The Line upon a Wind

In spite of its deadly consequences, war remains one of the principal driving forces of history, and the story of the victor and the vanquished often makes for enthralling reading. Never was this more applicable than in the Napoleonic wars, a twenty-two-year period of conflict that is the subject of Noel Mostert’s The Line upon a Wind: The Great War at Sea, 1793-1815. As Mostert’s engaging text makes clear, this was the first true world war, one that involved an ever-shifting series of coalitions that pitted the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain against revolutionary France. Since it was the first global conflict, it has inevitably generated a veritable library of historical studies, from the economic and political causes of the war to the resulting armed engagements. Books of the modern era that deal with the naval aspects of the war range from C. Nepean Longridge’s The Anatomy of Nelson’s Ships (1955) to N. A. M. Rodger’s The Command of the Ocean (2004). However, these works are largely concerned with Britain’s Royal Navy. With so much material already in print on this subject, it is a challenge for anyone to say anything new on the subject. Without significant new source material coming to light, Mostert is forced to mine such well-thumbed publications as The Naval Chronicle, a British periodical written by maritime professionals that appeared throughout much of the war.

What distinguishes Mostert’s work from that of his predecessors is the sheer comprehensiveness of his book. Although he opens with a description of the first naval action between the British and the French in 1793, the inital section, “The Tactical Evolution,” is nothing less than a synopsis of the history of naval warfare. Beginning with the trireme of the ancient world, Mostert proceeds to the armed medieval cog, the galleon, the development of the modern concept of a navy in the seventeenth century, and what would prove to be the most important ship in the Napoleonic wars, the frigate: a fast, flush-decked craft that mounted a single row of cannons on each side. Mostert’s approach to his subject is a curious one, and it says much about his background and his intended audience. Had this book been written by an academic historian, it is likely that it would have focused on a narrowly defined aspect of the naval war, perhaps a heavily researched monograph on a particular battle, or on a shorter span of years within the overall conflict. However, Mostert, a journalist by training, brings a reporter’s sensibility to the subject matter. Rather than just assume the reader’s familiarity with the Western naval tradition, he provides a synopsis of it. When he wants to convey the feeling of what it was like to experience naval warfare firsthand, he freelyand effectivelyresorts to eyewitness accounts of battles. All of this suggests that The Line upon a Wind is designed with the armchair sailor in mind, someone who wants a fairly comprehensive one-volume history of Napoleonic naval warfare. It is probably no coincidence that W. W. Norton, the publisher of Mostert’s book, is also responsible for the American edition of Patrick O’Brian’s superb twenty-novel Aubrey/Maturin series about the Royal Navy of the same period. Given the book’s wealth of detail, one could regard it as the ultimate gloss on O’Brian’s fiction.

The development of naval tactics forms the subject of the first section of Mostert’s work and constitutes an important thread that runs throughout this lengthy volume. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the concept of how a sea battle should be fought had reached a critical stage. Naval traditionalists held that the opposing forces should form two parallel lines and do battle broadside to broadside. The result was a ponderous danse macabre, a stalemate in which neither side could hope to achieve a decisive victory. It was not until the 1780’s that a solution was proposed by John Clerk: This amateur tactical theoretician declared that, instead of matching battle line for battle line, the goal should be first to break the enemy line and then to capture or to destroy its vessels. It was a brilliant insight, and Mostert conveys both the effectiveness of the new tactic and the hidebound nature of naval...

(The entire section is 1756 words.)