Review: Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC

Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC
Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC by Nic Fields
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While I find this a good introduction to Athenian ships, I find the book does a less good work on actually fulfilling its promise on discussing “Greek” ships. Overall, the ships’ military performance is not very well assessed with Corinth and Corcyra not mentioned except in a few short paragraphs. However, speaking historiographically, some other conclusions Mr Fields made sound more like conjecture than actual science, and I feel that quite a few other books are a better look at Athenian triremes (which is invariably the city and ship this book focusses on) and at least do not pretend to deal with other topics.

I will briefly mention the other topics: Mr Fields describes “positive buoyancy” as the main reason why triremes have not come through the ages, while it has always been my understanding that the salinity of the Mediterranean along with the biological organisms there (vis-a-vis the low salinity Baltic Sea and the oxygen-deprived Black Sea, for example) are the main reason why wooden ships in the area have not been well preserved (in general).

Secondly, Mr Fields also makes it sound as if the trireme was the cause for the Athenian defeat in the Syracusan Expedition, and that is not quite how I would read Thucydides (who admittedly is not the most unbiased author). There are some other similar claims made about other battles along with not mentioning some of the most famous Themistoclean statements on triremes which one should consider a mainstay of any book on Athenian navies. Also, I find Mr Fields’ incapability to not refer to Athens as an “empire” quite poor, especially where in a book of this length accuracy of statements should be paramount (hence, “Athens and Her Allies”…).

Lastly, Mr Fields says that “control of the seas in the modern sense was impossible for a trireme navy”. This could be the beginning of a discussion longer than any worthy of this post here, but in short, I think he is wrong. I think that conceptually war had a different purpose in that time and age, and no one even thought of a “control of the seas” à la Mahan.

The illustrations, however, are superb as ever.

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Seating Arrangements on Trieres

I read an interesting article earlier today (found here) on how our probable conclusions for triremes have been wrong. I found the article firstly very enlightening and secondly very interesting as well: there’s the question of what a triere actually looked like, but this coexists with our wish to impose our own thoughts on the ancient concept.

So, the suggestion goes: men were three abreast in total, outside rows rowing either side and the centre row rowing both sides. It is an interesting idea, and sounds like a reasonable compromise between available manpower and the strength of a single ship (although how can we guess what Athenians thought reasonable?).

Now, one has to note that the idea of the oars all being on one level (or, sometimes on two) with men in three rows is one of relative simplicity, especially when considering the alternatives that are considered in the same topic (three separate levels of oars). What follows from simplicity is that it would also have been the easiest way to train the men to be in rhythm, and without rowing in rhythm much of the energy would have been wasted. Simplicity really has to be the key for things to succeed in building a fine ship.

And that is one of the reasons for which I quite like this new theory.

Opinion: On the Prevalence of Nelson

Nelson. He always comes up as the first name, and I don’t think he should. Now, let me say that I am a great admirer of Nelson for the victories he won and for the mindset he carried on (of decisive close combat). ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates’ is a definitive example of a brilliant mind that adapted to situations in a quick and comprehensive manner. Victories at the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar are similarly choreographed — any naval lord would have been happy to win them. But it was not anyone who did — it was Horatio Nelson.

And yet that should not blind us to the fact that there were tens of men of similar capacity and capability in the Royal Navy. To name a few Edward Hawke, Richard Howe, John Jervis, George Rodney, James Saurmarez, and Edward Pellew deserve to be ranked in the highest echelons of the serving officers in the late 18th century (and early 19th). If two names were to be picked from the above, then Nelson should be placed in context alongside Richard Howe and John Jervis. Theirs were, after all, the previous victories for Great Britain. Nelson’s victories may have been ‘greater’, but it should also be kept in mind that the Glorious First of June was the greatest victory in nearly a century. Cape St Vincent outdid that in a matter of years. The Nile followed after, and Trafalgar only after that. It was a succession of victories.

It is indeed the type of men that Horatio Nelson served with that allowed his personality to grow into the fighter he became. Thereby, the laurels he won also reflect on the men he served with, and that — if nothing else — is the reason why we should keep those names in mind.

The other angle that the subject is worth looking at is knowing general history. It might be argued that it is best if we know some basics and that Nelson is part of these basics. Though in theory it would be worth agreeing with such an argument, I could also liken it to saying that it is enough to know the Sun exists alongside the Earth. A comparison too extreme? Perhaps. My point is that all knowledge is worthwhile, and to pretend in our daily discourse (which does ever so often touch upon the history of Britain where two names crop up — Nelson and Wellington: and I disagree with both, but the story of Wellington I shall leave for a different time) that they were there alone, giants of men, commanders of legions, is wrong.

