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A Brief History of Fighting Ships af David…

A Brief History of Fighting Ships (original 1996; udgave 2002)

af David Tudor Davies (Forfatter)

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1463144,554 (3.25)Ingen
In this book, the author describes Britain's fighting ships: their construction, their armament, the daily life of the men who served, as well as the titanic battles in which they were engaged.
Titel:A Brief History of Fighting Ships
Forfattere:David Tudor Davies (Forfatter)
Info:Robinson Publishing (2002), 208 pages
Samlinger:Dit bibliotek
Nøgleord:$20.00, Used - Remainder

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A Brief History of Fighting Ships af David Davies (1996)


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David Davies

A Brief History of Fighting Ships:
Ships of the Line and Napoleonic sea battles 1793–1815

Robinson, Paperback [2003].

12mo. 201 pp. Index [195-201]. [Cover: detail from The Battle of Trafalgar (1836) by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793-1867).]

First published as Fighting Ships by Constable, 1996.


List of Plates
List of Figures
List of Maps and Battle Diagrams

1. The Original World War
2. The Ships
3. Crews
4. The Glorious First of June
5. Spaniards, Ireland and Cape St Vincent
6. Camperdown
7. The Battle of the Nile
8. Copenhagen
9. Other Events, 1793–1802
10. Trafalgar: Their Last Battle
11. After Trafalgar

Glossary of Nautical Terms


“A Brief History of Fighting Ships” is a title that evokes, at least in my mind, a survey that stretches from the Greek triremes in the 5th century BC to the aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines of the 20th century AD. Nothing like this here! The title is highly misleading. The subtitle, curiously found on the front cover but not on the title page, is much more accurate. This is indeed a brief history of the fighting ships and sea battles during the Napoleonic Wars (the real World War I according to the author).

Mr Davies doesn’t seem to have written another book in his life, and it shows. The writing is heavier than a 16th-century Spanish galleon. While lucid and readable enough, the prose is cumbersome and verbose. It doesn’t have melody and rhythm. It doesn’t flow. Writing is a mysterious gift anyway. Some people can string words in an engrossing way and some can’t. Mr Davies can’t. Never mind! He does have the necessary combination of erudition and passion to make his work interesting despite the heavy-handed prose. There is not a single foot- or endnote in the whole book, and rather a modest bibliography in the end, but the author seems to know his subject.

The loving detail in which Mr Davies describes the warships from the Golden Age of Sail is one of the book’s highlights. Then again, I have been in love with sailing ships since I can remember myself. Readers less enamoured with one of the most perfect combinations of art and engineering may find this chapter – “The Ship”, incidentally the longest in the book (29 pages) – rather tiresome. But I adore everything from courses, shrouds, ratlines and footropes to bilge pumps and cable compressors. Raising the anchor was a major operation for a number of skilled hands in those days, to say nothing of furling and unfurling the sails or firing and reloading the three-ton 32-pounders on the lowest gundeck. Sometimes Mr Davies can be vivid and evocative:

A 32-pounder weighed about 3 tons, and the guns were spaced at about 11-foot centres. As the carriage and its wheels were about five feet wide, there was about six feet of space between adjacent guns. This was the space in which most of these operations had to be carried out by some members of both gun teams. Allowing a few inches’ margin, each man had a strip about two feet wide to work in: he had to heave on tackles, pass cartridges and shot, stand clear of the recoil, all within this strip. Step back six inches too far and he might collide with a man working on the next gun; step forward six inches too far and he could lose his toes. Once established, the drill would have to be as perfect and as synchronised as that of a dance troupe, each man treading on the same few square inches of deck every time. All this in thick smoke and continuous noise, and possibly while stupid with fatigue – close action could last for three hours of more. Mercifully, once into the swing of it, a man would become an automaton; without time to think much about his tiny, noisy, smoke-filled world suddenly ending in an explosion of splinters.

