What factors (and which events in particular) contributed to Britain building the world’s strongest navy until the early 20th century?
I look forward to your feedback
I’m thinking more GQ than Great Debates.
Off we go.
Right off the bat, being an Island Nation and leading the early part of Industrial Revolution are probably the main two contributions.
European nations were busy keeping up armies as invasion was an ever present and fairly simple threat. Once unification occurred, the UK was able to devote a larger portion of their military spending on the Navy which supported there merchants which sent more taxes to the government and meant they could spend more on the Navy.
I thought it might have something to do with unique administrative and shipbuilding skills in additional to efficient taxation and government. Perhaps the way in which the Admiralty promoted, trained?
They had all that lumber sitting in the back yard. It was either a navy or build a big deck off Scotland.
Being an Island was probably the most important factor. If anyone wanted to invade us they had to come by boat. so all we had to do was take control of The English Channel.
Add in a growing Empire with the need to “show the flag” around the world and you have a good reason for the government to invest in ships. Of course the French, Spanish and Dutch also had Empires and large successful navies so the English did not have it all their own way.
Another important factor was that, unlike the army or other continental navies, the RN promoted largely on merit and all officers had to pass examinations in seamanship and navigation. Then there were the rewards: Armies could loot, but that was often prohibited, but even a humble deck sailor could earn enough prize money to set themselves up in a pub or a farm back home if they were lucky. Lucky to survive and lucky to be on a frigate with a lot of victories.
In reading Six Frigates, concerning the large frigates made by the United States and used during the War of 1812, I learned that the winner of an engagement either killed the other officers at the beginning of the fight, or had trained the crew very well in gunnery and handling the ship.
In which century, are you talking about?
Britain* was a maritime power since about the 17th century. However , the causes of dominance in each century were different.
*Since the Union of Crowns,due to the fact that foreign policy was a royal matter, practically the whole Island had one policy in this sephere.
It seems to me that Britain was the ascendant naval power from the reign of Elizabeth I onward and continued to be. Some combination of consistent factors must have been in play to maintain that superiority. I’m trying to narrow them down.
I’d also consider the events of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution a factor, in impacting British culture towards the sea.
The result of those events was to set Parliament as the supreme institution of the state, that Parliament controlled taxation, and that no standing army could exist with Parliament’s consent. And Parliament was quite paranoid about having a large peacetime standing army and its threat to civil liberties.
So British peacetime armies tended to be small compared to European neighbours. That meant aristocracy needed an alternative outlet for martial ambitions. The Royal Navy wasn’t as much of a threat, existed as a crown institution (unlike the army), and coincided with a lot of other interests.
One thing, anyway, basically it meant the Navy became a major recipient of military talent.
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Thanks Malden Campbell. Was immigration ever a factor in developed a more talented admiralty or were the British admiralty all drawn from old British stock. Can one draw any comparisons with the talent the United States later drew on from immigrants?
Samuel Pepys is known as the ‘father of the Royal Navy’.
He reformed the whole administration of the navy, greatly reduced corruption and inefficiency, introduced the first examinations for officers, improved standards in ship design, made the dockyards more efficient, improved the quality of rations, and generally put the navy on a good footing for the next few centuries.
The fact that they were an island nation is the motivation but does not - by itself - explain why their ships were superior. Clearly it motivated them to invest in good ships and trained crews, but any other nation could have done that if they chose.
The first big factor was superiority in English ship design. By 1573, England was a second rate power and Spain dominated the oceans. English ships could sail faster, manoeuvre better and carry heavier guns. Up until this time, guns were not decisive at sea but the battle in 1588 demonstrated that technology had outpaced Spanish tactics. I suspect the Spanish suffered from hubris brought by their wealth and religion, whereas England had to be pragmatic and make maximum use of her limited resources.
By 1800, England remained the leader in shipbuilding technology. Admiralty records show that British-made ships required much less maintenance than French-made ships due to their superior manufacture. The British also maintained the lead in gun design. They invented the carronade gun which maximized their short-range firepower. The French continued to use longer guns whose range exceeded their accuracy. (Basically, the British had it where it counted)
As mentioned above, the British were also innovators in training and meritocracy. By the Napoleonic War they had developed a system of training and aptitude tests. This was important because it meant incompetent aristocrats couldn’t skate by on their wealth and titles like they did in basically everything else.
It’s also worth mentioning that their opponents - the French - led a rather bloody revolution that saw most of the French aristocracy killed or imprisoned. This was a big problem when “the aristocracy” included most of one’s experienced naval officers. Oops.
Napoleon did just fine on land withiut aristocratic officers.
The French designed some excellent ships, and those captured by the British were often taken into the RN. The British were good with long range cannon as well as the carronade. One had to maneuver close to hit anything with the carronade, while suffering the fire of the enemy cannon.
Much of British superiority during the Napoleonic Wars was due to the inexperience of French crews, kept from training at sea by the British blockade of French harbors.
Not my line of expertise I’m afraid. I seem to remember reading vaguely that the Royal Navy was, compared to other military arms in Europe, relatively meritocratic, but I can’t say to what extent that is true. I don’t doubt migration had a positive impact, but I can’t say with any authority.
The only other things I can add of use was that Britain is home to some of the largest and deepest harbours in the world, making shipbuilding quite attractive. It certainly gave Britain and advantage over the Dutch, the chief rival in the 17th Century, which has quite shallow harbours.
Plus when the Industrial Revolution came about, Welsh coal was ideal for fuelling steamships, and the Royal Navy set up chains of coaling stations all over the Empire.
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Once you made Captain, all you had to do to become an Admiral was outlive the Admirals and other candidates.
To train a competent infantry officer took about 3-4 months.
To train a competent cavalry officer took perhaps 9-12 months.
To train a competent artillery officer took about 2-3 years.
To train a competent navy officer, in the age of large square-rigged ships… was a whole different story. Normally in the Royal Navy a boy would start as a midshipman at the age of about 12 or 14. If a boy joined the navy at 18-20 it would be said that he was too old, he would never make a good officer. It took many years of experience at sea, under competent officers, to train a competent officer.
When the French lost most of their navy officers during the Revolution, the navy never recovered. Besides the loss of trained personnel, the other major factor was the British blockade of French harbours. This meant that any time a French ship sailed out of harbour, it might be in battle within hours. There was little opportunity to train officers and crews at sea, as they were mostly forced to remain in harbour.
The British navy, on the other hand, was almost constantly at sea during the Napoleonic wars, sailing up and down near French and other continental harbours. They were sometimes at sea for years at a time, resupplied by a constant stream of cargo vessels from Britain. They remained at sea summer and winter, in all weathers, dealing with tides, shoals, and dangerous rocks off hostile shores, and with the likelihood of going into action at any time. The result was that the RN became better and better trained, and more and more superior to the French navy.
And he was beaten by an aristocratic officer who had purchased his commission. But was supported by an Army with what we would recognize as a General Staff.
I was always taught that it was about keeping the trade routes open, and not letting any other European power get the upper hand to disrupt our commerce or to invade, be that (successively) Spain, the Netherlands, France or Germany. The idea of a navy supposedly goes back to Alfred the Great, but the wider commercial imperative goes back to at least the 16th century: Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher, Raleigh and all that.
But certainly the ambition was made easier to achieve by many of the factors above: a navy more or less has to be a standing force, and needed meritocratic officering (another by-product of the privateering age) - and we had lots of oak.