Thank you to Sarah von Hagen for this post! Sarah von Hagen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Göttingen. In her thesis, she investigates military violence at sea, aiming to present a cultural history of naval warfare in the late 17th and 18th century. Sarah is currently a visiting doctoral student at the University of Exeter.
In her bachelor’s degree, Sarah studied history and German philology at the University of Göttingen. She completed a master’s degree in medieval and modern history, also at the University of Göttingen, and another master’s degree in History of War at the University of Oxford. The results of her bachelor’s thesis were published in a paper entitled “Corrections of Honor. On the Editing of the War Diary of the Flanders Campaigns 1746 of Prince Carl August Friedrich of Waldeck (Ehr-Korrekturen. Zur Redaktionsgeschichte des Journal de la Campagne en Flandre 1746 des Fürsten Carl August Freidrich zu Waldeck)” issued in the Hessian Yearbook of Regional History (Hessisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte). Another essay of hers was included in a handbook on source analysis and is dedicated to early modern travel narratives as an approach to experiences of otherness. She is currently preparing a paper on the results of her first master’s thesis, which examined 18th century amphibious siege warfare.
Sarah’s research interests are in early modern history, the history of violence, naval history, 17th- and 18th-century military history, and theory and methods of historiography. She can be found on Twitter at @sarah_vha
Fire was the biggest threat to a wooden warship. Sails made of canvas, a hull coated with tar, and tons of powder in the hull turned the men-of-war into highly flammable floating powder kegs. Even a spark could thus have fatal consequences and cause a ship to explode. Hence, it is not surprising that fire was used as a weapon against enemy ships in battle. Artificial fires and the “terror weapons” fireships, as Peter Kirsch called them, were the respective instruments for that.1
From a military rational point of view, fire was a promising weapon regarding the great vulnerability of wooden ships. However, in battle, it proved not to be particularly efficient. Especially fireship attacks ended without the enemy ship being destroyed most of the times.2Fire was also not only a threat to the enemy, but to own vessels and crews as well. However, if we measure the success of attacks with fire not only in terms of the actual burning of the enemy but also consider them as instruments of some kind of psychological warfare, fire proves to be much more efficient as a weapon than it looks on the first sight.
For that, it is worth taking a closer look at what happened aboard the Dutch ship Duivenvoorde in the early evening of 1 June 1666 (O.S.). It was the first day of the so-called ‘Four Days’ Battle’ between the English and Dutch fleets, which begun around noon off the Flemish coast. About 5 p.m., disaster struck the vessel: it burst into flames. On board were the French nobleman Guy Armand de Gramont, Comte de Guiche (1637–1673) and Louis I., Prince of Monaco (1642–1701). Both survived the fire and reported afterwards what happened after the fire broke out. In his memoirs, the Comte de Guiche wrote:
“The enemy, [S.v.H.] set fire to our ship. A moment after we had noticed it and had run to where we saw the evil [the flames, S.v.H.], some sailors entered the captain’s chamber, where they found all our clothes and the props [ammunition, S.v.H.] of the enemy’s battery in flames, which they could not extinguish; so that they declared to us half-burnt scoundrels that there was no hope. […] For me, seeing the end of all hope, it remained to decide for myself which death I would choose, whether I would throw myself into the sea or wait to blow up with the ship.”3
With the flames, hopelessness spread onboard. Thus, the Comte de Guiche considered his death certain—the only left for him was to decide how to die. He was, however, not alone with his desperation. In an account about the Prince of Monaco it says:
“[T]he prince, being equally fearful of the water and the fire and lacking presence of mind did not know to which of the two elements to commit himself. At last being terrified of the fire, which surrounded him, he decided to throw himself into the water. There he was gradually drowning, but just as he was about to sink to the bottom he was seized by the hair […] and pulled out of the water.“4
Both men stated being scared to death in the face of the burning ship. Each of them experiences this fear individually, and yet it was shared collectively. For almost the entire crew of the Duivenvoorde crowded onto the beak hoping to reach a ship for rescue and to not have to choose between death in the flames or death in the waves.
A similar fate befell the crew of the English man-of-war Henry, which was attacked by no less than three fireships in the evening of the same day. When fire broke out on board, 200 men—almost half of the crew—jumped overboard, frightened by the flames. The fire could, however, be extinguished and the Henry sailed back to the English coast.5
When fire broke out, crews knew exactly what to expect in the worst case. Their ship as a shelter and living space as well as a symbolic artefact was existentially threatened, and so were their lives. Given the very limited resource of manpower, the loss of crewmembers weighed heavily on the navies as did the loss of a ship.6 The attack with fire was thus directed equally against the ship as a symbol of power and means of combat as well as its crew.
In order to decimate manpower, fire did not necessarily have to burn the enemy ship entirely. The fear it aroused could already be enough. Against this background, the evaluation of successful and unsuccessful attacks with fire must be adjusted. Individual, “failing” attacks could become successful in the overall view of a battle in terms of ship losses—and hit the enemy considerably through the loss of well-trained crews. Fire, it could be concluded, was thus a kind of means of early modern psychological warfare, by using it not only to burn ships but also to weaken enemy crews through fear and anxiety.
- Peter Kirsch, Fireship: The terror weapon of the age of sail, Barnsley 2009
- Ibid, p. 8
- Armand de Gramont, Mémoirs du Comte de Guiche, concernant les Provinces-Unies des Pais-Bas, et servant de Supplement et de Confirmation à ceux d’Aubery du Maurier et du Comte d’Estrades, London 1744, pp. 239–40. Translation by the author.
- Giustinian to the Doge and Senat, 22 June 1666 pp. 214–219’ in: Calender of State Papers Venice, Vol. 35, pp. 12–25. British History Online, URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/venice/vol35/pp12-25
- An Account of the events can be found in a letter of Michiel de Ruyter to the States General of the Netherlands, 14. June 1666 (N.S.), The National Archives, Den Haag, 1.10.72 73, f. 37; White Kennett, A complete history of England, London 1706, p. 260; and Frank L. Fox: The Four Days’ Battle of 1666. The Greatest Sea Fight of the Age of Sail, Barnsley 2009
- Renaud Morieux, The society of prisoners: Anglo-French wars and incarceration in the eighteenth century, Oxford 2019 p. 156
An interesting read. I certainly see why the fear of fire would play on officers and sailors minds alike and likely impact captain’s decision making.