Between 1793 and 1800 the condition of the French fleet was such that the danger of serious invasion of England was never imminent. A close blockade of Brest was, therefore, considered by Lord Howe to be neither necessary nor desirable. Rather, he aimed at encouraging the French to leave their ports at the least favourable time of year, i.e. in winter. In winter, therefore, Brest was left open, and British squadrons withdrawn from the arduous task of close-watching the iron-bound Breton coast. The winter months were spent in training and recruiting the ships' companies at the main depot - Portsmouth. As we have seen, Kempenfelt strongly favoured this husbanding of the ships' strength in winter. Any criticism of Howe's 'open' method of blockade must make full allowance for his motives: he did not design to shut up the enemy in port, but rather to tempt him out and bring him to action. With close blockade there could have been no Glorious First of June.
With the renewal of war and menace of invasion in 1803, the Admiralty at once resorted to the close blockade of Brest, which had been first adopted by Hawke in 1759 and revived by St Vincent in 1800 (see supra, p. x39).
Some of the methods suggested and practised, the difficulties encountered, and the objections raised to the close form of blockade are here illustrated.
Towards the end of the critical period from 1803 to 1805 it became actually doubtful to the authorities whether the close blockade of Brest could be maintained. Quite apart from the stress and strain upon the personnel, the wear and tear of ships was causing grave anxiety. It would seem that no absolute judgment can be delivered as to the superiority of the close blockade over the open form. The decision or choice must always be relative to the conditions of time and space, i.e. to the condition and strategic position of the enemy's squadrons, and the defence of trade and convoys. In 1805 the French fleet in Brest was regarded by the Admiralty as too close to the Channel to justify the risk of evasion, which was possible, though not probable, had a form of open blockade been adopted.
Collingwood to Blackett.
Venerable, off Brest, Aug. 9, 1803.
I am lying off the entrance of Brest Harbour, to watch the motions of the French fleet. Our information respecting them is very vague, but we know they have four or five and twenty great ships, which makes it necessary to be alert and keep our eyes open at all times. I therefore bid adieu to snug beds and comfortable naps at night, never lying down but in my clothes 1.
1 On August 27 Collingwood writes to Cornwallis: ‘It would be desirable to have a cutter here to be some relief to the Pickle, whose commander can never be in bed during the night.'
The Admiral sends all the ships to me, and cruises off Ushant by himself; but with a westerly wind it is impossible with one squadron to prevent ships getting into Brest Harbour, for it has two entrances, very distant from each other - one to the south of the Saints, but which, off Ushant, where we are, is entirely out of view. I take the utmost pains to prevent all access, and an anxious time I have of it, what with tides and rocks, which have more of danger in them than a battle once a week.
Parliamentary Debates, March 15, 1804: Naval Inquiry brought forward by Pitt (against St Vincent). Extract from a speech by Sir Edward Pellew.
Sir, as I very seldom trouble the House, I hope I may be permitted to make a few observations on a subject of which, from the professional experience I have had, I may be presumed to have some knowledge. From the debate of this night, there is one piece of information I have acquired, that the French have got upwards of a thousand vessels at Boulogne. I am glad to find they are shut up there; we have our advantage in it, we know where they are; I wish we had any means of knowing when they intended to come out. I know this much, however, that they cannot all get out in one day, or in one night either; and when they do come out, I trust that our cockle-shells alone, as an honourable admiral has called a very manageable and very active part of our force, will be able to give a good account of them. Sir, I do not really see in the arrangement of our naval defence anything to excite the apprehensions even of the most timid among us; on the contrary, I see everything that may be expected from activity and perseverance, to inspire us with confidence. I see a triple naval bulwark, composed of one fleet acting on the enemy's coast, of another consisting of heavier ships stationed in the Downs, ready to act at a moment's notice, and a third close to the beach, capable of destroying any part of the enemy's flotilla that should escape the vigilance of the other two branches of our defence.
As to the gun-boats which have been so strongly recommended, this mosquito fleet, they are the most contemptible force that can be employed; gun-brigs, indeed, are of some use, but between a gun-brig and a gun-boat there is almost as much difference as between a man-of-war and a frigate. I have lately seen half a dozen of them lying wrecked upon the rocks.
As to the possibility of the enemy being able, in a narrow sea, to pass through our blockading and protecting squadrons, with all that secrecy and dexterity, and by those hidden means that some worthy people expect, I really, from anything that I have seen in the course of my professional experience, am not much disposed to concur in it. I know, Sir, and can assert with confidence, that our navy was never better found, that it was never better supplied, and that our men were never better fed or better clothed. Have we not all the enemy's ports blockaded from Toulon to Flushing? Are we not able to cope, anywhere, with any force the enemy dares to send out against us, and do we not even outnumber them at every one of those ports we have blockaded? It would smack a little of egotism, I fear, were I to speak of myself; but, as a person lately having the command of six ships, I hope I may be allowed to state to the House how I have been supported in that command. Sir, during the time that I was stationed off Ferrol, I had ships passing from the fleet to me every three weeks or a month, and so much was the French commander shut up in that port deceived by these appearances, that he was persuaded, and I believe is to this very hour, that I had twelve ships under my command, and that I had two squadrons to relieve each other, one of six inside, and another of six outside.
