The administration of the transport service during the war against revolutionary France, 1793-1802
During the war against revolutionary France, in order to carry out the ambitious policy of Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for War, the King's forces were conveyed to the far distant East and West Indies, to the Continent, the Mediterranean and Egypt and to the Cape of Good Hope. For the first eighteen months the war was conducted in a sluggish and haphazard manner resulting in failure on the Continent and in an inefficient transport service. The disorganization of the Navy Office and abuses in the Royal dockyards, defects in the transport system which had been revealed by a commission of naval enquiry appointed in 1785, still existed. It became increasingly difficult to hire, inspect and fit out enough ships to be used as transports. By July 1794 the lack of success of the Continental campaigns and the realization that war would continue caused the ministry to make important changes in the government and in the transport system. The business of hiring vessels to be used as troopships, victuallers, and ordnance vessels was now centered in a Transport Board and the competition in the engagement of shipping that before existed between the Navy, Victualling and Ordnance offices was eliminated. A board set up to deal specifically with transport affairs was able to give undivided attention to them. Thus a more organized and efficiently run transport service was inaugurated. Since the war against France was conducted through a series of campaigns and expeditions the Transport Board did not have to maintain a large army overseas for an extended period of time. However, it carried out some of the greatest troop movements of the eighteenth century, particularly the Abercromby-Christian expedition of November 1795 which involved the conveyance of 27,000 men, their equipment, provisions and ordnance to the West Indies, and the expedition to North Holland in 1799 which involved the transportation of 46,000 men from England and the Baltic. The progress of the transport service in getting the expeditions out to sea, especially those going to the West Indies, was often impeded by the slowness of other departments, particularly the Ordnance, in preparing for the military enterprise and by the natural foibles of storms and contrary winds. Throughout the war the Transport Board also had to cope with a dangerous shipping shortage, due to a vast increase in every branch of trade. This was a time of unprecedented commercial prosperity when it became more advantageous for the merchant to put his ship to a trade than to let it to the government. Hiring space on merchant vessels that traded regularly between Britain and the areas where the army was being sent was one method the Transport Board employed in an attempt to meet its tonnage requirements. Many troops and almost all officers were sent to the West Indies in this manner and a great part of the provisions sent to the British army overseas were conveyed in victuallers hired on freight. The Transport Board chartered eighty ships at Hamburg in order to satisfy its shipping needs in 1795. However, this venture proved a great and costly disappointment. More beneficial was the Board's practice of keeping the freight rate offered by the government to the owners of merchant vessels consistent with the high cost of provisions and stores and increased wages. The freight rate was increased by over seven shillings per ton or by two thirds over an eight-year period. Previously, it had remained almost static throughout the eighteenth century. By these wise and practical methods the Transport Board was able to meet the logistical requirements of Dundas' ambitious policy throughout the war.