The Sons of Raghnall: Duels at Sea

The following Letter to the “Journal of Military History” is signed “Davy Jones”, a pseudonym commonly used by naval historians when they wish to publish articles and opinions less weighty than their usual output. The writing style and the views expressed, however, make the pseudonym rather thin in this instance: The connoisseur will soon detect the pen of Admiral Sir John Weighn, KBE, DSO, and author of, among others, “The Price of Admiralty” and “The Shining Seas”.

The naval ‘duels’ of the late eighteenth century have given rise to much uninformed theorising about chivalry, romantic drivel about the knights of the sea, and bad novelising. Something about the formal aspect of naval warfare near the close of the era of wooden sailships seems to bring out the worst aspects alike of Marxist theorisers, hippy-dippy romantics, and otherwise-sensible writers of historical novels. Thus do we get nonsense about remnants of feudalism obstructing the workings of the dialectic by mystifying comprador admirals into not using their full power to smash imperialist navies; airy theorising about the nobilising effect of salt air on the finer faculties; and dialogue between ship’s captains – bellowed out over the roar of the guns, no doubt – that might without undue dislocation be dropped into Mallory.

All too human; but, to the historian, all too annoying. What is the use of painstakingly researching the course of a naval battle, and carefully setting down all the factors that affected its outcome, when any second-rate hack can gain a hundred times the readership by repeating, in various combinations, the words ‘duel’, ‘chivalry’, ‘feudalism’, and ‘forsooth’? Forsooth, indeed! The naval ‘duel’ is interesting, certainly, the first two or three times one encounters it; but enough’s enough. The serious student of naval history cannot help but roll his eyes whenever some excited journalist tells the ignorant public – and, in the journalist’s defense, it must be admitted that his public remains remarkably ignorant – about the “survival of a feudally chivalric (or sometimes “chivalrously feudal”, may Christ have mercy on us all) duelling custom into modern times”. This “discovery” has been particularly frequent in this anniversary year of the most celebrated ‘duel’; I have personally seen – and I am a man who goes out of his way to avoid journalism when possible – two popular articles, a television documentary, and a radio talk show (!) each of which were under the impression that they were the first to reveal the exciting facts to the public. Again, I must in justice admit that, so far as the public remembered anything about it, they were likely right; but to be told, for the fourth time in a week, that the subject on which I wrote my undergraduate thesis – for which my chief difficulty was in choosing which sources to drop – is an obscure one, not much known to historians, has at last stirred me to action. It is, no doubt, too much to hope that any scholarly article can banish the monster; but at last the dripping water must wear away the hardest stone. If nobody ever tilts at windmills, then for lack of lance-points to wear away their mortar, they will stand forever; have at, then! I shall set out the facts plainly, in unexcited language, and hope that the editors of this Journal, if they accept my contribution, see fit to print an issue on thick paper and with sturdy staples, suitable for use as a club with which to beat ignorant hacks and journalists. But I repeat myself.

Let us begin with the word itself. The astute reader will notice that I have consistently put ‘duel’ in quotation marks; this is because the events referred to are, of course, nothing of the kind, and are much better described by the naval historian’s phrase “prearranged limited battles”. A duel is between two men. If three fight, we call it a truel; four men is a quartel; and five men is a brawl. A battle between a hundred and fifty men-of-war on each side, each carrying upwards of six hundred fighting sailors, cannot reasonably be called a ‘duel’, be it ever so much arranged in advance.

So much for vocabulary; what of military significance? To listen to certain popular writers, you would think that no naval conflict was ever settled by anything but a ‘duel’, and that the fate of naval empires depended on having the best hulls for single-ship actions. The plain facts of the matter are that only two prearranged battles were ever fought; that, with several hundred ships involved, they were decided by fleet tactics and gunnery like any other major naval action; and that, in any case, the issues at stake were not vital to any of the combatant nations.

