The War for All the Oceans

” ****** This is a fantastic book. Worthy of the rare but coveted six stars …

History at its dramatic finest” (Seb Palmer, illustrator par excellence)


The War for All the Oceans Book Cover
UK hardcover

The War for All the Oceans Book - US Cover
US hardcover
The War for All the Oceans Book - US Penguin paperback cover
US paperback

‘A rollicking, patriotic account of the Napoleonic Wars that will go down well with Master and Commander fans’ (Dominic Sandbrook, The Telegraph)


‘Sumptuous storytelling recreates the first worldwide war … This real-life action will delight fans of fictional heroes from the same war – Horatio Hornblower (C.S. Forester) and Richard Sharpe (Bernard Cornwell)’ (Kirkus Reviews)


Publication Details

The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo by Roy and Lesley Adkins was originally published in the UK and Commonwealth in hardcover by Little, Brown and in the US by Viking Penguin. It is now available in paperback (Abacus in the UK and Commonwealth and Penguin in the US). It is also sold as an unabridged audiobook by Tantor, read by Patrick Lawlor, and e-books are also available.


The period 1798 to 1815 with the Napoleonic Wars and the 1812 War with America has just about everything that you could wish for in a book on naval history: large fleet actions such as the Battles of the Nile and Copenhagen; many duels between pairs or small groups of ships, such as the Shannon and Chesapeake; combined naval and army operations like the disastrous Walcheren expedition; and attempts to destroy enemy ships with new inventions like torpedoes and rockets. One of the strangest episodes is that of HMS Diamond Rock, not a warship at all but a convenient rock just off Martinique that the British captured in order to harrass the French.

Temple Prison
The Temple prison in Paris, where spies
such as Sir Sidney Smith were held.
Sidney Smith
Sir Sidney Smith at the siege of Acre

Most naval histories stop at Nelson and his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but The War for All the Oceans shows that what came afterwards is just as fascinating. At various times the British Navy took on almost every other nation that had a rival fleet: the French, Spanish, Dutch, Danes, Russians, Turks and Americans. Shipping routes all over the world were guarded to ensure that trade with Britain was not interrupted, and as Napoleon lost his empire, the British Empire formed solid foundations all because the Royal Navy came to control the oceans.

Naval history is not just about broadsides and bloodshed, but the lives and experiences of real people, and so extensive eyewitness accounts vividly portray not just the battles but also aspects of life such as shipwrecks, press-gangs, prostitutes, spies and prisoners-of-war. This book tells the story of those who belonged to the Royal Navy during the war at sea with Napoleon and America. A man-of-war was literally home to hundreds of sailors for years at a time, with cautious captains afraid to let the men go on shore in case they deserted. These men had no entitlement to annual leave and no right to see their families: many had been forced on board and did not want to be there. Imagine a time when families around the coast and far inland were more afraid of the press-gang than they were of Napoleon, because the press-gang could seize boys and men, even from their beds. Their wives were left without financial support and rarely knew if their husbands were dead or alive, or maybe even a prisoner-of-war in France. If you delve into the history of any family in the British Isles, the chances are that some ancestors will be connected to the sea , and during the Napoleonic Wars, the press-gangs are quite likely to have forced them into the navy.

The press-gang in action.

Anson cannon
A cannon salvaged from the wreck of the
Anson on the Loe Bar near Helston.

Excerpt (from Chapter 3: The Siege of Acre)

Among the dead in the moat was the mutilated body of a French general, who had worn an impressive uniform. The body had been stripped and beheaded by the Turks, and the sight particularly offended Daniel Bryan, a seaman of the Tigre described as an honest, though the truth must be told somewhat obtuse-minded old tar. He asked why nobody had buried the corpse and was told, Go and do it yourself. So he did. Other sailors tried to stop him and even offered to go in his place, but he replied, No! you are too young to be shot yet; as for me, I am old and deaf and my loss would be no great matter. They lowered him down the wall on a rope with a pick and shovel, and an eyewitness recalled how his first difficulty, not a very trivial one, was to drive away dogs that were feeding on the corpses. Then the French spotted him…

Portchester Prison
Portchester Castle, where French prisoners-of-war were held.
Duckworth in Dardanelles
Duckworth’s squadron forcing their way through the Dardanelles.
Stephen Decatur
Stephen Decatur, the famous American captain.


