Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Book Review: Seize The Fire: Heroism and Duty at the Battle of Trafalgar by Adam Nicolson

Britannia's God of War at Trafalgar

(Right-click on the images and select "View Image" to see them full-size)

Attempting to cover one battle in a book doesn't seem like much of a feat, but if you add a running commentary on the dramatis personae, their personal letters, what Coleridge and Wordsworth said about them, furthermore the atmosphere of the battle, and why said battle was a turning point in Western civilization: well, that's quite something.

It's just this that Adam Nicolson attempts in "Seize The Fire: Heroism and Duty at the Battle of Trafalgar."

First, the bad. This book, quite frankly, tries to cover too much. Although even that is a mixed downside, because my attention span is so short, and I even thought to myself while reading that is was nice to have so much prose devoted solely to Nelson, because it gave me the measure of the man that I wanted, and perhaps needed to understand Trafalgar--without reading a separate biography, which may or may not have fogged my conception of him with tedious details such as the color of his nostril hair (I jest), or (no jest) the color of Lady Hamilton's favorite pair of bloomers.

That said, when the pseudo-biographizing moves on from Nelson to Hardy, Collingwood, Bayntun, Villeneuve, St. Vincent, Barham, Troubridge, and Beatty, it begins to grow tiresome. Instrumental as these men were to the battle and our conception of it, I could have done without the detail.

The book also descends into the moods and caprices of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Britain, how it was viewed by the rest of the world, its changing worldviews, etc. Fascinating as this is, it is perhaps a little too much.

One more quibble: The book irritatingly switches to present tense when describing the action; ex: "The Victory rakes the Redoutable" instead of "The Victory raked the Redoutable." It's not happening in the present, people!

Okay, enough of the bad. Aside from these minor quibbles, the book is excellent. The excerpts from letters written by everyone in the British fleet, from Nelson on down, gives a great picture of what it was actually like to be there, in the thick of the battle.

Nicolson writes well, and he does his best to give us a picture of the forces involved; and to show how Trafalgar meant more than a great British naval victory. It set the stage for British naval supremacy until well after World War II, and changed the way ship-to-ship battles were fought: before Nelson and Trafalgar, battles were not really fought at close range. The fleets formed "battle lines" and pounded away at each other. With Trafalgar came down-and-dirty, up close, hull-to-hull action. There was devastation. Ships were destroyed. In some ways, it was an imperfect way of combat: the reason for the seemingly gentlemanly naval battles of yore was that neither side really wanted to lose their ships, even if it meant capturing the enemy's. Nelson at Trafalgar had nothing to lose and everything to gain by bringing his ships in close: destroying as many French and Spanish ships as possible.

Trafalgar was not an even match. That is not to say that the British could not have lost, but the Combined Fleet of the Spanish and French, although it numbered more ships, was strikingly undermanned, diseased, and morose. They, at least, were not hopeful before the battle. In fact, Villeneuve had led Nelson on a fairly crafty chase across the Atlantic and back again in the summer of 1805, keen to avoid a confrontation with what he knew to be a superior fleet. The devastating results of that confrontation: twenty-two Spanish and French ships taken, burnt, or sunk, and not a single British ship.

The battle itself would hardly be so famous if it wasn't for the fact that is was accompanied by the death of its' leader, Nelson. If you think about it, there aren't many battles where the leader of the winning side is killed; and even fewer where that leader was as much of a hero as Nelson was.

Nelson himself defies description. He epitomizes the nineteenth-century ideal of the honorable warrior. Although his personal life was not so admirable, his great deeds on the field of battle, down to his greatest triumph, Trafalgar, are legendary. He was impetuous and sometimes rash; perhaps not a great seaman, but a great leader. His strategy at sea seems to be, "Never mind the maneuvers, just go straight at 'em."

He died on the field of battle, valiant to the last. His famous battle signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" is somehow moving. How indicative this is of the trust Nelson inspired in his men! And indicative of the same sentiment on a personal level, his famous last words: "Thank God I have done my duty." He, in dying, fulfilled his own mandate to his men, and so died content.

My favorite feature of this book was the extensive section of color paintings in the insert, all of Trafalgar or the men involved in it. It really helped me visualize what really happened. Which leads me to your assignment.

Assignment: Compare these two visions of Nelson's death. Which, do you think, is more realistic? Which is more moving? Do you see any Christ-parallels in either of them?

Again, you can view the full-size image to get a better grasp of it. Hand in your assignment in the comments.

In conclusion, this book works not only as a synopsis of the Battle of Trafalgar, but as a mini-biography of its guiding light, Horatio Lord Nelson. Coleridge described him as "Britannia's God of War." I can hardly think of a more apt description. He remains one of my heroes: and one of man's greatest leaders.


Sue said...

I like both these paintings, but don't know enough to say which is more realistic. The bottom one captures the dark murkiness of the moment better but perhaps the idea of the top - Nelson dying on deck surrounded by his loyal men - is closer to what we'd like to believe. Christ-parallels? Yes, in the way that Nelson is illuminated with light from above...but Christ died utterly alone and disgraced (but rose in victory!) and Nelson appears to be dying in his finest hour.

sweetggirl said...

I think that the first painting is probably more realistic, although I can't really see the second one too well, and I think that the first one is also more moving. I agree with your mom about the Christ-parallel stuff. And the books sounds like a good book (except the whole fave color of bloomers....that's slightly awkward,LOL :p).

Sola Gratia said...

Sue, Sweetggirl: Well, you're SUPPOSED to say the second painting, which is much more realistic (although the ceiling was still painted too high.) In the first, the men would all be hit with French musket fire. I think in both paintings Nelson is surrounded by his men...excellent point about the parallels with Christ. Christ died abandoned, Nelson died triumphant. However, only one of them rose from the dead.

Rachel: I was kidding about the bloomers ;)

sweetggirl said...

UUUGGH! Mos, remember, I'm VERY gullible. I totally took you seriously. *SIGH*