It doesn’t do people or countries any good to dwell too much on past successes or failures. I am old enough to have been taught at school about Britain’s naval successes and what I was taught was largely mythical. I think it is a good thing that schools don’t do that kind of thing any more. But as is often the case, the truth is a lot more interesting. This book reveals in a great deal of detail just how much went into creating the surprisingly brief period when Britain’s navy was able to control the oceans of the world. There was a lot to it.
For example, to build a really effective ship you needed not just plenty of oak trees, but you needed some from free standing trees that had grown straight to provide large planks. But for the the more complicated bits of woodwork you needed trees from a wood that had plenty of knots. It needed more wood than the island of Britain could provide, particularly the long straight trees that were used for the main masts. These had to be obtained from New England, Scandinavia and Russia. The establishment of the supply chain was a major operation.
Docks were also a key feature of the navy’s capabilities and had to be managed effectively. The British advantage in docks is hardly a glamorous subject, but it really was a crucial one. And the biggest single problem was recruiting the crews to man the ships and providing them with the supplies that they needed. This was an essential feature of an effective fleet and doing it well could make all the difference between success and failure.
But if the British were more attentive to these matters than their maritime rivals, it was mainly because they had to be. Britain was always short of manpower and resources and larger countries like France or Spain always had the potential to build and man more ships. It is particularly important not to underestimate the scale and professionalism of the Spanish navy. They gave a tremendously good account of themselves at Trafalgar.
The French were even better placed than the Spanish and had their moments when their fleet was a serious threat to the British. The high point of French naval power was during the American War of Independence when the intervention of the French navy proved decisive. The French Revolution seriously damaged the efficiency of the French at sea, and if there is one man who can truly claim the credit for giving the British the run of the ocean it must go to Napoleon. His grasp of naval matters was astonishingly poor and led to some amazingly bad decisions. He effectively handed victory to the British navy.
This is a splendid book full of detail and extraordinarily well researched. Rodgers has obviously spent many hours deeply engrossed in the papers of the times he is studying. This is no doubt the reason for only thing I didn’t like about it. He does have a tendency to write odd bits in eighteenth century english. It is a minor gripe, but it does jar a bit. But that aside, it really is a masterpiece of scholarship and worth reading not just for historical interest but also as a good case study in managing complex projects.