Nelson and his achievements are a follow-on to the morale of the sailors from the increased rations & salaries agreed to by Lord Howe, and the victories won in the beginning of the war. Every step builds upon the previous, and we should strain ourselves to realise that it was only a man who died in 1805. He was an admiral and, indeed, a very fine admiral, but his work was carried on as successfully by his colleagues who continued to sail the oceans.

The next time one thinks of Nelson, let that thought be supported by the campaigns and blockades of France enforced by John Jervis, or the Indian Ocean campaigns won by Edward Pellew, or something else entirely. Let us think in systems, for our histories are the product of systems. Nelson is a thought, a single solitary thought. The Royal Navy fighting for twenty years against the French and Spanish is a system. Nelson is a branch in that system, one of many branches. The laurels might well rest on some of the other ones every now and then, for the other heads also deserve them.

‘The Glorious First of June’, S. Willis

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.

‘Captain Vancouver’, E.C. Coleman

I quite enjoyed this short overview on Captain George Vancouver. My main problem with this might be that it is a very short book, although then again it does seem to cover the important parts of Mr Vancouver’s career.

So, who was George Vancouver?

Apparently, he was one of the explorers of the North West Pacific, following in the trails of James Cook and the Spanish who had been there before him and with him. I found a passage detailing the differences of the Spanish and English explorers especially revealing — that say a notable Spaniard would not make it a problem to name an island after himself but a British chap might not think it the most prudent course to follow.

The back-story to places such as Vancouver Island might be the best that is to be taken out of this book. I won’t remember all of it nor even the majority, but the few pieces that I will may be both interesting and useful. I can almost see myself wandering around the NW Pacific at one point and seeing an island, and my mind can realise: “I know the story of the naming of this island…”

To share one of those stories with any of the readers I have here, think of a moment in those straits. Huge trees swinging in the wind. A few ships off the coast. A Spanish explorer and commander by the name of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra insists that his English guest, explorer and naval officer, George Vancouver, name something after himself. Mr Vancouver does not feel entirely comfortable with this but acquiesces and names the island ‘Quadra and Vancouver Island’. And less than a century after that, “Quadra” has disappeared from the name and we’re left with Vancouver Island. But how often do we remember that Vancouver did not mean the name to glorify just himself?..

So, that’s the type of book this is — there is a fair bit of what our explorer did in the Northwest, and there is also a fair bit of what his trusted lieutenants did. The stories of fighting and evading fighting with the natives while exploring every hole that could be seen was a daunting task, and I think that Mr Coleman has tried to do his best in portraying that.

It is a sad part of this story that the dues that came to many of the people on Vancouver’s expeditions were probably less than what they deserved, but unfortunately that has often been the case with great men who accumulated political enemies during their trips — and these rivalries do come into this book with the author taking some time to explain the intricacies of late 18th century London.

However, the question that had been foremost in my mind, “Why is one of the prominent cities of B.C. named ‘Vancouver’?” was answered. I now know who Vancouver was, and I wonder what he would think of the city that goes by his name.

Quoting sir John Jervis

“There are eight sail of the line, Sir John”
“Very well, sir”
“There are twenty sail of the line, Sir John”
“Very well, sir”
“There are twenty five sail of the line, Sir John”
“Very well, sir”
“There are twenty seven sail of the line, Sir John”
“Enough, sir, no more of that; the die is cast, and if there are fifty sail I will go through them.”

The famed words before the Admiral led his troops into the Battle at Cape St Vincent, I so admire the sentiment present here. What sir John knew was that battle was necessary — and he was not afraid to join battle with a superior force due to his belief in the capabilities of his men and ships.

Every time I read these words, the emphasis falls on the numbers: “eight”, “twenty”, “twenty five”, “twenty seven”. I am quite confident the original was not like that, but I like my version somewhat more: if only for the reason that it allows me to conjure up a part where these numbers were more impressive than they might have actually seemed. And the Admiral would act in the same manner no matter what.

And can we imagine our own chief saying that he believes in success no matter the odds? What a wonderful boost to morale!

‘Naval Warfare’, J. Thursfield

I thought of writing about dreams, about illusions, of people, possibly about anger/disappointment. Those are, briefly, what I’ve thought about in the last few days. There was also the possibility of perfection. But then I remembered, I finished sir James Thursfield’s ‘Naval Warfare’ earlier today, and that kind of told me that I’ll speak of that book.

