Book reviews from Steve Earles: Sea Power

‘Nelson’s Battles: The Triumph of British Seapower’

By Dr Nicholas Tracy

Published by Seaforth

A fine book, one that conveys not just the historical and technical details of Nelson’s battles but their very atmosphere. From St Vincent to Trafalgar, all Nelson’s battles are here. It’s a handsome, well-presented book, with many illustrations and maps to further explain the information within. Moreover, beyond Nelson’s victories at the Nile and Trafalgar, it also gives a great deal of background detail about the British Navy of Nelson’s day. For the enthusiast and scholar alike.

‘The Trafalgar Chronicle: New Series 1’

Edited by Peter Hore

Published by Seaforth in association with the 1805 Club

This would be a good companion to the above book. It is the journal of the splendidly named 1805 club, though to call it a journal does not do it justice. The research on the Georgian (Or Nelson’s) Navy is superb, though it touches on all the navies of that time period. Every volume is themed and this one is Anglo-American, focusing on North America and North Americans in Nelson’s Navy. I was amazed to discover that the US National anthem was composed onboard a British warship. But such revelations are all part of the appeal of this most unique and interesting journal.

‘Captain Cook’s War & Peace: The Royal Navy Years 1755-1768’

By John Robson

Published by Seaforth

It’s great when a writer comes up with a book that fills a badly needed niche. There is a plethora of literature on Captain Cook’s voyages of exploration but this is the first detailed account of Cook’s early naval career. It goes a long way to explaining how he was chosen to lead the expedition to the Pacific in 1768. As this book proves most eloquently, by that point his naval experience had made him uniquely qualified to be an explorer. The author is an expert on Captain Cook and writes with great knowledge on his subject. A most enjoyable read and a book that would form the basis for a strong documentary on this no longer neglected aspect of Cook’s life.

‘Nelson’s Victory: 250 Years of War & Peace’

By Brian Lavery

Published by Seaforth

This has to be the definitive history of HMS Victory, launched over 250 years ago at the Royal Dockyard at Chatham. It is most associated with Nelson and his victory at Trafalgar, yet the HMS Victory is as immortal as Nelson and has many tales of her own. Brian Lavery is a superb naval historian and a great storyteller, so any book he writes is a treat. Doubly so when it is a book produced in conjunction with Seaforth. The binding, printing, and beautiful illustrations make this a superb book from a visual as well as a literary point of view. Having served for more than twenty years on the advisory committee that looks after HMS Victory, Brian is very well placed to write a definitive book on this subject. Diplomacy conducted on board Victory played a crucial role in provoking Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. It’s also interesting to note that in 1914 Kaiser Wilhelm set the First World War in motion at a chest made of her timbers!

‘British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates’

By Rif Winfield

Published by Seaforth

A mammoth task that has resulted in a mammoth book. Rif Winfield has made a lifetime study of the sailing warship and is the ideal author to write this book. There is no need to write a long-winded review here. This is simply the definitive book on the subject. Kudos too to Seaforth for a beautifully designed and presented book.

‘Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail’

By Peter Kirsh

Published by Seaforth

Dr. Peter Kirsch is a fine writer, one with a great interest in naval history, which makes him the ideal fellow to write a book about this most fascinating area of naval warfare.

For many centuries warships were constructed of wood and thus, highly vulnerable to fire (indeed many ships that burned to the waterline caught fire simply to accident). Navies were quick to exploit this as Dr. Kirsch perceptively writes:

“The fireship was the mortal foe of the wooden ship, capable of causing total destruction; it could take the most impressive and powerful warship and reduce it to ashes. Furthermore, a fireship with an assault crew of ten men could cause terror among hundreds of seamen and gunners, however well-armed their ship. But fear existed on both sides, because a defensive broadside could destroy on oncoming fireship or set it on fire prematurely. In this respect it resembled the nineteenth-century torpedo-boat, or possibly the modern sea-skimming missile, both later examples of a small, cheap weapon theoretically capable of sinking the largest opponent. This made the fireship something of an equaliser when two navies were of different strengths, leading the inferior side to conceive of it as a poor man’s battleship… A fireship attack was never intended to be a fair, chivalrous cannon-against-cannon affair. An unpredictable force of nature was unleashed which could afflict friend or foe, as fortune determined. History suggests that the typical victim of the fireship was a stationary vessel, or one with severe battle-damage which had lost the ability to defend itself. In most circumstances, it was not the statistical probability of physical destruction, but the psychological impact of a fireship that made the impression. It was precisely the fear of fire which gripped people aboard a wooden ship that explained why admirals believed that fireships could be decisive. Their mere presence could cause disarray, disorder and chaos for the enemy. So the story of the fireship is also the story of the often exaggerated fear they inspired. The commanders of every fleet understood this.”

It would be hard for anyone to write a better book on fireships than this one.

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (