“Keep then the sea; then is England kept by God's hand“ Adam de Moleyns, d.1450
- Quintin Barry
This is the story of the far-distant storm-beaten ships on whom the Grand Army never looked, that stood between it and the domination of the world - and the strategy behind it, that saved us from invasion and exploitation as part of a European super-State.
The author is a lawyer by training and this has brought us a clear, forensic analysis of how we gravitated to blockading Brest during our last French Wars and with what results. All is presented with the surgical precision of a legal mind but none the less, very readably.
Clear accounts are given of major actions such as 1st June, Calder's engagement and the fireship raid on the Basque Roads. Nothing is as simple as some commentators would like, drill a bit deeper, for instance into the correspondence of the principal admirals (via their collected letters) and often a more complex picture emerges. Barry is far too wily just to swallow received opinion and regurgitate it although he shows that the mud does fairly stick to the pusillanimous and mendacious Gambier. Where opinions conflict, even of the most respected commentators, this is sifted and resolved. Meanwhile the narrative has often to cover, concurrently, several groups of ships, British on detached duty, French holed up in half a dozen places (all of which had to be watched), and naval events elsewhere - in the West Indies, at Toulon and even India. The strategy and priorities of the First Lord - ultimately the brilliant octogenarian Barham - are seen via Admiralty correspondence juggling ships of the line, frigates and manpower and of none of these was there ever enough; also admirals and captains - seniority and politics constrained those choices. The weather ruled all as our ships kept the sea, creaking and leaking, incurring usually far more damage from the dangers of the sea than from the violence of the enemy. So also the commanders; Howe and the very prickly and difficult Bridport forced to continue in command beyond what their health could stand; Gardner, Graves and Calder totally exhausted by their duties.
Blockade is correctly presented as a tactic within an overall strategy of preventing French access to the Channel and to Ireland. It was never watertight; what mattered was knowing what and who were where; bringing on action was incidental, not an aim in itself unless the numbers were right. The fireship attack was mulled over for years before it was put into action. Trafalgar was the ineluctable by-product. It was followed, off-stage for this narrative, by the challenge of the super-frigates employed in the US' jackal war of 1812.
The narrative closes with a very informative, if brief resumé of progress on health in the RN going back to the Seven Years' War, when for every man killed in battle eighty-eight died of disease or accident (or deserted).
Citation references are meticulously presented in footnotes. The principals (Howe, St Vincent, Barham etc) are all depicted via copies of portrait prints, mostly culled from the Anne S K Brown collection held by Brown University of Rhode Island. There are clear, clutter-free and useful maps at the start of the book and diagrams of two major actions.