Archives For Napoleonic Wars

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.

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Battle of the Nile

August 1, 2013 — 3 Comments
Aboukir Bay

Battle of the Nile by Thomas George Webster
CC Image Courtesy of Black County Museums on Flickr

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.

Two hundred fifteen years ago today, Admiral Horatio Nelson pounced upon the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Egypt. By early morning the next day, Nelson and his fleet had captured or destroyed nearly every French ship and ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s dreams of a French Egypt and the destruction of Britain’s colonial holdings in India. Alternatively called the Battle of the Nile or the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the action would later be immortalized in the poem Casabiana by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, the first stanza of which is above.

For two months in the summer of 1798, Nelson fruitlessly tracked the French fleet across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the French used the time to capture the island of Malta and land an army of troops and scholars in Egypt. Although the French troops eventually were defeated, the scholars scored a victory for the ages when they discovered the Rosetta Stone.

After finally catching up with the French fleet in Egypt, Nelson wasted no time in daringly dividing his forces and launching an attack on the French fleet. Dividing his forces allowed the British fleet to engulf the French in a deadly crossfire and after three hours much of the French fleet had been destroyed. Capping the battle was the violent destruction of the French flagship L’Orient caused by a fire reaching one of the ship’s magazines.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen Harbor
CC Image Courtesy of Tuan Hoang Nguyen on Flickr

In early 1801, the Royal Navy dispatched a fleet to the Kattegat to break up the League of Armed Neutrality – an alliance of nations helping to supply the French Revolutionary government which was at war with Britain. After much debate between the fleet’s two senior commanders, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and Lord Nelson, the decision was made to destroy the Danish fleet by launching a daring assault on its Copenhagen anchorage. Destruction of the Danish fleet would secure British access to Scandinavian timber and render much of the Baltic Sea a British lake.

After personally reconoittering Copenhagen’s harbor, Admiral Nelson sailed his force into the teeth of the Danish fleet’s well-prepared positions. Disaster struck quickly as three British ships of the line (Agamemnon, Bellona and Russell) ran aground on the Middle Ground sand bank. Lord Nelson ignored this setback, though, and his ships began pounding the Danish line with devastatingly accurate fire. Despite being ordered to retreat by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, Lord Nelson continued the battle and ship by ship the Danish guns fell silent. Approximately four hours after the battle began, a ceasefire was agreed upon and twelve Danish ships were turned over to the Royal Navy in addition to three more lost to British gunfire. Only one of the prizes was kept afloat and the British victory signalled the beginning of the end for the League of Armed Neutrality.

First Battle of Copenhagen

First Battle of Copenhagen

Lord Nelson not only earned his Viscount title as a result of the battle, he also enhanced the Nelsonian myth by refusing to withdraw despite Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s orders. Legend has it that Lord Nelson raised his telescope to his blind eye to read Parker’s signal and remarked “I really do not see the signal” and therefore would continue the battle. Regardless of the truth of the tale, Lord Nelson’s actions once again proved legendary.

war of 1812

In Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Dr. Ronald D. Utt has produced a magnificent 500 page tome that provides readers with a well-researched and highly readable account of the War of 1812 at sea. As Utt masterfully argues, the United States Navy truly came into its own during the War of 1812, a conflict that is undergoing a renaissance in the pop history circle as the bicentennial of the war began in 2012.

Although the US Navy fought several notable battles during the American Revolution, including John Paul Jones’ famous duel with HMS Serapis, these were primarily performed with foreign crews and former merchant vessels adapted for naval service. The War of 1812 was the first time that the fledgling US Navy faced a first world power in a declared war and its spectacular results allowed the Navy to create epic lore and traditions in only three years.

Utt skillfully guides the reader from the opening salvos of the war through the US Navy’s early single-ship victories over the vaunted Royal Navy to the two squadron level clashes on the Great Lakes, privateer derring-do against the British merchant marine, and the later and lesser known naval actions of the war. Readers will be unable to put down the book at certain points, especially when reading the chapters concerning privateering and some of the lesser known single-ship voyages against British merchant and warships. The heroic and honorable actions of officers and sailors from both sides will keep readers captivated with tales of a breed of gentlemen warriors whose time has long since passed.

Among the many strengths of Utt’s work is his organization of the book into chapters that take the reader from events at sea to land and then back to sea. In most cases, Utt keeps his narration of the land war to only a few pages in order to give readers an idea of how the sea war affected the land war and vice versa. At times the land war descriptions can grow a bit tedious as Utt jumps between the numerous Indian tribes, Americans, Brits, and Canadians who intermingled in the land conflict. For readers concerned more with the war at sea, the land warfare chapters are sometimes roadbumps in the greater storyline. This minor weakness, though, does not overshadow the overall excellence of Utt’s book.

Another strength is Utt’s strong documentation and endnotes – he has clearly worked to craft a book that is both historically accurate and accessible to the everyday reader. Overall, in Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Utt has created a fantastic piece that opens the naval battles of the War of 1812 to a wider audience.

royal navy painting

Battle of Santo Domingo
Nicholas Pocock, National Maritime Museum

After the defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar on October 20, 1805, the British Admiralty pulled back its close blockade of the primary French naval base at Brest. Sensing an opportunity to wage war on the British merchant fleet, Napoleon dispatched two naval squadrons to the West Indies. Ordered to prey on merchant shipping and avoid engaging naval forces of equal or greater strength, the two squadrons weighed anchor for the West Indies and escaped initial detection by the Royal Navy.

