whatever probabilities may be deduced from his previous experience, the methods which Nelson put into practice after attaining independent command speak for themselves, and it is essential to our purpose that they be examined.
NELSON'S METHOD OF PREPARING A FLEET FOR BATTLE
Upon assuming command of an independent detachment of Jervis' fleet Nelson initiated certain methods which, as far as the writer is aware, had never before been put into practice, and have never since been tried afloat. While it would be too much to say that his remarkable successes were primarily due to these methods, the reader will be left to answer for himself the question of how much the methods contributed to Nelson's achievements as well as the question of whether, with the same system in force, Suffren, Rodney, Jervis, Hughes and Hood, would not have approached much more closely the magnitude of their great contemporary.
Referring to the period preceding the battle of the Nile Mahan, who has examined a great number of historical papers relating to Nelson, says: "Nelson's own mind was, by constant pre-occupation, familiar beforehand with the bearings of the different conditions of any situation likely to occur, and with the probable inferences to be drawn; his opinions were, so to say, in a constant state of formation and development, ready for instantaneous application to any emergency as it arose. But he had, besides, exercised the same habit in the captains of the ships, by the practice of summoning them on board the flagship, singly or in groups; the slow movement of sailing vessels, particularly in the light summer weather of the Mediterranean, permitting such intercourse without materially affecting the progress of the fleet. Invitations or commands to visit the flagship were common." In his book "Nelson and His Captains," Fitchett has made the following interesting comments, pertinent to this subject: "Nelson, in addition, throughout the whole of that memorable cruise turned the quarterdeck of the Vanguard into what can only be described as a perpetual 'school for captains.' Whenever the weather admitted, he summoned the captains on board the flagship, where, says Berry (Nelson's flag captain), 'he would fully develop to them his own ideas of the different and best modes of attack and such plans as he proposed to execute upon falling in with the enemy. Whatever their position or situation might be by night or day!' . . . . 'There was no possible position in which they could be found that he did not take into his calculations, and for the most advantageous attack of which he had not digested and arranged the best possible plans. With the masterly ideas of their admiral, therefore, on the subject of naval tactics, every one of his captains was most thoroughly acquainted!'" "This explains why," continues Fitchett, "when the moment of attack came—and came suddenly—signals were so little needed. . . . . Nelson in a word was so charging the minds of his captains with his plans, that when the moment for action came . . . . there was no need to spell out clumsily by signal what their admiral wanted them to do. They were already saturated with that knowledge."
In these methods are seen the fruits of his reflections and study, and of his experiences in action in a subordinate capacity. It should be observed that the frequency, duration and scope of the “talks" on the Vanguard amounted to far more than mere "charging the minds of his captains with his plans." He was, literally, educating them in tactics. Evidently the need for wide tactical education among captains of the fleet had been impressed previously upon his mind, together with the desirability for captains and admirals being indoctrinated with common tactical conceptions, understandings and creeds. Under the conditions of sea fights, having in mind particularly the restricted view of the commander-in-chief, the difficulties of communication between ships, and more especially the time factor, such education and indoctrination were then, and still are, absolutely essential to unity of action in battle.
HOW THE METHOD WORKED AT THE NILE
Notwithstanding the grueling disappointments and delays, extending over two months, incident to the search for the French fleet before the battle of the Nile, it is probable that this period of postponement, utilized as has been described, contributed materially to the decisiveness of the British victory.
From the moment the French were reported in Aboukir Bay until the end of the battle, the movements of the British ships indicated a remarkable freedom from doubt and indecision on the part of the various commanders. To a degree unknown before, all seemed to know what to do, and proceeded to do it; expeditiously and without specific detailed direction, but with common purpose and mutually supported unified action. As compared with former fleets, that of Nelson at this battle was like an automatic machine, which once started, performed its work with precision and despatch, all parts working usefully, harmoniously, and co-ordinately, to a single end.
