Alan Schom’s TRAFALGAR: COUNTDOWN TO BATTLE, 1803 to 1805
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
Once upon a time Napoleon planned to invade England. He initiated a massive ship building and recruitment plan to create a cross channel invasion fleet to transport tens of thousands of French soldiers from France to England.
Though his planning and leadership were flawed from the start, the English didn't know that. Under the leadership of Lord Cornwallis, England began a years-long Navy-led effort to monitor French developments, patrol the Channel, and to create a fleet under the eventual leadership of Admiral Horatio Nelson with which to engage the combined French and Spanish fleet if and when Napoleon decided it was time to attack.
The two fleets did engage in 1805. The English were victorious, the threat of invasion was stopped, and Admiral Nelson, killed during the battle, was revered from then on as England's national savior.
Author Schom puts meat on theses historical bones in an incredibly well researched and readable book. The behind the scenes role of Cornwallis in preparing the way for Nelson's eventual victory is detailed. Another revelation (to this reader) is the incompetence of Napoleon and his people in planning an invasion. Napoleon was an army man and did not understand the details of what really needed to be done to engage England by sea and across the Channel.
At the end of the day the British Navy was better trained and had better leaders. The battle itself is described in great detail as the bloody and violent butchery it really was as ships blasted each other from almost point blank range. The image that came to my mind as I read the numbing details was of two lumbering knights, armor clad, hacking away for hours at each other, slicing away a visor here or the shield there till, bloody and exhausted, one sinks to his knees and succumbs while out of the corner of his eye he spies members of his own forces running away. The defeat was not a pretty sight and was news that Napoleon and his control over the press kept from his people as his attention was taken up with his more successful European land war.
It's a long book but well worth reading. We are fortunate to have letters and written records from both sides that provide the basis for the detail provided by the author. In the end, though, we have a battle where man assiduously try to kill each other. Nelson's grand strategy of dividing the French & Spanish fleet was quickly abandoned as events didn’t play out as he had planned. Individual ship to ship action took over with British skill and training -- and luck -- providing the final edge.
The book concludes with a detailed view of Nelson's massive London funeral. It's comparable in scope to the amazing coronation ceremonies of Napoleon presented early in the book. The two balance each other, and the memories of both Napoleon and Nelson survive to this day.
Review copyright (c) 2016 by Dennis D. McDonald. To find more reviews like this scroll down. To find out more about my consulting services go here.