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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Wellington's Navy: Sea Power and the Peninsular War 1807 - 1814

Hall, Christopher D. Wellington's Navy: Sea Power and the Peninsular War 1807 1814. London: Chatham Publishing, 2004. ISBN# 1861762305 264 pages. Hardcover. $39.95

Wellington's NavyWar

The year 2005 marked the bicentennial of Trafalgar, an anniversary that has produced a flood of books on Nelson, his navy and the great sea battle itself. In the midst of all the celebrations, however, it is easy to overlook the fact that, by the time Trafalgar was fought in 1805, Britain had been at war (less an eighteen-month pause for refreshment in 1801-1803) with revolutionary or imperial France for a dozen years. Nelson's victory ended the immediate threat of a French invasion of Britain but it did not diminish Bonaparte's power on land which continued to increase. In the two years that followed, the self-proclaimed emperor of the French defeated, in turn, Austria, Prussia and Russia and by 1807 he stood at the zenith of his power.

The Corsican parvenu would have remained there for a much longer time had he not, through his ruthless ambition, that same year become involved in a protracted struggle in the Iberian peninsula -- an "ulcer" as he termed it -- against the regular and guerrilla forces of Portugal and Spain and a small but superb British army commanded by the Duke of Wellington. The land campaigns of the seven-year long Peninsular War have resulted in an outpouring of historical literature in three languages (English, Portuguese and Spanish although, for some strange reason, there are relatively very few French works) and the subject has attracted some of the more prominent military historians in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, the naval side of this war has not received as much attention and there is no comprehensive account of the Royal Navy's involvement in this important struggle.

Wellington's Navy is Christopher Hall's attempt to correct this historical oversight and, as author of the well-received British Strategy in the Napoleonic War, 1803-1815 (Manchester, 1992), a complete but cogent study of the subject, Hall possesses the professional background to do so. Starting with first principles (as one should), Hall points out that possibly no other area of Europe was more suited for the Royal Navy to assist a military land campaign than the Iberian Peninsula. Surrounded on three and a half sides by water, more than 1500 miles of coastline in all, with good deep water ports on all coasts and with navigable rivers that provided water access to the interior, Iberia was an ideal stage for the intervention by a maritime power. Most of the population of both Portugal and Spain lived on or near the coasts and, while there were some good roads between major centres, much of the land communication network was primitive in the extreme. As if all this was not advantage enough, in both countries the vicious repression of the occupying French armies -- which verged on outright genocide -- had created a deep hatred of the invader and a widespread guerrilla movement that endlessly harassed French garrisons and provided excellent intelligence. The result was that, although there were no less than 350,000 French troops in the Iberian Peninsula in 1811, they were unable to expel Wellington's much smaller force of British regulars which numbered about 45,000. Although Hall does not overstate his case and pays due attention to the land operations, it is his thesis that naval power had a profound impact on the course of those operations and, in Wellington's Navy, he proves that thesis beyond debate.

When considering the role of the Royal Navy in the Peninsular War, the most striking characteristic is the sheer variety of the tasks undertaken by that service. Beyond the more conventional roles such as convoy escort, logistical support for the allied armies, amphibious transport and assaults, and seaward interdiction, British sailors also manned riverine gunboats, siege batteries, and telegraph communication points, built bridges, landed supplies for guerrilla bands and assisted in getting the Spanish fleet back into service. Given British command of the sea, Wellington could report to London within a matter of days (good winds permitting) whereas, given guerrilla activity and the need for a large escort, it could take as much as three months for the report of a French commander to reach Paris. Just as impressive as the variety of tasks are the statistics connected with them. Between 1808 and 1814, the navy escorted 404 convoys from the British Isles to Iberian ports, a total of some 13,247 merchantman voyages and this does not count the considerable maritime traffic with North and South America, Africa and India. Not the least of the many cargoes which the navy routinely and safely escorted from Britain to the Peninsula was the specie necessary to carry on the war -- 999,000 in just one six-month period in 1811-1812.

Despite this impressive record, Wellington was not always on the best of terms with the Admiralty and constantly complained about inadequate naval support. As the author makes clear, although the Duke was a great commander on land, he never seems to have understand the fundamentals of seapower (nor, for that matter, the effect of weather on maritime operations). In early 1814, for example, Wellington stated that he only needed a minimum of naval support, and defined that minimum as being secure navigation along the entire coastline of the peninsula, regular transport of money, a weekly convoy from Lisbon, two weekly convoys from Corunna and Santander, and the maintenance of a gunboat squadron on the Adour River -- and that was all! Even though the navy successfully accomplished all these tasks the Duke continued to carp but, nonetheless, Hall's conclusion (on p. 234 of his text and the basis for his title) is entirely accurate: "It has always been Wellington's army that has attracted the plaudits for its Peninsular achievements: Wellington's navy is very bit as deserving."

Christopher Hall has made a major and important contribution to the ever-growing literature on the Peninsular War and a substantial contribution to the study of seapower in the age of the sailing navy. Wellington's Navy is a book that belongs in the library of serious students of both the military and maritime aspects of the Napoleonic wars. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Donald Graves
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2006