The French fleet was sighted at anchor in Aboukir Bay at about 2.45 p. m. To go around the shoals separating it from the British fleet would require considerable time, and leave but scant daylight with which to conduct the action.
Time was too pressing to permit a conference of captains on the flagship; indeed, if the rare opportunity was to be taken full advantage of, there was hardly sufficient time to make more than a hasty estimate of the situation, decide the general outline for the attack, and to get the necessary signals for the proposed movements through to the fleet. The situation was one which emphasizes the extraordinary value to an admiral of a mind duly prepared by constant study and reflection, and of a set of captains to whom the decisions can be made clear by a few simple signals. While rounding the shoals they were told by flag signal to prepare for battle, to prepare to anchor by the stern, and that the commander-in-chief intended to attack the enemy's van and center. Nothing further was sent, nor were any further instructions necessary to make the general plan clear to assistants so well prepared by previous discussion and enlightenment.
Only those who have commanded in trying circumstances can fully appreciate how great Nelson's temptation must have been to issue voluminous detailed instructions and orders, from time to time during the approach to this battle, for the purpose of ensuring exact understanding of his plan. It would have been a natural and human thing to do, and is a general habit of action which may be observed almost daily in our own service. His "school for captains" had existed but a few months and grave doubts must have arisen in his mind as to the thoroughness of his education and the certainty of his indoctrination being all-sufficient to the proper interpretation of his few simple signals. Many strong impulses to make doubly sure by lengthy confirmatory detailed signals must have been resisted. He realized, as few have done, that under the tenseness preliminary to battle verbose detailed instructions lead only to confusion, and that in so burdening the minds of subordinates one not only decreases the clearness with which they grasp the general plan, but may even lead them to give undue attention to specified details, at the expense of greater affairs. He appreciated that the opportunity for naval genius to accomplish its work is during the months or years before the day of encounter; that the work of the commander-in-chief is primarily one of preparation. The eve of battle is too late to shape its destiny; no amount of detailed orders or instructions promulgated then can materially influence the issue for good, but may on the other hand by creating confusion, work untold harm.
The fate of the day had been moulded beyond change during the preceding months, so Nelson held his counsel and refrained from supplementing his general signals; reserving only to himself the task of first leading the fleet around the dangerous and unknown shoals, and of later leading the six rear ships into action so that he might watch the operations of the first five, and if necessary give new directions to those which followed.
Great as was Nelson's physical courage, the writer considers that even greater moral courage was shown by him in so radically changing the methods of handling a fleet in action, and in adhering so rigidly to his method on the first crucial test. The temptation to revert to the conventional system was all the greater because the new method was such that it placed the issue almost unreservedly in the hands of subordinates, and because the responsibility for so doing was heightened by the grave crisis in the political affairs of England and of all Europe.
In the earlier stages of the fighting, before darkness and the confusion of the French fleet interfered with prompt and correct decisions and co-ordinate action on the part of British captains, "the method" worked admirably. The French van was soon crushed and the center fared little better. Only after victory was assured did Nelson, in an effort to make it the more decisive, "meddle" in its details. This was no doubt justified by the conditions then existing. Men and officers were worn out by many hours of ceaseless fighting.
Uncertainties arose in the minds of most captains as to what they should do, and how they should do it, now that the enemy van and center were practically crushed. Each hesitated to initiate a new movement, not being sure that his judgment would be correct nor that the concurrence of the others in such action as he might take would result in his being properly supported. Messages were exchanged between them but none felt their authority sufficient to order others. In other words, the fleet became disorganized, and harmonious, co-ordinated effort almost disappeared.
