Organisation of the crew: The Officers
Midshipmen were usually volunteers, aged between 14 and 18, eager to be commissioned as lieutenants - the first rung on the ladder of promotion in naval service. Some, however, were men promoted from the lower deck, such that midshipmen could be considerably older - up to 40 years old - having failed to pass the exam for lieutenant. Once aged 14 or older, a midshipmen held the same rank as a petty officer, while younger midshipmen held the equivalent rank of an able seaman.Midshipmen oversaw the work performed by most of the crew of lesser rank, and kept the watch system, whether two or three, functioning on time. The senior midshipman of the watch stood on the quarterdeck, the second on the forecastle, and the third abaft the mizzen mast. Others, of less experience, answered to their superiors and carried out all manner of tasks such as taking and recording soundings, notifying the officer of the watch of anything of note, and marking the log slate. Using sextants or quadrants, midshipmen would also record the ship's position at noon, being careful to take this and other pertinent information down in their journals, which the captain would later inspect. Midshipmen oversaw signalling, commanded the boats and worked aloft, situating themselves, according to directions from a lieutenant, in one of the mast tops, where they supervised the furling and reefing of sails. Each of the ship's divisions was assigned a midshipman who was responsible for numerous tasks, such as ensuring that the men had clean clothing, that the ill were accounted for on the sick list and reported to the sick bay, and that hammocks were stowed after use. Midshipmen could inflict minor punishments on seamen, usually in the form of blows delivered by a knotted rope. Sailors with years of experience behind them, and sometimes considerably older than a midshipman, had no option but to endure the reprimands and punishments of mere teenagers. Prior to battle, a midshipman would see that all the guns, powder cartridges and associated equipment were ready for use. When a ship stood in harbour, a specified number of midshipmen would be assigned to work around the clock in shifts, supervising the upper deck. As a midshipman was an aspiring officer, he spent what time remained between watches studying mathematics, navigation, trigonometry and seamanship, as well as writing in his journals. After about six years' service, by which time he would be about 19, a midshipman would take his examination for lieutenant.
While lieutenants with sufficient experience commanded one of various types of small vessels such as sloops, armed cutters, brigs or schooners. they are best known as the group of officers immediately junior in rank to the captain. A lieutenant was expected to carry out the orders of the captain or more senior lieutenants quickly and intelligently, whether serving as the officer of the watch or in some other capacity. Specifically, he was to ensure that the ship sailed according to the course and direction dictated by the captain, and remain attentive lest rigging and sails suffer damage from a sudden shift in the direction and strength of the wind. According to Admiralty Regulations, the lieutenant of the watch was to remain on deck in a constant state of vigilance:To see that the men are alert and attentive to their duty; that every precaution is taken to prevent accidents from squalls, or sudden gusts of winds; and that the ship is as perfectly prepared for battle as circumstances will admit. A lieutenant was also responsible for the conduct of the midshipmen, mates and seamen under him, ensuring that they all carried out their duties properly. The senior lieutenant on duty was immediately to call the captain on deck if the weather suddenly changed, or if some other pressing matter required his attention. Apart from the smallest ships, aboard which only one or lieutenants served, each ship had a first lieutenant, whose seniority, base on experience, entitled him to the post of second in command. As such he was to report directly to the captain respecting the management of the ship and its crew. He ensured that watch and quarter bills were implemented correctly, which required him to list where all officers, seamen and marines were to be positioned when on watch or in action. The list also laid down the responsibilities to be undertaken by each man so as to cover all eventualities, such as manning the pumps, and sail-handling. The first lieutenant normally did not keep watches, but might be called on deck as needed by the officer of the watch. During battle the first lieutenant stood with the captain on the quarterdeck, and in the event of the captain being injured or killed, command immediately devolved upon the first lieutenant. The more junior lieutenants each commanded a gun deck in action and oversaw the firing of the guns. With the assistance of midshipmen and quarter gunners, the lieutenant was responsible for seeing that the gun crew always had powder and shot to hand and that the men handling the firing the guns did not abandon their posts under the pressure of enemy fire. Any of the lieutenants not assigned to a particular gun deck would command the guns on the forecastle or quarter deck, or were positioned on the poop deck and given charge of signalling in the capacity of communications officer.
Master and commander
This rank was assigned to officers who commanded vessels smaller than a sixth rate, which is to say sloops and brigs. By the second year of the war, in 1794, the rank was replaced by that of commander, which was effectively the same as captain of a larger vessel, the only distinction being that a commander was responsible for fewer men and guns.
A captain (or 'post captain', which distinguished the position from that of 'commander' who was effectively a 'captain' already, but merely of a small vessel) always commanded a ship of sixth rate class and above. These men normally rose from the rank of commander, though those who demonstrated particular promise or who had distinguished themselves might only hold the rank of commander very briefly before becoming captain. The captain was junior only to his superior squadron commander, who held the rank of commodore or admiral. Thus, aboard his own ship, the captain reigned supreme. He was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the running of the ship, not lest the discipline of the officers and men, and directed the ship's course and conduct during battle.
