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Trafalgar – and after

Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero
Adam Nicolson
HarperCollins, 2005

The Campaign of Trafalgar
Julian S. Corbett
Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2005

Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s own hero
Max Adams
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005

Wellington’s Navy: Sea Power and the Peninsular War, 1807-1814
Christopher D. Hall
Chatham Publishing, 2004

Start with a howler

It must be rare for a reader on opening a book to encounter a howler in line one, page one (to be pedantic, of the first Preface page, p. xiii), of a historical work, but Adam Nicolson has managed it: “More Catholics were burned at the stake in 16th century England than in any other country in Europe.” After wondering where on earth such data could have come from, I realised, as every schoolboy used to know, that it was Protestants that got burned at the stake in England, whereas this never happened to Catholics anywhere in Europe at any time. Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, gives 300 Protestants as suffering this fate mostly under Mary Tudor, while J.A. Froude in his classic work The Reign of Mary Tudor , estimates the numbers as between 270 and 290.

Continue with some errors…

But worse is to come. To continue this criticism: Nicolson gives this as an instance of the unusual “scale of aggression” manifested by the English from that time to the Napoleonic Wars, aggression which Nelson could call upon to win at Trafalgar. But here the facts contradict this claim. Mary Tudor was entirely responsible for this persecution, though she found enough fanatics to carry it out. Her advisers – even her husband, who became Philip II of Spain, and the ambassador of his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – were against it. In many cases, sympathetic crowds came to witness the steadfastness of the victims. To complete the picture, Mary steadily ran down England’s defences, spending her income on refurbishing churches and restoring monasteries, a policy culminating in the loss of Calais, England’s last foothold on the European continent.

This particular error is all the more deplorable in a historian who has written a very competent account of the genesis of the Authorised Version of the Bible, Power and Glory, Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible which was completed in 1611, hardly far from the period of Mary’s reign, 1553-1558.

The same misinterpretation of events occurs in the author’s throwaway and sourceless line, “A higher percentage of the population died in the English Civil War than in the French Revolution.” Though the English Civil War can be dated as 1642-1649, no termination date is given for the French Revolution, which after 1792 continued seamlessly for nearly the next quarter century in a series of European wars which cost France itself, according to La Fayette, in his impassioned address to the French Assembly, convened after Waterloo, three million lives and many more in the rest of Europe. Nor does Nicolson take into account the reluctance with which the English Civil War was inaugurated, with the parliamentarians, all from the same class, formerly united in their resistance to the King, now forced to pick sides when he decided to enforce his will to become an absolute monarch, like others across the Channel. Nor was the general population in any way inflamed – far from it.

Even after the war was well under way, a parliamentary general could write to his opposite number:

Certainly my affections are so unchangeable, that hostility itself cannot violate my friendship to your person… The God of peace in his own good time send us peace, and in the mean time fit us to receive it. We are both upon the stage, and must act those parts that are assigned to us in this tragedy. Let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities.

The start and finish of a letter from Sir William Waller (Parliamentarian) to Sir Ralph Hopton (Royalist), quoted by Richard Ollard in This War Without an Enemy, a phrase he takes from the same letter.

Nicolson’s citing of the subjugation of the Highlands after the Fortyfive is also inappropriate. By this time England had not experienced any military activity on its soil for nearly a century, its citizenry were effectively disarmed and its reaction to the incursion of Charles Edward Stuart was essentially passive and very few English Jacobites joined him.

Thus the case for some sort of latent English aggressiveness falls apart on examination. Even the tactic of “breaking the enemy’s line” and provoking a melee with close ship to ship encounters became a Royal Navy tactic only in the second half of the eighteenth century. It was not invented by Nelson, but, as Nicolson states, initiated by Rodney and developed by Howe.

This policy can hardly be attributed to aggressiveness but rather to the fact that Royal Navy ships had become superior to the French in manoeuvrability and gunnery. Once engaged, a higher rate of broadside firing inevitably told and by Trafalgar they could deliver between two to three broadsides for every one of the French or Spanish. Aware of this, the British seamen sailed confidently to the attack. Why was the battle fought?

