Saturday, 4 February 2017

All At Sea Again

The devoted reader of this blog might have noticed that I have an interest in matters naval. After all, only an idiot or a devotee would paint 150 ancient galleys with only a vague idea of how to use or what they were for. I have to also admit to further offences which should be taken into account by the court. A load of renaissance galleys, for example, and a whole pile of seventeenth century ships, augmented by occasional Napoleonic era warships and merchantmen. Oh yes, and some ‘armada’ ships, too.

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

All this introspection was sparked by an article in History Today (Vol 27, Issue 2, February 2017) on the British Civil Wars at Sea. The BCW did, of course, have a naval element. Anyone who has read anything about it must have noticed that, if only the story of Queen Henrietta Maria landing at Bridlington under fire and going back to collect her dog. You might also have read that Plymouth and Lyme were sustained in sieges by the navy, and that Hull, too, was relieved by warships.

That, however, is about it. In fact, there is only one book, as I recall, about the navy in the Civil Wars. I have read it, and I don’t recall its name or the author, and it is somewhat hard to find, but, among all the literature about the Civil Wars, one book is about it. It is not even, as I recall, a particularly good book. It works from the assumption that the King had a strategy of a three pronged attack on London, by the northern army, the south western army and the Oxford army, and, somewhat gleefully, describes how the navy bent back the first two prongs, by relieving Plymouth, Lyme and Hull.

Whether the Royalists ever seriously had such a strategy is rather moot, I believe. It is, first of all, a bit of a simple minded plan. Secondly, it rather ignores the distances involved, and the likely forces of opposition. After all, it is unlikely that the Eastern Association would have simply roiled over and let Newcastle’s army pass through, even if the EA army had been defeated somewhere in Lincolnshire. Finally, as both sides seem to have known from the outset, the Civil War was decided on the battlefield, not by besieging and capturing the enemy capital. As some contemporaries observed, this set the conflict apart from the European wars of the period, where sieges were more decisive.

What role, then, did the navy have? Firstly, we note that most of the navy, in the first Civil War, was Parliamentary. This led the Royalists into a problem, in that they could not, as a general rule, rely on imports of arms and personnel from Europe. Further, the merchants, of course, were mainly based in London and needed the access to European markets which was protected by the navy. Thus, their loans to Parliament were self-interested. The mere existence of the navy on the Parliamentary side had an immediate, if indirect, effect.

This changed somewhat when the Royalists captured Bristol, a viable mercantile port. Bristol ships could then compete with London, and an armed navy, of a sort, could be put forth. Of course, any ‘blockade’ by either side was as full of holes as a fisherman’s net, and ships had always got through, but the major ports could, naturally, handle much larger vessels and quantities of cargo. The Royalists always seem to have been a bit on the edge of a logistical crisis – at First Newbury they more or less ran out of gunpowder – and this was in part because of the lack of port facilities, and in part because of distribution problems: Gloucester was a nuisance, to say the least.

Parliament always had an Irish Sea squadron, as well. Partly this was to block supplies to the Irish Confederates, but it was also to interdict communications between Irish Royalists (and pro-Royal Confederates) and the Royalist port of Chester. Again, some troops got through, most notably Colonel Monk and his men. It could have been a lot worse for Parliament if the squadron had not been there.

The problem with all this, as a wargamer, of course, is that there are no decent fleet actions to be had. Even in the Second Civil War, when the Royalists had a decent navy under an active commander, they achieved little, and were basically shadowed to death by Parliamentary squadrons. Even though the strategic options were much wider – Rupert got to the Caribbean – there was not a lot of actual action. The wars were sets of ship to ship, privateer on merchant, small group fighting, rather than big pounding matches.

This is, of course, an area largely ignored by both historians and wargamers. There was nothing particularly exciting about it. There are, as noted, few books on the subject, although there is, according to the article, a forthcoming tome ’The British Civil Wars at Sea’. Unfortunately it is to be published by Boydell and Brewer, which means that us ordinary mortals will have to extend the mortgage to acquire a copy. That is a shame because most available sources have a distinctly Whig history approach to the subject – Parliament represented progress, the future, industrial revolution and empire, while the Royalists were backward looking, sentimental, feudal and so on. That does not, of course, explain why the navy mutinied in 1648….

Wargames at sea, in fact, seem to benefit from a small number of vessels being employed. Most write ups of naval games I have seen are of a few vessels, with different aims and missions. I could easily imagine a few Royal armed merchants attempting to get through to a Cornish port, harried by an even smaller Parliamentary squadron. Three to five vessels a side would seem to do the trick. Integrated into a land campaign the success, or not, of each side could be reflected in ammunition levels and weaponry of the armies. At least it would make the point that the Civil Wars did not all take place on dry land.

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