James Davey. In Nelson's Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 440 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-20065-2; $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-300-22883-0.
Reviewed by J. Ross Dancy (Sam Houston State University)
Published on H-War (March, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In October 1805, a combined Franco-Spanish fleet met with the British Mediterranean fleet off the southwest coast of Spain and fought what is arguably the most celebrated naval battle in history. Of the thirty-three French and Spanish ships, twenty-two were either captured or destroyed, and nearly 14,000 sailors were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Britain lost no ships and suffered 1,666 dead and wounded, including Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was already a well-known figure, and subsequently became one of the most celebrated British heroes. Two centuries later the bicentennial of the battle was still celebrated as though the dispatches announcing victory had just arrived. The Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death have largely been celebrated as the culminating point of the age of sail, and within the historiography have signaled the end of the war at sea. However, the Napoleonic Wars raged on for nearly ten more years. The Royal Navy was at its largest not in 1805 but in 1810, as the threat of a French invasion remained. During those ten years, Napoleon ordered a massive ship-building program through which he intended to produce 150 ships of the line, and Britain’s battle fleet never shrank below 113 active capital ships in response (pp. 9-10).
This is the primary concern of James Davey’s latest book, In Nelson’s Wake, which argues that contrary to the historiography, the naval war after 1805 was still hard fought and crucial to Britain’s ultimate success against Napoleonic France. The book illustrates that even after the Battle of Trafalgar, France and Spain had over seventy-five ships of the line at their disposal, a clear and credible threat to Britain, and that the Battle of Trafalgar did not conclude the war at sea, but rather gave the Royal Navy temporary relief from their inferiority in numbers. French shipbuilding put serious strains on the Royal Navy. Ultimately Nelson’s great battle was not the end of the naval war but rather the beginning.
Davey opens his account with a chapter discussing the state of the Royal Navy in 1803 as Britain and France reopened the war after the short and uncomfortable Piece of Amiens. He follows this with two chapters discussing how Britain utilized its navy to defend against Napoleon’s planned invasion and its blockade of French and Spanish ports. Davey’s discussion of the Battle of Trafalgar, its importance, and aftermath consumes only one chapter, leaving a full two-thirds of the book to examine the war at sea after Trafalgar.
This book discusses in detail the sometimes frantic and always busy portion of the war that was fought in the administrative offices of the Admiralty as well as in the dockyards, where production raced forward to build and maintain an ever-larger force to face off with France. Davey also goes to great lengths to show the Royal Navy’s contribution to the Peninsular War, which ultimately drove Napoleonic forces and influence out of Spain. British fleets provided the lifeline of support and supplies for Arthur Wellesley’s, 1st Duke of Wellington’s, campaigns. Davey turns his attention to the war in the Indian Ocean, which was carried out with limited resources, as well as the War of 1812, which was almost entirely a naval war. The defeat of Napoleon’s Continental System through maritime trade and economic warfare is also given much-needed attention.
Perhaps the only shortfall of this book, if it can indeed be considered a fault at all, is that it is written to straddle the gulf between the academic and popular markets. In doing so, some compromises had to be made. The reader will need some rudimentary understanding of the wars of the eighteenth century, particularly the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, in order to fully engage with the book. Some basic understanding of naval history and terminology is also assumed; however, Davey does a very good job of making the topic accessible to anyone with a basic interest in the subject. From an academic point of view, the book covers a massive subject, and the topics of each chapter could consume entire books with ease. The use of endnotes rather than footnotes also can be a frustration for academics, but these are certainly minor quibbles, and should not detract from the quality of this work.
The book concludes by arguing that rather than trying to take away from allied success on land, which ultimately defeated Napoleonic France, the defeat of Napoleon must include a balanced analysis of both the war on land and at sea. To do this requires a serious and sophisticated understanding of the contributions of the Royal Navy during the decade of warfare that followed Nelson’s death. Davey must be commended for his work, which will hopefully encourage further academic study into the conduct of naval warfare after 1805, without which Napoleon’s final defeat may not have been so quick, or perhaps would not have happened at all.
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