Naval History during the 19th Century



The Battle of Trafalgar, depicted here in its opening phase

The French Revolutionary Wars of 1793–1802 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–15 saw the Royal Navy reach a peak of efficiency, dominating the navies of all Britain's adversaries. Initially Britain did not involve itself in the French Revolution, but in 1793 France declared war, leading to the Glorious First of June battle in the following year off Brest, followed by the capture of French colonies in the Caribbean. The Dutch Republic declared war in 1795 and Spain in 1796, on the side of France. Further action came in 1797 and 1798, with the Battle of Cape St Vincent and the Battle of the Nile (also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay), which brought Admiral Horatio Nelson to the public's attention. The latter engagement cut off Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, though French forces remained in control of that country for three more years. In 1800 Russia, Sweden and Denmark agreed to resist British warships searching neutral shipping for French goods and in 1801 the Danes closed their ports to British shipping. This caused Britain to attack ships and the fort at the Battle of Copenhagen.

1) Historical overview

The French Revolutionary Wars (1793–1801) and Napoleonic Wars (1803–1814 and 1815) saw the Royal Navy reach a peak of efficiency, dominating the navies of all Britain's adversaries, which spent most of the war blockaded in port. The Navy achieved an emphatic early victory at the Glorious First of June (1794), and gained a number of smaller victories while supporting abortive French Royalist efforts to regain control of France. In the course of one such operation, the majority of the French Mediterranean fleet was captured or destroyed during a short-lived occupation of Toulon in 1793.[85] The military successes of the French Revolutionary régime brought the Spanish and Dutch navies into the war on the French side, but the losses inflicted on the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797 and the surrender of their surviving fleet to a landing force at Den Helder in 1799 effectively eliminated the Dutch navy from the war The Spithead and Nore mutinies in 1797 incapacitated the Channel and North Sea fleets, leaving Britain potentially exposed to invasion, but were rapidly resolved. The British Mediterranean fleet under Horatio Nelson failed to intercept Napoleon Bonaparte's 1798 expedition to invade Egypt, but annihilated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, leaving Bonaparte's army isolated.[88] The emergence of a Baltic coalition opposed to Britain led to an attack on Denmark, which lost much of its fleet in the Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and came to terms with Britain.

During these years, the Navy also conducted amphibious operations that captured most of the French Caribbean islands and the Dutch colonies at the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon. Though successful in their outcome, the expeditions to the Caribbean, conducted on a grand scale, led to devastating losses from disease. Except for Ceylon and Trinidad, these gains were returned following the Peace of Amiens in 1802, which briefly halted the fighting.[90] Menorca, which had been repeatedly lost and regained during the 18th century, was restored to Spain, its place as the Navy's main base in the Mediterranean being taken by the new acquisition of Malta. War resumed in 1803 and Napoleon attempted to assemble a large enough fleet from the French and Spanish squadrons blockaded in various ports to cover an invasion of England. The Navy frustrated these efforts, and following the abandonment of the invasion plan, Nelson defeated the combined Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar (1805).

After Trafalgar, large-scale fighting at sea remained limited to the destruction of small, fugitive French squadrons, and amphibious operations which again captured the colonies which had been restored at Amiens, along with France's Indian Ocean base at Mauritius and parts of the Dutch East Indies, including Java and the Moluccas. In 1807, French plans to seize the Danish fleet led to a pre-emptive British attack on Copenhagen, resulting in the surrender of the entire Danish navy. The impressment of British and American sailors from American ships contributed to the outbreak of the War of 1812 (1812–1814) against the United States, in which the naval fighting was largely confined to commerce raiding and single-ship actions. The brief renewal of war after Napoleon's return to power in 1815 did not bring a resumption of naval combat.

Between 1815 and 1914, the Navy saw little serious action, owing to the absence of any opponent strong enough to challenge its dominance. During this period, naval warfare underwent a comprehensive transformation, brought about by steam propulsion, metal ship construction, and explosive munitions. Despite having to completely replace its war fleet, the Navy managed to maintain its overwhelming advantage over all potential rivals. Due to British leadership in the Industrial Revolution, the country enjoyed unparalleled shipbuilding capacity and financial resources, which ensured that no rival could take advantage of these revolutionary changes to negate the British advantage in ship numbers. In 1859, the fleet was estimated to number about 1000 in all, including both combat and non-combat vessels. In 1889, Parliament passed the Naval Defence Act, which formally adopted the 'two-power standard', which stipulated that the Royal Navy should maintain a number of battleships at least equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies.

The first major action that the Royal Navy saw during this period was the Bombardment of Algiers in 1816 by a joint Anglo-Dutch fleet under Lord Exmouth, to force the Barbary state of Algiers to free Christian slaves and to halt the practice of enslaving Europeans. During the Greek War of Independence, the combined navies of Britain, France and Russia defeated an Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827, the last major action between sailing ships. During the same period, the Royal Navy took anti-piracy actions in the South China Sea.[99] Between 1807 and 1865, it maintained a Blockade of Africa to counter the illegal slave trade. It also participated in the Crimean War of 1854–56, as well as numerous military actions throughout Asia and Africa, notably the First and Second Opium Wars with Qing dynasty China. On 27 August 1896, the Royal Navy took part in the Anglo-Zanzibar War, which was the shortest war in history.

The end of the 19th century saw structural changes brought about by the First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, who retired, scrapped or placed into reserve many of the older vessels, making funds and manpower available for newer ships. He also oversaw the development of HMS Dreadnought, launched in 1906. Its speed and firepower rendered all existing battleships obsolete. The industrial and economic development of Germany had by this time overtaken Britain, enabling the Imperial German Navy to attempt to outpace British construction of dreadnoughts. In the ensuing arms race, Britain succeeded in maintaining a substantial numerical advantage over Germany, but for the first time since 1805 another navy now existed with the capacity to challenge the Royal Navy in battle.

2) Organization Nineteenth Century

2.1) High Command of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom

2.2) Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of United Kingdom

2.3) Senior Civil and Military advisers to the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces United Kingdom

2.4) The Cabinet of United Kingdom

3) The Admiralty of United Kingdom

  1. Department of Admiralty (1800-1899)

4) Conflicts during the 19th century

4.1) French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815)

4.2) War of 1812

4.3) Pax Britannica, 1815–1895

5) Sources


6) Attribution

  1. Image of Battle if Trafalgar by User:Bogomolov.PL at
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