Review: Empire of the Deep, the Rise and Fall of the British Navy by Ben Wilson

First published: 24th January 2015 | Prof. Andrew Lambert FRHistS

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There is a good case to be made that the British Navy is the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen. In a series of conflicts that defined and developed the essence of Britishness, the Royal Navy defeated the greatest powers of every age to keep these islands secure and build a global maritime empire. Along the way, it created a lexicon of national glory: the Armada, Quiberon Bay, the Nile, ¬Trafalgar, the Battle of the Atlantic and the Falklands.

Those successes reflected the sustained commitment to excellence that helped the navy, unbeaten for more than 400 years, set a standard in seamanship, war-fighting and leadership that none has bettered. Little wonder that the British love affair with the Senior ¬Service endures. Our national hero is ¬Nelson, war god of the British state, HMS Victory the ultimate icon, and ¬Trafalgar Square the epicentre of the British world.
Not only has the navy been central to Britain’s history, but it has also shaped our culture. The astonishing richness of naval and nautical words and phrases in everyday English, from Chaucer to the present, is a sign of a sea-minded nation, and clear point of difference between English and American versions of the language. The original “square meal” was a sailor’s square wooden plate in Nelson’s day, while a “loose cannon” referred to six tons of wood and iron rampaging around the crowded gun deck of a sailing warship.

Ben Wilson is the latest in a long list of authors to examine this story, celebrating the high points, lamenting the odd disaster, and connecting the past to the present. Over the centuries the story has shifted, from Tudor ambition and Victorian ¬triumphalism, to Edwardian anxiety and the despair summed up in Paul ¬Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976). For Kennedy, bankrupt post-imperial Britain had reached the end and, like its greatest instrument, was fit only for historical dissection.
By contrast, Wilson’s compelling if less erudite account argues that both have a future. He uses the Anglo-Saxons to stress the penalties of weakness at sea, and the halting emergence of a naval destiny. Henry VIII, who made England so unpopular that he needed a standing navy, grasped the ceremonial and deterrent value of sea power. His daughter Mary lost Calais,England’s last continental possession, but Elizabeth defeated imperial Spain in 1588, giving navy and nation a single defining myth.

Across the next century, English sea power ebbed and flowed as successive rulers mastered or misunderstood the sea. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the City of London gripped the levers of command, making the navy the primary instrument for the security and expansion of the trade that made Britain great.

After this, and after Nelson and Trafalgar, the 20th century was always going to be a disappointment. At this point, Wilson’s book loses momentum, and the later chapters reflect resources skimmed but not mastered. The hard slog through two world wars lacks the insight and sparkle of earlier centuries and the Battle of the Atlantic, possibly the navy’s most important victory, is wrapped up in dubious generalities. Although occasionally “at sea” on the finer points of ships and stars, Wilson’s mastering of 1,500 years of naval history is, nevertheless, no small achievement.

For the past 50 years politicians have trimmed the service to the bone, as Britain has become part of a western consortium that relies on American naval power and faces few naval threats beyond Somali pirates. But nothing is for ever. It is high time we reconnected with the enduring centrality of the sea, rebuilt the maritime economic sector, and made the navy the core of national defence. Today the Royal Navy is tiny, currently without an aircraft carrier, and grotesquely overcommitted. The big question is whether the nation is prepared to reverse a century of continental thinking and follow the only destiny that holds out the possibility of greatness. Wilson argues that the signs are good: post-Falklands, post-Cold-War Britain has rediscovered the world, building its biggest warships (the 65,000-ton aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales) to project British influence around the global economy. “History,” he concludes, “is not finished with us.”

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