Saturday 15 August 2015

All at Sea

As you might have noticed from the previous post, every once in a while I discover in myself a liking for naval wargaming. Quite why this is so I am not sure. Perhaps it is due to long days as a child reading about Nelson, or school visits to HMS Victory (I was bought up a reasonable coaches’ drive from Portsmouth. I suppose that there may be other influences, as well, like the relative unpopularity of naval wargaming and, even, its natural place within campaign games as opposed to the one off wargame.

If I examine my shelves I find books on many different aspects of naval history, from Ancient Greece, as mentioned last time, to the Armada, the influence of the Navy on the English Civil Wars and then through the eighteenth century to Nelson at the glory days of British naval supremacy. It is a bit hard to believe that there is really so little of wargaming interest in this, but so often naval wargames are reduced to a somewhat desultory looking affair of a few ships shooting away at each other. I suppose the main question here is whether naval wargames are really the poor relation of land based games.

According to the wargame campaign bible, ‘Setting Up a Wargames Campaign’ they do tend to be. The chapter on Naval Campaigns remarks that sea transport in the previous chapters has just been an adjunct to land warfare. This is something of a shame, as he goes on to describe, taking in the Peloponnesian wars, which often focussed on the supply of grain to Athens via the Black Sea, and the Punic Wars where the Roman challenge for naval superiority has to have some degree of interest.

I do have, in my cupboard, extensive fleets of ‘Renaissance’ galleys and English and Spanish fleets for the Armada period and also for the Anglo-Dutch wars. I do confess that, painted and based as they may be, I have not used them extensively, despite the interest of the period, both my personal predilections and the intrinsic fascination. After all, Geoffrey Parker identified the advent of the all gun naval vessel as the most important single factor in the European conquest of the rest of the world. For all the naval power of Indian, South East Asia and China in the fifteenth century, they did not produce ships and a navy that could stand up to an East Indiaman.

That comment returns us to the reason for considering naval campaigns. As part of my work, for example, I have been examining in some detail (not for purposes of research, I admit, but for teaching) the triangular slave trade of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The wealth of nations, particularly the British Empire was, in large part, built on this trade. It is not a particularly pretty bit of history, and no-one, European, African leader or Caribbean planter comes out of the story well, but the interest for my purposes is in the naval aspects.

For example, in the Liverpool slave trade (and if you want to check, the information I use comes from shows significant dips during times of international conflict: the Seven Years war, American Revolution and less so during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. This suggests quite strongly to me that the blockade of the French navy during the latter wars, and the relative paucity of privateering, enabled the Liverpool trade, at least, to flourish. By contrast, Bristol never seems to have recovered from the American Revolution. I am sure there is an interesting bit of historical research to undertake here as to why this might be. Quite possibly it was due to the different routes taken by the voyages. From Liverpool the natural route is to north about Ireland, while the route from Bristol takes you directly past French ports, and hence the increased risk of running into privateers. But I do not actually know.

The point here is that, given the slave trade was so lucrative, the fact that British voyages could continue while the French trade did not suggests that the blockade of French ports was about an awful lot more than simply bottling French military naval units up in port. If you look at the recorded voyages of the French slave trade (cantered on Nantes), the record shows pretty well no voyages at all during the period in question. The cost of that to the French state must have been considerable. There was only a brief period, during the Peace of Amiens, when the French trade revived.

I suppose the point here is that naval wargames only really make sense in the context of a larger narrative, a bigger picture about the aims and objectives of the forces on either side. Trafalgar, for example, only makes sense in the context of the blockade and ideas about breaking it and invading England. The question of whether the latter was even slightly feasible is a bit moot, of course, but that would only arise at the end of a process which included the defeat on the Royal Navy blockading squadrons.

Perhaps this is why I am actually more interested in earlier wars. By the end of the eighteenth century British naval mastery was, in some senses, pretty well a given. While other countries could, from time to time, threaten it, and technological advances would eventually undermine it, the chances of a major British loss to the French (for it was manly they) in actual combat was not huge. Of course, if the Spithead mutinies had been exploited, things could have been different, but as it was, in wargaming terms, it would take a major and unlikely defeat of the fighting units to actually prevent the British naval supremacy continuing. After all, the country lost the American Revolutionary war and still managed to continue maritime supremacy.

All in all, then, the interest for me is in how the British managed to acquire naval supremacy. For example, in the seventeenth century Charles I build a ship called ‘Sovereign of the Seas’ and attempted to enforce a rule that other nations would acknowledge this sovereignty. They did not, but that did not stop Cromwell and Charles II fighting major wars about it. Given that under Charles I Algerian pirates were raiding Cornwall, there must have been a significant change in naval achievement over the fifty years covering the accession of Charles I to the end of Anglo-Dutch wars.

But perhaps I will save that for another time.


  1. You're spoiling us today! Two blog entires.

    Never tried naval wargaming. Not because of any lack of interest. More a lack of knowledge - how does it work? Are ships just tanks surrounded by water?

    Like siege warfare, I suspect naval warfare is a grossly under-gamed aspect of wargaming (miniature gaming at least). Which is remarkable given we in the UK are (have been?) a maritime nation.

    To this novice at least, you pose an interesting question. What happened in that mid-late 17th century period to propel England from being (I guess) 2nd or 3rd in Europe behind the Dutch and Spanish (or maybe even 4th?) to being first place?

    If I recall correctly, Linda Colley has a bit to say about it in Captives. It's hard to appreciate now how strong the fear of the Barbary Pirates was even, as you say, off the coast of Cornwall, and how much it figured in literature as late as the 18th century. But she's mainly concerned with effects rather than causes.

  2. I think we'll call it a slip of the finger, or possibly brain cell.

    be that as it may, the two posts are linked a bit and that link is the sea. Mostly these days we view the sea as something to sit beside. Previous millennia have viewed it differently, as a highway (fairly safe in some respects), food provider and bulwark. But wargaming it is somewhat a niche pastime.

    but there are lots of interesting things going on in the later 17th C. some people mark the founding of the Bank of England as the start of Britain's greatness.