Noel Moestert's "The Line Upon a Wind: the Great War at Sea, 1793-1815" is a massive (over 700 pages of text) account of the nautical side of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (with American War of 1812 as well), extending from the first action between French and British frigates in June, 1793 all the way to the bombardment of Algiers in 1816. In between, Mostert describes in considerable detail all the numerous great battles that occurred, plus a fair smattering of the smaller actions scattered across the globe, all of this presented in a cogent manner, with well-considered analysis of how and why these events happened. He provides a brief, but informative survey of naval history of the centuries before the Great War and also relates the naval activities, which are his primary focus, to the progress of the land war and the complex diplomatic maneuvering which lay below everything.
Mostert's two great actors are Napoleon Bonaparte and Horatio Nelson, and he takes pains to explore how the personalities of both men did so much to shape events. But this does not mean that Mostert's book loses focus after Nelson's death at Trafalgar half-way through the Great War; instead, the author carries on to the end of hostilities and integrates the events of the War of 1812 into his larger story.
Mostert makes generous use of lengthy, even multi-page excerpts from first-hand accounts to make his narrative more vivid. Usually, these accounts come not from the admirals in command, but from ordinary seamen and officers caught up in events. And frequently these accounts illuminate not grand famous battles, but minor occurrences that would otherwise be overlooked. With this technique, the author not only gives life to his narrative, but also creates a more complete portrait of the war at sea and the peculiar culture of its combatants.
My only substantial criticism of the book is that it cries out for more maps. Although the battle of Trafalgar is depicted through multiple maps, such complex actions as the Nile and Copenhagen have no maps whatsoever. And readers must at least occasionally have recourse to their atlases to sort out the geographic subtleties of some of Mostert's narrative. As for the illustrations other than maps, they are not very informative and their captions contain startling errors (I suspect that the publisher rather than the author bears the blame).
on September 3, 2008
This is certainly one of the best and most complete histories of the war at sea in the Napoleonic Age. To find more detail, you'd need to go to a specialized book--such as Schom's book on Trafalgar or Dudley Pope's fine The Black Ship about the Hermione mutiny. There are books that contain some helpful maps--Line Upon the Wind has a few, but not enough, and so it would be useful for you to have at hand, say, Lambert's fine War at Sea in the Age of Sail, which has lots of beautifully drawn full-color diagrams of battles.
I don't think I've ever encountered a greater breadth of coverage for this era: I enjoy good naval histories, and I enjoy novels--particularly Dewey Lambdin's wonderful Lewrie series. But Line Upon the Wind has stories I've never read before. As an example, in Antigua in 1798 the senior captain sailed off, leaving behind two lieutenants who didn't like each other. Both felt that authority had devolved upon them (the departing captain had neglected to specify who would be in charge). One was further up the seniority list, the other was a lord. Both issued orders to the other, and the lord shot and killed the other lieutenant for mutiny (and survived a court-martial). This is small stuff, to be sure, in the sweep and grandeur of the period, and is ignored (as far as I know) in other histories. But it provides an evocative insight into the mindsets of the Royal Navy and its officers. There are many similar stories as well. So you get a superb breadth of view of the period, but you also get a lot of detail, particularly with the men and the personalities, and the combination makes a great addition to your history shelf.
For some additional reading that will supplement this book, I'd suggest:
1) Pivka's Navies of the Napoleonic Era: great technical detail.
2) Goodwin's The Ships of Trafalgar: histories, diagrams of ships.
3) Lavery's Nelson's Navy. Ships, men, organization.
4) Tunstall's Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: fighting tactics.
It's a fascinating period, and Line Upon the Wind serves it well!
The age of sail generates a unique fascination that no other naval era can match. Wooden ships and iron men, C.S. Forester Hornblower books, the Heart of Oak series show a deep abiding fascination with this era. The Hollywood image of slow moving stately ships closing, puffs of white smoke, boarding parties is ingrained.