It was emphatically not fought to save Britain from imminent invasion. Before proceeding any further with a discussion of the battle, it may be helpful to make it clear why it was fought where it was. Napoleon had cancelled the whole project nearly two months before and on the very day of Trafalgar was receiving the surrender of 27,000 Austrians at Ulm, deep in Germany, in Bavaria. Having abandoned the invasion, his instructions to Villaneuve, now in Cadiz, and commander of the Franco-Spanish fleet, were to proceed into the Mediterranean. Villeneuve started to do so, but, becoming aware of a British fleet intent on forcing a battle, reversed course, so that he could return to Cadiz, whether victor or loser. This manoeuvre, which took time and caused some disorder in his line of battle, brought him as far as Cape Trafalgar, some 30 miles south-west of Cadiz.

Collingwood, in Royal Sovereign, was the first to breach the somewhat disorderly enemy line and, though by the end of the action his ship was reduced to a dismasted, unsteerable near wreck by the attentions of five enemy ships before his support could come up and deal with them, suffered only 47 killed. Victory, left in much the same state, had 57, the highest in the whole fleet, including, of course, Nelson himself. Other ships had lower – mostly much lower – numbers killed. The total killed in the British fleet is given as 449; by contrast, those killed in the Franco-Spanish was over 5,000, over ten times as many.

Nicolson gives no figures: for these we must go to Max Adams’ Admiral Collingwood. Likewise, we must go to Navies of the Napoleonic Era by Otto von Pivka (or some other source) to discover as well the manning levels of these ships. The largest, such as Royal Sovereign and Victory, with 100 guns, should have had between 850 and 875 men on board. Thus, in Victory, less than 7 in every hundred were actually killed, a fact not made clear in Nicolson’s sanguinary account.

Readers must be warned that a description of the battle itself does not begin until page 209, with perhaps an overemphasis on the carnage involved. Following it, Nicolson gives a superb account of its aftermath, when Collingwood struggled to bring his own damaged fleet, together with seventeen French and Spanish captures, to safety in Gibraltar against the fearsome gale that blew straight towards the shore. He had to abandon most of the captured French and Spanish ships (valuable as prizes). This meant he had not only to take off the British prize crews, but also chose to evacuate as many of the enemy survivors as he could, including the wounded. The heroic attempts, largely successful, to rescue these last, are graphically described. But Nicolson does not explain how these compassionate activities are compatible with his hypothesis of “English aggressiveness”.

Naval hierarchy, the “Honour” system and ambition;

Nicolson is on firmer ground as he analyses the ethos of the Royal Navy at the time, a mixture of rigid hierarchy, influence (in contemporary parlance “interest”, a sort of super-old-boys’ network), and opportunity: there was a ladder in place from bottom to top, from midshipman to admiral. The most difficult step was the middle one, from lieutenant to captain and here a favoured lieutenant could be greatly helped by his captain, especially on a station with a heavy mortality. Both Nelson and Collingwood gained their promotion this way, at the same time, in the West Indies, a notoriously disease-ridden environment.

All officers were “gentlemen” and bound together by a common code of “Honour”, of which courage was of course an indispensable component, but supplemented by others, such as the etiquette of the hierarchy, deviation from which was fatal. St Vincent compared it “to the chastity of a woman and when once wounded may never be recovered.” In the obverse of patronage, a captain could ruin a lieutenant after very little provocation. The French and Spanish also had their code of Honour, but it was more resigned and fatalistic (as they had cause to be). A heroic defeat was personally as creditable as a victory, not at all the right attitude to take when going into battle.

