THE ROYAL NAVY IN THE NAPOLEONIC AGE: SENIOR SERVICE 1800-1815

April 16, 2020
Posted by: M. K. Barritt, Captain, RN

The first part of this idiosyncratic overview of the Great War of 1793-1815 was reviewed in NR 107(3), 382-3, and the reader is referred there for a fair description and verdict on style, format and effectiveness. This review is confined to an assessment of the claims made on the dust cover of the concluding volume.

First the title: that for volume one proclaimed the Royal Navy a ‘Superpower’; now, though the term is acknowledged, in a footnote, to be anachronistic, it is the ‘Senior Service’. Hence, some comparison of public esteem for navy and army might be expected, especially in the years after Trafalgar, with the advent of Sir Arthur Wellesley and the implementation by the military authorities of hard-won lessons, not least in logistics. Yet the joint service Peninsular campaign, which saw this transformation of the reputation of the British Army, features only as a brief cameo of troops brought back from Corunna and a reference in the scant timeline to a ‘foothold in Portugal’. How were careers in navy and army viewed by the end of the war? There are no clues here. Indeed, Waterloo is not mentioned.

This, we are told, is ‘a thoroughly researched account’. There are no fresh insights from archival material. There are no indications of reference to pertinent modern scholarship, such as Roger Knight’s important work on naval administration, a subject which forms a prominent theme in this book. It is based on ‘primary sources of the era’. As in the previous volume, these comprise a list of eighteenth and nineteenth century printed sources. Some are certainly less familiar, inviting further exploration. They have been culled to enable a very wide range of topics to be woven into the nine chapters, generally matching the timeline, except for a somewhat anachronistic and lengthy description in the penultimate chapter of the development of naval tactics. This would surely have fitted better in the previous volume. The handling of pickings from the sources is injudicious. Lists of every ship in an action, of names and of casualty statistics take far too much space, whilst explanatory text is curt and the author’s understanding comes into question. Once again there is evidence of superficial reading of the sources and consequent misleading information. For example, both text and one of the home-made illustrations confine Flinders’ surveys to the south coast of Australia, leaving a reader new to the period unaware of the full extent of his extraordinary achievements.

Finally, we are promised ‘a flavour of the language and opinions of dozens of politicians, naval officers, and ordinary people’. Here the sources provide some colour, but the author has once again majored on the introduction of fictitious voices. Much of the narrative is set quite cleverly in Plymouth, leading up to the scene illustrated on the cover, with the boats swarming round Bellerophon for a sight of Napoleon. The author – perhaps a “Guzz rating” in his time – may carry West Country folk along, but the interest of most readers will fall off quickly as does the pace of much of the content. They would do better to turn to Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars 1793-1815, with its extensive coverage of naval matters. She has found real characters to speak. Here the fictional narrative is just too contrived.

It is difficult to identify the target audience which the author had in mind. His book is certainly not for those who know the period, and it cannot be recommended for those who do not.