Before the fighting ceased the French as a fleet were annihilated, 11 out of 13 ships of the line being captured or destroyed. No such decisiveness of results had ever before been attained during the several centuries of the sailing ship era. Lord Howe commented that the battle "was unparalleled in this respect: that every captain distinguished himself." It is most interesting to note Nelson's own remarks on the fight, which indicate how clearly he appreciated the desirability for singleness of direction in sea fighting. He wrote: "I regret that one escaped, and I think, if it had pleased God that I had not been wounded, not a boat would have escaped to have told the tale; but do not believe that any individual in the fleet is to blame. In my conscience, I believe greater exertions could not have been made, and I only mean to say, that if my experience could in person have directed those exertions of individuals, there was every appearance that Almighty God would have continued to bless my endeavours." Inasmuch as he was not wounded until after victory had been assured and until more or less confusion had set in, and since he did not attempt to direct in person the exertions of individuals until after he was wounded, it is obvious that these remarks refer only to the latter stages of the battle, when the new "method" was somewhat shattered under the test. His subsequent battles go to show that these defects of the method were due only to lack of sufficient training in it, and not to incorrectness of principle, in a fleet so small.
Notwithstanding the clearsightedness with which Nelson saw the desirability for unified direction, he also understood the insuperable difficulties in the way of attaining the same with a large fleet in normal action by any other manner than his own newly created method. Perhaps during the later stages of the battle of the Nile, when both fleets had anchored, and the normally para-mount time element had become subordinated, the conventional practice of specific personal direction by the commander-in-chief was preferable to that which broadens the responsibilities and independence of subordinate commanders. It is at any rate clear from his comments that Nelson would have used the time-honored system during the latter part of this battle had he not been wounded. But in the light of subsequent history it is also certain that he was satisfied as to the soundness of his innovations for ordinary circumstances when handling a large fleet, and was not dissuaded from persisting in them. Instead of reverting to the method used by all his predecessors and contemporaries—that of attempting the impossible task of issuing detailed directions from the flagship to meet each situation as it developed—he continued for the remainder of his career to perfect the method of command used at the Nile.
There is one vitally essential link in the novel method of Nelson which has not so far been discussed. It is LOYALTY. Initiative, to a degree necessary for the united automatic action of a large number of units, cannot be safely allowed until the unit commanders are educated, trained, and indoctrinated. Neither can it be safely endowed until universal and unqualified loyalty to the general plan is assured. Initiative unrestrained by due loyalty leads to fatal dispersion of effort, because of the danger that some subordinate commanders may be tempted too far by the glamor of personal distinction or by the belief that some particular course of action is better than the one prescribed. Perhaps unconsciously, but certainly most effectively, Nelson, by his mere personality, inspired all with whom he came in contact with enthusiastic loyalty to himself. This was always a tremendous asset in his campaigns and battles, and is an important factor in determining his superiority over contemporary admirals. Whether he properly valued this quality is impossible to say positively, but his general bearing and actions towards all subordinates indicated that he did so value it. History abounds in incidents to show how uniformly and consistently he stimulated and fostered the loyalty of his subordinates.
Mahan tells us in emphatic terms that it was a lifetime habit, ingrained by temperament, for Nelson to be enthusiastic in praise for his subordinates. This characteristic was consistently in evidence throughout his entire career, and rarely did he have anything but praise for them. Soon after assuming command of his first ship in 1781 he wrote: "I have an exceedingly good ship's company; not a man or officer in her I would wish to change. . . . . I am perfectly satisfied with both officers and ship's company." In 1805, while in London consulting with the First Lord of the of the Admiralty concerning dispositions to be made before his assuming command of the fleet for the last time, he was asked to express his preferences for ship commanders. His reply was, "Choose yourself, my Lord; the same spirit actuates the whole profession; you cannot choose wrong." Now, making all due allowance for a generous, charitable and impulsive nature, it can scarcely be fairly maintained that he was oblivious to the military value of stimulating the personal loyalty of his subordinates, nor that to some degree he did not do so studiously and deliberately. As is well known personal loyalty to a superior is to a great extent engendered by due loyalty of the latter to his subordinates. That is, "loyalty down" is an essential element in "loyalty up."
