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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 13 January 2014

"The Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759" by Nicholas Tracy

Three star: despite the nautical language I really enjoyed this book.

I began life in the little-known town of Sunbury-on-Thames. One of the few historic buildings was Hawke House, where Admiral Sir Edward Hawke had lived and died. I used to drink in the pub opposite, called the Admiral Hawke in his honour. (It had begun life as The Railway although the railway had been built over a mile away due to a last minute diversion; after a hundred years of having the wrong name in the wrong place it changed title; I wonder if it still exists?)

Quiberon Bay is a battle that, like Hawke and like Sunbury, deserves to be better known. It was the culmination of the 'Year of Victories' in which the English, led by William Pitt the Elder, with their allies Prussia, comprehensively defeated the French on land and particularly sea during the Seven Years War. 1759 led directly to the establishment of Canada and to the British Raj in India; the Seven Years War saw the establishment of British Sea Power and the first stirrings of the British Empire. And Quiberon Bay was the equivalent of Trafalgar, a do-or-die battle that prevented a French invasion by decisively smashing the French fleet.

Tracy tells this story well. Despite the fact that I really don't understand most of the nautical terms. I can just about construct some sort of, possibly inaccurate, picture from "dropped her best bower anchor, and rounded to in twelve fathoms" but I get confused with leeward, starboard and windward. I am not even certain whether a 'westerly' wind blows towards or away from the west! As for , or 'haul his wind', "line of bearing and wedge" and "warping" ships, I can guess but I guess my guesses are probably wrong.

It might as well be French to me. So Tracy throws in the occasional passage of untranslated French. This, as readers of my blog will know, is a particular 'bete noire' (black beast) for me. Writers are supposed to communicate with their readers. So don't use jargon or, worse, foreign languages without translations!

I can forgive the naval terms. Most of Tracy's readership will be fans of naval history and will understand the sailing expressions. But a glossary would certainly help the general reader.

Having said this, I really enjoyed this book. He writes well so that the bulk of the book which explains the context to the battle and the political aftermath fairly zips along. He opened my eyes to difficulties I had never really considered before. For example, you need speed to either escape from or catch up with your enemy. Besides ship design and sails and seamanship to deploy the right amount of sails for the right winds, your hull needs to be clean or barnacles (this was just before copper sheathing of hulls made they stayed clean longer). Clean hulls equal fast ships. So Hawke was obliged to rotate his ships back to dock for regular cleaning. This, together with the vagaries of poor weather, the difficulty of provision supply, and the fact that Plymouth was not yet a major and Portsmouth was too far away, made his blockade of Brest all but impossible. He was remarkable in that he kept it up for so long. Perhaps the British Empire was founded on Hawke's ability to defeat the barnacle!

One little quibble. I think that on page 32 Professor Tracy meant Robert Walpole, British Prime Minister, rather than Horace (his son who was only 9 at the time and probably incapable of sending a fleet to the West Indies).

Hawke should be better known! January 2014; 189 pages


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