{Printer Friendly}

Martin Robson

Review of Noel Mostert, The Line upon a Wind: The Great War at Sea, 1793–1815. New York: Norton, 2008. Pp. xxv, 774. ISBN 978–0–393–06653–1.

Having read a number of positive reviews of this book before being asked to give my own opinion, I was rather looking forward to the task. Not only does it deal with my own particular subject area, namely the conflict at sea during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars; as a recent, accessible, single-volume (albeit lengthy) history, it promised much.

A good place to start any review is with the author's background and here I immediately encountered problems, for Mostert must crave anonymity. His publishers provide only cursory details: he is Canadian, lives in Tangiers, and has written two previous books.[1] A little further research reveals that he was born in South Africa, is a former defense correspondent for the Montreal Star, and was once disqualified for a Pulitzer Prize (for Supership) because of his Canadian citizenship. And that is about it.

Writing from this non-academic background, Mostert aimed to produce an engaging, mainstream book, and such The Line upon a Wind essentially is. Its main thesis is that the whole war at sea can be boiled down to "duels"--a word Mostert uses often. The initial such duel is between the first hero of the tale, Horatio Nelson, and his nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte. The second occurs after 1805 between the rising hero, the United States, and a global imperial power, Great Britain. This "duel" leitmotif gives the work a degree of focus and cohesion and, quite naturally, will appeal to his targeted general audience.

After briefly outlining this thesis, Mostert devotes a hundred-odd pages to a serviceable overview of naval warfare prior to 1793. While this might prove useful those new to the subject (or, as I suspect, coming to the history of the period from naval fiction), the subject surveyed is far too broad to be covered in any depth. Mostert concentrates on the development of naval tactics and of the line of battle alluded to in the title.

Two chapters dealing with ship construction and shipboard life lead into the body of the book--a run-of-the-mill narrative of the war at sea between 1793 and 1815, presented in bite-size, rather disjointed chapters, with little continuity and far too much jumping from subject to subject. Here Mostert builds his theory that it was Nelson, adding his own touch of genius to naval doctrine, who brought in a new form of naval warfare: close combat designed to defeat the enemy decisively. Nelson, of course, is at the center of all the action and anyone who disagrees with him or stands in his way is dealt with by Mostert in a perfunctory manner.

The metaphor of the duel between Nelson and Napoleon is somewhat forced. Certainly their stories intertwine but, in searching for a hook to hang his work upon, Mostert pushes the Great Man theory beyond credible limits. For him, things really get going in late 1793 at Toulon, where Bonaparte, the young artillery officer, and Nelson, on HMS Agamemnon, first come up against each other:

For the onlooker gazing back across two centuries what taunts the imagination is that first circumstantial bonding between two junior officers, the two captains, in that place and at that moment, the one on the heights and the other on the water below…. These two whose war it swiftly would become, upon whose genius and actions so much of fate and future would be decided, were are at the start the closest that they would ever be to one another…. Did each in his sweeping view of the scene in some occasion have fleeting, unwitting sight of the other? (111–12)

Mostert shuns other approaches due perhaps to a number of factors. He has clearly consulted theoretical works, but his chosen method has not allowed him to utilize them particularly well. We do get plenty of quotes from A.T. Mahan and Julian Corbett, but Mostert has been selective in his interpretation of their theories and histories. He tends to quote from them (and others) without analyzing what they are actually trying to tell us. Far too often, he sits back and allows the sources to provide analytical comment, especially when dealing with Nelson, whose view of events is invariably presented as "history."

There is an over reliance on selected aspects of Mahanian theory, not just for history but also with regard to Nelson himself. Mostert is not the first nor will he be the last to concentrate on Mahan's "bluewater"  aspects to the detriment of his other concepts.[2] This has, perhaps, contributed to the rigorously naval approach--a concern with fleets and warships, combat at and from the sea, and an obsession with "decisive battle." Nowhere is this more evident than in Mostert's treatment of the 1805 Trafalgar Campaign, where he places French failure squarely on Admiral Villeneuve's shoulders, even though he was only trying to implement a largely impractical plan cooked up by Napoleon: "It was Villeneuve who actually saved Britain from invasion from Boulogne when he turned south to Cadiz instead of continuing up the Channel as he was meant to do" (518). This interpretation completely misses the importance of Sir Robert Calder's role in preventing Villeneuve from entering the Channel. Although Calder's action was tactically indecisive--a "poor showing" in Mostert's words (520)--the strategic effects were decisive: without Villeneuve, Napoleon could not even have considered an invasion attempt (the debate regarding the feasibility of the invasion plan is for another time and place).

