The Naval Brigades (Introduction): “Nothing puts them out”
By the Editor – over a four-part serialised set of articles the author proffers a case study of the Naval Brigades’ performance in three conflicts, especially in comparison to their Army counterparts, and how that impacted operationally thereafter.
This article is published in the latest edition of the Naval Review. www.naval-review.com
“Tough, quick-witted and masters of their equipment”is a description used by the modern Royal Navy to describe its people and the skill sets of those it is looking to recruit. However, it is a description that would be immediately recognisable if applied to a naval rating or officer of Queen Victoria’s Navy. In an era where global communications did not exist, when a stricken ship could not send out a signal for help and where RN commanders-in-theatre were effectively empowered as a Consul, such qualities were essential. A commander on the spot had to be trusted to have as great an appreciation of the geo-political situation as possible in order to be trusted to act in the best interests of his political masters in London. Similarly, a rating at sea or ashore had to be able to react quickly to take charge of a situation in the event that his commander was incapacitated or a repair to a ship needed to be affected quickly. Holland has written of the principle of ‘Mission Command’ as if it was one which evolved from within the German Army of the Second World War, when, in fact, it was perfected by the RN the best part of a
century earlier. Over a series of articles I will examine the performance of Naval Brigades in three of Britain’s most well-known and well researched conflicts of the 19th Century:The Crimean War, Anglo-Zulu War and Second Boer War. In all these conflicts, Naval Brigades operated alongside the British Army and it has been the poor performance of the Army in these campaigns which has drawn the greatest share of analysis. These conflicts are also separated by periods of between 20–25 years and provide excellent examples of how the Naval Brigades evolved in terms of doctrine and technology. Ultimately my aim
is to compare the performance of the Naval Brigades against that of their counterparts in the Army, and to determine what it was that allowed these sailors, who were not trained soldiers, to be so effective where the Army failed to be so.
It was the ability to operate independently, not dependant upon bloated chains of command, that would contribute to the effectiveness of the Naval Brigades wherever they were deployed and draw such praise as that offered them by Molyneux. British sailors enjoyed a reputation amongst their Army counterparts for cheerfulness in the face of adversity, and for permeating the misery of war’s unsavoury situations with their own humour as described by Field Marshall, once Midshipman, Evelyn Wood during the Crimean War. This reputationfor toughness and performance should hardly come as a surprise, however, as by the middle of the 19th Century British sailors had been demonstrating an ability to fight effectively ashore for the best part of 250 years. During the assault on Cartagena in 1586, sailors storming ashore from boats to attack Spanish positions ashore had displayed the tactical initiative and flexibility required to out-manoeuvre the enemy as well as the tenacity to out-fight them. Similarly during the Napoleonic Wars, Thomas Cochrane notably displayed an aptitude for littoral warfare. Undertaking several raids ashore that would later allow him to lay claim to being ‘the First Commando’. And in one instance, with his ship’s company fighting an action in conjunction with the Spanish against the French, that was significant enough to alter their timetable for the invasion of Spain. There can be no denying however that, in the latter half of the 19th Century, the RN perfected the art of littoral warfare to an extent never seen before and that the event of sailors fighting ashore became a common occurrence rather than the preserve of individual, enterprising commanders. Fittingly, it had been the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which had left the RN as the dominant force on the world’s oceans, that had allowed the Service to achieve this.
Victory over Napoleon also saw the destruction of Britain’s nearest two naval competitors: the French and Spanish navies. This allowed the RN to
effectively exercise “use of the sea” as put forward in Booth’s model
Booth contends that in order to achieve true ‘Use of the Sea’, a navy
must be able to achieve all three facets of the model. The 19th Century saw Britain able to use its navy however it saw fit because it had no direct rival to contest its ‘Use of the Sea’, which therefore allowed it to fulfil all three functions
of a navy with ease. In its use of the Naval Brigades, the RN had the perfect tool to fulfil these three roles. This is emphasised by Grove who contends that by 1845 the RN had reorganised itself, both in doctrine and in equipment, into a force which specialised in the execution of coastal and littoral warfare: “No coastline was safe.” Effectively, although the Naval Brigades were not comprised of professional soldiers, it was no great surprise that their performance ashore was of such high quality because they were executing exactly the task that the RN had organised itself for in the absence of a rival battlefleet to destroy. It is surprising then that Grove, writing nearly 25 years after Booth and stressing that the absence of a challenge to the RN on the high-seas had resulted in it making a doctrinal shift to the practise of littoral warfare, makes no connection to Booth or indeed how this resulted in the perfect conditions for the Service’s increased use of Naval Brigades.
