This first BookPick for 2021 is an eclectic selection of titles that caught my eye recently. These range from an updated record of all fighting ships of the Royal Navy from the 15th century to the present – to a history of visual communication at sea – to three titles dealing with various aspects of heroism. In these dark days of winter, and with continuing lockdown, I find it’s of some comfort to take refuge in a book, either following up on a specific topic or to learn more of what history can tell us. I hope you find something of interest in this selection and as always I welcome your thoughts.
Uncommon Valour by Granville Allen Mawer
What is the nature of courage, how and when should it be recognized, and how has our appreciation of it changed? These are among the questions Granville Allen Mawer seeks to answer in this absorbing study of the history of the Victoria Cross, the highest award in the British honours system for gallantry in the presence of the enemy. His is the first analytical account of the institution of the Victoria Cross. It explores in dispassionate detail the thinking behind the creation of the award, the reasons why individual awards were given and how, over the last 160 years, the system has developed and changed. Mawer compares individual actions that led to a Victoria Cross and considers the circumstances in which they took place and the reasons given for making the award. So many factors were involved – the character of the individual concerned, the severity of the danger he faced, the situation of the British forces, whether his conduct was seen and recorded, and the interpretation of the criteria for making an award at the time. A fascinating study of the ethics of rewarding bravery.
What Ship, Where Bound by David Craddock
This book takes its title from the familiar opening exchange of signals between passing ships, and celebrates the long history of visual communications at sea. It traces the visual language of signalling from the earliest naval banners or streamers used by the Byzantines in AD 900 through to morse signalling still used at sea today. Covering a wide spectrum of visual signalling methods from false fire, through shapes, furled sails and coloured flags to experiments in high speed text messaging by signal lamp, the book also examines the complex interrelation between all three methods under battle conditions. A detailed analysis of visual signal exchanges before and during the Battle of Jutland reveals both the success and ultimate limitations of flag signalling at the limits of visibility. Extensively and beautifully illustrated, the book both enlightens and entertains.
Heroes and Villains of the British Empire by Stephen Basdeo
By the Victorian era, Britannia indisputably ruled the waves. Basdeo tells the story of how British Empire builders such as Robert Clive, General Gordon, and Lord Roberts of Kandahar were represented and idealised in popular culture. The men who built the empire were often portrayed as possessing certain unique abilities which enabled them to serve their country in often inhospitable territories, and spread what imperial ideologues saw as the benefits of the British Empire to supposedly uncivilised peoples in far flung corners of the world. These qualities and abilities were athleticism, a sense of fair play, devotion to God, and a fervent sense of duty and loyalty to the nation and the empire. While some may look on them in a different light today, they have a place in our history and should be seen in the context of their times and contributory to our culture today.
Ships of the Royal Navy by J J Colledge, Ben Warlow and Steve Bush
This is the fifth fully revised edition of a book first published in 1970. Each entry gives concise details of dimensions, armament and service dates, and its alphabetical and chronological arrangement makes it easy to track down the right ship (otherwise the Royal Navy’s tradition of re-using the same names can be misleading). This edition contains some 200 new entries and revisions to many older entries. These reflect the demise of many ships post-Cold War as the Royal Navy was shrunk down as part of the peace dividend. The book includes updates to the Royal Australian, Canadian and New Zealand navies which have programmes to introduce new destroyers, Arctic patrol vessels, submarines and support ships. Since the death of Jim Colledge, who was widely respected for his pioneering research on the technical details of warships, his magnum opus has been updated, corrected and expanded with similar enthusiasm and attention to detail by Ben Warlow, a retired naval officer and author of a number of books in the field. A superb reference work, worthy of your library.
Heroes of the RNLI by Martyn R Beardsley
I never fail to be in awe of the achievements of the RNLI, a public-funded and wholly voluntary organisation that has saved some 140,000 lives in the UK. Whenever vessels have foundered off the coasts of Britain, there have always been those willing to give their all to save those in peril but in 1823, Sir William Hillary decided that this admirable but impromptu approach was not enough. He believed that many more lives could be saved by the establishment of a national, organised rescue service. His idea was realised the following year. From the days of oar-powered open boats to modern high speed, hi-tech vessels, rescuers have battled storms and unimaginable conditions, risking – and sometimes forfeiting – their own lives in efforts to save others. The most outstanding of these operations led to the awarding of gold medals for gallantry, the RNLI version of the Victoria Cross. Using information gleaned from archives, contemporary newspaper accounts and genealogical records, this book looks not just at the details of the heroic rescues, but the people behind them.