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J - John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent (1735-1823)
John Jervis dominated the Royal Navy throughout Nelson’s final years. A brilliant administrator and trainer of officers and men, he more than any other created the efficient fighting machine that Nelson and his colleagues used to such effect. Indeed it is arguable that without Jervis’s careful preparatory work, Nelson could never have been as successful as he was.
The son of a lawyer, Jervis ran away to sea at the age of 13. Within the space of just four years he had come under the influence of some of the key military leaders of his time, and these early influences can be seen both in his later career and in the precepts he passed on to his own pupils.
Following the Seven Years War he travelled in France to learn the language and to study the coast around the great western French port and naval arsenal of Brest. Jervis also travelled to Russia where he visited and studied the naval dockyard at Cronstadt. During the war with America he saw distinguished service in command of HMS Foudroyant, culminating in the capture of the French 74-gun Pégase in April 1779. For this he was made a Knight of Bath – a rare honour for a post-captain.
During the next peace he became a Member of Parliament, first for Launceston and then for Chipping Wycombe, and was actively involved in the politics of the time. Although originally opposed to Prime Minister William Pitt’s policies when they seemed to be leading to war, he eventually resigned his seat in 1794 and offered himself for active service. Having been promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1787, he was now a Vice-Admiral and so he was offered command of the West Indies squadron. Then, in the autumn of 1795, Jervis was offered the command of the Mediterranean fleet.
So began a remarkable period of active service that led him to the very peak of his profession. Jervis set about transforming the Mediterranean Fleet with regular exercises, strict discipline and insistence on the high standards of health and hygiene that he had learned under Boscawen.
Although forced by the general strategic situation to abandon the Mediterranean in December 1796, he nonetheless went on resoundingly to defeat the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797, and then bottled the Spanish fleet in Cádiz by enforcing a tight blockade, despite the fact that at one point his fleet was seething with discontent following the great mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. In achieving all this, he always acknowledged that he had the support of a fine body of younger officers, among whom was Horatio Nelson.
Nelson admired Jervis from the time of their first official meeting in December 1795, and Jervis quickly recognised the worth of his younger subordinate, giving him a succession of independent commands culminating in the squadron with which he eventually won the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798.
Jervis was also very good at handling Nelson, using a deft mixture of firmness and flattery to persuade him to follow orders and supporting him loyally against the attacks of jealous rivals. Nelson responded by treating him almost like a father: 'We look up to you as we have always found you, as to our Father, under whose fostering care we have always been led to fame'.
Sadly however, this highly-productive professional relationship eventually became soured. First Nelson and St Vincent became embroiled in a legal battle over prize money and then in the late summer of 1801, Nelson began to suspect (almost certainly wrongly), that his old mentor was deliberately keeping him at sea in the Channel long after it was really necessary in order to separate him from Emma Hamilton. Although they continued to correspond in polite public letters, their friendship never really recovered its old trust and intimacy.
Part of the Nelson A to Z, Edited extracts taken from The Nelson Encyclopædia by Dr Colin White, Chatham Publishing London, 2002.