Hawke (Part 2)

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73 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following is extracted from Types of Naval Officers, Drawn From the History of the British Navy, by A. T. Mahan (published 1902).  All spelling in the original.

(Continued from Part 1)

In the great struggle for Anglo-Saxon predominance, which had begun under William III, but was now approaching its crisis and final decision in the Seven Years War, the determining factor was to be the maritime strength of Great Britain. It is, therefore, the distinctive and distinguished significance of Hawke’s career that during so critical a period he not only was the most illustrious and able officer of her navy—the exponent of her sea-power—but that by the force of his personality he chiefly shaped the naval outcome. He carried on the development of naval warfare, revolutionized ideas, raised professional standards, and thereby both affected the result in his own time, and perpetuated an influence, the effect of which was to be felt in the gigantic contests of later days. In this eminent particular, which involves real originality, no sea officer of the eighteenth century stands with him; in this respect only he and Nelson, who belongs rather to the nineteenth, are to be named together.

In the years of nominal peace, 1748-1755, the Navy of Great Britain was permitted by a politically cautious Government to decline much in power; but there was compensation in the fact that that of France drooped equally. In both countries there was then, as there has been ever since, a party opposed to over-sea enterprise. “The partisans of the Ministry,” wrote Walpole in 1755, “d—n the Plantations [Colonies], and ask if we are to involve ourselves in a war for them.” The French government underwent a like revulsion of feeling as regarded India, and in 1754 recalled Dupleix in mid-career, in order to quiet the remonstrances of Great Britain. It would be irrelevant, were it not signally instructive, to remark that both nations passed under the influence of the same ideas a hundred years later. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the preponderant expression in England was that the colonies were unprofitable incumbrances, and, if occasion arose, should be encouraged to separate rather than urged to remain; while France, through whatever motive, at a critical moment abandoned the field in Egypt, by refusing joint action. It is, therefore, probably the result of a true national genius, asserting itself above temporary aberrations, that the close of the nineteenth century saw France wholly excluded, politically, from Egypt, as she had before been from India, and Great Britain involved in an expensive war, the aim of which was the preservation of the imperial system, in the interest not only of the mother country, but of the colonies as well.

And that it was in the interest of her colonies was precisely the all important part which differentiated the Seven Years War in its day, and the South African War in our day, from the struggle, so disastrous to the Empire, that is known as the American Revolution. “There is no repose for our thirteen colonies,” wrote Franklin a hundred and fifty years ago, “so long as the French are masters of Canada.” “There is no repose for British colonists in South Africa,” was the virtual assertion of Natal and the Cape Colony, “so long as the Boer political methods are maintained in the Transvaal with the pledged support of the Orange Free State.” Irreconcilable differences of political and social systems, when brought into close contact, involve irrepressible conflict, and admit of no lasting solution except the subjugation and consequent submersion of one or the other.

Such a final settlement was attained in North America and in India by the Seven Years War. The full results thereof even we of this day have not yet seen; for who can yet predict the effect upon the question of the Pacific and of China, that by this war was assured the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon political and legal tradition over the whole American continent north of the tropics, and that the same tradition shall, for a future yet indeterminate, decisively shape the course of India and the Philippines? The preceding war, 1739-1748, had been substantially inconclusive on the chief points at issue, because European questions intervening had diverted the attention of both France and Great Britain from America and from India; and the exhaustion of both had led to a perfunctory compact, in which the underlying contention was substantially ignored in order to reach formal agreement. That the French conquest of Madras, in India, was yielded in exchange for Louisburg and Cape Breton Island, which the American colonists had won for England, typifies concisely the status quo to which both parties were willing momentarily to revert, while they took breath before the inevitable renewal of the strife, with added fury, a few years later; but then upon its proper scene, the sea and the over-sea regions in dispute.

In this great arbitrament Hawke was at once called forth to play his part. In 1754 diplomatic contention had become acrimonious, and various events showed that the moment of open conflict was approaching. The squadron in India was then considerably increased. In the beginning of 1755 Hawke was again afloat to command the Channel Fleet, the operations of which extended ordinarily from the Channel, over the Bay of Biscay, to Cape Finisterre. A naval force was collecting at the same time at Portsmouth, under Boscawen, to counteract the preparations the French were known to be making in North America. It sailed soon afterwards, with orders to intercept a squadron convoying reinforcements for Canada; and on the 8th of June two of these ships were captured off the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the remainder escaping under cover of a fog. In July Hawke went out, with instructions to take any French ships-of-the-line that he might meet; and in August he was further directed to send into port French ships of every kind, merchant and other, that he might encounter. Before the end of the year three hundred trading vessels, valued at $6,000,000, had been thus seized. War had not yet been declared, but the captured vessels were held, as on other occasions before and after, as hostages to await the settlement of existing difficulties.

