Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

The Beginning of the Struggle

"Admirals all for England's sake,

Honour be yours; and fame

And honour, as long as waves shall break,

To Nelson's peerless name."


Let us turn again to Napoleon and Nelson, now ready to begin their conflict.

It has been said that nothing in the history of the world is quite so wonderful as the history of Napoleon, with its monstrous triumphs and its tragic fall,—nothing is more wonderful than the history of France immediately after the Revolution. Her success in the wars that followed was immense, until, in the year 1796, she had won over as her friends Spain and Holland, though England and Austria were still her enemies. Now Austria ruled over a great part of Northern Italy, and it was against her that Napoleon was first sent in the spring of this year.

"Soldiers, you are half starved and half naked," said the young commander to his troops. "I will lead you into the most fertile valleys of the world: there you will find glory and riches."

His success in North Italy astonished not only France but Europe. The "Little Corporal," as his soldiers called him, fought eighteen pitched battles and won them all, till in little over a year he had made himself master of Italy and changed the face of Europe. He returned to Paris amid boundless enthusiasm. He had conquered the Austrians, but the English were still formidable.

"Go!" cried one of the Directors of France, clasping Napoleon to him,—"Go, capture the giant corsair that infests the seas."

Let us turn for a moment to the "giant corsair," and understand the danger of its strength to France. This very year the English had gained two great naval victories over the allies of France—Spain and Holland.

The first was fought off Cape St Vincent, where a Spanish fleet of twenty-seven ships was waiting to join two French fleets, when 100 sail would sweep proudly over the seas to invade the British Isles. Sir John Jervis, the English admiral, was cruising off Cape St Vincent, a headland on the coast of Portugal, to prevent the union of the fleets. Nelson was in command of one of his ships—the Captain. "The fate of England hung on the part he was about to play."

It was but daybreak on the morning of February 4, when a hazy dawn suddenly lifted, disclosing to the English admiral the Spanish fleet not far away. Huge ships loomed large out of the fog. Jervis signalled to prepare for battle.

"There are eight ships, Sir John," they reported to him, as one by one they appeared.

"There are twenty ships, Sir John," they reported presently.

"Very well," was the undaunted answer.

"There are twenty-seven ships, Sir John," was the next report, "and we are but fifteen."

"Enough—no more of that. The die is cast, and if there were fifty sail I would go through them."

The battle soon began. It would take too long to tell how Nelson was the moving spirit of it all,—how, with the genius of a great commander, he alone read the purpose of the Spanish admiral, and how he took the one step that saved England.

"Victory or Westminster Abbey!" he had cried, as with fiery zeal he had climbed the bulwarks of a huge Spanish vessel.

So the Spaniards were beaten, and the proposed invasion of Great Britain did not come off this time.

But there was danger of invasion from another of those allies who had recently made their peace with France. The Dutch navy was still renowned: it would help France to defeat England on the high seas.

All through the spring of this year—1797—a splendid Dutch fleet had been lying in the Texel, ready to take French troops to the invasion of Great Britain.

For five long months Admiral Duncan, of the British fleet, had blockaded the enemy's ships at the mouth of the Texel. But mutiny broke out amid English sailors, and one day nearly all his ships spread their sails and disappeared away to England to join the other mutineers. Admiral Duncan now did one of the pluckiest deeds ever chronicled in the annals of the sea.

"Keep the Texel closed!"—these were his orders. He would not fail in obedience. He knew there were some ninety-five ships in the Texel, thirty-three being battleships. Mustering his crew, he told the men that he meant to do his duty till the ship sank. They were in shallow water, and even when they were at the bottom, the flag of England would still fly above them.

" 'I've taken the depth to a fathom!' he cried,

'And I'll sink with a right good will;

For I know when we're all of us under the tide

My flag will be fluttering still.' "

So he anchored his ship at the mouth of the Texel, where the channel was very narrow, and there for three days and nights he "corked up the bottle which held the Dutch fleet." It was a moment of peril—one of the gravest perils of the whole war—when stout-hearted Admiral Duncan represented the sea power of England. In order to deceive the Dutch captains, he kept gallantly signalling to an imaginary fleet beyond the sky-line. The long hours of loneliness and anxiety passed, and the Dutchmen, cooped up in the river mouth, little dreamt that they were being held in check by a "deserted admiral upon a desolate sea."

When at last the Dutch ships emerged, Duncan's danger was over. His faithless vessels had returned to him, and he was only waiting his chance to fight the fleet of Holland. The two fleets met at last off the coast, on the morning of October 11. It was a squally day, and the ships rolled heavily in the dark waters of the North Sea, where the English and Dutch fleets strove for the mastery. The Dutch fleet was one of the finest that ever put to sea, and the men fought with a stubborn courage worthy of their old fame. It was not till their ships were riddled with shot, their masts falling, and their sailors dying by hundreds, that the Dutch admiral, De Winter, was obliged to surrender to the English. The victory assured, old Admiral Duncan—for he was sixty-six—called his crew on deck, and with faces still black with powder, they knelt on the "shot-torn planks" to thank God for their success.

So the crushing victory of Camperdown consoled "one of the bravest of the brave for an agony unrivalled in the story of the sea."

Admiral Duncan had broken the naval strength of Holland. No more need England fear her power by sea.