Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins was first published this year. The subject is the Spanish and French siege of British controlled Gibraltar that occurred between 1779 and 1783. This book is a military, social and political history. Though I think that the title is a little sensationalist, this is well written and researched. It tells a fascinating story. The writers are a husband and wife team. They are both historians and archeologists.
Such a large event involving all sorts of history that occurred in Europe during this time period is in and of itself of interest to me. However, I also wanted to know more about this siege because it was part of the world - wide conflict between Great Britain, France and Spain that The American Revolution was also part of. In fact, many sources classify this siege as being part of The American Revolution. The authors of this book even write,
"Although the Great Siege has no other name, it was in reality part of the American War of Independence. The actions and ambitions of France and Spain had caused that war to spill across the Atlantic into Europe, and the war zone would extend from Britain to Gibraltar, Spain and Minorca."
The conflict actually spanned the entire world. Personally, I think that this war needs another name. It encompassed both The American Revolution and what was known as The Second Anglo-Mysore War in India. It does not have one however.
It turns out that, to a great extent, Spain, joined France and the rebellious American Colonies in a war against Great Britain because it wanted to take Gibraltar from The British. One theme that I came across in this work as well as in Brothers at Armsby Larrie D. Ferreiro was that in a way, Great Britain sacrificed America for Gibraltar. In diplomatic wranglings before Spain went to war with Great Britain, it demanded that Great Britain cede the fortress as it had been Spanish territory in the past. Had Great Britain acquiesced, Spain would have stayed out of the war. This world have increased the chance of a British victory that would have led it to retain America.
Later, as this work illustrates, enormous resources were diverted to hold Gibraltar. These resources would have made a great difference in America. In fact, a fleet that Great Britain sent to relieve Gibraltar was diverted from intercepting a French Fleet that played a decisive part in Great Britain’s loss at Yorktown. That defeat cemented the American victory against Great Britain.
The authors cite multiple sources to illustrate this point. They write,
“In 1783 the Scottish politician and prolific writer Sir John Sinclair anonymously published a booklet in which he expressed the opinion that Spain had only supported America’s bid for independence in the expectation of gaining Gibraltar: ‘the possession of America has been sacrificed to the retention of Gibraltar. That darling object could alone have induced Spain to countenance the independence of our Colonies, and without her assistance that event could never have taken place.’ “
Once Spain declared war, both the British garrison as well as civilian population were besieged on Gibraltar. The Spanish cut off land access and tried to enforce a sea blockade. Initially the Spanish just tried to cut off supplies. Though some ships with food and provisions got through, there was hunger and depravation amongst the besieged. While there were no actual famine deaths some did die of scurvy and other diseases. Thrice, large convoys made it through the blockade providing months of food and supplies.
Later, an artillery bombardment, that lasted for years began. This caused great hardship for soldiers and civilians alike. Several large sea battles took place as well as fighting on land as the Spanish tried to dig trenches and build fortifications closer and closer to the Gibraltar garrison.
Toward the end of the siege, The Spanish, along with newly arrived French forces, went all out. Ten huge ‘Floating Batteries” were constructed. These were old merchant ships that were highly modified. One side was of each vessel was heavily reinforced with layers of protection. These ships were also filled with cannons. The goal of these unwieldy and lopsided vessels was to serve as indestructible gun platforms that would destroy Gibraltar’s considerable defenses and artillery emplacements. An army of 50,000 was also assembled for a final assault on the fortress. Over the course of a single day and night, Gibraltar’s formidable artillery, using red hot cannonballs, designed to set these ships on fire, engaged in a massive firefight with these vessels. I have read a fair amount of military history, but I never before read about a battle like this one.
The book celebrates heroism and courage but does not glorify war. The authors’ pull no punches at the horrors that occurred. The deprivation and disease that both the garrison and the besiegers is detailed. Deaths caused by battle are also described realistically. When the Spanish and French launched their large - scale assault on the garrison, people on both sides died. But the Spanish sailors suffered terribly. Thousands perished in the infernos that the floating batteries became as the searing - hot English cannon balls took their toll.
This book consists of extremely long quotations from the diaries and journals of those who participated. In fact, I do not think that I have read a history book before with so much first - hand material. I would estimate that these quotations make up approximately twenty five percent of the book. Though I found this a bit excessive, I also found that this gave a sense of authenticacy to the work.
One negative about this book is that it is almost entirely told from the British point of view. Spanish and French strategy as well as what that side experienced is presented almost as an afterthought. It seems that the authors’ intentionally set out to tell this history in this fashion. However, I think that this would have been a much stronger account had it been balanced.
This is an extremely well researched history book. It tells, what for me, is an intriguing story. It describes an important and unique event in history. However, it contains a lot of it is military history and descriptions of battles. Thus, those not interested in such might not care for this work. If that is not an issue for the reader, this is a book that will appeal strongly to those interested in this period of European and American history.