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Kontreadmiral

De Ruyter and Nelson - Most Overrated Admirals of All Time?

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It has always bugged me to see these two names mentioned as some of the greatest admirals of all time, so I thought I would make a small thread explaining why I think that these two men are so overrated.

 

Nelson

Horatio Nelson has been credited with single handedly saving the United Kingdom from a French invasion, something which is simply not true. The battles mainly associated with Nelson are the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar - His only victories above the rank of commodore. The Battle of the Nile was fought between two equal fleets, and the French Navy under d'Aigalliers was in no position to give battle, a clever move by Nelson but no display of tactical brilliance. At the Battle of Copenhagen, or "Slaget på Reden" as it is known here in Denmark, Nelson outnumbered his adversary, Fischer, by a significant margin. The Danish Navy, which was anchored for winter and manned by civilians, was ill-prepared to face Nelson's much superior force. Nevertheless, Fischer, his men and the young 17-year old Peter Willemoes defended Copenhagen with great courage against the British aggressors. Of the ships Fischer had at his disposal, only "Holsteen" was in good shape, and Fischer's squadron consisted entirely of 40-50 year old ships, whom were to be scrapped anyway. Among these ships was the "Prøvesteenen", the former "Christian VII" which had been rebuilt as a 50-gun defense ship. Furthermore, Nelson never came in range of the various coastal fortresses around Copenhagen, and Steen Bille's squadron didn't even see action. By afternoon the battle was turning in Fischer's favour, but ended as Nelson threatened to execute Danish POW's. Nelson's ships could not carry on fighting, and Nelson's flagship "HMS Elephant" ran aground shortly after the battle. The Battle of Copenhagen was certainly no masterpiece from Nelson's side. For Trafalgar, I think that this thread sums it up quite well - http://forum.game-labs.net/index.php?/topic/4230-trafalgar-a-different-view/?hl=trafalgar

 

Overall, Nelson was certainly no great admiral. He simply copied his tactics, such as breaking the line, from people such as Niels Juel, who had invented this tactic at the Battle of Køge Bay in 1677. Nelson was an average admiral who just found himself on the right place at the right time.

 

De Ruyter

I think one of main the reasons why Michiel de Ruyter has been put on such a pedestal is because the achievements of the Dutch Navy are extremely exaggerated. The England that the Netherlands faced in the Anglo-Dutch Wars was a much weaker country than the England that we know from the Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars etc. This England he been through not just one, but three bloody civil wars which it had yet to recover from, and did not yet possess as great a navy as they did in the Napoleonic Wars etc. I've also noticed that people tend to avoid the disastrous first Anglo-Dutch War or battles such as Lowestoft, where the Dutch were soundly beaten. De Ruyter lost countless battles, and he never won a major victory except for Medway, which wasn't even a naval battle. De Ruyter lost far too many vessels under his command, and while there is no denying that he was extremely courageous, I fail to see what makes him great or even above average.

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In all of human history, it's impossible to find any individual whose success isn't based partly on the work of associates, colleagues, and those who came before -- we all build on what we have around us.   I don't think the premise you're attacking ("X was the greatest Y") is ever an interesting premise, so I can see why it annoys you.

 

To have an interesting discussion, we have to take aspects in more detail, viz:

* Grant that much of their 'greatest' stature comes from being folk heros that common people could rally around.  Interesting sociologically, but not militarily.

 

* Informed commentators recognize that each man's tactics were based principles developer earlier -- they were both students of their profession.  

 

Instead, what is interesting (to me) is to try to understand questions like these:

1. How did these men inspire confidence in those they led?  What personality traits?  What leadership style?

2. How did these men make the decisions that put them in the right places at the right times?   

3. What was based on intuition, what was based on educated guesses, and what was based on careful preparation?  Where was there luck?

 

We also have to admire anyone who exhibits a tireless devotion to a cause greater than himself...

Edited by Lt. Obiquiet
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I have no particular wish to defend the honor of Nelson or De Ruyter. The former in particular has had so much praise lavished upon him that any criticism can hardly fail to be a judicious adjustment of the historical record.

