LETTERS ON NAVAL STRATEGY
BASED ON THE NAVAL CAMPAIGN OF 1805
By Lieutenant Holloway H. Frost, U. S. Navy
The German military writer Prince Kraft zu Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen in his well-known work "Letters on Strategy" describes several military campaigns from the point of view of the commanding generals. By careful and impartial criticism he shows how leaders have in some cases correctly applied the principles upon which the art of strategy is based. In other cases, where leaders have failed to apply correctly these principles, he shows the causes which have been responsible for their failure. Prince Hohenlohe gives us in this way an excellent exposition of the principles of military strategy and the various ways in which they should be applied in land warfare. As yet no one has covered the field of naval strategy in this way. It will be my object to do this.
While there are a great number of campaigns on land which could be used to illustrate the art of military strategy, there have been comparatively few on the sea which can be used for a study of naval strategy.
You must admit that the greatest naval campaign in history from the strategical point of view was that of 1805 between Napoleon and England. This campaign had the whole Atlantic Ocean for its stage, and it might well have spread into the Indian Ocean too had Napoleon wished it. More great leaders played parts in this campaign than in any other on the sea: on the French side was the master. Napoleon; on the English side were Pitt, Barham and Nelson. In addition, and this is most important for our purpose, it has been more carefully studied than any other campaign, and in recent years not only the facts, but even the detailed plans of the opposing leaders have been set forth by careful historians.
Julian Corbett, the well-known English writer, describes the campaign from the English point of view in his detailed work "The Campaign of Trafalgar." We may presume that the facts concerning the English forces, as he gives them, are accurate. However, his hatred of Napoleon is so apparent that his opinions regarding the French forces must be carefully considered before they are accepted. Colonel Desbriere of the French Army in his work "La Campaigne Maritime de 1805" covers the ground very thoroughly from the French point of view. Details may occasionally be supplied from Mahan, Jurien de la Graviere and James, while the Naval Chronicles give some valuable information as to the disposition of the English forces. The "Barham Papers" and "Blockade of Brest" give the English orders issued.
Having gained the facts from these authorities, I will proceed in my own way to deduce the conclusions from them. We will endeavor to see the various general principles of the art of naval strategy and the ways in which they were applied by the leaders in this campaign. In carrying out this program, it will not be my object to criticize the leaders for what might be considered mistakes. Such criticism is never profitable. In order to make a careful and impartial criticism, one must put himself in the place of the leader whose work he is examining, one must look at the situation from his point of view and with the information he had at the time. Also, one must take into consideration the fact that one can arrive at a correct decision more easily when he has no responsibility in the matter, than when the fate of a nation depends upon his actions. It is always easy for the looker-on at a game of chess or cards to see glaring mistakes on the part of the player. How much more so is this true of war, where the critic is out of danger and has no responsibility, while the admiral's decision may determine the course of the whole war! Napoleon once said that "people formed a very incorrect idea of the strength necessary to wage, with a full knowledge of its consequences, one of those great battles upon which depended the fate of an army and a country." If, therefore, we should see that such men as Napoleon, Barham and Nelson made what we, with our imperfect knowledge, might call mistakes, it should only prove to us how difficult it is to avoid them. If we expect to see a certain number of mistakes on the part of even these great leaders, we will be merely wasting time if we indulge in criticism of the lesser leaders. I believe that none of you would wish to have me repeat the criticisms which have been leveled at the poor scapegoat Villeneuve for over a century, and the violent attacks which every English historian has made upon Napoleon's conduct in this campaign. Therefore, when it would appear that mistakes have been made, we will not criticize the leader who apparently made them, but will try to discover the causes for these mistakes, so that if any one of us is ever in a similar situation, he may have a hint as to how to avoid repeating them.
2. The Political Objects of Napoleon and England
Strategy is so closely connected with policy, that we must begin our examination of the campaign with a rapid glance over the political situation. At the beginning of 1805, England was arrayed against a combination of France, Spain and Holland, at whose head was Napoleon. Naturally, the ultimate political object of each nation was the complete overthrow of the other. However, the attitude of the other European nations gave each an immediate object, as it might be called. The English saw that, although they might maintain a successful defence without the assistance of other nations, any real offensive against France was impossible without the assistance of continental nations. Therefore William Pitt, the very able Prime Minister, was trying to engineer a great coalition of continental nations against France. This great combination was to include Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Naples and Portugal. Pitt was assisted in his work by the alarm of these nations caused by Napoleon's aggressive policy, but was hindered by their fear of France and Napoleon. Each of the continental nations would have been glad to overthrow Napoleon, but as Napoleon was known to be treating with all of them, and offering them bribes for their services, each one distrusted the others and feared to take the initiative and declare openly against France, lest by the treachery or delay of the others, it would be left exposed singly to the might of France and the genius of Napoleon.
Thus England's great object was to organize this great coalition against Napoleon. Napoleon's object was naturally to strike down England before the continental nations could come to her assistance.
