Wooden Ships and Paper Tigers

Bureaucracy has always hampered getting things done.

In the early 1800s, England was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon's French empire.  The Imperial armies had conquered most of continental Europe; but England was protected by the English channel, and the Royal Navy.  From the great ships-of-the-line down to the smallest sloop, the British fleet on blockade duty kept French ships locked up in port, preventing fishing, commerce, and most importantly, invasion.

One British frigate captain knew the waters of the French coast particularly well.  He had grown up in a family of fisherman, and fished these waters daily with his father and grandfather.  He knew every aspect of the sea; every change of the weather; every rock and sandbar; and most importantly, he knew what the French sailors would do in any given situation.  As a result, he was spectacularly successful - he could read the minds of the French; know where and when a blockade run would be attempted; and be there to swoop down and capture the enemy vessel.  In those days, a captured enemy ship was sold, and everyone involved in the capture received a portion of the sale, from the admiral in charge on down to the lowest cabin boy.  So as you might expect, this captain was very popular, both with his men and with his superiors.  What's more, since he was so highly skilled at finding the enemy, his men received a great deal of combat experience, and thus were excellent shots - they had something to shoot at almost every night!

Every few weeks, a resupply ship visited the blockade area, providing fresh food, more ammunition, and most importantly mail.  On this occasion, the captain received a formal letter from the Royal Naval Supply Depot.  On opening it, he found a harsh criticism of his "wasteful and excessive use of gun-powder."  The average frigate used a given amount of gunpowder per month; he was consuming twice as much as he ought!

Well, as any fighting sailor would do, he ignored this letter, and the similar one that followed, and the one after that.  But when he received an extremely formal missive, wrapped in ribbons and seals, from the Commandant of the Supply Depot, he felt that perhaps a response was necessary.  So he collected the series of letters, added a cover letter of his own, and sent them off to his commanding Admiral.

And the response came back from his Admiral, to be dispatched to the Commandant: "It is the duty of every officer of His Majesty's Navy, to discharge powder and shot in the general direction of the enemy."

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
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