Prologue: With Cannon and Cutlass
Chapter 1 – Gateway to India
Chapter 2 – Battle of the Nile
Chapter 3 – Siege of Acre
Chapter 4 – From Naples to Copenhagen
Chapter 5 – War and Peace
Chapter 6 – Hot Press
Chapter 7 – Invasion Fleet
Chapter 8 – Turning Point
Chapter 9 – In Every Sea
Chapter 10 – Conflict and Commerce
Chapter 11 – The Sea Wolf
Chapter 12 – By Land and Sea
Chapter 13 – The Grand Expedition
Chapter 14 – Disaster
Chapter 15 – Prisoners and Privateers
Chapter 16 – The Hand of Providence
Chapter 17 – Triumph and Tragedy
Chapter 18 – The Great Mistake
Chapter 19 – Up the Chesapeake
Chapter 20 – Star-Spangled Banner
Chapter 21 – Swansong
Chapter 22 – The Turn of Fortune’s Wheel

Window display at Warwick Books
Window display at Warwick Books.
Window display at Waterstones in Torquay
Window display at Waterstones in Torquay – the cannon was loaned by Brixham Museum.
The staff at Torquay's Waterstones
The staff at Torquay’s Waterstones on the night of our talk, all in costume (loaned by Brixham Museum).

Available Rights

World English Language and Polish rights are no longer available. The book is published in Poland in a beautifully produced hardcover as Wojna o wszystkie oceany: od Nelsona nad Nilem do Napoleona pod Waterloo by Rebis Publishing House.

Poland jacket
Poland jacket.

Some Reviews

‘Meticulously researched – drawing on extensive and intimate eyewitness accounts from contemporary journals, letters and memoirs – this lively narrative will delight students and fans of nautical history’ (Publisher’s Weekly)

‘A rollicking, patriotic account of the Napoleonic Wars that will go down well with Master and Commander fans’ (Dominic Sandbrook, The Telegraph). Our book was chosen as one of the history books of the year in The Telegraph.

Our book was chosen as one of the top nine military titles of 2006 in The Sunday Times, with the comment that ‘Roy and Lesley Adkins tell the rousing tale of the overall British naval effort in the Napoleonic wars with great panache’ (John Crossland, The Sunday Times)

‘The Adkins’s engaging narrative … is an ambitious and valuable book. Drawing imaginatively on a range of eyewitness accounts, it provides a powerful panorama of a worldwide war that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Americas’ (Nick Rennison, The Sunday Times)

‘Sumptuous storytelling recreates the first worldwide war … This real-life action will delight fans of fictional heroes from the same war – Horatio Hornblower (C.S. Forester) and Richard Sharpe (Bernard Cornwell)’ (Kirkus Reviews)

‘Very readable, this is a lively example of narrative history. There are tales of derring-do alongside portraits of characters such as the brilliant, eccentric naval commander Sir Sidney Smith’ (Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Financial Times)

‘It is a great overall review covering the Battle of the Nile to Waterloo … the Adkins’ writing style is nonacademic; they’re relating an exciting story’ (Tony Gerard,

‘Their account is most engrossing when they utilize eyewitness accounts of ordinary seamen to capture the intensity of battle as well as the grind of day-to-day life aboard a warship. The Adkins display such superb technological knowledge of their subject that they can be excused for their occasional delving into “Britannica Rules the Waves” enthusiasm. A superior work of maritime history that both scholars and general readers should enjoy’ (Jay Freeman, Booklist [American Library Association])

‘Roy and Lesley Adkins have written a marvelous narrative history … there is no question that sea power contributed mightily to Napoleon’s defeat, and this fine book drives home that point colorfully’ (Geoffrey Wawro, Professor of Military History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, in History Book Club)

‘A first-class book, wide in scope and gripping in detail. From diseases to prostitutes to military action, Adkins brings knowledge and power to the subject. It would be difficult to find a more creative book on the British navy during its most tumultuous period’ (Colin Gardiner, The Oxford Times)

