Ruling the waves

The Command of the Ocean: a naval history of Britain (1649-1815)

N A M Rodger <em>Allen Lane, the

If Richard Woodman is now the premier writer about the sea, combining the fictional talents of Patrick O'Brian with the scholarly merit of Andrew Lambert, there can be little doubt that N A M Rodger is the doyen of naval scholars - the naval historian's naval historian, so to speak. This volume, the second in a planned trilogy, confirms his prodigious learning and scholarship. As with Oliver Goldsmith's village schoolmaster, the wonder grows that one head can carry so much.

Rodger's main thesis is that, during the 166 years covered by the book, it was not technological developments that were crucial to the navy's global supremacy, but financial and administrative changes. His heroes are not the flashy, glory-hunting admirals who have previously commanded the attention of historians, but the Admiralty back-room boys. Rodger is refreshingly iconoclastic about admirals such as Blake, whom he sees as no more than a lucky bull in a china shop, and even Nelson, whom he depicts as blundering calamitously and incompetently into the politics of Naples. "When all excuses have been offered for Nelson's disastrous venture into strategy and diplomacy, it remains an outstanding example of the dangers of promoting admirals on professional ability alone, without education or knowledge of the world." This is a wise judgement, and a generation that witnessed the follies of Douglas MacArthur and Louis Mountbatten would doubtless add: "The same goes for generals."

Rodger has more time for Vernon, Howe and Hawke, though the men who really catch his venom are Rodney and Jervis (St Vincent). Rodney was a cold, arrogant martinet who demanded unquestioning obedience and blamed everyone but himself when things went wrong. St Vincent was another "blame-shifter", a fanatical by-the-book crank and despot who survived, like Margaret Thatcher, on as little as three hours' sleep a night.

Rodger moves his narrative forward with waltz-like trios of chapters on administration, social history and actual operations. This approach enables him to illuminate every aspect of the navy's rise to global dominance during the so-called Second Hundred Years War against France (1689-1815). He is at his best when making careful distinctions, as between pirates and buccaneers, and in overturning conventional wisdom. He thinks, for example, that the impact of scurvy in the 18th century has been overstated, partly because it was a factor only on long ocean voyages, and partly because the physicians of the time used it as a "catch-all" term for any disease they could not identify. The really serious killers at sea were typhus, malaria and yellow fever.

Rodger's standards of accuracy are astonishingly high. I noted only one nod to Homer: in August 1759, Admiral La Clue was taking the Toulon fleet not to the West Indies, but to assist in the Duc de Choiseul's invasion of England. A writer who has in the past seemed somewhat dry and humourless must also be applauded for many light touches. I particularly liked the waspish asides in the critical bibliography.

This book is a towering monument to technical scholarship, but several factors make it not quite the masterpiece it could have been. In all his work, Rodger has seemed more at home behind an Admiralty desk than on the bridge or before the mast. Strong on tactics and strategy, he is uninformative on seamanship - though this deficiency is partly remedied in a comprehensive glossary. However, apart from a single, unilluminating quotation from one of Anson's officers during the circumnavigation of 1740-44, there is almost no information on sea states or wave heights. Even the four-day storm/hurricane after the Battle of Trafalgar goes unmentioned.

A more serious deficiency is Rodger's cavalier attitude to the French. His dissent from Jeremy Black's description of France and England between 1689 and 1815 as "natural and necessary enemies" is captious and unconvincing. He takes a Little Englander view of the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens in 1803, making this entirely Napoleon's fault, and in general his anti-Bonaparte bias is strong. The emperor's return from Elba in 1815 for the Hundred Days is supposedly because he did not "keep his promises", but there is nothing about the refusal of Louis XVIII's government to pay him the subvention agreed in the 1814 Treaty of Fontaine-bleau. To Rodger's great credit, however, he does not fall for the myth, peddled most recently by Andrew Lambert, that Napoleon's preparations for the invasion of England in 1803-05 were a labyrinthine feint to conceal his Continental aims.

This is an excellent book: in some ways a brilliant one. Yet it is not flawless, and its quality diminishes the further Rodger gets from his beloved Admiralty archives.

Frank McLynn's most recent book is 1759: the year Britain became master of the world (Jonathan Cape)