Fleet tactics, Tories and maintaining the Line in the age of sail
No Conservative can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.
I often struggle to sleep, and this year I’ve begun a new regime to try and get some regular Zs.
A new routine means new alarms and new rules, one of which is not to ready any thing politically stimulating after 8:30PM. No op-eds, no substacks, no Twitter. Pop history or Biggles is all I can allow myself to read if I want to sleep. Rip-roaring yarns and dad history are fun, but not stimulating enough to keep me up and frantically scribbling notes in the margins, so they’re my only two choices.
That’s why I’ve been reading Michael Lewis’ The History of the British Navy. I’m currently deep into the Second Hundred Years’ War, where I came across an interesting snippet of naval history;
‘From the time when sailing-ship tactics really began to develop, that is, with the coming of ‘line-ahead’ in the First Dutch War, it had been customary for the Admiral to issue ‘Fighting Instructions’ - a set of rules explaining what he wished his subordinates to do in battle.’
One set of these ‘Fighting Instructions’, issued at Málaga in 1704 by Admiral Rooke, became rather more important than the rest. Rooke was a ‘careful, conservative fighter,’ placing emphasis on the rigidity and formality of his formation, and the defensive situation at Málaga demanded such defensive rigidity. Devotees of the Line developed into a school of strategic naval thought that became known as the ‘formalists’, who placed emphasis on the maintenance of the Line, discouraging captains to break off and engage the enemy. The Line must be maintained, whatever the situation. They were opposed by a group called the meleeists, who took their teachings from more offensively minded Admirals, such as Albermarle and Prince Rupert, to recommend a more flexible approach in which squadron commanders were given discretion to break the Line to engage in a ‘General Chase’.
But for 40 years after Málaga there was no fleet action. As the most recent victory, therefore, Rooke’s formalist ‘Fighting Instructions’ became ‘front of mind’ and in 1744 they became the ‘Permanent Fighting Instructions.’ These placing emphasis on the maintenance of the line and discouraging breaking formation in order to engage the enemy. The line must be maintained, whatever the situation.
But that presented a problem; Rooke’s fighting instructions were suited to the unique defensive demands of Málaga rather than the offensive outlook of the Royal Navy, whose ethos was aggressive; seek out the enemy fleet, and destroy it. As Lewis was a qualified and successful naval historian he is far better placed to describe this incongruity, so I’ll quote him at length;
‘Logic is seldom the Englishman's strongpoint. He did not show much here. ‘Our aims,’ he declared, ‘are offensive. We want above all to destroy the enemy’s fleet. Therefore our strategy is always to bring him close to action. Therefore we will always attack downwind if possible because from there we can choose when and how to begin. Also, our gun-tactics shall be correspondingly offensive. We will fire our broadsides on the downward roll, so that every shot will crash home between wind and water, sink or smash his ships, set the splinters flying, and, dealing out death and destruction to his men, induce in them the will to surrender:’ - which, so far, is logical enough. But between strategy and gun-tactics lies the realm of fleet-tactics, and here our logic had gone sadly astray. The obvious fleet-tactic to match our other intentions was the melee: or anyway close action, always. Instead, the tactic which had somehow crept in was formal to the verge of folly, and just as defensive as it could possibly be. ‘Conserve the Line at all costs. See that it extends the full length of the enemy line, van to van, centre to centre, rear to rear. And leave it, Individual Captain, at your peril! Rather than that, let your opponent escape, however ripe he be to surrender!’
The results of this rigid commitment to such rigid tactics were startling;
‘In practically the whole period covered by the first five ‘Anglo-French wars, in the ninety years which elapsed between Barfleur and the Battle of the Saints in 1782, no British fleet using the officials and compulsory Line ever defeated a French fleet at all. All such actions-and including Malaga there were fifteen of them - were, tactically, pointless draws. Most striking still, in the whole fifteen we neither sank nor took a single French ship. True the French neither captured nor sank one of ours. That, however, was but a poor consolation to Navy who's declared policy was ‘Seek out the enemy fleet and destroy it.’
French strategy at the time - unlike ours - was coherent and unified, all strictly defensive. For the French the action was not the ends but the means; they wanted to fight for an ulterior motive, and when it suited them. So they approached from the leeward, allowing for retreat downwind and, when they had had enough, achieved their aims or found the fire too hot, they moved to a new Line downwind. Similarly their guns fired on the upward roll, aiming to smash rigging and sails. That meant a reduction in enemy speed and manoeuvrability, preventing a follow-on. Strategy, fleet and gun tactics, all marching in lockstep towards an ultimate objective.
The Navy’s fighting instructions created a sclerotic approach to battle. Even when they were rendered useless by irregular situations (such as at Toulon in 1744) their hold on captains proved so strong they were unable to adapt, even to follow their Admiral (Matthews, in this case) in breaking the Line to engage the French in hopes of preventing a strategic disaster (the French Mediterranean Fleet joining the fleet at Brest).
The problem was sadly reinforced by the Admiralty, who punished breaking the Line at every opportunity; Toulon was followed by thirteen courts-martial, which saw Matthews cashiered but the commander of his van Lestock – who had cost Matthews any chance of victory by his sloth - acquitted. This was a more dreadful loss than the battle itself, as for nearly 40 years Admirals were unwilling to challenge the infallibility of the instructions, lest they suffer the same fate as Matthews.
