When reading about the naval war at sea during the Napoleonic Wars one cannot avoid coming across the name Nelson. Horatio Nelson by far the most famous naval commander in the Royal Navy, if not in the world in those days. What was the secret of his success? Many have written about his style of leadership, but author Steven E. Maffeo, a former US Navy intelligence officer, writes in Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014) about the role intelligence played in not only Nelson’s success, but of the Royal Navy writ large in those days.
In the modern world, a naval commander has at his disposal a vast array of intelligence tools. Strategically, that enterprise is devoted to delivering the commander knowledge of the enemies capabilities and (hopefully) intentions. At the operational and tactical levels, the burning intelligence question is often, “Where is the enemy?” In the Age of Nelson the operational question was often the most important, and where intelligence made the greatest contribution towards victory.
In Most Secret and Confidential the reader learns that there really was no national intelligence organization in the early 19th century. For a military organization like the Royal Navy, intelligence had a role but it was organized far differently from what many are familiar with today:
Without doubt, the collection, assessment, dissemination, and use of intelligence information was present throughout the fleet. Equally clear is that, subordinate to the Admiralty at whatever operational level one cares to consider, the most senior officer present on a given station was de facto the local premier intelligence officer. No other person had the time, availability, access to information, responsibility, qualifications, experience, or overview. Finally, no senior officer had anything resembling adequate staff support to even partially share such important responsibilities….Most Secret and Confidential, p. 281
Wargaming Operational Intelligence in the Age of Nelson
The wargame 1805: Sea of Glory (designer Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009) is an operational level wargame focused on the war at sea in the pivotal year of 1805. Reading the ad copy for the game hints at the role of intelligence in the game:
1805: Sea of Glory places you in command of the Royal Navy or the allied fleets of France and Spain. You direct your far flung forces, raid enemy ports, and bring your wooden warships into combat with the enemy. Key ports must be protected and enemy harbors blockaded. With a constant eye to wind and weather, your ships must cross the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the West Indies. Your opponent will not know the composition of your forces until combat is joined. The fog of war complicates every decision. The fate of nations will once again be determined by wooden ships and iron men.
The cat and mouse game of breakout and pursuit has begun.1805: Sea of Glory, publisher’s ad copy
After reading Most Secret and Confidential and as I started pulling out 1805: Sea of Glory, I expected that the “God’s Eye” wargaming view of the battle space would mean wargame mechanisms and the reality of intelligence in those days would not be compatible. What I discovered is that, while an imperfect simulation of intelligence, 1805: Sea of Glory actually captures the essence of the intelligence problems of the day and is much closer to replicating intelligence challenges described in Most Secret and Confidential than I expected.
Wargaming the “Nelson Touch”
From the intelligence perspective, a player of 1805: Sea of Glory is thrust into a very similar role to an operational naval commander of the Age of Nelson. To begin, with the player is their own intelligence officer and, though one could argue about qualifications, is solely responsible for all intelligence operations.
Like Nelson, players in Sea of Glory do not always know their enemy’s objectives but, through careful analysis and deduction from what they can see they may be able to divine their intention.
For naval commanders in the Age of Nelson the major question in their day—and any game of 1805: Sea of Glory—is how to find the enemy. At first I looked at the blocks, used to represent fleets, transports, and frigates in Sea of Glory, I thought they revealed too much information. Although I couldn’t see exactly what the block was, I could see it on the map, seemingly an advantage over naval commanders of the day. Further, in 1805: Sea of Glory when a French or Spanish fleet sorties from port a destination is often secretly selected based on the secret objectives of the game. This turns Sea of Glory into that cat and mouse pursuit game.
After reading Most Secret and Confidential I reconsidered my opinion and now see that the use of blocks is actually very appropriate to the actual intelligence revealed. As Most Secret and Confidential tells us, commanders often had fair intelligence as to the composition of the enemies forces and especially what ports they used. The presence of blocks reflects the collection and analysis of intelligence from a myriad of sources like passing merchant ships or intercepted coastal semaphore and even newspapers. To get more details the player must resort to similar tactics of their real historical counterparts like sending ships closer inshore to “count masts.” For fleets that sortie, players—like commanders in Most Secret and Confidential—must start looking for clues as to where the enemy could be going and then use their forces (like blockades, fleets, or frigates) to search the oceans to gain contact and bring them to battle. Even though players can “see” the block on the map it may not be enough to find the fleet as weather and chance play a role in the game—just like reality.
At the end of the day, to win in 1805: Sea of Glory the players really do need to be a bit like Nelson. In Most Secret and Confidential, author Steven Maffeo quotes C.S. Forester, the author of the Horatio Hornblower series, on why Nelson was a great intelligence officer and along the way also tells us what being a player in 1805: Sea of Glory really means:
It is hard to decide what to admire most: the accuracy of the deduction, the self-confidence which believed in it, or the force of mind with which he brought himself to [expose] England’s most valuable colonial possessions solely on deductions made from a series of individually conclusive facts.C.S. Forester as cited in Most Secret and Confidential, p. 287
Maffeo concludes Most Secret and Confidential with a challenge that is appropriate to any wargamer and a reminder that, regardless of the era or game, intelligence has a role:
Whatever the specific case, in the final analysis the degree to which the naval commander uses, or fails to use, available intelligence in the decision-making process is crucial. Indeed, the commander’s possession and use of intelligence have been decisive in history, they are decisive now, and they will be decisive in the future.Most Secret and Confidential, p. 288