The French government protested of course, and recalled its ambassador, but it did not proceed to formal hostilities. A great stroke was in preparation at Toulon, which could be covered for a while by diplomatic correspondence, coupled with angry demonstrations on the Atlantic and Channel coasts. On the 10th of April, 1756, twelve French ships-of-the-line and fifteen thousand troops sailed for Minorca, then a British possession, and in the absence of a hostile fleet effected a landing without opposition. The British cabinet having taken alarm too late, Admiral Byng had sailed from Portsmouth, with ten ships, only three days before the French left Toulon; when he arrived off Port Mahon, six weeks later, a practicable breach in the works had already been made. The French fleet was cruising outside in support of the siege, and Byng, whose force had been increased to thirteen ships, engaged it on May 20. The action was in itself indecisive; but, upon the opinion of a council of war that nothing more could be done, Byng retired to Gibraltar. The result to him personally is well known. Port Mahon surrendered on June 28. War had by this been declared; by Great Britain on the 17th of May, and by France June 20, 1756.

When the news of Byng’s retreat was received in England, Hawke was sent out to supersede him. He went only personally, accompanied by a second in command, but with no fleet, and with sealed instructions. Opening these when he reached Gibraltar, he found orders to send home Byng and his second in command, and to institute an inquiry into the conduct of the captains, suspending any one found “not to have acted with due spirit and vigor.” An investigation of this kind would enable him to form an opinion of Byng’s own conduct even more exact and authentic than his other official opportunities for personal intercourse with the chief actors, but he must have refrained with much discretion from expressing his judgment on the affair in such way as to reach the public ear. It was stated in the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” in 1766, that an inquiry was provoked in the House of Commons, shortly after these events, by Pitt, who took Byng’s side; but that Hawke, being a member of the House, denied some of Pitt’s allegations as to the inadequacy of Byng’s fleet, on the strength of his own personal observation after taking over the command. Thereupon, so the account says, the categorical test question, the argumentum ad hominem, was put to him whether with Byng’s means he could have beat the enemy; and the manner of the first Pitt, in thus dealing with an opponent in debate, can be imagined from what we know of him otherwise. Whether the story be true or not, Hawke was not a man to be so overborne, and the reply related is eminently characteristic, “By the grace of God, he would have given a good account of them.” Whatever the reason, there seems little doubt that Pitt did not like Hawke; but the latter was at once too independent to care, and too necessary to be discarded.

He remained in the Mediterranean only six months, returning to England in January, 1757. His tenure of this command was marked by an incident which exemplifies the vigorous exercise of power frequent in naval commanders, in the days when neither steam nor telegraph existed to facilitate reference home for instructions; when men with their strong right arms redressed on the spot what they thought a wrong. A British ship carrying supplies to Gibraltar, where Hawke was then lying, was captured by a French privateer and taken into the Spanish port of Algeciras, on the opposite side of the bay. Her surrender was demanded from the governor of the port, Spain being then neutral; but, being refused, the admiral sent the boats of the squadron and cut her out. This being resisted by the Spanish forts, a hundred British seamen were killed or wounded. On the admiral’s return home, Pitt is reported to have told him that he thought he would himself have acted in the same way, but would have made some concession afterwards. Hawke replied that his duty, having the country’s force in his hands, was to act as he had,—not to make concessions; but that the Ministry could deal with the case subsequently as it thought fit. In other words, as in joint operations with the army, later in the year, he took the ground that the land officers were the judges of their own business, but that he would see them put safe on shore, as a first step; so in a matter affecting national honor, as he conceived it, he would do the seaman’s part and redress the injury, after which the civil authority could arrange with the other party. The known details of this transaction are not full enough to permit a decided opinion as to how far the admiral was justified in his action, judged even by the international law of the day. It was not necessarily a breach of neutrality to admit a belligerent with her prize; but it would have been, had the French ship gone out from Algeciras, seized her prey, and returned with it. Whatever the facts, however, the episode illustrates interestingly the spirit of Hawke himself, and of the service of that day, as well as his characteristic independence towards superiors when he felt himself right.

From this time forward Hawke’s service was confined to the Channel Fleet. This was, during that war, the post for the most capable of British officers; for, while the matter at stake was over-sea predominance and conquest, yet both these depended upon the communications of the French colonies and distant possessions with the mother country. The source of all their strength, the one base indispensable to their operations, was the coast of France; to close exit from this was therefore to strike at the root. This was much less true for the colonies of Great Britain, at least in America; their numbers, and resources in every way, were so far superior to those of Canada that they needed only to be preserved from interference by the navy of France,—an end also furthered by the close watch of the French ports. This blockade, as it is often, but erroneously, styled, Hawke was the first to maintain thoroughly and into the winter months; and in so doing he gave an extension to the practice of naval warfare, which amounted to a veritable revolution in naval strategy. The conception was one possible only to a thorough seaman, who knew exactly and practically what ships could do; one also in whom professional knowledge received the moral support of strong natural self-confidence,—power to initiate changes, to assume novel responsibility, through the inner assurance of full adequacy to bear it.

