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Significant Scots
John Clerk

CLERK, JOHN, of Eldin, inventor of some invaluable improvements in the modern system of naval tactics, was the sixth son of Sir John Clerk of Pennycuick, baronet, who filled the situation of a baron in his majesty’s Scottish exchequer between the years 1707 and 1755, and was one of the most enlightened men of his age and country. The mother of John Clerk was Janet Inglis, daughter of Sir John Inglis of Cramond. He appears at an early period of his life to have inherited from his father the estate of Eldin, in the neighbourhood of Pennycuick, and southern part of the county of Edinburgh, and to have married Miss Susanna Adam, sister of the celebrated architects, by whom he had several children. The private life of Mr Clerk of Eldin presents as few incidents as that of most country gentlemen. He was distinguished chiefly by his extraordinary conceptions on the subject of naval tactics; and it is to those that we are to direct our chief attention.

In a fragment of an intended life of Mr Clerk, written by the late professor Playfair, and published in the transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, that eminent man begins by remarking that the author of the Naval Tactics was one of those men, who by the force of their own genius, have carried great improvements into professions which were not properly their own. The learned professor shows how in many professions, and as particularly in the naval as in any, the individual regularly bred to it is apt to become blindly habituated to particular modes of procedure, and thus is unfitted for suggesting any improvement in it, while a man of talent, not belonging to it, may see possibilities of improvement, and instruct those who are apt to think themselves beyond instruction. "Mr Clerk," he says, "was precisely the kind of man by whom a successful in-road into a foreign territory is likely to be made. He possessed a strong and inventive mind, to which the love of knowledge and the pleasure derived from the acquisition of it, were always sufficient motives for application. He had naturally no great respect for authority, or for opinions, either speculative or practical, which rested only on fashion or custom. He had never circumscribed his studies by the circle of things immediately useful to himself; and I may say of him, that he was more guided in his pursuits, by the inclinations and capacities of his own mind, and less by circumstances and situation than any man I have ever known. Thus it was that he studied the surface of the land as if he had been a general, and the surface of the sea as an admiral, though he had no direct connection with the profession either of the one or of the other.

From his early youth, a fortunate instinct seems to have directed his mind to naval affairs. It is always interesting to observe the small and almost invisible causes from which genius receives its first impulses, and often its most durable impressions. ‘I had, (says he,) [Preface to the second edition of his "Essay on Naval Tactics," 1804.] acquired a strong passion for nautical affairs when a mere child. At ten years old, before I had seen a ship, or even the sea at a less distance than four or five miles, I formed an acquaintance at school with some boys who had come from a distant sea-port, who instructed me in the different parts of a ship from a model which they had procured. I had afterwards frequent opportunities of seeing and examining ships at the neighbouring port of Leith, which increased my passion for the subject; and I was soon in possession of a number of models, many of them of my own construction, which I used to sail on a piece of water in my father’s pleasure grounds, where there was also a boat with sails, which furnished me with much employment. I had studied Robinson Crusoe, and I read all the sea voyages I could procure.’

"The desire of going to sea," continues Mr Playfair, "which could not but arise out of these exercises, was forced to yield to family considerations; but fortunately for his country, the propensity to naval affairs, and the pleasure derived from the study of them, were not to be overcome. He had indeed prosecuted the study so far, and had become so well acquainted with naval affairs, that, as he tells us himself, he had begun to study the difficult problem of the way of a ship to windward. This was about the year 1770, when an ingenious and intelligent gentleman, the late commissioner Edgar came to reside in the neighbourhood of Mr Clerk’s seat in the country. Mr Edgar had served in the army, and with the company under his command, had been put on board admiral Byng’s ship at Gibraltar, in order to supply the want of marines; so that he was present in the action off the island of Minorca, on the 20th of May, 1756. As the friend of Admiral Boscawen, he afterwards accompanied that gallant officer in the more fortunate engagement of Lagoo Bay."