Coexisting with this system and to a large extent dependant on it was ambition, and its practical manifestation, the attainment of riches. The source for these was captured enemy ships, prizes. Such ships would be bought by the Admiralty, repaired and incorporated into the Royal Navy, often retaining the same name as a taunt to the enemy, who did it as well. Many French ships were, by common consent, better designed and built than Royal Navy ones. For some reason Pivka (op.cit.) gives the captures by the Royal Navy from 1792-99 only: 345, of which 60 were “ships of the line” of 74 guns or over, regarded as capable of participating with their equals in a set-piece battle.

Prize money distribution was greatly skewed towards the officer class and at the top end even more so. A captain could, after a few cruises to pick up merchantmen and privateers, buy a country house and move into the gentry class, if he wasn’t in it already. To get such a plum job needed, apart from enterprise and energy, assignment by the Admiral on station, who would get his share, and influence back home could help a lot. Captain Fremantle is given as an extended example of this process, a rather unpleasant character, whose letter to his wife after Trafalgar expressed his sorrow for the death of Nelson, as a patron rather than as a friend.

All the above, of course, Nicolson applies to officers only: his attitude to the seamen who comprised the majority on board is confused. Rather sweepingly he states they could not be “gentlemen” and “Honour” was a concept unknown to them. The social gap was enormous, and almost unbridgeable, authority above them at best paternalistic. What of the heroism? What of the eagerness of going into battle (prize money would be minuscule)? These are insufficiently explained by the premises above.

Some omissions

What else does Nicolson leave out of this interesting but rambling book? He gives an adequate account on how difficult it was for the French to obtain materials to build their ships and how the revolutionary ethos after 1792 played havoc with their manning, but omits what was probably their greatest disadvantage, their inability to train their officers and seamen in the tasks that must be performed out at sea. The blockade kept up by the Royal Navy made it difficult for a fleet to emerge from their ports, the more so as these were subjected to the prevailing, often stormy southwest wind which incidentally made it easier for British ships to leave the ports on the south coast of England. The French commander, Villeneuve made the point himself: “They [i.e., the Royal Navy] have kept the seas without intermission since 1793, while most of [our] fleet have scarcely weighed anchor for eight years.”

Nicolson’s casual reference to our blockade as being carried out by “scurvy-ridden” ships must also be corrected. The anti-scorbutic properties of citrus fruits in particular were at last becoming well-known (if not understood) and, as Kenneth J. Carpenter states in his History of Scurvy and Vitamin C:

There seems no doubt that the issue of lemon juice, perhaps combined with other improvements in victualling, resulted in the elimination of scurvy from the British navy and, by increasing the time which ships could remain at sea, greatly increased its efficiency during the Napoleonic Wars… so the problem of scurvy in the British navy was solved just in time to maintain the resistance to Napoleon through the continental blockade, whereas the French Services were less fortunate.

Indeed they were “less fortunate”. It was the French fleet that was “scurvy-ridden”. A French Admiral who visited a Royal Navy establishment after the American War of Independence was introduced to the lemon or lime juice cure for scurvy, but did nothing about investigating it for use. By contrast, Carpenter tells us that “Over the period from 1795 to 1814, the Admiralty records show a total issue of 1.6 million gallons of lemon juice.”

Nicolson might also have spared a few pages examining other strands of British society. In his Reminiscences, Captain Gronow gives us a picture of a section of it which, to put it bluntly, most felt no responsibility, or even interest, whatever in the war (though Gronow himself fought at Waterloo). And what of the Army and its ethos? It is easy to see which, soldier or sailor, entailed the greater battle-risk. At the battle of Salamanca in 1812, about one in ten of Wellington’s army (British, Portuguese and Spanish) was killed. Figures of the total manning the British fleet at Trafalgar are hard to come by – Nicolson speaks of 47,000 participating in the battle, and the Franco-Spanish fleet seem to have had slightly superior numbers. Taking all ships of the line (74 guns or more) into account, the chances of British participants being killed were about one in fifty. For something lower: the chance of an American soldier being killed in Iraq has been about one in two hundred and fifty. The chances for a British soldier are much the same.