After discovering the escape of the French, the Royal Navy dispatched a force of six ships of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth to destroy the French. Admiral Duckworth’s force detected a French squadron of five ships of the line and two frigates near Santo Domingo in the West Indies on February 1, 1806 and Admiral Duckworth quickly gathered additional ships to his command. Early on the morning of February 6, Admiral Duckworth made the decision to engage the French and his squadron set upon the French squadron in Santo Domingo’s harbor. By end of the afternoon, all five of the French ships of the line had been captured or destroyed. The Royal Navy lost no ships and suffered less than a hundred killed while the French lost approximately 1,500 men. Only the two frigates and some lesser ships of the French squadron were able to escape.

The victory at Santo Domingo made Admiral Duckworth a hero in Britain and signaled the end of any effective offensive capability by the French Navy. As a random historical side note, author Jane Austen’s brother Captain Francis Austen, served at the Battle of Santo Domingo as captain of the 80-gun ship of the line HMS Canopus. Austen weaved the battle into the background of a character in her book Persuasion. Canopus’ successor would later fight farther south during World War I at the Battle of the Falklands when another belligerent raiding squadron was annihilated by a Royal Navy squadron.

Edward Pellew

Stephen Taylor’s latest book, Commander, documents the life of Edward Pellew, a British naval officer who rose to fame during the Napoleonic Wars. Taylor builds on the work of two previous biographies to present the most complete and balanced description of a man considered to be the greatest frigate captain of the Royal Navy. Most Americans, and perhaps many British citizens, associate Pellew with the same-named fictional commander of HMS Indefatigable in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Pellew, though, is considered the inspiration (along with Sir Thomas Cochrane) for Forester’s Hornblower character as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey character.

Taylor meticulously documents Pellew’s entire life including his youth in Cornwall, his path to the sea, and his early service in the American Revolution on the Great Lakes. Relying on personal correspondence and the efforts of Pellew’s son at preserving his father’s legacy, Taylor reconstructs for the reader Pellew’s various single ship commands and joint operations, including his most famous command, HMS Indefatigable. Especially noteworthy is the behind the scene squabbles that occurred between Pellew and various members of the British nobility and naval establishment.

For instance, while serving as commander of the Indian naval station, Pellew engaged in rigorous conflict with the Admiralty in England as well as another commander on station. Taylor highlights how this particular conflict not only hurt Pellew’s career, but also prevented the taking of the French island of Mauritius (an idea Pellew was pursuing) until later in the war. As a result, French privateers and men of war continued to operate from Mauritius at great cost to British shipping. Taylor concludes with Pellew’s masterful victory over the Barbary Pirates at Algiers in August 1816 and his retirement in England.

Overall, Taylor presents the reader with a well-documented and readable account of Pellew’s life. While some readers may wish for more swashbuckling tales a la Horatio Hornblower, Taylor’s intent was to present a well-rounded account of Pellew’s entire life and not just the daring exploits for which he became famous. Commander is an excellent read and anyone wishing to better understand the Napoleonic Wars and a central figure from them would do well to purchase and read it.

Trafalgar

Admiral Nelson’s Flagship HMS Victory
CC Image Courtesy of Nigel Swales on Flickr

Today marks the 207th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar – perhaps the most noted victory by the Royal Navy in its 400 year history. Fought during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, the battle was the result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to invade Great Britain. Napoleon dispatched a fleet to rendezvous with a Spanish fleet in the Caribbean and then return to France to provide an armed escort for Napoleon’s invasion fleet. The combined French and Spanish fleet numbered 41 ships and was commanded by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. After the rendezvous in the Mediterranean, the fleet sailed to Cadiz, Spain where they were found by Admiral Horatio Nelson and his 33 ship fleet.

Napoleon had changed his plans for an invasion of Great Britain and decided instead to have Villeneuve sail to the Mediterranean to support his operations there. Eager to engage the enemy, Admiral Nelson kept only a few frigates on station close to Cadiz in order to lure Villeneuve into making a run for the Mediterranean. Sensing an opportunity to break out of Cadiz, Villeneuve ordered his ships to weigh anchor.

Upon receiving the signal that Villeneuve was setting sail, Nelson laid out a daring and audacious plan to his officers in the cabin of his flagship, HMS Victory. Instead of following the traditional tactics of the day and sailing abreast of the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson divided his fleet into two squadrons. Each squadron was to sail perpendicular to Villeneuve’s fleet and slice through their battle line. If successful, the plan would split Villeneuve’s fleet and allow Nelson’s fleet to riddle them with broadsides from both sides.

Before engaging the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson ordered the signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” to be raised from the Victory. Nelson’s plan worked brilliantly and before the day was over more than 21 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet had been sunk or captured. Tragically, Nelson paid for his triumph with his life as a French marine mortally wounded him with a musket shot.

Today, Admiral Nelson is honored as one of, if not the, greatest admiral who ever served in the Royal Navy. His statute guards Trafalgar Square in London and the HMS Victory serves as the flagship of the First Sea Lord and as a museum ship alongside the Mary Rose.