Review: In the Hour of Victory, Sam Willis

Rating: 5 out of 5

Mr Willis’ works are always exceptional and this one is no different. However, instead of focussing on a specific moment in history, the author investigates how history was (quite literally) written. The British victories at sea paved the way for the creation of a mythology at home and away of naval invincibility; these news were brought and published by certain lucky officers, and the words that heralded the scale of the achieved success had been put down (generally) by the most senior man in the British fleet left standing, allowing them to decide how that victory should be presented.

This book covers victories that the Royal Navy itself thought worthy of remembering by compiling the dispatches in the 1820’s. Thus, the choice of which battles to include was made by the near-contemporaries of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars themselves. Included are the Glorious First of June, Camperdown, St Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, and San Domingo. While the author doesn’t go into the battles in great detail to tell the reader how it went down, the main objectives of both sides are described along with the general strokes of what happened in what order (as much as we can determine). This makes it far more readable a description of naval combat for the average reader than most such stories.

There is, however, a fair bit of repetition. Mr Willis raises again and again the thought that these are point-of-view descriptions, made by flawed people in a state of shock (often enough). Yet, the analysis that the author takes from this is generally strong, including comments on the handwriting (and whether the admiral wrote their own letters or not). I felt that some of the explanations regarding the captains who did not perform well could have been expanded though I understand this was not the purpose of this book: yet, it felt as if the reader was given only a part of what is known when they read that someone was not employed again or a court-martial was convened, as often enough the result of that court-martial was not described. What would have been really interesting, in addition, are some of the defenses that the men who failed the rest of the fleet in these engagements would have made of their own behaviour.

Overall, however, this is a superb book! The author brings home a string of victories that was never as complete as the public could have wished for. Similarly, the author reveals the futility of defeating the navy of a land-power who could still move its troops around at will.

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