Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sir Charles Napier in the Baltic

Review of:
“The History of the Baltic Campaign of 1854” (by Charles Napier, 1857)

There is no point of view in which this thick octavo volume, containing about 600 pages, can be called a good book. It is ill-written, ill-timed, and remarkably ill put together, for with a very little skill it might have been compressed into less than a quarter of its size; and it is written almost entirely in order to put forward Sir Charles Napier's view of a personal question, which has been discussed till the public at large are utterly sick and almost entirely oblivious of its bearings. The simple question which the whole volume raises is, whether Sir James Graham misrepresented Sir Charles Napier, the Board of Admiralty being in some measure his tools, and in some measure his accomplices, in that undertaking. In order to set this controversy fully before the public, Mr. Earp gives us an elaborate history of the whole of the Baltic Campaign of 1854, comprising every movement of every ship, and drawn up, as he says, “on the principle of having authentic documents to fall back upon in case of question of the facts narrated." Consequently, if anyone should answer Sir Charles or his advocate, the volume might assume the proportions of a first-rate Blue-book. Indeed, when Mr. Earp complains, amongst other things, of the wickedness of the Government in not allowing his hero a committee, he assigns their fear of the Blue-book which would have been the fruit of such a concession, as the reason of their refusal. His efforts have certainly gone a long way to supply the want, as far as bulk goes. The style wants life as much as the book wants proportion. Upwards of 400 pages, as novelists say, “elapse before the reader gets to the point of the story; and, when he does arrive at it, he discovers that, it lies in imputing disingenuity to Sir James Graham, and imbecility to the Board of Admiralty; through about 200 pages, which, by avoiding repetitions and amplifications, might be conveniently reduced by at least a half. It would be a great comfort for his readers if Mr. Earp would give them credit for perspicacity enough to see that two inconsistent statements cannot both be true, without having the contradiction between them pointed out ten times over.

Passing from the advocate to the cause, it is almost needless to say that no man could have shown more ingenuity in disgusting his friends than Sir Charles Napier. His coarse language, his furious letters, his newspaper correspondence, and his general incapacity to wash dirty linen at home, have excited a very strong and a very just prejudice against him. There are cases in which a man ought, even from regard to his own reputation, to take it patiently if he suffers wrong. Sir Charles Napier ought not to be a leader of the noisy folly of pothouse politicians. He owes much to the name he bears, and much to the reputation which the gallantry of his earlier career acquired. Folly, and jesting are not worse suited to his age and position than the cheers of a mob or the columns of the Morning Advertiser. Notwithstanding his own violence and indiscretion, and the extreme clumsiness and prolixity of his advocate, his grievance against the Government may be worth stating, if it be only for the convenience of those who were too much disgusted by the roughness, and wearied by the length of the controversy, to retain any very clear conception of its bearings. We will therefore lay before our readers, as concisely as possible, Sir Charles's estimate of his own wrongs, though we are bound to say that, in using Mr. Earp's performance for the purpose, we feel that we have to do with a gentleman who does very little to conciliate the confidence of the public.