3. The Military Means of Gaining These Political Objects
You will say that it was naturally the task of policy and not that of strategy to organize the coalition. But you must admit that it was in this case too big a job for policy to handle. It would be rather a difficult job for the diplomat to induce any nation to declare against Napoleon at that time because, no matter what arrangements would be made with other nations to cooperate, this first nation was almost certain to have to stand alone against Napoleon on the land for some time, while the other nations looked on and saw the direction in which the events were marching before they lived up to their agreements. It is true that this first nation would have the assistance of England, but this, despite the great naval victories, had not thus far been of great advantage to the continental nations. These nations recognized the fact that England could, with her superior sea power, maintain a war for years without serious risk, but that they could not enter the war without running the risk of immediate and complete overthrow by the French Army. Therefore, to induce the continental nations to join the coalition it was necessary for England:
1st. To prove to the continental nations that she could assist them in the land warfare; and,
2d. To prove that she was confident as to the result of this land warfare, by taking such a position that she could not escape a great loss should this warfare result unfavorably.
The only way for England to do this was to send her entire army of regular troops to the continent. This would show that England could be of considerable actual assistance on the continent and would show that she was really in earnest. Thus the only effective military means by which England could gain her immediate political object was to cooperate on the continent with the armies of Austria, Russia and Prussia.
Napoleon had three military methods by which he might strike down England:
1st. An invasion in force of England.
2d. Operations against the English commerce.
3d. Operations against the English colonies.
Now we must see what forces Napoleon had available for the execution of these plans of operations. First let us examine the strength of his naval forces, as these were naturally, from the character of the war, the most important. As the ships of the line composed the real battle force it is with them that we will be principally concerned. Ships of the line can be divided into three general classes:
1st. Three-deckers of from 120 to 98 guns.
2d. Two-deckers of from 80 to 64 guns.
3d. Fifty-gun ships.
If we take the two-decker as unity, we may count the three-decker as equal to two units. Corbett discusses this matter very fully and you may refer to him for the reasons which led him to this conclusion. While I believe the following proposal to be original, I think we might consider, without great inaccuracy, the 50-gun ship to be equivalent to one-half a unit. Thus in determining the strength of any squadron we will in our discussion consider:
1st. A three-decker as two units.
2d. A two-decker as one unit.
3d. A 50-gun ship as one-half a unit.
In addition to the ships of the line there were frigates, having from 44 to 32 guns, and corvettes, brigs, sloops and cutters. These classes of ships rarely took part in actions between ships of the line, and were used for scouting, carrying information, escorting convoys, and cruising singly to defend commerce and attack the enemy's commerce.
At the beginning of January Napoleon's forces were disposed as follows:
At the Texel, Holland: Six Dutch two-deckers, 6 units.
At Brest, France: Three three-deckers, 18 two-deckers, all French, 24 units.
At Rochefort, France: One three-decker, four two-deckers, all French, 6 units.
At Ferrol, Spain: Five French two-deckers, 5 units.
At Cadiz, Spain: One French two-decker, Aigle, 1 unit.
At Toulon, France: Eleven French two-deckers, 11 units.
This makes a total ready for sea in home waters of 53 units.
In addition, there were in the East Indies one French two-decker, Marengo, and four Dutch two-deckers, five units in all; but the Dutch ships were in very poor condition and it is doubtful whether they were fit for active service. The Spanish Government had promised that by the end of March there would be at least 30 Spanish units ready for sea and available for Napoleon's use.
The principal land forces available for use against England were disposed as follows:
At the Texel, 25,000 men with transports, under the command of Marshal Marmont.
Near Boulogne, over 90,000, with a flotilla of over 1500 boats capable of carrying them to England, under the personal command of the Emperor.
4. The Dispositions of the English Naval Forces
As the English Army was not ready on the 1st of January and would require at least three or four months' preparation before it could attempt operations on the continent, the English were reduced for the present to the strategical defensive. As Napoleon had several lines of attack, the English Navy had to be so disposed as to:
1st. Guard England itself from invasion;
2d. Protect as many as possible of the colonies; and,
3d. Protect as much as possible the oversea commerce.
Of these threats the most important was that of the invasion of England, and before anything else could be done, it was evident that an effective defence against this attack must be provided. As a means of local defence, a line of six old ships of the line were moored permanently along the English coast in the area through which the French flotilla must pass. On these were based a large number of small craft, which were backed up by a number of frigates. This local defence made it necessary for Napoleon to mass in the Straits a force strong enough to break it down. This French force naturally could not force its way into the Channel and maintain its position there for several days unless it were in turn supported by a battle fleet strong enough to drive clear the British battle squadrons. Thus Napoleon, if he desired to carry out the invasion project, must mass in the Channel a battle fleet so strong as to be able to maintain the control of the Channel for a number of days. Therefore you will say that the simplest way for the English to parry this most important attack would be to mass all their forces in the Channel, just as an army in a land campaign masses all its forces at the most important point. But while this would undoubtedly frustrate the Emperor's plan of invasion, it would give him a free hand to attack the English commerce and colonies. The first strategic decision for the British Admiralty to make was whether it had a naval force sufficient:
1st. Merely to protect England against invasion; or,
2d. To repel in addition all attacks against their colonies and commerce.
