The War for America: 1775-1783

By Piers Mackesy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER X
THE COMMAND OF THE SEAS

I. The French Initiative

The new war plans of March 1778 assumed that England would retain the initiative in the western Atlantic, and could shift her forces between the American colonies and the West Indies without interference. But in the coming struggle the initiative lay with the enemy. For the French navy was uncommitted, whereas England had already locked up a large naval force, especially of frigates, in America. The French were in a more forward state of readiness than the British home fleet; and the day after the decision was taken to attack St Lucia, a letter from Lord Stormont gave warning that Admiral d'Estaing had left to take command of the Toulon fleet. The British Isles were weakly garrisoned and vulnerable to invasion. And France could choose the moment to sally out of her harbours and strike. Only a great margin of initial superiority at sea could have enabled England to throttle the French initiative; and she did not have it.

The French navy was faced with two broad strategic alternatives. It could concentrate in the English Channel and force a decisive battle to open the way to invasion. Or it might contain the British main fleet in home waters and strike in an overseas theatre. Invasion made little appeal to Vergennes. A victory so decisive might bring other states into the war to redress the balance of power. 'Even if I could destroy England, I would abstain from doing so, as from the wildest folly.' He was fighting for limited objects, and they could be attained with less risk of international repercussions by striking at England's economic strength through her trade and colonies than by invading her homeland.1

Vergennes therefore preferred the plan of the Ministry of Marine, which considered that the French navy lacked the decisive superiority to win a battle of annihilation with the rigid linear tactics of the day. Nor had the French much confidence in their ability to match the British fleet in equal combat. In spite of the efforts to reform the French service since the last war, they felt that the Royal Navy was trained in the tradition of victory and at least partly seasoned by three years of war service. They would enjoy 'l'avantage que donne la science et l'expérience'.

The French plan was therefore to rivet the attention of the British home fleet in the Channel, and detach a force to seize the local command of an

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1
A. Temple Patterson, The Other Armada, 37-9.

-190-

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