TRAFALGAR: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805 by Alan Schom
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TRAFALGAR: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory at Trafalgar over a combined Franco-Spanish fleet in October 1805 was so dramatic in itself that historians have often given short shrift to the events surrounding the battle. In this riveting narrative, Schom (Emile Zola, 1988) seeks to rectify this imbalance, viewing the contest as only the climax of a two-year campaign to stymie a French invasion. In 1803, Napoleon embarked on feverish preparations for crossing the English Channel with the largest armada ever seen in Europe. Weakened by the alcoholism that would claim his life within two years, William Pitt the Younger returned to power as Britain's prime minister, rallying his countrymen and revitalizing the demoralized Royal Navy. Schom soundly analyzes logistical factors underlying these two implacable foes' cat-and-mouse games, but his real talents are for exhaustive research, finely etched characterization, and eye for detail (including two pageantry-filled set pieces that frame the narrative: Napoleon's crowning as Emperor in 1804 and Nelson's funeral in January 1806). Among the vivid personalities here are energetic French Naval Minister Denis Decres, desperately trying to meet the demanding Napoleon's unrealistic shipbuilding schedules; Pitt loyalist Viscount Melville, forced at the height of the crisis to relinquish his post as First Lord of the Admiralty because of jealous political opponents; and Sir William Cornwallis, whose Channel Fleet masterfully blockaded Napoleon for more than two years, and who, Schom believes, should receive more recognition for astutely dispatching the fleet that helped Nelson win. However, it is still the dynamic Nelson--relentlessly pursuing the French quarry across the Atlantic and back, dying just after learning his fleet had carried the day--who remains the first among equals in this teeming ensemble of British, French, and Spanish heroes and villains. Lively, dramatic, and reminiscent of two other vibrant narratives of decisive naval engagements: Jack Beeching's The Galleys at Lepanto (1983) and Garrett Mattingly's The Armada (1959).

Pub Date: Dec. 5th, 1990
Publisher: Atheneum