Life in Nelson’s Navy – Dudley Pope
You’ll get more than a whiff of sea air in this richly detailed telling of what life was really like in the “Wooden Walls” of England.
How about inhaling the funk of several hundred men and – yes – women, unwashed for months, living alongside livestock, and crammed into extremely confined quarters.
Fourteen inches were width allocations for hammocks. Floor to ceiling deck heights for hands could be as little as 4ft 10in.
As for toilet arrangements, these were, thankfully, neglected areas in Hollywood’s tales of swashbuckling heroes on the high seas.
Not so for Pope who explains how ‘heads’ in the bows were over-the-side, exposed-to-the-elements affairs. In heavy swells and chilly seas it was constipation that kept the surgeon busy.
The detail is both encyclopedic and entertaining but it’s the context that makes this such an enlightening read.
We’ve all read or seen stories about the floggings, the weevils, the press gangs and the brutality of life at sea; while they are largely true they neglect the context of the times and have to be seen as part of a bigger picture.
Only a small proportion of men were conscripted into the navy: for London the quota was 5,700 out of a population of 750,000. Pope sets that against WWII conscription rates in which every able-bodied man was called up unless they could prove their civilian job was essential war work.
Life was violent and harsh at sea, but life was harsh and violent on land too. This was a time when there was no police system and only a small standing army was retained lest it threatened overthrow of government.
Corruption and nepotism was evident in all areas of the navy – just as it was throughout the country – and disease was rife too.
It’s in the area of plague and pestilence that soldiers and sailors really suffered, especially those dispatched to the tropics where typhus, yellow fever, and fevers and agues took a heavy toll.
In the 20-plus years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the navy lost 1,875 men in a series of battles compared with more than 72,000 who succumbed to disease or died in accidents on board.
I still like reading yarns and seeing movies about the days of sail, but it’s also good to have a grasp of the grim and not-so-glamorous reality too.