Nicolson ignores upper-class “Napoleonists”, such as the Hollands, Fox, Whitbread, Byron et al, but makes much of ineffective proletarian unrest, to some extent fuelled by millenarian fantasies. Unmentioned are the Christian Evangelicals, more middle and upper class, a far more sober lot, the founders of what became Victorian morality, concerned rather with individual than mass behaviour, their social goals piecemeal, such as the abolition of the slave trade and boy chimney-sweeps and other ameliorations, rather than utopian. But religion seems to be rather marginalized in historical studies, perhaps as an unacknowledged, or even unconscious legacy of Marxism, whose believers could not credit that people meant what they said, but were “really” motivated by other, economic reasons.

Let a soldier – James Douglas, a corporal – speak:

But show me a man who knows he has an immortal soul, and advancing under the destructive fire of the enemy, but will in his inmost soul offer up the prayer of the publican [“God be merciful unto me a sinner”: Luke 18, 13]. To bear me out in this, let 20, 30 nay as many thousands as ever mixed in battle, be advancing to the deadly strife and not one word can be heard in that number, but move on silent as the grave. I now ask the reason for this awful silence. The reason is that each man is employed as he ought to be with his maker. But when the fire is opened all is forgotten save king and country.

Swearing was also strongly disapproved of by the rank and file.

The biographies of Nelson (1758-1805) are legion; this study seems to have been well-reviewed and the back of the jacket is well-covered with laudatory remarks, making my dissent about it badly needed and almost to suggest that this book is an unnecessary one. We all know Nelson was charismatic, fascinated his “band of brothers” and was a hero to the British public ever since the Battle of the Nile. Tears by all ranks of the navy are well-authenticated. Faults recorded by Nicolson are the ones we condemn today, such as his grim enthusiasm for hanging deserters and Neapolitan Jacobins. His infatuation with Emma Hamilton (who seems to have made an unfavourable impression on all the women who met her) might be forgivable if they had conducted their affair with more discretion. A male friend of Nelson observed, “She goes on cramming Nelson with trowelfuls of flattery, which he goes on taking as quietly as a child does pap.”

Perhaps this constant diet was responsible for his mixed behaviour on his only meeting with Wellington just before Trafalgar, when they were both waiting to see the Secretary of State, Lord Castlereigh, as related by the Duke to W.J. Croker, nearly 30 years later:

He entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was all on his side, and all about himself, and, really, in a style as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose something I happened to say may have made him guess that I was somebody, and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office-keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter. All I had thought was a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of this country and of the aspect and probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact he talked like an officer and a statesman. The Secretary of State kept us long waiting, and certainly, for the last half or three quarters of an hour I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more. Now if the Secretary of State had been punctual & admitted Lord Nelson in the first quarter of an hour, I should have had the same impression of a light and trivial character that other people have had, but luckily I saw enough to be satisfied that he was really a very superior man; but certainly a more sudden and complete metamorphosis I never saw.

Note that this first impression of Nelson’s behaviour as a “light and trivial character” was something that “other people had had.” Probably this was why Barham, the aged (eighty plus) but exceptionally efficient First Lord of the Admiralty, who had never met Nelson was doubtful about him until after he had sent for and read his Naval Journals of his latest activities.

It is a great pity that Nelson did not survive Trafalgar to have more conferences with Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, as he then was), for if he had, he might have impressed on him the difficulty of combined army-navy operations, which, as we shall see, Wellington took for granted and never really quite understood. Napoleon was much worse in this respect, changing his plans almost daily, baffling the British Admiralty, which had plans to counter them all, almost as much as his subordinates who could not convince him that moving his ships over the sea was a far more complex business that moving his troops over the land.

The result of the battle

In 1919, Julian S. Corbett, doyen of naval historians, published his The Campaign of Trafalgar (in the reprint of 1976, the two volumes are bound as one and are still obtainable at a reasonable price). The bewildering preliminaries to the battle and the battle itself are given in exhaustive detail. In his Conclusion to Volume II he writes:

By universal assent Trafalgar is ranked as one of the decisive battles of the world, and yet of all great victories there is not one which to all appearance was so barren of immediate result… It gave England finally the dominion of the seas, but it left Napoleon dictator of the Continent. So incomprehensible was its apparent sterility that to fill the void a legend grew up that it saved England from invasion… unsupported as it was by the plain succession of events.

