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Trafalgar: The Legacy of George Anson

The Royal Navy has an unhealthy obsession with Nelson and Trafalgar. If it must idolise a Georgian hero, then perhaps it should look to the father of the modern navy: Lord George Anson.

Each year, naval messes resound to renditions of Hearts of Oak and The Immortal Memory. The Battle of Trafalgar is refought in cultural remembrance: the embodiment of decisive naval battle; mission command; and Nelson’s own band of brothers. What is often forgotten is something that Nelson himself knew well: that victory at Trafalgar was not the culmination of a single campaign, but the result of decades of investment in ships, structures, systems and personnel. At the heart of that investment lies Lord George Anson, who between 1744 and 1762 dominated the Royal Navy’s administration and decision making.

Anson is an unlikely naval hero. Unlike Nelson, he did not seek out the press or achieve dizzying victories. Instead, Anson’s greatest battles were fought in the halls of power, both within and outside the navy. He understood that the Royal Navy was an imperfect instrument in dire need of reform, but that bureaucratic changes came second to good personnel and talent management; and that the latter assures the former. By selecting officers and crown servants based on merit and potential, Anson was able to enact sweeping reforms in ship design; supply and support; pay and conditions of service; tactics, techniques and procedures; and education and training. Every aspect of naval administration was impacted by Anson, although his guiding hand is easier to sense than to hold. We regularly hear that people are Defence’s greatest asset, but few have impacted the daily lived experience as Anson did. He introduced a standardised uniform, codified punishment and court martial proceedings, streamlined promotion boards, and professionalised the officer cadre.

Navies exist on a different timescale. The design, build and operational lifetime of a vessel is multi-generational: just as HMS Victory was 50 years old at Trafalgar, so too can HMS Queen Elizabeth expect to serve well beyond the life of its architects. At Trafalgar, not one of Nelson’s ships could be described as ‘new’. Those ships, including the flagship, were the work of Thomas Slade, himself picked out by Anson in 1746 and commissioned to build ships that married French architecture with robust British methods. The result was an ocean-going fleet that was able to weather the worst of Atlantic storms, weatherly enough to pursue recalcitrant foes, and deadly. These were ships that perfectly suited Anson’s philosophy of naval battle: fluid, close action designed to destroy – and not just defeat – an opponent.

That philosophy was exhibited in Anson’s reforms to tactics, techniques and procedures. He recognised that existing signals and methods were too linear and rigid. He abandoned line astern in favour of general chase and encouraged initiative and the use of mission command among his subordinate captains. Nelson’s second signal echoed this simple philosophy: ‘Engage the enemy more closely’. As commander of the Western Squadron, Anson recognised the importance of aggression and gunnery married to superior seamanship, drilling his crews to perfection. His example was continued and emulated by Hawke at Quiberon Bay: chasing down a French fleet, in a rising gale and in poorly charted waters, he engaged Conflans’ flagship at pistol-shot range. The psychological impact of that aggressive approach cannot be underestimated, and directly influenced Nelson.

Without George Anson, there would have been no Nelson and no Trafalgar

After his fateful wounding, the Royal Marines were there to carry Nelson below deck. This too was Anson’s legacy: it was he who, in 1755, raised the modern Corps under the Royal Navy’s command and control. While they trace their lineage to 1664, the reality is that the Royal Marines share their earlier battle-honours – and defeats – with Army regiments. Just as the modern Corps was brought into existence to fulfil a naval mission with a distinct identity, so too is it rediscovering its Per Mare roots today.

Finally, it was Anson who introduced replenishment at sea. This was momentous; sustainment of naval forces at sea is the true measure of maritime power. For the first time in history, the Royal Navy could maintain continuous blockade and presence. The effect on opponents’ morale, trade and availability of personnel meant that they were attrited before even putting to sea. French squadrons languished in boredom, unable to fill their naval stores or recruit and train seamen and gunners, while the Royal Navy only increased in efficiency and readiness. Combined with his adoption of Lind’s Treatise on Scurvy and the introduction of fresh vegetables to the supply chain, Anson’s fleets could loiter off an opponent’s coastline for six months with barely 20 personnel sick out of a strength of 14,000. As reaffirmed by the Carrier Strike Group’s Indo-Pacific deployment, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is what makes the Royal Navy a global force; without such support, navies are confined to their near abroad.

For the modern Royal Navy, the lessons of Anson’s tenure are still relevant. He built a navy in his own image: quietly professional and lacking braggadocio; guided by doctrinal principles; aware of what maritime power truly means; and acknowledging that people rather than platforms are the decisive factor. Without Anson, there would have been no Nelson and no Trafalgar. No officer before or since has matched Anson’s legacy for selfless duty, professionalism, management or strategic vision. If the Royal Navy truly needs a heroic example from the age of sail, then it should look no further.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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