Book Review: Young Nelsons

I acquired a copy of this excellent book from the Royal Navy Museum shop in Portsmouth. Written by D A B Ronald and published by Osprey, the book is very well put together, and very readable. I have long had a fascination for Naval history, particularly British history and this book is a part of my ongoing search for information and background for my own writing. 

The author has opened a window into a world most modern youngsters would find intolerable, a world of bullying, self discipline and hardship. It was a world of separation from friends and family at a very early age and one in which you either learned fast and grew to manhood and responsibility - or perished. Mr Ronald has used the journals, letters and diaries of the Midshipmen who served with, under and alongside Admiral Nelson. He has taken records from the Marine Society - formed to provide "boys for the navy" in the late 18th Century - and included their experiences and details in the account.

The Royal Navy of the 18th and early 19th Centuries depended on boys to man their ships, fill the officer corps (if they could find a patron, pass the exams and get promoted) and run the many tasks required to keep a fleet of sailing ships afloat, at sea and in fighting form. Boys aged 13 and upwards - though many were younger - were recruited and served as "Powder Monkeys," "Servants" and junior Warrant Officers (Midshipmen) in all the RNs ships. One the size of Victory needed 60 or more boys to keep the guns supplied with powder, act as stewards in the Gunroom, Wardroom and for the Captain and Admiral and also carried around 40 Midshipmen all hoping to become officers. 

Their bravery and the adult perspectives they have left us move the reader by turns to anger, despair and tears. How many 13 year olds today, could serve on their father's ship as did young Mister Norwich Duff, Midshipman, whose father was Captain of HMS Mars at the battle of Trafalgar. A witness to his father's having his head knocked off by a cannon ball, he then wrote the most moving and tragic letter to his mother beginning -

My Dear Mamma,

You cannot possibly imagine how unwilling I am to begin this melancholy letter. However, as you must unavoidably hear the fate of dear Papa, I write you these few lines to request you to bear it as patiently as you can. He died like a Hero, having gallantly led his ship into action ...

I doubt many thirteen year olds today could write anything as coherently as this about the death of their father. Small wonder then that several Captains offered to accept this youngster into their ships, or that he rose to the rank of Admiral himself. Nor is he the sole example, boys from all backgrounds, moneyed and humble rose to the challenge before them and, as the book demonstrates, not only made the best of it, but in so doing, made Britain great.

This book is a must read for anyone wanting to write about life at sea in the 18th and 19th Century, but I think it should be a must read for all school children today. These boys may "have no memorial" but they left an indelible mark on the world, on history and on a nation.

This is one book I commend heartily - even if you are not a history buff, the human aspects of it will hold your attention like nothing else!

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