Book Review: In Nelson's Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars


by James Davey

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. Pp. xxii, 418. Illus., maps, appends., gloss., chron., notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 030020065X

A Comprehensive Look at the Royal Navy’s War Against Napoleon

Davey, author of The Transformation of British Sea Power, gives us a comprehensive account of operations of the Royal Navy from the start of the war against Napoleonic France in 1803 through the final fall of Napoleon in 1816. Davey opens by pointing out that most books on the subject tend to skim over events after the Battle of Trafalgar (October 21, 1805), implying that the war at sea had ended with Nelson’s great victory. In this work he demonstrates how untrue that belief is.

Davey opens with a chapter reviewing the state of the Royal Navy in 1803 and preparations for war. He follows this with one on the maritime defense of Britain in the face of Napoleon’s threatened invasion and another on the blockade of France and preparing for a decisive clash. Only then does he address directly the campaign of Trafalgar, and that in a single chapter. The remaining two-thirds of the book are devoted to events after Trafalgar.

In the decade following Trafalgar, while Napoleon strove, with surprising success, to rebuild a substantial fleet (albeit one very poorly manned, the Royal Navy was quite busy not only in European waters, but also in the Indian Ocean, the Americas, even Southern Africa waters and the Pacific, sweeping up the colonies of France and her allies, covering British operations against the United States, and winning number of small battles now largely forgotten. While there were no famous victories, there was the work of keeping the sea lanes free of French, and for a time American, commerce raiders, bottling up the new French fleet in its ports, blockading French commerce, protecting the supply lines to the armies in the Peninsula and elsewhere, and more. In addition to maritime operations, Davey also gives us a look at the organizational and industrial side of the naval war, an oft neglected subject, as well as the problem of crewing the fleet, naval prisoners of war, army-navy cooperation, and more.

In Nelson’s Wake is a valuable read for anyone interested in naval warfare under sail, and, of course, the Napoleonic Wars.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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