All this Hawke had. The method, therefore, the holding the sea, and the exposure of heavy ships to weather before thought impossible, was well within the range of his ability,—of his native and acquired faculties; but it is due to him to recognize the intellectual force, the originality, which lifted him above the accepted tradition of his predecessors, and by example transmitted to the future a system of warfare that then, as well as in his own hands, was to exercise a decisive effect upon the course of history. It is also to be remembered that he took this weighty step with instruments relatively imperfect, and greatly so. The bottoms of ships were not yet coppered; in consequence they fouled very rapidly, the result of which was loss of speed. This meant that much greater power, press of canvas, was needed to force them through the water, and that they had to be sent frequently into port to be cleaned. Thus they were less able than ships of later days to overtake an enemy, or to keep off a lee shore, while more intricate administration and more ships were required to maintain the efficiency of the squadron by a system of reliefs. Hawke noted also another difficulty,—the fatigue of the crews in cleaning their ships’ bottoms. It was even more important to success, he said, to restore the seaman, worn by cruising, by a few days quiet and sleep in port, than to clean thoroughly at the expense of exhausting them. “If the enemy should slip out and run,” he writes, “we must follow as fast as we can.” Details such as these, as well as the main idea, must be borne in mind, if due credit is to be given to Hawke for one of the most decisive advances ever made in the practice of naval campaigning.

Some time, however, was to elapse before the close watch of the French ports became a leading feature in the naval policy of the government. The early disasters of the war had forced the king, after much resistance, finally to accept the first Pitt as the leading minister of the Crown, in June, 1757. Pitt’s military purpose embraced two principal objects: 1, the establishment of the British colonial system by the destruction of that of France, which involved as a necessary precedent the control of the sea by a preponderant navy; and, 2, the support of Frederic of Prussia, then engaged in his deadly contest with the combined armies of France, Austria, and Russia. Frederic’s activity made a heavy drain upon the troops and the treasure of France, preventing her by just so much from supporting her colonies and maintaining her fleet; but, heavily outnumbered as he was, it was desirable to work all possible diversion in his favor by attacks elsewhere. This Pitt proposed to do by a series of descents upon the French coast, compelling the enemy to detach a large force from before the Prussian king to protect their own shores.

As far as the home naval force was concerned, the years 1757 and 1758 were dominated by this idea of diversion in favor of Frederic the Great. From the general object of these enterprises, the army was necessarily the principal agent; but the navy was the indispensable auxiliary. Hawke’s association with them is interesting chiefly as illustrative of professional character; for there was little or no room for achievement of naval results. The first expedition in which he was concerned was that against Rochefort in 1757. This, though now long forgotten, occasioned by its failure a storm of contemporary controversy. Whatever chances of success it may under any circumstances have had were lost beforehand, owing to the lateness of the season—June—in which Pitt took office. Preparation began at the moment when execution was due. The troops which should have sailed in early summer could not, from delays apparently unavoidable under the conditions, get away before September 10. Hawke himself hoisted his flag—assumed active command—only on August 15. The previous administration was responsible for whatever defect in general readiness increased this delay; as regards the particular purpose, Pitt’s government was at fault in attempting at all an undertaking which, begun so late in the year, could not expect success under the notorious inadequacy of organization bequeathed to him by his predecessors. But there will always be found at the beginning of a war, or upon a change of commanders, a restless impatience to do something, to make a showing of results, which misleads the judgment of those in authority, and commonly ends, if not in failure, at least in barren waste of powder and shot.

Not the least of the drawbacks under which the enterprise labored was extremely defective information—especially hydrographic. The character of the coast, the places suited for landing, the depths of water, and the channels, were practically unknown. Hence a necessity for reconnoissances, pregnant of indefinite delay, as might have been foreseen. Among Hawke’s memoranda occur the words, “Not to undertake anything without good pilots.” The phrase is doubly significant, for he was not a man to worry needlessly about pilots, knowing that pilots look not to military results, but merely to their own responsibility not to take the ground; and it shows the total ignorance under which labored all who were charged with an undertaking that could only succeed as a surprise, executed with unhesitating rapidity. Hawke himself was astounded at finding in Basque Roads, before Rochefort, “a safe spacious road in which all the navy of England, merchant ships included, may ride without the least annoyance. Before I came here, the place was represented as very difficult of access, and so narrow that ships could not lie in safety from the forts—nay, the pilots made many baulks before we came in.” In fact, want of good pilotage summed up the fault of the expedition, from its inception in the Cabinet throughout all the antecedent steps of consultation and preparation. Pitt’s impetuosity doubtless acted as a spur to laggards, but it was accompanied by a tendency to overbearing insolence that not infrequently browbeats cautious wisdom. When applied to a man like Hawke, strong in natural temper and in conscious mastery of his profession, the tone characteristic of Pitt provokes an equally resolute self-assertion, as far removed from subjection as it is from insubordination; but friendship becomes impossible, and even co-operation difficult.