What events? In 1805 William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, had built up what must have seemed a strong Coalition (the Third) with Austria and Russia – Prussia dithered until it was too late. Cancelling his invasion plans (which he may have done anyway, since his naval support failed to materialize), Napoleon headed straight for Austria, captured part of its army at Ulm, occupied Vienna and inflicted a crushing defeat on the combined Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz on December 2nd. Austria sued for peace and the Third Coalition was dead. A British army, which had landed on the coast of West Germany to support the Austrians had to be withdrawn.

The next year, Prussia, after fruitless negotiations with Napoleon, foolishly declared war and was soundly defeated at Jena and Uerstadt in October. Napoleon then pursued the Russians to East Prussia. Eylau (Feb. 8th, 1807) was a bloody, drawn battle, but Friedland (June 14th) was a decisive victory, and at Tilsit (June 25th), the Russian Czar Alexander changed sides and became Napoleon’s not very reliable ally.

Britain could do little but maintain its blockade as it watched the development of these appalling events. Pitt died in 1806 and the King had to call on the Whig opposition to form a government, headed by the pacifist Fox, who opened peace negotiations which came to nothing. Napoleon turned his attention to the only continental country not under his sway – Portugal. An army sent there met with no resistance, and the Royal Navy came just in time to persuade its Regent (its Queen was mad) to be transported to Brazil (Nov. 29th, 1807), a day before the French arrived in Lisbon.

Napoleon now obliged Britain by making an enormous political error. Spain was almost completely useless as an ally, but at least it was quiescent. Its monarchy was in the last stages of decadence, the King a near-idiot, the Queen, ignorant and wilful, who ruled him, with her favourite Godoy, and the Crown Prince uneducated and cowardly, at odds with his parents – but all obsequiously obedient to Napoleon. The whole top tier of society, the Army, the Church and the bureaucracy was irremediably corrupt and when Napoleon poured troops into Spain on the pretext of reinforcing his Army in Portugal, no one protested, even when they occupied key fortresses in the north and Madrid itself.

Then Napoleon went one step too far. He lured the Royal family to Bayonne, forced both King and Crown Prince to abdicate and announced that his brother Joseph was to be King of Spain. Then, at last, when those who should have been their leaders still remained passive, the common people, the mob, rose and rioted in French-occupied Madrid (May 2nd, 1808). Slowly. ill-organized and poorly led, all the provinces followed suit. A deputation from Asturias, on the northern coast came to Britain, now back under a pro-war Tory government, with a request for help (May 30th). This was forthcoming and the long story of the British part in the Peninsular War had begun.

The long aftermath: 1805-1814

Trafalgar may have established the dominance of the Royal Navy at sea, but it still had work to do, though of a more routine, less spectacular kind. The blockade had to be maintained for economic as well as military reasons. It might as well be pointed out here that wreckings were responsible for by far the greatest number of Royal Navy ship losses – not because of bad navigation, but because of the need to keep an eye on the enemy, even in bad weather, off treacherous coasts. Convoys still had to protected from privateers, which could not always be prevented from slipping out of beleaguered ports or small fortified inlets. It was also a necessity to inhibit traffic carrying supplies and reinforcements to isolated coastal garrisons in Spain, where transport by land was next to impossible.


