The Royal Navy in Nelson’s Era reading list

Professor Andrew Lambert recommends books on the Royal Navy during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815)

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The naval history of this period is much more than the life of Horatio Nelson (1758–1805). In two critical texts, available in modern paperback reprints, Sir Julian Corbett (1854–1922) shaped the subject. The Campaign of Trafalgar (Longman, 1910) examined grand strategy and operations from 1803 to the end of 1805. In a text designed to educate contemporary senior officers Corbett demonstrated how Nelson’s Mediterranean fleet formed but one element in the overall war effort.

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Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Longman, 1911) digested the British experience of war for admirals and statesmen. Corbett argued that Britain’s unique strategic history should be reflected in contemporary strategic decisions. Churchill read these books before 1914, so did Lord Fisher and David Beatty. Corbett’s ideas remain central to the strategic posture of the UK in the 21st century. The men who translated strategy into action are frequently left as little more than footnotes, their professionalism, skill and individuality suppressed by the lack of evidence.

Tom Wareham’s Frigate Commander (Leo Cooper Ltd, 2004) provides a brilliant insight into the mind of Captain Graham Moore, younger brother of General Sir John Moore. Using Moore’s uniquely introspective journals Wareham brings this educated, reflective man to life. The frigates Moore commanded were the eyes of the navy. They found enemy fleets, convoyed trade, and patrolled the broad oceans. Their development and operational use are explored with great insight in Robert Gardiner’s Frigates Of The Napoleonic Wars (Chatham Publishing, 2006).

The men who served in Nelson’s navy often did so unwillingly, and Nicholas Rogers’s The Press Gang: Naval Impressment and its Opponents in Georgian Britain (Continuum, 2008) links the wooden world afloat with the development of society ashore, overturning many assumptions along the way.

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Andrew Lambert is professor of naval history at King’s College London, and the author of Admirals (Faber, 2008)