‘A gripping portrayal of a little-known aspect of our history, told mainly by people who made that history … the book has a strong ‘period’ feel and powerful immediacy … The post-1805 section is packed with dramatic incidents and colourful personalities, leaving the reader breathless with its accounts of battles at all corners of the globe … The great celebrant of the sailing navy, novelist Patrick O’Brian, once said that naval history of the Nelsonian period is Britain’s Iliad. Like Homer’s epic, it is a story of ‘so many sturdy souls/ great fighters’ souls’. Lesley and Roy Adkins deserve our gratitude for allowing some of these ‘sturdy souls’ to speak again so vividly’ (Colin White, The Observer)

‘Hazardous but often abortive operations … fireships and rocket batteries … primitive torpedoes … such daredevilry comes alive in Adkins’s choice of quotations from the diaries and combatants – a drama of blazing ships and broadsides and the awesome power of the elements, which even the finest of the many modern fiction interpreters of the era could hardly improve on … I found this book an enjoyable coda to Trafalgar year’ (John Crossland, The Sunday Times)

‘A fascinating study … In this action-packed and highly readable book, the narrative rattles along like a CS Forester or Patrick O’Brian novel, with a wealth of detail about naval life … making this one of the most authoritative but accessible studies of Nelson’s navy available’ (Andy Smith, The Geographical)

‘This lengthy, wide-ranging, well-researched and very well written book explains well what happened in that turbulent and vitally important period’ (Ships and Shipping)

‘Full of gripping eyewitness accounts of what happened … we won’t spoil the ending but Nelson plays a blinder’ (Motor Boat & Yachting)

‘Hugely readable if occasionally rather jingoistic book’ (Roger Cox, The Scotsman)

‘This is a fascinating, lively, tour d’horizon of the Royal Navy and its battles, its trials and tribulations, its way of life in an era of heroes known – Nelson, Cochrane, Hood – and heroes unknown’ (Navy News)

‘The Adkins set themselves a daunting task – to cover such an action-packed seventeen-year period as 1798–1815 in just one volume – but they succeed brilliantly and bring it vividly to life in this compelling narrative history. Their inclusion of eye-witness accounts gives a powerful immediacy to the text. And for those wanting to follow up a particular item, the book is well indexed, with an extensive notes and bibliography section’ (Julian Stockwin, The Bosun’s Chronicle)

‘The authors have drawn extensively on firsthand accounts to create a compelling picture of the triumphs and tragedies of the war against Napoleon, as well as the ill-judged campaign in America’ (Sandra Speares, Lloyd’s List)

‘Compelling and comprehensive new book about the British Navy’s epic struggle against Napoleon’ (Colin Bradley, Western Morning News)

‘This is an historical narrative, beautifully composed and written, and brought to life through the letters and reminiscences of the participants themselves. This is how history should be written … The authors must be complimented on their excellent choices, interpretations and essential linking histories … It is all a captivating history of naval actions, held dramatically together by and through the words and stories of the eyewitnesses … It may be long but it is a spell-binding narrative of the essentially human reaction to an enthralling period of naval history. A book not to be put down’ (Francis Bennett, SW Soundings)

‘A stirring account’ (Sue Baker, Publishing News)

‘One of the many strengths of this book is the way that it is not just the captains and commanders who speak to us through the numerous first-hand accounts that the authors weave into their narrative, but also the seamen and the prostitutes – thus conveying a sense of the Great War’s human dimensions, as well as the official history, the black humour as well as the bravery, the devilry as well as the sheer dogged determination to survive and win this hellish war’ (Christopher Catling, Salon)

‘Another masterly work from the Adkins … a breathtaking journey through one of the most glorious periods of our past’ (Nigel Lines, Herald Express)

‘This book takes us through the mammoth story of the naval struggle throughout the Napoleonic wars … we’re allowed insights into diaries and journals of the day which tell us just how awful it was to serve on a warship in the early 19th century’ (George Byrne, Evening Herald)

‘A splendid account … numerous eyewitness accounts provide a vivid impression of what it was like to be present at events which confirmed British supremacy of the seas’ (Kathy Chater, Ancestors magazine)

