Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.