The best-trained crews could achieve one shot per minute, fantastic efficiency that might well make a difference in battle. It was not the number of guns that mattered, nor their size. It was the training of the crews. There was no real specialisation among the seamen, no “gun crews” or “sail crews”; all had to be adept at all kinds of work. Considering the perverse system at the time, rife with nepotism and pressing into service, to say nothing of low pay, bad food, cramped quarters and callous government, the Royal Navy did far better than could have been expected. It was the combined common sense of officers and seamen that produced the remarkable events of 1797, quite possibly the best organised and most peaceful mutiny in naval history. It was more like a strike. And it worked. It’s too bad that such common sense has been rather uncommon throughout human history.

It is not hard to share the author’s admiration for the crews in those days. The reader who fails to do that, at least to some extent, must be curiously unimaginative or insensitive. Mr Davies extends his admiration to the shipbuilders, again with infectious results, but also with a surprised ending:

All the massive strength and complexity of a finished ship was achieved entirely by hand tools, with only the crudest of lifting devices, and a 74-gun ship could be completed in well under two years. A very high proportion of the labour force involved was highly skilled, and the speed of building suggests not only a high degree of organising ability in yard managers but a great deal of mutual co-operation between the tradesmen involved. Insofar as this was typical of substantial enterprises of the time, it may offer some clue to the character of the people. A man whose livelihood is in his own skill is likely to be a more contended and well-balanced individual than one whose job is pressing buttons – whether on a machine or a computer. Perhaps that is why people, both in and out of the services, could stand up to hardships that seem to us unendurable – they were less neurotic.

It is worth remembering that the book was first published in 1996. Twenty-five years later, computers have not made mind-numbing button-pressing jobs as obsolete as the architects of our brave new world hoped. Granted that some of these jobs require a great deal of skill, they are much more likely to produce neurotic side effects than a well-balanced personality. But all this is by the way. It is to the author’s credit, however, that he doesn’t shy away from such sweeping psychological asides.

To get back to the wooden decks of the early 19th century, the opening chapters also contain some charming, little-known and, I hope, accurate details. I had no idea, for instance, that teak was the perfect wood for ships, but not for warships, at least not in those days when lots of casualties were due to splinters. Wounds made by oak splinters seldom became septic. Those made by teak splinters always did. One can easily imagine what scourge that must have been in times when antiseptics were totally unknown. Fascinating – and a little frightening!

The bulk of the book is about naval tactics and battles; background, action and aftermath are patiently described. This is where the author’s inexperience is most telling. He is often bogged down in an overdose of detail or repetitious storytelling. Chapters like “Other Events, 1793–1802” and “After Trafalgar” are rather dull and virtually superfluous; a better writer would have reduced them to a few paragraphs. Not Mr Davies! He slogs bravely through the irrelevant and the inconsequential. Except for an occasional and all too brief exception, he doesn’t have any idea how to present his material in a dramatic way.

But the historical importance of the subject outweighs the poor writing. Before reading that book, I knew nothing but the basics about the Battles of the Nile and Trafalgar, virtually nothing about the Battles of Camperdown and Copenhagen, and less than nothing about, say, the French attempts to land in Ireland and support the cause of Irish nationalism against British oppression. Mr Davies filled plenty of gaps. By way of conclusion, having perhaps unduly emphasised his defects, let me review briefly review his merits.

Mr Davies is something of a myth-buster. He is cool and level-headed, altogether unimpressed by rhetoric and hype, never mind how famous the name. Nelson’s legendary “bridge for boarding first-rates” at Cape St Vincent was not such a high-risk decision, after all. It was highly unorthodox and almost recklessly daring, but it was the right thing to do and not wholly against the Fighting Instructions. I wonder, however, what would have been the reaction of his superiors had Nelson’s stunt been unsuccessful. As for the famous putting the telescope to his missing eye and declaring he didn’t see the retreat signal (that was in the Battle of Copenhagen), it was “an understandable bit of showmanship” and, as the author shows in painstaking detail, very far from really disobeying orders. This healthy dose of irreverence, even prudishness when Lady Hamilton is mentioned, is not to say Mr Davies lacks proper appreciation of the greatest British naval hero of all time:

Nelson did not change everything in a flash, but his method of treating his subordinates as members of a team, rather than pieces to be moved about a board, had been thoroughly justified. Good and gifted commanders had always instinctively created among their men a sense of being part of a brotherhood, rather than merely recipients of orders; Nelson’s deliberate cultivation of this method was an early step towards recognition of it in high places. Two hundred years later, Nelson’s way is the basis of all training of military leaders.