 

That disclaimer aside, your view of warfare and history leaves me utterly dismayed. Trafalgar and Copenhagen interpreted through the lens of a videogame AAR.

 

Kindly provide us with some examples of sublimely balanced battles of exquisite fairness, where one single admiral conceived out of nothing a tactical idea of blinding originality, and then carried it out to perfection, leading to a decisive victory over his foes. After that, we can dismiss the mediocre efforts of the likes of Nelson and De Rutyer, which only led to some of the most crushing and strategically important naval battles of all time.

 

I'll be waiting.

 

 

 

 

Furthermore, Nelson never came in range of the various coastal fortresses around Copenhagen, and Steen Bille's squadron didn't even see action.

Here you label Nelson as overrated because he A) wasn't an original tactician and B) didn't fight evenly-matched battles.

At Copenhagen, Nelson managed to attack a highly-fortified harbor without having to engage its strongest defenses. Sounds like good tactics to me. But since you can't fault his decisions here, instead you deny him credit for the victory because his decisions led to a less fair fight. Talk about a Catch-22!

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To argue the case that Nelson was not the greatest admiral of his time it is necessary to show that there was one greater - good luck with that, you will really need it

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It has always been in the interest of nations to "hero-fy" their leaders, even in some extreme cases to the point of propaganda. No man, no matter how meritorious, brave, or successful, is still only a man. 

 

The U.S. historians can look to George Washington: so often elevated as the great hero and father of the country. Indeed his political and administrative successes may have been noteworthy, however his military exploits left much to be admired, yet we paint him crossing the Delaware River in heroic fashion.

 

Anyway, I will say this about Nelson: My knowledge, research of him is limited, with my best insight being the historical novel Decisions at Trafalgar: Nelson revolutionized the sailing world looked at the Line-fight: charging in and breaking the enemy line, otherwise known as the "Nelson Touch"

 

Regardless if his exploits where deserved, this alone does much to make him a major factor in the development of maritime warfare. (Also, the above book notes that the French fired upon Nelson as he approached, citing Nelson saying "This is too warm work ,Hardy, to last long" referencing his Flag Captain Sir Thomas Hardy.)

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Anyway, I will say this about Nelson: My knowledge, research of him is limited, with my best insight being the historical novel Decisions at Trafalgar: Nelson revolutionized the sailing world looked at the Line-fight: charging in and breaking the enemy line, otherwise known as the "Nelson Touch"

 

 

You might prefer Corbett's non-fiction details and analysis of what was planned, what actually happened, and what was innovative.

 

(An appendix includes Nelson's own description of his plan, distributed ahead of time.)

 

The innovation wasn't breaking the line -- the Wikipedia article you linked to on "Nelson's Touch" says:

 

There is a tendency amongst some historians to attribute these tactics to Nelson alone. There was nothing new in his ideas however: Breaking the enemy line had previously been achieved by, amongst others, Admiral George Rodney at the Battle of the Saintes (1782);[7] Admiral Adam Duncan had divided his fleet atCamperdown (1797).[8] Concentration on one part of the enemy fleet was a very old tactic and had already been used by Nelson at the Nile in 1798.[9][10]

Nelson was innovative in one respect at least: rather than direct the battle as it was occurring, through the use of signals, he would gather his captains together prior to action and tell them his plan but would allow them great leeway in how they carried out their individual orders.[11][12] 

Edited by Lt. Obiquiet

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The Danish and Nor were a great nation back in the day, and i would like to be there but not on a ship of course :D

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I have no particular wish to defend the honor of Nelson or De Ruyter. The former in particular has had so much praise lavished upon him that any criticism can hardly fail to be a judicious adjustment of the historical record.

 

That disclaimer aside, your view of warfare and history leaves me utterly dismayed. Trafalgar and Copenhagen interpreted through the lens of a videogame AAR.

 

Kindly provide us with some examples of sublimely balanced battles of exquisite fairness, where one single admiral conceived out of nothing a tactical idea of blinding originality, and then carried it out to perfection, leading to a decisive victory over his foes. After that, we can dismiss the mediocre efforts of the likes of Nelson and De Rutyer, which only led to some of the most crushing and strategically important naval battles of all time.