A moment’s reflection shows that it must be so. If the outcome of the battle had been genuinely vital, a matter of life and death for the countries involved, there would have been no question of any officer leaving a large part of his available force out of it. For that matter, murthering great battles have been fought even over relatively minor points; for example, the bloody Battle of the Cape, in which the entire Kongelige Leidangsflåte was lost, was fought for control of the Indian Ocean, a body of water touching no heartland of any combatant. Can there be any doubt that, had the victorious Malayan fleet in 1790 attempted to approach the Channel, all the Nordsjøflåte would have been in place to oppose its passage? Knowing this well, and having no interest in forcing the northern kingdoms to their knees, the Malayans did not do anything of the sort; their limited intervention had accomplished its limited aim of lifting the blockade, and they did not choose to spill more blood or powder. Conversely, the Norwegians accepted the outcome because they, in turn, had only a relatively minor interest in maintaining the blockade. The support of their French ally was, certainly, a cause for which they were willing to go to war, but not one for which they were willing to risk a truly decisive naval battle that might entail the loss of their fleets, and the attendant possibility of Spanish invasion.

Even with only minor interests at stake, the contending admirals would certainly have fought it out in deadly earnest if not for the second necessary condition: Their fleets were, at this time, of roughly equal size. Had the Malayan admiral been certain of his ability to simply sweep the blockade from the sea, he would have done so, and not messed about with any ‘duels’; while on the other side, no Norwegian seaman who thought he could easily defeat the intervention fleet would have stopped his lucrative blockade – a Fleet Admiral’s share of the prize money brought in by his ships was a full twelve-and-a-half percent – for the sake of humouring a dusky foreigner’s mad whims.

We see, then, that chivalry did not come into it: Quite the opposite. Chivalry entails the running of great risks for objects of non-material value, such as honour or glory; naval ‘duels’ were fought to reduce the risk in a conflict over purely material aims – to wit, access to the European trade. Chivalry involves giving a weaker opponent a sporting chance; the ‘duels’ of 1790 were fought between fleets of equal strength, because they were of equal strength. Only a decade later, in circumstances very similar so far as the objectives were concerned, a Malayan admiral turned down an offer of a limited engagement on the grounds that his fleet was now much the stronger, and that it was therefore not in his interest to give battle on equal terms. Instead he bore down on the blockading fleet with his full strength and forced its retreat to its North Sea harbours. Chivalry, forsooth!

It was the combination of small stakes and reasonably even odds that convinced the admirals to offer battle with limited forces, and accept the verdict. Why should they put their entire fleets at risk, when the opposition very kindly offered to settle the matter with a limited expenditure in blood and treasure? Nonetheless, we must admit – aggravating though it is! – that chivalry, or at any rate honour, does come into it on one point: When once the ‘duel’ had been fought, the losing admiral did, in fact, accept the outcome, instead of trying to reverse it with his entire fleet. But for an officer to keep his given word is hardly very remarkable; the more so when we consider that the part of the fleet delegated to fight the limited battle was quite large, at a hundred fifty ships of the line – larger, indeed, than the entire navies of some Powers even in the first ranks. It was, therefore, a fair contest, likely to correctly represent the outcome if the entire navies had clashed, but with far less slaughter – which was, of course, the point. In addition, we may raise a non-material point that nonetheless is unconnected with honour: Seamen are known to be superstitious, and it is perhaps unlikely that a navy aware that it was welshing on a bet would have fought its very best. Even an admiral willing to go back on his word and face the resulting opprobrium among his fellows – it is the kind of thing that tends to lead to a distinct lack of invitations to the best clubs – might have been given pause by the thought of how such an act would affect the morale of his sailors.