This is the best thing about Mr Davies: he is intensely interested in the characters. Contrary to a popular delusion, these are just as important in non-fiction as they are in fiction. All too often historians tend to forget that history is made by people. Just like in the Age of Sail destinies were sometimes changed by a change of wind, all through history momentous events were decided by trivial incidents and personal whims. Mr Davies keeps a watchful eye on his cast of characters, sometimes combined to a great effect with his myth-busting agenda. For example, the story how Sir John Jervis was informed about the increasing number of French ships emerging from the hazy horizon (ten, twenty, thirty, etc.) and finally dismissed the reports with “Enough, sir. If there are fifty sail of the line, I shall go through them” is deemed rather unlikely, yet in character. Sir John was the classic type of sea wolf who “would not have been very much influenced by arithmetic.”

I do wish the author had spent more space on characterisation. Even minor figures are brought to life with some skill. Take Vice-Admiral Adam Duncan who was put in charge of the North Sea Fleet, quite the most unglamorous part of the Royal Navy. Duncan was advanced in age, with distinguished career behind his back and quite well off: he could have resigned and nobody would have blamed him much. But he was “no prima donna; instead of nurturing a sense of grievance at being given such unpromising material for so dreary a task, he recognised there was a job to be done, and his nature was to see it done well.” It was done very well indeed. Camperdown was not the most dramatic or spectacular naval battle in the Napoleonic Wars, but it was one of the most decisive. It put an end to the Dutch fleet for good. The Dutch had been formidable enemies for much of the 18th century, an important factor in making the Royal Navy the finest in the world, but by the end of the century their glory was a thing of the past.

Or consider Sir Hyde Parker, the unfortunate fellow who gave Nelson his “blind signal”. Mr Davies goes out of his way to condone Parker’s lack of resolution, because he was an elderly man with no recent naval experience and the heavy burden of momentous decisions on his mind, but also, perhaps, because he had recently married a young lady. This is a charming and very human touch. Sir Hyde was in the middle of mighty procrastination, eagerly awaiting the ball his wife was giving next weekend, when a letter from the First Lord of the Admiralty sent him sailing without ceremony. He was later recalled to London with some displeasure. As it turned out, the Battle of Copenhagen need never have been fought. The Russian Tsar Paul died a week before, and the new one, Alexander I, was anxious to be friendly with Britain, but the primitive communications at the time proved too slow to stop the battle. Thus people die for nothing and history is made!

This is another good thing about the author. Among the sea, if not the ocean, of somewhat superfluous detail, Mr Davies comes up with some little-known gems that should make the reader think about the vagaries of history. My favourite in this category is Nelson’s attacking four French frigates. He damaged seriously one of them, Melpomène, but the French gave as good as they received and Nelson’s own ship, the 64-gun Agamemnon, was temporarily disabled and could not enforce surrender. The other three frigates, instead of finishing off Nelson’s vessel, showed strange lack of initiative and merely helped their compatriot to withdraw. Mr Davies argues that three frigates would have been more than a match for a single ship of the line, especially one in poor condition, and he describes the debacle as “yet another example of the inconsistency of French performances, resulting from the lack of incisive high-level leadership; one frigate had the dash and courage to take on a ship of the line, then three of them failed to take the opportunity of beating her.”

All this happened off the coast of Sardinia in October 1793. Nelson was still nobody at the time. Had he been captured or killed in this very minor engagement, who knows what might have happened with the Napoleonic Wars and the Royal Navy. Thus is history made!

