Books

Too young to die

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

In the north transept of Westminster Abbey, there is a memorial by Joseph Nollekens to three British captains killed at the Battle of the Saintes. It is hard to imagine that many visitors notice it, but when the news of the battle reached London from the West Indies in May 1782, it inspired the same kind of hysteria that 120 years later would greet the relief of Mafeking. The victory might not have been all it was cracked up to be — Rodney had let the French fleet escape — and yet at a time when a bitterly divided country was embroiled in a losing struggle for its American colonies and a mismanaged war with France and Spain, anything which promised that Britannia still ruled the waves and Britons could fight and die as their forefathers had done was manna from heaven.

Resolution is a double portrait of the youngest and most glamorous of Nollekens’s captains, Lord Robert Manners, and of his elder and distinctly less resolute brother Charles. It is not unfair to say that neither of them alone would warrant a full biography, and if 480 pages is pushing the boat out even for the pair of them, David Rutland and Emma Ellis have found a clever, and ultimately poignant, way of bringing the naval and political sides of the war with the American colonies into a single focus.

The Manners brothers were the grandsons of the 3rd Duke of Rutland and, more importantly in the popular perception, the sons of that great and balding British hero and well-known pub sign, the Marquis of Granby. For all their closeness, the two boys would have been aware from the first of the very different futures that awaited them; but while the amiable and feckless Charles seems to have collapsed under the expectations and temptations — not to mention debts — awaiting the heir to Belvoir and the Rutland dukedom, the younger son flung himself into his naval career with an wonderfully dogged and impatient determination to ‘get on’.


One of the most engaging things about Lord Robert Manners, in fact, is how very much like every other midshipman or young lieutenant down the generations he sounds. On the face of it, no one could have been better placed to exploit the Georgian world of patronage and connections, but his letters home to Charles — full of frustrations about ‘sea-time’, promotions, the uselessness of superiors, the good fortune of his peers or the holy grail of post rank — could have as easily been written a century later by the penniless Robert Falcon Scott as by an 18th-century aristocrat with a brace of dukes for grandfathers.

And life would not, as it turned out, prove as smooth for him as might be expected, because for all his social advantages, Manners was unlucky enough to be born a Whig in one of the unhappiest and miserably politicised periods in naval history. The growing rift with the American colonies had exposed bitter divisions in British public life, and, when war broke out, the navy split along factional lines, with officer turned against officer in a climate of recrimination and mistrust that finally boiled over after the indecisive Battle of Ushant in the notorious Keppel-Palliser affair.

While Manners’s connections came to his rescue in the end — he made post-
captain by the age of 22 — he had been made to wait longer than any son of Granby with a well-developed sense of entitlement felt was proper. He had first gone to sea on the Newfoundland station, when he was just 14, but it would be six frustrating and tedious years before he saw his first action at Ushant, and another two before he got his own ship and the chance of the glory and prize money that were the driving force behind every ambitious officer in the age of sail.

The young Manners did not live long enough to prove anything other than his bravery, dying at 24; but his short life provides a perfect way into the naval and domestic politics of the age. During his years at sea he was constantly badgering his brother with letters, and in them are mirrored the assumptions and preoccupations of Britain’s ruling class in the last days before war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France would demand more of its leaders than a Lord North or a Rodney could ever have provided.

It cannot always be easy to co-author a book, but Resolution is a pretty seamless performance. It is fair and balanced in its judgments, authoritative in its handling of all naval aspects, and as comfortable with the aristocratic world of Belvoir, Newmarket and the gaming table as it is with the quarterdeck.

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