Novelists and 18th & 19th Century Sea Battles
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One historical period, the climax of the age of fighting sail (the twenty-two- year period of the French and Napoleonic wars, 1793–1815), has always drawn me irresistibly, as it has done for so many historical naval fiction authors.
I grew up reading C S Forester, the father of the genre, and was at sea in 1966 when he died, still writing his wonderful tales.
I was saddened that no more of his books would come along. But then writers such as Alexander Kent (To Glory We Steer, 1968) and Patrick O’Brian (the first in his Aubrey-Maturin series was published in 1970) began to appear in the bookstores, along with others such as Richard Woodman, keeping alive the story- telling traditions of great deeds at sea and building on what had gone before.
That’s the thing with the genre: it’s constantly evolving, yet staying true to the celebration of man’s special connection with sail. Perhaps I should have lived in the 18th century; to my mind it was a time in many ways more colourful than our modern existence. It was an age of heroes, the like of which we do not see today, certainly not a one-armed, half-blind leader who had the love and respect of all his men from the lowest to the highest, and whose death caused a nation-wide outpouring of grief.
It was a time when a rock could be commissioned: in 1804 the Royal Navy declared Diamond Rock, a barren pinnacle off the coast of Martinique, a sloop of war and proceeded to become from there such a thorn in the side of Villeneuve that he eventually threw his entire fleet of battleships at the rock. Equally, it did not raise too many eyebrows in 1803 when a duel was fought to the death by a naval officer over a dog!
Of course, there is much more to historical naval fiction than sea battles (I’ll come back to that anon…), but warfare is the testing ground for men and ships alike.
There can be few human experiences more terrifying than being aboard during a barrage of incoming cannon fire
felling masts and sending deadly splinters showering all about. One invisible killer was called ‘wind of ball,’ a form of blast injury that, in the wake of a passing cannon shot, could cause a man to just fall over dead, without a mark on him. This happened to Thomas Hardy’s clerk, Thomas Whipple, standing on the deck of HMS Victory.
During the period of the French and Napoleonic wars there were not many major scale sea battles, but each was unique in its own way.
The Glorious First of June – June 1, 1794
This was the first and largest fleet action between Britain and France during the French Revolutionary Wars. In any series set during the French wars, an author has to bear in mind that it is highly unlikely that any one person would have been present at all of the major battles. Thus, in the Thomas Kydd series, my hero missed this conflict by being under guard as a witness in a court martial, but later took part in the celebrations in Portsmouth. Among the authors who have their hero at the Glorious First of June is Dewey Lambdin in A King’s Commander.
The Battle of St Vincent – February 14, 1797
In this action, a British fleet under Admiral Sir John Jervis defeated a larger Spanish fleet. It was a near-run thing which saw Captain Nelson spring to public acclaim after his boarding and capturing of two enemy ships in a manner that was unique in the history of the Royal Navy. Novels about the Battle of St Vincent include Dudley Pope’s Ramage and the Drum Beat and Jay Worrall’s Sails on the Horizon.
The Battle of Camperdown – October 11, 1797
This was the most significant action between British and Dutch forces during the French Revolutionary wars, and after a remarkably desperate fight, it resulted in a complete victory for the British, who captured eleven Dutch ships without losing any of their own. The battle features in A King’s Cutter by Richard Woodman, True Colours by Alaric Bond, my book, MUTINY, and others.
The Battle of the Nile – August 1, 1798
To my mind the Battle of the Nile was Nelson’s finest hour. It was a time of titanic global stakes. Had Britain lost, we would have seen a very different world today. It was in this action that the mother of all ship explosions occurred. At about 10 pm, a fire aboard the French flagship L’Orient reached the magazine and she exploded in an incredible spectacle, with blazing parts of the ship hurled high into the air. Incredibly, both sides fell into a stunned silence at the sight for about ten minutes and an eerie light pervaded the scene. Most of L’Orient’s crew, including her captain and his young son, perished. The American poet Felicia Henans would later write the poignant verse:
The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled…
A number of writers have taken this battle for their subject matter, including David Donachie in Tested by Fate, Alexander Kent in Signal Close Action, and Jay Worrall in Any Approaching Enemy. I wrote about it as well in my book, TENACIOUS.