Old Barham had been dismissed without thanks during the government shake-ups following Pitt’s death. The Admiralty, under new management, though doubtless dismayed at the loss of Nelson, could be confident that the Navy was operating as efficiently as it did before. The immediate burden fell on Cuthbert Collingwood (1748-1810) who, no Watson to Nelson’s Holmes, was, according to his biographer “a better seaman than Nelson, a subtler diplomat, and despite his conservative politics, a naval reformer at least fifty years ahead of his time. What Collingwood lacked and admired above all in his friend, was “the irresistible Nelsonian impetuosity that allowed his enemy no time to recover once he had made a mistake.” In a letter praising Nelson, Collingwood wrote: “Everything seemed as if by enchantment, to prosper under his direction – but it was the effect of system – and nice combination, not of chance…”

The two had in fact been friends for thirty two years when Nelson fell at Trafalgar, having met in the West Indies during the American War of Independence. Not the slightest trace of jealousy tainted their relationship, though in his last letter to Colllingwood (Oct. 9th) Nelson seems to express a little guilt at possibly having aroused it. Collingwood repudiated any as far as he was concerned: with others it would far more likely, (especially if his behaviour was as Wellington had described it – not mentioned by Collingwood.)

Adams states that, as a prelude to Trafalgar, on 20th August “Collingwood pulled off one of the most extraordinary tactical victories of the war. It is barely mentioned by the majority of historians.” Cruising with a small force off Cadiz he was confronted by Villaneuve’s fleet of 26 returning from the West Indies. They were almost certain to be hoping to pass into the Mediterranean where they could do much damage. First he pretended to chase them, then, using one of the oldest ruses in the book, started signalling to non-existent support over the horizon. Villaneuve fell for this, and made for Cadiz instead – just where Collingwood wanted him to be. “Trafalgar would otherwise not have happened.”

Collingwood had his own grievances: his distinguished service at the Battle of the First of June (1794) was not reported, almost certainly becuse of the ill-will of the drafter of Lord Howe’s dispatch, and the patent for his elevation to a barony did not include descent through the female line – and Collingwood had only two daughters. Unlike Nelson, Collingwood was a devoted family man, but was unable to see any of them – wife or daughters – which he longed to do, during the last five years of his life.

An inclusion in the “family” was the dog Bounce, though his breed, or even size, is unknown to us, apart from the fact that he had grown as high as Collingwood’s desk. For a lonely Admiral he was the perfect confidant and in other ways the ideal Navy dog, though he could never stand the sound of gunfire, immediately going below. He routinely swam behind the Admiral’s barge when he went ashore, until he was too tired to do so, thereby missing an opportunity of having his portrait painted. Back in Britain, he accompanied Collinwood in his long walks when the Admiral, his pockets full of acorns, went in search of suitable sites to plant them.

After his elevation to the peerage, Collingwood humourously depicts Bounce’s behaviour – maybe a gentle hint to his wife and daughters, who were enjoying their new status perhaps too much and too expensively:

I am out of all patience with Bounce. The consequential airs he gives himself since he became the right honourable dog are insufferable. He considers beneath his dignity to play with commoners’ dogs, and truly thinks that he does them grace when he condescends to lift up his leg against them. This, I think, is carrying the insolence of rank to the extreme, but he is a dog does it.

Sad to say, Bounce, now 18 years old and as crippled by arthritis as his master, fell overboard one night in August 1809 and drowned. Collingwood grieved greatly at his death.

Collingwood was the Admiral in change of Mediterranean matters, which did not merely mean keeping an eye on any French fleet manoeuvres from Toulon but the whole diplomacy, from Turkey in the east, to the Barbary corsairs in the west, whom he had to indicate that piracy on British shipping was a no-go pursuit, while depending on them for fresh water, fresh vegetables and beef, which they could count on being paid for. His dealings with the troublesome Bourbons of Naples, now confined to Sicily, showed that he was far from feeling the fascination Nelson had for that unstable monarchy.