The period 1845-1901 would see Britain’s empire expand to the zenith of its size and power, yet conversely this coincided with consistently low levels of defence spending. In 1845 Britain spent £13.5 million, or 2.1% of its GDP on Defence. By 1865, just ten years on from its involvement in the Crimean War, Britain had increased defence spending to £25.9 million yet this still only amounted to just 2.5% of GDP, despite an increase in GDP of nearly £400 million during the 20 years in between 1845–1865. During the time period 1854–1865 Naval Brigades were engaged in no less than six major conflicts ashore, all of which ended in victory, yet this meagre increase in defence spending demonstrates that whilst the RN might have been the dominant fighting force on the world’s oceans and in the littoral space, it was expected to maintain this position with a tightly controlled budget even as the Empire expanded.
This imbalance between the aggressive foreign policy of Britain and its inadequate defence budget played directly into the hands of the RN with its new doctrine of littoral warfare. The expanding Empire, and the RN’s ability to exercise uncontested ‘Use of the Sea’ gave it a global presence, meaning there would almost certainly be a Naval vessel somewhere near a crisis point to be able to react quickly to Imperial emergencies, which represented an economy of force. This was especially useful when the time came that Fig 1. Booth’s Model on Use of the Sea the British government began actively looking to avoid adding to its expensive colonial possessions and maintain a global system of free trade. The mobility and presence of Naval Brigades was preferable to establishing a permanent and costly Army garrison due to the cold economics of the difference between the wages of a sailor against those of a soldier. A
typical sailor’s pay ranged from £86–£107 per man per day whilst the rate of pay for typical soldier stood at £157 per man per day.15 Both Brooks and Lambert have highlighted the RN’s primary mission in the 19th Century was increasingly to police Britain’s empire and ensure the continuing stability of free trade, and both have written that this was consistently achieved against a backdrop of miserliness from the Service’s paymasters in London, yet
neither have made a connection between each other’s work. This is a particular oversight on the part of Brooks, whose work is concerned specifically with the performance of the Naval Brigades in the latter half of the 19th Century.
The elements of rear-echelon support received by both the Army and Naval Brigades during the campaigns in which they fought alongside one another was, even by the standards of the 19th Century, poor. This would prove to be particularly true during both service’s experiences in the Crimean War. However it is the story of the Army’s initially abysmal medical support and the role of Florence Nightingale which has passed into legend in the public consciousness. The image of ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ and her efforts to address the atrocious conditions of Scutari Hospital are still written of extensively, though with little analysis, in the present day. Such is the focus on Nightingale, that the story of the Naval Hospital established at Therapia, and the care offered to the wounded sailors of the Naval Brigades, has received much less attention. Studies of this facility have revealed it to be organised and managed in a fashion of which Nightingale herself would have approved, and that this level of medical
support for the Naval Brigades was not merely limited to the hospitals in the rearward areas. In the aftermath of the Battle of the Alma it has been estimated that some 1600 wounded were left unattended with no dedicated ambulance service to remove them from the field, assuch, the task fell to the sailors and marines of the Fleet. The proximity of the Fleet to the fighting at the Alma meant that every medical officer in the Fleet, as well as 1000 sailors, were available to be employed as an improvised ambulance service ferrying the wounded the four miles from the shore to the ships for onward transport to Scutari. With no stretchers available the sailors improvised; slinging hammocks between boats oars to allow them to carry the wounded, and again demonstrating their ability to adapt and improvise in situations for which they were not envisaged to be in. The recent experiences of the British Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have underlined the importance of effective frontline and rearechelon medical care to maintaining the effectiveness of a fighting force, something which the ever-resourceful sailors of the Victorian Navy subliminally understood long before their counterparts in the Army.20 It was a progressive attitude which would be displayed by the Royal Navy and Admiralty towards such innovations, in particular technology, throughout this period. Again however, the connection between this support and the effectiveness of the Naval Brigades on operations has not been made and suffers from being treated as two separate narratives.
So, the effectiveness of the Naval Brigades on campaign between 1845-1901 stands in stark contrast to the ineffectiveness of the British Army during the same time period. This will be highlighted through a comparison of the Naval Brigade’s performance against the Army in three distinct case studies. These were the decades that would see the Army commit to three of the worst organised and managed campaigns in its history, so it seems fitting that these would also see the Naval Brigades demonstrate all the attributes which they became renowned for: The Crimean War, Zulu War and Second Boer War. As much has been written about the causes of the British Army’s blunders, as there has little been about what allowed untrained sailor so be so effective in the same theatres. Lambert writes of the outcome of the Crimean War
as a victory for Britain in which the strategic and political gains were disproportionate to the number of troops committed. It is true that of the three major allied combatants, Britain, France and Turkey, Britain committed the least numbers of troops. However, the country’s losses to all causes, including those who were wounded, amounted to nearly 38% of those committed in total. By any military standards this is a truly disastrous return, and saying that the Nation had won a victory out of all proportions to the numbers of troops committed would be something hard to comfort the average soldier with on his return to Britain, after witnessing the carnage of such battles as Inkerman and The Redan.
