An exhaustive look at the epic sea battles that constituted the first truly world war.
Mostert (Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa Peo, 1992, etc.) provides a staggeringly thorough examination of the centuries-long buildup to the formidable navies created by Britain and France, which ultimately clashed in devastating battles led by Admiral Horatio Nelson and Napoleon. Given the aggressive maneuvers of the Russian Empire in the Baltic and the French Republic in practically every other body of water, the Royal Navy in 1793 had to speed up its readiness for war. It did this by chopping down England’s glorious oak forests to make ships and impressing unwilling men to sail them. Mostert follows the ensuing naval battles in this spiraling “Great War” (as it was then named) during the next 22 years. It opened with the British-French collision at Toulon, which brought Nelson and Napoleon into unwitting close proximity. The decisive Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 saved England from invasion but felled the legendary Nelson. The finale came with the naval clashes between American and British forces on Lake Champlain and outside New Orleans during the War of 1812. Mostert’s account is no bludgeoning litany of military maneuvers, but a vast, impressive canvas of the era’s dynastic squabbles, economic imperatives and political goals, all pursued by epic personalities. He dwells with special admiration on Nelson’s complex character and Napoleon’s military genius. Routine life onboard ship, mutiny, disease, homosexuality and flogging are among the relevant topics also addressed. In the end, Mostert demonstrates skillfully that the Great War was a global conflict deployed across all oceans and most seas, notable for such innovations as the torpedo and submarine, that ultimately proclaimed the ascendance of both the Royal Navy and the United States.
Ambitious, sweeping and painstakingly delineated.