Lord Melville' to Cornwallis, November 2, 1804. (N.R.S. xxi, p. x 17.)
With every disposition to increase your force to the utmost of my power, I do not feel myself warranted to hold out immediately hope of any considerable addition to the number of sixteen I have proposed to be constantly with you.
1 Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville (1742-1811). First Lord of the Admiralty from May, 1804, till April, 1805.
List of First Lords of the Admiralty (1788-1805):
1788-97 Earl of Chatham.
1797-I801 Earl Spencer.
1801-4 Earl St Vincent.
1804-5 Viscount Melville.
1805-6 Lord Barham.
To have a force always effective to that amount of course requires several more to supply accidents or replace those who may be obliged, from any circumstance, to come into port. I trust, however, this supernumerary force need not be so large as it must be if the system of unremitting blockade was to be adhered to; but as that, by your orders and instructions as lately transmitted, is considerably relaxed, an opportunity will thereby be afforded to you of furnishing your fleet with those articles of provisions, and replenishing, which might otherwise have rendered it necessary for them to come into port.
I observe what you state relative to the policy of relaxing the strictness of blockade formerly resorted to. I admit the chances of what you state; but, on the other hand, I cannot shut my eyes against the certainty of what we must all experimentally know, that you have not the means of sustaining the necessary extent of naval force, if your ships are to be torn in pieces by an eternal conflict with the elements during the tempestuous months of winter. And allow me to remind you that the occasions when we have been able to bring our enemy to battle, and our fleets to victory, have generally been when we were at a distance from the blockading station. I am perfectly aware of the peculiar situation of Ireland, and how much it requires to be specially attended to; but I believe it cannot be better done than by keeping your fleet in a sound and effective condition, appropriating (exclusive of the fleet stationed off Brest) at the same time a separate force for the protection of Ireland, to guard against the chance of an invading force, under a detachment from the fleet in Brest harbour, making an abrupt departure from Brest during the time the fleet under your command is obliged from weather to leave the blockading station.
Collingwood to J. E. Blackett. (G. L. Newnham Collingwood, Correspondence and Memoirs of Lord Collingwood, 5th edition, 1837.)
Dreadnought, off Ushant, Feb. 4, 1805.
In the middle of last month we put into Torbay, where we were a week; but the being in Torbay is no great relief, for no person or boat goes on shore. We visit our friends and neighbours in the fleet, but we have no communication with the rest of the world, without they come on board and take the chance of a cruise. The sailing of the enemy's squadron from Rochefort, and evading Sir Thomas Graves, seems to intimate that something is soon, to be undertaken by them. It is not yet well ascertained where that squadron is, but by the route in which they were seen, Brest seemed to be their destination, and if they are arrived there, it will be a proof how little practicable it is to block up a port in winter. To sail from one blockaded port and enter another, where the whole fleet is, without being seen, does not come within the comprehension of the city politicians. Their idea is that we are like sentinels standing at a door, who must see, and may intercept, all who attempt to go into it. But so long as the ships are at sea they are content, little considering that every one of the blasts which we endure lessens the security of the country. The last cruise disabled five large ships, and two more lately; several of them must be docked.
If the country gentlemen do not make it a point to plant oaks wherever they will grow, the time will not be very distant when, to keep our Navy, we must depend entirely on captures from the enemy. You will be surprised to hear that most of the knees which were used in the Hibernia were taken from the Spanish ships captured on the 14th February 1 ; and what they could not furnish was supplied by iron. I wish everybody thought on this subject as I do; they would not walk through their farms without a pocketful of acorns to drop in the hedge-sides, and then let them take their chance.
Brenton, Life of Earl St. Vincent, II, p. 248.
Off Ushant, 29th March, 18o6.
My dear Admiral,
We are between Ushant and the Black Rocks, in the day - stand off at night, and in at 4 o'clock in the morning. The Mars anchored off the Black Rocks; Diamond, l'Agile, and small craft off the Parquette, and the Crescent looks out to the northward of the Ushant. I cannot approve the rendez-vous of my predecessor,’seven leagues S.W. of Ushant,' and intend to change it to, well in with Ushant during an easterly wind.