Of course, for military purposes, personal loyalty alone is inadequate to the end desired, namely, concerted action before, during, and after battle. The kind of loyalty necessary to this end is unanimous loyalty to the general plan promulgated by the superior. This is the type of military loyalty essential to the accomplishment of great results. But, while perhaps possible in some cases, the separation of "personal" from "plan" loyalty is normally difficult; human nature does not lend itself to it, and it is almost an axiom that the latter loyalty flows directly from the former. It is certainly true that the enthusiastic support given to Nelson's plans, even making due allowance for their excellence, was unusually great, and was no doubt colored by loyalty to his person.
In relating the incidents connected with his taking over command of the fleet just before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson himself wrote; "The reception I met with on joining the fleet caused the sweetest sensation of my life. The officers who came on board to welcome my return forgot my rank as commander-in-chief in the enthusiasm with which they greeted me. As soon as those emotions were past, I laid before them the plan I had previously arranged for attacking the enemy; and it was not only my pleasure to find it generally approved, but clearly perceived and understood." "I believe my arrival was most welcome, not only to the Commander of the fleet, but also to every individual in it; and, when I came to explain to them the 'Nelson touch' it was like an electric shock. Some shed tears; all approved . . . . It was new—it was singular—it was simple!’ and, from admirals downwards, it was repeated—‘it must succeed, if ever they will allow us to get at them! You are, my Lord, surrounded by friends whom you inspire with confidence.’ Some may be Judases, but the majority are certainly much pleased with my commanding them."
Here is seen, at its best, the combination of "personal" and "plan" loyalty, closely interwoven. He would be bold indeed who would dispute that this combination contributed very largely to the great results which followed closely afterwards.
THE "METHOD" AFTER THE NILE
The confusion during the latter part of the Battle of the Nile showed merely that Nelson's method had not been perfected within the comparatively short time that it had been in operation. From time immemorial sea fights had been attended by confusion and unco-ordinated efforts, and under the circumstances at the Nile the wonder is that disorganization did not set in sooner.
After this battle, the same methods for training the fleet which had been adopted preceding it, were continued; interrupted, of course, from time to time by Nelson's absence from the fleet.
During the short period between assuming command of the attacking detachment and the battle of Copenhagen, every moment was utilized in indoctrinating his captains and formulating his plans. The latter, due both to the fact that the position of the enemy's fleet was well known in advance and would probably remain fixed and to the very short time available for indoctrination, were, for Nelson, unusually detailed.
During most of the two years preceding Trafalgar, Nelson was himself commander-in-chief and faithfully followed the same system of training and command inaugurated by him in earlier years. As before, frequent visits to the flagship were made by his captains and these were almost invariably accompanied by talks with the admiral on questions of command, strategy, tactics, and battle.
His confidential secretary during this period wrote: "Even for debating the most important naval business, he preferred a turn on the quarterdeck with his captains, whom he led by his own frankness to express themselves freely, to all the stiffness and formality of a council of war." Another officer serving on the Victory at about the same time makes the comment that "when the weather and the service permitted, he very often had several of the admirals and captains to dine with him; who were mostly invited by signal, the rotation of seniority being commonly observed by his Lordship in these invitations."
Speaking of this period, Mahan says: "Upon his own subordinates Nelson laid a distinct charge, that he should expect them to use their judgment and act upon it with independence, sure of his generous construction and support of their action; . . . . he was emphatic in his expression of commendation for action rightly taken; a bare, cold approval was not reward for deeds which he expected to reproduce his own spirit and temper, vivifying the whole of his command, and making his presence virtually co-extensive with its utmost limits. . . . .To deny an officer discretion was as scathing an expression of dissatisfaction as Nelson could utter; and as he sowed, so he reaped, in a devotion and vigor of service few have elicited equally."
