Sunday, October 2, 2016

Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805

Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803-1805Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803-1805 by Alan Schom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Warning, the first few chapters are like watching paint dry but if you stick to it, it is not a bad read.

Napoleon may have been a feared leader of armies on Continental Europe but when it came to the sea and the navy, he couldn't organize a drunken brawl at an Irish distillery. He was a control freak who had to make decisions on even the most minute details and changed his mind so frequently his subordinates were hard pressed to keep up.

His original plan, conceived in 1803, was to built sufficient transports to ferry 150,000 men to invade England and sufficient battleships to support them against the British Navy. The attempts to do this as described by the author are like a giant SNL skit except you can't make this stuff up. Part of the problem was lack of senior officers in the French navy many of whom had been disposed of during the Great Terror. They also had a desperate lack of experienced sailors.

French and Spanish battle ships are scattered up and down the Atlantic coast and along the French coast in the Mediterranean. Cornwallis kept them bottled up from the channel on down while Nelson kept them bottled up in the Mediterranean. Admiral Villeneuve, the original Captain Tuna, Chicken of the Sea, in charge of the Mediterranean fleet could find more excuses not to do anything than a Republican controlled Congress.

Napoleon had everything as ready as it was going to get for the invasion with transports and troops along the coast across from England. He ordered Villeneuve to sail from Toulon, give Nelson the slip, sail to the West Indies, drawing the British fleet after him. He was to raise Cain with British possessions there, deposit 12,000 French troops to help protect French possessions there and then sail back, collect the rest of the French fleet from Brest and proceed to Holland to launch the invasion.

He managed to get to the West Indies and back but failed in his mission there. Nelson chased him there and back. When Villeneuve got back to where his orders told him to turn north to Brest, he turned south to the safety of Cadiz where the Spanish fleet lay. Nelson bottled him up nicely, staying far enough away that the fleet could try to escape allowing Nelson to "annihilate them once and for all".

Villeneuve was going nowhere. They could not put to sea without refitting and revictualing. France was running out of money and Napoleon had already stiffed more suppliers than Donald Trump. It was cash on the barrel head or nothing. Eventually they manged to scrounge about 3 months worth but Villenuve was still finding excuses not to venture out.

All of a sudden one morning Villeneuve sat up in bed and said we are leaving NOW. He had got word that Napoleon had fired him and his replacement, whose ONLY recommendation was that he was not Villeneuve, was less than a day away. By this time half the fleet had no use for him and were reluctant to obey anything he said but they eventually all cleared the harbour, heading for the Straits of Gibraltar and Naples. Napoleon had given up on the invasion.

Nelson and his 27 ships had the Combined Fleet where he wanted it. When Villenueve saw there was no getting away, he turned his line of 33 ships and went into battle Oct 21st 1805 just off Cape Trafalgar. The battle is described in great and interesting detail in the book. No one could question the courage with which the French and Spanish fought but their lack of experience combined with English gunnery meant they didn't have a hope. They lost 23 ships while the British lost none, though they took an awful beating. (See also Wikipedia)

England was safe from threat of invasion for another 135 years. Nelson was dead which only added to his hero status while Cornwallis who played a much larger role than history gives him credit, is all but forgotten. Villenueve was returned to France by the British where shortly after he "committed suicide" Russian style by stabbing himself in the heart 6 times.

For those of you interested in the romantic side of Nelson, I suggest "That Hamilton Woman" the 1941 movie about the most famous mistress in British history.

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  1. Replies
    1. During the Pax Britannica which lasted from 1815 to 1914, Britain was engaged in an average of nine armed conflicts per year. She did indeed Rule with an iron fist

  2. "..."committed suicide" Russian style by stabbing himself in the heart 6 times." - LOL! We have a similar joke at our archery range: "Yep, six arrows in the back. Worst case of suicide we ever saw..." ;-)

    1. Some guy in Russia "committed suicide" by shooting himself in the head TWICE. Funny how that works. Have you read LeCarre's The Constant Gardener? Protagonist beat himself to death in a fit of remorse over his wife's murder according to the British Embassy


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