To what extent Mr Clerk was indebted for his nautical knowledge to this gentleman, we are not informed; but it appears that previous to the year 1779, he had become very extensively and accurately acquainted with both the theory and practice of naval tactics. The evil to which Mr Clerk more particularly applied his active genius was the difficulty of bringing the enemy to action. The French, when they met a British fleet, eager for battle, always contrived by a series of skilful manoeuvres, to elude the blow, and to pursue the object of their voyage, either parading on the ocean, or transporting troops and stores for the attack and defence of distant settlements; and thus wresting from the British the fair fruits of their superior gallantry, even while they paid a tacit tribute to that gallantry, by planning a defensive system to shelter themselves from its effects; in which they succeeded so well that the fleets of Britain and France generally parted, after some indecisive firing. Mr Clerk now assured himself, from mathematical evidence, that the plan followed by the British of attacking an enemy’s fleet at once, from van to rear, exposed the advancing ships to the formidable battery of the whole adverse fleet; by which means they were crippled and disabled, either for action or pursuit, while the enemy might bear away and repeat the same manoeuvre, until their assailants are tired out by such a series of fruitless attacks. This Scottish gentleman, in the solitude of his country house, where after dinner, he would get up a mimic fight with bits of cork upon the table, discovered the grand principle of attack, which Buonaparte afterwards brought into such successful practice by land—that is to say, he saw the absurdity of an attacking force extending itself over the whole line of the enemy, by which the amount of resistance became every where as great as the force of attack; when it was possible, by bringing the force to bear upon a particular point, and carrying that by an irresistible weight, to introduce confusion and defeat over the whole. He conceived various plans for this purpose: one was, to fall upon the rear vessels of the enemy, and endeavour to disable him, as it were; another and more splendid idea, was to direct the line of attacking vessels through the line of those attacked; and, by doubling in upon the ships cut off, which of course must strike to so superior a force, reduce the strength of the enemy, and even subject the remaining ships to the risk of falling successively a prey, as they awkwardly endeavoured to beat up to the rescue of their companions. At the time when he was forming these speculations, the British arms suffered great depression, both by sea and land. A series of great and ill-directed efforts, if they had not exhausted, had so far impaired the strength and resources of the country, that neighbouring nations thought they had found a favourable opportunity for breaking the power, and humbling the pride of a formidable rival. In the naval rencounters which took place after France had joined herself to America, the superiority of the British navy seemed almost to disappear; the naval armies of our enemies were every day gaining strength; the number and force of their ships were augmenting; the skill and experience of their seamen appeared to be coming nearer an equality with our own. All this was owing to the generous waste of strength which the British commanders had undergone in their gallant but vain attempts to come to a fair engagement with the enemy.

"Being fully satisfied," says Mr Playfair, "as to the principles of his system, Mr Clerk had begun to make it known to his friends so early as 1779. After the trial of admiral Keppell had brought the whole proceedings of the affair off Ushant before the public, Mr Clerk made some strictures on the action, which he put in writing, illustrating them by drawings and plans, containing sketches of what might have been attempted, if the attack had been regulated by other principles, and these he communicated to several naval officers, and to his friends both in Edinburgh and London. In the following year, January, 1780, he visited London himself; and had many conferences with men connected with the navy, among whom he has mentioned Mr Atkinson, the particular friend of Sir George Rodney, the admiral who was now preparing to take the command of the fleet in the West Indies. A more direct channel of communication with admiral Rodney, was the late Sir Charles Douglas, who went out several months after the admiral, in order to serve as his captain, and did actually serve in that capacity in the memorable action of the 12th of April, 1782. Sir Charles, before leaving Britain, had many conversations with Mr Clerk on the subject of naval tactics, and before he sailed, was in complete possession of that system. Some of the conferences with Sir Charles were by appointment of the late Dr Blair of Westminster, and at one of these interviews were present Mr William and Mr James Adam, with their nephew, the late Lord chief commissioner for Scotland. Sir Charles had commanded the Stirling Castle in Keppell’s engagement; and Mr Clerk now communicated to him the whole of his strictures on that action, with the plans and demonstrations, on which the manner of the attack from the leeward was fully developed.

"The matter which Sir Charles seemed most unwilling to admit, was the advantage of the attack from that quarter; and it was indeed the thing most inconsistent with the instructions given to all admirals.

