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The Return of the Imperial Hero

Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm

by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 464 pp., £20.00; £8.99 (paper)


The French Revolution of 1789 not only overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, and plunged the nation into a sanguinary civil war, but it also inaugurated more than twenty years of European warfare. The monarchies of Europe, notably Prussia and Austria, were appalled by the radicalism and atheism of the new French regime and set out to suppress and contain what they saw as France’s poisonous republicanism. Their failure to do so was largely attributable to the military genius of the young Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte, who for more than a generation won battle after battle against France’s enemies. Harnessing the popular energies of the Revolution, Napoleon mobilized and coordinated huge armies, waging warfare on a new scale. Originally a Jacobin revolutionary, he used his successes to establish a new autocracy and a family dynasty that came to occupy several of the thrones of Europe. In the eyes of its enemies, French democracy and the cult of reason had spawned a monster—an aggressive imperial war machine led by an upstart autocrat.

Until he invaded Russia, only one opponent of Napoleon failed to succumb to his military might. The British, France’s foe for more than a hundred years, kept Bonaparte at bay, the island nation seeking refuge behind the “wooden walls” of its navy. British military strategists used the same tactics as in the wars waged against France over the previous hundred years: they paid subsidies to foreign troops to fight the French in continental Europe, and used their navy to protect Britain, expand their commercial empire, and destroy the enemy’s trade. But Bonaparte put this strategy in jeopardy by repeatedly defeating Britain’s European allies—the Prussians, the Austrians, and the Russians—and forcing them to make peace. Twice, in 1797–1798 and again in 1804–1805, the British were isolated and threatened with invasion.

In 1798 the nation was saved when Napoleon switched tactics, dropping his plans to invade Britain as too hazardous, and replacing them with an expedition to Egypt, designed to threaten Britain’s East Indian empire. But the danger in 1805 was far more serious. Napoleon assembled an army of more than 160,000 men, 10,000 horses, and a flotilla of 1,300 vessels at Boulogne, ready to cross the English Channel and conquer Britain. The invasion foundered because of the British navy: it prevented the French battle fleet from providing the naval escort that was needed if the landings were to take place safely, by bottling up enemy fleets in their ports, and when their opponents did put to sea, roundly defeating them. These victories not only eliminated the threat of invasion but had a profound effect on the land war, for they encouraged Napoleon’s defeated Continental opponents to rejoin the struggle against France. Britain’s navy was Bonaparte’s scourge. Its triumphs reinforced the long tradition, dating back to the defeat of the invading Spanish Armada in 1588, that the “senior service” protected Britain from its foreign foes and guaranteed its domestic liberties.

During the struggles against Napoleon, one man came to embody Britain’s resistance to the French. In his lifetime Admiral Horatio Nelson became a public idol, mobbed by admirers in the streets and feted by grateful kings. After his death he became and has remained to this day the exemplary British hero. Indeed, his achievements were formidable. Between 1797 and his death in 1805, Nelson became the most successful naval officer in history, taking a major part in one battle off the coast of Portugal at Cape St. Vincent and decisively winning three major naval victories—at Aboukir Bay on the coast of Egypt, in the Baltic off Copenhagen, and in the Atlantic near the Spanish coast at Cape Trafalgar. His triumphs secured the naval hegemony that Britain was to enjoy for the next century or more. In defending the nation against Napoleon and his allies, Nelson helped lay the foundations for Britain’s nineteenth-century imperial dominance.

Born in 1758, the younger son of a clergyman, Nelson first achieved fame at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797, a British victory over a much larger squadron of ships from France’s newly acquired ally Spain, which had been forced by French military success to join the Revolutionary cause. A captain under the command of his patron Admiral John Jervis, Nelson captured two Spanish battleships, both larger than his own vessel, the Captain, boldly leading a boarding party against the San Nicolas and then, when the even bigger San Josef came alongside, capturing her too. The victory was a collective triumph, the result of Jervis’s training and leadership, but Nelson’s heroics (flag officers were not supposed to lead boarding parties) and their timely publicity in the London press made him the hero of the hour. He was given a knighthood and promoted to rear admiral.

Nelson was a fearless and enterprising officer who never avoided danger. He had already lost the sight in his right eye during action in the Mediterranean. After the victory over the Spanish, Jervis sent Nelson to capture Santa Cruz, Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, but the assault on the town went wrong; Nelson was seriously wounded and had to have his right arm amputated. He was forced to return to England to recuperate. But by the following year he had a fleet command in the Mediterranean, chasing the French men-of-war that had escorted Napoleon’s army from Toulon in France to the coast of Egypt. Here he achieved what was then his greatest victory, annihilating almost the entire French fleet at Aboukir Bay off the African coast. In an astonishingly bold nighttime attack, marked by seamanship of the highest order, Nelson’s squadron captured or sank eleven French battleships and two frigates, leaving Napoleon and his invading army stranded in Egypt. Nelson was made Baron Nelson of the Nile, lionized in the British press—the Times claimed that “a victory more glorious and more compleat is not recorded in the annals of our Navy”—and feted as a popular hero.