Although the English fleet had been greatly reduced before the outbreak of the war as a result of St. Vincent's controversy with the dockyard officials, and although the French had received the assistance of the Dutch and Spanish navies, so that the total opposing forces were nearly equal in numbers, the Admiralty's decision was that it had sufficient force to repel all forms of hostile attack.
The most satisfactory method of frustrating all forms of French attack was naturally to hold in port all Napoleon's sea forces. To accomplish this object an English squadron was placed off each port in which hostile forces were ready for sea. The English doctrine was to make the blockading force slightly superior in fighting power to the force in port.
The fighting power of a force depends upon its physical, intellectual and moral powers. In this case the physical power is measured by the number, size and condition of the ships. The intellectual and moral powers are measured by the intelligence and the resolution and spirit of the admirals, officers and crews. The condition of the English ships, excepting the Mediterranean squadron, was very much better than that of the French and Spanish ships. In intellectual and moral powers the English held a very great advantage over their opponents. The long periods at sea and the constant fighting for over 10 years had given them an excellent knowledge of seamanship, tactics and strategy, and their great naval tradition had instilled in them a wonderful fighting spirit and had given them a confidence in themselves, which gave them an almost incalculable advantage over their opponents. Their flag officers were without exception able and accomplished, and some were brilliant. The personal influence of Nelson alone has been estimated by Mahan to be equivalent to a reinforcement of three ships of the line.
On the other hand, the Spanish squadrons were just being organized and their ships being commissioned, while the French and Dutch ships had not been to sea for a long period. The excesses of the French Revolution had driven the best officers from the service, and the discipline of the crews had never been completely restored after the mutinies in the first years of the republic. Consequently, although there were many good officers and brave men in the Allied navies, as is shown so well by their hard fighting at Trafalgar, they were, as a rule, decidedly inferior in intellect and resolution to the English officers and crews. The flag officers, although accomplished and personally brave, did not have the proper fighting spirit, and the traditions of their service had taught them to avoid rather than to seek battle. Finally, a fleet composed of ships of several nationalities was sure to be weakened by the jealousies which were certain to arise under such conditions.
Thus the mere numbers and size of ships alone can give no idea of the real relative fighting strength, because the English, with a considerably smaller number of ships, could, by reason of the superior quality of their personnel, count upon having equal fighting strength. It is naturally difficult to decide upon the relative fighting efficiency of the opposing forces, but we will probably be somewhere near the truth if we say that, when the units of the two opposing squadrons were equal in number, the English were superior in actual fighting strength in the ratio of approximately 4 to 3. Thus when you see Cornwallis blockading Brest with 19 units, while the French had 24 in port, you may assume that he is slightly superior. But you will note that the Admiralty rarely allowed Cornwallis' force to get as low as this, because it was a special policy of the Admiralty to maintain a considerable superiority at this most important position, and therefore they assigned to this squadron a minimum strength of 18 of the line. If we say that of these eight were three-deckers, this would give 26 units, a number approximately equal to that of the French force in port. Thus the English calculated that when their numbers were equal with those of the enemy, they had a superiority so great that defeat was practically impossible.
In accordance with their plan of blockading in port Napoleon's squadrons with English squadrons reasonably superior in fighting strength, the British Admiralty on January 1, 1805, had disposed their forces in European waters approximately as follows:
- In the North Sea: Lord Keith with six two-deckers and six 50-gun ships, watching the Dutch division in the Texel and the Boulogne flotilla, 9 units.
- In the Channel: Admiral Saumarez with a strong cruiser squadron
- Off Brest: Lord Cornwallis, watching 24 French units in port, with approximately, 19 units.
- Off Rochefort: Admiral Graves with one three-decker and four two-deckers, watching a similar force in port, 6 units.
- Off Ferrol: Admiral Cochrane with one three-decker and five two-deckers, watching five French units in port and Spanish ships preparing for sea, 7 units.
- Off Cadiz: Admiral Orde with one three-decker and four two-deckers, watching one French unit and Spanish ships fitting out, 6 units.
- Off Toulon: Admiral Nelson with two three-deckers and 11 two-deckers watching 11 French units in Toulon and Spanish ships fitting out in Carthagena, 13 units.
- This gave the English a total of ships actually on the blockade of 60 units.
These forces, with the exception of the Brest squadron, were sufficiently strong for their purpose. In addition, there was on the Irish station a force of three two-deckers and a large number of cruisers.
