The inaccessibility of the official Fighting Instructions from time to time issued to the fleet has long been a recognised stumbling-block to students of naval history. Only a few copies of them were generally known to exist; fewer still could readily be consulted by the public, and of these the best known had been wrongly dated. The discovery therefore of a number of seventeenth century Instructions amongst the Earl of Dartmouth's papers, which he had generously placed at the disposal of the Society, seemed to encourage an attempt to make something like a complete collection. The result, such as it is, is now offered to the Society. It is by no means exhaustive. Some sets of Instructions seem to be lost beyond recall; but, on the other hand, a good deal of hitherto barren ground has been filled, and it is hoped that the collection may be of some assistance for a fresh study of the principles which underlie the development of naval tactics.
It is of course as documents in the history of tactics that the Fighting Instructions have the greatest practical value, and with this aspect of them in view I have done my best to illustrate their genesis, intention, and significance by extracts from contemporary authorities. Without such illustration the Instructions would be but barren food, neither nutritive nor easily digested. The embodiment of this illustrative matter has to some extent involved a departure from the ordinary form of the Society's publications. Instead of a general introduction, a series of introductory notes to each group of Instructions has been adopted, which it is feared will appear to bear an excessive proportion to the Instructions themselves. There seemed, however, no other means of dealing with the illustrative matter in a consecutive way. The extracts from admirals' despatches and contemporary treatises, and the remarks of officers and officials concerned with the preparation or the execution of the Instructions, were for the most part too fragmentary to be treated as separate documents, or too long or otherwise unsuitable for foot-notes. The only adequate way therefore was to embody them in Introductory Notes, and this it is hoped will be found to justify their bulk.
A special apology is, however, due for the Introductory Note on Nelson's memoranda. For this I can only plead their great importance, and the amount of illustrative matter that exists from the pens of Nelson's officers and opponents. For no other naval battle have we so much invaluable comment from men of the highest capacity who were present. The living interest of it all is unsurpassed, and I have therefore been tempted to include all that came to hand, encouraged by the belief that the fullest material for the study of Nelson's tactics at the battle of Trafalgar could not be out of place in a volume issued by the Society in the centenary year.
As to the general results, perhaps the most striking feature which the collection brings out is that sailing tactics was a purely English art. The idea that we borrowed originally from the Dutch is no longer tenable. The Dutch themselves do not even claim the invention of the line. Indeed in no foreign authority, either Dutch, French or Spanish, have I been able to discover a claim to the invention of any device in sailing tactics that had permanent value. Even the famous tactical school which was established in France at the close of the Seven Years' War, and by which the French service so brilliantly profited in the War of American Independence, was worked on the old lines of Hoste's treatise. Morogues' Tactique Navale was its text-book, and his own teaching was but a scientific and intelligent elaboration of a system from which the British service under the impulse of Anson, Hawke, and Boscawen was already shaking itself free.
Much of the old learning which the volume contains is of course of little more than antiquarian interest, but the bulk of it in the opinion of those best able to judge should be found of living value. All systems of tactics must rest ultimately on the dominant weapon in use, and throughout the sailing period the dominant weapon was, as now, the gun. In face of so fundamental a resemblance no tactician can afford to ignore the sailing system merely because the method of propulsion and the nature of the material have changed. It is not the principles of tactics that such changes affect, but merely the method of applying them.
Of even higher present value is the process of thought, the line of argument by which the old tacticians arrived at their conclusions good and bad. In studying the long series of Instructions we are able to detach certain attitudes of mind which led to the atrophy of principles essentially good, and others which pushed the system forward on healthy lines and flung off obsolete restraints. In an art so shifting and amorphous as naval tactics, the difference between health and disease must always lie in a certain vitality of mind with which it must be approached and practised. It is only in the history of tactics, under all conditions of weapons, movement and material, that the conditions of that vitality can be studied.