I first came across the Navy Records Society in the first few weeks of study for my PhD. I was studying the way that battles were fought in the Age of Sail, hoping to re-evaluate our understanding of how battles were won, lost, and experienced. I was not sure of the direction I was going to take beyond a starting point that the practical realities of actually fighting these enormous ships had not been given sufficient thought, and that our understanding of what happened was suffering accordingly. This brought me quite quickly to the Navy Records Society’s Vol. XVIII Logs of the Great Sea Fights 1794-1805 Volume II, edited by Rear-Admiral T. Sturges Jackson and published in 1981. The volume presented the logs of the ships that fought at the battles of the Nile (1798) Copenhagen (1801) and Trafalgar (1805) together with other miscellaneous but related sources, such as signal books and associated correspondence.
Two things struck me very quickly: the first was that here was a great deal of highly detailed and easily accessible material; the second was that there seemed to be such huge gaps in the descriptions of what was happening and, more importantly, why it was happening. Together those two questions formed the basis for my PhD which sought to identify gaps in the written sources, particularly gaps in the written order and instruction books which governed behaviour in battle. I went on to find a complex web of unwritten rules and doctrine which governed fleet battle as surely as those written orders. Little of this was found in logs – the majority came from lengthier narrative descriptions of battles, primarily from the minutes of Court martial proceedings. These are excellent sources for understanding battle as, not only do they describe what happened but also the seamen or officers on the stand explain why things happened under questioning. The same questions, moreover, are often asked to a wide variety of people, leading to a lot of varied answers – and in that variety lies the truth that the historian of naval battle is trying to get at. Once you read this type of material you realise that the evidence supplied by the captains’ and masters’ logs provides you with the bones of what happened – but that you need to find the flesh elsewhere.
The joy of Logs of the Great Sea Fights is that you can easily dip in and find something fascinating. But perhaps my favourite bit comes from the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and an extraordinarily detailed letter from Captain Miller of the 74-gun Theseus to his wife.