Adam Nicolson has taken the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar to write a brilliant meditation on war, heroism, and violence. Nicolson brings real skill to his appointed task. He is a gifted narrative historian whose previous book was a best-selling account of the creation of the King James Bible. He is also a sailor and has published a splendid account of a voyage in a forty-two-foot ketch along the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. In Seize the Fire, Nicolson writes with both imagination and authority about the most celebrated naval battle of the age of sail.
Trafalgar invites an epic treatment. It was the decisive naval confrontation of the Napoleonic Wars. In one savage afternoon of combat, on October 21, 1805, Lord Horatio Nelson and the remarkable group of captains he termed his “band of brothers” destroyed the Franco-Spanish fleet Napoleon had collected to safeguard his long-planned invasion of Britain. His fleet gone, Napoleon consoled himself by marching his Grande Armée off to victory over the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz. England had been spared, however, and the British would continue to harass the French emperor until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Fittingly, a veteran of Trafalgar, HMS Bellerophon carried Napoleon off to exile at St. Helena.
The bare fact of victory does not by itself account for Trafalgar’s place in history. It was a smashingly one-sided triumph. The British fleet captured or sank eighteen French and Spanish ships while losing none of their own. Nelson’s men killed ten times as many of their enemies as they lost themselves; more than six thousand Frenchmen and Spaniards perished, as opposed to about six hundred British sailors. Shaping both the battle and its mythology was the outsized figure of Horatio Nelson. His legendary determination to come to grips with the enemy and his romantic fearlessness inspired his men to feats of self-sacrificial bravery. Fiction could not do justice to the image of the one-eyed and one-armed British admiral driving two columns of ships into the heart of the enemy fleet, defiantly pacing his quarterdeck, wearing a uniform all too conspicuously covered with the decorations of a distinguished career. Nelson’s wounding, and his lingering death in the hold of his flagship, HMS Victory, was described in exacting detail by survivors and invariably portrayed in patriotic iconography as Christ-like. Nelson was, indeed, the savior of his country. His signal to his fleet before the battle, “England expects every man to do his duty,” and his words as he lay dying, “Thank God, I have done my duty,” expressed his warrior’s code. Nelson’s call to duty became both his epitaph and a charge to his countrymen as he took his place as the greatest British hero of the nineteenth century. A grateful nation looked away from the admiral’s scandalous private life; the Nelson of Trafalgar became the idealized exemplar for the stoic English gentlemen who upheld Queen Victoria’s empire.
Nicolson has not written a traditional military narrative of the Battle of Trafalgar. As he describes the maneuverings of the fleets on the fateful 21st of October, he offers his readers fascinating digressions on the construction and operation of eighteenth century warships, the living conditions of ordinary seamen, the tactics and hazards of ship-to-ship combat, and the military culture of the Spanish, French, and British navies. This last is the most important aspect of the book. For all Nicolson’s self-evident delight in describing Nelson’s sailing ships, the most advanced technological marvels of their day, he is most concerned with the military ethos that guided the combatants at Trafalgar. Nicolson is interested in the moral dimension of battle; he wants to explore why people fight and how they understand and justify their actions. Nicolson argues convincingly that moral qualities inherent in the Royal Navy, epitomized by Nelson, gave the British victory.
The navies that fought at Trafalgar were strikingly different. They reflected the nations that sent them into battle. Nicolson notes that, because of this, the Battle of Trafalgar was probably won before it was fought.
Spain as a great power was decaying. Its political culture was conservative and torpid, ruined by generations of reliance on the treasure fleets that regularly arrived from its colonies. The aristocrats who ruled Spain were unimaginative and resistant to reforms that might have energized the country. A middle class scarcely existed in the country. Most of the population lived in hopeless poverty, prey to famine and disease. The Spanish navy was as hollow as the Spanish state. The Spanish possessed a number of large, well-constructed ships, but the government could neither staff nor maintain this fleet. The crews of the Spanish ships were drawn largely from...
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