There’s plenty of evidence that what Lewis calls ‘the imp of Toulon’ isn't just a whim of popular history. At the Battle of Minorca, his dogged determination to maintain the Line causing his van to take a pounding whilst his rear remained out of cannon range, Admiral Byng refused a call from his own flag captain to break Line and engage (seemingly the only the salvage the situation), retorting; ‘remember the misfortunes of Mr Matthews.’ Byng had, in fact, sat on Matthew’s court-martial. Eventually Byng’s hand was forced, and he broke the Line, but too late. His commitment to the Line had already lost him the battle, and Britain Minorca.
Byng was convicted of departing from the Instructions and breaking the Line. As Voltaire famously wrote, ‘to encourage the others,’ he was shot on the quarterdeck of the Monarque. Admiral Graves, by contrast, who lost the Battle of the Chesapeake through his refusal to break the Line was not even tried. ‘He was re-employed, rose to high rank, and ultimately gained a peerage. And why not? He had faithfully kept their rules, their instructions, their inviolable Line…. He had merely lost America.’
A once-mighty fighting force stagnating for years, their ends unmet through intellectual incoherence. Ambitious strategy, so clearly needed, strangled at every opportunity. A sad tale; a familiar tale.
The Conservatives, much like the Royal Navy, are suffering from the effects of mismatched tactics and ethos. They are supposedly a pro-growth party of home ownership; yet time and time again they rigidly refuse to order the ‘General Chase’ in pursuit of it. They’re maintaining the Line, even as home ownership falls, as the economy stalls, as the Levant Fleet joins up with the Brest squadron.
The question is whom relates to whom in this, quite possibly the most tortured metaphor I’ve ever come up with. Who are the Captains, the Admirals, the Admiralty?
Both Captains and Admirals alike are beholden to the Admiralty; they held the powers of appointing captains of ordering courts-martial and, most importantly, for issuing Fighting Orders. They are the party membership, selecting MPs and directing their efforts. But their beliefs inhibit the action of the captains; the Fighting Orders they issue are clear, and they are not formalist or meleeist, but NIMBYist. As James Dickson identifies, they are;
‘perfectly normal, average and decent fellow countrymen and women — motivated by only good intentions — objecting to planning proposals just because they want to stop some construction dust for a few months, or prevent something as nebulous as the “character” of their local area changing. These small-c conservatives represent millions of grains of sand in the national gears of growth — and they’re courted by politicians of all flavours seeking votes at the intersection of our political incentive structures.’
The Captains are the MPs. As Peter Oborne said; ‘Intellectuals can flourish at Westminster … only by adopting a stolid conservatism, staying loyal to conventional thinking, and by rigorously eschewing radical thought.’ That means maintaining the Line; some are committed adherents of it, some maintain it from a sense of professional prudence. We cannot blame the latter too much for it; as Lewis wrote of those who did order Chase, ‘only the really courageous man ever did so, risking not so much the violence of the enemy as the terrors of a system and of his masters at home who upheld it.’ If your party members demand you stop a housing development, there are few incentives for you to do otherwise, even if it's against your instinct; like Byng, the ‘imp of Toulon’ sits on your shoulder.
That same imp sits on the shoulders of the Admirals, the conservative leadership, too. Liz Truss broke the Line, and suffered the political equivalent of Byng’s fate (although her fault was that she ordered Chase too early, not too late).
We know what the Chase looks like, and God knows more informed writers than I have described it. We just need an Admiral prudent and courageous enough to force the change. Not until Admiral Rodney’s spectacular action at the Battle of the Saintes was the myth of the inviolability of the Line broken and the Fighting Orders dispensed with. Underneath him, frustrated by forty years of not breaking the Line and not winning, a new generation of captains recognised it as proof of concept for a more tactically aggressive style of naval warfare, that suited the Navy’s ethos much better; Jervis, Keith, Cornwallis, Collingwood, Pellew, Saumarez, Duncan and Nelson. Those captains all concluded that the Line was the problem, and the Chase was the answer.
There’s a huge political win to be gained by abandoning the Line for these new Fighting Orders; Labour are blessed, like the French, with a defensive strategy. They aren’t in power, so they’re free to join battle – and withdraw – whenever it suits them, by picking and choosing their issues. They don’t need to win battles. The stagnation resulting from the passivity of the Conservatives’ Fighting Orders is winning the war for them. The French faced an aggressive fleet determined to bring them to action and destroy them but which wouldn’t, and couldn’t, close in to finish off their ships. Similarly, Labour are facing a pro-growth party that prides itself on excellent economic management and increasing home ownership, but which can’t, and won’t, pursue policies that generate growth or increase home ownership.
With new Fighting Orders, ones that make the case for – and pursue policies that generate - growth, the Conservatives will finally start the process of getting their strategy, fleet and gun-tactics back in unison again.* Without it, the Tories are guaranteed an electoral Minorca. I’ll conclude with another passage from Lewis;
‘It is pathetic to witness the perplexity and frustration of good officers wrestling with so insoluble a deadlock. Offensively inclined by instinct and, they were condemned to tactile sterility by the dead hand of formalism and the sacred Line. Some conformed, some rebelled, some compromised, according to his nature….but all failed, so long as they clung to the Line.’
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*Start. There are plenty more barnacles to get off this particular boat.