<preform>Trafalgar: the Biography of a Battle by Roy Adkins<br/>Trafalgar: the Men, the Battle, the Storm by Tim Clayton & Phil Craig<br/>Nelson: Britannia's God of War by Andrew Lambert</preform>

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Next year, this week will see the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, and we may expect that these three volumes are merely the advance guard of a glut of Nelson books.

Next year, this week will see the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, and we may expect that these three volumes are merely the advance guard of a glut of Nelson books. Nelson may well be Britain's greatest hero after Churchill; the hero-worship clearly derives from the perception that both saved Britain at moments of supreme peril. Actually, the idea is misplaced in Nelson's case. Napoleon had abandoned his plans for an invasion of Britain a full two months before Trafalgar.

If analogies must be sought, the Armada crisis of 1588 is a better one. In both cases, the elements destroyed far more enemy ships than did the guns of the British Navy. Trafalgar was not a decisive battle in the way that Salamis, Actium and Midway were, but belongs rather in the secondary pantheon, along with Lepanto, Navarino and Tsushima.

But human beings live by myths rather than facts. So Trafalgar, unquestionably a great feat of arms, will always live on as a "turning point" in the British imagination. Its true significance was that it enabled Britain to turn Napoleon's flank three years later in the Peninsular War. And it crystallised the supremacy of the British seaborne empire: more than 100 years would elapse before, at Jutland, another naval power would dare to challenge the Royal Navy.

Napoleon's 1805 invasion stratagem was the work of a crazed mathematician, but it came closer to success than his critics have conceded. He planned for all three French squadrons, at Brest, Toulon and Rochefort, to evade the Royal Navy ships blockading these ports, sail to the West Indies, rendezvous at Martinique and recross the Atlantic as a united armada to cover a crossing of 90,000 troops from Boulogne to Kent.

The Toulon and Rochefort fleets evaded their blockaders, but the key Brest squadron remained bottled up. Failing to rendezvous with his Rochefort counterparts, Admiral Pierre Villeneuve returned to Europe and engaged a much smaller fleet under Sir Robert Calder west of Cape Finisterre on 22 July. Rattled by the indecisive outcome of a battle he should have won easily, Villeneuve lost his nerve and ran for cover in Cadiz, where the British blockaded him once more.

An angry Napoleon, aghast at Villeneuve's incompetence, cancelled the invasion and began the campaign that would culminate in his victory at Austerlitz in December. He ordered Villeneuve to sail for the Mediterranean as soon as the weather forced his blockaders off station, and sent Rosily to replace him as commander of the Toulon squadron.

Having ruined plans for an invasion of Britain, Villeneuve compounded his idiocy by setting sail on 19-20 October while the blockade was still in force, purely because he could not bear to be replaced. With him went the vessels of his Spanish ally under Admiral Federico Gravina. The combined fleet of 33 ships of the line was intercepted by Nelson and 27 warships off Cape Trafalgar.

Nelson's tactics were clear-cut. Whereas in traditional naval battles, both sides sailed in parallel lines and exchanged broadsides, Nelson planned to sail at right angles to the enemy, to break into his centre at two places, cutting off the vanguard and thus isolating the rear and centre, over which he would have local numerical superiority. The plan worked perfectly and the battle became a series of one-on-one struggles in which superior British technology, gunnery and seamanship easily won the day. Not a single British ship was sunk; one French vessel was sunk and another 18 taken as prizes.

The casualties at Trafalgar are still a disputed area. British losses in dead and wounded totalled 1,700, but there is controversy about French fatalities, with Andrew Lambert opting for about 6,000 plus 2,000 prisoners, Roy Adkins preferring a casualty roster of 7,000 and Jeremy Black (in his recent book on the British seaborne empire) going as high as 14,000. Much of the confusion arises from the week of dreadful weather that followed the battle, with severe gale followed by storm followed by hurricane (in 18th-century parlance, a Force 11 storm rather than our Force 12). Certainly, at least another 2,000 died in the high seas as many of the prize ships foundered.

All eyewitnesses agreed that the four days of tempest from 24 October were the worst they had ever seen (the term "perfect storm" was coined for this experience). There was a clear danger that the entire victorious fleet would itself be lost. It is good to see both Adkins, and Tim Clayton and Phil Craig, giving due emphasis to this little-known aspect of the battle and its aftermath.

Given the overwhelming British superiority in every relevant area, has the legend of Nelson been overplayed? Could not a Mickey Mouse commander have done as well? The ineptitude of Villeneuve lends credence to the idea. He was beaten before he began, psychologically overwhelmed by Nelson. The great French admiral La Touche Treville, who died in 1804 and once beat Nelson in a skirmish, might have given Lord Horatio a run for his money, but it is doubtful if even he could have done much about the outcome.

The Spanish resented being commanded by a French admiral: Villeneuve had to interweave French and Spanish ships in his line as both sides feared betrayal. Their vessels were manned by the canaille of the Cadiz slums, with gunners who had never before fired a gun from a rolling ship. But all these writers are at pains to stress that Nelson took a gamble, since a change in the wind could have left his leading ships stranded. So the paeans to Nelson's talents turn out to be justified, although all our authors tend to overuse the overworked word "genius".

All three books are excellent in their own ways, with Lambert best on the legend of Nelson. He scouts the notion that Nelson went into battle with a death-wish and sees this as a legacy of the Victorian myth that Nelson wished to expiate for his "shameful" private life by a glorious death: "like much more of the Victorian Nelson, utter nonsense".

Adkins is at his best on the nuances of seamanship and the minutiae of life within the wooden walls, while Clayton and Craig score with their almost minute-by-minute detail of the fighting on 21 October. But all three books contain some eccentricities. Lambert thinks the invasion attempt of 1805 was a bluff, but here he relies on the emperor's refusal to admit he was ever defeated. A feint to cover the Austerlitz campaign would not have required 2,500 invasion craft Napoleon knew would never be used, nor the labyrinthine Caribbean breakout strategy.

Adkins advances the bizarre theory that Villeneuve did not, as most historians think, commit suicide because of his failure at Trafalgar, but was murdered. Unfortunately, he can suggest no convincing motive and no evidence. Apart from the frightful business of the murder of the duc d'Enghien, Napoleon never used assassination as a political weapon.

Clayton and Craig seem also to be of Adkins's way of thinking. But a few questionable assertions on the periphery cannot disguise the fact that, where it matters, all three books deliver narratives worthy of the stirring events they celebrate.

Frank McLynn's latest book is '1759: the Year Britain Became Master of the World' (Cape)

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK