Hardback, Viking Adult, 2005
392 pages, $27.95

The Battle of Trafalgar was fought two hundred years ago, on October 21, 1805, and has long been considered one of the pivotal naval battles in world history. This puts it in the select company of the Battle of Salamis (594 BC), the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), the Battle of Jutland in World War I and the Battles of Midway and Leyte Gulf in World War II, to cite a few examples.

The past year has seen a number of books published to commemorate Trafalgar, in which England, led by the legendary Lord Nelson, defeated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet and in so doing ended the threat of a French invasion by Napoleon.

It is rare that two books on the same subject complement each other so well, but Seize the Fire by Adam Nicolson and Nelson’s Trafalgar by Roy Adkins do exactly that. It was a pleasure to read two such carefully researched, well-written accounts of the same event. The result, for me at least, was an in-depth view of what Roy Adkins describes as “the last major battle between two fleets of sailing warships.”

Adkins goes on to remind us that within 60 years the first iron battleship was launched. If one is looking for a difference between the two books, Nelson’s Trafalgar focuses more on the participants involved whereas Seize the Fire is more of a social history of the times. Both, however, are eminently readable accounts of this great battle.

But first, a brief description of the circumstances that led to Trafalgar.

“Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours, and we are masters of the world,” Napoleon confidently wrote in July of 1804. Adkins begins Nelson’s Trafalgar with this statement and goes on to explain Napoleon’s complex plan for invading England. Napoleon was obsessed with defeating England, which, with only a few exceptions, had consistently defeated France on both land and sea for the preceding 50 years.

His plan was typically audacious and, in this case, doomed to failure. It might have worked with armies on land, but it was far too complicated to work at sea. The stage for the battle was set when a combined Franco-Spanish fleet sailed out of Cadiz harbor in southern Spain and engaged the English fleet ten miles off of Cape Trafalgar.

Adam Nicolson devotes more than half of Seize the Fire to depicting the world that produced this climactic battle. He describes “Spain as a country going nowhere.” Profoundly conservative, it lacked a middle class. One cannot help but feel sorry for the unfortunate sailors in the Spanish fleet; their ships were undermanned and in poor condition. Barely ten percent of the crew members were legitimate sailors. Adkins adds, “Spanish crews were widely recognized as brave but badly trained and inexperienced.”

Nor was the situation in the French fleet much better. By 1805 the French Revolution had failed, and the state of the French navy reflected this collapse. Nicolson writes that “their navy was governed by an “ideology of terror and virtue … Captains who surrendered their ships would be guillotined … At Trafalgar the French Fleet limped onto the battlefield”. England was different. Both authors emphasize the contrast between England and her opponents. Again, to quote Nicolson, “England was leaving Europe behind: in the growth of its middle class, in the number of people living in towns and cities and in the size of its government.” He then presents an interesting economic interpretation of the battle. “Trafalgar was fought by trade, for trade. It might be seen as the first great bourgeois victory of European history and its heroes were the first great heroes of the British middle class.”

What of the battle itself? When Nicolson finally gets to a bloody description of Trafalgar the reader is well past the middle of the book. Simply put, the battle was a massacre. Lord Nelson’s tactic was not to sink enemy ships, but to kill as many of the enemy crew as possible. A broadside from the ROYAL SOVEREIGN killed or wounded 240 of the 800 men on the Spanish flagship SANTA ANA. Ship’s cannons blasted away at each other for hours at close range. It is a wonder that anyone survived.

The British won at Trafalgar because of Nelson’s dogged tactics; they simply killed more of their enemies. (British casualties were about 25 percent compared to 50 percent of those of the Combined Fleet). A Spaniard, Don Domingo Grandallana, observing the English tactics, wrote, “An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends … On the contrary a Frenchman or a Spaniard works under a system with no mutual support and goes into action with hesitation.” At the end of the battle not one British ship had surrendered or been sunk in the battle or the violent four-day storm that followed, a ringing testimony the superiority of the British navy.

Adkins describes an equally horrific battle, though otherwise Nelson’s Trafalger focuses more on the life (and death) of Nelson and key members of his entourage.

The fact that the great man was killed at the height of the battle cast a pall over this otherwise momentous victory. His funeral was a national event, with people coming from all across England to pay their respects. Almost overnight Nelson was elevated to iconic status. Today his statue stands atop a 165-foot column in the middle of Trafalgar Square from whence the legendary admiral surveys all London, indeed all of England.

Harry Gratwick writes regularly for Island Institute publications. He is a summer resident of Vinalhaven.