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The Transformation of British Naval Strategy: Seapower and Supply in Northern Europe, 1808-1812.

The Transformation of British Naval Strategy: Seapower and Supply in Northern Europe, 1808-1812, by James Davey. Forum Navale Book Series. Woodbridge and Rochester, The Boydell Press, 2012. ix, 237 pp. $99.00 US (cloth).

Operations in the Baltic region have traditionally been ignored by historians despite its substantial contribution to naval supremacy during the Napoleonic Wars. The preponderance of written material on the maritime component of the war focuses principally on campaigns in the Mediterranean, the West Indies, and North America. Davey convincingly establishes that there has been a distinct lack in academic works which address the Baltic, in spite of the absolute significance of the region during the war. His seminal work compels readers to recognize the importance of the sweeping strategic and supply network changes during a transitional period in the Royal Navy, many of which originated in the Baltic.

The book's historiography begins in the eighteenth century when a ship's time at sea was directly linked to the quantity of victuals stored on board. Ships were repeatedly forced back into port to replenish provisions, oftentimes while they were on critical operational duties. Davey maintains that limitations on provisioning directly impacted British naval strategy, particularly in areas where fresh victuals were difficult to acquire with any regularity, such as the Baltic. The author then turns his attention to the early nineteenth century, a time when the Royal Navy had begun the transition from ships regularly returning to port, to ships continually remaining at sea due to improvements in logistical networks. The transition was not necessarily an organic occurrence; instead, it resulted from years of bitter warfare between the two major European powers, Britain and France. Due to the longevity of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, both countries were compelled to streamline their outmoded traditions to make way for enhanced military efficiency.

Improving British naval operations involved promoting and advancing changes to battle tactics, port blockading, and organizing convoys. While Davey remarks in his first two chapters that these particular improvements upgraded British maritime objectives, he also emphasizes naval limitations still existed, particularly with regards to the effectiveness in keeping the fleet continuously at sea. He argues that issues limiting a ship's time at sea emanated from the inefficiency in victualling ships afloat. His examination of naval victualling stems from his exhaustive doctoral research. He is therefore able to competently describe the extensive provisioning system under the direction of the navy's Victualling Board. According to his findings, strategic and logistical issues resulted not from the shortage of food, but rather from the navy's inability to efficiently distribute provisions. During the Napoleonic Wars, advancements in distribution meant that ships could remain afloat for longer periods, eventually eliminating the need for them to return to port for resupplying altogether. Davey maintains that this particular improvement in the supply network was trialed in the Baltic region, and eventually led to Britain's naval dominance during the latter years of the war.

In chapter three, Davey delves into details surrounding the difficulties in the dispersal of victuals which were exacerbated in the Baltic. These difficulties became most apparent with the installation of Vice-Admiral Saumarez on that station in 1808. In order to achieve maritime authority in the region, the navy realized it was imperative to have a well-organized supply network. From an administrative standpoint, coordination between the Victualling Board, the Transport Board, and private merchant ships was paramount. As the author demonstrates in chapters four and five, the results of the successful transportation of goods meant that the British fleet in the Baltic was healthy in comparison to others in the region. Letters from Saumarez confirm how improving British logistical structures kept his sailors healthy during a critical wartime period. Aside from primary letters, Davey presents an abundance of comprehensive tables corroborating the Vice-Admiral's report and reveals the minutiae of the supply network and, from an administrative standpoint, synchronization between the Victualling and Transport Board.

By chapter six, Davey elucidates on how the escalation in logistical organization began to influence the entirety of the British fleet at sea, with the Baltic squadron as the catalyst for advancement. That is not to suggest that the organizational development was unflawed. The author judiciously cites occasional shortcomings in both the Victualling and Transport Boards as well as the resulting impediments to operations. Examining these administrative difficulties brings Davey to, in many respects, his finest chapter entitled, "The Navy, Reform and the British State." In it, he examines the logistical advancements during the latter years of the war, which were spurred by improvements in the Baltic and the Commission for Naval Revision in 1809. In his eighth and final chapter, Davey briefly returns the reader to the wider pecuniary state in Britain and how integral the Baltic region was to the country's economy. The chapter emphasizes the bigger picture set out in earlier chapters and tersely considers how the navy's dominance allowed Britain's economy to continue benefitting from trade in the Baltic region throughout the war.

The Transformation of British Naval Strategy has successfully filled a void in the historiography of the Napoleonic Wars. In all, Davey's book is tremendously thorough and painstakingly researched. By incorporating a number of disciplines including economic, political, and administrative, the conclusions drawn throughout the book are sound. The author's detailed analysis and resulting arguments will long stand as the definitive work for the Baltic's influence during the Napoleonic Wars.

Cori Convertito, PhD

Key West Art & Historical Society
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Author:Convertito, Cori
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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