Sam Willis, The Glorious First of June: Fleet Battle in the Reign of Terror. London: Quercus, 2011. 434 pp.
The current naval historiography of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, is undergoing something of a renaissance, with a new inter-disciplinary approach being fostered, with recent publications being M Duffy & R. Morris, eds, The Glorious First of June 1794: A Naval Battle and its Aftermath (2001), N.A.M Rodger’s The Command of the Ocean, A Naval History of Britain (2004) and T. Jenks, Naval Engagements: Patriotism, Cultural Politics, and the Royal Navy 1793-1815 (2006) all providing fresh perspectives to our understanding of the war at sea.
The most recent addition to the literature is Sam Willis’s The Glorious First of June, Fleet Battle in the Reign of Terror (2011), which forms the third and final installment in his Hearts of Oak Trilogy, alongside The Fighting Temeraire, Legend of Trafalgar (2009) and The Admiral Benbow: The Life and Times of a Naval Legend (2010). Unlike N.A.M Rodger’s study, which, suffers from a compartmentalizing of the subject matter in themed chapters and Duffy and Morris’s publication which emphasis strategic issues, Willis’s books make the most of a multi-dimensional approach and contain both detailed and general aspects, with nautical, military, political, social and strategic factors assessed side by side to form a rich historical patchwork. This approach not only succeeds in making for a good read, but also leaves the reader in no doubt that events on both land and sea were firmly interconnected and places the actions of sailors and admirals within the context of the war at sea as well as the wider strategic and political struggle. In doing so, Willis is able to break new ground and compare and contrast the British and French experience side by side, rather than in isolation.
A keen sailor and a known authority on naval warfare Willis offers a reappraisal of fighting capabilities of both fleets and the difficulties of fleet battle in the age of sail. A notable example of this is his treatment of the quality of the French navy, so often ridiculed by British historians as a weak opponent. Willis notes that despite suffering from the mass execution of many of its gifted officers in the Terror, the French navy was able to go broadside to broadside with the British fleet for several days, returning to port in good spirits. The quality of the British fleet meanwhile is also reexamined, with Willis quick to note that the British sailors were not vastly superior to their French counterparts. For instance, Willis thinks that the disproportionate losses sustained by the French, something long thought to have resulted from the superiority of British gunnery, was actually due to weak French ship-design.
The skill and bravery of the British and French is clear, as is the ferocity of fleet battle. The skill of the commanders is also heralded by Willis, none more so than the British commander Lord Howe, who Willis singles out as one of Britain’s foremost naval commanders, accrediting him with forging the fighting spirit which would be inherited by Nelson. Willis’s treatment of the reaction to the battle is particularly interesting and opens the door to fresh research on how naval actions were reported and received by the people of both combating nations.
The Glorious First of June, taken in conjuncture with the other excellent books in this trilogy is a grand work of modern scholarship, one which not only opens a window on a long neglected episode in British naval history, thanks to Willis’s use of a wealth of primary sources, but offers a new appraisal of a much neglected subject.
Reviewed by Andrew Limm, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham
Printable version can be downloaded here.
 Willis, The Glorious First of June, p.322.