Throughout all Hawke kept his head, and made no serious mistake; but he accepts no unmerited censures. Seeing that the transports are not enough for the healthful carriage of the troops, he so represents it. The government, already impatient at any report of defects, hopes that things are now arranged to his satisfaction. “I am astonished at this expression,” he says, “it is my duty to represent defects, but I am satisfied with any decision you make.” Again, “I have received your letter signifying His Majesty’s directions to use the utmost diligence in embarking the troops and getting to sea. As I cannot doubt my letter of Sunday being immediately communicated to you, I should have expected that before yours was sent His Majesty would have been fully satisfied that I needed no spur in executing his orders.” As Hawke and Anson—the First Lord—were friends, there can be little doubt that we see here a firm protest against the much lauded tone to which the efficiency of the British army and navy under Pitt has been too exclusively attributed. It was in the civil administration, the preparation that underlies military success, which being at home was under his own eye, that Pitt’s energy was beneficially felt, and also in his prompt recognition of fit instruments; but he had no need to discover Hawke or Boscawen. He might as well be thought to have discovered the sun.

In discharging his part of the expedition Hawke’s course is consistent and clear. It must in the first place be recognized that such enterprises are of secondary importance, and do not warrant the risks which are not only justifiable but imperative when a decisive issue is at stake. Hawke’s heroic disregard of pilotage difficulties at Quiberon, in 1759, would have been culpable temerity at Basque Roads, in 1757. But, save delays on this account, no time is lost by him. When the decision to land is reached, he is clear as to the possibility of landing; but when the generals think it impossible to effect certain results, he replies that is their business, on which he does not pretend to judge. In his evidence before the Court afterwards, he said, “Whether they should land or not, he constantly thought it the part of the generals to determine. He could not but suppose they were infinitely better judges of their own business than he could be.” Their conduct was marked by vacillations strange to him, and which apparently displeased him; the troops being, on one occasion, embarked in the boats for some hours, and yet returning to the ships without proceeding. He then addressed a formal letter to the commanding general, saying that if he had no further operation to propose the fleet would return at once to England, and he declined to attend a Council of War to decide either of these points. The Army should decide, alone, whether it could effect anything by landing; if not, he, without asking counsel, would stay no longer. On October 7th he reached Spithead.

Pitt, who had espoused Byng’s cause against the previous administration, followed its precedent in throwing the blame on the military and naval leaders. In Parliament, he “declared solemnly his belief that there was a determined resolution, both in the naval and military commanders, against any vigorous exertion of the national power.” For far less than this accusation Byng had been condemned; but in fact the fault at Rochefort lay clearly on those who issued the orders,—upon the Cabinet; upon the character of the expedition itself,—a great risk for a secondary and doubtful object; upon the inconsiderate haste which disregarded alike the season and the inadequate knowledge; upon defective preparation in the broadest sense of the words. Diversions, in truth, are feints, in which the utmost smoke with the least fire is the object. Carried farther, they entail disaster; for they rest on no solid basis of adequate force, but upon successful deception. Pitt’s angry injustice met with its due rebuke the next year at St. Cas. It can scarcely be doubted that words such as those quoted were responsible, in part at least, for the disastrous issue of that diversion, the story of which belongs, if to the navy at all, to the life of Howe.

That Hawke resented this language can scarcely be doubted, and none the less that he evidently himself felt that something might have been attempted by the troops. He was clear of fault in his own consciousness; but in the general censure he was involved with his associates—known, so to say, by his friends, implicated in the meshes of a half-truth, where effort to clear one’s self results in worse entanglement. He had the manly cast of character which will not struggle for self-vindication; but his suppressed wrath gathered force, until a year later it resulted, upon occasion of official provocation, in an explosion that has not a close parallel in naval history.
He had hoisted his flag again on February 28, 1758. His first service was directed against a French squadron of five ships-of-the-line, fitting at Rochefort to convoy troops for the relief of Louisburg, in Cape Breton Island, then about to be besieged by British and colonial forces. Hawke’s observations of the previous year had ascertained the hitherto unknown facilities of Basque Roads for occupation by a fleet and consequent effectual interception of such an expedition. Upon making the land the French vessels were found already in the Roads, therefore soon to sail; but before this superior force of seven ships they cut their cables, and fled across the shoals up the river Charente, on which Rochefort lies. Hawke, instructed by his previous experience, had earnestly but fruitlessly demanded fire-ships and bomb-vessels to destroy the enemy in case they grounded on the flats; which they did, and for some hours lay exposed to such an attack. Not having these means, he had to watch helplessly the process of lightening and towing by which they at last made their escape. He then returned to England, having frustrated the relief expedition but, through defective equipment, not destroyed the vessels. The Admiralty, upon receiving his report of the transaction, made no acknowledgments to him.

Pitt had profited by Hawke’s ineffectual request for small vessels and his suffering from the want of them; but he utilized the suggestions in a manner that robbed their author of any share in the results. A squadron of that sort was to be constituted, to operate on the French coast in diversions like that of 1757; but it was to be an independent command, under an officer chosen by the Government without consulting the admiral. To the main fleet was assigned the necessary, but in credit very secondary, office of cruising off Brest, to prevent interruption by the French ships there; to play, in short, the inconspicuous rôle of a covering force, while the light squadron had the brilliant part of fighting. The officer selected for the latter was Howe, deservedly a favorite of Hawke’s, but not therefore acceptable to him as a supplanter in his honors.

