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To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (P.S.) Paperback – Bargain Price, October 25, 2005

3.8 out of 5 stars 75 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World returns with this quite splendid history of the British Royal Navy. Probably to no one's surprise, his thesis is that the British Empire was the foundation of the modern world and the Royal Navy the foundation of that empire. By and large, he sustains that thesis in a fluent narrative that stretches from the Elizabethan Age to the Falklands War. Although definitely Anglocentric and navalist, the author has done his research on a scale that such a large topic (to say nothing of a large book) requires. The Royal Navy's discipline and food in the age of sail may not deserve quite as much rehabilitation as he gives them, but on the other hand, he is frank about the limitations of British warship design, poor Victorian gunnery and lack of preparations for antisubmarine warfare between the world wars. He also writes extremely well, whether dealing with the role of the Royal Navy in founding the British iron and steel industries (it was a major customer) or grand battles, such as Quiberon Bay (1759) or Trafalgar (1805). Good one-volume histories of one of the modern world's most vital fighting forces appear rarely; this one should rule for a while to come.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Unlike many of the great empires of the nineteenth century or those of antiquity, the British empire was not based upon contiguous territory. With their imperial possessions separated by vast oceans and large landmasses, it was essential for the British to develop and maintain a mighty navy to supply and exploit the empire's resources. Herman, who has been a professor of history and the coordinator of the Western Heritage Program at the Smithsonian, writes a stirring account of the origins and evolution of the British navy. He also presents convincing arguments that illustrate that many of the broad strategic goals pursued by the British continue to be pursued by American geopolitical strategists today. This is an exciting chronicle filled with colorful characters and enthralling adventures; some of these men, such as Francis Drake and James Cook, are already imperial icons, but Herman also relates stories and exploits of more obscure but equally compelling figures who helped establish and preserve the greatest maritime empire in history. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: P.S.
  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (November 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060534257
  • ASIN: B001CB0650
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,493,752 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves is a gallant attempt at a one-volume history of the Royal Navy and its impact on world history. Much of the narrative of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is extremely well done. He also offers such insightful observations as "It is only when we look backward that history assumes a predictable pattern. Viewed the other way around, as it is lived, it abounds in inexplicable turns and strange surprises."

It is, therefore, disappointing that such a fine book should be handicapped by numerous factual errors. Cartagena is not the capital of Venezuela. Napoleon's "crushing defeat" at Waterloo occurred on June 18, 1815 - not June 15. It is also difficult to accept the statement that the Battle of Trafalgar had all been for nothing, even "in a sense."

By the time the author reaches the twentieth century, one has the impression that he was running out of time or patience. The factual errors increase. The King George V class of battleships were not equipped with 16-inch guns to match the latest American and Japanese battleships. Unlike the Americans, the British had to proceed with the KGVs at an earlier date to address the German threat, and they given their unusual arrangement of ten 14-inch guns as a result. To be fair, the author does get the armament of this class of battleship correct later in his text. The Tribal class destroyer had a crew of between 190 and 226. The statement that Matabele was sunk with the loss of all but two of her crew of 4,000 is wildly inaccurate. The ship that assisted Duke of York in the sinking of the Scharnhorst, was the light cruiser Jamaica. This ship is incorrectly described by the author as a destroyer. Admiral Halsey did not participate actively in the Battle of Midway.
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Format: Hardcover
Impressed by the favorable reviews and interested by the sweep of the author's perspective, I bought "To Rule the Waves". Early in the book (page 54), however, I found this extraordinary sentence, "Once they (the Spanish ships) arrived off Hispaniola, the South American-bound section sailed to Cartagena (now the capital of Venezuela) to drop off goods and supplies,....". Perhaps Mr. Herman should look up an atlas and find out that the capital of Venezuela is Caracas, and Cartagena is in Colombia.

Hoping that this was simply an isolated case of sloppy writing and editing, I continued to read in the book. On page 282, I was startled by still another absurdity, "The British navy enabled Clive to beat his rival Dupleix at the battle of Plassey in 1757..". Really? How did he manage to do so, when: (i) Dupleix (the governor of the French colony at Pondicherry) had already been recalled in 1754; and, (ii) Clive fought the forces of a local Indian prince, the Nawab of Bengal (Siraj ud Daulah), at Plassey (in Bengal, nowhere near the battles in the Carnatic to which Mr. Herman refers) and there were no French troops in this battle? These are not complex questions of fact - Mr. Herman could easily refer to any standard history of India, or if he felt inclined to a bit more research, to more specialized histories of the rise of British power in India.

Apart from errors of fact, there are questions of judgment. Is it really accurate to refer to Napoleon at the relief of Toulon as a "committed terrorist"? What on earth does this mean? He had written one anti-Paoli essay,a piece of Jacobin propaganda, and met Robespierre. But he was inserted into a position in the French forces relieving Toulon by Saliceti, a "depute en mission", who knew the Bonapartes from Corsica. Perhaps Mr.
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Format: Hardcover
Many other reviewers of this book have noted the large number of proofing errors and historical errors it contains. I noticed them myself but was willing to tolerate them because the author has a breezy narrative style I found quite readable--his description of how a ship 'warps out' from a harbor turned out to be necessary, as both my wife and daughter immediately thought in terms of 'warp speed' from Star Trek. However, I suddenly ran head-first into an egregious mistake that I nearly could not believe I'd read: Page 498, "Admiral Sir Ian Hamilton took on the Dardanelles forts", etc. No. No, no no no no no NO. Sir Ian was a general who eventually ended-up commanding the land forces at the Dardanelles, although he was relieved of this command. He was never in the Navy. Vice Admiral S.H. Carden was the first naval commander of the fleet at the Dardanelles, in a string of several.

If I am assured that Herman's history is more accurate concerning the earlier chapters of British naval development, then I am forced to say that his history and understanding of the "modern" British navy, beginning with the introduction of steam and armored warships, is very weak, and that his understanding of the naval side of World War I is even weaker. For those interested in this period of history, Robert Massie's books "Dreadnought" and "Castles of Steel" are just a readable, if not more so, and far more accurate and understanding, with a wealth of political and technical background which Herman clearly does not grasp.
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