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The Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson

by Sam Willis

Pub Date: April 21st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-393-24314-7
Publisher: Norton

Archaeologist and maritime historian Willis (The Glorious First of June, 2011) asked for a seemingly innocuous document at the British Library while researching one of his books. The treasure that was delivered was bound in velvet and gilt and contained the dispatches from eight of the British Navy’s greatest fleet victories fought between 1794 and 1806.

Readers will sense the author’s excitement as he read reports from Britain’s greatest admirals written immediately after battles. This was the beginning of the end of the age of wooden sailing ships firing solid shot. The author’s love of everything navy is obvious, but his greatest talent is in writing about these battles simply enough that any landlubber can understand him. The dispatches constitute announcements of naval engagements rushed to the admiralty and published in the newspapers. They served as the senders’ best chances to color and, if needed, mislead the official history. Willis includes nearly all of these original letters, which show readers the true personalities of the men of the British Navy. Their styles of writing reflect their strengths and weaknesses in dealing with the admiralty and controlling a crew. The true story of any battle between naval fleets is almost impossible to tell. In the event, the smoke and confusion preclude anyone actually knowing what’s going on, and ships are often at a great distance from each other; friendly fire was common. This era marked the last of the fleet battles. Spain’s navy never recovered from Trafalgar, and no nation wanted to waste the money on ships that could be wiped out in a single conflict. “As fascinating for what their authors leave out as for what they put in,” writes the author about the letters, “they remain urgent and riveting more than 200 years after they were written.”

Willis shares his joy and thorough knowledge of the period, and the letters themselves bring it all to life.