Regan identifies the root cause of these appalling losses as the unfitness for command of the Army’s leadership, highlighting the famous example of Lord’s Lucan and Cardigan refusing to communicate directly to one another as a result of personally disliking each other and linking this directly to the disastrous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. This is reinforced by the Tombs’, who place the spotlight on the British Army’s commander in the Crimea, Lord Raglan, and draws attention to his eccentricities, which led to repeated diplomatic faux pas with his French allies in the field, demonstrating further evidence of
a lack of suitability for high command. This depiction of the British Army’s leadership in the Crimea being inept and subsequently the cause of the Army’s poor performance has even led to it being referenced in works of historical fiction. Yet, aside from Brooks highlighting that this period coincided with an increased professionalism within the RoyalNavy, little has been offered as an explanation as to why the Naval Brigades performed sofavourably compared to the Army.
A similar situation regarding root cause analysis can be found when assessing the British Army’s performance in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Like the Crimea, which in the context of historical research and public consciousness has come to be dominated by the incompetence of Army Commanders and the events of the battle of Balaclava, the Zulu War has gone much the same way with examining the personality of Lord Chelmsford and the Battle of Isandlwana. That Lord Chelmsford was unsuited to high command is beyond any doubt. A veteran of the Crimean War, though serving in a staff position rather than on
the frontlines, Chelmsford conformed to all the stereotypes of the arrogant Victorian-Era British Army Officer. That he committed the cardinal military sin of dividing his forces in the face of a numerically superior enemy, and then in the aftermath of Isandlwana laid the blame for the defeat on the performance of the native levies under his command, is proof enough of his incompetence and has been rightly lambasted by Lieven. Similar again to the historiography of the Crimean War, the disasters which befell the British Army in the Anglo-Zulu War are linked intrinsically the incompetence and unsuitability of its leadership. Bennett and Doyle go so far as to describe the Battle of Isandlwana as the worst defeat ever suffered by the British Army despite the inferior technology of their opponents, and lays the blame for this on the inability of the British commanders to understand the use of terrain in the same way as their adversaries. Furthermore in the case of the Anglo- Zulu War the blame for the Army’s poor performance in particular and Isandlwana, has been placed on the inflexibility of junior commanders and officers as much as the Army’s
high command. Smith-Dorien, one of only five British officers to survive the slaughter at Isandlwana, references that the ammunition boxes for the soldier’s rifles remained locked and how another would not be opened until the current one was empty because standing orders decreed as such. That junior Army officers would not show the initiative to deviate from such orders, even as their positions were being overrun by their enemy, demonstrates a terrifying lack of flexibility in combat. Little mention however, is made of contributions made by the Naval Brigades to the Anglo-Zulu War, of the initiative displayed by naval
commanders in-theatre to land Naval Brigades in the immediate aftermath of Isandlwana to augment the Army’s reduced manpower, or of how the steadfastness of Naval officers and ratings, exposed on the flanks of the Army at the Battle of Gingindlovu, stood again in stark contrast to the performance of their counterparts in the Army.
The Second Boer War is perhaps the only conflict, in which Naval Brigades were
involved, which the present-day Royal Navy commemorates; both in the form of statues and in the form of its annual Field Gun Competition.31 Such is the degree of veneration for the contribution of the Naval Brigades to the narrative of the Second Boer War, that it is the only action by the Naval Brigades to which the Royal Navy’s present-day website dedicates an entire webpage, and indeed this author well remembers as a young officer being fully indoctrinated into the story when competing as a member of Devonport’s gun grew.
However, the typical narrative of the Naval Brigades’ contribution to this conflict is one which focusses on the contributions of the their 4.7-inch guns to the relief of Ladysmith. Little mention is made, aside from in his own memoirs, of the culture within the RN which bred commanders on the ground such as Sir Percy Scott. Using an initiative again lacking by his counterparts in the Army, Scott was able to design and build gun carriages suitable for these pieces to be used ashore, which made their contribution to the relief of the siege possible. By contrast the story of the Army’s performance in the conflict has been dissected time and again and, much like the Crimea and Anglo-Zulu War, blame for its shortcomings has been almost universally laid at the feet of its leaders. Sir Redvers Buller has been criticised by both Regan and Holmes as a man promoted above his ability and found out of his depth by the pressures of command in the situation which he found himself in; fighting a war for which he was not trained or prepared, accusations which would not be levied against naval commanders until they found themselves fighting at Jutland during the First World War.
