- Book reviewer
- Naval Engagements, Operations and Capabilities, Non Commonwealth Navies, 19th century wars, Book reviews
- RAN Ships
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- March 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo.
By Roy and Lesley Adkins.
Reviewed by Graeme Andrews
This is an unusual book in that it discusses sea and land warfare and the political and diplomatic events that went with that very long war – the battle between Britain and France for control of the world’s oceans, the various colonial possibilities and the trade routes to and from much of Europe.
The French Revolution caused much concern within Britain, the noble families of which had been closely connected with those of pre-revolutionary France. It was hoped that the revolution might be kept away from Britain at a time when another revolution – Industrial – was already causing social problems within the country.
The authors, who identify themselves as archaeologists and writers, have managed to avoid the somewhat desiccated style affected by so many self-styled academics, creating instead a rollicking opus that reeks of `novel’ until the end notes, bibliography and index are studied.
The British Admiralty became anxious when a young French General with an inflated opinion of his skills took a French army to north Africa and invaded Egypt. The Admiralty knew the expedition was on but in those days of tenuous communications it was difficult for the Royal naval squadrons to find the French ships until the troops were well ashore.
Landsman Napoleon wanted the French line of battle to stay close to Alexandria in case the British arrived. French Admiral de Brueys preferred to keep his ships at sea or in a safe and guarded port. Napoleon won and the result was the Battle of the Nile, the loss of his squadron and the first major victory for Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson. The French army was marooned and had to try to fight its way back home.
The victory at Aboukir Bay was Napoleon’s first major set-back. It was not to be the last at the hands of the Royal Navy.
All the way through this 500 plus page book, one comes upon small vignettes of personal experience or observation that serve to flesh out the actual historical facts. It is surprising how many of the sailors and marines of the RN’s collective Lower Decks were capable of committing their experiences and observations to paper. Even more literate were the various midshipmen, mostly about 15 years of age, who fought and survived or otherwise at Aboukir and elsewhere. Perhaps even more surprising are the memoirs of the women aboard!
In the days when impressed sailors often were not allowed to actually leave their ship for anything up to five years, wives and prostitutes were allowed aboard anchored ships, often in great numbers. Here was the origin of the naval phrase `show a leg.’ Female legs were allowed to stay longer in the hammock in the morning. Male legs had to get up and get about their duties.
Nelson went from maritime strength to strength, the while harassing Napoleon’s activities and creating in the Emperor a desire to invade Britain. He had no doubt that the French army could beat the small permanent British army. All he had to do was to get it ashore intact.
Battles such as Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and Camperdown that same year didn’t encourage the French navy, particularly as Britain could field a greater number of ships and always seemed to have a frigate keeping an eye on the activities of the French on both sides of the Atlantic.
Meanwhile diplomacy was rife, and diplomats cum naval officers led by Sir Sidney Smith, kept the pressure on in the countries around the rim of the `Med’.
Napoleon’s attempts to co-habit, politically, with the Czar of Russia soon brought on a major naval versus ships and shore battle at Copenhagen where in 1801 the unfortunate Danes were shown the error of their political judgements.
And so the narrative rolls on – the story of Admiral Thomas Cochrane could make a separate tale within its own right. A dedicated and fearless officer, whose battle reputation after Nelson’s death was close to that of the immortal Nelson, he fell foul of politics in Britain and was later to offer his sword to a series of navies on the continent of South America. For more than 150 years, ships in the Chilean Navy have carried the name ALMIRANTE COCHRANE.