For naval forces to be effective, they must have both a purpose and strategic effects. In this regard, Mostert does not quite hit home, due to his misreading of Corbett's definition of maritime war.[3] The war at sea between 1793 and 1815 was, for Britain and the United States, a maritime war, of which naval war was only a constituent part. It is most frustrating that Mostert gives the odd glimpse of wider strategic issues but then reverts to his purely naval point of view. Of course, this poses a great problem as after 1805 there is no Nelson. Mostert fills his place with the emerging naval power of the United States, the new hero on the scene. The reader is then treated to another selective, potted history of naval operations during the War of 1812. Mostert's attempts to show the impact of seapower upon events on land do not quite work. In 1808–9, we have the Royal Navy causing havoc on the East coast of Spain during the Peninsula War in the guise of another naval hero, Thomas Cochrane. This is all fine and well, but the Royal Navy's campaign along the north coast of Spain in 1812, conducted by Commodore Sir Home Riggs Popham is ignored. Mostert has already dismissed Popham as "arrogant" and showing a " contempt for authority" (533) in dealing with his 1806 expedition to South America. This, together with his emphasis on naval action, may explain the omission of Popham's capture of the Spanish town of Santander, which allowed the Duke of Wellington to switch his logistical supply line from Lisbon to Santander. This in turn led to the advance to and victory at Vitoria (21 June 1813), which, Mostert argues, decisively motivated Austria to re-enter the war against France.

All this adds up to an unhealthy fixation on Nelson, the Royal Navy, and the US Navy, to the detriment of other actors. The French and, to a lesser degree, the Spaniards feature but not enough to provide a rounded assessment. So, in a book subtitled "The Great War at Sea," the wider maritime conflict is largely excluded from a narrative too strictly focused on naval matters. And, even within this narrow approach, the narrative is too selective. Naturally, there are several (in fact, five) chapters on Trafalgar but little examination of the earlier British expeditions to the West Indies, undertaken for economic reasons. The East Indies feature only fleetingly, as do the minor maritime powers, Turkey, the Baltic States, and Russia.

To be fair, Mostert really does shine in telling a tale. Several small chapters provide very appealing  vignettes. For example, Chapter 17 recounts the disagreement that led to Lt Camelford RN shooting dead Lt Peterson RN at English Harbour, Antigua in 1798; Chapter 52 details the near wrecking of the British sloop of war Hesper in the East Indies in December 1811.

Although such diversions will entertain the intended general audience, a number of problems seriously undermine both the credibility of the work and the reputation of popular history. We read, for instance, that "Revolutionary France had declared war on Britain and Holland" (xxii), a common misuse of the latter term, which refers to provinces within the Netherlands. It was the Dutch Republic (or even the United Provinces) that France declared war upon in February 1793. Mostert reports that the galley made its last fighting appearance at Copenhagen in 1801 (4), ignoring the later use of galley flotillas in the Baltic and Black seas (the Turks used the galley into the 1820s). Worse, he incorrectly identifies the British Foreign Secretary in 1806 as Edward Fox (the sixteenth-century propagandist and Secretary to Thomas Wolsey or the star of the 1973 film Day of the Jackal?), rather than Charles James Fox (521–24). Credit for saving the Portuguese fleet from the French in 1807 goes to British Foreign Secretary George Canning on page 528 but to Secretary of State for War Viscount Castlereagh on page 579.

Compounding such factual errors and self-contradictions, Mostert is prone to sweeping statements and simplistic generalizations. He writes that "Britain's Royal Navy was the most conservative, the most rigidly composed and severely governed naval force" (xxiv) and that "the basic [sailors'] diet was repellent and nutritionally barren" (92), but backs up neither assertion with any evidence.

The writing is disfigured by bizarre phrases such as "under-line" (101) to describe warships rated below ship-of-the-line or "wide-ranging scouting destroyers" (253) in reference to frigates. There are wordy and convoluted passages throughout, as if the text has been deliberately over complicated or too forcefully presented in a contemporary fashion. For example, we read that, for the French, Aboukir Bay (1798) was "their first experience of Nelson large. He had never before existed for them as an absolute commander of any action, least of all as a figure one might recognize as a potential determinant of the whole course of war, which he now decidedly had become" (276).

Many of these problems stem from a failure to engage with current scholarly literature. Mostert relies far too much on the Naval Chronicle and, particularly up to 1805, the published dispatches of Nelson. This is symptomatic as well of a bibliography that is rather lightweight and largely outdated. Throughout the narrative, referencing is hit or miss at best: important statements are too often unsupported by evidence and many quotations left unattributed. The author's bibliographical comments in the limited "Notes on Sources" section will not help interested readers find out more.

In summary, this is not really a work about The Great War at Sea, but a selective reworking of selected literature. Though some odd nuggets may interest the general reader, the book's underlying thesis is flawed and its narrative rife with errors. In attempting to write an accessible twenty-first-century history of seapower in the period 1793–1815, Mostert has repeated many of the mistakes of past generations to produce a piece of outdated work with limited appeal. He has succeeded only in showing us how not to go about the task.

King's College London


[1] Supership (NY: Knopf, 1974; rev. 1976) and Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (NY: Knopf, 1992).

[2] For an excellent discourse on this problem, see Geoffrey Till on "Mahan and the Bluewater Tendency" in Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century, 2nd ed. (NY: Routledge, 2009) 51-56.

[3] "By maritime strategy we mean the principles which govern a war in which the sea is a substantial factor. Naval strategy is but that part of it which determines the movements of the fleet when maritime strategy had determined what part the fleet must play in relation to the action of the land forces; for it scarcely needs saying that it is almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone"--Julian Corbett,  Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London/New York: Longmans, 1911) 15–16.