 

I'll be waiting.

 

 

 

Here you label Nelson as overrated because he A) wasn't an original tactician and B) didn't fight evenly-matched battles.

At Copenhagen, Nelson managed to attack a highly-fortified harbor without having to engage its strongest defenses. Sounds like good tactics to me. But since you can't fault his decisions here, instead you deny him credit for the victory because his decisions led to a less fair fight. Talk about a Catch-22!

You're right so far as them being brilliant strategists goes, it was a wise decision to attack Villeneuve at Trafalgar etc. But what I meant is that they're overrated at tacticians. Nelson is often credited with inventing "Breaking the line", a tactic which had already been used by Niels Juel in 1677, and indeed experimented with by De Ruyter in several battles. And I must admit that as a Dane I'm probably very biased when it comes to Nelson and Copenhagen. But I still fail to see any tactical brilliance from Nelson's side at Copenhagen - Sidney Smith, Thomas Cochrane etc. could probably have been able to gain the same results as Nelson, not only at Copenhagen but also at the Nile and Trafalgar.

 

De Ruyter never really won a decisive naval battle, granted the English never won a decisive naval battle over him either, but I feel that Michiel de Ruyter and the Dutch Navy in the Anglo-Dutch Wars have been overly romanticized, much like how the Vikings have been overly romanticized by us Scandinavians. 

 

So I was probably a bit harsh on them, they were good strategists but I still think that they're overrated as tacticians.

:)

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To argue the case that Nelson was not the greatest admiral of his time it is necessary to show that there was one greater - good luck with that, you will really need it

Niels Juel, Robert Blake, Suffren and Blas de Lezo comes to mind.

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Nelson  didnt do to bad having one arm and one Eye!(I guess back then they also had "Spin Doctors)

It's much harder today, we have to use both mouse and keyboard.  All they had were rats.

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You're right so far as them being brilliant strategists goes, it was a wise decision to attack Villeneuve at Trafalgar etc. But what I meant is that they're overrated at tacticians. Nelson is often credited with inventing "Breaking the line", a tactic which had already been used by Niels Juel in 1677, and indeed experimented with by De Ruyter in several battles.

More than a century lies between 1677 and 1805. Inventions only really count if you can implement them, and the line break tactic was forgotten for generations. It needed to be rediscovered.

 

Of course, these tactical ideas are all so simple and obvious that one doesn't need to be a brilliant military mind to conceive them. Rather, one needs to be a good admiral to implement them, in the face of all the risks and impediments of communication and tradition.

 

And Nelson is rightly honored more for his leadership and daring than his tactical mind. His plan at Trafalgar was a long time coming. Any store clerk could come up with the tactic. Actually doing it is another matter.

 

 

 

And I must admit that as a Dane I'm probably very biased when it comes to Nelson and Copenhagen. But I still fail to see any tactical brilliance from Nelson's side at Copenhagen - Sidney Smith, Thomas Cochrane etc. could probably have been able to gain the same results as Nelson, not only at Copenhagen but also at the Nile and Trafalgar.

I've never read any praise for Nelson's tactics at Copenhagen. That's because it wasn't a true naval battle, it was an assault on a static, fortified position. The battle isn't remembered for being a brilliant victory; it is remembered as a desperate, bloody slog. It was fought in conditions which are least favorable for a fleet of battleships, and carries the greatest consequences for failure. Again, just the sort of hard fighting that would lead historians to point to Nelson's inspirational leadership and resolve, rather than military genius. If Copenhagen warrants praise, it is for the courage of both sides, and for British seamanship in working their into such a harbor battle without serious loss from grounding. But that credit is due to individual captains and crews, since Nelson was never known for being an outstanding seaman.

 

And trying to deny leaders credit because they were not the only person on earth capable of achieving their victories is quite a shabby thing to do.

 

I'd recommend reading War and Peace, or at least the chapters about Borodino. Tolstoy would give you something to think about when it comes to supposed military geniuses.

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I think Nelson was a good commander. But he was the result of decades of development. He was not the only aggressive British commander... it was part of the "culture" in the navy.

(The fact they they executed one of their admirals for not being aggressive was a very good motivator.)

