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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: The
        Glorious First of June
The Glorious First of June: Fleet Battle in the Reign of Terror
By Sam Willis
Quercus, 2011, ISBN 978-1-84916-038-4, £25


Opening paragraphs are crucial, but Willis begins with one that captures the readers’ attention.

It was a time of mad kings and dead kings. In 1789, the year that a Revolutionary mob stormed the great Bastille prison in Paris, George III of England had to be kept in a straitjacket, occasionally a restraining chair, as he ranted incessantly and often indecently. Three years later Louis XVI of France was put to death on a cold winter’s morning in the centre of Paris.

He starts the prologue this way to demonstrate how the British and French saw the monarchies that ruled them. In doing so, Willis puts into perspective the significance of Louis’s execution, which toppled a monarchy that had ruled for 802 years, unleashed the Reign of Terror, and threatened other European nations into uniting against the new Republic.

When the introduction begins, however, it appears the author intends to distance the reader from the story. As with all good writing, he merely demonstrates how time distances us from significant events and changes the impact it has on us. What event? A series of engagements in 1794 between two naval fleets that culminated in the battle that English history has dubbed “the Glorious First of June” and the French call “La Bataille Prairial.”

As the story unfolds, Willis takes readers to Paris, London, Plymouth, Brest, Toulon, Italy, Austria, Saint Domingue, Martinique, St. Lucia, Tobago, Philadelphia, Virginia, and New York. It begins with the summer of 1793 and ends long after the battle. From “The First Terror” to the “Epilogue,” the author examines “how the British and French operational capabilities and war strategy were affected . . . and the battle interacted with other events that led to the downfall of Robespierre and eventually to the rise of Napoleon.” (xlv) He also discusses the paradox of describing this fleet engagement as “Glorious.” At the heart of this historical account are the men who sailed the warships and those who sent them to war.

Each of the eleven chapters opens with the title, the time span covered, and a quotation pertinent to the topic within. Color illustrations, diagrams, maps, battle plans, four appendices (chronology, fleets, Pocock sketches, biographies), and a glossary provide additional insights to the text. A section of chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index round out the book.

What sets this volume apart from the two previous titles in the Hearts of Oak trilogy – The Fighting Temeraire and The Admiral Benbow – is that those two books concern enduring legends. The Glorious First of June, though, is about an event that few people remember.  Equally revealing are the firsts earmarking this engagement, which have been “lost” over time. The principal one that Willis incorporates into this account concerns Nicholas Pocock, the artist who witnessed the hard-fought battle from one of the ships, the sketches he drew, and their impact on those who viewed them.

The wealth of material, dating from the period, upon which Willis draws provides readers with a clear understanding of what brought the fleets together, what happened during the engagements, and how both sides viewed the battle once news of it reached England and France, as well as later, after the joyous celebrations had passed. Perhaps of greater significance is the book presents the story from both the French and English perspectives, providing readers with a well-rounded, comprehensive, and unbiased examination that enthralls, informs, and intrigues. Once you open the cover, Willis transports you back to the horrors of the Terror and deftly draws the parallels between the rise and fall of Robespierre, the man behind the Terror, and The Glorious First of June. It is a journey not soon forgotten.

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Review Copyrighted ©2012 Cindy Vallar

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