CHAPTER VIII. SEVEN YEARS' WAR, 1756-1763 - ENGLAND's OVERWHELMING POWER AND CONQUESTS ON THE SEAS, IN NORTH AMERICA, EUROPE, AND EAST AND WEST INDIES. SEA BATTLES: BYNG OFF MINORCA; HAWKE AND CONFLANS; POCOCK AND D'ACHE' IN EAST INDIES.
The battle that followed owes its historical celebrity wholly to the singular and tragic event which arose from it. Unlike Matthews's battle off Toulon, it does afford some tactical instruction, though mainly applicable to the obsolete conditions of warfare under sail; but it is especially linked to the earlier action through the effect produced upon the mind of the unfortunate Byng by the sentence of the court-martial upon Matthews. During the course of the engagement he repeatedly alluded to the censure upon that admiral for leaving the line, and seems to have accepted the judgment as justifying, if not determining, his own course. Briefly, it may be said that the two fleets, having sighted each other on the morning of the 20th of May, were found after a series of manoeuvres both on the port tack, with an easterly wind, heading southerly, the French to leeward, between the English and the harbor. Byng ran down in line ahead off the wind, the French remaining by it, so that when the former made the signal to engage, the fleets were not parallel, but formed an angle of from thirty to forty degrees. The attack which Byng by his own account meant to make, each ship against its opposite in the enemy's line, difficult to carry out under any circumstances, was here further impeded by the distance between the two rears being much greater than that between the vans; so that his whole line could not come into action at the same moment. When the signal was made, the van ships kept away in obedience to it, and ran down for the French so nearly head-on as to sacrifice their artillery fire in great measure; they received three raking broadsides, and were seriously dismantled aloft. The sixth English ship, counting from the van, had her foretopmast shot away, flew up into the wind, and came aback, stopping and doubling up the rear of the line. Then undoubtedly was the time for Byng, having committed himself to the fight, to have set the example and borne down, just as Farragut did at Mobile when his line was confused by the stopping of the next ahead; but according to the testimony of the flag-captain, Matthews's sentence deterred him. "You see, Captain Gardiner, that the signal for the line is out, and that I am ahead of the ships 'Louisa' and 'Trident' [which in the order should have been ahead of him]. You would not have me, as the admiral of the fleet, run down as if I were going to engage a single ship. It was Mr. Matthews's misfortune to be prejudiced by not carrying down his force together, which I shall endeavor to avoid." The affair thus became entirely indecisive; the English van was separated from the rear and got the brunt of the fight. One French authority blames Galissoniere for not tacking to windward of the enemy's van and crushing it. Another says he ordered the movement, but that it could not be made from the damage to the rigging; but this seems improbable, as the only injury the French squadron underwent aloft was the loss of one topsail yard, whereas the English suffered very badly. The true reason is probably that given and approved by one of the French authorities on naval warfare. Galissoniere considered the support of the land attack on Mahon paramount to any destruction of the English fleet, if he thereby exposed his own. "The French navy has always preferred the glory of assuring or preserving a conquest to that more brilliant perhaps, but actually less real, of taking some ships, and therein has approached more nearly the true end that has been proposed in war." (1) The justice of this conclusion depends upon the view that is taken of the true end of naval war. If it is merely to assure one or more positions ashore, the navy becomes simply a branch of the army for a particular occasion, and subordinates its action accordingly; but if the true end is to preponderate over the enemy's navy and so control the sea, then the enemy's ships and fleets are the true objects to be assailed on all occasions. A glimmer of this view seems to have been present to Morogues when he wrote that at sea there is no field of battle to be held, nor places to be won. If naval warfare is a war of posts, then the action of the fleets must be subordinate to the attack and defence of the posts; if its object is to break up the enemy's power on the sea, cutting off his communications with the rest of his possessions, drying up the sources of his wealth in his commerce, and making possible a closure of his ports, then the object of attack must be his organized military forces afloat; in short, his navy. It is to the latter course, for whatever reason adopted, that England owed a control of the sea that forced the restitution of Minorca at the end of this war. It is to the former that France owed the lack of prestige in her navy. Take this very case of Minorca; had Galissoniere been beaten, Richelieu and his fifteen thousand troops must have been lost to France, cooped up in Minorca, as the Spaniards, in 1718, were confined to Sicily. The French navy therefore assured the capture of the island; but so slight was the impression on the ministry and the public, that a French naval officer tells us "Incredible as it may seem, the minister of marine, after the glorious affair off Mahon, instead of yielding to the zeal of an enlightened patriotism and profiting by the impulse which this victory gave to France to build up the navy, saw fit to sell the ships and rigging which we still had in our ports. We shall soon see the deplorable consequences of this cowardly conduct on the part of our statesmen." (2) Neither the glory nor the victory is very apparent; but it is quite conceivable that had the French admiral thought less of Mahon and used the great advantage luck had given him to take, or sink, four or five of the enemy, the French people would have anticipated the outbreak of naval enthusiasm which appeared too late, in 1760.