You will probably say, from an examination of the positions of these numerous squadrons, that they were dangerously dispersed, that the English had violated the cardinal principle of concentration. We have all heard so much of "concentration," that the word has become a catchword, and every one who does not keep his entire force massed together in one body is accused of failing to "concentrate." We must always remember that the degree of concentration of a force is determined by the positions of the enemy as well as our own positions, and from an examination of the actual situation you will probably agree that the English were better concentrated than were the French. As long as the situation remained unchanged the English were sufficiently concentrated, because, except for their Brest squadron, which was, however, quickly brought up to strength, their blockading squadrons were always superior in fighting power to the hostile squadrons in port. This is emphatically proved by the fact that during the entire campaign not one of Napoleon's squadrons left its port with the intention of forcing battle upon the English squadron blockading that port, except in the one case of the battle of Trafalgar, in which case you must admit the English to have been decidedly superior. But now you may bring up the case in which a French squadron might leave port, avoiding the blockading force stationed off it, and fall upon an English squadron, very inferior to itself, engaged in the blockade of another port. It must be admitted that such a change in the strategic situation was liable to occur at any time and that, if it should occur, it would place the weaker English squadrons in a position of grave danger. Of course, the apparent way to prevent such an occurrence was to maintain the very strictest blockade at the ports in which the strongest French squadrons were stationed. But assuming that the enemy were to escape without being brought to action, there were two ways in which the danger of being attacked by superior numbers could be met. First, each squadron, regardless of the exact position of its ships of the line, kept several cruisers off the port, so that the sailing of the hostile squadron could be quickly reported to the squadron commander, the commanders of the adjacent squadrons and to the Admiralty itself. Often, when two cruisers sighted the enemy coming out, one left immediately with this information, while the other tracked the enemy, so as to determine his destination. Second, each squadron disposed a number of cruisers in a wide area around it, so as to give timely warning of the approach of a hostile squadron. In case both these methods failed and a superior hostile squadron appeared without warning, the Admiralty relied on the skill of the English commander and his captains to withdraw from their less efficient opponents and to concentrate on adjacent English squadrons. As you will see in the course of the campaign, French squadrons often escaped and came upon very inferior English forces by surprise, but in no case were they able to come up with them so as to inflict serious damage.
When the Admiralty completed their organization of the blockading squadrons, as enumerated above, they still had a considerable reserve of ships, both in commission and under repair. Let us first consider the ships ready for sea in English ports. The Channel squadron, under the command of Lord Cornwallis, was composed of:
1st. The Brest blockading squadron, under his own command;
2d. The Rochefort blockading squadron, under Graves; and,
3d. A reserve in the Channel ports, taking on water and provisions and refitting, which relieved ships in the blockading squadrons when it was necessary for them to renew their supply of water and provisions.
It is very difficult to determine the number of ships in this reserve, as, of course, its composition was changing from day to day, and we can do no more than make a rough estimate of its strength at the beginning of January. We may arrive at this as follows:
For April 15, the Naval Chronicle gives the total strength of the Channel squadron as:
2 50-gun ships.
A total of 35 units.
We can assume with reason that this figure is fairly accurate for January 1. Thus if we subtract from it the 19 units of the Brest force and the six units of the Rochefort force, we have a remainder of 10 units, which we may assume to be the strength of the reserve. All ships of this force could leave port on 24 hours' notice.
In addition to this first reserve, as we will call it, there were, in what we will call second reserve, the following ships of the line:
Two ships under orders for the India station.
Four ships manned and ready to go into commission.
The Hibernia, 110, and the Revenge, 74, building and practically completed.
A total of nine units which could get to sea in from one to three weeks.
Finally there were 19 units in third reserve, a proportion of which could be placed in commission, depending upon the exertions of the English in making repairs and collecting crews. We may now sum up the opposing forces in Europe as follows:
French and Allies:
Ready for sea 53 units.
Fitting out 30 units.
Total (approximately) 83 units.
Actually at sea 63 units.
First reserve, ready in 24 hours 10 units.
Second reserve, ready in three weeks 9 units.
Total (approximately) 82 units.
In addition third reserve (approximately) 19 units.
On the foreign stations there were the following English ships of the line:
India Station (Admiral Rainier):
Five 74's, 9 units.
Three 64's, 9 units.
Two 50's, 9 units.
West Indies Station:
1. Leeward Islands (Commodore Hood): Two 74's, 4 units.
2. Jamaica (Admiral Dacres): Two 74’s, 4 units.
Total in full commission on foreign station (nearly all very old ships, and probably in poor repair), 13 units.
It is very possible that you will criticize this disposition of 13 units at such great distances from the main battle squadrons. You may even quote Napoleon as saying: "When you have resolved to fight, collect all your forces. One battalion may decide the day." If I admit that this is a true principle, then you will claim that the English blockading squadrons were "resolved to fight" should the French attempt to escape, and you will say that every possible ship should be used to reinforce the blockading squadrons up to their greatest possible strength. But if you resolve to fight, the enemy will often, on the sea, resolve not to fight, and will do his best to evade you. The question we must decide is whether a fleet in port may run the blockade without having to fight the blockading fleet, which is resolved to fight. If it cannot escape without a fight, then all ships should be used in the blockading squadron. If it has good chances of escaping, then under certain conditions it may be advisable to use a number of the ships to form squadrons on foreign stations as a second line of defence. Under the conditions of naval warfare to-day, it will be very difficult for blockaded squadrons to escape without a battle, and thus all the ships will under normal conditions be used in the blockading squadron—the first line. Under the conditions of naval warfare in 1805, on the other hand, it was very easy for small squadrons to run the blockade, and thus the use of a small number of the poorest ships as a second line on the foreign stations might under some conditions be justified.