 

He understood one important fact. His crews could fire faster then the enemy. So if he simply placed one of his ship broadside to broadside with a ship of the same size... he would win... and he did.

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Nelson was in several instances just lucky... but luck is part of warfare.

BUT: He was at the right time, at the right place and made the right decisions. He was in charge, he had the responsibility.

Thus, he is also responsible for the victories. It isn't important if others could have done the same, because he did it and noone else.

That's what makes him a good leader.

 

Was Nelson a genius?
No, not really. He hasn't revolutionized warfare as far as I know.

 

Thus, Nelson in his time is what Rommel was for the tank-troops in the 2nd world war:
A good leader, not a genius.

 

Unfortunately: Both characters, Rommel and Nelson, were so much "hyped" in their respective time that the majority of today still believe the propaganda of former days... but that doesn't mean both characters haven't done anything extraordinary.

Quite the contrary is the case. Still, they're no geniuses.

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De Ruyter

I think one of main the reasons why Michiel de Ruyter has been put on such a pedestal is because the achievements of the Dutch Navy are extremely exaggerated. The England that the Netherlands faced in the Anglo-Dutch Wars was a much weaker country than the England that we know from the Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars etc. This England he been through not just one, but three bloody civil wars which it had yet to recover from, and did not yet possess as great a navy as they did in the Napoleonic Wars etc. I've also noticed that people tend to avoid the disastrous first Anglo-Dutch War or battles such as Lowestoft, where the Dutch were soundly beaten. De Ruyter lost countless battles, and he never won a major victory except for Medway, which wasn't even a naval battle. De Ruyter lost far too many vessels under his command, and while there is no denying that he was extremely courageous, I fail to see what makes him great or even above average.

 

 

"The England that the Netherlands faced in the Anglo-Dutch Wars was a much weaker country than the England that we know from the Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars etc."

The Dutch only ended their 80year struggle for independance in 1648. That's not that far prior to the Anglo-Dutch wars. Not to mention that England was still a lot larger than the United Provinces at the time. The entire population of the United Provinces never rose above 2 million!  

"and did not yet possess as great a navy as they did in the Napoleonic Wars etc"

 

And yet they had larger fleets and bigger ships in many of the engagements during the Anglo-Dutch wars, whereas the Dutch never enjoyed a quantitive or size superiority. 

 

" or battles such as Lowestoft"

De Ruyter did not command or even fight at Lowestoft, dude....

 

 

"De Ruyter lost countless battles, and he never won a major victory except for Medway, which wasn't even a naval battle. "

Excuse me? Lost countless (!) battles? How are you even determining who won or lost? Points? De Ruyter's fleet handling made sure that in many occassions, the goal of  the English fleet was not achieved, the potential naval invasion of the Netherlands never happened and that the Dutch fleet survived and was not destroyed.

 

How exactly is that losing countless battles, lol? 

 

 

 

Maturin hit the nail on the head when he said that you're comparing historical events through the lens of a videogame a few centuries after the fact. With a poor sense of history to boot! 

 

(Really, throwing Lowestoft on De Ruyter's conto? De Ruyter was in the Caribbean back then!  Literally 5 seconds of Googling could've saved you from making that dumbass mistake!)

 

 

 

I will also say: Solebay, Schooneveld and Texel. Why don't you do your homework and see how the situation was for the Dutch Republic at the time and how the outcome of those battles, heavily influenced by De Ruyter's command, saved the Republic from a combined Anglo-French gangbang, before making statements that shine mostly due to their bright and unpolished ignorance! 

Edited by SchurkjeBoefje

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"The England that the Netherlands faced in the Anglo-Dutch Wars was a much weaker country than the England that we know from the Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars etc."

The Dutch only ended their 80year struggle for independance in 1648. That's not that far prior to the Anglo-Dutch wars. Not to mention that England was still a lot larger than the United Provinces at the time. The entire population of the United Provinces never rose above 2 million!  

"and did not yet possess as great a navy as they did in the Napoleonic Wars etc"

 

And yet they had larger fleets and bigger ships in many of the engagements during the Anglo-Dutch wars, whereas the Dutch never enjoyed a quantitive or size superiority. 