A very limited phenomenon, then, with only two recorded instances; and one explainable by appealing to cold-blooded calculation, with no need to resort to feudalism, chivalry, or even all that much in the way of personal honour. Nonetheless, the Blockade Battles, to give them their formal name, are interesting as an outlier in the formality of battles between non-primitive peoples. Warfare is generally regarded, in modern times, as a somewhat rough-and-tumble affair, in which one takes what one can and suffers what one must; formal challenges, recognised fields of encounter, duels of champions, and deliberate handicapping of weaponry are all considered suitable for affairs between hunter-gatherer tribes, but not for big, grown-up nations with beards and mustard gas. Gas, of course, illustrates rather precisely that our beliefs about our lack of limitations in warfare does not entirely match our realities; while every state now has vast reserves of gas, and factories dedicated to producing more, it has not in fact been used in anger for more than forty years, in spite of many opportunities. But gas is, in any case, a chancy weapon; between an agreement not to use a weapon that depends on the weather, is equally available to both sides, and tends to favour the weaker by strengthening defense, and an agreement to fight a battle by equal detachments from each side there is a considerable difference – or, if one prefers, a continuum. The prearranged limited battle is about as far in the direction of formality and limitation as warfare between major Powers has gone in the modern era; but it is not completely unparalleled.

Combat between wooden warships had, in any case, something of a formal aspect to it when when fought fully in earnest with every available hull: Driven only by sail, the fleets had a maximum approach speed of, perhaps, five knots, meaning that the time from first sighting to weapons’ range could be several hours. In that time men would say their prayers, make up quarrels, drink a fortifying shot of grog, and prepare their weapons and their souls. Then, when battle was finally joined, ships would try to line up against their opposite numbers so as to bring all their guns to bear; since he was doing the same thing, a certain amount of cooperation sometimes arose, giving us the curious spectacle of men apparently working to allow their enemies the best shot at killing them! Finally, since wooden warships are effectively unsinkable by solid shot, victory came when one ship or the other was so battered that it could no longer be fought; that is to say, its guns had been dismounted, its officers and men killed, and its internal communications disrupted to such an extent that its rate of fire was drastically reduced. (In truth, the phrase “could no longer be fought” is somewhat euphemistic hyperbole; unemotional records show that most surrendered ships still had at least half their guns in action. To be sure, trying to fight a ship with half again the rate of fire – on the reasonable assumption that a victorious ship might have had one-fourth of its guns knocked out – would not lead to a good result, unless aid from a friendly ship could be expected; to surrender at the point when half one’s fighting capacity had been lost was likely, in most cases, simply a recognition that further fighting would not alter the actual outcome, but only kill and wound more men. But the point stands that “could not fight” is exaggeration, intended presumably to save the face of officers who surrendered their ships; and it’s worth noting that many well-known naval heroes were decorated precisely for keeping their ships fighting (presumably with some effect) beyond the point at which surrender could honourably be contemplated, usually because they could expect other ships to come to their aid and continued resistance therefore had a military point.) The signal of surrender was to lower, or ‘strike’, one’s flag; and here again the formality of sailship warfare comes in. The winning ship would send aboard a “prize crew”, comprising perhaps two dozen officers and men, to command the stricken ship, while the victor went off in search of new victims. Since a ship that had been “forced to strike” might have four or five hundred unwounded men aboard, and perhaps an entire broadside that had not been engaged, it is clear that these arrangements are themselves an example of limitation in warfare. A true total-warfare ethos would have a surrendered ship, as soon as its tormentor had gone elsewhere, rise against its prize crew, make emergency repairs, and bring its guns to bear against some easier foe. Naturally, the result would be that no surrender would ever be accepted, and every ship action would end when one ship was genuinely incapable of resistance, with every gun silenced and a much higher rate of casualties.

Sailship warfare, and perhaps black-powder warfare more generally, was, then, more limited and more formal than our own, with the prearranged battle as the outside limit and example of that formality. But we should not take this as a demonstration of the weird customs and strange notions of our ancestors – of, in a phrase, feudal chivalry. Rather it is an example of the good sense of humanity in limiting, where possible without giving up actual advantages, the damage done by warfare – a good sense from which our own age, fortunately, is not entirely immune.


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