Let us see just what the conditions were, and the chances for the enemy to undertake successful expeditions against the English colonies and commerce. First, take the case of India. This most important colony was at a great distance from home. If a hostile squadron were to leave France for an expedition in Indian waters, it would get a great start before the English could determine its destination. The most important points on the route, Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius, were in Napoleon's hands and this would greatly assist a French squadron headed toward India and retard an English squadron in pursuit. The hold of the English in India was far from secure, even though the wars against Tippoo Sahib had been brought to a successful conclusion; and a small French landing force with the assistance of the natives might accomplish great results, if the command of the sea could be retained. That Napoleon would send out such an expedition certainly seemed probable, as his Egyptian expedition had been an attempt to reach India, and even in 1805 there were rumors, based on sound facts, to the effect that he intended to send a strong squadron to Indian waters. Finally, the presence of the Marengo and four Dutch ships of the line, poorly conditioned it is true, in the East Indies called for an equal English force to hold them in play.
While all the English possessions in the West Indies were within a comparatively small area, the steady easterly trade winds in reality formed two distinct stations, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands, as it required at least a month to beat against the wind from the former station to the latter. This fact practically doubled the forces required for their defence. While the West Indies were much nearer home than India, still about a month and a half was required for ships of the line to make the trip, and at least a month for fast cruisers. Thus, if a French squadron were to break the blockade and, avoiding contact, make for the West Indies, it would take about one and a half months for it to reach its destination, and another month for the news of its arrival to reach England. It would have a free hand in the islands for about two and a half months, in which time it should be able to achieve considerable results.
We may sum up the reasons for using the 13 units in question either with the blockading fleets or on the foreign stations as follows:
1st. By using them with the blockading squadrons they would:
- Assist in repelling the invasion of England; and,
- Assist in repelling attacks against English commerce and colonies only if the attacking squadron could be intercepted when it left port.
2d. By using them on foreign stations they would:
- Not assist in repelling the invasion of England; but
- Would assist in repelling attacks against English commerce and colonies, should the attacking force not be intercepted when it left port.
Thus the use of these ships as a second line of defence for the English commerce and colonies could be justified only if the English forces in European waters were sufficiently strong, and would be sufficiently strong in the future, to defeat in battle all French and Spanish squadrons which might put to sea, either to assist in the invasion of England or to operate against English commerce and colonies. Whether the English blockading squadrons were sufficiently strong for this purpose at all times during the campaign is a matter upon which I would hesitate to give my opinion. They were certainly strong enough in the first part of the campaign, and it must have been a great relief to the Admiralty, when they received the reports of the escapes of Missiessy, Villeneuve and Allemand, to know that they had squadrons of heavy ships in Indian and West Indian waters. At the great crisis of the campaign, when the combined fleet of 30 units was at Ferrol, Lord Barham very possibly did not consider his forces in European waters entirely sufficient, and without doubt he would have been glad to have had the Indian and West Indian squadrons in the Channel. However this may be, it is certain that the English showed great confidence in their navy in thus maintaining such a large force in foreign waters. And it is also certain that, as it actually worked out, the results vindicated this confidence, for England was everywhere victorious on the sea.
1. Napoleon's First Move
The most satisfactory operation for Napoleon was naturally to strike directly at England, to concentrate a superior force in the Channel to cover the crossing of the flotilla and of Marmont's force to England. This operation was also thoroughly in accord with Napoleon's principles of waging war. To effect this naval concentration, Napoleon had in Europe a total of 53 units, all French except the six Dutch ships in the Texel. As the English had at the beginning of the campaign 63 units actually at sea and 10 more in the Channel ports ready to sail in 24 hours, and as the English were, ship for ship, considerably superior in efficiency to his own forces, it was evident that there was at present little hope for the success of his ambitious project. But by the end of March the Spanish had promised to have 30 units ready for sea, and when these ships were ready there would be far better chances of success. Therefore, you must admit that it was entirely proper for Napoleon to delay his major project until the Spanish ships would be available. As the major operation, therefore, could not be commenced at present. Napoleon had the choice of keeping his ships idle in port or of using them in minor operations against the English commerce and colonies. These operations, if successful, would have a certain moral effect, would allow the French ships to be shaken down by long cruises at sea, would train the personnel, and might deceive the English as to his ultimate purpose and draw away English squadrons from the more important European stations at the time when the major operation would commence. Napoleon, therefore, rather than allow his ships to lie idle in port, decided to use several of the French squadrons in minor operations, which might rather be called "raids." The raids, however, were not to interfere with the major operation, the invasion of England; for Napoleon was very careful to provide that all ships used in the raids should be back in their home ports in time to take part in this operation.
Napoleon, therefore, issued orders for the Rochefort and Toulon squadrons to sail for the West Indies. In making a detailed statement of the various orders issued throughout the campaign, I will follow a regular form:
1st. The assumption made as to the probable intentions of the enemy.
2d. The general plan assigned to our own forces.
3d. The detailed instructions to each one of the subdivisions of our own forces.
In practically all cases, the assumption and the general plan were not embodied in the actual orders, only the instructions to the subdivisions being given.
Napoleon's order will therefore be put in the following form:
Campaign Order No. 1. About January 5
1. Assumption as to enemy intentions—None.
2. General plan—To raid the English colonies in the West Indies, thus drawing English forces there from Europe.
3. (a) The Rochefort squadron, Rear Admiral Missiessy, to sail for the West Indies at a set date, avoiding the blockading squadron, and meet the Toulon squadron there.
