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The Trafalgar Companion: The Complete Guide to History's Most Famous…

di Mark Adkin

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The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21, 1805 off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, between the combined fleets of Spain and France and the Royal Navy. The last great sea action of the period, it established British naval supremacy and ended the threat of French invasion.The Trafalgar Companionnot only chronicles the campaign and the battle itself in unprecedented detail, it also charts Admiral Lord Nelson’s life and career as well as his death at the height of the battle. Providing a wealth of background details on contemporary naval life, seamanship, gunnery, tactics, and much else, the narrative is supplemented by informative sidebars, 200 color illustrations, and stage-by-stage battle diagrams.… (altro)
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The Trafalgar Companion is even better than Nelson’s Trafalgar. This is a profusely (and excellently) illustrated coffee-table sized book, covering both the life of Nelson and the titular battle. The organization alternates chapters on Royal Navy organization, gunnery, manning, etc. with chapters on the life of Nelson concluding with the battle and Nelson’s funeral. Every Nelson battle – Corsica, Santa Cruz, Cape St. Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen, and finally Trafalgar – is covered, with excellent maps – little ship outlines are color-coded by nationality, with symbols showing gun firing, whether there’s an admiral on board, whether the ship has been taken, is sinking, or is dismasted. There are profiles and histories for every ship involved in the battle, right down to the HMS Pickle. There’s a deck-by-deck plan of the Victory, showing each man’s battle stations and identifying who was there at Trafalgar (if known). There’s also a series of scale drawings showing how Victory would have looked as seen through a gunport on Redoubtable as her distance decreased during her approach to the Combined Fleet battle line at Trafalgar.

As with any good history, the book answers and raises a lot of questions. For example:

I had previously imagined that the gunner on a Royal Navy ship would be on a gundeck during a battle, supervising things; in fact, he would be in a magazine filling cartridges. I hadn’t realized how complicated this was; there were different sized cartridges for each gun, of course (the Victory had long 32-pounders on the lower gundeck, long 24-pounders on the middle gundeck, short 12-pounders on the upper gundeck and quarterdeck, and long 12-pounders and 68-pounder carronades on the forecastle. Each took a different cartridge, and the cartridges would change during the battle as guns were double- or triple-shotted or became heated).

That raises another question; every history and historical novel about the Napoleonic wars notes that guns recoiled more when heated, but none (including this one) explains why. My best guess is that windage decreased as the barrel contracted internally, but I’m not sure if that’s true.

I discovered that “powder monkeys” were not boys carrying cartridges to the guns; in fact, Admiralty regulations specifically prohibited ship’s boys in this task. Instead they swabbed up loose powder.

At the Battle of the Nile, the HMS Bellerophon (74) and the French flagship L’Orient (118) engaged in a two-hour bloody gun duel, with the ships’ sides touching and guns actually firing through the opposing ship’s gunports. Casualties among the officers were grim; when the senior officer standing on the deck of the Bellerophon realized that L’Orient was on fire and about to explode, he ordered the anchor cut, boomed off, set a spritsail, and got the Bellerophon out of danger before L’Orient disintegrated as her main magazine went off. The officer in question was Midshipman John Hindmarsh, and he was 14 years old at the time. Take that, helicopter parents. (Several other Bellerophon officers, including Captain Darby, later recovered from their wounds; all endorsed Hindmarsh’s decision).

The L’Orient was originally Dauphin-Royal; after the Revolution she became the Sans-Culotte before becoming L’Orient. It is not known if the French thought morale might suffer from having to serve on a ship named Pantsless.

In the chapter on battle preparations, it’s noted that the glass windows on Royal Navy ships stern galleries were removed and struck to the hold before entering battle. However, at Cape St. Vincent, British boarders had to smash gallery windows on the San Nicolas to get in. Perhaps Spanish and French practice was different.

I often wondered about Nelson’s tactics at Trafalgar; he essentially allowed the Combined Fleet to “cross the T” during the head on approach. However, Nelson was confident that inferior French and Spanish gunnery could not cripple Victory before he could break the line. He was correct; as it happens the British gun crews could fire almost four times as fast as their opponents. Although winds were light, there was a heavy swell hitting the Combined Fleet beam-on, which would have diminished accuracy. Further, the guns could only be trained through a limited arc, which meant that as Victory got closer, guns from ships further ahead or astern in the line could no longer be trained on her. The tactic proved correct; although she took numerous shot hits in the run-up Victory was not crippled and put double-shotted broadsides into the stern of Bucentaure and the bow of Redoubtable as she sailed between them. The first shot was fired by bo’sun’s mate William Willmet from a forecastle carronade; this would not have been Willmet’s normal station during a battle but he probably persuaded another crewman to relinquish his spot. I understand bo’sun’s mates can be remarkably persuasive. Willmet had loaded the carronade with an entire keg (about 500) of musket balls on top of a roundshot and it must have been pretty grim on Bucentaure’s gundeck after that hit them.