Sir. Charles Napier's case, on his own statement of it, is as follows:–He commanded the Baltic fleet from March till December, 1854. The force originally at his disposal consisted of four ships of the line, four blockships, four heavy frigates, and three paddle-steamers, but he had no small craft. His crews were quite inexperienced, and his ships had too few officers. He therefore considered himself, and the Government considered him, unable to do more than to blockade the Russian ports, and to exercise an indirect influence over the Swedes and Germans. His force, though strong enough to fight the Russian fleet if it came out to meet him, was not strong enough to do so after sustaining the loss which would have been certain to follow from an attack on any of the great Russian fortifications. The Admiralty repeatedly warned him that it would be very rash to attack Cronstadt with the force under his command, and complimented him for not allowing himself to be driven by popular clamour into undertaking desperate enterprises. In the course of the summer he was joined by a French naval force, under Admiral Parseval, in conjunction with whom, plans were considered for attacking Sweaborg. The result of these investigations was communicated to the Admiralty by Sir Charles Napier, in a despatch of the 20th of June, in which he says:–
‘As for going into Sweaborg, it is quite impossible. The entrance into the harbour is not much wider than the length of this ship; and, across the passage, a three-decker is placed, ready to be sunk. Besides this, the beacons are removed, and the smoke alone, without guns, would defend the harbour. The only way to take Sweaborg, would be by a large military force occupying the island, and throwing shells into it. I send you Admiral Chads’ report on the subject.’
After this came the expedition to Bomarsund, which was captured on the 16th August. On the 27th of that month, General Jones, and on the 2nd Sept., the French engineer, General Niel, made reports on the possibility of attacking Sweaborg. General Jones thought that a successful attack might be made by landing 50oo men on Bak Holmen, one of the islands, and constructing heavy batteries of guns and mortars, which might be supported by the ships. He also recommended the use of rockets. He supposed that the operation would take seven or eight days. General Niel considered that the scheme was not practicable, because the Russians could throw a large force into Bak Holmen, and because the Allied fleets had only four small mortars amongst them ; but he thought that if “the fleets were to anchor within easy range of Sweaborg,” the fortifications might be made untenable in two hours. But, he added, “such an operation is rash. It has never been done that I know of, and it does not fall within my province to advise it.” In the early part of September the French troops sailed for Cherbourg. The English and French admirals then determined, at a council of war, that nothing more could be done. On the 12th, Sir James Graham wrote, expressing some regret, and suggesting that General Niel's suggestion, as to the possibility of a naval attack on the town, should be tried by an equal number of French and English ships. “If, unhappily, nothing more could be done,” he directs the admiral to send home his least efficient ships. A second council of war was then held by the English admirals alone (the French admiral declining to join), who declared that the attempt could not be made; and, a few days afterwards, the French fleet returned to France. On the 26th, Sir Charles wrote a further despatch to Sir James, which, as it seems to us, is most ambiguously worded. It may mean, no doubt, to make general suggestions about the way in which Sweaborg might be attacked on a future occasion, and with additional means, but it certainly looks like a direct statement that it could be attacked then and there:—
‘In my former report [says Sir C. Napier] I agreed with Capt. Washington that the fleet could lie in Miolo Roads in the summer. That is now more difficult, as batteries have been built on the south points of Sandhamm Island; but they could be destroyed.
If Sweaborg was attacked by a fleet alone, they would approach from the south in one line, raked by 160 guns, &c. [Here follows a detailed account of the position to be taken up by the ships.]
Whether this attack would succeed or not it is impossible to say; but we must calculate on ships being set on fire by red-hot shot and shells, of which the Russians would have abundance. Whether successful or not, it is evident that our ships would be in no condition to meet the Russian fleet afterwards; and if the attack was made at this season of the year, when you cannot depend upon the weather for two hours, I do not know how many would be lost.
I beg your Lordships will not suppose for a moment that Sweaborg cannot be attacked. I think it can, but it must be with caution and judgment.
Thirteen-inch mortars should be placed on Laghara Island and Lango Rocks, and gun-boats carrying Lancaster guns should be added to the fleet. Those ships should be placed at different points, at a proper distance from the fortifications, well furnished with shot, shells, and rockets.’
The fleet no doubt had neither mortars nor rockets, and, as Mr. Earp says, was very short of ammunition; but these things seem to be mentioned only in a supplementary manner, and altogether we cannot think it surprising that the Admiralty should have considered this despatch as a distinct offer to make the attack, though it is certainly consistent with the other interpretation which Mr. Earp wishes to put upon it. In the early part of October came the false report that Sebastopol was taken, whereupon the Admiralty urged Sir Charles to attack Sweaborg if he possibly could, stating that they had reason to believe that the French fleet had orders to return. On the 9th (when the falsehood of the Sebastopol report was ascertained), they informed Sir Charles that he might return when he chose, “as the attack on Sweaborg was impossible.” When he did return, after much rather violent correspondence, he was superseded.

These facts, which we state as barely and impartially as possible, form the nucleus of Mr. Earp's bulky volume. His view of them is, that they display admirable consistency and straightforwardness on the part of the Admiral, and that they show equal duplicity, cowardice, treachery, incompetence, and every other bad quality on the part of the Government. According to him, Sir James Graham first complimented Sir Charles on his caution, and then imputed that caution to cowardice, and backed up this assertion by misrepresenting Sir Charles's statements—making out that he first asserted that Sweaborg was impregnable, and then that it was not, and at last shrank from taking it. These and many other accusations of the same kind have been poured out far too abundantly on every opportunity for many months past. We deeply regret that it should be so, for we feel that, without going into very minute particulars, the general state of the case is plain enough. There was a good deal of unreasonable expectation on the part of the public-there was anything but brilliant performance on the part of Sir Charles Napier. The fact is certain, though it certainly admits, at least in a great measure, of explanation. There was some misunderstanding between the Admiral and the Government, in which both parties were perhaps to blame—Sir Charles for writing an ambiguous despatch, which looked like shrinking from responsibility, and Sir James for not taking sufficient trouble to understand his correspondent. There can be no doubt that there was the most lamentable violence and want of self-restraint in the whole of the Admiral's subsequent conduct.

Saturday Review, February 28, 1857.

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