Billy Ruffian: the Bellerophon and the downfall of Napoleon, by David Cordingly

Glory and decline of a heart of oak

It was the dauntlessly plucky men who sailed in the Bellerophon who gave her the nickname "Billy Ruffian", and it suited her well. Although only a 74-gun frigate, she had one of the most remarkable careers of any of the formidably constructed "heart-of-oak" ships in the British Navy.

She was in on the "Glorious First of June" 1794, the first naval engagement with revolutionary France, the Battle of the Nile in 1798, when Nelson all but destroyed Napoleon's fleet, and Trafalgar, where her own captain was shot dead an hour before Nelson's death. But her most famous hour was in 1815, six weeks after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, when the deposed and fugitive emperor, hoping for kinder treatment from the English than from his own countrymen, asked to be taken aboard.

Describing the life of one of the ships that are the essential backdrop to the novels of Patrick O'Brian and CS Forester is a brilliant way to extend readers' understanding of those stirring times. David Cordingly's story details Bellerophon's construction at Chatham, her terms of service in the Channel, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Caribbean, and ends with her slow decline as a prison hulk. He takes every opportunity to bring alive both the officers and the men who served aboard her, using letters and memoirs to give the book an enthralling immediacy, especially for the weeks when the legendary Napoleon ("rather stout, very full in the face, but very stern and thoughtful in his manner") was aboard.

For all the fascination of hammock-slinging, knitting, lighting and latrines, the great naval actions are the high points of this book. Whether describing the game of hide-and-seek played by Napoleon and Nelson in the southern Mediterranean just before Napoleon's astonishingly risky landing in Egypt, or the meshing of rival fleets into battle stations, Cordingly produces a thrilling narrative which brings "engaging the enemy" so alive that you smell the cordite of the guns and hear the splintering of mighty masts and spars. He also excels in explaining strategy in terms of sailing capabilities without becoming confusingly technical.

Life in the British navy was so tough that many sailors risked their lives by jumping ship or even mutinying. But it was much less dangerous than the army. For all the awful efficacy of the guns that raked the decks and toppled the masts, very few vessels actually sank. The percentage of casualties was extraordinarily low: no more 17 per cent killed or wounded at Trafalgar, for example, as opposed to 29 per cent of soldiers at Waterloo.

An added attraction of the book is the high quality of its production. It is prefaced by well-drawn maps of the different theatres of war in which Bellerophon served, and has a generous complement of illustrations. As you would expect of an author who was Keeper of Pictures at the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, many are reproductions of fine marine paintings. They convey ordinary life on ships of the line, as well as the maelstrom of being under fire, with an intensity and vividness far greater than any photograph.