Sam Willis is a naval historian and when I saw his book by the title ‘The Glorious First of June’ in the Waterstones in Sunderland, I felt that I wanted to buy the book. I felt that I wanted to read the book. For what is the Glorious First of June? I knew that it had been a decisive fleet encounter in the Napoleonic Wars, with the Royal Navy led into combat under the indomitable Lord Richard Howe. I did not know much of the French dispositions or men, but I had seen a short overview of the encounter in one of Mr Mahan’s books (‘Types of Naval Officers…’) where he had portrayed Richard Howe.
Walking out of that bookstore, I was rather happy to have found such a promising title. After reading it, I am even happier for this book did not disappoint me in any way. I am generally not the biggest of fans for cultural history and social interactions, preferring a proper naval encounter to just lulling about and doing nothing useful, but what Mr Willis has done here surpassed my expectations in so many ways.
So, what do we have?
Firstly, we have an overview of the political situation in France (Jacobin Terror) and Britain (could have been better), an overview of the fleets (could have been better), and a comparative look into art. Art, one might wonder? Yes, art. It would seem that the Glorious First of June inspired a lot of naval art-related renaissance, and it would have been a pity to know that the French got their wheat and the English won their ships but to ignore that Nicholas Pocock was grounded and trained in the whiff of gunpowder that he could see from his signalling frigate in this encounter.
And it is this level of detail that makes this book so superb. There’s the small stories, the quips (‘God save the King, and Lord Howe to defend him!’ being one of my particular favourites), but there’s also the big stories. Mr Willis writes why it matters that the Glorious First of June was fought and why the people there were once greatly honoured even if Jervis and Nelson outdid Lord Howe’s own achievements at sea only a few years later.
If you’re interested in that answer, I would say it comes down to the fact that Lord Howe was the person who enabled everything after him to happen. A caring commander, yet strict in times of need, he had his party line to tow (by which I mean the Royal Navy line) just as the French Rear Admiral Louis Villaret-Joyeuse (there is naturally a pun on the name of the good French admiral in the book, brought down from the Revolutionary times) had to obey his political superiors.
One of the chapters I might appreciate most is the way the author describes the rewards that were distributed to the Royal Navy. Apparently, George III himself went out to his fleet and spoke to the officers and men, and he enjoyed the day he could spend with his victorious soldiers. And Mr Willis’ words made it come true for me — I saw the good king George amongst his men, rejoicing in the greatest naval victory his land had known in nearly a hundred years. That feeling, that euphoria, I think that I could grasp the smallest bit of what the men must have felt.
And this feeling is what the author brings to this book. It is not a dry narrative, but a story that tries to look into an event a few hundred years ago with as much clarity and strength that time can provide. And, I would say that he succeeds.