In Nelson’s Wake by James Davey

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  • (this book will be publicly released October 2015)

    ‘[The Royal Navy is] the real force and bulwark of England’
    (Napoleon, to his surgeon on St Helena)

    Davey’s book describes the activity of the Royal Navy from the collapse of the Peace of Amiens in 1803 to the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It is a necessary reminder of how key the Royal Navy was to bringing Napoleon to his utter and ultimate destruction, corrects any popular misconception that Trafalgar was the end of naval action against the French and their allies. It was on the bloodstained gundecks of the Royal Navy, as the guns leapt to their breech tackles, that a new British Empire and the Pax Britannica were born. The horrors and agony of sea warfare in the sailing age are appropriately described. However, while battles make good copy, they are not an end in themselves; it is the silent pressure of sea power that brings our enemies to their knees and for instance brought the uppity Americans grovelling for peace in 1814. Soldiers win battles, but it is sailors who win world wars, as had been the case in the Seven Years’ war which brought us Canada. The continental power only thinks he fights on internal lines; the maritime power truly does and, for instance, in 1811 was able to over-extend Napoleon’s army in the Peninsula into starvation.

    The work opens with a review of the social side of the wooden sailing Navy and in doing so corrects any populist myths, and goes on to present the Navy‘s initial deployments.

    The author has done an excellent job in producing a coherent narrative of the disparate disciplines involved in its exercise, including the amazing job of keeping 140,000 men fed, usually far from home. Essentially he has divided the book by theatre, for instance northern Europe and the Baltic, the Dutch and French coast, the Atlantic and the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean and Adriatic.

    It all overlaps at Trafalgar. Davey gets us inside the battle and at the end of his account we see, as elsewhere in the book, that matters are not nearly as clear cut as popularly presented - nor as presented publicly by the then Government.

    The period, and this book about it, presents an object lesson in the successful deployment of sea power. First, we are protected from invasion. Then the RN seeks out and neutralises the enemy’s most powerful assets, and we see how bottling them up can be cheaper and neater than chasing them round the ocean in the hope of battle. This also has the effect of degrading the enemy’s seamanship through want of its exercise.

    This is achieved as a side effect of blockade, whereby one extinguishes as far as possible the enemy’s use of the sea, both military and commercial, providing secure sea-room to expand one’s own trading and thus wealth. The RN do this by interdicting vessels at sea and by attacking their bases and harbours via bombardment (usually not all that effective in terms of actual destruction of key assets) and cutting-out expeditions.

    The Navy also protects Britain’s own trade, principally via the use of convoy. In these two activities we can see why the dangers of the sea are prioritised above the violence of the enemy in the naval prayer. But whereas to land animals like Napoleon the sea is a problem and an obstruction, for Britain it is the highway to victory.

    Britain can then use her sea power to support amphibious warfare, taking the army to littiral point of action (and sometimes rescuing it afterwards, as at Corunna). In this way we extend our influence, take over the enemy’s territory abroad and thus take out his overseas bases.

    None of this is certain and watertight and the author shows us how we struggled to achieve hegemony, entering the war and continuing it with never enough ships. He explains to us the vital land-based support necessary to a navy and how this was provided during these wars. Ultimately Britain successfully fed 140,000 sailors world wide using what in modern terms was a huge Fleet Train if victuallers and store ships. St Vincent’s reforms had run down stocks of naval stores and their shortage was keenly felt overseas, but (as Mahan points out) Napoleon’s navy was in even worse case, the problem masked by its not spending nearly so much time at sea as the RN, who therefore experienced much more wear and tear.

    Some naval activities, while employing in varying degrees all of the measures above, are successfully treated as set pieces. One example is the war in the Indian Ocean, finally won with the belated capture of Mauritius and supported by our earlier conquest of the Cape. [In Mauritius in 1965 I was told that the Governor surrendered when he thought the British troops were going to wreck his rose garden - but that may have been a canard]. The ultimate reward was a huge increase in tax revenue from the consequent increase in Eastern trade. It is made clear, here and in Davey’s explanation of how we Napoleon’s ‘Continental System’ - which itself did grave damage to his own situation - how wars are ultimately between economies.

    Another separate worked example is the War of 1812 against the infant United Stat, where by false equivalence too much was, and is, often made of a fistful of single ship defeats by the American super-frigates. [A bonus was the timber for the Chesapeake Mill at Wickham in Hampshire]. In both these cases the author draws on and cites established secondary sources, for instance CN Parkinson’s 1954 ‘War in the Eastern Seas’, Stephen Taylor’s 2007 ‘Storm and Conquest’ and Andrew Lambert’s 2012 ‘The Challenge’. I have picked these out as particularly suitable for further reading.

    The presentation is very much warts and all, particularly in regard to unsuitable men being placed in command, and political actions and interference often based on either wrong - or unavoidably stale - information. Procrastination, professional jealousy, and lethargy at the top often led to command inefficiency and thus inadequate results at the bottom; and in Walcheren, disaster. The fog of war was everywhere. There are several shameful examples of how the interests of important people led to totally avoidable loss of British sailors’ lives. We also see how necessarily giving remote commanders their heads had unforeseen results - Popham embroiling us in eventual expensive failure at Buenos Aires, Duckworth quite fortuitously finding and destroying the enemy at San Domingo, where he had no business to be. At Trafalgar and elsewhere not all captains did as well as they should have done. The gamut of ability runs from the pusillanimous Gambier to fiery loose cannon like Cochrane and Sydney Smith.

    Underneath it all was a naval arms race fuelled by France’s limitless woodlands, trimmed by our interdiction of his supply of mast timber and other supplies.

    Sources are meticulously noted and there is an extensive bibliography. As an ‘uncorrected page proof’ the version under this review is as yet unindexed. It is to be hoped that the final version will draw on the unrivalled resources for illustrations of the NMM, Davey’s alma mater, just as he has drawn so well on its extensive store of personal accounts and memoirs to illuminate his narrative.

    The Royal Navy was Napoleon’s only consistent adversary throughout the entirety of the period. Ultimately it was, apart from General Winter in Russia, Jolly Jack that did for Boney.

    I learned much that was new to me from this valuable book. There were lessons for the future, notably in army-navy cooperation, and the reader can usefully distil these as he reads.

    ‘ .. the Navy, whereon, under the good Providence of God, the Wealth, Safety and Strength of the kingdom chiefly depend’
    (Preamble to the Naval Discipline Act 1866, going back in form to the preamble to Charles II's Articles of War ca.1666)
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