Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: the art of sailing warfare by Sam WILLIS (maps by Jane Way) 254 pp., 22 b&w illustrations 9 mapsBoydell Press, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1P12 3DF, UK, 2010, £30/$50 (hbk), ISBN 978-1843833673
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 229–230, March 2013
How to Cite
Whitewright, J. (2013), Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: the art of sailing warfare by Sam WILLIS (maps by Jane Way) 254 pp., 22 b&w illustrations 9 mapsBoydell Press, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1P12 3DF, UK, 2010, £30/$50 (hbk), ISBN 978-1843833673. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 229–230. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_16
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
The sailing warship of the 18th century represents one of the most iconic items of our maritime past. Ships, sailors, officers, fleet battles and single-ship actions continue to be the focus of a huge corpus of academic and popular literature, both factual and fictional, within all of the countries that maintained significant naval fleets during the 18th century. Much of the academic tradition that incorporates this period is well established within wider related fields, such as maritime archaeology and history. With this in mind, it is intriguing to encounter a work that consciously challenges some of the accepted ways of thinking about how warfare was conducted at sea, under sail, during the 18th century. This is exactly what Sam Willis sets out to do when tackling the complex subject of how a fleet of sailing warships gave chase, manoeuvred, communicated and ultimately engaged the enemy in close action.
In challenging the accepted wisdom, Willis acknowledges the great body of expert work that precedes his own contribution to the subject and is quick to highlight the depth of this material and the range of work on the many aspects of 18th-century sailing warfare that have made his own work possible: ship construction, gunnery, rigging, etc. Despite this, Willis contends that we do not understand the finer points of fleet engagement under sail quite as well as perhaps we think we do. His position rests upon the need fully to appreciate the practical aspects of sailing and fighting a ship first-hand, rather than simply relying only upon the evidence contained in contemporary historical documents such as the various admiralty fighting instructions and contemporary treatises on naval tactics. Willis claims that such sources have formed the mainstay of historical evidence until now even though they are often quite divorced from the action that they were intended to relate to. In this regard Willis' approach is refreshing, in that he places the seamanship, or occasional lack of seamanship, of the admirals, captains, officers and sailors at the centre of his investigation and explanation of why sailing warfare happened as it did. For a discipline such as archaeology, which by nature has the study of human action at its heart, taking people as the focus of the subject represents an approach that is easy to relate to. Willis' work could be considered as an account of sailing warfare written from the bottom-up, rather than from the top-down, grand strategy view, that is perhaps the norm. It is weatherliness and wind-shifts that dictate how sailors seized the weather-gauge in Willis' vision, rather than the pre-ordained diagrammatic manoeuvres of armchair tacticians.
The structure of the book has been the subject of further thought in this regard and is set out to replicate the process of a fleet engagement, from first sighting and identification, through a chase, leading to resolution through battle. Along the way, the overall narrative is interspersed with chapters on the complexities of communication between ships, the structure and chain of command within fleets and the various tactics that were used in different situations. To this may also be added chapters on station-keeping and the mitigation and repair of damage. Willis' account revolves around the explanation and discussion of this wide variety of scenarios and the emphasis is firmly on giving the reader an understanding of the practical side of every situation. This is at its best when Willis' own thoughts are illuminated by historical material drawn from the pages of logbooks, diaries and official documents such a court martial accounts. In this way the reader is able to relate directly some of the realities of the subject to some of the historical material that has made it such an enduringly fascinating topic.
The book is well illustrated, with a series of well-drawn and informative diagrams to explain most of the major points of discussion. Added to this are an attractive set of maps at the start of the volume which allow the various ports, harbours, battle sites, etc., to be placed in their geographical context. An extremely useful Appendix contains a concise summary of all the major fleet engagements fought by the Royal Navy between 1688 and 1815. Some critics may feel that this section is too brief; however, its purpose is not to analyse every battle, merely to familiarize the reader with the keys facets. In this regard it succeeds well. The Appendix of fleet battles is worth dwelling on a little further as it neatly highlights the often inconclusive outcome of large-scale naval engagements during the period. While popular history likes to focus on the crushing victories, it is worth remembering that many actions were in fact indecisive; understanding the practical considerations that Willis discusses, offers some insight into why this was the case.
The Appendix is accompanied by an equally useful Glossary to ensure that the uninitiated can get fully up to speed on the language of the sea. Meanwhile, the bibliographic notes to the in-text citations are ordered by chapter as well as including a guide to the pages that they relate to. The user-friendly orderliness of the book is rounded off with a bibliography that many will find useful, as well as an index for those who wish to dip in and out of the book.
Overall, Willis succeeds in creating an informative vision of the realities of operating a large sailing warship in a fleet context during the 18th century. The book is at its strongest when Willis combines practical explanation with first-hand accounts from the officers and sailors themselves. Many readers will perhaps be surprised by the relative lack of uniformity in the way that the Royal Navy, along with its allies and opponents, conducted warfare at sea during the period. When the difficulty of effective ship-to-ship communication and station-keeping is married to the often opaque system of orders and signals, before being thrown into the mix with the vagaries of wind, wave and weather, it can seem surprising that any fleets managed to engage each other at all. The range of factors that had to be balanced before a single cannon could be fired in anger serves to emphasize what is perhaps the key point, returned to again and again; that the means to overcome almost any situation lay in the seamanship of those who crewed and commanded the vessels in question. In this regard it is easy, and exciting, to dwell on famous single incidents, such as the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759. As maritime archaeologists, we would perhaps do better simply to consider the seamanship and human effort required to coordinate several hundred men in the everyday operation of tacking a ship-of-the-line from one course to another. Willis provides a welcome opportunity to begin to appreciate such necessary seamanship from the level of the deck rather than the diagram. The explanatory clarity brought to processes and practice that are often obscure for non-sailors means that at times it seems he is stating the obvious, whereas in reality it is just the necessary, being stated obviously. The focus on such topics, coupled with the supporting information presented, ensures that this volume will become widely read by students and academics of the subject, in addition to those who are fascinated by the literary world of Hornblower or Aubrey.