I have been working as part of a Leverhulme Trust-funded project, supported by the National Maritime Museum, looking into the victualling of the Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). My work focuses on one discrete part of this expansive subject, considering how provisions were distributed across Europe, particularly to the Baltic between 1808 and 1812. Researching as part of a team, while concentrating on a specific part of this subject, has not only offered different challenges but also wider agreement as to the importance to Britain of superior logistics during the wars at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Attr. to Samuel Lane, Vice-Admiral Sir James de Saumarez, 1757-1836, 1st Baron de Saumarez (BHC3166)
The letters of Vice-Admiral Sir James Saumarez as well as Rear-Admirals Keats and Hood, along with Victualling Board documents in the NMM, have pointed to a naval administration eager to reform itself. There were rivalries between governmental boards and much imaginative buck-passing went on when errors were made. Nevertheless shipments of foodstuffs to the Baltic were regular and carefully calculated. Mistakes and oversights were conspicuous in their rarity and no naval operation was ever hampered by a deficiency of victuals.
Ship’s biscuit, 1784 (AAB0003)
Some supplies could be procured locally, particularly in Gothenburg. Supply in foreign waters required diplomatic skill alongside administrative organisation. Sweden, despite being forced into a war against Britain in 1810 at the behest of France, continued to happily supply the British fleet with fresh meat in the Baltic, much to the infuriation of the French diplomatic service.
William Anderson, Shipping on the Thames off Deptford, c. 1825 (BHC1872)
Supplying a remote fleet in hostile waters for up to ten months was an impressive accomplishment and one that could not have been carried out earlier in the 18th century. The logistical failures of the American War 1776-83 are well documented. As such the victualling successes of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic War (and especially in the Baltic) demonstrate the advances made by naval administration and contributed markedly to the strategic flexibility given the Royal Navy during the French Wars.