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Lost at sea

14 September 2006

9:44 AM

14 September 2006

9:44 AM

The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo Roy Adkins and Lesley Adkins

Little Brown, pp.534, 20

Roy Adkins, an archaeologist, wrote a book for the Trafalgar bicentenary called Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle. Despite the curiously pretentious title and a jumbled content, this reviewer described it in these pages as ‘eclectic but engaging’: Trafalgar was, after all, a straightforward battle, and the author had quoted a large number of apt first-hand accounts. In this follow-up, the authors (Adkins’s wife is co-writer) have considerably spread their canvas. They have done so most perilously.

It is difficult to make oneself struggle through 500 pages which begin with ‘In 1789 the monarchs and aristocracies of Europe were shocked by the Revolution in France’, and then a few lines on ‘This was the first worldwide war’, as if the Seven Years’ War had never taken place, or in the next paragraph ‘It was a war won at sea’. Nor is it any easier when the authors, in order presumably to make the book more understandable to a reader in the United States, refer not to the Royal Navy but the British Navy (US readers will be equally irritated by reference to the American rather than the US Navy).

Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the authors, although deploying their archaeological skills to some effect amid the public record, are not truly at ease with the period and their subject, especially when, for instance, they call Ferdinand IV ‘King of the Two Sicilies’, which was a post-Napoleonic polity, and his kingdom as ‘Sicily and a wide area surrounding the city of Naples’ — an interesting way of describing the whole of southern Italy, some of it actually north of Rome.


Of Trafalgar, which chapter is headed with remarkable unoriginality by that signal, Adkins’s own book is recommended (twice) as the best on the subject. Then, over a great many pages, the authors reprise Cochrane’s adventures, Hoste’s masterly but sideshow action at Lissa (‘a struggle for control of the Adriatic’), diversions in the East Indies, a number of single-ship actions, with a nod here and there to the blockade of Europe. They reveal nothing new. Indeed, one sighs at their admirable recommendation of Professor Nicholas Rodger’s The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815: ‘a single scholarly volume’. Quite; a scholarly volume, and many fewer words.

And then we come to the War of 1812, which the authors are determined to include in their ‘War for all the Oceans’, although it was no part of the war with Bonaparte, and its naval actions were in the land-locked, freshwater Great Lakes or at sea with a few daring frigatemen. The analysis is once again superficial: ‘The initial aim of America was to invade Canada, and it was anticipated that this would be done… successfully.’ Now, President Madison may have his detractors, but he was certainly able to differentiate between his war aim and his strategy; and he surely could not have contemplated pursuing a strategy that he anticipated would be unsuccessful. Nor are the authors on any surer ground in their curious essay on Jane Austen: ‘the war is barely mentioned in her books’. One can imagine the GCSE Eng. Lit. question: ‘Explain why.’ Although correct to say that the War of 1812 was a sideshow, as an answer it would not gain the authors many marks (as if it were anyway relevant to the book).

Indeed one wonders, with so much of the book devoted to such sideshows, if the authors really asked themselves what the Royal Navy’s war was truly about — why so much effort was dedicated to blockade and to operations in the Mediterranean and along the Continental seaboard. When Pitt (whom they cite) said after Austerlitz, ‘Roll up the map of Europe; it will not be needed for the next ten years,’ he was not saying that the war would be won elsewhere, only that Britain had no other means of pursuing victory but at sea until the Continental powers could be encouraged/subsidised to wage war anew (he was hardly to know that Bonaparte’s improvident invasion of the Peninsula would soon give Britain her chance to get to grips with the real Napoleonic engine of war, the Grande Armée). Yes, seizing spice islands was lucrative, and it is with money that war is made, but to assert that the Admiralty was engaged in ‘a war for all the oceans’ (or even for one of them), and that the war with Bonaparte was won at sea, is as facile as the recent spat over whether it was the Royal Navy or the RAF that scuppered Hitler’s invasion plans in 1940.

Although the Napoleonic wars were waged with money, as are they all, France, like Attila, did not fight on a book-keeping system: she could be reduced by a blow at Paris, but not at Port-au-Prince. A most inapt title has driven the authors on to the rocks.


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