 

" or battles such as Lowestoft"

De Ruyter did not command or even fight at Lowestoft, dude....

 

 

"De Ruyter lost countless battles, and he never won a major victory except for Medway, which wasn't even a naval battle. "

Excuse me? Lost countless (!) battles? How are you even determining who won or lost? Points? De Ruyter's fleet handling made sure that in many occassions, the goal of  the English fleet was not achieved, the potential naval invasion of the Netherlands never happened and that the Dutch fleet survived and was not destroyed.

 

How exactly is that losing countless battles, lol? 

 

 

 

Maturin hit the nail on the head when he said that you're comparing historical events through the lens of a videogame a few centuries after the fact. With a poor sense of history to boot! 

 

(Really, throwing Lowestoft on De Ruyter's conto? De Ruyter was in the Caribbean back then!  Literally 5 seconds of Googling could've saved you from making that dumbass mistake!)

 

 

 

I will also say: Solebay, Schooneveld and Texel. Why don't you do your homework and see how the situation was for the Dutch Republic at the time and how the outcome of those battles, heavily influenced by De Ruyter's command, saved the Republic from a combined Anglo-French gangbang, before making statements that shine mostly due to their bright and unpolished ignorance! 

I didn't throw Lowestoft on De Ruyter's conto, De Ruyter had little to do with the First Anglo-Dutch War, I was simply stating that the achievements of the Dutch Navy are a bit exaggerated, and using Lowestoft and The First Anglo-Dutch War as an example of this. I myself exaggerated when I said that De Ruyter lost countless battles, because he did not, but he still lost a couple of battles. Otherwise I'll say that you're right, I've read a bit about De Ruyter since this thread, and I do actually believe that he was a pretty great commander now - I simply did not know enough about De Ruyter, and the impact he had upon naval warfare. I do, however, still think that Nelson is overrated.

Edited by Kontreadmiral

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I do, however, still think that Nelson is overrated.

I'm not arguing this, but am interested in the rating criteria you have in mind. Number of tactical innovations? Amount of enemy tonnage sunk? Fewest missed opportunities? Lowest opportunity cost? Loyalty? Inspirational impact on subsequent commanders? A weighted function of many such evaluations?

You see, I think it's hard to make sweeping generalizations on a topic like this...

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I'm not arguing this, but am interested in the rating criteria you have in mind. Number of tactical innovations? Amount of enemy tonnage sunk? Fewest missed opportunities? Lowest opportunity cost? Loyalty? Inspirational impact on subsequent commanders? A weighted function of many such evaluations?

You see, I think it's hard to make sweeping generalizations on a topic like this...

I think that he is overrated because he gets too much credit; He wasn't the first to break the line and he didn't save Britain single-handedly(Not that anyone can save a country single-handedly). Nelson is often viewed as the greatest admiral ever, and he has almost turned into a sort of mystical superhuman, almost. Nelson was no doubt a great inspirational leader, and he was a good strategic, but he didn't revolutionize naval warfare. I'll even argue that the Battle of Trafalgar didn't really matter in the big picture - Napoleon could probably never have invaded Britain anyway, the British navy was much greater than the French. Overall Britain's role in the Napoleonic Wars is exaggerated. It was Austria, Russia and Prussia whom had to do the dirty work, Britain simply financed these powers(Important nonetheless, but it wasn't British blood which was shed.)

Edited by Kontreadmiral

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Battle of Trafalgar didn't really matter in the big picture

It didn't alter the course of the war, but the big picture is precisely where it mattered. It was the last serious fleet battle of its kind and era.

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It didn't alter the course of the war, but the big picture is precisely where it mattered. It was the last serious fleet battle of its kind and era.

 

But would a severe British defeat have altered the course of the war? It's hard to say anything conclusive about the eventual outcome of the Napoleonic conflicts, but it definitely would've changed a few things I wager. 

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But would a severe British defeat have altered the course of the war? It's hard to say anything conclusive about the eventual outcome of the Napoleonic conflicts, but it definitely would've changed a few things I wager. 

Well, yeah, but a sever British defeat could only have been inflicted by the kraken.

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