"Lord Rodney himself, however, was more easily convinced, and in the action off Martinico, in April, 1780, the original plan seemed regulated by the principles of the Naval Tactics. * * * It was not till two years afterwards, in April, 1782, that lord Rodney gave the first example of completely breaking through the line of the enemy, and of the signal success which will ever accompany that manoeuvre, when skilfully conducted. The circumstances were very remarkable, and highly to the credit of the gallantry, as well as conduct of the admiral. The British fleet was to leeward, and its van, on reaching the centre of the enemy, bore away as usual along his line; and had the same been done by all the ships that followed, the ordinary indecisive result would infallibly have ensued. But the Formidable, lord Rodney’s own ship, kept close to the wind, and on perceiving an opening near the centre of the enemy, broke through at the head of the rear division, so that, for the first time, the enemy’s line was completely cut in two, and all the consequences produced which Mr Clerk had predicted. This action, which introduced a new system, gave a new turn to our affairs at sea, and delivered the country from that state of depression, into which it had been thrown, not by the defeat of its fleets, but by the entire want of success.

"It was in the beginning of this year, that the (Essay on) Naval Tactics appeared in print, though, for more than a year before, copies of the book had been in circulation among Mr Clerk’s friends. [Fifty copies were printed of this edition, and distributed in a private way. The work was not published for sale till 1790. The edition of that year is therefore styled the first, and that of 1804, the second edition.] Immediately on the publication, copies were presented to the minister and the first lord of the admiralty; and the duke of Montague, who was a zealous friend of Mr Clerk’s system, undertook the office of presenting a copy to the king.

"Lord Rodney, who had done so much to prove the utility of this system, in conversation never concealed the obligation he felt to the author of it. Before going out to take the command of the fleet in the West Indies, he said one day to Mr Dundas, afterwards lord Melville, ‘There is one Clerk, a countryman of yours, who has taught us how to fight, and appears to know more of the matter than any of us. If ever I meet the French fleet, I intend to try his way.’

"He held the same language after his return. Lord Melville used often to meet him in society, and particularly at the house of Mr Henry Drummond, where he talked very unreservedly of the Naval Tactics, and of the use he had made of the system in his action of the 12th of April. A letter from general Ross states very particularly a conversation of the same kind, at which he was present. ‘It is,’ says the general, ‘with an equal degree of pleasure and truth, that I now commit to writing what you hear me say in company at your house, to wit, that at the table of the late Sir John Dalling, where I was in the habit of dining often, and meeting lord Rodney, I heard his lordship distinctly state, that he owed his success in the West Indies to the manoeuvre of breaking the line, which he learned from Mr Clerk’s book. This honourable and liberal confession of the gallant admiral made so deep an impression on me, that I can never forget it; and I am pleased to think that my recollection of the circumstance can be of the smallest use to a man with whom I am not acquainted, but who, in my opinion, has deserved well of his country.’"

Mr Playfair then proceeds to mention a copy of Mr Clerk’s Essay, on which lord Rodney had written many marginal notes, full of remarks on the justness of Mr Clerk’s views, and on the instances wherein his own conduct had been in strict conformity with those views; and which copy of the Essay is now deposited in the family library at Pennycuick. The learned professor next relates "an anecdote which sets a seal on the great and decisive testimony of the noble admiral. The present (now late) lord Haddington met lord Rodney at Spa, in the decline of life, when both his bodily and his mental powers were sinking under the weight of years. The great commander, who had been the bulwark of his country, and the terror of her enemies, lay stretched on his couch, while the memory of his own exploits seemed the only thing that interested his feelings, or afforded a subject for conversation. In this situation he would often break out in praise of the Naval Tactics, exclaiming with great earnestness, ‘John Clerk of Eldin for ever.’ Generosity and candour seemed to have been such constituent elements in the mind of this gallant admiral, that they were among the parts which longest resisted the influence of decay."