I’ve mentioned above an occasional flash of brilliant and evocative storytelling. The explosion of the French ship L’Orient at the Battle of the Nile provides an excellent example. This is described with almost cinematic vividness. I only wish there were more passages like that:

The British ships with which L’Orient was engaged and the French ships anchored behind her began to weigh their anchors and drift away from her. No other danger was so great as being close to a first-rate, with perhaps 15 tons of gunpowder in her magazine, about to blow up. The explosion when it came must have been one of the biggest the world had seen and it brought the battle temporarily to a halt. For a while there was silence, broken only by the splashing of falling debris, which seemed to go on for an impossibly long time. There followed a sort of stunned lull. Except for an occasional report, the guns were silent; there was the sound of axes clearing fallen rigging, an occasional shout or splash, and the sounds of boats picking up survivors of L’Orient. Captain Miller, on Theseus, tried to stifle his feelings of pity by thinking of atrocities the French were said to have committed, but he felt constrained to try to stop his crew cheering; he had no use for the French, but it didn’t seem decent to cheer at such a cataclysmic loss of life.

Last but not least, as obvious from the last quote, the author is no chauvinist. While understandably taking some pride in the British Navy, Mr Davies is not blind to its shortcomings, especially early in the Wars, and neither is he uncritical of the British in general (e.g. “in not losing Ireland the British were luckier than they deserved”). He certainly appreciates the enemy. Some of his most fascinating characters sketches are of minor Frenchmen. A case in point in the rather obscure Villaret de Joyeuse, a royalist who escaped the guillotine because of his seamanship, lost seven ships at the Glorious First of June, but ensured than a vital grain convoy from America reached France. It is indeed “pleasing to record” that Villaret de Joyeuse “ended his days in some dignity as a governor of Venice”. Villeneuve is one of the better known names of the period, but I had no idea he died “a lonely death in a Rennes hotel room after the defeat at Trafalgar [...] apparently by suicide but possibly murdered by government agents.” I wish Mr Davies had spent a few sentences more on this cloak-and-dagger stuff. He goes as far as calling Villeneuve, hopelessly trying to follow orders from Napoleon that made no naval sense whatsoever, “the tragic figure of the Trafalgar campaign”.

The illustrations are few and of middling quality, but an important complement to the text. It is helpful to have a 74-gun ship of the line dissected by sails and decks; there is no scheme about the rigging, but that’s fine: the subject is too complicated and not that relevant to a “brief history”. The maps are less detailed and less helpful. The battle diagrams are indispensable. They are annotated, usually consist of several parts following the battle in question, and make the detailed descriptions in the text a great deal easier to follow. The plates are black-and-white and entirely dispensable, except perhaps for the last one that shows a gundeck hammock on Nelson’s Victory and gives some idea how cramped living conditions must have been even on the biggest ships at the time.

All in all, this little book is a worthy companion volume to any history of the Napoleonic Wars written by an incorrigible landlubber. It does contain a wealth of naval data usually neglected, not least by Napoleon himself in the first place. The historical background is very sketchy, but this is so by design. The stilted writing is the catch. David Davies is most certainly no David Howarth. But he is worth reading. ( )
  Waldstein | Apr 9, 2021 |
Well written, compact form, prefect for someone who like me isn't that interested in marine history (maybe still too much detail). Kept me reading despite my lack of interest in the topic. ( )
  Paul_S | Dec 23, 2020 |
Mr. Davies has written a tidy and clear book, analyzing the Napoleonic Royal Navy from an operational and organizational point of view. The text is clear, and the details of the famous battles are insightful. Into the bargain he has utilized the services of an experienced small-boat sailor to show why some details are important. It is a good book, and I intend to add it to my permanent collection. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Mar 12, 2020 |
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The original title (1996) was Fighting Ships
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In this book, the author describes Britain's fighting ships: their construction, their armament, the daily life of the men who served, as well as the titanic battles in which they were engaged.

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