Previous to the Battle of Trafalgar, the subordinate commanders were acquainted with the now famous "Memorandum," which has been already referred to in the section on "Loyalty" as the plan which was so clearly understood and so enthusiastically received by all, and which is so remarkable a document that every officer of our own time should study and digest it. In general terms only, it treats of two cases: that of the enemy being to leeward, and that of him being to windward. So general are these considerations that they amount to little more than illustrations for a simple statement of the broad tactical principles and the doctrines, which were to govern the fleet during the prospective battle.
Little else was necessary to ensure the co-ordinated action of subordinates so well prepared as Nelson's were to carry into effect the general intentions of their chief, in spite of the many complex situations sure to occur but impossible clearly to foresee.
Shortly after daylight on the day of Trafalgar signals were made to "Form the order of sailing" (which was specified in the memorandum as the order of battle), to "Prepare for battle," and to "Bear up." This latter signal headed the British squadrons independently on parallel courses so as to intercept the enemy, then about ten miles distant, and conformed to the general plan. The memorandum required that "The whole impression of the British fleet must be to overpower from two or three ships ahead of their commander-in-chief, supposed to be in the center, to the rear of their fleet." This being the broad objective it became at once clear, as the squadrons headed by signal for their opponent, what was in general terms to govern the efforts of each ship and squadron. The memorandum stated also that "The second in command will, after my intentions are made known to him, have the entire direction of his line to make the attack upon the enemy, and to follow up the blow until they are captured or destroyed." No signals, other than those mentioned above as being sent just after daylight, were made to indicate intentions concerning the movements of the fleet, except one to Collingwood, which ran "I intend to pass through the van of the enemy's line, to prevent him from getting into Cadiz," and another to the fleet on the eve of contact, for "Close action."
It may seem to be an absurd statement that no other than the above tactical signals were necessary between the time of sighting the enemy at daylight and of bringing a fleet of 33 sail into action some six hours later, yet it is true; and the fact that, on leaving the "Victory" just previous to her coming under serious fire, Blackwood and Prowse were instructed by Nelson to board the vessels astern and inform their captains that he depended on their exertions and that if the prescribed plan retarded their getting into action quickly they were to do so in the most practicable manner, does not materially alter the case.
As to the desirability from the point of view of the subordinates of this minimizing of signals when such a "method" is in vogue, an incident related of Collingwood may be instructive. When the flags from the Victory began spelling out, "England expects that every man will do his duty," Collingwood impatiently exclaimed," I wish Nelson would stop signalling, as we know well enough what we have to do." As to the same desirability from the point of view of success, the unprecedented results of Trafalgar are sufficiently conclusive.
To indicate Nelson's own conception of the limited function of the commander-in-chief during the approach to, as well as during the progress of battle, the following incident is related: As contact between the two fleets became imminent, and after all signals but that for close action had been made and acknowledged, he said to Blackwood: "Now I can do no more. We must trust to the Great Disposer of all events and to the justice of our cause. I thank God for this great opportunity of doing my duty."
The battle raged for about four hours after the initial clash. During this time but one signal was made by the flagship—that sent by Hardy after Nelson had been wounded, calling a few late arrivals to the Victory's support against several fresh enemy ships which threatened her.
Little more need be said. The unchanging principle of concentrating the whole against a part, in time, was irresistible. It was the band of trained, mutually understanding, loyal "brothers" which had done it, after the broad general outline of the manner in which the chief wished the concentration to be done had been made known to them, by the original plan supplemented by a few—a very few—simple signals.
Nelson was not one to omit an essential link in his chain of elements for victory. No matter how perfect the preparation of ships, admirals and captains, one and all, must have directive force if speedy and effective co-operation of units is to be obtained; that is to say, there must be a plan for the battle and all admirals and captains must be thoroughly acquainted with it. Many naval actions have been lost because there was no concrete plan, good or bad, to furnish continuity and concentration of effort, and by the same token many another battle has been lost because such plans as had been prepared were not brought clearly and properly to the attention of the subordinate commanders.
