- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005




By N.A.M. Rodger

Norton, $45, 976 pages, illus.


Oct. 21, 2005 will be the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar when the British Navy, although outnumbered, destroyed a combined fleet of its enemies, France and Spain. This victory established the Royal Navy as incontestably the world’s greatest naval power. It was a condition which would continue, to Britain’s enormous benefit, for more than 100 years.

The legions of American readers of the Napoleonic era deeds of Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower may be forgiven if they think that smashing victories and faultless seamanship were the historical norm of the British Navy. Not always so, as “The Command of the Ocean” by N.A.M. Rodger establishes. This book is the second of Mr. Rodger’s projected three volume history of the Royal Navy.

The author is professor of naval history at Britain’s Exeter University and he begins this amply researched and detailed book in 1649, the year in which Charles I was beheaded and the commencement of a period of 160 years of pretty much constant war at sea.

In the early part of this period the British Navy was large but probably not much larger than the navies of France, Spain or the Dutch. During many years of fighting these nations, interrupted by short periods of alliances, the Royal Navy lost about as many battles as it won. The Dutch were probably better sailors and sea fighters. The French spent more money on their navy.

The British navy’s tactics were primitive, gunnery indifferent, signalling hit-or-miss. Its ships were commanded by officers who had no formal training and who were sometimes not experienced seamen at all. Britain did not have the naval administration or resources to provision or maintain vessels for prolonged sea duty. The navy could not maintain a blockade for more than a few months.

The British crews, poorly fed, beaten like animals and frequently suffering from scurvy, were ill-paid and often not paid at all. Because the men would not drink water, they were given beer and rum, and so were partially drunk most of the day. The ships themselves were mostly not built for naval service but were merchant ships fitted with guns and inferior to French naval vessels.

They could not operate in winter so the ships were brought into port, the crews discharged and the ships recommissioned in the Spring. This always proved a problem because the navy was, essentially, bankrupt and unable to purchase supplies on credit. The best which can be said about the Royal Navy of this period is that it was pretty much similar to its enemies.

“Command of the Ocean” is fundamentally the story of the emergence of the British Navy into the disciplined, efficient fighting machine it became by the time of the Napoleonic wars. This book is written for the reader who does not again need to be told the stories of the battles of Copenhagen, The Nile, or Trafalgar — although they are all described.

Mr. Rodger interleaves, by successive time periods, chapters on administration, social history and operations. The operations chapters tell the continuous story of Britain’s naval warfare and they will be of particular value to readers who are familiar with only the Napoleonic war era. The other chapters tell how the Royal Navy got to be the awesome force it became. A lot of it was due to better administration, Mr. Rodger says.

A young man named Samuel Pepys became in 1660 the senior secretary of the Navy Board, which was the center of British naval administration. We now think of Pepys as mostly a personal diarist but Mr. Rodger establishes him as a gifted executive with a phenomenal capacity for work and an amazing memory. During a long career Pepys dramatically improved every single aspect of the navy’s supply, shipbuilding, victualling, repairing, and financing. Moreover, he trained a cohort of efficient deputies who would follow after him for decades.

The vital matter of officer training and recruitment came to be addressed in the early 18th century. Previously the navy’s officers had largely consisted of ordinary sailors who had come up through the ranks. Called “Tarpaulins”, after the waxed canvas sea gear they wore, they generally had no education whatever except for enough mathematics to do navigation. Some Tarpaulins could barely read or write.

The navy changed all this. To be eligible for selection for the lowest commissioned rank, lieutenant, a man had to serve six years at sea as a midshipman, have formal schooling in mathematics and pass an examination. The six year requirement meant that he generally had to go to sea at a very early age, generally no older than 14. Nelson went at 12, and there were plenty of 10 year old midshipmen. They provided the navy with what was wanted: An officer corps not drawn from the aristocracy but simply from “respectable families.” Nelson fit perfectly. He was the son of a lowly Norfolk clergyman. In time, men with this sort of background and training rose to become the navy’s captains and commanders. The system produced a loyal, trained body of officers. The Royal Navy officer became recognized as a member of a respectable, honorable and sought after profession.

Myriad other improvements accompanied this. Britain built a system of naval dockyards, maintained a large inventory of naval supplies and trained a force of shipwrights and artificers whose abilities exceeded all others. British ships, now purpose-built for warfare, came to be regarded as the world’s best. The Royal Navy developed the ability to mount amphibious operations and, very importantly, maintain a blockade for years at a time with the crews remaining healthy. No other navy could perform these operations.

While their opponents in a sea battle customarily pointed their guns high and fired from a distance, hoping to damage the British masts and rigging, the more successful British technique was to close to about 20 feet and with superior gunnery smash in the enemy vessel, kill much of its crew and board it.

They became very good at this. By the early 19th century the Royal Navy was winning almost every battle it fought. As Mr. Rodger says, Trafalgar (1805) set the point at which Britain “had an unchallenged command of the sea, in quantity, and quality, materially and psychologically, over all her actual or potential enemies.”

How had all this come about? The author has a wonderful quotation from Prussian Field Marshal August von Gneisenau who believed that it was all thanks to Napoleon. “There is no mortal to whom Great Britain has greater obligations than that blackguard,” Gneisenau declared, “for it is the events which he has brought about which have raised England’s greatness, security and wealth so high. They are the lords of the sea, and neither in this dominion or in world trade have they any rival left to fear.”

But, actually, British economics had a lot to do with it, along with the support of the British populace. King Charles II had set the tone by famously saying, “It is upon the navy under the good Providence of God that the safety, honour, and welfare of this realm do chiefly depend.” His subjects entirely agreed. The British people placed great value on their navy and were willing to support it with their tax money, of which the navy consumed a greater part than any other expenditure.

In the end, the Royal Navy pretty much paid for itself. It protected the British Empire and its trade. It enabled Britain to open new markets and thus made a huge contribution to Britain’s growth into the world’s greatest 19th century mercantile power.

This lengthy book contains a series of excellent maps, a glossary of naval terms of the age, and an extensive set of charts and tables relating to the manning and financing of the British fleet. It is a wonderful read for those truly interested in the development of the Royal Navy in that age.

The story of how the Royal Navy came, by 1815, to be the most important military force in the world — which it would continue to be for 100 years — is completely told in this aptly titled book. “Command of the Ocean” is exactly what the British nation achieved.

Richard M. Watt writes and reviews European history.

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