(b) The Toulon squadron, Vice Admiral Villeneuve, to sail at the same time, and pick up Missiessy in the West Indies.
(c) The united force to operate against the English colonies and commerce in the West Indies until the early spring, when they should return to Ferrol, rally the 15 ships which would be there ready for sea by that time, and proceed to a French port.
(d) If only Missiessy should reach the West Indies, he was to reinforce the French garrison at San Domingo with the troops he carried and then return home.
Thus this plan was designed not only as a blow at the English commerce and colonies in the West Indies, but also to form a concentration of about 35 units in a French port for the major operation itself. At the same time that the above order was sent out, Napoleon issued the following:
Special Order. About January 5
Admiral Ganteaume to leave Brest with his entire squadron, make a descent upon the Irish coast, sail around Scotland and join the Dutch squadron in the Texel.
While we have no proof, it appears very probable that this order was given out especially for the benefit of the English spies and that its execution was never intended.
In accordance with his orders Missiessy sailed from Rochefort on January 11. His squadron consisted of the following ships:
Majestaeux 120 guns.
Magnanime 80 guns.
Lion 74 guns.
Suffren 74 guns.
Jemappe 74 guns.
A total of 6 units.
Five cruisers. On the ships were 3500 troops.
When Missiessy left port, the English blockading force under Graves very fortunately happened to be at Quiberon Bay, about 130 miles northwest of Rochefort, taking on stores, only two cruisers remaining on watch off the port. The French squadron ran into a heavy storm and was very severely damaged, but Missiessy resolutely kept on his way. The English cruisers followed Missiessy through the first part of the storm, and seeing the great damage received by the French squadron, left to inform Graves. The storm prevented the cruisers from reaching Graves until January 16, six days after Missiessy had left port. By this time the French squadron was so far on its way that there was no chance for Graves to intercept it.
Now suppose that you were in the place of the English Admiralty, what course of action would you take? First you would have to determine the destination of the French squadron. It is impossible for you to say that it must have one of a certain set number of destinations, but you might say that its actual destination would most probably be one of the following:
1st. A French port in the Bay of Biscay.
2d. The Mediterranean.
3d. The West Indies.
A return to a French port in the Bay of Biscay, caused by damage received in the storm, would renew the original situation. A move into the Mediterranean would very probably be intercepted by Orde with six units of the Cadiz blockading squadron, but if Orde could be evaded and the Mediterranean be reached, the French would have 17 units there as against 13 for Nelson, not counting the Spanish ships fitting out at Carthagena. A move to the West Indies could not be intercepted by any English squadron, and would give the French six units as against the four old 74's the English had there. A move to India would give the French seven units there to the English nine, not counting the four Dutch ships which very probably were not ready for sea. Thus we see that the West Indies was the danger point for the English, as it was on that station that the French had the greatest chance of inflicting damage upon the English commerce and colonies. Now perhaps you will say that the Admiralty should have immediately sent a squadron to the West Indies on the assumption that Missiessy was headed in that direction. I cannot agree to this, as it would have been a blow in the dark based on a mere guess, and not sound strategy. On the other hand, I claim that the Admiralty now gave an excellent example of the manner which to methodically clear up an obscure strategic situation. They decided to clear up in turn each possible course of action of the French squadron. In deciding upon the course of action to clear up first they took the one which would lead to a destination nearest to England because:
1st. This course could be cleared up in the shortest time; and,
2d. It was highly desirable to retain the force, detached in pursuit of Missiessy, as near the Channel as possible, until all destinations in European waters had been covered and it was practically certain that Missiessy was bound for a foreign station. A false move to a distance, unless it was certain that Missiessy was being followed, might mean the loss of a number of units for several months, thus playing into Napoleon's hands, if he really intended to carry out operations in home waters.
In accordance with these sound principles the Admiralty decided:
1st. To cover the possibility of a return to a French port in the Gulf of Biscay.
2d. To cover the possibility of a move toward the Mediterranean.
3d. To cover the possibility of a move to the West Indies.
4th. To leave India out of consideration for the present.
In accordance with this plan orders were given to look into all French ports in the Gulf of Biscay to determine the presence of the Rochefort squadron. As Cornwallis had been driven off his station by the storm the following ports had to be examined:
Brest, Rochefort and L'Orient.
By reason of exceptionally poor weather conditions it was not until about February 7, nearly a month after Missiessy had sailed, that it was determined that he had not returned to any of these ports. Thus the first possibility had been cleared up, and a squadron, equal to Missiessy's, could be safely sent away from the Bay of Biscay in pursuit of it, first clearing up the possibility of a move toward the Mediterranean, and then that of one toward the West Indies. Accordingly, the Admiralty gave the following orders to Cornwallis, who had in the meantime called in Graves to the main body of the Channel squadron off Brest:
Campaign Order No. 1. February 7
1. Assumption—Missiessy en route toward the Mediterranean or the West Indies.
2. General plan—To follow Missiessy with a superior force.
3. (a) Cornwallis to send Rear Admiral Calder with six units to relieve Rear Admiral Cochrane off Ferrol.
