The author's aim in this book is to examine the practical elements of war at sea under sail, and how these practical limits influenced the naval warfare of the period. The most important of these is the limits imposed by sail power, which influenced everything else. Each ship in a fleet sailed differently, and took a different amount of time to perform different manoeuvres. This influenced the speed at which fleets or individual ships could respond to developing circumstances, and the ability of fleets to perform as a unit.
Next came the problems of communication, with limited options available for ship-to-ship or flagship-to-fleet signals. This is turn led to the development of a set of unwritten rules that guided the actions of individual ship's captains. This is inevitably a difficult area to examine, but Willis makes good use of the limited available evidence, much of which comes from court-martials, where the normally unwritten expectations were discussed.
Once these factors have been examined Willis moves on to look at fleet and fighting tactics, looking at how the limits and conventions discussed earlier in the book affected the reality of battle and the sometimes unexpected behaviour of senior naval officers.
The book actually covers a rather elongated Eighteenth Century that stretches from the start of the Nine Years War in 1688 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. This is the period of the developed line of battle and it makes sense to include the Napoleonic Wars, which saw the last major battles between large fleets of sailing ships.
This is a very valuable addition to the extensive literature on naval warfare in the age of sail, looking at a neglected topic. The events of individual battles have been extensively discussed, as have the technical aspects of ship construction, but this book fills the crucial gap between those two, and greatly expands our knowledge of the practicalities of naval warfare in this period.
1 - Contact
2 - Chase and Escape I: Speed and Performance
3 - Chase and Escape II: The Tactics of Chasing
4 - Station Keeping
5 - Communication
6 - Unwritten Rules
7 - Command
8 - The Weather Gage
9 - Fleet Tactics
10 - Fighting Tactics
11 - Damage
Appendix: Fleet Battles
Author: Sam Willis