The story of the Naval Brigades then is not one solely of heroic expeditions by gallant sailors playing at amateur soldiers, although this aspect did feature in the narratives of their campaigns and made their success all the more revered. Rather it is one of an organisation that had evolved a culture of ‘Mission Command’ and of trusting in the judgement of its commanders in theatre to be able to make the right decisions and take the actions required to follow those decisions through. It is a story of the right men, in the right place, at the right
time, but also of innovation and improvisation by men who found themselves in situations which they had not expected to be in. Most importantly, it is the story of the evolution of the Royal Navy as an organisation which allowed this culture to flourish; it is a story worthy of and overdue a thorough analysis. [to be continued…]
Lt Jim Robson RN
Major General W. C. F. Molyneux quoted in Arthur Belby, The Victorian Naval Brigades, (Dunbeath: Whittles
Publishing, 2006); p. vii.
From the Royal Navy’s Official website describing the Warfare Branch, available online at https://www.royalnavy.
Daniel Owen Spence, A history of the Royal Navy: Empire and Imperialism, (I.B. Tauris, 2015). 4
James Holland, The War in the West: A New History. Germany Ascendant 1939 – 1941, (Corgi, 2016). 5
Belby, Naval Brigades, (2006). 6
Field Marshall Sir Evelyn Wood, The Crimean War in 1854 and 1894, (Chapman & Hall, 1895). 7
British Naval Documents 1260 – 1960 52. Small battle tactics, 1586, p85 (original) p331, 342 (pdf), available online
from Navy Records Society at https://www.navyrecords.org.uk/british-naval-documents-1204-1960/. 8
Robert Harvey, Cochrane. The life and exploits of a fighting captain, (New York: Carrol & Graff, 2000). 9
Ken Booth, Navies and Foreign Policy, (Routledge, 1977), Ch.1, p.11. 10 Ibid.
11 Eric Grove, The Royal Navy Since 1815: A New Short History, (Macmillan Publishers, 2001). 12 “UK Public Spending Details” available online https://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/year_
spending_1865UKmn_17mc1n_30#ukgs302. 13 Booth, Navies, (1977). 14 Richard Brooks, The Long Arm of Empire: Naval Brigades from the Crimea to the Boxer Rebellion, (Constable &
Company Ltd, 1999).
16 Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale: the Lady with the Lamp, (BBC History, 2011) available online at https://www.
bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/nightingale_01.shtml. 17 Richard Huntsman, Mary Bruin and Deborah Holttum, “Light before Dawn: Naval Nursing and Medical Care during
the Crimean War.”, Journal of the Royal Naval Medical Service, 88 (2002). 18 Albert Seaton, The Crimean War: A Russian Chronicle, (Harper Collins, 1977). 19 David Bonner-Smith & Captain Alfred Charles Dewar Royal Navy, Russian War, 1854: Baltic and Black Sea (Navy
Records Society, 1943) available online at https://www.navyrecords.org.uk/site/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Volume-
83-Russian-War-1854-Baltic-and-Black-Sea.pdf. 20 Author unknown, Army Medics in Afghanistan, from the National Army Museum, available online at https://www.
nam.ac.uk/explore/camp-bastion-hospital. 21 Andrew Lambert, The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy, 1853 – 56, (Manchester University Press, 1990). 22 Mark Clodfelter, Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492 –
2015, (MacFarland & Company Inc, 2017). 23 Geoffrey Regan, The Guinness Book of Military Blunders, (Guinness Publishing, 1991). 24 Robert & Isabelle Tombs, That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from The Sun King to the present, (William
Heineman Ltd, 2006).
25 George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman at the Charge, (Barrie & Jenkins, 1973). 26 Brooks, Empire, (1999). 27 Michael Lieven, “Heroism, Heroics and the Making of Heroes: The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.”, Albion: A Quarterly
Journal concerned with British Studies, 30, 3, (1998). 28 Matthew Bennet and Peter Doyle, Fields of Battle: Terrain in Military History, (Springer Netherlands, 2002). 29 General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, Memories of Forty-Eight Years’ Service, (Lucknow Books, 2014). 30 Sir William Laird Clowes On Sea & Land: Small Wars, Minor Actions and Naval Brigades. A Military History of the
Royal Navy. Volume 2. (Oakpast Ltd, 2018). 31 See Appendix A.
32 Author unknown, Royal Navy Field Gun, available online at https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/our-organisation/bases-
and-stations/training-establishments/hms-temeraire/rn-field-gun. 33 Author unknown, HMS POWERFUL and the Naval Brigade in Ladysmith, available online at https://www.
34 Admiral Sir Percy Scott Royal Navy, Fifty Years in the Royal Navy, (London, John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1919). 35 Geoffrey Regan, Someone Had Blundered…A Historical Survey of Military Incompetence, (Batsford Ltd, 1987). 36 Richard Holmes, The Little Field Marshall: A Life of Sir John French, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004). 37 R. G. Grant, Battle at Sea: 3000 Years of Naval Warfare, (DK Ltd, 2008).