Collingwood died on 7th March 1810, a day after his ship set sail for home. Though a post-mortem revealed a growth in his stomach he had, in reality, worn himself out in the service of his country. He was buried beside Nelson in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Navy and Spain 1807-1814

Christopher Ball’s Wellington’ Navy fills, as they used to say, a long-felt want, though not wanted, apparently, as much as it deserves to be. The author points out that Paul Kennedy in his “seminal work” The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery merely remarks that the Navy provided “logistical support and added mobility”. The fact is that without it the British role in the peninsula would have been a failure. Unfortunately naval and military historians seem never to have communicated. To take just one example: even Oman, in his seven-volume history makes little mention of the Navy’s part in the long defence of Cadiz which was more of a naval than a military one. Added to this neglect must be the lack of any large set-piece battle in the area Hall deals with.

How much trouble Wellington gave the Admiralty can be judged from their (all but) final rebuke by its clearly exasperated First Lord, Lord Melville:

I will take your opinion in preference to any other person’s as to the most effectual mode of beating a French army, but I have no confidence in your seamanship or nautical skill. Neither will I defer to the opinions upon such matters of the gentlemen under your command who are employed in the siege of St. Sebastian, and which happen to be at variance with those of every naval officer in His Majesty’s service.

We can be thankful that Wellington was not in the same position as Napoleon, Britain’s long-evolved Constitution having prevented anything of the sort.

This a book which, without any lengthy analysis, I can recommend to those who wish to know more of this subject: Just read it!

Other activities of the Royal Navy

The Command of the Seas enabled Britain to found its second Empire, picking up the Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius, Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies (the last of which was returned to Holland), as well as taking as much of the West Indies as it really wanted. During the War of 1812 against the Americans, it, by the end, righted the balance of the early defeats by powerful American frigates.

But these acquisitions did not really hurt Napoleon. Only the Peninsular War, fought on continental soil could really make a difference – which it did, Napoleon contributed with his errors: not going himself there after his initial incursion, which sent Sir John Moore racing for Corunna – a task left to Soult. He left a divided command and attempted to dictate strategy when his information and implementation took months, and was totally impracticable.

Other books consulted

Froude: The Reign of Mary Tudor
Mahan: Life of Nelson – for Croker
Robert Gardiner, Ed.: The Campaign of Trafalgar 1803-1805
Robert Gardiner &al: Winning theNapoleonic War 1806-1814

17 comments to Trafalgar – and after

  • Dale Amon


    btw, I grew up reading Admiral Hornblower 🙂

  • Whoa, quite a post.

    Regarding Vitamin C: I’m in the middle of a very cute book, “A History of the World in Six Glasses,” which chronicles the roles of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola in the history of civilization.

    Regarding Trafalgar, it points out that the British sailors were rationed rum (and its diluted form, “grog”) which, being derived from sugar cane and flavored with fruit juices, contained vitamin C, while the French sailors’ wine rations contained none. It wasn’t just about lime juice (which, we all know, is where the term “limey” comes from). 🙂

  • FJHarris

    “Bravo”, indeed.

  • A tour de force! A fine discussion.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Fantastic stuff. BTW, may I urge Findlay to get this stuff printed in hard-copy form? Maybe the Libertarian Alliance could print it as a pamphlet. This is better than anything you will read in the press or even a decent literary journal.

  • Julian Taylor

    Echoing Mr Pearce, thank you for such a lovely informative post. I had read Max Adam’s biog of Collingwood, but I shall certainly include Julian S. Corbett’s work in my next round of purchases.

  • A shame that 200 years after Trafalgar established the dominance of the Royal Navy at sea they are going to loose their aircraft carriers (without replacement), the most important modern naval weapon.

  • Julian Taylor

    Oh dear,

    Read this article and then comment. The carrier replacement programme was announced some years ago.

  • dof

    Wasn’t V, I mean Guy Fawkes, a Catholic? Oh, 16th centrury. Doh.

  • Chris H

    Excellent article. The only comment that I would take slight issue with is the common idea that French ships were superior to British ones. French warships tended to be roomier, faster and more maneuverable. Ideal attributes for blockade running, spending most of the time in port and being able to deploy and concentrate rapidly. Naturally, these attributes also made them very popular as prizes! British warships tended to be cheaper to manufacture, more durable and more seaworthy. Ideal attributes for spending long periods at sea, blockading the French and patrolling Britain’s vast overseas commitments. Flashy French designs vs. practical British ones – sound familiar?