1 Cape St Vincent, 1797.
Upon conversing with an intelligent midshipman of this ship, who was in the Amethyst when Sir J. Duckworth fell in with the French squadron off the Canaries, I am convinced it has gone to the Southward, destined either for the Cape of Good Hope or to do us as much mischief as possible at St Helena and Ascension. I send you the young man's observations during the two days they were in sight of the French squadron, because they do him much credit: his name is Pitt; he has lately passed his examination for a lieutenant, and was a shipmate of mine in the Argo. Very truly yours,
Rear-Admiral Markham. St Vincent.
Nelson's own description of his watch on the Toulon fleet and Capt. Whitby's commentary thereon are printed below, together with two short letters of Nelson, which though irrelevant in this connection have been inserted, because, like most of his correspondence, they are instinct with his matchless spirit.
It should be remembered that Nelson had neither the requisite number of ships nor facilities for refitting to make any close blockade of Toulon possible.
The memorandum of October 9, 1805 - the most famous document in naval history - is reprinted as it was originally drafted.
(a) Clarke and McArthur, II, 489.
To Alexander Davidson, Esq.
Victory, Gulf of Palma,
December 12th, 1803.
I care not who is in or out; I shall endeavour to do my duty to my country. I believe I attend more to the French fleet than making captures; but of what I have, I can say, as old Haddock 1 did, It never cost a sailor a tear, nor the nation a farthing - that thought is far better than prize-money.
1 The words were really Rooke's.
I never saw a fleet altogether so well officered and manned - would to God the ships were half as good! We ought to be amply repaid some day for all our toil. My crazy ships are getting into a very indifferent state, and others will soon follow: the finest ones in the service would soon be destroyed by such terrible weather. I know well enough that if I were to go in to Malta, I should save the ships during this bad season; but if I am to watch the French, I must be at sea; and if at sea, must have bad weather; and if the ships are not fit to stand bad weather, they are useless: unfortunately in bad weather I am always sea-sick. But, my dear friend, my eye-sight fails me most dreadfully: I firmly believe that in a few years I shall be stoneblind; it is this only of all my maladies that makes me unhappy; but God's will be done.
(b) Nelson to Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Morice Pole, Bart. (Nicolas, Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, vii, Addenda CCXXXIII.)
My dear Pole, Victory, May 25th, 1804.
Where your letter of December 20th has been travelling to I cannot guess, but it only arrived to me in the Leviathan on the 12th instant. I assure you that I most sincerely wish to promote Brown, who is an ornament to our Service; but alas! nobody will be so good as to die, nor will the French kill us. What can I do? but I live in hopes, as the French keep playing about the mouth of Toulon harbour, that some happy day I shall be able to get a blow at them. My system is the very contrary of blockading, therefore I, for one, shall not be entitled to those thanks which the newspapers say the City of London mean to give the Blockading Squadrons. I would no more accept thanks for what I was conscious I did not merit, than I would refuse them and feel hurt at their not being given for a great victory, and it is curious I am likely to be placed in both situations: but such things are.
I am sure Lord St Vincent ought to feel grateful for your zealous support of his measures; and I hope you will stand by the Navy against all attempts to have soldiers placed in our ships independent of the Naval Act of Parliament, from whatever quarter it may be attempted. When that takes place there is an end of our Navy - there cannot be two Commanders in one Ship.
We are all as happy as a set of animals can be who have been in fact more than a year at sea; or rather not going on shore, for with the exception of anchoring under the North end of Sardinia, not a ship has been to a Naval yard for refitting. Hope keeps us up.
I beg my respectful compliments to Lady Pole; and believe me ever, my dear Sir Charles, most affectionately yours,
Nelson and Bronte.
Nelson to Howe. (Nicolas, Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, III, 230.)
My Lord, Palermo, 8th January, 1799.
It was only this moment that I had the invaluable approbation of the great, the immortal Earl Howe - an honour the most flattering a Sea-Officer could receive, as it comes from the first and greatest Sea-Officer the world has ever produced. I had the happiness to command a Band of Brothers; therefore, night was to my advantage. Each knew his duty, and I was sure each would feel for a French ship. By attacking the enemy's van and centre, the wind blowing directly along their Line, I was enabled to throw what force I pleased on a few ships. This plan my friends readily conceived by the signals, (for which we are principally, if not entirely, indebted to your Lordship) and we always kept a superior force to the enemy. At twenty-eight minutes past six, the sun in the horizon, the firing commenced. At five minutes past ten, when L'Orient blew up, having burnt seventy minutes, the six van ships had surrendered. I then pressed further towards the Rear; and had it pleased God that I had not been wounded and stone blind, there cannot be a doubt but that every ship would have been in our possession. But here let it not be supposed that any Officer is to blame. No; on my honour, I am satisfied each did his very best. I have never before, my Lord, detailed the Action to anyone; but I should have thought it wrong to have kept it from one who is our great Master in Naval tactics and bravery. May I presume to present my very best respects to Lady Howe, and to Lady Mary; and to beg that your Lordship will believe me ever your most obliged, Nelson.
