In the end, although Napoleon’s ambitions were terminated on the field of Waterloo, the struggle at sea decided the issue and determined the course of the century that was to follow. As with Carthage and Rome, it was a struggle between a leviathan and behemoth, a sea empire confronting a land empire, a nation of merchants and traders fighting against a nation of hardy peasant farmers. Napoleon, war lord lawgiver and statesman, had as great a dislike of the sea as any ancient Roman. Lord Nelson, on the other hand, only faltered when he stepped ashore.
Good though, the English naval architects were, the French were often their superiors, and as for the methods of manning their vessels, the French were certainly more intelligent. The French gave special pay to their fishermen to induce them to train and learn in the equivalent of a navy reserve. The English, on the other hand, still depended largely upon “pressed men”, -forcibly conscripted sailors.
Present in the Meditterranean during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars was the most famous warship in history, H.M.S. Victory. The ship was built chiefly of English oak and elm. Her hull was more than two feet thick; her sternpost was made of one huge oak tree, and much of the wood used in her construction came from trees that were at least a hundred years old. Her keel- more than 150 feet long- was made of teak, one of the hardest and most worm resistant woods in the world, and this again was protected by a false keel of elm. Her fastenings consisted of oak pins, known as trennels, and copper bolts six feet long and two inches in diameter.
Both in her materials and in the weight of her construction, she was something that no Mediterranean shipbuilder of the past could ever have conceived of. Her complement was upward of 850 men, and she had sufficient water and provisions to stay at sea for four months, while she carried enough powder and shot to last her three years. The most remarkable features of these giant sailing ships was the enormous weight of metal they carried, for by now it was well understood that the broadside determined battles, and indeed, the fate of empires.
A large number of the seamen aboard the Victory and her sister ships in the Royal Navy had been forcibly pressed into service. The Vagrancy Act laid down that “all disreputable persons” – those found in a tavern, bawdy house, or even walking down the streets of a fishing port- could be liable for impressment. So were fishermen, merchant seamen, canal men and inland water men if they were unlucky enough to be caught by the press gang. Since so large a percentage of the crew was forcibly conscripted, discipline aboard had to be of the iron bound variety. The citizens of England who manned her majesty’s ships during the Napoleonic wars were ill-clad, ill-used, and to a large extent, unwilling seamen.