Firstly, I feel it important to say that despite being written in the beginning of the previous century, Thursfield manages to convey the fact that most of it that he writes there may well be outdated in a short amount of time but that he will not devolve into speculation — even though the claims he makes (mostly on the differentiation of ships, and how different types will evolve) are well reasoned and logical.

Well reasoned. That is the pair of words that can best describe the book — nearly everything that the naval historian mentions is supported by a daunting amount of logical reasoning which might just make the book a horrific read but somehow it survives this. Truth be said, I nearly did fall asleep while reading it, but that was more a fault of mine than the book’s for I was tired indeed at that specific moment.

Thursfield begins the book by explaining why it is worth to explain naval warfare to the average reader, a quote which I will very happily repost for anyone:

In these days when national policy is at the mercy of the ballot-box, it is not too much to say that a right understanding of the principles of maritime warfare is almost as desirable amongst civilians as amongst professional sailors.

This, in more than one way, captures the soul and spirit of the work — much of it explains what a certain aspect of naval warfare is meant for and how is it used, bringing about quotes by both Alfred Thayer Mahan and other notable admirals (all the rest British though) with examples of the theory at use from mostly Nelson and Togo and a mention of Torrington (of whom I had previously not heard). Likewise, as with the concentration of naval personae being mostly British so also are most of the theoretical situations that are described — which is understandable and does not detract from the value of the book.

To add to the previous explaining bit, what Thursfield does is that he takes the common (and usually misunderstood) claim of what a naval term is meant to mean, and rebuilds it with what it really is. This is true for both the necessary phrases “fleet in being” and “command of the sea” the latter of which he also uses to display a MP being rather not aware of the realities of warfare. This professionalism might well be said to be overly present (as he himself acknowledges in the epilogue) but I would say that he does what he promised to do.

I have therefore lost no opportunity of insisting on them, knowing full well  that it is only by frequent iteration that sound ideas can be implanted in minds not attuned to their reception.

The topics that he covers are rather straightforward: we are introduced to the concept of the command of the sea, then how naval warfare works (all carefully proven with both logic and examples), after which the special occasions of invasions are considered alongside maritime commerce as well as the future of naval warfare in a brief setting.

I will quote another passage which relates directly to the matter at hand:

It is unbecoming to assume that in the crisis of his country’s fate an admiral will act either as a fool or as a poltroon. It is the country’s fault if a man capable of so acting is placed in supreme command, and for that there is no remedy. But it is sounder to assume that the admiral selected for command is a man not incapable of disposing his force to the best advantage. “We must,” said Lord Goschen, on one occasion, “put our trust in Providence and a good admiral.” If a nation cannot find a good admiral in its need it is idle to trust in Providence.

And on that note, I conclude. In short: a perfection of a different sort.

‘Types of Naval Officers’, A.T. Mahan

Full title being ‘Types of Naval Officers Drawn from the History of the British Navy’, this book by the great (and reknown) Alfred Thayer Mahan took me longer to read than I thought it would but it also had content that I appreciated more than I would have considered possible.

As the title says, this book is an account by Mahan of the great 18th century British admirals (Howe, St. Vincent, Rodney, Hawke, Saumarez and Pellew). In their biographies he describes the reasons some of these are so well known (or rather, why they should be well known for I am confident that aside from select naval historians very few people actually knew of them) and how they achieved their greatness (mostly through innovation and drowning French).

What I really loved is how he described the actions — the style he writes in is rather winding but rather perfect to convey the image of naval conflict. Likewise, he has often brought in first hand accounts (such as the verdict of Admiral Byng, if I remember correctly) to help write the image of these navy-men.

I would otherwise say that the language is much as you’d expect from a 19th century author (though I would read his long and overly complex sentences over Thackeray’s every day of the week) he has also taken the effort to describe some of the naval terms for the layman (which is more considerate of him than the actions of his many colleagues).

I will add two quotes from the book:

Imagination is fondly impatient of warning by the past.

To do his own part to the utmost, within the lines of the profession he knew, was his conception of duty.

[Or well, I tried to keep to two but I found a third that I very liked as well in my notes so here it is:]

 Hawke died October 16, 1781. On his tomb appear these words, “Wherever he sailed, victory attended him.” It is much to say, but it is not all. Victory does not always follow desert. “It is not in mortals to command success,”—a favorite quotation with the successful admirals St. Vincent and Nelson.