Review of Noel Mostert, The Line upon a Wind: The Great War
at Sea, 1793–1815. New York: Norton, 2008. Pp. xxv, 774.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
 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).
 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.
 "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.