(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

To avid readers of Patrick O’Brian’s superb novels of the period, the Napoleonic Wars are a triumphant succession of victories brought about by Captain Jack Aubrey of the British Royal Navy and master of political intrigue Dr. Stephen Maturin. The intrepid duo meet each other for the first time at a chamber music concert that takes place on April 1, 1800. From that initial novel in the series, Master and Commander (1969), to the twentieth and final volume, Blue at the Mizzen(1999), one can follow the exploits of these two companions as they survive numerous battles, shipwrecks, fortunes won and lost. Along the way, O’Brian allows readers to stand on the quarterdeck, to experience the carnage of war in a wooden ship, to smell the tarred rigging and black powder. O’Brian is justly celebrated for infusing life into events of the distant past. The fact that the series begins on April Fools’ Day, however, is significant. O’Brian communicates to the reader that one should never equate the ordered appearance of a fictional reality with documented historical fact.

With this in mind, O’Brian’s fictional view of this period proves to be an effective starting point for a discussion of The Terror Before Trafalgar, Tom Pocock’s excellent nonfictional account of Britain at war with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Pocock’s work shocks the reader into the realization that, far from being merely Britain’s isolated struggle with France, the Napoleonic period was perhaps the first true world war. It eventually involved all the major European military powers, including Russia, Prussia, and Spain, in addition to the two opponents glaring at each other across the English Channel.

While many readers recall that the naval battle at Trafalgar took place in 1805, the concluding land battle of the conflict, Waterloo, did not occur until ten years later. Given the massive scale of these wars, Pocock, a noted authority on Lord Nelson (1758-1805), focuses on the neglected period before the great naval battle. O’Brian paints a picture of a pugnacious Britain that stands on the threshold of becoming an economic, political, and military superpower; Pocock describes a reality that is nearly the exact opposite.

As The Terror Before Trafalgar opens, it is the year 1801, and England has been at war with revolutionary France for a full eight years. The prologue perfectly captures the mood of frustration that had taken hold of the nation and sets the tone for much of the book. Lord Nelson, after having annihilated the Danish fleet at Copenhagen as part of a plan to end the Armed Neutrality of the North, succeeded in forcing the crown prince to accept a truce. It was a costly battle all around: Casualties numbered in the thousands. What at first had seemed to be a great victory soon gave way to disenchantment when it was learned that the key figure in Denmark’s alliance, Czar Paul I of Russia, had been killed prior to Nelson’s attack. The battle had been in vain, and it effectively symbolized England’s plight.

Years of war had produced what had come to be regarded as a virtual stalemate. Britain, with its large fleet and experienced seamen, could effectively oppose French naval actions, while France continued to accrue impressive victories in its land battles. The British army amounted to less than 130,000 men, and though more than 400,000 volunteers could defend the nation in some capacity, they were no match for Napoleon’s battle-tested force of 500,000 men. It was for this reason that the English referred to this period as the “Great Terror”—the first time since 1066 that the island nation was faced with the threat of invasion.

This fearful prospect only loomed larger when Nelson’s forces attempted to destroy the prime staging area for the French invasion at the port of Boulogne. When the British tried to sink or remove the French vessels in what was called a “cutting-out expedition,” they were easily repulsed by the entrenched defenders. Pocock makes effective use of his source material by giving a human dimension to his descriptions of military actions. He provides a mesmerizing description of the Boulogne endeavor and enhances his narrative with vivid details from the...

(The entire section is 1736 words.)