Monday, October 10, 2005


Victory at Sea: Two views of the Battle of Trafalgar

By John Aloysius Farrell
October 09, 2005

In the fall of 1796, an officer of the Royal Navy, on station in the Mediterranean in the war against France, gave vent to his frustration in a series of letters to his wife and family back in England.

Horatio Nelson was 38 and had spent his entire adult life in the navy. But victory, wealth and fame eluded him, and he feared he'd wasted his years of service.

"If I have money enough ... I wish you would buy a cottage in Norfolk," he wrote his wife, Fanny. "I shall follow the plough."

Nine years later, Nelson's death at the battle of Trafalgar, Oct. 21, 1805, capped his startling rise from despondent commodore to national hero.

Pacing the exposed quarterdeck of H.M.S. Victory, in a coat adorned with gleaming stars and medals, the one-eyed, one-armed Nelson led an outnumbered British squadron into battle against a combined French and Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar on Spain's Atlantic coast.

The British broke the enemy line and sank or captured 18 enemy vessels without losing one of their own. Nelson's victory clinched the Royal Navy's dominance of the seas and ended Napoleon's hopes of invading England.

Nelson was a man for his age: Self-made, ambitious, audacious.

He was "the best and fittest fellow in the world," a superior wrote, though "his zeal does ... outrun his discretion." He was, maybe, our first modern hero.

A middle child of a country parson, dispatched to sea at 12, Nelson chafed at the Old World's social strictures and failed at court in playing a courtier. He did not have "either the appearance or manner of a gentleman," a better-born acquaintance recalled, and his pride "blinded him to the advantages of being respected in Society."

The mob, however, loved him. The booming British population was increasingly literate, commercial and democratic. They were thrilled by his smashing victories and feasted on gossip when Nelson launched an adulterous relationship with Lady Hamilton, the most beautiful and notorious woman in Europe and a striver like himself.

"There was a need for a hero like him who was a saviour, a man not from the established ruling class but outside it, sharing its patrician grace, but ... less distant," writes Adam Nicolson.
"And to the general populace Nelson, more than any other man in the country, looked as if he had the secret of that new world in his hand," Nicolson concludes.

Nelson's great insight was to recognize, and encourage, similar qualities in his officers and men.
The French and Spanish showed no lack of courage at Trafalgar, and Nelson's battle plan was risky to the point of self-destruction. It called for the British to attack the enemy by making an agonizingly slow approach in light winds at right angles, which left them exposed to vicious broadsides.

The French and Spanish fighting force, however, was mired in feudal hierarchy, with admirals looking always toward the emperor in Paris or the king in Madrid for instructions, and captains dully following the admirals. They failed to match the British initiative, ferocity, professionalism, seamanship or gunnery.

Nelson's ships survived the enemy broadsides, and then it was the Royal Navy's turn to rake the foe at its weak points. The French admiral ordered his lead ships to turn and offer aid, but they responded too slowly, then sheared off when they saw what the British were doing.

"The genius of Nelson was to have understood our weakness," wrote a 19th-century French naval historian.

Nelson's death in battle, at the hands of a French sniper, cinched his victory's resonance. So did its status as the culminating conflict of the age of sail.

The romance of the Georgian era and its navy has lived on in the novels of Jane Austen (whose brother sailed with Nelson), C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brian and others.

The British are now nearing the end of "The Nelson Decade," commemorating the bicentennial of Trafalgar with academic symposiums, museum exhibits and re-creations of his battles.

Naval historians have offered new research and biographies and fresh looks at his greatest victories: Cape St. Vincent in 1797, the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801, and Trafalgar.

Nicolson's book is a superior addition to the Nelson canon. He is a fine social historian with an eye for marvelously telling details and analogies. As importantly, he knows his way around a sailboat.

For those whose thirst is not slaked by Nicolson's 341 pages, Roy Adkins provides his own worthy account of the battle in "Nelson's Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World."

Each author uses the battle's earliest stage -- the slow British advance upon the enemy fleet -- as a platform for intriguing diversions into nautical lore and history, the evolution of tactics and warships and the social and military history of the Napoleonic era.

Nicolson is the superior and more imaginative stylist, but military historians may find Adkins' more traditional, blow-by-blow account of the battle the more satisfying.


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