Siege men­tal­ity

AN­DREW LAM­BERT ad­mires an ex­cit­ing ac­count of one of naval his­tory’s most grip­ping in­ci­dents

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - An­drew Lam­bert is a pro­fes­sor of naval his­tory and au­thor of Cru­soe’s Is­land (2016)

Gi­bral­tar: The Great­est Siege in Bri­tish His­tory by Roy and Les­ley Ad­kins Lit­tle Brown, 480 pages, £20

From a quick glance at the ti­tle of Roy and Les­ley Ad­kins’ new book, ca­sual read­ers may won­der how the “great­est siege in Bri­tish his­tory” could have taken place such a very long way away from Bri­tain. Yet for much of his­tory, strate­gi­cally placed naval bases were the key to Bri­tish power across the globe. Gi­bral­tar, a moun­tain ris­ing steeply from a nar­row sand spit, was the most im­por­tant: it se­cured the en­trance to the Mediter­ranean for trade and naval power.

Spain’s grip on the in­land sea was bro­ken in 1704, when the Royal Navy seized the town. In 1779, France and Spain de­clared war on Bri­tain, sup­port­ing re­belling Amer­i­can colonists in­tent on weak­en­ing Bri­tain’s global em­pire. Gi­bral­tar’s 7,000-man Bri­tish gar­ri­son found them­selves un­der siege from French and Span­ish forces. Un­der the com­mand of Gen­eral Sir Ge­orge Au­gus­tus Eliott, they de­fied block­ade and mas­sive bom­bard­ments from land and sea for a gru­elling three and a half years (1779–1783). The town was re­duced to rub­ble, but the de­fences held, and ca­su­al­ties were low.

As any­one fa­mil­iar with their pre­vi­ous books will ex­pect, Roy and Les­ley Ad­kins tell the dra­matic story of the siege through the words of eye­wit­nesses and con­tem­po­raries. The ac­tion is par­tially re­counted by those di­rectly in­volved: Bri­tish, Span­ish, French and Ger­man sol­diers, sailors and civil­ians of all ranks.

The book sets the siege against the back­drop of the Amer­i­can War of In­de­pen­dence, high­light­ing that although

Bri­tain lost the Amer­i­can colonies, it re­tained com­mand of the sea, the key to se­cu­rity, trade and em­pire.

The au­thors also ex­plore how Gi­bral­tar, held by right of con­quest by the Bri­tish for more than 300 years, was a place that came to de­fine Bri­tish re­solve. ‘As strong as the Rock of Gi­bral­tar’ was no mere turn of phrase. As Daniel De­foe ob­served, the rock had re­placed Dover as the quin­tes­sen­tial Bri­tish fortress be­cause it was the key to an over­seas em­pire of trade.

This book is a fas­ci­nat­ing, well-crafted ac­count of a siege that de­fined Bri­tish­ness, and shaped the strat­egy of the next four ma­jor wars.

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