Nelson's Trafalgar: The Battle that Changed the World
Roy Adkins. New York: Viking, 2005.416 pp. $27.95.
Reviewed by Robert S. Bolia
With the bicentennial of Trafalgar upon us, it is not surprising to see a renewed interest in the battle expressed by the publication of books about it. Scholarship on the subject has not abated in 200 years, and it is reasonable that historians would endeavor to deliver their products when the market is ripe. What is extraordinary about Roy Adkins' Nelson's Trafalgar: The Battle that Changed the World is not its timing but the vividness of its account and its accessibility to the general reader.
The author's credentials are not that of a naval historian. As a professional archaeologist much of his fieldwork has involved excavations of Roman sites in Britain, and his previous books have been about life in ancient Rome or the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Nevertheless, he has done a more than creditable job of recreating one of the greatest naval battles ever fought. Moreover, his interest in archeology comes out as he describes the British defenses against invasion—the famous Martello Towers. His love of language is also evident, as he delights in providing the origin of some of the numerous colloquialisms to have emerged from the age of sail, such as "square meal," "junk," and "slush fund," and even provides English translations of the names of French and Spanish ships.
Adkins is above all a storyteller, and he has done a splendid job of describing the action of a very confusing battle, in many cases letting the participants tell their own story by peppering his narrative with first-hand accounts. Ships' captains wrote some of these, but many are from the pens of midshipmen and ordinary sailors, and the book is very much a story of their battle. While Adkins places his tale within the framework of the Napoleonic wars, it is not—like so many books on Trafalgar—a book about Nelson and Napoleon, or the "Band of Brothers." Very little biographical detail is provided for any of the commanders involved. Instead, it is a very vivid portrayal of the experiences of individuals engaged in the fight of their life, and the legacy thereof.
This should not be interpreted to mean that Adkins has provided insufficient context for the battle. Basic naval terminology and sailing techniques, which many naval historians assume their readers understand, are both described and depicted in Nelson's Trafalgar. The maps illustrate not only the evolution of the battle in terms of the position of ships but also their relative sizes, and Adkins has gone to great lengths to place his subject in the context of the era and the environment. In addition to naval issues, he discusses food, medicine, and the role of women in the battle in a successful attempt to provide a lucid picture of the sailor's life for readers who are not scholars of the age of sail.
It is clear that for Adkins, Trafalgar is above all a human story, and he manages throughout to evoke humor as well as tragedy. While he never really makes the case that, as the subtitle claims, Trafalgar was "the battle that changed the world," it was the last great fleet action of a glorious era, the apotheosis of Nelson, and one of the defining moments of the British Empire. As an introduction to that battle, Nelson's Trafalgar is superb.
Mr. Bolia is a scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate, where he studies team decision-making and tactical command and control. He holds an M.A. in Military Studies from American Military University, and has published several articles on the Arab-Israeli wars and the Falklands War.
Blaine Pardoe. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2005. 304 pp. Illus. $22.95.
Reviewed by Vice Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy
During World War I, German commerce raider Felix von Luckner set out from northern Germany in a three-masted sailing ship to prey on British shipping around the world. Over the next 11 months, he was able to "sink, bum, capture, or destroy" 19 Allied ships—all without losing a single le member of his crew. He evaded capture by British warships through a combination of guile, navigational skill, and luck-think Indiana Jones goes to sea. This is a gem of a story, well told, and nicely laid out with photos, maps, and charts that cleverly illuminate the lost era of "gentlemen pirates" at sea.
The Cruise of the Sea Eagle is reminiscent of the exploits of the Confederate raider Alabama under command of the legendary Captain Raphael Semmes. Throughout his adventure, von Luckner was particularly careful to take aboard any prisoners, to inventory and protect their personal property, and never to fire a shot unless it was unavoidable—a stark contrast to the brutal approach of the U-boat fleet.
The capture and sinking of the French ship Dupleix became legendary. When, after throwing off his ship's disguise as a Norwegian merchantman, von Luckner confronted the merchant vessel with a message of "Stop Immediately–German Cruiser," the captain of the luckless Dupleix thought a practical joke was being played upon him. The Dupleix was then sunk—after her crew was removed.
A glance at a map of the world marks the boundaries of this incredible tale. Departing Germany in late 1916, the Sea Eagle sank two ships off the coast of Portugal, nine more off Brazil, and then proceeded to round the Horn through heavy seas. She sank three more off the Philippines by June 1917, and then the ship ran aground while attempting to hide and avoid capture in the south Pacific. Von Luckner then sailed 2,500 nautical miles in an open boat to evade capture and continue raiding—echoes of Ernest H. Shackleton—before his war ended.
After the end of World War I, Count von Luckner—dubbed the "Sea Devil" after the title of a previous study on his adventure by Lowell Thomas—became a successful lecturer. He did not side with the Nazis, and was reviled in Adolf Hitler's Germany. He is credited with saving the life of Rose Janson, a Jew, and saving his hometown, Halle, from further destruction by U.S. forces. After the war, he became friends with General George Patton and other senior American officers involved in the occupation. In November 1959 he was the subject of one of Ralph Edwards' "This Is Your Life" television programs. The old warrior died in 1964, marking the end of the final sea captain to fire weapons in combat from sailing ships. His legend lives on in this lively and readable biography.
Vice Admiral Stavridis has commanded a destroyer, destroyer Squadron, and a carrier strike group. He led the Navy's "Deep Blue" initiatives group at the start of the Global War on Terror and is currently the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
George Henry Bennett and Roy Bennett. Annapolis, MD: US. Naval Institute Press, 2004. Index. 240 pages. $32.95.
