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British Frigate vs French Frigate

British Frigate vs French Frigate Book Review

By Cookie Sewell

Date of Review June 2013 Title British Frigate vs French Frigate
Author Mark Lardas Publisher Osprey Publishing
Published 2013 ISBN 978-1-78096-132-3
Format 80 pages, softbound MSRP (USD) $18.95

Review

In the days of sailing ships and sail warfare, very little stirs the imagination as much as the idea of being a captain of a frigate. Smaller warships, usually with only one deck of guns and carrying between 28 and 44 rated guns, these ships were the eyes of their fleets and often served in the function of destroyers and cruisers in modern navies. For years they have fired the imagination and in the hands of writers like C. S. Forester or Patrick O'Brien have created a lot of ardent fans of the age.

But what where they really like? This nice new book by American author Mark Lardas is probably the best single book on explaining what the ships, the tactics, and the men operating these vessels were like and what they experienced. While ships performing these functions go back about 200 years before the period he selected (Sir Francis Drake and his "Golden Hind" being a good example of single ship operations) the author has wisely focused on 22 years of the Age of Sail and the two biggest opponents of the age, the Royal Navy and the French Marine.

Mr. Lardas points out that from a design standpoint the French were superior to the British in most areas, having ships which were more seaworthy and more capable in theory of outperforming their opponents. But the French had poorer materials to use and as a result their ships could not be made as durable as their British counterparts. They were also slower to grasp the value of the carronade, a stubby short-range heavy gun preferred by the British and Americans and nearly doubling the firepower of later model frigates at close range.

The British ships, having use of materials such as oak, teak or mahogany, were more solidly built and could carry heavier guns for their size. They also had flexible white pine masts which provided some advantage in powering the ships. But the British aslo had one of the firsts meritocracy military organizations in the world in the form of the Royal Navy. While officers could come in as teenagers in the form of midshipmen, they had to prove their worth and skills before they could be promoted to the next rank (lieutenant, commander, captain, and then admiral or flag level). The French had drawn most of their officers from the aristocracy prior to 1793, and as a result many skilled officers were either forced to flee or executed after the Revolution. This tended to cripple the ability of the French to fight on equal terms. They also had a different system of sorting out crew members and their conscription tended to pick out landsmen from the inner parts of the country vice coastal dwellers and seamen as the British tended to pick.

The book covers a lot of information on how a ship sails and what the various terms mean, including a handy diagram for all of the terms of wind and sailing aspects. The author also covers most of the tactics and operations carried out by the ships in action.

The highlight of the book is a close look at four frigate duels, three of which were won by the British and one by the French (their only such win!) The author analyzes all of the basic characteristics and notes why one side won or the other lost. Two of the actions cited are those fought by Sir Edward Pellew, arguably the best British frigate captain of the era and one of the most successful. He is noted as one of the very few also to take on a ship of the line (a 74 gun vessel in his case) with a frigate (the 44 gun "razee" HMS Indefatigable) and beat it in an open ocean fight. The author does note that the one loss – HMS Ambuscade to the French Baionnaise – did come after all of her officers were killed or wounded and the French vessel accidently rammed her amidships, providing an easy path for boarding the unlucky British ship.

Overall, this is a nice quick summer read and a handbook for anyone who enjoys playing Age of Sail naval wargames like "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" or "Close Action".

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