Not the least of the many merits of Nelson's "method" was the fact that it permitted the formulation of simple plans expressed in brief and general terms, which were at the same time entirely intelligible to those who were to execute them, and the fact that it was unnecessary to prescribe more than the movements which were to initiate the fight. So much done, Nelson could count with certainty upon his well-educated, well-trained, and uniformly indoctrinated "brothers" to continue and complete the business without further coaching from him, yet nevertheless with concordant effort.
However instructive the fact may be that the "method" contributed to excellence in the formulation and execution of plans, it is important that this should not obscure the point that the making of a plan and the giving out of the same to all who were to have responsibility for the details of its execution, were essential parts of the method itself.
RÉSUMÉ OF THE METHOD
If what has been said in the foregoing be analyzed, it will become clear that what the writer, for want of a better name, has called Nelson's "method," consisted of a number of separate, yet interdependent, elements, each one of which was essential to the perfection and the success of the whole. These are:
1. Education.—Which, in this case, was imparted verbally by the master. It may have been noted by the reader that the manner of instruction consisted principally of the stimulation of thought on tactical questions through conference, discussion and argument, in which the frankest expression of ideas by the pupil was encouraged by word and bearing. It was perhaps better suited to the type of pupil that the education took this form, as no doubt they would have considered it ill befitting their rank, age and dignity to have been dogmatized in school-boy fashion. At all events no way of teaching is more effective than that which draws out the pupil to formulate his own ideas after due reflection, and to give expression to them. No learning is acquired well which is not the product of one's own effort.
It may well be imagined that, following Nelson's "talks," his subordinates spent many a quiet hour in the seclusion of their own cabins, pondering and reflecting over what he, and they themselves, had said. Study and reflection are logical, if not indispensable, preludes to decision and action. This truism is as sound today as it was in the year 1798.
It is not to be supposed that these methods failed to be of value to the master himself. While his conceptions and development were much in advance of those of the pupils, the system of instruction nevertheless must have contributed in great measure to the advancement of Nelson himself—genius that he was. An application of this system at the present time would surely be beneficial to any set of captains and to any commander-in-chief.
2. Training.—Which in Nelson's time was obtained almost wholly through battle itself. Modern development and conditions have not only made other forms of tactical training possible, but also indeed have rendered them imperatively necessary. Wars come these days with little warning, are accompanied by the employment of a maximum concentrated force almost immediately after their outbreak, and may be frequently decided by one big naval engagement. The navy, then, which postpones its tactical training until the day of battle will most likely cease on that day to be a navy.
Education without training is inadequate to produce satisfactory results. Practical work is necessary to ripen the fruit of academic work. But it is also true that training alone, without education, cannot produce the desired degree of excellence. The two are complementary, and both, in balanced combination, are necessary to the end of tactical efficiency, and to success in battle.
3. Indoctrination.—Which consisted in the imparting of Nelson's own ideas and beliefs, as they developed, to his subordinates in such manner as to carry conviction of their correctness. The process of education was, in effect, itself one of indoctrination both of Nelson and of his subordinates, because indoctrination consists essentially in learning to think alike, that is, to have similar convictions about fundamentals.
The value of doctrine based on universal conviction is, in a military organization, very great. It inspires all with mutual confidence, thus furnishing a moral force of great power; it promotes concentration of purpose and effort and by these means permits unity of action; it is one of the essential requirements preliminary to the proper and effective use of initiative by subordinates; it inspires loyalty to plan; it permits the maximum advantage to be taken of the "time factor"; and it reduces enormously the number and the complexity of orders and of signals necessary to carry a plan into execution.
All of these things have too much influence on the issue of battle to be neglected. While study at the War College is of great value in developing doctrine based on convictions, it can never furnish a complete substitute for the less academic methods possible to be pursued in the active fleet. We can, and most emphatically should, copy Nelson in this particular.
