Napoleonic Naval Balance

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The naval balance of power during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was one-sided, with Britain having so large and powerful a fleet it could match all the other sea-faring nations put together.

Reasonably, but not completely, safe behind the "Wooden Walls" of the Royal Navy, Britain was able to continue its world trade and empire building knowing that an invasion by France would be extremely unlikely.

While a large number of ships were allocated to controlling the English Channel and trading routes, Britain was the only power to actively send its vessels out to attack enemy warships.

For most nations, warships were too expensive to risk but, for Britain, whose industrial might and wealth were really beginning to blossom, it was a sensible policy to weaken or destroy navies that could pose a risk to the island nation's home shores.

The authorities in London were ruthless about preventing France getting its hands on extra ships and in 1797, 1801 and 1807 sailed to destroy the neutral or French-allied vessels of Holland and Denmark.

At Camperdown in 1797, Admiral Duncan pitted his 16 ships against 16 Dutch warships under Admiral de Winter and destroyed the enemy fleet - capturing seven Dutchmen and allowing the rest to flee.

In 1801, the Admirality sent an expedition against Denmark to break up a northern European agreement, the Armed Neutrality of the North, that threatened British trade and shipbuilding materiel - wood, rope, grain and tar - in the Baltic Sea.

The naval battle of Copenhagen was a British victory that saw 12 of 18 Danish vessels captured and ended the threat to its trade.

In 1807, Britain again moved against Denmark when it became known there was a French move to grab the Danish fleet.

Admiral Gambier took 20 ships of the line and an infantry force of some 20,000 men - including Arthur Wellesley - to prevent the vessels falling into French hands.

A two-week siege began and a Danish military move to break the blockade was ended by Wellesley's infantry. The bombardment of the capital by the Royal Navy forced neutral Denmark to hand over its 18 ships to London.

In 1809, Britain launched the Walcheren Expedition and one of its aims was to destroy the large docks in Antwerp.

Incompetence by its commander Lord Chatham and an appalling outbreak of Walcheren Fever, which cost 4000 troops their lives, meant the venture failed miserably.

While Britain's efforts to maintain its naval supremacy may have seemed obsessive, figures show that it was right to do so.

In 1807, France's fleet - crippled by the disaster at Trafalgar - could count on 34 ships of the line. Britain, in contrast, had more than 100.

However, within six years the French had 80 major warships - with a further 35 under construction - while the Royal Navy had 102.

When the other potentially hostile, or neutral, fleets are added to the mix, Britain no longer had such a massive advantage.

Tables of Fleet Sizes.

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