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Seize the Fire
October 21st 1805
5.50 am to 8.30 am Distance between fleets: 10 miles—6.5 miles
Victory's heading and speed: 067°—078° at 3 knots Zeal: passionate ardour for any cause
Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755
At 5.50 on the morning of 21 October 1805, just as dawn was coming up, the look-outs high on the mainmasts of the British fleet spied the enemy, about twelve miles away downwind. They had been tracking them for a day and a night, the body of their force kept carefully over the horizon, not only to prevent the French and Spanish taking fright and running from battle, but to remain upwind, 'keeping the weather gage', holding the trump card with which they would control and direct the battle to come. All night long, British frigates, stationed between the two fleets, had been burning pairs of blue lights, every hour on the hour, as pre-arranged. It was the agreed signal that the enemy was standing to the south, just as was wanted, straight into the jaws of the British guns.
Twenty minutes after the first sighting in the light of dawn, Nelson signalled to the fleet: 'Form order of sailing in two columns.' This was the attack formation in which he had instructed his captains over the preceding weeks. His next signal, at 06.22, confirmed what they all knew was inevitable: 'Prepare for battle'. Twenty minutes after that, the French frigate Hermione, standing out to the west of her own battle fleet, peering into the dark of the retreating night, signalled to her flagship, theBucentaure: 'The enemy in sight to windward.' For all 47,000 men afloat that morning, it felt like a day of destiny and decision. Most ships in both fleets were already cleared for action.
The French and Spanish were about twelve miles and the British about twenty-two miles off the coast of southwest Spain. The nearest point was Cape Trafalgar, an Arabic name, meaning the Point of the Cave, Taraf-al-Ghar. From the very top, the truck, of the highest masts in the British fleet, two hundred feet above the sea, you could just make out the blue smoky hills standing inland towards Seville. The wind was a light northwesterly, perhaps no more than Force 2 or 3, blowing at about 10 knots, but that was enough. A man-of-war would sail with a breeze so slight it could just be felt on the windward side of a licked finger. On the day of the battle, only the very largest ship, the vast Spanish four-decker, the Santísima Trinidad, did not respond to her helm. Most had just enough steerage way to manoeuvre. The sky was a pale, Neapolitan blue, with a few high clouds, and it was warm for the autumn. By midday, the Spanish meteorologists, recording the temperature in the Royal Observatory just outside Cadiz, would log 21° Celsius, about 70° Fahrenheit. In all ships in both fleets, men would strip to the waist. There was only one ominous element to the weather: a long, stirring swell was pushing in from the southwest, 'the dog before its master', the sign of a big Atlantic storm to come.
Twenty-six British ships-of-the-line were bearing down from to-windward. One more, the Africa, captained by Henry Digby, the richest man in the English fleet, who had won for himself £60,000 of prize money by the time he was thirty, perhaps £3-4 million in modern terms, had missed Nelson's signal in the night, had got out of position and was now coming down from the north. The main body of the fleet was arranged a little raggedly, in two rough columns, 'scrambling into action' as one of the British captains described it afterwards, 'in coveys' as a Spaniard remembered it, as though the British fleet were a flock of partridges drifting in from the western horizon.
Nelson was already on the quarterdeck of Victory, a slight, grey-haired 47-year-old man, alert, wiry, anxious and intense, five feet four inches tall and irresistibly captivating in manner. Before battle, the remains of the arm he had lost in a catastrophic fight against the Spanish in the Canaries eight years before tended to quiver with the tension. 'My fin' he called it, and on his chairs he had a small patch particularly upholstered on the right arm, where he could rest this anxious stump. Like most naval officers, he was both tanned—the word used by unfriendly landlubbers to describe captains and admirals in Jane Austen's Persuasion is 'orange'—and prematurely aged, worn out by the worry and fretfulness of his life. At regular intervals, he would be struck, quite unexpectedly, by a terrifying and debilitating nervous spasm, his body releasing, in a surge of uncontrolled energy, the anxiety it had accumulated day by day. Only three weeks before Trafalgar, one such attack, suddenly coming on at four in the morning, had left him feeling enervated and confused. 'I was hardly ever better than yesterday,' he wrote to his lover Emma Hamilton,
and I slept uncommonly well; but was awoke with this disorder. The good people of England will not believe that rest of body and mind is necessary for me! But perhaps this spasm may not come again these six months. I had been writing seven hours yesterday; perhaps that had some hand in bringing it upon me.
The burden of work was unremitting. Drawings of the cabins of naval commanders of this period show pile on pile of papers, logbooks, files, notebooks, charts, musterbooks, and orderbooks. It was a navy that ran on paper . . .Seize the Fire. Copyright © by Adam Nicolson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.