    Another factor in making French and Spanish ships more popular was the admiralty policy of avoiding innovation as mush as possible in basic ship design. The ease with which enemy design changes could be copied combined with the size of the British fleet, meant that it was not generally in the British interest to innovate. The British policy was to let enemy fleets pay the cost and take the risk of innovation and then to use Britain’s huge advantage in manufacturing ability to copy the better ones. This policy was abandoned in the early nineteenth century, leading to dramatic improvements in ship design.

  • Julian Taylor

    Don’t forget that a lot of French ships tended to end up auctioned, as prizes, and bought into the Royal Navy. The original Temeraire (not the ‘fighting’ one that was second in line to Victory at Trafalgar and so beloved of Turner’s painting) was a 74-gun ship of the line sold into RN possession in the late 1800’s after being captured in 1759 at Lagos by Boscowan.

  • Paul Marks

    Do not forget to send a copy of your review to Adam N. and to the newspaper and journal reviewers.

    Often people write fine reviews of works “on line” but the author (and most other people) never get to know.

  • RAB

    Julian, The carriers may have been announced years ago but not a hull has been laid, nor indeed has the government any idea when one will be, where it will be or by whom.
    Meanwhile The Ark Royal is in mothballs to save money.

  • dearieme

    Adam N is not alone in this strange fantasy about burning Catholics. Where on earth did it come from?

    Mind you, facts are not his forte, are they?

  • what next?

    The comparison in design and development of ships of the Spanish, French and British Navies is a somewhat subjective exercise.
    The best place to start is in the uses to which the ships were put.
    The Spanish and British ships were built with an ‘Atlantic’ view. This generally led to ‘rugged’ships.
    Considering overall characteristics, the Spanish ships exhibited a better balance of size, durability, speed, firepower and agility.
    For British tastes; they were undergunned but comparable in most other respects.
    The French ships were built with a European/Mediterranean view. This led to less heavily built ships; faster, yes; more easily handled, yes, but overall, the ships expected to spend less time at sea and were not as weatherly as the Spanish or British designs (this becomes apparent in the ‘life’ of a ship – the French-built ships tended to last fewer years than those built by the Atlantic Powers)
    What people also have to consider is a manifestation of the ‘Missile Gap’ mindset, which attributed to French ships qualities which RN captains wished for their own ships.
    Many of these qualities were present, but were paid for elsewhere by undesirable qualities.
    To consider the French as innovators is to fall into this same ‘Missile Gap’ illusion. While it seemed to the Admiralty that each French ship they came across was a ‘one off’, the designer Sane was actually regimenting French shipbuilding to his own system.
    It was not until Seppings stamped his authority on British shipbuilding, that the Admiralty realised the resources they actually had at their disposal.

    Read more in:
    The 74 Gun Ship.
    Jean Boudriot – Collection Archeoligie Navale Francais

    Ship of the Line Vols I & II
    Brian Lavery – Conway

    The Heavy Frigate
    Robert Gardiner – Conway

    Arctectura Navalis Mercatoria
    Fredrik Chapman – Adlard Coles

    The Search for Speed Under Sail
    Howard I Chapelle – Conway

  • I was surprised to see you say that the custom of keeping the names of captured ships was done as a taunt to the enemy. My impression (admittedly only gained from one or two popular history books) was that it was done as a tribute to a worthy adversary.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I also love some of the names given to ships, not just those taken from Greek history and mythology, but names like “Rattler”, “Warspite”, and even humble vessels like “Pickle”. I wonder how naming of vessels goes on today? Who gets to decide the moniker of a ship? I know that for a time, vessels would be adopted by a city, hence HMS Southampton, or Glasgow, Belfast, etc.

    I personally reckon we should have a submarine called “HMS Blunkett”. Guaranteed to torpedo anything in sight.