416 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670034482
Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World is on balance an excellent work of naval history that is also truly readable. It is a well-paced account of the pivotal naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, where a British fleet commanded by Viscount Horatio Nelson engaged the combined fleet of the Spanish and French near Cadiz, off the coast of Spain. The British decisively defeated the Combined Fleet, effectively ending Napoleon’s naval ambitions and any question of a cross-channel invasion of England. Trafalgar was the last great naval battle between fleets of sailing ships, and led the way to the British domination of the seas during the 19th Century.
The first part of the book is very much about the basics. There is a short introduction to Nelson’s colorful life and career, a lot about the life and times of a seaman, and much useful information about life onboard ship in this period. Adkins has considerable skill in making dramatic even the preparations before the battle – for instance, noting the chilling but necessary sand strewn on decks for aiding footing in slippery blood. The combat itself he describes with a cinematic vitality, his details of the five hours of combat endured by sailors on both sides evokes a truly hellish stew of violent chaos, splinters, and smoke. Adkins also makes considerable use of first person accounts, but these are predominantly British (as is the perspective of the book). In describing the aspects of the sailing ships the English perspective is given, usually with an added comment that French and Spanish conditions were similar. The decisive difference was in the clearly superior skill and training of the British sailors and gunners, and that made the difference in the battle. It was easy to understand the hardships and deprivation when reading this – the shortage of good food – which was generally maggoty or moldy, or both. It was a hard life for anyone, and even Nelson did not touch land once for at least two years. The difference in life for officers and enlisted men was significant though; conditions, food, clothing, position on board all played a significant role.
The middle of the book is dedicated to the battle itself and is interspersed with maps and diagrams that aid the understanding. This was well done as there were almost 60 ships (!) involved and several of them had either identical or very similar sounding names (Neptune, Neptune, and Neptuno, for instance) so without the diagrams one would get quite lost. The battle lasted almost six hours and Adkins does a very credible job of explaining what happened, as well as the import of various things. Again, he takes some detours as when he explains the positions and clothing of various jobs on the ships, the reasons why the surgeons operated as they did in the part of the ship that they did, and the names of each of the decks. There are also good explanations of the state of medicine at the time. The final portions of the book cover the immense importance placed on the loss of Nelson and contrasting it with the fate of the others who took part in the battle on all sides. The author points out how the British King and Government purposely played up Nelson and his heroism as a substitute for taking care of the rest of the people. The final irony in the book is that we are told that Napoleon had already decided not to invade Britain at that point and was involved in the Austerlitz campaign while the battle took place.
This is a well-written work about one of the great naval engagements of history. What distinguishes it from so many of the others about this battle is that it focuses upon the actual experience of battle. While Nelson’s role and personality should not be underestimated, this book effectively conveys just how frightening and horrifying it must have been for the average sailor to have participated in a battle of this nature. Trapped within incredibly cramped work spaces, poorly fed, and subject to disease, a naval battle in 1805 was a truly hellish experience. Splinters cut men into pieces, broadsides littered the decks with body parts, and blood ran off the sides of the ship. Dante could not have invented a level of Hades that approximated a ship of the line under fire in 1805.