Heroism, Duty and the Battle of Trafalgar

By Adam Nicolson

HarperCollins.341 pp. $26.95Trafalgar. To this day, two full centuries after Horatio Nelson's famous victory there, the very name sends chills down British spines. At Trafalgar Square in London, tourists from across the world gaze up in awe at the towering memorial to Nelson, atop which stands E.H. Baily's monumental sculpture of the heroic admiral whose courage, imagination and daring led the British Mediterranean fleet to a triumph over the combined French and Spanish navies that forever altered the course of British and European history. The day that victory was won -- Oct. 21, 1805 -- was, as Adam Nicolson writes, "a day of destiny and decision," and Trafalgar lives on in popular mythology as the great "Romantic Battle."

But historical truth is more complicated and elusive than myth and legend, and neither Nelson nor his most famous victory is quite what we would have ourselves believe. Separating fact from fiction is an important part of the task Nicolson has set for himself in Seize the Fire, but the book goes deeper than that: It explores the "mental landscape of the people who fought and commanded at one of the great battles in history and it asks, in particular, why and how the idea of the hero flowered here." Thus the book is less a narrative of the battle than an inquiry into the experiences, attitudes, expectations and longings that shaped those who fought it and (so Nicolson believes) determined its outcome.

Trafalgar was the climactic naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars; it ended for good the pipe dream Napoleon harbored of dominance at sea as well as his plan to invade and conquer England. The conflict was "triangular, ideological," fought by countries that had little in common:

"A post-revolutionary, authoritarian regime in France, profoundly subversive of all the accepted nostrums of pre-modern European society, was allied in Spain with the most conservative and backward of all the European powers, the trailing partner in the alliance, against a Britain which already embodied a distinctly modern Atlanticist set of values -- commercial, libertarian, amoral and aggressive -- but which remained, nevertheless, dressed in some very old-fashioned 'King and Country,' monarchist 18th-century Establishment clothes."

The contrasts could not have been more stark, and they were reflected in the navies that met in the Atlantic off Trafalgar on Spain's southwestern shore. England, though deeply divided then as now by lines of class, was comparatively flexible, and "the officers of the navy came from a broad spread of English society," whereas in France and Spain "access to the officer corps was . . . rigidly restricted to members of the aristocracy." The Royal Navy was orderly and efficient. The French and Spanish navies were disorderly and inefficient: "The three core demands of a navy -- to supply and fit itself; to survive the sea; and to kill the enemy -- were understood in Britain to be part of a single integrated whole. In both Spain and France, that single organism was institutionally divided into conflicting and competing parts."

For the aristocratic French and Spanish officers, victory in battle was desirable but not essential; "for an aristocrat, failure in battle does not erode his standing or his honour." But for the upwardly mobile officer of the Royal Navy, "to preserve his honour and his name, he needs to win. Victory is neither a luxury nor an ornament. It is a compulsion and a necessity." In today's world, where "honor" holds a far lower place than it did two centuries ago, if indeed it holds any place at all, this fixation upon it seems strange, even incomprehensible, but in Horatio Nelson's day it was a powerful force. It "came to define a man simply as a man among men, without reference to his standing in society. . . very nearly equivalent to sincerity or integrity," and men went into battle because "battle was the place where honour was validated."

Other considerations entered into the picture. The English were accustomed to aggression, indeed reveled in it, "shooting highwaymen and seducing 17-year-olds, swearing and farting in public, congratulating themselves on their lack of the effeminate refinements which the French affected." When the British went into battle they did so with the expectation that the foe would be annihilated as well as defeated, which is what happened at Trafalgar: "Nelson had an instinct for devastation and the people of England detected it in him. He knew in his bones that the public demand was for convincing and destructive violence, not a harmless strategic victory." By contrast with the complacent, aristocratic French and Spanish, "the British mentality and tactics were bourgeois and market liberal to the core." Nicolson writes:

"That is the essence of Trafalgar: the liberation of individual energies to ensure victory. The battle is founded on a clear commercial analogy. Trafalgar worked according to the basic principle enunciated by Adam Smith that the individual's uncompromising pursuit of the end that will satisfy him will also serve the general good. What is good for one is good for all and a fleet which promotes and relies on individual zeal will be more likely to achieve a productive end than one controlled by a single deciding government or admiral."

Smith's principle, it goes without saying, taken to its logical extreme produces Enron and Adelphia and all the horrors of individualism run amok, but on the Atlantic in October 1805 it produced, in Nelson's audacious scheme, a plan of battle that depended on individual initiative, especially on the part of the captains immediately below him. It depended as well on the assumption that the men whom he and his captains commanded would respond to their orders in predictable ways. His immortal charge to those men -- "England expects that every man will do his duty" -- encapsulated that assumption: "Zeal, order, honour, love and daring were all aspects of duty, as was the steady doing of violence to the enemy. That is what Nelson's signal to the men of England had meant."

In the early pages of Seize the Fire, Nicolson argues in so many words that British victory at Trafalgar was foreordained: "A highly ambitious, confident and aggressive English battle fleet found and attacked a larger combined French and Spanish fleet whose morale was broken, and whose command was divided and without conviction, and heavily defeated it, by killing and disabling very large numbers of its officers and crew. In some ways, that was all: a pack of dogs battened on to a flock of sheep." Though he immediately acknowledges that this is oversimplification, Nicolson insists right up to his (relatively brief) narrative of the battle itself that British victory was inevitable. Yet his own description of the battle does not substantiate this.

For one thing, he leaves little doubt that one or two different strategic moves by Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre Villeneuve, "overall commander of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar," could have turned matters to his advantage. More important, Nicolson's account of "the sheer shambolic squalor" of the battles aboard the warring vessels -- "The ships were smeared with blood. The blood rolling to and fro across the deck painted patterns on the clean-scrubbed deal" -- makes plain that those battles were almost unimaginably fierce and that the British might well have lost them. But of course they didn't:

"In the Combined Fleet as a whole, the number of dead has never been established. It might well have been in the region of 4,000 men. Perhaps twice that number had been wounded and just over 11,000 had been taken prisoner. Between two and three thousand more would be drowned or die of their wounds in the coming days; a total of perhaps 6,500 dead. The number of British casualties is strikingly low and exact: 449 dead, 1,214 wounded, several hundred of whom would also die in the coming weeks, perhaps a total of 650 dead. That was the winning ratio: ten to one."

Among the British dead, of course, was Nelson himself, his death being the last stroke in his heroic portrait, a stroke he seems somehow to have longed for as guarantor of the immortality he enjoys to this day. As Nicolson, author of an estimable history of the King James Bible, God's Secretaries, observes at the end of this elegant and imaginative book, his "powerful and Elysian ideal of the Happy Warrior" lasted for more than a century, "until the shock of the trenches" of World War I, and still retains much of its powerful hold. There may even have been a measure of truth to it on that day in October 1805, but as a guide to war's reality it is a snare and a delusion. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

"The Battle of Trafalgar," by J.M.W. Turner; at right, a portrait of Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott