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The Naval Side of British History by Geoffrey Callendar

Geoffrey Callendar

Reviewed by:
On May 5, 2015
Last modified:May 5, 2015


This book was written in 1924 by a British author named Geoffrey Callendar. It was especially interesting, coming on the heels of several other books read by this reviewer, such as To Rule The Waves, and Cochran, The Real Master and Commander.

Naval Side of British HistoryThis book was written in 1924 by a British author named Geoffrey Callendar.  It was especially interesting, coming on the heels of several other books read by this reviewer, such as To Rule The Waves, and Cochran, The Real Master and Commander.

Unlike the books above this one makes no pretense of being dispassionate in how it recounts history.  The author is obviously a patriotic (British) son!

Callendar was reticent to delve into much in the way of negatives about any of Britain’s naval heros.  For instance, he completely avoided any mention of Drake’s paranoia, and the less glamorous facts about him brought to light in To Rule the Waves.  Similarly, he attacks as false the role of the weather in the battle with the Spanish Armada.  Reading this section was almost eery in that it was almost a direct rebuttal of what was written in To Rule the Waves – written 80 odd years later!

So arose the myth of a mighty storm which had darkened the summer seas of an English August and miraculously delivered the Protestant faith.

This misleading legend is hard to destroy, and is credited by many to this day.  Contemporary Englishmen were perplexed by the miracle of their own deliverance, because they had little real knowledge of warfare afloat, and none at all concerning the secret of their own battleships.  In that respect they differed hardly at all from their descendants in an age of universal education.  The English sailors in 1588 were not misled by the lure of prizes; nor were they eager to destroy that ship or this.  Their main design was to overwhelm the whole Armada in destruction, and should only be done in sufficiency of munitions or by undermining the enemy’s morale.  They bided their time, and at Calais and Gravelines struck with their fireships and their unanswerable artillery.  The stout sides of oak-built leviathans screened for a while the broken spirit of the Spanish soldiery.  But not for long.  The catalog of wrecks from Cape Wrath to Bloody Foreland is the measurement not of climatic disturbance, but of the tempest of the British broadsides.


Throughout the course of the book he holds forth a dialog with his countryman (British subjects) and consistently refers to his country and its heroes in first person possessives.  This isn’t the norm for most histories.  This use of the possessive becomes steadily more and more pronounced as the book progresses through history.  For example, in the midst of the author’s remarks about the events leading up to what is known in the US as “The War of 1812”, the author says:

… The United States declared war against Britain. 

This last blow might have concluded our island story if the United States had been an important naval power.

Somehow it felt a little strange to read the author addressing his audience in such an informal, personal tone.  “Our island story.” Hmm.

Another point of interest for this reviewer was the realization that this book was written 85 years ago, and that the authors perspective was colored Britain’s recent emergence from the first world war.  What was current then is well in the past now.  For example, in an early chapter about Robert Blake, one of the great figures in British naval history, he contrasts the history of the time with that of the “current” state of affairs with Japan.

Some attempt has been made in the preceding pages to point the differences between the natural foundations of naval power and the edifice which a a wise human architect may erect upon them.  In the far Pacific, Japan has, late in time, been awakened to a a sense of her grand natural advantages — her fisheries and fishermen, her indented coast and inland seas her countless islands, her innate faculty for breeding mariners and building ships.  her brilliant and rapid rise to the position of a first-class state, with a first-class position in the world’s counsels, is a striking and outstanding example of the possibilities of sea-power, when they are correctly recognized and wisely used.

Remember, this book was written in 1924, well before the onset of World War II.

If significant that this book was written prior to World War II, its time of writing in proximity to the first world war is even more pronounced in the language and tone of the last few chapters.  Agree or disagree, the use of language is striking:

Had the mind of man been able to foresee that the Germans, in their desperation, would throw all moral codes to the winds, merchantmen would have been armed for self-protection as they had been before the days of Blake.

The book was enjoyable and interesting, but very slanted in favor of the British side of history.   This reviewer happens to agree with many of the conclusions and pronouncements regarding the accomplishments of the British Royal Navy and its positive effect on history, freedom of the seas, its role in the abolition of slavery, etc.  However, the writer definitely wrapped himself in the Union Jack before completing this history.  Aside from the selective choices mentioned above, there is hardly a mention of the Lend-Lease program in WWI.

I found these omissions and slanted recounting of history unnecessary because, by and large (note clever use of a naval term), the feats of the British Navy and British culture’s influence of the course of human events needs no bolstering.  The British are definitely to be credited with civilizing much of the world and their navy played a big part in this.  Consequently, the book  is a bit overplayed and heavy handed at times.  This made it all the more interesting as something akin to the “great conversation” that Mortimer Adler referred to in the Great Books of the Western World.


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