(a) Nelson to Cornwallis. (N.R.S. xiv, p. xvi.)
Victory, December 30, 1804.
My dear Friend,- I always feel happy in hearing from you, for I never, never shall forget that to you probably I owe my life, and I feel that I imbibed from you certain sentiments which have greatly assisted me in my naval career - that we could always beat a Frenchman if we fought him long enough; that the difficulty of getting at them was oftentimes more people's own fancy than from the difficulty of the undertaking; that people did not know what they could do until they tried; and that it was always to err on the right side to fight. I was then at that time of life to make the impression which has never been shaken. But, on the score of fighting, I believe, my dear friend, that you have had your full share, and in obtaining the greatest victory, if it had been followed up, that our country ever saw'.
I own I should like to see you with the Brest fleet well clear of the land, and from my heart I hope that will happen. There is not, my dear friend, that man breathing who would rejoice more than your most attached and affectionate friend,
Nelson and Bronte.
(b) As a complement to this letter may be printed a part of one of Nelson's ‘unreserved conversations' with his captains. It is quoted by Clarke and McArthur, it, 413, as having taken place about the 16th June, 1805.
I am thankful that his Enemy has been driven from the West India Islands with so little loss to our Country. I had made up my mind to great sacrifices, for I had determined, notwithstanding his vast superiority, to stop his career, and to put it out of his power to do any further mischief. Yet do not imagine I am one of those hot-brained people who fight at immense disadvantage, without an adequate object. My object is partly gained. If we meet them, we shall find them not less than eighteen, I rather think twenty sail of the line, and therefore do not be surprised if I should not fall on them immediately: we won't part without a Battle. I think they will be glad to let me alone, if I will let them alone; which I will do either till we approach the shores of Europe, or they give me an advantage too tempting to be resisted.
1 The Saints, April 12, 1782.
Captain Whitby to Cornwallis. (N.R.S. xiv, p. 343 .)
Newlands, Monday, 11th June, 1804.
By the by, I want to communicate one thing to you which appears to me of great consequence; and but that our seas are so clear, and our posts go so safe, I should have first sent you a cipher, by which it could have come to no one's knowledge but yourself. It, however, may be told in very few words, and I shall do it. Though Lord Nelson is indefatigable in keeping the sea, there are so many reasons that make it possible for the French to escape through the Mediterranean, which, of course, Government are not told by him - and which, perhaps, he does not consider (at least I think so) - that I have been long determined to warn you of the circumstance upon my arrival, not choosing to trust it from the Mediterranean. First, then, he does not cruise upon his rendezvous; second, I have consequently repeatedly known him from a week to three weeks, and even a month, unfound by ships sent to reconnoitre - the Belleisle herself was a week; thirdly, he is occasionally obliged to take the whole squadron in to water, a great distance from Toulon; fourthly, since I came away the French squadron got out in his absence, and cruised of Toulon several days, and at last, when he came out, he only got sight of them at a great distance, to see them arrive at their own harbour. From all this I draw one general conclusion - that it is very possible for them to escape him. Upon the last occasion they might have got to the West Indies, or elsewhere, without the possibility of discovery, had they so chosen. And from all this, I draw these particular ones likewise, concurring with other circumstances: they have ten sail of the line at Toulon, one at Cadiz, four, I think, at Ferrol, six at Rochefort, and twenty, you say, at Brest, making in all one-and-forty sail of the line. If they pass Lord Nelson, they can relieve Cadiz (which is only blockaded by two frigates), Ferrol, Rochefort; and if in their way to Brest you meet them some morning, when they are attempting a grand junction, I shall not be surprised. I mention this to you that you may pay what attention you choose to this scheme of probabilities, and have your ships so much in your eye at daylight that you may be prepared for their reception.
I write this in confidence to you, for I would not absolutely dare to give my opinion of the Mediterranean blockade to any other person; for doubtless my Lord Nelson is actuated by a thorough zeal to do right, for he is, indeed, a great and glorious officer. I must add one other thing, however, which is that in gales of wind he drives so far away that the finding him is very difficult, and the enemy have the greatest chance. I have no doubt, therefore, that they can come out; the rest, the object, remains to be proved. I must tell you another thing. Gore in the Medusa is so inattentive, in my opinion, to his situation at Gibraltar, which I consider the picquet-guard of you and my Lord Nelson, and from which, and which only, you could reasonably hope for intelligence, that I would not advise you to trust to it. When I was there, three ships out of four were stripped for several days; this I think of the very last importance. I may have judged erroneously throughout, but there will be no harm in the hint, which I am convinced you can receive from no other quarter. God bless you, my dear Admiral! I shall say no more than that I am your most sincere and affectionate friend,
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