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Fighting Instructions and the Line of Battle

Where one belligerent is in a position-owing to the superiority of his naval material, or owing to the greater efficiency of the personnel of his fleet, or owing to fortuitous circumstances - to act strategically on the offensive with good prospect of securing definite maritime preponderance, the history of war proves it beyond possibility of doubt that the right course for that belligerent to pursue is to devote his energies at sea to wiping out the hostile fighting fleet.

Once that object has been achieved, the harrying of the enemy's commerce can be carried on with impunity, his over-sea possessions can be dealt with decisively, and it may even be possible to bring military force into play with vital effect. Before that object has been achieved the pursuit of "ulterior objects" is only justifiable when it does not endanger the prospects of the naval campaign.

This was the plan followed by the British Admiralty during the wars of the French Revolution and the Empire, by St Vincent and by Nelson. It was due to their firm adherence to fundamental principles of the art of war that Napoleon's over-sea projects were frustrated, that the colonial possessions of France and her allies were wrested from them before the negotiators met in conclave at Amiens or at Vienna, and that a comparatively small British army operating in the Peninsula cost the great conqueror more in men and money than did any one of his great campaigns upon the Continent up to his fatal expedition to Moscow.

If the true end of naval war is merely to assure one or more positions ashore, the navy becomes simply a branch of the army for a particular occasion, and subordinates its action accordingly ; but if the true end is to preponderate over the enemy's fleets and so control the sea, then the enemy's ships and fleets are the true objects to be assailed on all occasions.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, as large groups of sail-powered warships met in battle, line-ahead battle formations, wherein one ship followed another, became the norm for fleets. The Royal Navy codified these tactics for their officers in their Fighting Instructions. This doctrine spelled out which ships were to be placed where in the line of battle and charged each captain to maintain the line of battle without breaks, regardless of the peril to his own ship. Royal Navy admirals and captains upon pain of court-martial placed their ships in a line of battle parallel to the enemy's and closed the range for a slugging duel.

With the establishment of the principle of fighting fleets in line, which, though by no means then practised for the first time, grew into an elaborate system during the wars of Cromwell and Charles II. with the Dutch, and which James II., as Duke of York, deserves beyond others the credit of promoting, had come also the practice of indecisive battles. But the system must not be disparaged on that account. Not only had this orderly method of fighting become a necessity when fleets were assembled in such vast numbers, but it was the natural product of the age of improved military tactics, and the scientific treatment of the art of war.

The main reasons for fighting in line, broadside to broadside, each division sailing opposite to its counterpart in the enemy's line, were these. The admiral's motions might in this way, and this alone, be accurately followed, and his signals attended to, and thus the disasters proceeding from isolation and independent action on the part of captains of ships, often at first imperfectly trained, and likely enough to make mistakes of all kinds, were minimised.

The fleet was, theoretically at least, one vast machine. Still more advantageous was the system when fleets could be long kept together. The constant practice of sailing in close order, exercising as it did all the skill and vigilance of the officers, and teaching those of each ship to regard themselves as a factor in the whole body, caused them to acquire a habit of comprehending whatever was required of them, and performing it as if by instinct.

Little was heard of ships fouling one another on sea-cruises ; and the seamanship which could keep together old rotten vessels, with rotten spars, up to the very last moment, for fear of the enemy taking advantage of their absence, was never so signally triumphant as in these wars. In presence of the enemy the fleet tacked, or more usually wore, with unerring judgment, according to the maneuvers of the enemy, or the shifts of wind, ready, at the signal, to take advantage of any errors he might commit. How proud must an admiral have felt of the exact order which he had taken such pains to ensure. How distressing to his mind the contemplation of his disciplined force throwing away in the battle all the advantages it had gained beforehand.

But long custom had prevented naval officers in general from perceiving that the system was, after all, only a rudimentary stage of tactics, and that, however useful, it was by no means so important for the smaller kind of squadrons, with which battles were fought when colonies had to be protected and fleets of merchant vessels convoyed, as for large fleets ; as also that it was wholly unfitted for dealing with an enemy which was desirous of avoiding an engagement, and which sailed well enough to be able to escape. What was worse, it inevitably led to indecisive combats.

It is usually taken for granted that to the great Lord Rodney belongs the sole credit for putting an end to this state of things by " breaking the enemy's line," an operation which he put in practice, with distinguished results, in his famous battle off Dominica, and which, after 1782, became the tactics of the British navy. This is in a sense perfectly true, and not a word should be said to diminish Rodney's well-earned fame. But we have to consider what the full strength of the old practice was, in order to give due praise to those who broke through it, and led the way to the entire change which Rodney introduced.

Accidentally at first, beginning with Rodney at the Battle of the Saints (1782) and then, as improvised by Duncan at Campertown (1797), individual British captains and admirals began winning dramatic battles with tactics contrary to the Fighting Instructions. As a ship's captain at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797, Nelson broke the line of battle and charged the enemy, accompanied impulsively (and fortunately) by several of his colleagues. Their action decided the outcome favorably for the British. As the fleet commander at Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson's battle plan for a perpendicular approach toward the enemy line openly contradicted the procedures in the Fighting Instructions. Furthermore, he unconventionally decentralized tactical control of his fleet and ships' maneuvers. After making his overall intentions for the battle clear, Nelson left his captains to their discretion. The French and Spanish lost 17 of their 33 ships of the line to the 27 English ships present; the English suffered meager casualties (including Nelson). As a result of these successes, after almost two centuries and far beyond their useful life, the Fighting Instruction's grip upon the Royal Navy permanently loosened.

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Page last modified: 16-11-2015 17:59:22 ZULU