Reviewed by Commander John T. Kuehn, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Sixty years ago, British theorist and military historian Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart gained access to the captured generals of the Wehrmacht. Three years later, in 1948, he published his interviews as The German Generals Talk. This book was part oral history, part propaganda for Liddell Hart's theories, and part attempt by the German generals to portray their institution in a more positive light. Liddell Hart was only too willing to oblige them. Not as well known, a British Admiralty team visited various incarcerated German admirals in an attempt to get a similar naval perspective. The results of their efforts have had to wait until G.H. and R. Bennett's Hitler's Admiral's, an edited version of the German admirals' hand-written essays, to gain a hearing. The book is arranged topically around chronological progress from interwar to defeat in 1945. This arrangement results in 13 chapters in addition to an excellent introductory essay. The final chapter draws conclusions and makes some judgments.
This book includes commentary by the authors, a father-and-son team. Both have extensive experience as naval historians and the elder Bennett served honorably in World War II in the British Merchant Marine. As noted, the text consists of extracts from English translations of essays written immediately after the war by nine admirals of the Kriegsmarine. The extracts are arranged topically, with the particular admirals identified in bold with brief explanatory comments by the authors.
Unlike Liddell Han, the authors/editors have a limited agenda aside from the purely historical function of providing another perspective. Their preface and introduction do a wonderful job of spelling out their thesis: The German admirals wished to recast a "new narrative of defeat" somewhat analogous to the mythology of Germany's earlier defeat in World War I. In that war, the narrative of defeat had been based on "the stab in the hack" by Jews, Communists, and Socialists despite an undefeated army on the field of battle.
Such a tale would not do for World War II. The new narrative stressed three points: The heroism of the Kriegsmarine in the prosecution of the war, the need for Germans and their Western conquerors to make common cause against Soviet Russia, and the general ignorance of the German people, including most of the Navy, of the concentration camps. It was no accident, argue the Bennetts, that this new myth reflected well on the German Navy as an institution. To a degree, the myth reverses that of World War I. The Kriegsmarine might have won the war but for the failure of the land forces and the leadership, just as in WWI the German land forces might have won had it not been for the rebellions and conflict in the rear that included much of the old Imperial Fleet. The authors claim this "narrative" was the invention of Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz and that while in Allied custody he wielded great influence with the other admirals who wrote these essays.
Why go to these lengths to inform the reader? The authors do a great service in this regard, one that Liddell Hart docs not perform nearly as well, by making certain one remains skeptical while reading these fascinating first-hand perspectives.
Noteworthy from the testimony of the Germans is their strong institutional loyalty. They seem less concerned with their personal legacy than the reputation of the institution as a whole. Their testimony focuses on the mistakes of the political, strategic leadership—by which they mean Hitler and the army officers of the General Staff—versus their own strategic and political insights. They constantly emphasize their honorable service and are unanimous in condemning the timing and strategic execution of the war. The major limitation of the work is that the view of Grand Admiral Raeder—the Kriegsmarine leader for most of the period covered-is missing. Only the views of self-selected admirals—those willing to write essays—are reflected. This book is strongly recommended to the Navy readership at large, especially those interested in World War II and different national perspectives on admiralship.
Commander Kuehn is a military history instructor at the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He earned a B.A. from Miami University (Ohio) and an M.S. in Systems Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in history.
1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World
Frank McLynn. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005. 432 pp. $27.50.
Reviewed by Robert Enrione
Of all the wars of the age of sail, the Seven Years' War has perhaps received the least ink; however, it is the struggle that defined much of what occurred for the next 50 years. 1759 was the watershed year of that war insofar as it was the "year of victories" that propelled Britain into the position of premier power in Europe, thus the world. While this volume is not primarily a book of naval history, its broad view of the year's events provides a pointed picture of the consequences of the use of sea power on everything that occurred. Of its 11 chapters, two deal with naval battles and four cover campaigns in which the Royal Navy played a conspicuous part.
The book's strength lies in its detailed context that gives structure and meaning to each event covered. The influence of Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, is a necessary addition for a modern reader with little understanding of the currents that influenced decisions in the French court. In addition to the political background, chapter prologues provide cultural and philosophical perspectives of the period, though how much influence the thought of Voltaire, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and others had is open to question. Far more important are the personalities and backgrounds of the major characters including William Pitt, Etienne Francois de Choiseul, and Louis Joseph de Montcalm.
The focus of 1759 is combat. Progressing from the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys to Quiberon Bay, the Caribbean, India, the coast of Portugal, and most of North America, 1759 paints a picture of a world wm 150 years before World War I. The battles of 1759 are presented in sufficient clarity to be understood by the average reader and with sufficient detail provided to satisfy the historian. The specialist naval historian will find points to carp on, but this is an overview book, not a specialist volume. Still, a listing of rated guns on the ships and a touch more clarity in the use of technical terms and words would have made this a better book.
The charm of 1759 is in its stories. That of Major Robert Rodgers and his ranger unit is a fascinating tale of Americana that has been forgotten by many. It is also a timely lesson in confronting the changing parameters of war. The marquis de Montcalm emerges as a person of depth for whom we can feel sympathy; his victorious opponent James Wolfe is portrayed as the shallow yet enigmatic figure that he was. The only major figure who was slighted, in my opinion, was Admiral Sir Charles Saunders; credit for the victory at Quebec was as much his as it was Wolfe's. The stand-out among characters is Charles Edward Stuart—Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Pretender—who emerges as a vivid illusion, a shadow on the course of events of which he plays no part.
For one unfamiliar with the Seven Years' War, this book is a fine introduction. For the historian of the Nelsonian era, it provides background and context. Even the specialist will find this book useful, for there is much information crammed into one volume. In sum, this work is a worthwhile addition to the literature of the era.
Mr. Enrione is a writer and video tape editor for CBS News. He is along-time member of the U.S. Naval Institute and an avid consumer of naval history.