(Warning – this is a looooooooooooong post)
One of the problems we experienced with the Battle of Jutland recreation was that a lot of people simply didn’t understand it. How it worked, why we were doing it or how it was relevant. I think the gamers who attended got it, but we certainly had conversations with people who drifted in and out who it either took a bit of explanation or they walked out afterwards still thinking it was all a little, well, silly.
From my point of view (and hopefully for the members of the club) it was worthwhile. We did engage people in conversation. We spoke to people who had families on the vessels who survived and to the families of the lost. Some of them even brought personal belongings in to show us. I think we put the battle in context, we illustrated how the prevailing tactics and technology at the time affected the outcome and we related it to the Chatham Division of the Royal Navy. One thing we didn’t do was glorify the battle or the conflict. We always knew that the losses on the tabletop would be more severe than those at sea simply because it was “a game” and there was no need to protect real ships or real people for the next battle or for the protection of a nation.
Anyway, we’re about to do it all again…
I’ve posted a couple of things about the Battle of Cape St Vincent already, but I don’t think I’ve properly explained the “why” or the “how”, so here goes.
First the “why”.
In 1797, the year of the Battle of Cape St Vincent, the Royal Navy had two distinct methods of acquiring vessels. First, they could purchase them – either built to specification by a commercial shipyard or as an already built vessel that was then fitted out for use by the Royal Navy. The second method was to have a vessel constructed in one of the six Royal Dockyards in existence in the 1700s. Those Royal Dockyards were Portsmouth, Woolwich, Deptford, Chatham, Sheerness and Plymouth (Devonport). If you’re not sure about the difference there, the Royal Dockyards were government funded facilities not private enterprises. Their construction, staffing and development were paid for by the crown and by Parliament and they were overseen by the Admiralty.
Ships also came in two broad varieties. Rated and Unrated. Rated ships were larger, heavier, purposebuilt ships of war, the most impressive of which were the First Rates like Victory and Second rates like Namur. The most common were the Third to Fifth Rate vessels, smaller, faster ships with good sailing characteristics that were still relatively well armed. Unrated ships were a mixture of Brigs, Sloops, Cutters and a whole host besides. If you’ve ever wondered where the term “first rate” comes from, well now you know.
I’m aware I still haven’t got to the “why”, but trust me, I’m getting there.
Of the fifteen rated Royal Navy vessels at Cape St Vincent, nine were built in Royal Dockyards and of those five were built at Chatham. That’s more than half of them at only one of six Royal Dockyards. Only one was constructed at Portsmouth and the vast majority of the twenty two Royal Navy ships (including the unrated) were built in and around London and the south east of England.
HMS Victory is without doubt the most famous, iconic product of the Royal Dockyard Chatham. But she is just one of over 250 wooden sailing vessels that the Dockyard produced for the Royal Navy. The five Chatham built ships at Cape St Vincent, Victory, Prince George, Barfleur, Namur and Diadem were a small example of the work produced by Chatham over its 385 years of shipbuilding. At its peak it was a 400 acre site which employed and educated a huge number of the local population. It is an important site with an important heritage – as are the other Royal Dockyards.
Next year is 250th anniversary of the launch of HMS Victory and The Historic Dockyard Chatham is holding an exhibition to celebrate the career of the ship – which is more than just the Battle of Trafalgar. The remains of HMS Namur, a second rate ship of the line, are still on the site of Chatham Dockyard to this day. They were discovered underneath the floor of an 18th century building in 1995 and a large project is currently underway to properly display and interpret the timbers.
So that’s part of the “why”, the ships. The second part is the battle and the state of the Royal Navy itself.
Just as Victory’s career was overshadowed by its accomplishments at Trafalgar, so too was the Battle of Cape St Vincent.
The Battle happened near the start of the Anglo-Spanish War of 1796 – 1808 and was a part of the French Revolutionary Wars. The Spanish fleet was attempting to join a French fleet at Brest and the British needed to prevent that from happening. The Royal Navy was outnumbered and outgunned (but nowhere near as much as they would have been against a combined fleet) but turned the battle to their advantage largely in part to the leadership and tactical acumen of one man, Commodore Horatio Nelson onboard HMS Captain. And Commodore Nelson is one of the more interesting parts of the battle. He disobeyed orders (or if we’re being charitable we could say he had a rather loose interpretation of his orders) and closed with the Spanish vessels far quicker and more aggressively than the overall commander, Admiral Sir John Jervis wanted or expected. But Nelson was followed in his actions by other commanders, he even used one enemy vessel as a bridge to capture another (by moving troops across it from his own), he was wounded in battle and he was hailed as a hero afterwards.
If it had gone wrong, it would have been a court-martial and the true legend of Admiral Lord Nelson would never have come to pass.
So you might think then that the Royal Navy was in a good position generally in 1797, but this was also the year of the Spithead and Nore Mutinies. The mutinies may have started largely over disputes about pay and conditions, but by the time they reached demands for British Parliament to make peace with France and actually blockaded London, it was obviously an incredibly severe situation which ended with incredibly severe consequences for those leading the mutineers (30 of whom were hanged following the breakdown of the Nore Mutiny). This was a time when the country should have been pulling together in its conflict with France and Spain, but instead was pulling apart, all only eight years prior to Trafalgar.
It’s a pretty interesting year to look at.
So how are we going to do it?
Well, much the same way we did Jutland. With miniature ships on a table using some rules. And I think this is the bit we could have got better last time. We did involve people, but I think we could have done more. I’m not saying it was all our fault. People’s involvement depends on their level of understanding, of caring, of commitment. They had, after all, come for a day out, not to command what is essentially a toy boat on a painted table. And looking back at that sentence, it’s not even “command”, but rather “push a toy boat around”.
I get it. We as a group get it. But for some people that’s all it will be. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn something they didn’t know, find out more about stuff they already knew about or tell us some things we didn’t know. If we can start a conversation that makes them look at it differently, make people realise how important the place, the personalities, the ships, the battle and the year were… Well, as far as I’m concerned it’ll be worth it.
But the exact “how” this time is different to Jutland. We’re not using the fairly simple Victory at Sea rules, but the more complicated Trafalgar rules. And they need to be more complicated, the ships are more complicated. The rules take account of the different types of gun (Light cannon, Heavy cannon and Carronade), the different commanders, wind speed and direction, changeable weather, the difficulties of manoeuvring a 227 foot long, three and a half thousand ton monster that’s being pushed around by the wind and is made of wood, canvas and rope and filled with gunpowder… The ships this time around can collide, crews can board each other, become entangled with each other and so far in the play test games are very rarely sunk. They are more commonly reduced to ineffectiveness by virtue of losing their crew or being crippled (at which point they still present an obstacle as they drift around – potentially becoming a three and a half thousand ton battering ram).
Unlike with Jutland, the ships won’t be grouped into squadrons on one movement tray. Each individual ship will be able to move independently, and with varying success. Failed manoeuvres can lead to ships being becalmed, out of position or unprepared for that all important broadside. The game turns are quicker and simpler to a certain extent, so I’d like people to get involved more and I think it will look fairly impressive. The miniatures themselves are larger and more detailed than the 1:3000 dreadnoughts we were using for Jutland.
With fewer vessels we can do more about each ship (or at least key ships) with any accompanying information and interpretation and I’d like to get out there a bit more and encourage local gamers and clubs to support the event. We’ve got some contacts and it’d be nice to see it appreciate a wider audience.
If there’s anyone out there in the Medway Towns or surrounding area who would like to help in any way, then give us a shout.