The admiral had been for some time superintending the equipment of the vessels for the light division, when, on May 10, 1758, Howe reported to him, bringing his orders. Hawke boiled over at once; and, in a heat evidently beyond his will to control, despatched the following letter, three hours after Howe’s arrival.


It is impossible to justify so extreme a step as abandoning one’s command without permission, and especially under circumstances that permitted the orderly course of asking for detachment. Nevertheless, Hawke did well to be angry; and, as is sometimes the case, an injudicious and, in point of occasion, unseemly loss of temper, doubtless contributed to insure for him in the future, to a degree which forbearance or mere remonstrance would not have assured, the consideration essential to his duties. Many will remember the effect produced by Plimsoll’s unparliamentary outbreak. The erroneous impression, that admirals and generals fit to be employed at all were to be ridden booted and spurred, needed correction. Hawke had misapprehended the intention of the Government, in so far as believing that the light squadron was to be employed in Basque Roads, the scene of last year’s failure; but he was right in thinking that intrusting the enterprise to another, on that occasion his junior, would be a reflection upon himself, intensified by making the command practically independent, while he was limited to the covering duty. Under these circumstances, erroneously imagined by him, the squadron should have been attached to his command, and the particular direction left to him; the Government giving to him, instead of to Howe, the general orders which it issued, and arranging with him beforehand as to the command of the detached squadron.

But even under the actual conditions, of an intention to operate on the western Channel coast of France, it would have been graceful and appropriate to recognize Hawke’s eminent past, and recent experience, by keeping under his command the ships he had himself fitted for the service, and directing him to despatch Howe with the necessary instructions. It was as in the Nile campaign, where the general directions were sent to St. Vincent, with a clear expression of the Government’s preference for Nelson as the officer to take charge. The intended scene of Howe’s operations, if not formally within Hawke’s district, was far less distant from Brest than Toulon and Italy were from Cadiz, where St. Vincent covered Nelson’s detachment. In the wish for secrecy, perhaps, or perhaps through mere indifference to the effect produced upon Hawke, as a man assumed to need curb and spur, he was left in ignorance, to imagine what he pleased; and this action, succeeding previous neglects and Pitt’s imputations of the previous year, elicited an outburst which, while it cannot be justified in its particular manifestation, was in spirit inevitable. A man submissive to such treatment as he had good cause to suspect, would be deficient in the independence of character, and sensitive regard to official reputation, without which he was unfit to command the Channel Fleet.

Hawke was summoned at once to the Admiralty, and in the interview which ensued, as shown by the minutes endorsed on his own letter, his misconception as to the quarter in which Howe was to act afforded standing ground for a compromise. Hawke having committed himself officially, and upon a mistaken premise, the Admiralty had him technically at their mercy; but such a triumph as they could win by disciplining him would be more disastrous than a defeat. He disclaimed resentment towards any person, and reiterated that his action was intended merely to defend his character and honor, which he said—to quote the minute exactly—”were not so much touched as he apprehended when the suspicion he had of Mr. Howe’s going to Basque Roads arose—from the Lords asking him some days since for a draft of the Roads.” The italics are the present writer’s; but the words as they stand would indicate that he did not yield his view of the matter in general, nor leave hearers under any doubt as to how far he could safely be treated with contumely or slight. There can be little doubt that the substantial result was to strengthen his position in the exacting duty that lay before him in the following year.

The whole business was then salved over by the First Lord, Anson, taking command of the Channel Fleet for the particular occasion. Hawke accompanied him as second in command, while Howe went his way with the light squadron and the troops. Both divisions sailed on the 1st of June. On the 18th our admiral was so unwell with a severe fever and cold—a complaint to which he was much subject—that he had to ask to be sent into port. He went ashore before the end of the month, and remained unemployed till the following May.

The year 1759 is the culminating epoch of Hawke’s career. In it occurred the signal triumph of Quiberon Bay, the seal of his genius, significant above all as demonstrating that the ardor of the leader had found fulfilment in his followers, that the spirit of Hawke had become the spirit of the Navy. This year also yielded proof of his great capacity as a seaman and administrator, in the efficient blocking of Brest, prolonged through six months of closest watching into the period of the winter gales, in face of which it had hitherto been thought impossible to keep the sea with heavy ships massed in fleets; for, as he most justly said, in explaining the necessity of maintaining the rendezvous fixed by him, “A single ship may struggle with a hard gale of wind when a squadron cannot. In working against a strong westerly gale in the Channel, where it cannot make very long stretches,”—because it finds shores and shoals on either side,—”it must always by wearing lose ground, but more especially if it should so blow as to put it past carrying sail.” The method used by Hawke was not only an innovation on all past practice, but, as has before been said, constituted the pattern whereon were framed the great blockades of the Napoleonic period, which strangled both the naval efficiency and the commercial and financial resources of the Empire. These were but developments of Hawke’s fine achievement of 1759; the prestige of originality belongs to him. Even their success, with better ships and the improvement of detail always accompanying habit, is foreshadowed by his. “I may safely affirm that, except the few ships that took refuge in Conquet, hardly a vessel of any kind has been able to enter or come out of Brest for four months,”—ending October 10th. “They have been obliged to unload near forty victuallers at Quimperley and carry their cargoes by land to Brest. It must be the fault of the weather, not ours, if any of them escape.”

