Great Encounters

Patrick O’Brian

  • The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan
    Hutchinson, 292 pp, £14.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 09 173771 0

John Keegan’s book is about the principles, strategy and tactics of warfare at sea and their evolution as it is exemplified in four great battles, Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway, and a critical period in that long struggle the Battle of the Atlantic. It is a strangely mixed book, some parts being quite remarkably good and quite unhackneyed, others dealing with matters that have been handled again and again, and doing so with no great originality.

Trafalgar has been written about by great numbers of very well qualified people, from Clarke and McArthur in 1809 to Tom Pocock in 1988: this imposing mass of books, together with the place of Nelson and of the battle in the English tradition, have caused John Keegan to approach the subject with awe, and awe alas has led to a stilted, almost official kind of writing.

For the fight itself, in which 27 British ships of the line in two roughly parallel columns attacked 33 belonging to the French and their Spanish allies in a confused line to leeward, Keegan does not appear to add anything to what has already been said, nor does he clarify what is perhaps inevitably obscure. Like all other writers, he states that 18 enemy ships were taken, that four of these were carried into Gibraltar, and that foul weather and various accidents caused the loss of the rest; while from more recent research he gives the butcher’s bill: 4408 of the enemy killed, 2545 wounded, about seven thousand taken prisoner, while the British had 449 killed and 1241 wounded.

It may be that Mr Keegan, a military historian, was not the ideal person to write about Trafalgar: his notions of a brace and many other things belonging to a sailing ship are imprecise, and in speaking of Nelson’s plan of attack, aimed at breaking the enemy line and forcing a pell-mell battle, he stresses its unorthodoxy and even recklessness. Unorthodox it certainly was, since the Fighting Instructions insisted that battles were to be fought by fleets drawn up in parallel lines, the ships blazing away with their broadsides. But unexpected or novel it was not. John Clerk of Eldin’s Essay on Naval Tactics had been printed as early as 1782, reissued in 1790 and 1797 and widely circulated among sea officers. Duncan, who broke the Dutch line at Camperdown, acknowledged his debt to Clerk; the idea was in the air, and Villeneuve, the French commander, foresaw that Nelson would use the same tactics at Trafalgar.

Yet Keegan’s own discipline does allow him to make some unusually valuable remarks about the line-of-battle ship as a floating fortress, a powerful, mobile and economical artillery position. Nelson’s 27 ships carried 2232 guns, six times the number Bonaparte had at Waterloo and almost all guns of far greater calibre. Nelson’s canon needed about 14,000 men to work them, their food and water amounting to 11 pounds a head. If these same guns had had to be moved by land they would have required 50,000 gunners, 30,000 horses, and about 375 tons of food and fodder a day.

From Trafalgar the book moves on to Jutland, that deeply unsatisfactory battle, but it does so without speaking of the immense changes that had come over the Royal Navy in the interval. In Nelson’s time it was possible for William Mitchell, a young seaman, to be flogged round the fleet, to survive it, to pass for lieutenant when he was about thirty, and to reach Nelson’s own rank of vice-admiral of the white in 1814. Yet even before 1814 midshipmen were undergoing an unofficial examination to ‘pass for gentlemen’ as well as the official ‘passing for lieutenant’: and by 1914 the gap between quarterdeck and lower deck was wide indeed. Nor does Keegan deal with the ferocious discord in the Navy, when the service was divided between those who supported Fisher and those who supported Beresford, with lamentable effects on initiative and co-operation. Nor has he anything to say about the suppression of the Pollen range-finder, which might have given British gunnery that decisive superiority over the German which it so fatally lacked. Yet he does deal with general development through the 19th century, the transition from wood to iron, steel and armour, the rise of Germany, the coming of the Dreadnought and her progeny, and of the arms race. For all these vast changes, however, there were still many links between Trafalgar and Jutland. One of them was that in spite of moving at much greater speed and fighting at much greater distances, the Royal Navy still clung to its signal flags – a link that unhappily had great importance in the coming battle.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in