Saturday 26 February 2022

The Ship of the Line

Once again, I am flogging an unpopular horse: not only am I about to launch forth (yes, pun intended) about matters nautical, but also about tactics and doctrine in late Seventeenth Century naval affairs. As someone once said to me ‘Can’t you just put the toys on the table?’

Maybe, but painting has stalled a bit at the moment. Don’t be too hard on me, I have managed over 500 little men since October or thereabout. While that is small fry compared to some who knock out 3000 figures a year, or even 80 Red Indians in an afternoon, it is good going by my standards. I have got a bit bogged down with the last two regiments of ECW foot, however.

I have also been reading, and I would like to quote part of a paper that I found (don’t worry, I will give the reference afterwards. I teach far too much research ethics (and these days, research integrity) to want to stand accused of plagiarism).

To illustrate this point, imagine a typical late-seventeenth-century engagement fought ashore. To the usual complications of battle, add the following: restrict the movement of units from either army within 35 [degrees] of the direction of the wind; only allow units, be they infantry, cavalry, or artillery, to discharge their fire weapons to the flanks, but not to their front or rear; forbid the movement of mounted staff officers between the commander-in-chief and his subordinates; and then fight the battle during a prolonged earthquake, forcing soldiers to operate their weapons as the ground heaves to and fro, with hard-pressed artillerymen timing their shots to coincide with the roll of the ground beneath their feet. This was the face of battle at sea!

Palmer, M. A. J. (1997). The 'Military Revolution' Afloat: The Era of the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Transition to Modern Warfare. War in History, 4(2), 123-149, p. 124.

This is Dr Palmer’s description, obviously enough, of a late Seventeenth Century naval battle. Perhaps the first thing to do is to wonder at how, exactly, two navies managed to clash at sea, even more so than we might wonder at land battles.

Still, Palmer’s paper sits in the tradition of military revolutions, although I am not sure that it has been particularly picked up upon in more recent historiography. There have been, of course, over naval military revolutions suggested, perhaps the most influential has been the evolution of the race-built galleon in the English navy of the late Sixteenth Century (and hence the defeat of the Spanish Armada). Nevertheless, Palmer has identified, it seems to me, a particular point in history when things did change, albeit not completely and, perhaps, not a decisively as we might like to think.

The moment occurred in March 1653 when the Generals-at-Sea of the English fleet issues fighting instructions. Up to that point ships had a general requirement to stay near and support the admiral of the squadron they had been assigned to, but not much more than that. This led to rather messy, indecisive engagements where ships could be heavily damaged (particularly the squadron flagship) if the others in the squadron were not in support, either deliberately or by accident.

The general group tactics had, Palmer observes, another impact, in that only the ships at the outer edges of the group had a clear field of fire. The rest of the squadron had to wait its turn or possibly could never bring its guns to bear without the risk of hitting a friendly ship. This was reasonably inefficient, of course, but then the tactics were suited to boarding, where an enemy ship could be overwhelmed by a gaggle of vessels, boarded and captured. Failing that, it could simply be pounded to bits by fire from all directions.

The Generals-at-Sea, as the British Admirals were known (I am not sure if they count as English or British at this point – the Commonwealth had conquered Scotland, after all), were, Palmer notes, practical men and used to battles, if not sea battles. They noted this and clearly were pondering how to win sea battles more effectively. The Breakthrough seems to have come at the Battle of Portland in February 1653. The notable point for the purpose here, Palmer argues, is the initial assault by Tromp on 20-24 English men-of-war from the rather disordered fleet. The Dutch were upwind (to windward) of the English and need not have fought, but the English squadron was a bit isolated and Tromp had 80 warships.

You might have expected an easy Dutch win, but this was not the case. The English ships seem to have formed a line and subjected the Dutch to fierce gunfire, according to one account of five or six ships at a time. It seems likely that the defensive fire of the English ships forced the Dutch to give way and hence they did not manage to isolate and board anyone, from somewhere around 9 AM to 4 in the afternoon, when the rest of the English fleet appeared.

The implication of the number of ships firing at the Dutch vessels, Palmer notes, is that they had clear fields of fire. Thus, they were deployed in line. This was not the first time linear tactics had been employed. The Dutch had done so in a defensive action at Dunkirk in 1639, although their attack on the Spanish fleet at the Downs a bit later that year was in the ‘pell-mell’ style.

So, this was hardly an innovation (indeed, I seem to recall the English fleet attacking the Armada had done so in lines) but the point is what happened next. The doctrine of the English fleet became to sail in line (hence ‘ship of the line’) and they won the rest of the battles in the war. In order to control a line of ships, rather than a closer group, new doctrines had to be developed, which eventually became the flag signalling system of the Eighteenth Century.

Now, you cannot really say that naval wargaming is not interest and does not have much potential, can you?


  1. I’ve not thought of it in the way Palmer describes before. Might be obvious when you think about it, but I seeing it expressed in that way is a real eye-opener.

    1. Yes, it is a helpful way of thinking about sea battles, and might help in writing rules for them.

  2. I’ve not thought of it in the way Palmer describes before. Might be obvious when you think about it, but I seeing it expressed in that way is a real eye-opener.