Napoleon was clueless as a naval commander; he expected that French and Spanish crews would be superior since they had seldom left port in the previous eight years while English crews would be worn out from sailing around the oceans. This turned out not to be the case. He did have a potentially good idea; leave all the lower gun deck long 36-pounders on French ships but replace the middle and upper gun deck armament with 36-pounder carronades. This would have simplified shot supply and made for a pretty formidable battery. However, French shipyard and manufacturing capacity were not up to the task and nothing was ever done.

The conventional meme is that Trafalgar saved the British Isles from invasion. This isn’t the case; Napoleon had already marched off to Austria and Villenueve’s orders were to break into the Mediterranean, not head for the Channel.

Villenueve is conventionally portrayed as an incompetent blunderer; this turns out not to be the case as well. His position was extremely frustrating. He knew full well that the French and Spanish crews were inadequately trained but received repeated orders from Napoleon to set sail. In fact, in a meeting with his captains before the battle he not only correctly anticipated the tactics Nelson would use against him, he also planned to use the same tactics against Nelson (divide into two squadrons, break the British line and defeat it piece-meal) if he had the weather gauge. As it happened, he didn’t get the weather gauge, and it’s doubtful that his crews could have pulled off a Nelson-style approach anyway; they could just barely keep their ships under control in their own battle line, much less maneuver to break somebody else’s. Villenueve survived the battle but killed himself after being exchanged for four British post captains.

It’s speculated that Nelson’s habit of wearing his dress uniform complete with all his decorations (Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Sicilian Order of St. Ferdinand, Member of the Ottoman Order of the Crescent, Knight Commander of the Austrian Order of St. Joachim) made him a conspicuous target on the Victory’s quarterdeck. As it happened, the captain of the Redoubtable, Jean Jacques Etienne Lucas, had paid special attention to training his crew in musketry and one of them shot Nelson from a fighting top. However, author Mark Adkin argues that there was so much smoke that it was unlikely that anyone could have seen anything more than shadowy figures. Lucas was one of the French heroes of the battle; although he survived his crew of 568 had 487 killed and 81 wounded (including Lucas). He was 4’9” tall so perhaps he had something to prove – or was just too small a target. Napoleon promoted him to rear admiral after exchange, commenting that if all his captains had fought like Lucas, the battle would have ended differently; perhaps, but I suspect it just would have ended with a lot more French and Spanish casualties.

Although the tradition is that Nelson was packed in a rum cask for shipment back to England, it was, in fact, brandy. There was apparently more brandy than rum available on Victory and popular wisdom held it preserved bodies better than rum anyway. At Gibraltar some of the brandy was drawn off and replaced with “spirits of wine” (basically ethanol). It didn’t work perfectly; on the voyage back to England a panicked Royal Marine guard reported noises from the cask that suggested Nelson was trying to get out – or at least change position; he had been inserted head first. It turned out to be gas bubbles; when the autopsy was performed Nelson abdominal organs were in pretty bad shape, although the rest of him was described as being well preserved and flexible. The immediate cause of death was a “divided” pulmonary artery; the musket ball (not a rifle bullet, as sometimes claimed) had lodged against the spine which the doctors noted would also have eventually caused death even if the artery had remained intact. Although Nelson told Captain Hardy his backbone had been “shot through” and he was partially paralyzed when brought to the cockpit, there’s no evidence that his spine was actually severed. Nevertheless Adkin suggests that it was unlikely that Nelson would have survived even if 21st Century medical treatment was immediately available.

The last known survivor of the battle was Spanish cabin boy who died at 109 in 1898 (in Dallas, Texas). The Victory is still a flagship at Portsmouth and is the oldest commissioned warship in the world (she’s in drydock, which also happens to be the oldest surviving drydock in the world); the French Duguay-Trouin escaped from Trafalgar with battle damage but was captured shortly thereafter at the Battle of Cape Ortegal, taken into the Royal Navy, renamed Implacable, and fought against the Russians in the Baltic in 1808 and the Turks in the Mediterranean in 1830 before spending many years as a hulk. She was towed out to sea and scuttled in 1949 (over the vehement protests of historians). The tough old ship refused to go down after scuttling charges went off; she eventually had to be rammed repeatedly by a tugboat before going under, with both French and British flags flying. Her stern gallery and figurehead are preserved at Greenwich.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in the Royal, French, or Spanish navies; the life of Nelson, any of Nelson’s battles, and especially Trafalgar. ( )
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The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21, 1805 off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, between the combined fleets of Spain and France and the Royal Navy. The last great sea action of the period, it established British naval supremacy and ended the threat of French invasion.The Trafalgar Companionnot only chronicles the campaign and the battle itself in unprecedented detail, it also charts Admiral Lord Nelson’s life and career as well as his death at the height of the battle. Providing a wealth of background details on contemporary naval life, seamanship, gunnery, tactics, and much else, the narrative is supplemented by informative sidebars, 200 color illustrations, and stage-by-stage battle diagrams.

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