The gigantic struggle between the French and English blocs in the 18th century resulted in a merciless confrontation over the oceans in the last thirty years of the century. The harshness of the geopolitical struggle throughout the planet, the complexity never reached by technological progress, the excessive financial costs, could only be compared to the conquest of space in the 20th century. I will tell you this fabulous technical and scientific story in a series of articles on these topics.
Artillery on warships of the late 18th century
From the Spanish Succession War to the Napoleonic Wars, the 18th century was a century of almost permanent war between France and England. As it progressed, this second 100-year war became a two-block confrontation. From a standard war between sovereigns, the conflict turned into a war to death between two systems. During the last thirty years of the 18th century, war at sea became of paramount importance. The French defeats of the Spanish Succession War and the Seven Years’ War were sanctioned by the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713 and Paris in 1763. To save what it could from its land borders, France agreed to be swept out of the seas altogether, and to lose all its huge colonies in America and India. Before these treaties, French Louisiana extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico over all or part of twenty-two current American states. Canada and Acadia ran from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay. Two thirds of India belonged to France or were under its direct influence, who remembers? After 1763, the kingdom of the fleur-de-lis no longer owned anything in America and was sparsely granted five tiny trading posts in India. England had taken over the whole of this immensity, except for a small gift condescended to the Spaniards in Louisiana.
However, the disaster of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 produced an electroshock, even on Louis XV. He understood that the war was no longer a mere confrontation between rulers, but that England wanted the kingdom to be annihilated and the Bourbons to fall. Then, in what became a total war between the two blocs, France radically changed its point of view on the sea, on colonial power and wealth, on the navy. It understood, and adopted, the English maritime mentality. In less than a generation, under the leadership of two volunteer kings, exceptional ministers, engineers and navigators raised the French navy to a level it had never seen before. It rose to the level of the colossal and invincible Royal Navy until it held victoriously against it. It was a titanic rivalry, on all levels: scientific, military, technological, financial.
A warship was first and foremost, at that time, a floating battery. In this first article, I propose you to discover the artillery on board these huge moving fortresses.
In short, victory in naval combat was up to the ship capable of sending the heaviest metal weight. Logically, the admirals tried to embark more and more guns, larger and larger calibers. Ships, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, saw their size increase exponentially in order to be able to carry all this. The gigantic three-deck 118-gun ships designed by Sané (whom I will talk about in a later article) were capable of firing 30 tons of iron in one hour. Some monsters! The firepower of naval battles was incomparably heavier than that of land battles. To give a point of comparison, at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, 4,000 guns fired at each other. That same year 1805, on December 2 in Austerlitz, 400 guns opposed each other. If we add to this that calibres were three times larger at sea than on land, we have to imagine that each volley at Austerlitz spat 3 tons of iron, while each salvo at Trafalgar sent 72 tons of it! This continuously for hours.
As we will see in a later article, shipbuilding was highly standardized at the end of the 18th century, which led to many improvements. Artillery had not escaped this standardization, whether in terms of calibres or onboard equipment by type of ship.
Let us recall that a cannon, loaded by the mouth, was defined by the weight of the ball it fired, in pounds. Thus, the French navy was equipped with guns of 6, 8, 12, 18, 24, 36 and up to 40 pounds. The Royal Navy shipped 4, 9, 12, 18, 24 and 32-pound guns.
This will not surprise anyone: to make a quick comparison between the two navies, it would be far too simple if the French and English pounds weighed the same… The French pound was heavier than the English pound: 489.5 grams versus 453.6 grams. So, to make it easier for the reader to understand, here are the weights of the balls with their conversion into kilograms. French Navy: guns of 6 (2.937 kg), 8 (3.916 kg), 12 (5.874 kg), 18 (8.811 kg), 24 (11.748 kg), 36 (17.622 kg) and 40 (19.58 kg). English navy: guns of 4 (1.814 kg), 9 (4.082 kg), 12 (5.443 kg), 18 (8.164 kg), 24 (10.886 kg) and 32 (14.515 kg).
The ammunition was of three types. Round iron cannonballs, to fire against the hulls. Dismantling shots (double projectiles linked by chains or iron bars) intended to destroy riggings, tear sails and smash spars and masts. Therefore, before the battle, the cables holding the yards (the horizontal parts of the mast that hold the sails) were doubled by chains, and large nets were stretched over the deck to hold the blocks and pieces of spars that fell from the masts and would have caused havoc on the crew. Finally, grape shot, intended to sweep away sailors and marines at the time of the boarding.
A 12-gun weighed about 1.5 tons (to which 275 kg must be added for the carriage), was 2.43 metres long and required 8 servants and a ship’s boy. The latter, a young boy, would bring the powder from the gunpowder magazine below the waterline as the fight progressed. It was obviously out of the question to put a stock of powder next to the guns. A 36-gun weighed 3.25 tons (and 628 kg for the carriage), was 2,865 meters long, and required 14 servants and a boy. The effective range of these guns varied from approximately 600 metres to 1,500 metres. The considerable variations in range were largely due to the shooting conditions at sea: vessel list, wind direction and speed, etc.
