The navy in the 18th century – 2. Recruitment

After a first article devoted to artillery on board warships at the end of the 18th century, this second article deals with the recruitment and training of French and English officers and crew.

As I mentioned in the previous article, Nelson, always iconoclastic in all things, stated without joking that the best navy in the world would be made up of English crews aboard French ships. Unfortunately, he was not wrong. It is only necessary to compare the recruitment and training of officers and sailors from the two eternal rival navies to observe how fundamental the differences were.

1 – The officers

If it were necessary to caricature in a single sentence what made the difference between the French and English navy officer corps, it could be observed that French officers were aristocrats trained in land-based schools, and that English officers were shaped at sea from their youngest age.

The future English officers boarded as midshipmen at a very young age, between twelve and fifteen years old. These “young gentlemen” were entrusted to the commander, often a member or friend of the family. These apprentice officers were by no means all noble, although it had become more difficult for commoners to enter or advance in the corps during the reign of George III. So was Nelson the son of a pastor and Cook the son of a peasant. For several years, the young midshipmen were trained at sea by the petty officers (non-commissioned officers who sometimes possessed decades of experience), the lieutenants and the commander himself. The training was both theoretical and practical. Theory was taught at sea to the young gentlemen: mathematics, trigonometry, navigation, flag signals, etc. As for the practice, the midshipmen already exercised full commands, such as that of a battery or a mast, including in combat, or even a watch. After an average of six years, they were sent to the Admiralty in London to pass the competitive examination to become a Lieutenant, that is, to become full officers. A difficult competitive process that many did not succeed on the first attempt. Needless to say, with such a system, the Navy obtained an officer corps of a very high quality, and of a rigorous, even rigorist, discipline.

In addition, unlike the French navy, the Navy had not erected an uncrossable border between the merchant navy and the war navy, quite the contrary. In peacetime, officers disembarked on half pay did not hesitate to join the East India Company, for instance. This further increased their experience. As soon as the conflicts resumed, their reintegration was prompt.

The French officers came from the companies of the Garde de la Marine (Navy Guards), which went through various vicissitudes. Created in 1627 by Richelieu and reformed by Colbert in 1669, the Guards disappeared and were transformed into a Royal Navy School between 1773 and 1775. But this one was abolished to create three new Guards companies, a damaging error of a purely political nature.

The admittance to the Guards was restricted to the nobles. However, non-noble officers could be former petty officers, officers of the merchant navy or privateers. That is why in 1757, the Secretary of State for the Navy Moras divided the naval officers into red officers (the colour of their waistcoat, short trousers and stockings, beneath the blue suit) from the Guards, and blue officers, the other ones, who wore blue waistcoats and short trousers. One can guess in what contempt the former held the latter. It is hard to understand today if one considers that Duguay-Trouin or Jean Bart were commoners, to mention only these two famous privateers. The perverse effect of the system was mainly due to the blatant lack of discipline it maintained. Officers, because they were of noble rank as high or higher than their superiors, did not hesitate to question orders or even disobey them, even in the middle of a battle. Suffren suffered it several times in India, and it was only one example among many that cost us several defeats. The Guards themselves were known both for their undeniable courage and for their total lack of rigour and discipline.

Uniforms of the red officers

The theoretical classes were of a high standard, raised again by Sartine when he became Secretary of State for the Navy. But service to the sea was almost non-existent. In principle, midshipmen, between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, were appointed Enseignes (lieutenants) after two years of seagoing service and Lieutenants de Vaisseau (commanders) after four years of additional seagoing service, through a competitive examination. In practice, this sea service consisted mainly of port service. Despite the establishment in 1772 by the Marquis de Boynes, Sartine’s predecessor to the Secretary of State for the Navy, of an “evolution squadron” to maneuver in the open sea (with only three ships of the line and six frigates), the frugal periods counted by French officers offshore were ridiculously short compared with the English officers who spent their lives at sea. To the point that having made only one real long journey was already an element of distinction for a French officer. Striking and brailing up sails at the port did not teach anyone how to manoeuvre in line in bad weather, how to fire a gun, how to send and read signals.

It should also be noted that some of our officers were trained by the Maltese Order’s navy. Not just any ones: Tourville, Grasse, Suffren are among them. These officers spent time at sea, indeed. But while they certainly got the best seamanship training there, it was also the worst training as a naval officer of the line. They learned individualism and tricks, much more than fleet fighting.

Finally, the red officers’ corps included a considerable number of dead wood. It was out of the question for noble officers to forfeit by joining the merchant navy (which was much smaller than the English merchant navy) when there were not enough commissions in the war navy. They therefore remained ashore, but continued to progress in seniority in the hierarchy, thus blocking the promotion of more skilled officers. Guichen, du Chaffault, d’Orvilliers had to wait until they were over sixty before reaching the ranks of admirals.

2 – The sailors

As with officers, the time spent at sea by British sailors was disproportionate compared to French sailors. Although French ships were sometimes of much superior design to English ships (this will be the subject of my next article), Navy sailors generally manoeuvred much better than their enemies.

The method of recruitment differed completely from one navy to another. In France, one of Colbert’s fundamental reforms was the abolition of the press, i.e. the enlistment by force. He replaced it with the class system: conscription in coastal and river populations. But on the eve of the American Revolution, the system was no longer working. The pay, which had never been fabulous, was paid very irregularly. Supplies no longer reached the crews: sailors wore rags, hammocks were missing, food was foul. Naturally, the conscripts did everything to disappear into the wild before being taken on board. There were even mutinies in Le Havre in 1760. The French merchant navy was too small to provide, even by force, the missing sailors. The navy was forced to use expedients: stevedores, soldiers, even convicts. Few real sailors. Like in the English navy after all. Except that in this one, the time spent at sea and a fierce discipline ended up bonding a crew and making it efficient. The French navy knew neither time at sea nor discipline.

The HMS Victory deck at Trafalgar

The Navy’s crews requirements were much higher than those of the French navy. At its peak, at the end of Louis XVI’s reign, it numbered about 65,000 men. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, 120,000 men populated the English Navy. The latter could not do otherwise than use the press to complete its crews. In concrete terms, commanders sent ashore, on the coast, detachments of marines (lobsters, so called because of their red uniforms) to forcibly take the men they met ashore. Priority should be given to “civilian” seamen: merchant service, fishermen. But they became cautious and more difficult to find. Then the taverns were surrounded by surprise, from where all the customers were automatically taken on board. Finally, the press detachments had to go further and further inland, picking up any unfortunate people who passed by on the way. Thus, hairdressers, vagrants, notary clerks or agricultural workers were caught in the traps. Everything but sailors, they sometimes left behind a wife and children for whom they were the only resource. One can imagine the psychological state of these poor guys. A terrifying discipline, the sea and the years made them experienced and terribly efficient crews. But not without damage. The massive mutinies of Spithead and Nore in 1797 deeply shocked the British Navy. After these, warships systematically boarded marines units. Their function was to dissuade crews from mutiny, and if they did, to immediately crack down on the mutiny, even if it was drowning it in blood. However, commanders did not have the power to pronounce a death sentence. A sailor facing the death penalty remained a prisoner until he could be brought before a council of war, chaired by the admiral commanding the fleet. He was entitled to a defence by an officer. Only this council had the legal power to sentence to death and enforce the sentence.

The next article will focus on shipbuilding and the excellence of French architects.

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