This book is a detailed history of the building of those images and the reality behind them. This is a huge book! The 800 pages is more text than notes or index, giving a long read. The author does not spare us details either. The history of the war is embellished by personal experiences that make the names real people. The "Great War at Sea" lasted for 22 years and while not continuous, these years saw more war than peace. It was a world war long before that term is ever used. Campaigns range from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean as belligerents struggle to gain, protect or regain colonies. Each major campaign and battle is well covered. Important secondary campaigns get enough space to enable us to understand their contribution to the overall course of events. Even some minor campaigns are mentioned which allows the reader to more fully grasp the worldwide scope of the war. A young America's first effort against the Barbary Pirates and the contentious relations with England and France are an excellent example of this. When the War of 1812 breaks out, we understand the issues and the history of the two navies.
This is much more than a history of campaigns and battles! The author gives us a complete explanation of seamanship, ship construction, naval society and life aboard the ships. For all the stately grace, they were dark, fetid, damp places with bad food. The mutinies that occurred are given the coverage they deserve, as are the modifications they forced.
This is a long detailed read and not for the faint of heart. You will need a deep abiding interest in the subject to get through this book. For those that can, this is the best one volume history available. It is well worth the effort and very rewarding.
on October 6, 2010
This book deserves all the praise other reviews lavish on it. Starting with the genesis and evolution of naval warfare, before Nelson ever sets foot on his first brig we know why the ship was designed as it was, from the topsail to the keel. Questions that have lurked in the back of the mind for years (who first had the idea of cutting ports for guns below deck? The French, surprisingly) are answered. Yes, as one reviewer has mentioned we swing from the lethargy of expository detail to gripping, dramatic action--much like life must have been for the men aboard those ships. And when I say "lethargy of detail" I'm not complaining. Every detail is worth knowing--they just pass less swiftly than the chases and battles.
My reservations--and the reason why this review lacks a fifth star--stem from the author's style. Odd, even confounding, word choices, the deletion of definite articles where there should be definite articles, thus tripping up the reader many a time and oft, are all part of it. Convoluted sentences when the author, to his credit, strives to articulate sensations and emotions that are largely evanescent are another factor. But overall the fifth star is reserved because of the fluctuating perspective of the narrative.
We start with what could pass for the usual Politically Correct version of the development of Eastern and Western maritime traditions. We are treated to a rather sniffy quote from a prominent Indian historian to the effect that we should not be surprised that the aggressive use of ships for the domination of trade routes would be a Western invention. At this point I'm bracing myself for another 700-odd pages of predictable head shaking and eye-rolling. But once the real story begins, all that is forgotten. Words like "courage", "honor" and "heroism" are used without a blush. Several times the author explores the phenomenon of human courage and comes up with answers that are illuminating. He even goes so far as to admit that we moderns can find the examples of raw courage with which this era abound "intimidating". He's right, we can.
But always there lurked at the back of my mind the first few chapters wherein Western aggression was so dramatically contrasted with Eastern pacifism. Granted, by the time the two fleets are closing off Cape Trafalgar we are a long way from those early pages, but the disconnect remained with me throughout.
Finally, the ending seems enigmatic and unsatisfying. After, as the Walrus said, taking us out so far and making us trot so quick, we should find more at the end of all our travels than a rather pedestrian observation about how the author feels (and presumable we, too, would feel) on a visit to St. Helena. Yes, the brooding presence of the exiled emperor pervades the place and one gets a sense of all the history that passed there. (Wouldn't a more apt description be the history that was reviewed by the man who made it happen?) But the same is true of a visit to Gettysburg or Monticello.
Wouldn't a more apt ending be the observation--especially in a book that set up the dynamic from the start--that the final end of Napoleon, the master of Land, was to be imprisoned by the element that ultimately frustrated all his grand designs, Sea?
on September 21, 2009
It never ceases to surprise me how many books about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars are written. It seems as though very little time goes by without another book being published. Happily, most are very good, and the reader is seldom let down.
"The Line Upon a Wind" is yet another good addition to the books about the Royal Navy and the wars with Napoleon. The writing is very good, and some of the chapters dealing with life in the Royal Navy are particularly fascinating. The book is a good source of information for those who want to teach about life at sea during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
The most fascinating part of the book for me was the chapter dealing with the decision of the Admirality to have their ships sail in, and remain in, a line----thinking this was the best way to fight, and win, a battle.
