Admiral Lord St. Vincent: Saint or Tyrant? The Life of Sir John Jervis
James D.G. Davidson
Pen and Sword Maritime (2020)
Paperback, 240 pages, 50 black and white illustrations
Reading this work felt rather like taking a step backwards in time: not to the eighteenth century, but the middle of the twentieth. I say that, as the book – written by a former Royal Navy officer – has a decidedly old-fashioned feel to it; it is very much a traditional ‘life’ rather than a critical scholarly biography. Originally published in 2006, it has now been released in paperback; sadly, the author died in 2017, so this is a straight re-print rather than a revised edition.
What we get here is a straightforward narrative from birth to death, largely chronological although with a bit of jumping and back-tracking here and there to complete certain stories – the subject’s feud with Sir John Orde, for example – in one place rather than string them out through the text. Early life up to the outbreak of the war with Revolutionary France in 1793 is dealt with in the first four chapters; there is much of interest here, but plenty of occasions where more detail of the naval and political aspects would be welcome.
One gets the feeling that the mid-eighteenth century was not the author’s primary era of interest or expertise, and wider reading would certainly have resolved some of the points (albeit tangential ones insofar as the narrative of Jervis’ own service is concerned) that the author suggests are impossible to pronounce upon. We do, however, get a good feel for Jervis’ personality; it was certainly a surprise to this reviewer, accustomed to think of the dour admiral of later years, to learn of his reputation as a ladies’ man. Such a reputation, however, did not stop him making a marriage of convenience and affection with a cousin, Martha, who brought a substantial estate as her dowry, although the author speculates that long spells apart likely provided the opportunity for other dalliances.
Chapter 5 deals briefly with Jervis’ command in the West Indies in support of the land forces of Sir Charles Grey (since covered in greater detail by Steve Brown’s work on this campaign), and then moves swiftly on to his appointment to command the Mediterranean Fleet, the narrative of which service forms the backbone of the book, taking up the best part of seven out of eighteen chapters. Several key themes are developed here: Jervis’ drive to restore and maintain discipline at a time when the Royal Navy as a whole was wracked by mutiny and discontent; his patronage of Nelson, who was given great responsibility as a commodore at a time when more senior flag officers were available; and the huge operational challenges posed by the collapse of allied fortunes in the Mediterranean theatre so that by the beginning of 1797 Jervis’ fleet had been driven form its namesake sea and reduced, by shipwreck and other misadventures, to a mere ten sail of the line. Much of this story is told by means of extensive extracts from Jervis’ own correspondence – indeed, Chapter 7 is a temporary break in the chronology to use selected documents to highlight the admiral’s skills as a diplomatist – although there are occasions where more could be desired in terms of context and commentary to get the best out of these sources.
We then come, of course, to the battle that won Jervis his peerage. The narrative of the Valentine’s Day action off Cape St Vincent takes up Chapter 8 of the work and is an uncontroversial retelling of events. As the author states:
Numerous accounts of the Battle of Cape St Vincent have been written. Some of the detail in them is corroborative, some of it contradictory. In the description which follows, only details which have been reported in more than one of the previous accounts have been included and the aim has been to produce a narrative which is both credible and accurate.
Although the narrative is broadly favourable to Jervis – even after reinforcements, still commanding only 15 sail of the line against 24 Spanish, and thereby obliged at times to show more caution than he might have otherwise cared to display – the author is not without his criticisms. The crucial failing of ordering the British fleet to tack in succession rather than together after having passed between the two bodies of Spanish ships is remarked upon, it being rightly observed that had this order been followed to the letter the action would likely have degenerated into a stern chase with little hope of inflicting significant losses on the enemy. As it was, the actions of Nelson, supported by Collingwood, in breaking from the line to force a closer action restored the situation and ensured the capture of four Spanish ships. On the other hand, the author believes that Jervis was correct in not electing to continue the action and allowing the remaining Spanish ships to escape. He was, after all, still outnumbered and had four prizes and several crippled ships of his own to protect.
Subsequent chapters follow St Vincent, as we must now call him, in a new role as a theatre commander responsible for multiple detached forces. Ill-health forced the ailing admiral first to command from Gibraltar, coordinating detached squadrons under subordinate flag officers, and then eventually to give up his command and return to England. His championing of Nelson over more senior officers for the detached command that eventually culminated in the great victory at the Nile is rightly singled out for praise, but relations with his protégé would cool after Nelson’s increasing preoccupation with Naples and the Hamiltons began to distract him from his duties, and the rift was not fully healed when Nelson fell at Trafalgar.
The final portion of the book is largely a tale of politics, and St Vincent’s tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty 1801-1804 as part of Addington’s ministry, after a short spell in command of the Channel Fleet, is covered in some detail. The author perhaps overstates his case for St Vincent’s level of credit for the victories obtained during the closing years of the French Revolutionary Wars – Copenhagen, the eviction of the French from Egypt, and Saumarez’s defeat of a Franco-Spanish force near Gibraltar – but is on stronger ground in praising his desire to stamp out corruption in naval administration, and in the dockyards. It cannot be denied, however, that peacetime economies taken on St Vincent’s watch led to problems when hostilities resumed, although the First Lord is rightly praised for the speed with which Britain’s maritime resources were so swiftly redeployed to resume the blockade once the Amiens settlement collapsed. Removed from office when Pitt returned to Government but sent to sea one last time to command the Channel Fleet again, St Vincent came ashore for the last time in 1808.
It was observed at the outset that this work has the feel of a title from an earlier age about it. It is not an academic study: there are no citations whatsoever, and the bibliography takes up but a page, listing only fifteen sources. That being so, it is unlikely to recommend itself to the serious naval historian. As a relatively short, affordable, very readable, account for the non-specialist it does, however, have much to commend it.