4. The Inspiration of Loyalty.—As has been pointed out Nelson was fortunate in possessing a magnetic personalty sufficient to inspire the great personal loyalty which formed the basis of the very essential "plan" loyalty exhibited by his subordinates on all occasions. Yet he fortified this divine gift in many humble ways. He was invariably loyal to those who served under him. He kept them always informed, as far as could properly be done, of news which he had received, of his opinions, general intentions and plans. A subordinate always likes to know, as a matter of human interest if nothing more, what has happened, what is likely to happen, and the reasons therefor; and his personal loyalty is increased by being taken into the confidence of his chief. There are of course many other means available for stimulating personal loyalty.
Few are born with the magnetism approaching that possessed by Nelson, and few therefore can hope by even the most studied methods, to excite personal loyalty strong enough to alone bring the necessary measure of plan loyalty for assuring properly co-ordinated and united efforts in battle. Perhaps the best means for making certain of the latter is the education of all officers to the point of understanding the prime military necessity for this factor.
Without rigid loyalty to the spirit of the general plan the granting of initiative becomes a grave danger, and united action an impossibility.
5. The Giving of Initiative.—But little reflection is required to comprehend the very great danger inherent in the exercise of initiative by subordinate commanders unless they know what they are about, have had their judgment and faculties matured and steadied by training, are imbued with "unanimous concurrence of understanding," and as a body are loyal to the general plan of their chief. These things are necessary before initiative can be safely allowed in battle, and it is the absolute necessity that initiative be used, which makes the education, training, indoctrination and loyalizing of subordinate commanders so important.
For many obvious reasons the use of some measure of initiative in action is of great value. But the writer is not content to rest the case here. He maintains that it is imperatively necessary to any great success. This is true because of the very vital, ever present and always pressing time factor.
If "time" was "everything" in the days of the slow moving sailing ships, how much more is it "everything" in the steam age which has brought such a tremendous increase in the speed of ships. If communication is better facilitated today, it is also true that fleets are larger, that types of ships and weapons have multiplied, and in consequence, that the complexities of battle, and the difficulties of giving individual direction to subordinates in time have increased. In the modern naval action between large fleets no single eye will be able to take in the whole field, the great ranges will introduce much parallax into the observations of any single person, the relative positions of the forces will be changing momentarily, and the difficulties of prompt radio communication due to interference, as well as the inadequacy of flag signalling due to distance, will be pronounced. Under these circumstances, to expect a subordinate commander to postpone an obviously desirable movement until he receives orders to do so, or until he has acquainted the commander-in-chief with the situation and obtained in reply permission to do so, would seem to be the height of folly and the forerunner of defeat. Such a course would be criminally wasteful of opportunities; every movement would be too late.
At the risk of tedious repetition, let me say again for the sake of greater emphasis, that the proper use of initiative is vitally necessary; and that initiative not only cannot be used properly, but will be attended by grave risks, unless the men entrusted with it have been previously educated, trained, indoctrinated and loyalized.
6. The Formulation and Dissemination of Plan.—The foregoing closely related elements being accepted, each in its own sphere, as essential parts of the "method," it will become apparent that still another was an integral part thereof. A focus to the effort of the separated units of the fleet was necessary, and was supplied by the formulation of a general plan of action and by thoroughly acquainting all with its substance. Nelson's plans, particularly that for Trafalgar, were models for completeness, without unduly specifying details. The "system" took all the care of the details that was necessary, after the subordinate commanders had been acquainted with the general wishes and intentions of the commander-in-chief. The junior admirals and the captains, each within his own province, added to or modified the general orders, from time to time, to suit the conditions of his own command, in such manner as would best further the attainment of the principal objective, which, in the case of Trafalgar, for example, was to crush the enemy's rear before it could be supported by his van.
