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The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British and French Navies, 1650-1815 - Surely this has been done before?

Updated on April 21, 2019

It is a book with what appears as an exciting title, "The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British and French Navies 1650-1815", at least for myself, since I find naval affairs of the era to be quite fascinating. having read some thoroughly excellent papers upon the nature of the French navy during the period as well as some highly detailed and good, if perhaps outdated works, dealing with the British navy, I had anticipated something of a similar caliber with this work by Jonathan R. Dull. Unfortunately, appearances would prove to be deceiving....

For Dull's book is about the french and British navies, over this wide spanning course of history, but approaches the matter with a great generalism, focusing on just the broad strategic elements between the two nations, complimented by a few poor maps that serve to provide for the exposition of a few tactical battles. There is very little which serves to illustrate the broader nature of the navies, such as their building, the organization is covered only minimally, the training, how the ships were designed, limited amounts about how the ships fought, about naval strategies and naval thought, social dynamics, internal debates and conflict within the navy, etc.

Instead the book is devoted to covering the wars between France and Britain, and generally with nothing at all about the activities of the navies between the wars, and during the wars only covering the major fleet actions and certain events - and even there in rather scarce detail. To be sure, it does have to be mentioned that this was of course, the principal objectives of the navy - but it is such a limited and narrow subject that writing a book so recently just as a general overview of it seems absurd. Ultimately, when one is purchasing this book, one is not purchasing a book about the ship of the line, nor about even the British and French navies - one is just purchasing a general overview of their combat in their wars, with some limited additional background material. Listing the numbers of sailors available and the number of ships available is somewhat useful, but for a book upon such a well trod field of historical research, I would expect far more, such as much more ambitious usage of tables and significant usage of statistics. Instead it is flat, unambitious, and narrow. Furthermore, if it was aiming to popularize such a topic, it should include more things such as pictures and depictions - instead it is rather dry and boring, its main redeeming feature being that it is so short.

The author I believe, would have been much better served if he had attempted to transform this book into an understanding of the respective policies and financial efforts available to both France and Britain in this era, for this is where his real interest begins to shine through, with the limitations imposed upon the navies by the respective two sides' economies. Perhaps married with a diplomatic perspective, where he is very interested and looks fondly upon the days of the Franco-British alliance in the early part of the 18th century, and makes note of the mutual interest of France and Britain in responding to third party, upstart states, like Russia, that threatened to undermine a system where they were broadly, after the death of Louis XIV at least, happy with the existing order. Trying to paint this as a naval history is unconvincing.

In the end, The Age of the Ship of the Line makes for a decent overall summary of the wars between Britain and France, concentrated of course on a naval domain. But this is a subject which has been, I am quite sure, done to death, and to repeat it again is just to beat a dead horse. The only real advantage this book has is that it is short, simple, and can serve as a decent overall reference book. Compared to the disadvantages, mainly that the broad outlines of the information are already known, that the book is a decent summary does little to help it. If one does want something that is a short, and largely superficial introduction to the British and French navies in the period, which does at least enmesh them into the broader strategic picture, especially the monetary and diplomatic one, of the respective sides, then this book is suitable - but it is so lacking in depth and limited that for anybody beyond just those who want an initial look at this period of history, it is a grave disappointment.

2 stars for The Age of the Ship of the Line

© 2019 Ryan Thomas


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