Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The effect of political leadership on navies is easily ignored

The Restoration navy benefitted greatly from having Charles II and the Duke of York (eventually James II) as the national leadership. After 1688, the English suffered from having William III as King, as he was focused on military matters, as had the French leadership during the entire time from 1660 on. The French were admittedly of two minds. A tremendous investment was made in their navy, but it was always secondary to the military. The French had many of the great generals of the day: Prince Conde, Turenne, and Vauban. Louis XIV also took an interest in generalship, under the tutelage of Vauban.

Contrast that with the Duke of York's service as an admiral (originally under the guidance of William Penn), and you see the difference between the two countries. At times, the French could outbuild the English, but when it came down to a choice between the military and the French navy, the military won.

The embrace of commerce raiding over fleet actions at the end of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 18th left the French unable to contend for mastery at sea. The ships had been built and armed where the mastery could have been achieved. They had a taste of what could be done at Beachy Head, but then backed off. The French downfall at Barfleur and La Hogue was politically driven, from the highest level. They also had a technically adroit admiral in Tourville, but had someone without the judgment and tactical flair that might have won the day. The man who could have won was dead. In any case, he had been a Huguenot, and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 would have meant that he would not have been allowed to help, in any case.

In Britain, under William III and Mary II and then during Queen Anne's reign, the navy came under the grip of unimaginative bureaucrats who could enforce rules, and liked order, but didn't understand naval affairs. The establishments effectively shut down innovation in warship design, and the navy was not reinvigorated until Anson, Hawke, and others came along. New ship types were created, such as the 74 and frigates. The links to the mid-17th Century ships were gradually severed, so that the three-decked 80 could be discarded, with more progressive designs.

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