- Book reviewer
- 19th century wars, History - general, Book reviews, Royal Navy, Naval Engagements, Operations and Capabilities
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Trafalgar – the Men, the Battle, the Storm
By Tim Clayton & Phil Craig
London Hodder & Stoughton 2004.
Reviewed by Bob Nicholls
Once upon a time, not too many years ago, the Royal Australian Navy’s commemorative calendar focussed on a battle which took place half a world away.
Even now, when the event no longer appears to attract any notice, it is going to become increasingly difficult, as the year progresses, to avoid the fact that the 21st of October will be the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Mind you, in one area of the Federation, the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, the tradition of a Trafalgar Night Dinner survives.
Elsewhere, with the anniversary comes the inevitable flood of commemorative books.
These of course, were started some years ago, a period of ‘much sharpening of literary cutlasses’ as one reviewer says.
The first volume off the literary cab rank to reach the Society is, none too surprisingly, called Trafalgar, by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig.
Both authors are also documentary filmmakers who have already written two histories of the Second World War – one on the Battle of Britain and another on the war in the Middle East.
Although the authors are no naval history experts they are therefore experienced at turning their hands to military events, but taking on one of the most decisive naval battles of all time must have presented a challenge.
And, as so far as this reviewer is concerned, they’ve done a jolly good job too.
With one personal exception, which will become apparent.
The events leading up to and succeeding the battle are comprehensively covered and present a compelling and graphic detailed account.
Where the book falls down, and to be fair to the authors it isn’t their fault, is in the actual engagement.
The problem lies in the ships’ names.
There were ships from three nations engaged – British, French and Spanish. Now, one might expect that, by and large, British ships would have recognisable British names and the same would go for the other two nations.
Not a bit of it.
The Royal Navy’s fleet was studded with ships with names like Temeraire, Spartiate, Bellisle, Tonnant and Achille.
The Combined French and Spanish Fleet, not to be outdone, contained ships with names such as Berwick, Swiftsure, Bahama, Neptune and, even more confusingly, a second Achille.
Not too bad before and after the battle, when the fleets were separate, but the account of the engagement, necessarily complicated as it already was, is made even more confusing by this reader losing touch with who was who.
But that’s a minor quibble – to the battle.
Here a few introductory observations might be in order for those who may not be over-familiar with sea battles of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The name of the game in single or multi-ship engagements was not to sink one’s opponent. Ships were not expected to fight to the finish and very few were actually sunk in battle. No, once defeat was clearly inevitable it was quite permissible to surrender one’s command.
For the crew of the victorious ship the principal material reward was the prize money arising from the sale of the captured ship.
(This partly explains the confusion with the ships’ names already noted. Ships in one navy who had come from another via the Prize Courts frequently retained their original names).
Also, it was very difficult to penetrate the wooden hull of a line-of-battleship, frequently getting on for a metre in thickness, with the ball from a comparatively low-powered gun.
The easiest way to disable an enemy was to destroy her masts and rigging and at the same time clear her upper deck of personnel. One’s enemy was rendered helpless and the subsequent threat of, or actual, boarding, would often induce her to surrender. And this is what happened at Trafalgar.
Of the line-of-battle ships (to become battleships) involved in the battle, the Franco-Spanish force had 33 ships and the British Fleet, under Nelson, had 27.
When the battle drew to a conclusion, it was clear that the British had won. This had been at a cost though. Of the twenty- seven in their fleet, fourteen had fairly serious damage to their hulls.
Of the seventeen prizes they had taken, eight had no masts and none had all of them. The balance of the Franco-Spanish had retreated to the safety of Cadiz.
In the ferocious storm which followed the battle, the British fleet, prizes in tow, was driven onto a lee shore and lost all but four of their spoils of war. They were fortunate indeed not to lose any of their own ships, many of which were as grievously damaged as those of their enemies.
In view of the loss of prizes and the significance of the battle, the British government subsequently voted £300,000 to the Fleet to compensate for the prizes they had lost. The amount amounted to £3362 for a Captain and £6/10/0 for an Able Seaman, a respectable sum for those days.
(As an aside, would any reader care to venture a guess as to the name of the last RAN recipient of Prize Money?)
And the story that the battle saved Britain from invasion? Well, as the eminent naval historian Sir Julian Corbett wrote in 1910, ‘So incomprehensible was its apparent sterility that to fill the void a legend grew up that it saved England from invasion.’
In truth, the chances of invasion in 1805 ended as a result of Calder’s indecisive engagement with Villeneuve in July of that year. However, Trafalgar made sure that any renewal of that threat could be taken a good deal less seriously.
In these days of naval battle at a distance, it is well worth getting hold of this book just to find out what difference a couple of centuries has made.