Although using the term ‘military revolution’ to describe changes in warfare between 1560 and 1660 (or some variant of those dates) is controversial, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something exceptionally radical occurred in this period in relation to war at sea.
On 7 October 1571, at Lepanto off the Greek coast, two massive fleets – one Western Christian, the other Ottoman Turkish – collided in one of the greatest naval battles in history. Some 500 vessels were involved, of which around 200 were lost, and the cost in casualties is estimated at 50,000 in total.
The battle was almost entirely lacking in tactical finesse: the two fleets simply crashed into each other head-on and engaged in a chaotic and ferocious mêlée that went on for hours.
Interestingly, what seems to have decided matters was the predominance of galleons over galleys in the Christian fleet, and their higher proportion of cannon and muskets. Lepanto was a medieval battle, but it heralded a new way of war – based on gunpowder weapons arranged in floating batteries.
When the English and Dutch republics fought the first in a series of Anglo-Dutch wars between 1652 and 1654, the galleys and archers were long gone. Every ship was a man-o’-war – powered by sails, stacked with cannon.
But the tendency for battles to degenerate into chaotic close-quarter mêlées remained, with each captain tending to bring his ship alongside an enemy vessel, blast it with broadsides, and then, more often than not, seek to storm it by grappling and sending over boarding parties. Each naval battle was a series of private duels. Tactics lagged behind technology.
A fleet, like an army, is an amalgam of separate units where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If firepower is dispersed and ragged, it is less effective than firepower that is concentrated.
If captains can be so disciplined and ordered that they operate their ships as one of a squadron, and if each squadron acts as one of a fleet, the commander-in-chief may aspire to crush his enemy by superior tactical device based on manoeuvre and concentration.
The genius of the Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter was to grasp this essential truth and seek to act on it, imposing discipline, order, and system on the Dutch fleet of the mid to late 17th century.