Yet again Nelson had been wounded, hit by a splinter or shrapnel that left a prominent scar on his forehead. The admiral sailed to Naples to recuperate as the guest of the British representative, Sir William Hamilton. There he achieved notoriety, first for beginning an affair with Hamilton’s wife, the famous beauty Emma; and then for his involvement in the brutal suppression of the short-lived pro-French Parthenopean Republic, established by liberal-minded aristocrats in Naples after the French had driven the Neapolitan royal family into exile. His infatuation with Emma ended his marriage; his part in the execution of the Neapolitan Admiral Caracciolo and his apparent complicity in the killing of other pro-Republican Neapolitans have haunted his good reputation ever since. (These bloody events feature prominently in Susan Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover and in Barry Unsworth’s brilliant fictitious account of a demented admirer of the admiral in his Losing Nelson.) Nelson’s public affection for his mistress and news of the Neapolitan atrocities made for a mixed reception when he and the Hamiltons returned to Britain in November 1800.

In 1800 the Danish, Swedish, and Russian League of Armed Neutrality, formed to prevent the British from inspecting their vessels trading with the enemy and impounding “contraband,” threatened to starve the British navy of the supplies from the Baltic—masts and hemp for rope—that were vital to the war effort and to disrupt the Anglo-Baltic grain trade. Nelson was appointed second in command of the Baltic fleet (in part to keep him away from his mistress), assigned the task of breaking the neutral alliance. This he accomplished with his victory over the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen in April 1801. Though the battle achieved its objective and was hailed as a triumph for “the champion of England in the north,” as Nelson modestly described himself, it had been a bloody and close-run contest, Nelson’s last major action before Europe enjoyed a brief peace. Two years later, with hostilities renewed and Napoleon making preparations to invade Britain, Nelson was appointed commander of the Mediterranean fleet, with the job of preventing the French and Spanish navies from supporting Napoleon’s proposed landing. Over the next two years he blockaded the enemy, chased its fleet across the Atlantic, and sought at every opportunity to provoke a major battle. The French never achieved their aim of making the Channel safe for the invading flotilla, and Napoleon abandoned his invasion plans in August 1805, marching his army to the Danube.

But finally in October 1805, Nelson got the battle that he and his sailors so fervently wanted. The defense of the realm was no longer at issue, but at Cape Trafalgar, off the Spanish Atlantic coast, Nelson’s fleet of twenty-seven battleships finally was able to attack the combined French and Spanish navies, a force of thirty-three men-of-war. The outcome was decisive: the British captured or destroyed eighteen French and Spanish vessels, killed somewhere in the region of 6,500 men (no exact figures survive), and took 11,000 prisoners. Nelson himself was fatally wounded by a French sharpshooter and died as he learned of his overwhelming victory. In his brief lifetime, Nelson had decisively defeated three navies—the Spanish, the Danish, and the French, routing the last on two separate occasions.


The bicentennial year of Britain’s greatest naval triumph and of the death of its victor has produced many new works on Nelson’s life and the battle that was the climax of his career. There are at least four new books on Trafalgar, three new biographies of Nelson, a volume of previously unpublished letters, and a number of collections of essays. Old books have been reissued, including a new edition of Robert Southey’s brilliant and extraordinarily popular Life of Nelson, published in 1813 and never out of print in England. Many of these works, of which the best is Tim Clayton and Phil Craig’s newly published and clearly recounted Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm, cover familiar ground, albeit with new detail. But a few move beyond the usual and often told story of the admiral’s life and the victory at Trafalgar. Colin White’s painstakingly edited Nelson: The New Letters not only reproduces some of the more than 1,300 letters and other documents written by Nelson that have been newly uncovered by the Nelson letters project, but gives us insight into how the Nelson myth was nurtured and developed by his earlier editors.

Adam Nicolson’s Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar combines a conventional narrative account of the battle with a protracted reflection on the values of its protagonists. He explores what he sees as a peculiarly English propensity for violence; the bourgeois, aristocratic, and autocratic assumptions behind the conduct of, respectively, the English, Spanish, and French fleets; and the power of sympathy and feeling in explaining how the battle and its outcome were perceived by the world at large. Finally, a collection of essays that began life as a series of public lectures, Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy, examines the nature of Nelson’s friendships with his fellow officers, the way he was viewed by women and the general public, and how his reputation was shaped after his death, both in Britain and around the world. Taken together these new books offer new insight into the power and endurance of what Colin White calls “the Nelson legend.”

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