MEDITERRANEAN NAVAL BATTLES THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

Reviewed by: CHRIS O’FLAHERTY

Leading the reader through a series of discrete Mediterranean naval battles, Quentin Russell has scripted an enjoyable and fascinating historical perspective on the importance of naval warfare in this region of longstanding strategic importance.

The book opens with a quite detailed examination of the development of naval warfare in the enclosed seas of the Mediterranean. After outlining the evolution and core doctrines of the oar-powered navies of some ancient kingdoms, he jumps millennia to draw some useful and interesting contrasts between the parallel development of the oceanic sailing navies of the Atlantic and how their eventual superiority over oars led to a shift in maritime dominance. His subsequent chapters examining in detail seven key naval battles, from Salamis (480BC) and Actium (31 BC), to Navarino (1827) to Matapan (1941), are significantly enhanced by his outlining of the strategic contexts into which each of these tactical actions must be placed.

Reading the flowing text, it is quickly evident that Russell is an accomplished historian with specific expertise in Hellenic matters. It is also quite refreshing to read a book on naval warfare written from the perspective of someone who is not necessarily a naval expert: the bibliography highlights the scope of published sources from which his information has been gleaned, but a few interesting uses and spellings of common naval terminologies suggest that he is an author new to maritime writing.

The thread throughout the book is the importance of genuine maritime dominance to any European or African state that wishes to hegemonise the enclosed waters of the Mediterranean. The vitality of control over the sea lanes that cross the Med, either between coastal countries or as a through-route to the Middle East, consistently shines through the political and military situations into which each battle is framed.

For this reviewer the scale of the older battles was a particular revelation. Over 2,000 years ago maritime warfare included fleets with many hundreds of bireme, trireme or even octoremes facing each other in set-piece engagements involving over one hundred thousand sailors per side; such scale is astounding, as are the casualty figures for the losing navy. This vast scale of close-range maritime engagement continued even until the Battle of Lepanto (1571) in which the Ottomans alone lost 25,000 sailors and nearly 100 ships – a scale of loss never again repeated at sea in a single action.

In the more recent battles that are examined, his historical anecdotes are especially memorable. These include the chapter on the Battle of Aboukir Bay (1798) which gently segues into the origins of Admiral Lord Nelson’s coffin, which was made from the mast of the French ship l’Orient as captured after the battle by Captain Hallowell of HMS Swiftsure and presented to the victorious Admiral.

In sum, a pleasant read that is worthwhile to broaden the perspective of a navalist beyond the writings of purely maritime specialists, and also as a gentle reminder that glorious tactical naval actions almost always have a much bigger strategic context.