At the Nile there was no opportunity to discuss the situation with his subordinates, yet a few simple signals conveyed the general plan to them. Of this Mahan says: "It was, therefore, no fortuitous coincidence that the battle was fought on a plan preconcerted in general outline, though necessarily subject to particular variations in detail. Not only had many situations been discussed, as Berry tells us, but new signals had been inserted in the signal book to enable the admiral's intentions to be quickly understood."
The plan once promulgated, and fortified by the preceding elements, the commander-in-chief of a large fleet, besides stimulating morale, can do little more to shape the action.
7. The Stimulation of Morale.—The accomplishment of each of the above six elements, is in itself a means for elevating the moral force of the personnel. When all of them in combination have been effected, universal confidence and combative ardor have been assured. No one knew this better than Nelson, yet he took pains on more than one occasion to raise the "fighting edge" to the highest pitch, the famous signal during the approach at Trafalgar being the best example, and the "method" cannot be considered as complete without a due recognition of this final element.
Nelson's tactics were in the main conspicuously sound. While exception may be taken by some to isolated instances of tactical mistakes, these were usually justified by the special conditions of the case and merely emphasize the fact that in practice something more than knowledge of the letter of tactical rules and principles is required. One must be able to differentiate between the occasion demanding rigid adherence to accepted form and that requiring radical treatment.
There is a time-honored dispute as to the exact manner in which Nelson led his squadron into battle at Trafalgar, but, even granting the worst that can be said about him in this respect, he deliberately and knowingly led the force under his immediate command into a bad situation in order to accomplish more surely a greater object—that of concentrating the whole fleet on the enemy's rear in time—before it could receive friendly support.
Few will dispute that tactical genius shone in most of his deeds on the field of battle, nor that even greater tactical genius was displayed in his plans for battle, but the writer hopes that enough has been said to show that Nelson's greatest claim to fame lay in his ability to prepare a fleet for battle, rather than in his skill in its conduct during battle or in formulating tactical plans therefor.
The "method" which he evolved was unique, and, when in proper working order, gave to the fleet the functions of an automatic machine, wherein, the broad plan alone being specified, there followed that type of co-ordinated effort which multiplied many fold the strength of the fleet as compared to what was possible to effect through the detailed consecutive direction of the commander-in-chief alone.
Every one of the elements of this method, every link of the chain, had to be present in full strength, in order that the whole might work with success. Each required patient and persistent effort to be developed to the required extent. This wonderful man was not deterred from the task on this account, but, not satisfied with the accepted measure of success, set about it to give "victory" a definition beyond previous aspirations.
His conceptions of the end to be attained have been bequeathed to us, but not so his means. In some strange fashion those who served with him, and those naval men who followed after them, failed to appreciate both the "method" in its entirety and the relative importance of its constituent elements. Most admirals of the Nelson era and those who followed it, prepared their fleets for action as we are doing now, and handled them before and during battle as we would probably do now.
It is hoped that the way has been pointed for us towards a far higher degree of efficiency in battle than is possible by present methods. Now, as in 1805, the die is cast when action is joined. It is too late then for specific detailed directions.
In closing I can do no better than to quote, from the great admiral himself, the introduction to his "Plan of Attack," issued in May, 1805. It indicates how great is the strength to be derived from a proper system of command and shows his conception of the part which, after the "method" has been developed, a commander-in-chief should, and can with profit, play before and during battle.
"The business of an English commander-in-chief being first to bring an enemy's fleet to battle, on the most advantageous terms to himself (I mean that of laying his ship close on board the enemy, as expeditiously as possible), and secondly to continue them there without separating, until the business is decided; I am sensible beyond this object it is not necessary that I should say a word, being fully assured that the admirals and captains of the fleet I have the honor to command will, knowing my precise object, that of a close and decisive battle, supply any deficiency in my not making signals; which may, if extended beyond these objects, either be misunderstood, or if waited for, very probably, from various causes, be impossible for the commander-in-chief to make; therefore, it will only be requisite for me to state, in as few words as possible, the various modes in which it may be necessary for me to obtain my object . . . . .”