The Collingwood Society Lecture is always quite fun, because you get to go and sit in the fancy theatre in the RGS, and there is a bar. And it’s always interesting!
This year’s lecture was given by Richard Woodman, a prolific author of both naval history and historic novels. Answering a question at the end, he said that it was an interest in the details of the work going on between and behind the scenes of major events which led him to write novels, and this was a theme running through the whole talk.
Although he had called his talk ‘The Age of Collingwood’, he said that he could just as well have called it the Age of Pellew or of Saumarez, both of whom lived to enjoy the fruits of their labour – the main thing he objected to was the oversimplification of history which saw only Nelson and Trafalgar and let them overshadow everything else (a statement which he hoped would be less controversial for us than it had been in the south!).
Without denying Nelson his good qualities, he didn’t see him as a paragon – in particular, he thought that there were far better practical seamen – Pellew, Hood and Keats, to name a few – and that Nelson’s attack on Tenerife in particular was a foolhardy action which showed a real lack of understanding about the operation of small boats in heavy seas.
And Trafalgar, although significant, was equally not a single great event which prevented the invasion of Britain or destroyed the French and Spanish fleets, or a brilliant new strategy never seen before.
The threat of invasion was already past before Trafalgar – it had been over since Calder met a French and Spanish fleet in the Atlantic in June and preventing them joining the fleet at Brest, and the Armée d’Angleterre had already become the Grande Armée and started the campaign which would lead to the battle at Austerlitz – the high point of the French campaign, despite their losses at sea.
Although many Spanish and French ships were destroyed at or after Trafalgar, it wasn’t a case of straightforward annihilation – Nelson claimed that he had hoped for more prizes, and some ships were destroyed in the storm rather than the battle, or were retaken, while others were captured by Strachan’s cruising fleet rather than Nelson’s. And the ‘brilliant new strategy’ of breaking the line had already been used at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 and Camperdown in 1797, if not earlier.
Where he did think Trafalgar was important was psychologically – the British navy had got what he called a ‘habit of victory’ which carried them through the next years. There were no more great naval battles, and after Duckworth’s victory in the Caribbean in early 1806 the French navy made no real attempt to come out in force.
From 1805 the shape of the war shifted, with an increasing focus on diplomacy and the building up of various coalitions – the work that Collingwood was doing in the Mediterranean was also being done on a smaller scale by Saumarez in the Baltic and a succession of people off Brest. (Saumarez apparently had the best posting in the navy, as he got to come home for the winter!)
One of his great interests is the merchant navy, and he thought that the support from the mercantile marine during the Napoleonic wars was very much underappreciated. As well as providing seamen, willingly or unwillingly, they brought in luxury goods from outside Europe to undermine Napoleon’s European blockade, traded with Russia in the Baltic in spite of Napoleon, brought saltpetre from India for gunpowder, transported troops, and provided logistical support for the Peninsular war – France’s resource were internal, or at least from within Europe, but Britain’s were brought from across the world.
Merchant ships, and the East India Company in particular, had had a raw deal from the navy at the time, as well as being forgotten now. Sailors were pressed ruthlessly from company ships, and there was little protection for ships travelling to the east, unlike the Atlantic convoys, although the French were now most active in the Indian Ocean – in fact he blamed Pellew for deliberately using EIC ships to try to tempt the French out. French corsairs were very active from Mauritius in this period, something which continued until Britain took the island from France in 1810.
Really – in spite of any effects of Trafalgar – he thought that if this was the age of any one man, it was Napoleon’s. France was at its highest point around 1806, having defeated the combined armies of Austria and Russia at Tilsit – and as well as having added the Russian navy to their own, they also controlled the Turkish, Danish and Portuguese fleets.
But things were about to start swinging the other way – the British made a preemptive strike on the Danish fleet to prevent it coming out in French support (although the Danish have never forgiven us for the collateral damage to Copenhagen itself, he believes), and took Heligoland, which allowed for an active smuggling trade and access to the British market for European countries under Napoleon’s control. The Portuguese fleet went off to Brazil with the exiled royal family, and by 1808 the Spanish were rising against the French, with British support.
The British army was rehabilitated with victories at Albuera and Talavera, after coming to grief in South America, the blockades of the French ports never let up, despite the debacle of the Brest roads, and by 1812 the Grande Armée was coming to grief in the Russian winter, while British gold had swayed Prussia and Austria, and the Swedish opportunists had followed. The eventual battle at Waterloo was another spectacular set piece, but although the French loss confirmed their defeat, a victory couldn’t have sustained the empire.
Overall, he thought it a shame that 10 years of bloody fighting between 1805 and 1815 was hidden by the shadow of Nelson, as a process of attrition rather than a series of great battles – the French influence eroded ‘as the sea always does erode the land’, with the British famously active wherever there was water to float a ship.
I really enjoyed the talk – so often the focus is on one person or one event or one area, and I found it very interesting to have the naval events fitted into the wider context of the war.