‘Les auteurs relatent avec talent les différents conflits maritimes en commençant par les opérations en Egypte et en Syrie avec les batailles d’Aboukir et de Saint-Jean-d’Acre, le premier bombardement de Copenhague en 1801 … Le mérite des auteurs en particulier, est de citer de nombreux textes empruntés aux témoins oculaires de l’époque à partir de leurs mémoires ou journal … L’ombre des grands marins britanniques est constamment présente: les Sidney Smith, Nelson, Cochrane, Collingwood, Calder, Cockburn et autres. Ils appartiennent désormais non seulement à l’histoire de la Grande-Bretagne, mais aussi à celle de l’Europe’ (Alain Chappet, Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien)

In this action-packed and highly readable book, the narrative rattles along like a CS Forester or Patrick O’Brian novel, with a wealth of detail about naval life – from press gangs to prostitution – along the way … making this one of the most authoritative but accessible studies of Nelson’s navy available’ (Andy Smith, The Know magazine)

‘The authors have written a solid, readable account of naval operations during the Napoleonic Wars’ (Saul David, Sunday Telegraph)

‘This is a superb reference book that comes complete with all the excitement and intrigue of Hornblower or a Bernard Cornwell novel. The War for All the Oceans offers outstanding insight into the lives of ordinary seamen, officers and civilians of the period. The action is constant and it is sometimes hard to remember that this is a history book and not a novel. An elegantly researched novel and a cracking good read!’ (Ray Hatley,

‘The authors’ skill and excellent narrative successfully brings to life accounts of everyday life for the sailor at that time … This volume will provide fascinating reading for anyone from the casual reader who normally enjoys the Hornblower style novels, through to the serious family and maritime history researcher and naval historian. This volume in my opinion is a must read!’ (Michael D Booker,

‘This is the extraordinary story of the British Navy’s epic struggle against Napoleon … From press-gangs to prostitutes to prisoners-of-war, this vivid and authoritative account describes the harsh realities of life at sea, and on land, during the most action packed years of British naval history’ (Anglian Evergreen)

‘On the desk beside my laptop is their magnificent new book The War for All the Oceans … splendidly illustrated, this book is sure to be found in a parcel under many Christmas trees this year’ (Anne Weale,

These are some reviews sent to us by readers, to give a flavour of their opinions:

‘I have just finished reading your book The War for All the Oceans and have greatly enjoyed it. I am looking forward to your next book, Jack Tar. I also have Trafalgar on the shelf waiting to be read, and it will be next! Your style of writing is very entertaining while still providing a great deal of historical data’ (KG, USA)

‘Before I started reading it I had the feeling of being about to open a box of chocolates and not knowing which to pick first. It truly was a fantastic read. I was particularly taken with the story of Robert Jeffery and his trials on Sombrero Island, and am surprised that there is no Hollywood movie! Thank you once again for providing me with such wonderful knowledge and entertainment through your work’ (JG, Teeside, UK)

‘I have read many books on the age of sail, but they never go beyond the large strategic picture and the details of the major naval battles. Your book has delved into so many parts of that era that I never knew existed. I thank you for enlightening me. It was a truly wonderful read’ (MH, USA)

‘I have just finished reading your book on “The War for All the Oceans” and found it to be delightful. Your style of direct quotations adds humanity and realism to the accounts and is the kind of history that should be taught in schools’ (PM, Canada)

‘I have just read your “The War for All the Oceans” and appreciate the amount of research that has gone into it and the attention to detail’ (RTB, Ickenham)

‘Very much enjoyed “The War for All the Oceans” … All in all, a great book, will be reading “Trafalgar” soon’ (ML, USA)

‘Thank you for writing The War for All the Oceans. I finished reading it a few minutes ago and feel like I have been through the wars personally. I was drawn to your book because I have been reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and it was a joy to learn about the historical events the stories were based on. And so much more. I had a feeling your book would be a good one when I first picked it up. It was even better than expected’ (AM, Canada)

‘I just finished reading The War for All the Oceans and it was so informative … I like to read all the books an author puts out if I am enthralled by the first one – and I am telling everyone about your work!’ (JA, USA)