Admirals dared not break the line, and because of it, several golden opportunities were lost. Eventually, various commanders began to break the line anyway, and
the mistaken notion began to fade. Nelson, of course, won the Battle of Trafalgar by breaking the line, and breaking the French and Spanish line.
This reminded me of the the book "The Eleven Days of Christmas," about the "Christmas bombing" of Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
The SAC commanders forced their pilots to remain in a straight line as they dropped their bombs, and then forced them to break away from the line in the same
turn. This made the bombers vulnerable to the missiles fired by the North Vietnamese. But the orders remained in place, and the bombers were vulnerable.
Dogmatic thinking led to losses that should not have happened. Dates and weapons change, but wooden-headed thinking does not. SAC needed a flying Nelson.
Nelson and Napoleon are, of course, the main figures in "Line Upon a Wind." Their duel was fougnt at a distance, but the fate of Napoleon was, in many ways, in the hands of Nelson and the Royal Navy. The ability of the Royal Navy to blockade, and, when possible, defeat the French in battle was a major problem for Napoleon to deal with. In fact, he never could do it
There is not a great deal of new material in the book, but the material there is very good, and written in an admirable way. More maps would have helped, and if you have the basic books on the period, the illustrations seem old. That, of course, cannot be helped.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject.
on April 3, 2015
Excellent overall. Mostert deals mainly with naval conflicts during the Great War, but of course that cannot be done properly without discussing the military campaigns happening on land at the same time, which he does adequately. I bought this book hoping to learn about Admiral Nelson, and Mostert provides a vivid picture of the man which includes excerpts from his correspondence. In fact, the book is full of pieces from writings of the time, including accounts by common seamen. One also gets to know what Napoleon was up to on land at this time, and I learned enough about the Emperor to glimpse his depth and genius as well as his driving mania. If you are fascinated by the "nuts and bolts" of wooden ships, buy this book. (My copy, by the way, had two identical sets of photo pages, which bothers me, so yours might too.) My final comments is that Mostert leaves out articles and is really stingy with commas, which can be forgiven. I guess Mostert is British.
This is a very detailed history of the Napoleonic Wars at sea. The book starts with a brief history of Naval warfare from the ancient galley's through the beginning of ship based ordinance to the state of the art in the late eighteenth century.
It then proceeds to discuss each of the wars of the French revolution from the perspective of British naval power and its influence on the outcome of the war. As might be expected the lion's share of the book addresses British naval operations in the Mediterranean, in fact, roughly 500 of the book's 750 pages are spent on Trafalger and the events preceding it. The last third of the book, covers the final 10 years on Naval conflict as well as a fairly detailed description of the Anglo-American War of 1812.
The book is an excellent combination of overview and detail, and exactly what I was looking for in a one volume history of Naval operations in this period.
on April 16, 2016
While I found this to be a very comprehensive work and an enjoyable (but very long read), I had trouble with the many errors and omissions I found in this book. Examples are: dates are wrong, the Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was not in command of the British forces in Portugal when the Convention of Cintra was signed (he was third in command), mention was made of the 102 gun ship that the British were building on Lake Ontario at the end of the War of 1812 but the 130 gun ship the Americans were constructing was mentioned, the President of the United States can't ratify treaties (as the author claims) only the Senate can, Alfred Thayer Mahan was not a university lecturer, he was an instructor and later head of the U. S, Naval War college and the Japanese battleship Yamato was sunk during the battle for Okinawa not off the coast of Guadalcanal. There are a couple of extraneous chapters thrown in which don't really fit in with a history of the naval strategy and actions of the Napoleonic Wars. His chapter on homosexuality in the Royal Navy, for example, just sits there with no connection to the rest of the book. He doesn't link it to how it might of effected crew morale and performance, he just gives a few examples and moves on.
on February 7, 2015
Noel Mostert has tackled the daunting task of covering the entire course of the story at sea during the French Revolution and the age of Napoleon—a nearly 25 year period of commerce, privateering, and war on the oceans. It is an epic story and Mostert provides an appropriately matched epic narrative. He devotes more than 700 pages to the topic, and yet still only scratches the surface. Overall, it is an excellent book that provides an adequate overview of the most intense and destructive conflict on the sea during the “Age of Sail.” It falls short of five stars because of its overwhelming focus on Britain (rather than a more balanced narrative) and because of its frequent “patchwork” storytelling—jumping from one story to another without enough overview, context, and focus.
