Thursday, 1 June 2017
Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805 - Alan Schom
Author: Alan Schom
Publisher: Michael Joseph Publishing
Trafalgar has achieved such a level of renown and legend that it still, 212 years after it occurred, resonates in the annals of British and Royal Navy history. Lord Nelson, the British Commander at the Battle, is still recognized as being one of the finest Naval Commanders in British history. Schom’s book acknowledges Trafalgar’s pride of place and the skill of Nelson and his crews in literally ‘securing’ the shores of England from invasion; however, his book goes much further than his and places the Battle within the larger context of the period and the events leading up to that fateful confrontation. This is critical in that it presents Trafalgar not as a standalone event, significant as it was, but as a logical conclusion (the Battle itself, not the outcome) of English and, more importantly, French policy from the period 1803 onwards.
The political battle of wills, both internally and externally, between the nations of England and France are traced with a clarity of understanding without being bogged down in excess detail. The importance of the ‘personality’ as opposed to solely the political acumen of the main players is made patently obvious. Schom’s explanation of the roles of Addington, Pitt, St Vincent, Cornwallis and a host of other secondary but nonetheless key English individuals, in the battle of wills with France, is fascinating as the reader begins to appreciate the pettiness, insight, vision and jealousies of the players and the expanse of the domestic, let alone international, wars that were raging at this time.
Conversely, the French are also analyzed with the same keen eye. The main difference in their case is the overwhelming role that Napoleon plays in the direction of the French Imperial (and by extension Spanish) policy towards England. What quickly becomes apparent in the French case, is the capacity for the entirety of the resources of the Empire to be focused towards the realization of the Emperor’s dream of crushing England. Schom also adroitly makes clear the challenges not readily apparent to a casual observer, that being the ability to build ships does not an effective Navy make. The loss of the cream of the French Naval Officers during the Revolution left France with a dearth of experienced and capable officers. This shortage, more than anything else, provided the French Navy with its Achilles Heel. That, and their arrogance and disdain for their Spanish allies.
Schom culminates his book with a detailed study of the Battle itself. It is clear that victory was never a sure thing for the English as the French and Spanish Captains and crews, for the most part fought, with a determination and ferocity never before witnessed by the British. For all of his shortcomings (and there were many) the Combined Fleet Admiral, Villeneuve, in the end led his fleet into battle. Indeed, the battle may have ended very differently were it not for the apparent cowardice of the French Rear-Admiral Dumanoir who commanded the lead division of 10 French and Spanish ships and who deliberately sailed past and away from the battle, despite being ordered to engage and within sight of French, Spanish and British ships in active combat, thereby reducing the Combined Fleet by almost a third.
Schom’s book is an excellent rendition and analysis of this period. It highlights the very real threat posed by Napoleon to England and the closeness with which she avoided invasion. The expanse of his narrative and the style with which he delivers his story is insightful, enlightening and captivating. His approach is very balanced and candidly reveals the strengths and flaws the main characters involved. This book is strongly recommended.