A thoroughgoing study of the most famous sea battle of the Napoleonic era, timed for its bicentenary.
All battles have the potential to be world-changing, of course, but Trafalgar had immediately perceptible effects that proved its importance at once. In the first years of the 19th century, writes historian/archaeologist Adkins, Napoleon’s forces were massing in such numbers on the Normandy coast that their vast camps were plainly visible across the English Channel; the army and the thousands of ships supporting it were meant to stage an invasion such as had not been seen since the time of the Armada, and the English government took the threat seriously enough to make contingency plans for a last-stand defense far inland. The real line of defense, though, was the Royal Navy. At Trafalgar, off the Spanish coast, Lord Horatio Nelson drew out the allied Spanish and French fleets, which he feared would disappear into the Mediterranean only to return in support of the invasion. The lead-up to that great battle had taken months and spanned the Atlantic. Nelson’s tactics were brilliant, but the French were no slouches—and yet the Royal Navy proved victorious in some measure, Adkins suggests, because Napoleon mistrusted his own admirals and thrust elaborate and unworkable plans upon them in an effort to thwart the enemy. Adkins has a tendency to go textbookish in the thick of battle, but his detailed examinations of such things as the relative weights of musket balls and the general awfulness of shipboard cuisine give the reader a little breathing room between tension-filled episodes that involve no small amount of carnage.
All involved receive due honor here. A boon for buffs of the Napoleonic Wars, and a sturdy complement to Adam Nicolson’s more exuberant Seize the Fire.