The cannons were placed along the sides of the ships, behind the ports. Vessels were often classified according to the number of decks: two decks and three decks for ships of the line. The heaviest guns were of course placed on the lower deck, the lower battery, to ensure the balance of the ship. In too bad weather, the ports of the low battery on the leeward side (i.e. the side leaning towards the water, the wind coming from the other side, the windward side), had to remain closed, to avoid loading water. The lightest guns were positioned on the forecastle and the quarterdeck, which are the upper front and rear parts of the upper deck, in the open air. A few smaller caliber guns fired in the axis of the ship: the two or four hunting pieces to the front, and the retreat pieces to the rear.
From the 1780s, the Royal Navy, and later the French, loaded a new type of cannon: the carronades. They were shorter, lighter guns that fired huge cannonballs at short range, hence their nickname ” slaughterers “. Their calibres ranged from 18 pounds to 68 pounds (30,844 kg!). Their range was less than 250 meters. The carronades were used to smash the enemy ship at close range with huge cannonballs, or bunches of grapeshot, just before the boarding. In the dreadful butcheries of the naval battles of the time, they were the most devastating devices! It should be noted that the carronades were not counted in the generic number of guns that designated a ship.
As we have seen above, the French cannons fired significantly heavier balls than English cannons of the same category. The difference, reasoning in strict terms of weight, was far from being negligible by the standards of a ship of the line. And even less by the standards of a fleet. To assess it, it is only necessary to compare two colossuses: a three-deck of each of the navies in presence at the end of the 18th century. I chose the Orient for France and HMS Victory for England.
The Orient, a 3 decks of 118 guns, French flagship at the Battle of Aboukir on August 1 and 2, 1798 (the Battle of the Nile, for the English) carried 32 cannons of 36, 34 cannons of 24, 34 cannons of 12, 20 guns of 8 and 4 carronades of 36. This represented almost 1.312 tonnes of iron per full load. The HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar in October 1805, carried 30 guns of 32, 30 guns of 24, 22 long guns and 8 short guns of 12 and 2 carronades of 68. That was about 987 kilos of iron per full load. A difference of a quarter! At first sight overwhelming. Especially since the French ships were of a much superior design to the English ships.
But… Nelson was right to say that the perfect navy would have been made up of French ships served by British crews. Aboukir and Trafalgar signed in two steps the definitive annihilation of the French navy, and the total naval superiority of England for almost a century and a half.
If we look at the weight of iron fired, it is obvious that French and Spanish ships overtook English ships… by volley. In Aboukir, for example, the English had 14 ships of the line: 13 vessels of 74 guns and an unfortunate old 50 guns aboard which one would not be overconfident. The French lined up 13 ships of the line, including one 118 guns and three 80-gun ships, not to mention frigates and smaller ships. In Trafalgar, the English had 27 ships of the line, the Franco-Spanish 33 ships of the same class. A theoretically considerable superiority in both cases.
However, as you will read in my next article on crew recruitment, the British crews were incomparably better trained. Gunners, for example, were able to fire up to three volleys every two minutes. A performance that their opponents were totally unable to match, by far. The total weight fired by the British during a fight was therefore much higher, more regular and more precise. In addition, French ships, which were better built and more agile, were also lighter. Each English cannonball, although less heavy, caused the same damage as a French cannonball fired on the thicker English hulls.
Above all, the tactical choices of the opposing admirals made the difference. In both cases, Nelson refused the traditional in-line fight: the two fleets parallel to each other that cannon themselves until one of them succumbed. At Aboukir, the French fleet was anchored parallel to the coast; the ships had chained together, in order to oppose an impassable wall of fire to the enemy. A Maginot line on the water, in short. With the same result: it got overwhelmed. Nelson divided his fleet in two. Half of it slipped with an inconceivable audacity for the French, although Napoleonic in essence, between the coast and the French fleet. The other half positioned itself along the French on the open sea side. The two English columns were thus able to attack simultaneously on both sides the first half of the French line. Each French ship was bludgeoned on both sides by at least two English ships at the same time. The English firepower thus concentrated had become overwhelming, the annihilation of the French fleet inevitable. Chained together, the French ships of the second half of the line were unable to rescue the first half. Then the English ships only had to advance methodically and quietly, massacring the French ships one after the other. The explosion of the colossal Orient was Dantean. A scene that only the terrifying night of the 1917 mine war could recall.
In Trafalgar, Nelson again divided his fleet into two columns. But this time, they charged at the Franco-Spanish line perpendicularly in two places and cut it into segments. An English column took the Allied rear guard in a pincer and destroyed it, while the other isolated the vanguard and forbade it to come to the rescue of the rear guard. As in Aboukir, Nelson succeeded by his tactics alone in reversing the balance of the power of the opposing artilleries. It was a victory of annihilation. And like all sea fights, a horrible butchery. Nelson had already sacrificed an eye and an arm to England. On that day, he offered his country, although it did not love him very much, 125 years of undisputed supremacy, as well as his life.
The next article in this series will focus on the recruitment of seamen to populate these huge floating cities.