Mr Playfair then details some of the victories of the succeeding war, in which Mr Clerk’s system had been pursued. The great action fought by lord Howe, on the 1st of June, 1794, was, in its management, quite conformable to that system, and its success entirely owing to the manoeuvre of breaking the line. Mr Playfair mentions, that Mr James Clerk, the youngest son of the author of the essay, and who was a midshipman on board lord Howe’s ship, in 1793, had a copy of the recent edition of the work, "which was borrowed by captain Christian, no doubt for the admiral’s use." Lord St Vincent, who possessed a copy of the book, also gained the famous battle off the coast of Spain, by breaking the line of the enemy—as did lord Duncan, the more important victory of Camperdown. But the grandest testimony of all to the excellence of Mr Clerk’s system, was the battle of Trafalgar, which finally set at rest the dominion of Britain over the sea. Lord Nelson’s instructions on that occasion contained some entire sentences out of the "Essay on Naval Tactics." And it must also be mentioned, that, in his splendid victory of the Nile, he had pursued the same system.

We have hitherto pursued the train of demonstration favourable to Mr Clerk, and to the originality and utility of his system; it must now be mentioned that a controversy, menacing the better part of his reputation, has arisen since his decease. The family of Rodney, in a late publication of his memoirs, disavow the claim made by the friends of Mr Clerk, and maintain, that no communication of that gentleman’s plan was ever made to their relative, that he had the least knowledge of any such book or plan as that of Mr Clerk. Immediately after the publication of this disavowal, Sir Howard Douglas, son of the late Sir Charles Douglas, who was Rodney’s captain at the time of the victory, came forward, in a pamphlet, supported by authentic documents, to claim the honour on behalf of his father. It would be vain to enter into a full discussion of the controversy which has arisen on this subject; the result seems to be, that Mr Clerk’s friends have not proved that lord Rodney adopted the idea of breaking the enemy’s line, on the 12th of April, from his system, although there are several reports, by most honourable men, of acknowledgments from his lordship to that effect. The testimony of these men would, in ordinary cases, be very good; but in this case it is invalidated by a tache of a very extraordinary nature, which has fallen upon a particular part of professor Playfair’s narrative. In contradiction of the assertion that Mr Clerk had frequent interviews with Sir Charles Douglas, for the explanation of his system, previous to the battle; Sir Howard, the son of that officer, brings forward a letter written by his father at St Lucie, March 2, 1783, in answer to some representation of Mr Clerk’s claim, which had been set forward by one of his friends. Of this letter Sir Howard gives the following account and extracts.

"After acknowledging the receipt of the letter, communicating Mr Clerk’s claim to the honour of having suggested the manoeuvre of breaking the line, by which the victory had been gained, my father declares ‘the whole story to be so far-fetched, improbable, and groundless, as not to deserve a serious refutation.’ That, in being so near his commander-in-chief, he had a far more experienced instructor to guide and direct him in the execution of his duty, than the author alluded to; and so entirely positive was he that he had never spoken on such matters with any civilian of the name, that he took the person to whom allusion had been made, to be a lieutenant Clerk of the navy; but that even of such conversation he (my father) had non recollection whatever. He then instructs his correspondent, that, inasmuch as he is mentioned or alluded to, ‘the subject should be treated as a production offensive to himself, and as highly injurious to the person who commanded in chief on that celebrated day,’ and who certainly did not stand in need of any instruction derived, or that could be derived, from lieutenant Clerk, or any other person that he knew of."

Whether Mr Clerk be really entitled or not to the merit of having suggested the manuoeuvre of breaking the line, there can be no doubt that he conceived on land, and without the least experience of sea life, that idea, at a period antecedent to the time when it was put in practice. [Mr Clerk has been heard to acknowledge in the later part of his life, that he never enjoyed a longer sail than to the island of Arran, in the Firth of Clyde.] There is also no pretence in any quarter to deny, that his system became a guide to all the operations of the British navy subsequent to the particular victory in which it first seemed to be acted upon, and thus was the means of enabling British valour to gain a series of conquests, which unquestionably proved the salvation of the country.

Mr Clerk died at an advanced age, on the 10th of May, 1812; and, strange to say, there exists no public monument whatsoever, to record the gratitude of the country for his services. It may be mentioned, that Mr. Clerk was the father of the late John Clerk, Esq. advocate, (afterwards raised to the bench, where he took the designation of Lord Eldin,) whose professional abilities, joined to his exquisite taste in the fine arts, and the rich eccentricity of his manners and conversation will long be remembered."

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