The Battle of Copenhagen – April 2, 1801
This engagement saw a British fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker defeat a Danish-Norwegian fleet.
Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson led the main attack. He famously disobeyed Sir Hyde Parker’s order to withdraw by holding the telescope to his blind eye to look at the signals. Three of the novels about this battle are Richard Woodman’s The Bomb Vessel, Alexander Kent’s The Inshore Squadron and Dewey Lambdin’s The Baltic Gambit.
The Battle of Trafalgar – October 21, 1805
This decisive victory against the French was tempered by the tragedy of the loss of Lord Nelson from his wounds.
I have to say that I approached the writing of my book, VICTORY, which deals with Trafalgar, with more than a little trepidation
This battle was, after all, the grandest spectacle in naval history, the subject of hundreds of books, fiction and nonfiction. I wanted to bring a new and fresh treatment to my readers, and I hope I accomplished this by having two vantage points – that of my principal character, Tom Kydd, a newly promoted frigate captain, and that of a midshipman aboard Victory. In an interesting departure for Bernard Cornwell, he wrote Sharpe’s Trafalgar from the point of view of a soldier on board at the time. Other novels about this famous battle include Dudley Pope’s Ramage at Trafalgar and David Donachie’s Breaking the Line.
The Second Battle of Copenhagen – August 16, 1807
Napoleon’s attempt to revenge Trafalgar by forcing the Danish to sail against the English was pre-empted by the crushing bombardment of Copenhagen, which resulted in the surrender of the entire Danish fleet. The courage of Peter Willemoes, a young Dane commanding a floating battery, was especially commended by the British, who have always appreciated bravery wherever found.
Anthony Forest’s novel, A Balance of Dangers, is one of the fictional accounts based on the bombardment of Copenhagen.
Of course, I could not discuss naval battles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by just confining my thoughts to the French and Napoleonic wars. There’s the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, at which Rodney trounced the French and Spanish and saved Jamaica for a grateful populace. Some argue that this is where the tactic of ‘breaking the line’ was first used. Alexander Kent’s To Glory We Steer focuses on this battle, as does Dewey Lambdin in The King’s Commission.
There’s also the heroic action by Admiral Edward Pellew in 1816 against the slavery practices of the Dey of Algiers, the fraught Battle of Navarino in 1827. And others…
But given the 200th anniversary was just last year, I’d like to conclude with The War of 1812, which began in June and continued for 32 months (which I’m yet to reach in my Thomas Kydd series; I’m only up to 1807) and which has attracted the pen of a fleet of naval writers. As would be expected, American authors have been particularly drawn to the conflict. They include William H White, who wrote a trilogy. Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War describes the fight of Java and Constitution and concludes with a description of the fight between Chesapeake and Shannon, Broke’s ship. O’Brian’s fictional Jack Aubrey boards Chesapeake behind Broke and saves his life after he is struck on the head. The War of 1812 has also attracted Alexander Kent and Richard Woodman.
I said earlier that there’s more to historical naval fiction than battles, dramatic as they are. During the first two decades of the French Wars, approximately 100,000 men in the Royal Navy died, but just 6.3% fell due to enemy action. Shipwreck and natural disaster accounted for 12.2% while 81.5% – the bulk of the fatalities – died from disease or accident.
While engagement with the enemy provides the excitement and drama, the day-to-day life aboard ship, the comradeship of the lower deck and the fellowship of the officers, all speak of a special bond. It was a unique world within wooden walls, one denied those ashore.
The specifics of the battle formations and outcomes of 18th- and 19th-century battles are fascinating to read, but to me it is often the individual responses of common seamen and officers to warfare wherein the most interesting stories lie. Courage, humour, creativity, man management, stoicism: almost the whole range of human emotions. And it is portraying these, I believe, that is both the most challenging – and the most satisfying – task for the historical novelist.
= A version of this article first appeared in the Historical Novel Review, Issue 64. =
Turner, Battle of Trafalgar: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; Battle of the Nile, Thomas Whitcombe [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Willemoes: By Christian Mølsted [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons; By Amiral_villeneuve.jpg: derivative work: Frédéric MICHEL (Amiral_villeneuve.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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