(b) Cochrane with his entire force of seven units to go to Lisbon for information and to speak to Orde off Cadiz. If he heard that Missiessy had entered the Mediterranean, Cochrane was to reinforce Nelson with his entire force.
(c) If there were no news of Missiessy, Cochrane was to touch at Madeira and then at the Cape Verde Islands for news. If he received reliable information as to Missiessy's destination, he was to follow him. If he received no news, he was to assume that he had gone to the West Indies, and sail for Barbadoes.
(d) There were other instructions regarding his actions after he arrived in the West Indies which we will consider later.
In accordance with these orders Calder relieved Cochrane in the last week of February, and the latter sailed for Lisbon. His squadron consisted of the following ships of the line:
St. George 98 guns.
Northumberland 74 guns.
Eagle 74 guns.
Atlas 74 guns.
Spartiate 74 guns.
Veteran 74 guns.
A total of 7 units.
Cochrane touched in turn at all the points ordered, and, receiving no information of Missiessy, sailed for Barbadoes, where he arrived April 5. Missiessy had arrived at Martinique on February 20, just a month and a half before. Thus the Admiralty, by using sound and methodical strategy had lost a month and a half before the move of the enemy could be countered. Thus we see that the side which holds the initiative is always ahead of the enemy in the matter of time, because the latter has always to discover the move of the former and then make arrangements to counter it. If the side on the defensive does not wish to lose time, then he must make a stab in the dark, based upon a mere guess of his opponent's intentions. Thus the side having the initiative has always a great advantage, and this advantage is especially great in naval warfare, where it is so difficult to determine the intentions of the enemy. In land warfare one side may act on the offensive, take the initiative and retain it throughout the campaign. In war on the sea there is a peculiar condition which makes this impossible. The stronger side may act on the offensive and retain the initiative as long as the opposing forces keep the sea, but when they retire into securely fortified ports, then the stronger side must change from the attack to the defence, and the initiative passes over to the enemy. Thus the stronger side, while it may gain the temporary command of the sea, can never gain a definite decision over the enemy naval force, unless the enemy gives him the opportunity, and not only is he prevented from gaining a definite decision, but he must pass over to the defensive and give the advantage of the initiative over to the enemy, who may select the time and the place for further operations.
Let us now see how events were marching in the Mediterranean. On January 17, six days after Missiessy's escape, Villeneuve sailed from Toulon for the West Indies in accordance with the Emperor's orders. His squadron was composed of the following ships of the line:
Bucentaure 80 guns.
Neptune 80 guns.
Formidable 80 guns.
Indomptable 80 guns.
Pluton 74 guns.
Mont-Blanc 74 guns.
Berwick 74 guns.
Atlas 74 guns.
Swiftsure 74 guns.
Scipion 74 guns.
Intrepide 74 guns.
A total of 11 units.
In addition he had nine cruisers, and he had embarked on his ships a large number of troops.
At the time of Villeneuve's sailing Nelson was at Maddalena Islands at the northern point of Sardinia with all his ships of the line, 13 units in all. Two of his frigates were watching Toulon in his absence. Villeneuve, upon leaving port, steered for the southern point of Sardinia. He ran into a very severe storm which caused great damage. The two English frigates followed him through the storm until the early morning of the 19th, when the French squadron was in the latitude of Ajaccio, Corsica, steering SSW. At this point they left for Nelson, whom they reached after dark that same day. As one French ship was forced to put into Ajaccio dismasted, and as three other ships were disabled, and all the other ships in very bad condition, Villeneuve decided the same day to return to port. He reached Toulon on the 21st without further loss. All his ships, including the one dismasted, were able to get back safely.
Now place yourself in Nelson's position and estimate the situation on the night of the 19th, when he received the reports of his frigates. The first plan which would occur to you, and one which Nelson surely must have considered, would be to head directly for the French fleet and force battle upon it. This would solve all his problems, if the French squadron could be found. But how was it to be found? No English ship was still with it to give him further information of its movements. If he were to guess at the probable course and speed of Villeneuve and set a course to intercept him, it would be a mere blow in the dark, with the chances in favor of Villeneuve's escaping without detection. If Nelson were to miss the enemy by such a move, so much precious time would be wasted that Villeneuve would have a long start on his way to the place selected for attack. Thus Nelson had a problem very similar to that which the Admiralty had been required to solve after Missiessy's escape. His solution was exactly similar to that made by the Admiralty. He recognized three general courses of action open to Villeneuve:
1st. An attack upon English possessions in the Mediterranean.
2d. A return to port, due to damage received in the storm.
3d. A move out into the Atlantic.
In case the French returned to port, then they would be so damaged that they would not be able to undertake any operations for some time, so no immediate danger would result from this course of action. In case they had left the Mediterranean, they would fall upon Orde and Cochrane and would be in a position to do the English great injury, but as Nelson was responsible for the Mediterranean station it would certainly not be proper for him to leave it until he was certain that the French had left it, especially as Villeneuve's course so far to the eastward would seem to indicate that he was about to attack English possessions in the Mediterranean, and as Napoleon, that master of deception, had been moving troops into Italy, as if to embark them for an oversea expedition. Thus if Nelson were to clear up the situation logically and methodically it would be proper for him to:
1st. Take a position with his ships of the line to cover the English possessions in the Mediterranean.
