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.

The Battle of Trafalgar  as seen from the mizzen starboard shrouds of Victory  JMW Turner

The Battle of Trafalgar
As seen from the mizzen starboard shrouds of Victory
JMW Turner

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.

Battle of the Nile, Whitcombe

Battle of the Nile

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 young Sub-lieutenant Peter Willemoes putting heart into his men at the Battle of Copenhagen, Christian Mølsted

The young Sub-lieutenant Peter Willemoes putting heart into his men at the Battle of Copenhagen
Christian Mølsted

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.

Admiral Villeneuve

Admiral Villeneuve

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.

MUTINY featured the Battle of Camperdown

MUTINY featured the Battle of Camperdown

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. =

Copyright notices
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
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

17 Comments on “Novelists and 18th & 19th Century Sea Battles”

  1. Dear Sir, This made tremendous reading even though i was looking for advice as to identifying my 18th century sea battle. if you can advise please contact

  2. I was curious if you ever thought of changing the page layout of your website?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so
    people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text
    for only having 1 or 2 images. Maybe you could space it out better?

  3. Julian, I too love forester. Kent and pope and lambdin. Let’s not forget the first….Captain Marryat. Life is so good but never better than when you have a new book in your hands and the front of it says…..Stockwin. Robin.

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Let me thank you first for recommending Harland’s “Seamanship in the Age of Sail,…” following my question about in-service repairs by ship’s company. I do have a follow-on question though. I believe in one of the Aubrey -Maturin novels there is a description of fishing a spar where threaded iron bar stock was used to make through fasteners in addition to glue and lashings. Was that ever done, or was O’Brian having us on?

    But I had a comment about the current column. Other sources comment that the writings of Frederick Marryat were part of the genre that Forrester, Kent, and Lanbdin built on. I’d appreciate your opinion about Marryat who I did not see mentioned. As for myself, one of my memories is that Marryat, writing in an age where many readers had more basic knowledge about sailing that today, did not include so many details about seamanship.

    And still another comment about details of ship handling, I have read that part of Jonathon Swift’s satire was in response to highly elaborate descriptions of ship handling found in the work of his contemporaries. I do not know if Swift had fiction or travelogues in mind. I know that Swift predated the era you have written about by fifty years but wonder if you could name some of the writers at whom Swift was poking fun.

    Thanks in advance for anything you can share.

    • Can’t remember where O’Brian had this. Strictly, fishing a spar is to place a long piece of timber each side of the damage and secure it tightly with woolding (rope). Often capstan bars were used but fishing a spar was always a temporary measure as the break in the spar put a stop to the continuous springy force that gives a spar the reslience to take canvas.

      I suppose the first novelist to deal with the sea was Defoe, R Crusoe, then Smollett ‘Roderick Random’ even if its now considered little more than a polemic. Really Marryat was one of many naval authors putting their wartime experiences to good use afterwards. Glascock, Chamier and others come to mind, Marryat probably the most successful with his fiction. To my knowledge Chamier’s 3 book ‘Ben Brace’ has been the only treatment of the lower deck in a fiction series before my own, and that pre-dated Marryat.

      Swift was undoubtedly taking a pot at Smollett, but this was the age of the peerless Falconer and his matchless (and grindingly accurate) poem ‘Shipwreck’ etc.


  6. The writing skill and the depth of information given us by you, matched by the “tangible action”, contained in each and every book in the “Kydd” series has held my keen interest since I first stepped “on board” as it were with Thomas Paine Kydd off the “hoy” at Sheerness, and thence to the deck of the “Duke William”. The first book in your most excellent, spellbinding set was recommended to me by a bookseller exhibiting at a “book fare” in Torrevieja, Spain in 2006. In broken English (I spoke very little Spanish) he told me that KYDD was the best book of its genre he had ever read. Happy am I that I took his advice, and the exchange sum of 2 euro became the best investment of my reading life.
    Congratulations Julian, I can only say “Clear decks and up spirits” and roll on the delivery of the next edition out next month, “CARIBBEE”
    George T Moore.

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