It was suitable indeed that so strenuous and admirable an exhibition of professional ability,—of naval generalship,—alike in strategic combination, tactical disposition, and administrative superintendence, should terminate in a brilliant triumph, at once its fruit and its crown; wherein sedulous and unremittent readiness for instant action, comprehended by few, received a startling demonstration which none could fail to understand. As Nelson was pursued by ignorant sneers before the Nile, so Hawke was burned in effigy by the populace, at the very moment when laborious effort was about to issue in supreme achievement. The victory in either case is less than the antecedent labor, as the crown, after all, is less than the work, the symbol than the fact symbolized.

A brief account of preceding conditions, and of the dispositions maintained to meet them, is therefore necessary to due appreciation of the victory of Quiberon Bay. Although the diversions of 1758 had not very materially aided Frederic of Prussia, they had inflicted distinct humiliation and harassment upon France. This, added to defeat upon the Continent and in North America, had convinced the French Government, as it convinced Napoleon a half-century later, that a determined blow must be struck at England herself as the operative centre upon which rested, and from which proceeded, the most serious detriment to their cause and that of their allies. It was resolved, therefore, to attempt an invasion of England; to the threat of which the English people were always extremely sensitive.

From local conditions the French preparations had to be made in several separate places; it was the task of the British Navy to prevent the concentration of these different detachments in a joint effort. The troops must embark, of course, from some place near to England; their principal points of assembly were on the Channel, whence they were to cross in flat-boats, and in the Biscay ports, from Brest to the mouth of the Loire. The Bay of Quiberon, from which Hawke’s action takes its name, lies between the two latter points. It is sheltered from the full force of the Atlantic gales by a peninsula of the same name, and by some shoals which prolong the barrier to the southward of the promontory.

To cross safely, it was necessary to provide naval protection. To this end squadrons were equipped in Toulon and in Brest. Combined at the latter point, and further strengthened by divisions expected to return from North America, they would constitute a force of very serious consideration in point of numbers. Rochefort also was an element in the problem, though a minor one; for either the small force already there might join the concentration, or, if the port were unwatched, the American or other divisions might get in there, and be at least so much nearer to Brest, or to a neighboring point of assembly, as Quiberon Bay.

As the French Navy was essential to the French crossing, as its junction was essential to action, as the point of junction was at or near Brest—for there was the district near which the troops were assembling—and as by far the largest detachment was already in Brest, that port became the important centre upon blocking which depended primarily the thwarting of the invasion. If the French Navy succeeded in concentrating at Brest, the first move in the game would be lost. Hawke therefore had the double duty of not allowing the squadron there to get out without fighting, and of closing the entrance to reinforcements. The latter was far the more difficult, and could not be assured beyond the chance of failure, because an on-shore gale, which would carry his fleet into the Channel to avoid being driven on the French coast, would be fair for an outside enemy to run into the port, friendly to him. This actually occurred at a most critical moment, but it could only happen by a combination of circumstances; that is, by the hostile squadron chancing to arrive at a moment when the British had been blown off. If it approached under ordinary conditions of weather it would run into the midst of foes.

The great names of the British Navy were then all afloat in active command. Rodney was before Havre, which he bombarded in the course of the summer, doing a certain amount of damage, harassing the local preparations for invasion, and intercepting vessels carrying supplies to the Brest fleet and coastwise. Boscawen, second only to Hawke, was before Toulon, to hold there the dozen ships-of-the-line under De la Clue, as Hawke was charged to stop the score under Conflans.

In broad conception, Hawke’s method was simple and can be easily stated; the difficulty lay in carrying it out. The main body of his force had a rendezvous, so chosen that in violent weather from the westward it could at worst drift up Channel, but usually would have a fair wind for Torbay, a roadstead on the British coast about a hundred miles distant. To the rendezvous the fleet was not tied under ordinary circumstances; it was merely a headquarters which admitted of cruising, but where despatches from home would always find the admiral in person, or news of his whereabouts. Near Brest itself was kept an inshore squadron of three or four ships, which under ordinary circumstances could see the enemy inside, noting his forwardness; for the cannon of the day could not molest a vessel more than a mile from the entrance, while the conditions within of spars and sails indicated to a seaman the readiness or intention to move, to a degree not ascertainable with ships dependent on steam only.

