The Magazine

Victory at Sea

A battle for the ages observes its bicentennial.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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Seize the Fire

Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar

by Adam Nicolson

HarperCollins, 341 pp., $26.95

Nelson's Trafalgar

The Battle that Changed the World

by Roy Adkins

Viking, 416 pp., $27.95

THE BATTLE OFF CAPE TRAFALGAR on October 21, 1805, was the denouement of almost 50 years of naval warfare between the French and British. It was one of the most destructive naval battles in history, and the last fleet engagement of the age of fighting sail.

The popular conception is that the battle saved England from invasion, forming a trio with Drake's defeat of the Armada in 1588 and the RAF's stand against the Luftwaffe in 1940. The legend is not strictly true. Trafalgar did not save Britain--which was already extremely safe, as France's attempts to invade Ireland in 1797 and 1798 had shown; rather, it gave England control of the Mediterranean for a century.

Trafalgar was the logical outcome of 15 years of British naval dominance. It would have been the same if Lord Nelson had been able to catch the French fleet in the West Indies in June, or if Admiral Calder had caught it in clear weather instead of fog off Cape Finisterre in July. No naval officer on either side had any other expectation than that of British victory. In the end it proved a massacre--the kill ratio was 10-1--more akin to Omdurman than Waterloo.

It was a peculiarly British sort of victory, one that belongs not just to the men who fought it, but also to the efficient naval service and its vast bureaucracy; to decades of seamanship, training, planning, and organization; and to thousands of miles of trade routes bringing timber, hemp, tar, flax, and everything else a small island couldn't produce from far-off markets. The British genius for war is perfectly seen at Trafalgar--the culmination of endless lines of supply and countless acts of tradition and honor: the action of a python, not a tiger. And the great victory only scorched the tiger. The day before Nelson gave his life and his men took 19 ships without loss, Napoleon had defeated the Austrians at Ulm, and a month later he won his greatest victory, defeating the combined Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz.

In Horatio Nelson, the British had a leader as successful as Napoleon. It is startling how similar were Nelson's and Napoleon's views of war. "I see only one thing, namely the enemy's main body. I try to crush it, confident that secondary matters will then settle themselves," Napoleon declared in 1797. Nelson, in his famous memorandum to his captains on October 9, 1805, wrote, "[I]n case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy." Throughout the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, carried the signal "Engage the Enemy More Closely."

It was an age of aggressive warfare where caution was punished both on and off the battlefield. The fate of Vice Admiral Sir Robert Calder, who had a chance to achieve a decisive victory against the fleet Nelson eventually devastated at Trafalgar, is telling. Calder commanded the British fleet blockading Ferrol and guarding against the union of the Spanish and French fleets in their bid to control the English Channel for the hours necessary to embark a French army to invade England.

On July 22, 1805, in a heavy fog, the fleet that had been relentlessly pursued to the West Indies and back by Nelson's Mediterranean fleet made contact with Calder's ships off Cape Finisterre. Downwind and outnumbered 15 to 20, Calder engaged the enemy and captured two Spanish ships of the line before night fell. Over the next two days, Calder had the opportunity to re-engage, but he held back fearing that his enemy would be reinforced by the 15 Spanish ships in Ferrol. Calder chose the discreet course of following his orders and keeping the fleets uncombined. He failed to understand that in the Age of Nelson and Napoleon, commanders were expected to take chances, to close with their enemy and destroy him. Calder was berated in the press and felt under suspicion of cowardice. He requested a court martial that he thought would clear his name. The verdict of the court was damning:

The Court is of the opinion, that the charge of not having done his utmost to renew the said engagement, and to take or destroy every ship of the enemy, has been proved against the said Vice-Admiral Calder; that it appears that his conduct has not been actuated either by cowardice or disaffection, but has arisen solely from error in judgment, and is highly censurable.