Empire of the Deep by Ben Wilson: When Britain ruled the waves

Britain was designed for maritime power. Stephen Taylor reviews a sweeping history of Britain's naval prowess that covers the great commanders but finds little space for the seamen who served them.

Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy
Ben Wilson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 720pp, £25
 
It is an image embedded in our history – the body of a naval hero brought home to a state funeral, his legacy a sea victory that had stunned Europe and secured Britain’s command of the oceans once and for all. Yet the hero was not, on this occasion, Horatio Nelson. Robert Blake’s triumph came at the battle of Santa Cruz in 1657, almost 150 years before Trafalgar and close to 70 years after another victory – over the Armada – that had supposedly obtained the same end. If there is one consistent aspect of Britain’s historical perspective, it is that we were always winners at sea.
 
That view has been refashioned by a new generation of naval historians, such as N A M Rodger, who have brought subtlety and social insight to what had been a fairly bland and triumphalist field. Successes, we now know, were set about with blunders, failures and weaknesses. Rodger is working on the third and final volume of his magisterial series covering this story from 660 to the present day. Now, fresh to the field but first to the line, comes Ben Wilson, with a single book covering the same period.
 
Starting in an age when no one, least of all Britannia, ruled the waves, he explains the mythology that grew up around our shores. There was no navy to start with but the Vikings helped to foster piracy and Henry IV licensed seafarers to destroy enemies of the kingdom and “keep the seas”. So pervasive was this tradition that only in 1856 did Britain formally renounce the licensing of privateers to capture enemy ships.
 
Foreign resources always came in handy. Danish mercenaries served in Edward the Confessor’s navy, when Anglo-Saxon sea power was at its height, and the Atlantic was opened up by that great Englishman Giovanni Caboto of Genoa, also known as John Cabot. From there, it was a short step to unleashing adventurers such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins to plunder the Spanish empire. With so much treasure at stake, it is not surprising that they fought one another almost as ferociously as they did the enemy.
 
Britain was designed for maritime power. It is a compelling truth and though Wilson strives to emphasise the setbacks, they were always of a lesser order than the triumphs. As Pitt the Elder said, the lesson of history is that when exerting power by sea, we become “the dread of the world; when by land, the contempt of it”.
 
This epic is peopled by vividly described national types. Hawkins is one, a dashing roughneck who used the sea – as did Drake and many others – to haul himself up the social ladder. Another is Frederic “Johnnie” Walker, the U-boat killer of the Second World War, whose grit and coolness arguably turned the tide in the battle of the Atlantic.
 
The British love a great ship almost as much as a great commander. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire is the nation’s favourite painting and the Victory is a shrine. In 1418, Henry V launched the Grace Dieu, a colossus. Ultimately, she was the Bismarck of her day, an empty symbol that ended up on the bottom before she could do significant harm.
 
Wilson tackles this formidable canvas with zeal and spirit. He is strong on strategy and analysis, yet also throws himself into the great battle scenes, of which his account of the battle of the Nile in 1798 is particularly effective. Nelson’s preparations in the years leading up to Trafalgar are shown to have been as important as his battle plan, along with his meticulous care for the fleet’s health. “It is easier,” he said, “for an officer to keep men healthy than for a physician to cure them.” Yet there was so much more to the navy than battle. It charted oceans – then gifted this knowledge to other seafaring nations – and opened the world to scientific discovery, as well as trade and commerce. Among its most heroic yet least sung endeavours was the 60-year campaign to stamp out the African slave trade with vessels of the Preventative Squadron.
 
Covering so vast a subject was bound to require selectivity, even in a volume as hefty as this. Wilson acknowledges that ending slavery was one of the navy’s most noble battles, yet he finds scant space for it and fails to mention that it took the lives of almost 17,000 British seamen, mainly by disease. (The number killed at Trafalgar was 459.)
 
More seriously, he fails to examine in any depth a thread running through the narrative. The navy may have produced great commanders and ships but they would never have stirred from port but for the common seaman. British hands, Wilson notes, developed a habit of victory. After Trafalgar, a French captain was surprised to see that whereas his men were “either drunk or disabled”, the English worked with as much order as ever: “We were amazed, wondering what the English sailor could be made of.” Jack Tar’s contribution to naval supremacy is barely addressed here.
 
Stephen Taylor’s “Commander: the Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain” is published by Faber & Faber (£20) 
Smoke on the water: a boy watches a panorama of the Sebastopol siege during the Crimean war. Photo: Igor Starkov/Anzenberger/Eyevine

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

OLIVER BURSTON
Show Hide image

How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism