The Glorious First of June is the third and final part of Willis's "Hearts of Oak" trilogy. Having read both "Admiral Benbow" and "Fighting Temeraire" my expectations were sky-high. And they were exceeded.
As in the other parts of this trilogy, Willis does a great job in not just treating the battle itself, but expanding widely into the various backgrounds. This book is primarily about the battle of the same name as the title, fought on the Atlantic in 1794. But the reader also gets educated in late 18th century theatre technology, maritime painting, the chaos in revolutionary France, the world of the Caribbean plantations and what have you not.
Willis is a first class storyteller and he has got detailed knowledge of sailing warfare. For example, he dispels various myths such as 'being on the windward side is always preferable' or 'British gunners shot at French hulls and French gunners only at British rigging and masts'. Even people who read a lot about warships in the age of sail will still learn a lot (who knew that Nelson fought an action in the beginning of the war in Agamenon, a 64 gunner, against a much smaller French frigate of 40odd guns in which Nelson was almost beaten by the spirited French?).
The story covers the French revolution, the first naval clashes between France and Britain including John Jervis's (later to become Lord St. Vincent) plunder campaign in the Caribbean and the destruction of much of the French fleet at Toulon, before turning into the real run-up to battle.
Willis makes the point that at this time (1793/94) the British navy was not THAT much better than the French. Its officers were far more experienced but its crews were mostly raw. The French certainly had their share of problems (it says a lot that their Admiral at this battle was still only a Lieutenant a year or so before), but they were highly motivated by two factors. One the one hand there was a desire to avenge the humiliation of their navy at Toulon. On the other hand, revolutionary France had its equivalent in the latter-day people's commissars in communist armies. The particular functionary responsible for the navy, Jeanbon, must have been a bloodthirsty maniac, but he was at least somewhat succesful in terrorizing those in the navy who were less motivated into fighting out of fear.
Of course I will not give away the ending. Suffice it to say that Willis has again produced an absolutely fantastic book for which 5 stars are really not sufficient. I am sure Willis could produce an exciting book about even the dullest battle - or about a period with no battle at all, for that matter. If I may venture one suggestion for improvement: the maps showing the relative positions of the fleets are nice in that they were made by a participant, but they are not clear. More clear maps would be nice. But I would be much more pleased if Willis would just move on to his next book, which undoubtedly will be a phenomenally good read as well. My suggestions for a topic would be either the naval aspects of the American War, or alternatively the Anglo-Dutch wars (and then preferably the first one). But again, even if he would choose a different period or campaign, success is still almost guaranteed. Willis rocks.