With these dispositions, if a westerly gale came on, the fleet held its ground while it could, but when expedient to go put into Torbay. Owing to the nearness of the two places, the weather, when of a pronounced character, was the same at both. While the wind held to the westward of south, or even at south-southeast, a ship-of-the-line could not beat out from Brest; much less a fleet. The instant the wind went east, fair for exit, the British left Torbay, with certainty of not being too late; for, though the enemy might get out before their return, the east wind would not suffer them to close with the French coast at another point soon enough to avoid a meeting. While in Torbay the time was improved by taking on board stores and provisions; nor was the night’s rest at anchor a small consideration for seamen worn with continual cruising.

The practical merits displayed by Hawke in maintaining this simple but arduous service were, first and supremely, the recognition of its possibility, contrary to a tradition heretofore as commonly and as blindly accepted as those of the line-of-battle, and of the proper methods for fleet attack before described. It must be remembered also that in these wars, 1739-1763, for the first time the British Navy found the scene of action, in European waters, to be the Biscay coast of France. In the former great wars of the seventeenth century, French fleets entered the Channel, and pitched battles were fought there and in the North Sea. Thence the contest shifted to the Mediterranean, where the great fleets operated in the later days of William III, and the reign of Anne. Then, too, the heavy ships, like land armies, went into winter quarters. It was by distinguished admirals considered professionally criminal to expose those huge yet cumbrous engines of the nation’s power to the buffetings of winter gales, which might unfit them next year to meet the enemy, snugly nursed and restored to vigor in home ports during the same time. The need of periodical refitting and cleaning the bottoms clinched the argument in favor of this seasonable withdrawal from the sea.

With this presumed necessity, attention had not been paid to developing a system of maintenance and refit adapted to the need of a fleet performing what Hawke undertook. In this, of course, there cannot be assigned to him the individuality of merit that may belong to a conception, and does belong to the man who initiates and assumes, as he did, the responsibility for a novel and hazardous course of action. Many agents had to contribute to the forwarding of supplies and repairs; but, while singleness of credit cannot be assumed, priority is justly due to him upon whose shoulders fell not only all blame, in case his enterprise failed, but the fundamental difficulty of so timing the reliefs of the vessels under his command, so arranging the order of rotation in their going and coming as to keep each, as well as the whole body, in a constant condition of highest attainable efficiency—in numbers, in speed, and in health—for meeting the enemy, whose time of exit could not be foreknown. Naturally, too, the man on whom all this fell, and who to the nation would personify success or failure, as the event might be,—terms which to him would mean honor or ruin,—that man, when professionally so competent as Hawke, would be most fruitful in orders and in suggestions to attain the desired end. In this sense there can be no doubt that he was foremost, and his correspondence bears evidence of his preoccupation with the subject.

Into particulars it is scarcely necessary to go. Administrative details are interesting only to specialists. But one quality absolutely essential, and in which most men fail, he manifested in high degree. He feared no responsibility, either towards the enemy, or towards the home authorities. Superior and inferior alike heard plainly from him in case of defects; still more plainly in case of neglect. “It is a matter of indifference to me whether I fight the enemy, should they come out, with an equal number, one ship more, or one ship less.” “I depend not on intelligence from the French ports; what I see I believe, and regulate my conduct accordingly;” a saying which recalls one of Farragut’s,—”The officers say I don’t believe anything. I certainly believe very little that comes in the shape of reports. They keep everybody stirred up. I mean to be whipped or to whip my enemy, and not to be scared to death.” Agitation, to a very considerable degree, was the condition of Hawke’s superiors; to say the least, anxiety strained to the point of approaching panic. But Hawke could have adopted truly as his own Farragut’s other words, “I have full confidence in myself and in my judgment,”—that is, of course, in professional matters; and he spoke reassuringly out of the firmness of his self-reliance. “Their Lordships will pardon me for observing that from the present disposition of the squadron I think there is little room for alarm while the weather continues tolerable.” Again, a few days later, “Their Lordships may rest assured there is little foundation for the present alarms. While the wind is fair for the enemy’s coming out, it is also favorable for our keeping them in; and while we are obliged to keep off they cannot stir.” This was in October, when the weather was already wild and the days shortening.

With equally little hesitancy, though without breach of subordination, he overbears the Admiralty when they wish to pay what he considers exaggerated care to cleaning the bottoms, traceable, no doubt, to the prejudices of the Sea Lords. “If the ships take up a month by cleaning, from the time they leave me to their return, it will be impossible for me to keep up the squadron. The only practicable way is to heel, etc., and confine them to ten days in port for the refreshment of their companies in case they should miss the spring tide.” “Their Lordships will give me leave to observe that the relief of the squadron depends more on the refreshment of the ships’ companies than on cleaning the ships. By the hurry the latter must be performed in, unless the ship continues a month or five weeks in port, which the present exigency will by no means admit of, the men would be so harassed and fatigued that they would return to me in a worse condition than when they left me…. However, I shall endeavor to comply with all their Lordships’ directions in such manner as, to the best of my judgment, will answer their intentions in employing me here.” The words italicized strike the true note of subordination duly tempered with discretion.

