The War for All the Oceans by Roy Adkins and Lesley Adkins is a wonderful general history of the naval battles during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. The book covers these wars in a relatively compact 480 pages.
Publishers Weekly sums up the book quite succinctly:
…Contending that the wars were won at sea, the authors trace the nautical action from the Battle of the Nile (1798), where a British fleet destroyed the French fleet and stranded Napoleon’s army in Egypt, to the decisive Battle of Trafalgar (1805), where the British overwhelmed a combined French and Spanish fleet supporting an invasion of Britain. The narrative concludes with an account of the protracted war of attrition that followed Trafalgar and ended with Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. This low-grade conflictâ€”coastal blockades and shipping raidsâ€”caught neutral nations like the United States in the middle and ultimately led the Americans to declare war on England in 1812â€”a conflict that was never more than a sideshow for the British. This rollicking saga ranges from the Mediterranean to the Indies, East and West, and ends with Britain in control of the world’s sea lanesâ€”the foundation for her future empire. Meticulously researchedâ€”drawing on extensive and intimate eyewitness accounts from contemporary journals, letters and memoirsâ€”this lively narrative will delight students and fans of nautical history.
I think of myself as a fairly balanced person when it comes to military history â€“ meaning I look objectively at all of the armed forces with an equal eye. So, when the authors contend that the British won the Napoleonic Wars on the oceans, I am somewhat skeptical. However, after reading this book, I have to agree for the most part. As mentioned above, the major naval battles covered during the time period (1798 to 1815) did thwart many of Napoleon’s land expansions (obviously the Russian and Spanish campaigns excepted). The British naval blockade economically strangled and isolated France from the rest of the world â€“ most importantly from its colonies and the United States. This takes nothing away from what the British, and their allies, did on land.
The authors contend, rightly so, that this was the first world war. Battles took place virtually all over the world. The British took on the Dutch and French in their respective colonies â€“ most times the British ended up the victors. The authors touch on all of the battles â€“ some more than others. For example, I enjoyed reading about the British attempt to take the Spanish colonies on the Plate River. The expedition was an abysmal failure and an example of poor planning and arrogance.
I find it interesting the different emphases that the authors put on various events that occurred during the war. They write extensively about Napoleon’s attempts to take Egypt and a passage to India. The descriptions of this campaign are superb. On the other hand, they barely spend any time on the Battle of Trafalgar (maybe they chose not to because so much ink has been spilled on this battle already). I take from these different emphases that the authors were trying to highlight events that not many people have read much about â€“ the Plate River and the Java campaigns for example â€“ and the battles that they felt were pivotal to Britain’s ultimate victory.
I like how the authors melded the personal accounts of individuals into the text. There is a good balance between the direct quotes and the narrative text. It is easy for an author to get carried away with these direct quotes to the detriment of the flow of the text, but the Adkinses avoid this pitfall. You get a feel for what the participants went through without all of the unnecessary details.
Although the War of 1812 was a side war for the most part for the British and it ultimately proved nothing, the authors do bring forth some good points. For example, the Americans surprised the British in their naval prowess â€“ this is proven early in the war when the Americans took two British ships (although the one was a bit of an unequal fight). The American naval skills in sailing and cannon firing impressed the British.
One mystery I have with the book is why the authors choose to only concentrate on the British naval battles between 1798 and 1815 rather than starting the book a little earlier to include the naval battles of the Glorious First of June and Cape St. Vincent. Maybe the authors thought that this would expand the book too much.
I think that this is an excellent look at the naval battles during the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of 1812.