Book Review: War at Sea in the Age of Sail by Bernard Ireland

There are many books on the history of the Napoleonic Era and the naval battles fought between the British Royal Navy and its opponents. These were the days of wooden ships and iron men, after all. Anyone familiar with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series (AKA Master and Commander) will feel right at home with Bernard Ireland’s Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: War at Sea 1756 – 1815.

The book is largely focused on the development of the British Royal Navy from the mid-1700s to the early-1800s. Each chapter generally deals with a significant event, such as the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, or the Napoleonic Wars, to name a few. Additionally, each chapter flows as one continuous narrative with the text discussing the political situation, the disposition of (usually) the Royal Navy, and then transitions into the tactical maneuvers of various naval actions that took place. The text is dense and well-detailed, but I do have some issues with it.

The biggest issue I have with this book is that it seems unsure of its audience. While it is laid out as a coffee table book, the narrative is better suited for readers who already possess a decent understanding of the time period, the naval tactics, and the battles under discussion. There are some pages dedicated to explaining the fundamentals of naval tactics and ship maneuvers in this era, but the reader is quickly thrown back into the thick of the action. For example, the text will be describing a famous battle in all of its savage detail, but make only a passing comment as to what the battle is called. Only in the middle of the narrative will Ireland note that this battle was (The Glorious First of June, Camperdown, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, etc.). There are no distinct headings to let the lay reader know what specific battle is under discussion and why it was historically important.

Furthermore, while the book is richly illustrated with drawings of ships and historical paintings, there is a complete absence of maps. There are no maps depicting where in the world these battles occurred and there are no charts depicting the maneuvers of the fleets or squadrons of ships as they duked it out on the high seas. The reader is left to reference an atlas or diagrams of the individual battles from other sources. Thus, if the reader has a poor understanding of how naval ships maneuvered in this era, then they will likely be adrift in a sea of tactical jargon. It is almost as if the reader needs to already be familiar with the action under discussion as they mentally piece together the maneuvers in their head. As for me, this era of naval history is not really within my wheelhouse given that I am more familiar with naval history from World War II onward. So, I have only a passing familiarity of some of the battles and historical figures of this time period. Subsequently, I was lost for large portions of the narrative.

Ultimately, this is by no means a bad read. The text is information-heavy and the pages are very well-illustrated, but it is not a really good starting point for someone new to the topic. It requires the reader to have a good foundation in the concepts of naval warfare and an awareness of the geopolitical landscape of the time period. An understanding of the basics of sailing certainly helps, too. These will allow the reader to fully appreciate the book, but I would recommend seeking another book if the reader is starting out on the topic.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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