To the Navy Board, a civil adjunct to the Admiralty, but possessed of considerable independent power to annoy officers in active military service, he took a more peremptory tone. He had discharged on his own authority, and for reasons of emergency, a mutinous surgical officer. For this he was taken to task, as Nelson a generation later was rebuked by the same body. “I have to acquaint you,” he replied, “that there was no mistake in his being ordered by me to be discharged.” He then gives his reasons, and continues, “For the real good of the service I ordered him to be discharged, and his crime noted on his list of pay, for your information. I shall not enter into any dispute with you about my authority as a Commanding Officer, neither do I ever think of inconveniences or prejudices to myself, as a party, according to your insinuations, where the good of the service is concerned.” It must be added that to subordinates he was as liberal with praise as he was with censure, where either was merited; nor did he fail in kindly personal intervention upon due occasion for deserving or unfortunate men. More reserved, apparently, than Nelson, he seems to have been like him sympathetic; and hence it was that, as before observed, it was his spirit that he communicated to the navy rather than a system, admirable as was the strategic system embodied in his methods of blockade. It was by personal influence rather than by formulated precept that Hawke inspired his service, and earned a just claim to be reckoned the greatest force of his century in naval development.

The general conditions being as described, the fighting in the naval campaign of 1759 began in the Mediterranean. On June 8th Boscawen, having driven two French frigates into a fortified bay near Toulon, attacked them with three ships-of-the-line. The attack failed, and the British ships were badly injured; a timely lesson on the general inexpediency of attacking shore batteries with vessels, unless for special and adequate reasons of probable advantage. In July he returned to Gibraltar, to refit and for provisions. In the absence of details, positive criticism is unwarranted; but it is impossible not to note the difference between this step, during summer weather, and the Toulon blockades of Lord St. Vincent, who, when before Brest, modelled his course upon that of Hawke. The port being thus left open, De la Clue sailed on the 5th of August for Brest. On the 17th he was near the straits of Gibraltar, hugging the African coast, and falling night gave promise of passing unseen, when a British look out frigate caught sight of his squadron. She hauled in for Gibraltar at once, firing signal guns. Boscawen’s ships were in the midst of repairs, mostly dismantled; but, the emergency not being unforeseen, spars and sails were sent rapidly aloft, and within three hours they were underway in pursuit. The French division separated during the night. Five ships put into Cadiz. The British next morning caught sight of the remaining seven, among which was the admiral, and a sharp chase resulted in the destruction of five. From August 18th the Toulon fleet was eliminated from the campaign; though the vessels in Cadiz remained to the end a charge upon Hawke’s watchfulness, similar to that caused by the enemy’s divisions expected from America.

That one of the latter was already on its way home, under the command of Commodore Bompart, was notified to our admiral on September 21st by a despatch from England. He immediately sent a division of heavy ships to reinforce the light squadron to the southward. “If the alarm is great now,” he said, “it will be much greater if he get into Rochefort.” Further information from the West Indies contradicted the first report, and on October 10th Hawke recalled the ships-of-the-line, apparently at the wish of the Admiralty; for he expresses his regret at doing so, and asks for more of the “many ships” then in England, that Rochefort may be blocked as well as Brest. The incident has now little importance, except as indicating the general national nervousness, and the difficulty under which he labored through force inadequate to the numerous and exacting duties entailed by constant holding the sea in war. From this point of view it bears upon his conduct.

That Bompart was coming proved to be true. On November 10th Hawke anchored with the fleet in Torbay, after three days of struggle against a very heavy westerly storm. “Bompart, if near, may get in,” he wrote the Admiralty, “but no ship can get out from any port in the Bay.” The weather had then moderated, but was still too rough for boating, even in the sheltered roadstead; hence he could get no reports of the state of the ships, which shows incidentally the then defective system of signalling. On the 12th he sailed, on the 13th was again forced into Torbay by a south-wester, but on the 14th got away finally. On the afternoon of the 16th the fleet was twenty-five miles from the Island of Ushant, near Brest, and there learned from transports, returning from the light division off Quiberon, that the French fleet had been seen the day before, seventy-five miles northwest of Belleisle; therefore some fifty or sixty miles southeast of the point where this news was received. Conflans had sailed the same day that the British last left Torbay, but before his departure Bompart had opportunely arrived, as Hawke had feared. His ships were not able to go at once to sea on so important a mission, but their seasoned crews were a welcome reinforcement and were distributed through the main fleet, which numbered twenty-one ships-of-the-line. Hawke had twenty-three.

Concluding that the enemy were bound for Quiberon, Hawke carried a press of sail for that place. He knew they must be within a hundred miles of him and aimed to cut them off from their port. During the 17th the wind, hanging to the south and east, was adverse to both fleets, but on the 18th and 19th it became more favorable. At half-past eight on the morning of the 20th, one of the lookout frigates ahead of the British made the signal for sighting a fleet. It was then blowing strong from the west-northwest, and Belleisle, which is ten miles west of Quiberon Bay, and south of which the fleets must pass, was by the English reckoning forty miles distant. A course of some fifty or sixty miles was therefore to be run before the enemy could close the land, and there remained about eight hours of sun.

 (Continue to Part 3)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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