Mostert starts the story with several chapters covering the role of the ocean in the development in civilization and the accompanying rise of commerce and navies. This background and overview leading up to what Mostert calls the “Great War” (not World War I but the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars) is excellent and informative. The second part of the book begins the narrative of the Great War up to the pivotal Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The third and final part takes the Great War to its conclusion with Napoleon’s final defeat (and also extensively covers the American-British War of 1812).
The book is heavily focused on the British story to the exclusion of most other nations. Mostert provides adequate overviews of the general political situations throughout the conflict, but nearly all of his protagonists are British and most of the events he covers are written with a clear British perspective. To be clear, Mostert is not making a political statement about who was “right and wrong” in this conflict. But it leaves the reader wanting to know more about the French and Spanish sailors and about the perspectives of these nations’ naval and commercial leaders. We never really get that perspective in the book.
For the first half of the work, we mostly follow none other than Horatio Nelson. Nelson’s personal story is interwoven and often the centerpiece of the larger narrative of events. This is hardly surprising given Nelson’s heroic historical stature and the enormous volume of sources focused on him. And Mostert does an excellent job of making the story of Nelson novel-like in its flow, providing plenty of page-turning interest in the reader. But after Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, the book really does feel like it has lost its hero, and it never really recovers the same exciting edge. Its centerpiece gone, the second half of the book is mostly a patchwork history of various characters and events. The coverage is mostly chronological, but without the core storytelling mechanism of Nelson, it does not feel as fluid. Though Nelson is a controversial and exciting character, too little is detailed of his opponents and their stories, primarily the French naval leaders Villeneuve, Brueys, and Bruix (Villeneuve gets the most coverage because of his notoriety and suspicious death, but not nearly enough to balance the perspectives in the book). As it stands, Mostert’s central French character is Napoleon himself. Again understandable, but in a book with a scope as specific and yet epic as this one (the conflict at sea), should we not expect more focus on some less-familiar characters from both sides of the conflict?
Mostert is a journalist and not an historian, and if you care about that sort of thing you may not like aspects of the book. Where Mostert truly shines as an author is in storytelling. His most brilliant chapters are the ones that focus on an exciting story or battle, and he narrates with flair and enthusiasm. But the overarching nature of the narrative is superficiality, with little of the depth or analysis that one may expect from an historian/academic writing a book of this nature.
The entirety of the book is generally chronological, with occasional tangential chapters covering in detail an event or character. But the book has major gaps in its strategic overview at critical stages. For example, after Trafalgar in 1805, there is almost nothing on the naval conflict between France and Britain until 1808. Yes, the French Toulon fleet was destroyed, but the French navy was doing something during that time, even if it was training within its fortified harbors. Mostert covers a few frigate battles in his book, but there could have been much more devoted to these smaller conflicts, which he reports were continuous throughout the war. Generally speaking the book needs more “strategic interludes”—points or chapters where Mostert pulls us back to the 30,000 foot view and takes stock of the state of the oceanic world. Another item that is missing is more frequent reporting on naval and commercial metrics—how many ships did the belligerents have at various points in the conflict and how much commercial shipping was taking place, etc. These metrics would have helped to provide crucial context and detail for understanding the dispositions and decision making of the political leaders.
The book is generally easy to read and has short chapters that provide the reader with plenty of natural stopping/bookmarking places. Frequently interrupted or busy readers may find this to be a major plus. There are some editing blunders that are distracting—I specifically remember one glaringly wrong date. Still, except for the previously described patchiness in some of the narrative, the book was easy to follow and fun to read.
I would recommend this book for anyone interested in a broad analysis of the war at sea during the French Revolution and Napoleonic eras. I believe it will primarily appeal to readers who have some background on the time period but lacking in significant knowledge of the commercial and naval struggle at sea.
on March 21, 2014
My oldest son (12) is into ships and Lord Nelson so this huge book is his favorite right now. Because he was lugging this and several others back and forth to school, I got him the kindle version of this book.