The rank of commodore was rarely filled, for it was in fact an intermediary post occupied by a senior captain temporarily commanding a small squadron or an important position on shore in the absence of an admiral. Specifically, the rank of commodore existed to satisfy the requirement of assigning part of a fleet to a senior captain while the admiral was commanding the remainder of the fleet altogether. A commodore could command an inshore squadron or a small number of ships, usually frigates, detached from their parent fleet to conduct the blockade of an enemy port, or he might also be assigned a particular task of attacking an enemy squadron or bombarding a position on the coast. If, as was usually the case, the appointment of commodore was only temporary, upon the expiration of his tenure the captain would revert to his own rank.
Those in command at the highest level, in the name of the Admiralty, were the admirals, who led squadrons of approximately ten or more ships, or two or three squadrons, which composed a fleet. These men, all with years of practical experience dating back to the time they joined the Navy as midshipmen, were promoted automatically be seniority from the rank of captain. By the time they reached this rank they had demonstrated thoroughly their abilities at seamanship and command. They were expected to have a good grasp of strategy and be relied upon to execute the Admiralty's orders with steadfastness and intelligence, since poor communication and great distances would often require an admiral to use considerable discretion in the interpretation of his orders. The members of the Admiralty generally knew admirals personally, and therefore were confident in entrusting them with direct responsibility over large numbers of ships and men. Not all admirals were suited to fleet command. Some performed administrative tasks ashore, some commanded shore establishments, and others governed British colonies. Admirals could retain their positions and rank for life, and thus they could be quite old and inefficient. Some took voluntary retirement on a sizeable pension; others worked until infirmity or death. There was no shortage of men from which to choose admirals, and by 1807 there were over 150 of them, often known as flag officers.
Unsurprisingly, an admiral in charge of a fleet (normally comprising at least 20 ships of the line, plus ancillary vessels, especially frigates) had myriad responsibilities, as shown by Keith's orders of 1799, which included 15 clauses. He was instructed:
To correspond with the governors of Gibraltar and Minorca, and all British consuls in the Mediterranean;
To give every assistance to the governor of Gibraltar;
To appoint such of His Majesty's ships and vessels under you command to convoy the homeward bound trade, as are the least fit to remain abroad, as you shall judge sufficient for their protection;
To detain and keep under his command any ships sent out to him, except store-ships, which were to be sent back when unloaded;
To send surgeon's mates to help in Gibraltar hospital if needed;
To have his ships apply for provisions at Gibraltar;
To notify the Admiralty of any store and provisions lacking;
If purchasing any ships and vessels, to get Admiralty permission, and to have them surveyed by the commissioners at Gibraltar;
To conform to the established rules and customs of the navy;
Not to appoint any victualling officers on shore, but to apply to the Admiralty for permission;
To visit ships and muster men, and see that they were rated properly, and to look to the cleanliness and economy of ships under his command;
To have his ships refitted at Gibraltar and Minorca;
To order his captains to take good care of rigging, stores and so on;
Not to allow his ships to come home except in cases of necessity;
And to keep a journal, and send regular reports to the Admiralty.
Admirals were classified according to three divisions, each of which contained three ranks. In the wake of the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, the Navy was divided into three squadrons, with a single colour designated for each, based on seniority:red was the highest, followed by white and blue. This flag was flown at the ensign staff of each ship in the fleet, though it is important to note that the white was later altered to include the red Cross of St George in order to distinguish it from the flag of Bourbon France, whose flag was also white (though all possibility of confusion ceased when from about 1795 the French began to fly the revolutionary Tricolour). Admirals, like the red, white and blue squadrons of the fleet, were themselves subdivided into individual ranks, the most senior rank being (full) admiral, followed by vice-admiral and rear admiral.
An admiral senior enough to command an entire fleet rather than merely a squadron normally positioned his flagship at its centre, whereas a vice-admiral, serving as second in command, directed the activity of the van (the leading squadron of the fleet), with a rear-admiral, as his title implied, commanding the rear. The senior post in this hierarchy - Admiral of the Red - required an officer to rise nine places once he was promoted from captain or commodore. Thus, his long ascent, facilitated by the retirement and death of those senior to him, began as Rear-Admiral of the Blue, which was the lowest rank of the lowest squadron. This was modified in 1805 when the rank of Admiral of the Red was re-designated to fall between Admiral of the Fleet and Admiral of the White, thus requiring those seeking the highest position to ascend ten places on the ladder of promotion. The most senior position of all - Admiral of the Fleet - entitled the holder of that rank to fly the Union flag (or 'Jack') at the head of the main mast.
The ranking of admirals can thus be summarised as follows:
Admiral of the Fleet
Admiral of the Red (rank created after 1805)
Admiral of the White
Admiral of the Blue
Vice-Admiral of the Red
Vice-Admiral of the White
Vice-Admiral of the Blue
Rear-Admiral of the Red
Rear-Admiral of the White
Rear-Admiral of the Blue
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