Historic Naval Fiction is pleased to have obtained an Interview with Sam Willis on the release of his new book in the Hearts of Oak Trilogy, The Glorious First of June.
What can you tell us about your new book The Glorious First of June?
It is the story of one of Britain’s most significant but overlooked naval battles. It is unique for numerous reasons, each important in its own right:
It was the first naval battle of the French Revolutionary War.
It was the only fleet battle during the Reign of Terror.
It was the first fleet battle in British or French history that was fought for political ideology rather than for territory, religion or trade or at the whim of monarchs.
It was the longest fleet battle for 128 years.
The British won an impressive tactical victory though their fleet was undermanned and out of practice.
It was the largest British naval victory for 102 years but was celebrated as a victory by the French and the British navy as well as by the Americans.
It was the first naval battle witnessed and then depicted by a professional artist for 128 years – the book includes an Appendix of images made on the spot.
It was witnessed by Matthew Flinders, then a Midshipman on Bellerophon, who made numerous detailed battle plans − all reproduced in the book.
It was the first naval battle in the eighteenth century in which an Admiral deliberately tried to break the enemy line.
It was the first battle made famous by a ‘panorama’, an artistic technique which became standard for celebrating naval battles.
It was the first battle for which British officers received a medal.
It was the first battle to be celebrated by an immediate Royal review of the fleet.
But of all of these claims to distinction, the most important and the most interesting is this: The Glorious First of June was, without question, the hardest-fought battle of the Age of Sail.
This is the last book of The Hearts of Oak Trilogy. What was it about the three subjects that made you bring them together in a trilogy?
Instead of writing a standard multi-volume history of the Age of Sail I wanted to take three separate subjects and use them to cut open the age of sail from three different directions. A biography of a ship, a man and a battle seemed a very effective way of achieving this. Each had to be a naval 'legend' in its own right, and I was not concerned if it was a legend that has endured – like the Fighting Temeraire and Benbow's Last Fight – or one that has been forgotten, like the Glorious First of June. I was concerned that each subject had tangible 'hidden' history of its own, as well as a significant history relating to how the story then became famous. I was interested in both the detail of the story and the way that it became famous and, by looking at both, you can start to see how naval history has become so ingrained in British culture.
Where did your interest in the sea originate?
My interest in the sea began on holidays in Cornwall; my interest in the study of naval history at university, but I suppose the navy has also been ingrained in me because I come from a naval family: my Grandfather is a veteran of WWII and his father fought at Jutland. The walls of my parent's house was (and still is) covered in images of sailing warships. I am happiest by, in, or on the sea.
How do you undertake your research?
It depends where it takes me, usually London at the National Archives in Kew, the British Library of Greenwich. But occasionally I go further afield. I am off to Rotterdam next week to look at a replica of the Dutch warship Delft.
What intrigues you about the Age of Sail?
The utter craziness of it combined with the extraordinary human achievement. What on earth was everyone playing at? If you had no knowledge of the period, and tried to dream up the most crazy contraption ever invented by humans, you would never get anywhere close to a fully rigged First Rate ship of the line. They are absurd.
Do you have any plans for future books?
Last year I found something quite extraordinary in the British Library: a vast velvet-bound volume in which is preserved the original admirals' dispatches describing the most significant British victories of the age of sail. It contains Admiral's narratives, logs, boatswains' reports, maps, enemy accounts, surgeons' reports and other miscellanea. It is an absolute treasure trove. The dispatches were collected by the Admiralty in 1859 and presented to the country in this magnificent volume, to be put on permanent display. At some point in its life it was then put in a box in the basement of the British Library. Only a handful of people know it exists when it should be on permanent display alongside the other Treasures of the British Library or British Museum.
Published in October 2012, it will be called Britain's Lost Naval Dispatches.
When and what do you read yourself?
It depends what I am doing. If I am reading for research I tend not to read in my spare time; if I am writing I will read anything I can get my hands on, almost always fiction. I enjoy historical fiction and have just read a fantastic book by Dennis Lehane called The Given Day, about baseball and riots in WWI-era Boston. I am also happy with trashy thrillers or fantasy – anything that is easily absorbing to stop me thinking about work.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Did you know that Nelson kept the lightning conductor from the French flagship L'Orient, which blew up at the Nile, in his hallway?
The Glorious First of June is published by Quercus Publishing Plc