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The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British and French Navies, 1650-1815

Reviewed by Jurgen Duewel

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The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British and French Navies, 1650-1815
by Jonathan R. Dull
Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2009
250 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-8032-1930-4

Reviewed by Jurgen Duewel

Jonathan R. Dull is the retired senior associate editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin series. His award-winning histories include, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787, and The French Navy and the Seven Years' War.

In this book, the author looks at the period between 1650 and 1815, which he defines as the age of the ship of the line and which is dominated by the great rivalry between Britain and France. The author approaches his study of this period by treating the two navies in tandem. Although Spain and the Netherlands were important powers during this time, both would soon be in decline, and the author does not spend much time on their contributions to the period, other than their role as allies of the two major belligerents. Dull confesses to not having the greatest knowledge in nautical matters – a rather curious confession, considering the title of the book and his previous works, but one that appears to be accurate. The student expecting to learn new details of the great ships of this period, such as construction, armament, and crews will be disappointed.  The book, in less than 200 pages, attempts to cover a significant period of history, and, therefore, it tends to concentrate upon the diplomacy of the times and the ambitions of the monarchs, rather then on the ships that grace Dull's title. In portraying the political climate of the time, Dull is reasonably successful. He does a good job of articulating the major differences between French and British strategy. France, under Louis XIV and his successors, was and continued to be the greatest land power in Europe until the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. For France, its navy was always a secondary priority, with the brief exception that occurred during the American Revolution, where a combination of skilled naval leaders, sufficient ships, and British distraction allowed the French to achieve some limited success against their long-time rivals.

Britain had a much different view of naval matters. As an island nation, its army was small, and, as Dull points out, the British found it more advantageous to hire mercenaries or to pay its allies to fight land wars. The British navy, however, was the first line of defence for the nation, and naval battles that did not provide an overwhelming victory were considered defeats – in contrast to the French, wherein ‘draws’ against the British were considered victories. This could not have been made clearer than the court martial and subsequent execution of the unfortunate Admiral John Byng, who was made the scapegoat for the failure to destroy the French fleet at Minorca in 1756. This action by the admiralty; "pour encourager les autres," would have a profound effect upon how future British admirals would conduct themselves in battle over the next 200 years.

Dull's thesis proposed that the nation that had the most ships, or could bring the most firepower to bear, was generally the winner of most sea battles. He does not give as much credit for leadership, strategy, and tactics as some would probably expect. This may be disappointing to fans of Nelson and Collingwood, but Dull makes a good point. Unfortunately perhaps for her rivals, most of the time the British were able to put more ships and firepower to sea than their enemies, and, even when outnumbered, Britain’s sailors, with their superior seamanship and training, proved to be the deciding factor in victory. It was only during the American War of Independence that the British would suffer defeat, both on land and at sea. As Dull correctly points out, it was at this time that the British were meeting a French navy that was well led under Admirals Suffren and Comte de Grasse, with 70 ships of the line, allied with the Spanish, who provided 54 ships, and the Dutch who added 14 ships in opposition to the 94 British ships under Graves. The British navy of the period also suffered from "imperial overreach."  For example, while the British were attempting to subdue the Americans, they were also defending Canada, protecting their Caribbean trade and their homeland from invasion, and, unlike the situation in the First World War, Britain had no allies that she could count upon to safeguard her Empire while she was otherwise engaged. However, once the American war was resolved, it did not take the British long to regain their supremacy over the French navy, which quickly fell into decline as the French ran out of money, and, shortly thereafter, became involved in their own revolution.

Dull describes the Napoleonic era as the ‘final curtain call’ for the French navy. Although the British navy enjoyed its greatest victories and celebrated its greatest naval heroes, it was fighting a French Navy that was already in serious decline, with ships only partially manned, and her Spanish ally, also in its final throes as a major power. Dull argues that the British navy's greatest contribution to the Napoleonic War was its ability to keep its trade routes open and its ability to support Wellington in his campaigns of harassing Napoleon on the Iberian peninsula. What is often forgotten is that after Trafalgar, Napoleon would still continue to rule much of Europe for 10 more years.

Nevertheless, Britannia would rule the waves unchallenged for another 100 years, before another power would attempt to push her from Neptune's throne.

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Lieutenant-Commander Jurgen Duewel is a Maritime Surface Officer, on staff at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, responsible for Officer Professional Development Period 3. He has a Master's Degree in War Studies from RMC and is currently working on a doctorate in Educational Leadership.

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