2d. To reconnoiter Toulon with cruisers, with a view to determining the presence of the French squadron.
3d. After it was proved that the French squadron had left the Mediterranean, to leave a few cruisers on the station and follow it with the remaining force.
This was exactly Nelson's decision.
The English possessions, or rather those belonging to allies and thus under English protection, can be divided into two groups:
1st. The center Mediterranean group: Sardinia, Sicily, Naples and Malta.
2d. The eastern Mediterranean group: Greece, Corfu, Turkey and Egypt.
The most natural and the easiest way for Nelson to protect all these widely scattered territories was for him to hold the line: Corsica-Sardinia-Tunis. If he observed this line with his frigates, and took up a position with his squadron at the southern end of Sardinia, he could probably intercept Villeneuve and force battle upon him. This then was Nelson's plan. Sending out his frigates to observe the line, he got under way immediately and stood down the eastern coast of Sardinia. On the 22d he had reached a point 50 miles east of Cagliari, a city at the southern end of Sardinia, when one of his frigates reported that a French frigate had been sighted standing into that port. Nelson naturally believed that this ship was accompanying the main French force and at once headed toward it. But here a strong westerly gale sprang up and prevented him from reaching Cagliari until the 26th. Here he discovered that no French ship had been in port. On the next day word was received that a French ship of the line had put into Ajaccio. Neglecting the possibility of a move into the Atlantic it was now practically certain that Villeneuve had either put back into port or passed between Sardinia and Tunis, which part of the line the storm had prevented the frigates from covering. Nelson personally believed that Villeneuve had gone back to Toulon, but if this was so all was well no matter what he did. Therefore he assumed that Villeneuve had passed south of Sardinia. If Villeneuve had taken this course, he had two possible moves:
1st. A course to the northward of Sicily for an attack against Sicily or Naples.
2d. A course to the southward of Sicily for an expedition into the eastern Mediterranean.
Nelson naturally determined to clear up the first course, as this could be done quicker. He therefore went to Palermo, arriving there on the 28th. By this time it was practically certain that the middle Mediterranean was secure. The next course of the enemy to cover was that to the southward of Sicily into the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, Nelson, sending back three frigates to reconnoiter Toulon, kept on through the Straits of Messina for Greece. Touching there, he received no news of Villeneuve, but heard that France had broken off relations with Turkey. This made it look as if Villeneuve had gone to Egypt, but when he arrived at Alexandria, there was no news of the French. Nelson hurried back to Sardinia. Arriving there about the beginning of March, he heard that Villeneuve was back in Toulon. Provisioning his ships, he was back off Toulon on March 13 with all his ships of the line. Nelson had acted in accordance with sound strategic principles. He had left nothing to chance and had made no blow in the dark where failure to find the enemy would have disastrous results. He had gone to each threatened point in turn with his whole force, and had waited at each point until he could eliminate one of the enemy's possible courses of action. When he finally proved that the French squadron had not passed the line Corsica-Sardinia-Tunis, then he had gone back to Toulon. If Villeneuve had not been there, his next move would have been to have left the Mediterranean in pursuit. When we see that, even though Nelson acted correctly, Villeneuve, if he had been able to have kept on through the Straits, would have gained a start of two months, we have an additional proof of the value of the initiative and of the time required for the defender to counter the move of the attacker. Even as it turned out, Villeneuve, by a mere feint at a move, had been able to send Nelson completely around the Mediterranean.
Ganteaume's orders, which were probably never intended to be executed, were countermanded.
Napoleon's first plan had failed. Its greatest weakness was that it required two squadrons to break their blockades almost simultaneously. In order to have reasonable chances of success in breaking the blockade, which was very efficiently maintained by the English squadrons, a squadron required very favorable weather, usually a storm with a favorable wind. It would very rarely happen that two widely divided squadrons would both have these favorable conditions at nearly the same time, and still more unlikely that both would escape without mishap, because the very gale which would allow them to escape would be liable to cause them very severe damage. Thus if one squadron had one chance in two of escaping in favorable weather, there would be but one chance in four for two squadrons to escape simultaneously, even if each had favorable conditions. But as one squadron would usually have to sail under unfavorable conditions, there would be about one chance in six for the success of the combination.
In this case luck had favored the French, as Graves had been off his station, and as each squadron had favorable weather, but still the odds were too great and the combination had failed on account of the damage the storm had inflicted upon Villeneuve's squadron.
But if the combination had failed the success of Missiessy had a certain advantage. He had a month and a half to operate in the West Indies before he would be opposed by superior forces. He had drawn away from the most important area, the Channel, Cochrane with his seven units, which were not to return during the campaign. Missiessy himself had plenty of time to return to France to take part in the major operation, or he might fill a part in it by waiting on his station, to join Ganteaume and Villeneuve. Thus the first operation had slightly improved the situation for Napoleon's major operation against England.
[To Be Continued]