By Professor Daniel Moran
Last updated 2011-02-17
Once sailors learned to mount cannon on their ships, however, the advantages of wind propulsion became overwhelming. Only a heavily-timbered sailing ship could carry the heavy guns necessary for this new form of naval combat, or absorb the punishment the guns could inflict.
The result was a vessel of enormous power and strategic range. Sailing navies were the military instruments by which Europe's overseas empires were created. Those empires in turn supported the trade and industry by which the navies themselves were financed - a military-commercial symbiosis that constituted the essence of what the American naval theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, called 'sea power'.
Yet the same wind that gave the sailing warship its global reach also limited its tactical maneuverability. This, plus the fact that it is not easy to sink a wooden ship by the simple expedient of firing iron balls at it, tended to make large-scale naval combat rare and indecisive.
Nicholas Pocock's The 'Defence' at the Battle of the First of June, 1794, above, illustrates an episode in the most ferocious naval battle of the 18th century. It occurred 650km (400 miles) off the coast of Brittany, where a British fleet under Admiral Lord Howe intercepted a French grain convoy from America, escorted by 26 men-of-war under Admiral Louis Villaret de Joyeuse.
The painting shows the fate of HMS Defence, the first British ship to penetrate the French line, which was immediately dismasted by enemy fire. Pocock's unusually realistic image captures the stupendous violence of naval combat.
Both of the fleets at what became known as the Glorious First of June possessed fire power exceeding that of a large 18th-century army, and they fought at point-blank range. Yet only one among the 50-odd capital ships engaged was sunk, while the grain convoy sailed on unmolested, carrying its vital fuel to stoke the fires of the French Revolution.
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