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Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World Review


The 18th century gave rise to some famous admirals, who changed the fate of nations and have gone down in history as brilliant leaders of men. Hood, Anson, Rodney, Jervis, Suffren, De Grasse, and the most famous of all, Nelson, towering above the rest. They have been the topic of a whole litany of books, but the recent focus of leadership studies promises to offer a possibility to look again at the era, and analyze the structural, technological, social, and institutional factors which developed and defined leadership in it. This is the focus of Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World: The Age of Reform and Revolution, 1700-1850. Despite such lofty promises, it actually is much less ambitious and far less fulfilling than it would portend to be, limited mostly to a selection of individual admirals and officers and their operations.

Organizationally, the book is split into a chronological based succession of sections. After the beginning introduction - emphasizing on the importance of leadership studies and looking beyond individuals to examine contexts, and the historic importance of concern for leadership - it discusses the history of leadership in the Royal Navy, stressing that leadership does not emerge in a vacuum but rather that it is a product of institutional, operational, social, and political contexts, with its own myth making such as the ideal of natural British seamanship.

Following this, it moves to the historical era itself directly, starting with the Royal Navy with a complex number of diagrams of leadership networks and a discussion of the development of operational and leadership successes in the War of Jenkin's Ear and Austrian Succession. After this there is an extensive analysis of the vice-admirals of Louis XV's France and their traits, and how these were perceived or emphasized. Styles of leadership, be it top-down - focusing on strict control, discipline, and rigidity - or bottom-up - focusing on encouragement, motivation, and esprit de corps - are the next chapter, which also discusses how naval officer training occurred in the French and British navies. The Spanish fleet pops in as well, discussing the idea behind the reconstruction of the Spanish navy in the 18th century that would elevate it to the second largest in the world by the end of the period, and its policy of a fleet-in-being based on this which would force concessions from either the British or French who would need Spanish friendship against each other. This principle however, meant that the Spanish fleet would develop a culture stressing conservatism, preservation of ships, tight control, and a defensive strategy. Two French admirals, the Comte d'Orveilliers, commander of the main French fleet at the beginning of the War of American Independence, and Suffren, the aggressive, brilliant, but divisive French commander of the French naval war effort in the Indian ocean in the same war, are the two closing subjects of the chapter, examining their strength, command style, and in Orvilliers' case, particularly the interaction with the French court.

Latouche Tréville - perhaps the French fleet would have had a happier fate if he had been in command rather than the depressed and despondent Villeneuve!

Latouche Tréville - perhaps the French fleet would have had a happier fate if he had been in command rather than the depressed and despondent Villeneuve!

The third part of the book concerns the French Revolution, beginning with a study of the French officers Latouche-Tréville - a successful and well-liked naval officer, both by his crews and his enemies, a competent organizer, and who unfortunately died too early, leaving Villeneuve in command of the French fleet aimed at invading Britain. Himself a competent admiral, he was considered lucky by Napoleon for having escaped from the Battle of the Nile - but it was an event which had seared an inferiority complex and dread of the British fleet into his bones, and this dreadful pessimism would dog him throughout the campaign that led to Trafalgar, with disastrous effects. After this the Spanish admiral Atonio Barcelo, who worked his way from lowly beginnings as a mail boat master up to the rank of admiral, and who exemplified the thought and aggressive men who learned their trade on Spanish xebecs fighting against barbary pirates. A dueling pair, John Jervis and José de Mazarredo is the final subject of the Napoleonic Wars, showing their relationship during the Blockade of Cadiz and the careful balance of violence and limited war which prevailed in traditional naval relations during the period at the end of the ancien régime. The Spanish officers defending Cuba against a potential Mexican-Venezuelan combined invasion, Luis Maria de Salazar and Angel Laborde take center stage next, showing how they surmounted the catastrophic position of the Spanish navy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars via resourceful and canny policies to provide for just enough naval strength to defend Cuba. The final chapter looks at the role of British officers, particularly Charles Napier, in the Portuguese Civil War, demonstrating how competent British officers were used by the British government in private roles to advance its interests.

In the afterward, the relative accountability - for better or worse - of British admirals to public opinion compared to their French and Spanish counterparts, as well as the relative differences in training and esprit de corps between the navies, which impacted their officer leadership and possibilities. The rest of it largely recaps what was said earlier in the book, as well as the standard call for more research.

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The great problem with Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World is the lack of systemic analysis and structural depth: its compilated nature, even more than in other works, makes it seem more like a scattered collection of little snapshots of individuals without a broader purpose or focus. While pointing out some individual admirals who were successful has some value, the book is much less value in determining how leadership was formed and what the differences were in naval leadership, perspective, and command relations between the different navies of the Atlantic World. There could have been very interesting work for example, discussing how mentalities and esprit de corps varied from fleet to fleet, but this was broadly not done. Some chapters do provide some comparative analysis, such as "Types of Naval Leadership in the Eighteenth Century" by Michael Duffy who shines quantitative light on the speed of advancement, and who reflects on how the British and French differed in their basic training and operational factors of seapower, and in how officers interacted with their men and officers - as encouraging and personable, or as strict and demanding, "bottom up" or "top down" methods alternatively.

But while this chapter provides and excellent comparative, the more delicate and rich questions of how naval leadership and officer status reflected itself is left unanswered. Other books pose the question of what sort of personnel relationships and networks existed in the French navy for example - James Pritchard's work particularly, discussing how French naval officers perceived their duties and the conflicting motives of profit and service to the king, as well as the fragmented nature of loyalty and networks in 18th century France. It notes the limited conceptions of operations and strategy of many French officers, beyond the universal recognition of valor and bravery as the cornerstone of their self-perspective. Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World does not pose nearly such a detailed and perceptive look into the officer corps of the French, British, and Spanish fleets: it by contrast simply looks at individuals, on an individual to individual basis, with only a smattering of institutionally innovative chapters.

Ideology and mentality does not receive nearly as much focus as it could have. This is all the more puzzling, for there is significant historical discussion of how tactics and admiral perspectives changed, with violent, no-holds-barred attacks of the 17th century shifting into the refined master tactician, geometric, engagements of the 18th, before the tactical revolution at the end of the century. Just as a mentality of annihilation came into favor on land, ending the attritional battles of the ancien regime, so too it came to predominate on the waves, as shown by Nelson's bloody battles. This change of command and objectives is all but left unexamined in the book.

The focus on individuals would be perfectly decent - if it wasn't for the fact that there is already naturally extensive focus which is put on examining individual officers and campaigns. It isn't bad a general summary/overview, but it lacks dramatically for looking at the deeper aspects of what one would expect from an overview of the higher echelons of leaders in the Age of Sail, and it fails to really offer any decisive look into leadership and its evolution in the Age of Sail. The book fails to live up to the promising, if wordy and excessively jargon-laden, beginning, and rehashes the history of the age of sail's commanders in another book which raises interesting individuals and points but fails to connect them and bring new insight.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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