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Posted on Aug 16, 2005 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm – Book Review

Armchair General

trafcover1.jpgTrafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm

Tim Clayton, Phil Craig
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2005, ISBN: 034083028X

"France is the only power whose maritime force has hitherto been a balance to that of Great Britain and whose commerce has rivalled ours in two worlds…Could England succeed in destroying the naval strength of her rival; could she turn the tide of that rich commerce…"

These prophetic comments, written in The Times on the 8th of February 1793 appeared shortly after war broke out yet again between the ancient enemies of England and France. With France enjoying huge commercial benefits from her colonies in the West Indies and having bloodied England’s nose during the American War of Independence by threatening invasion if reinforcements were sent to quell the rebellion, it was clear that the scores needed to be settled between the two great powers. Since Great Britain naturally relied on its Naval strength to defend herself and her Empire it became inevitable that a Naval confrontation of some sort would be necessary to determine control of the waves once and for all – and the future of Europe itself. That battle would be the Battle of Trafalgar.

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The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar has seen a marked resurgence of interest in this era of British history, and a veritable wave (no pun intended) of new books on the subject of the battle and the great English hero, Viscount Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson himself.

As Naval historians will be aware, the 21st of October 1805 saw twenty-seven British ships of the line, under the command of Admiral Nelson, engage thirty-three ships of the combined fleet of France and Spain which had only just broken out from the Spanish port of Cadiz. Looking at the bare facts, the odds were not in favour of the British fleet – with five ships having been sent out for procurement or escort duties, and a sixth ship on her way back home, Admiral Nelson found himself outnumbered with only twenty-seven vessels available. In addition, the combined enemy fleet contained the largest battleship in the world within its ranks, the huge four-decker Spanish warship Santisima Trinidad.

Despite all of this, the titanic battle that followed just off of Cape Trafalgar in the Atlantic Ocean saw twenty-three ships of the combined fleet either destroyed or captured, with no British losses. The British victory was absolute and it cemented Great Britain’s dominance of the high seas for the next century that followed. However the battle was not without a huge cost to Great Britain – for Admiral Nelson himself was mortally wounded by a French sniper during the height of the battle and died of his wounds having secured a momentous victory for the Royal Navy.

This book is no dry recount of the facts – it stands out from the crowd in that it uses meticulously researched contemporaneous accounts from all sides, not just those of the victors, to tell the story of the battle in intricate detail, following the hours of the battle blow by blow and almost minute by minute.

Able Seaman James Martin aboard HMS Neptune is quoted, talking of the destruction of Santisima Trinidad’s mizzenmast as three British ships pounded her massive frame:

"This tremendous fabric gave a deep roll with the swell to leeward, then back to windward; and on her return every mast went by the board, leaving her an unmanageable hulk on the water. Her immense topsails had every reef out, her royals were sheeted home but lowered, and the falling mass of spars, sails and rigging, plunging into the water at the muzzles of our guns, was one of the most magnificent sights I ever beheld."

It is quotes like the above, liberally sprinkled throughout the main text, that bring home the awesome power, the might, the glory, and the pain and suffering of the battle. The reader is sucked into the story of the battle as if reading a novel. One feels every death as if one is there on deck, feeling the thunderous roar of the cannon, the splash of the waves and the roll of each ship as the battle unfolds from the points of view of those who fought.

Of course, the centrepiece of the book is the battle itself, but the wealth of information contained within this tome also covers the preparations for the battle, the orders given to both sides before that fateful day, and the hurricane force storm that followed, a storm which found dozens of half-wrecked warships in no fit state to sail, a disaster beyond comprehension for the survivors and their floating half-wrecks. As regards the storm, the book discusses Admiral Collingwood’s inexplicable decision to ignore Nelson’s final orders before he died -an order to anchor and ride out the storm that he knew was coming. Just why Did Collingwood refuse to anchor the remains of the fleet and what were the consequences of his failure to do so? You’ll have to read the book to find out. For this reason, and many others – I’d recommend this to anyone.

A J Summersgill

andrew@armchairgeneral.com

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