Magazine article The Spectator

Lost at Sea

Magazine article The Spectator

Lost at Sea

Article excerpt

THE WAR FOR ALL THE OCEANS : FROM NELSON AT THE NILE TO NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO by Roy Adkins and Lesley Adkins Little, Brown, £20, pp. 534, ISBN 0316728373 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Roy Adkins, an archaeologist, wrote a book for the Trafalgar bicentenary called Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle.

Despite the curiously pretentious title and a jumbled content, this reviewer described it in these pages as 'eclectic but engaging': Trafalgar was, after all, a straightforward battle, and the author had quoted a large number of apt first-hand accounts. In this follow-up, the authors (Adkins's wife is cowriter) have considerably spread their canvas. They have done so most perilously.

It is difficult to make oneself struggle through 500 pages which begin with 'In 1789 the monarchs and aristocracies of Europe were shocked by the Revolution in France', and then a few lines on 'This was the first worldwide war', as if the Seven Years' War had never taken place, or in the next paragraph 'It was a war won at sea'.

Nor is it any easier when the authors, in order presumably to make the book more understandable to a reader in the United States, refer not to the Royal Navy but the British Navy (US readers will be equally irritated by reference to the American rather than the US Navy).

Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the authors, although deploying their archaeological skills to some effect amid the public record, are not truly at ease with the period and their subject, especially when, for instance, they call Ferdinand IV 'King of the Two Sicilies', which was a post-Napoleonic polity, and his kingdom as 'Sicily and a wide area surrounding the city of Naples' -- an interesting way of describing the whole of southern Italy, some of it actually north of Rome.

Of Trafalgar, which chapter is headed with remarkable unoriginality by that signal, Adkins's own book is recommended (twice) as the best on the subject. Then, over a great many pages, the authors reprise Cochrane's adventures, Hoste's masterly but sideshow action at Lissa ('a struggle for control of the Adriatic'), diversions in the East Indies, a number of single-ship actions, with a nod here and there to the blockade of Europe. They reveal nothing new. Indeed, one sighs at their admirable recommendation of Professor Nicholas Rodger's The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815: 'a single scholarly volume'. Quite; a scholarly volume, and many fewer words. …

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