Reviewed by Mark Lardas
Every century or so, the British write a quasi-official, multi-volume, comprehensive history of the Royal Navy. The turn of the twentieth century saw publication of the seven-volume The Royal Navy: A History from Earliest Times to the Present edited by the inimitable William Laird Clowes. This century’s edition is A History of the Royal Navy, a fourteen-book series released under the coordination of The National Museum of the Royal Navy. A History of the Royal Navy: The Napoleonic Wars, by Martin Robson is part of this series. Intended as a stand-alone volume, it relates the naval activities of the Royal Navy from 1793 through 1815. In addition to the eponymous Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), it presents the naval action of the Wars of the French Revolution (1793-1801) and the War of 1812 (1812-1815).
Robson succeeds in producing a comprehensive yet readable overview of the naval actions during the period. However, the book suffers from being part of a series. The civil history of the Royal Navy, including logistics, staffing, and naval architecture is ignored in The Napoleonic Wars. Readers are referenced to another book in the series, The Age of Sail.
This forces readers to view naval operations in isolation. Yet the battles fought and the naval strategies used are a function of logistics and institutional organization by both sides. Their neglect in this volume leaves readers unable to appreciate the reasons why the battles were fought, and why they were fought in the manner in which they were fought.
Another weakness is the book’s structure. Individual chapters are organized by the theater of each war. However, this works well in the chapters on the Trafalgar Campaign and the War of 1812, as they are self-contained topics and lend themselves to this structure.
Robson breaks the French Revolutionary wars into chapters on “Home Waters,” the Mediterranean, and “everything else.” In the Napoleonic Wars, he maintains the structure, while adding operations in the Baltic to the Home Waters presentation, and the Peninsular War to the Mediterranean. These wars lend themselves badly to a theater breakdown.
Events in one part of the globe affect those in other theaters. Actions in the first chapter on each war often seem puzzling until put in context by reading the remaining chapters on the war. Readers are also entertained by officers holding senior positions or ending their careers in one chapter to reemerge in a junior role in a later chapter.
The Napoleonic Wars can serve as a useful introduction for readers unacquainted with the period. It is also useful for someone who possesses the entire book series with access to the material referenced in the other volumes.
For everyone else, Clowes’s work, available online through Internet Archive, may offer a better and more comprehensive coverage of the period. Those seeking a more recent treatment might look up The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815, by N.A.M. Rodger.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City, Texas. His website is marklardas.com.