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Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty and the Battle of Trafalgar

Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty and the Battle of Trafalgar

3.8 5
by Adam Nicolson

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In Seize the Fire, Adam Nicolson, author of the widely acclaimed God's Secretaries, takes the great naval battle of Trafalgar, fought between the British and Franco-Spanish fleets in October 1805, and uses it to examine our idea of heroism and the heroic. Is violence a necessary aspect of the hero? And daring? Why did the cult of the hero flower in


In Seize the Fire, Adam Nicolson, author of the widely acclaimed God's Secretaries, takes the great naval battle of Trafalgar, fought between the British and Franco-Spanish fleets in October 1805, and uses it to examine our idea of heroism and the heroic. Is violence a necessary aspect of the hero? And daring? Why did the cult of the hero flower in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a way it hadn't for two hundred years? Was the figure of Nelson—intemperate, charming, theatrical, anxious, impetuous, considerate, indifferent to death and danger, inspirational to those around him, and, above all, fixed on attack and victory—an aberration in Enlightenment England? Or was the greatest of all English military heroes simply the product of his time, "the conjurer of violence" that England, at some level, deeply needed?

It is a story rich with modern resonance. This was a battle fought for the control of a global commercial empire. It was won by the emerging British world power, which was widely condemned on the continent of Europe as "the arrogant usurper of the freedom of the seas." Seize the Fire not only vividly describes the brutal realities of battle but enters the hearts and minds of the men who were there; it is a portrait of a moment, a close and passionately engaged depiction of a frame of mind at a turning point in world history.

Editorial Reviews

The Battle of Trafalgar lasted only four and a half hours, but two centuries later, this Mediterranean naval battle still retains its poignant intensity. Even today, British admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the height of his triumph, seems the epitome of a hero: daring, charming, endowed with a fierce sense of honor and a reverence for duty. Adam Nicolson, the author of God's Secretaries, detects other qualities too in Nelson: a willingness to shed his own men's blood to seize advantage and a steadfastly held doctrine of annihilation. A revisionist history on the 200th anniversary of an epoch-changing confrontation.
William Grimes
Throughout, Mr. Nicolson brings to life the specifics of naval battle and shipboard life, through a welter of small details, many of them illuminated by first-person accounts. At its peak, he points out, the Battle of Trafalgar was fought in an area not much larger than a football field. When shot whipped across an open deck, the pressure wave alone could kill a man, while others nearby might look down to see their clothes on fire. His description of the devastation wrought by raking fire equals anything on view in the film "Master and Commander." Mr. Nicolson excels at communicating sheer carnage, and at Trafalgar, there was a lot of it.
— The New York Times
Jonathan Yardley
As Nicolson, author of an estimable history of the King James Bible, God's Secretaries , observes at the end of this elegant and imaginative book, [Nelson's] "powerful and Elysian ideal of the Happy Warrior" lasted for more than a century, "until the shock of the trenches" of World War I, and still retains much of its powerful hold. There may even have been a measure of truth to it on that day in October 1805, but as a guide to war's reality it is a snare and a delusion.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Not widely known as a naval historian, Nicholson (God's Secretaries) is a highly proficient and readable one. This intelligent and intriguing study of Nelson's naval leadership, though, is definitely for the advanced student of that era, requiring some knowledge of not only the larger culture of Great Britain (as leadership opened to nonaristocrats like Nelson) but also the peculiar culture of the British navy. The latter, the author argues, arose partly from the continuity of leadership, partly from the community of seafarers and partly from the figure of Nelson (1758-1805) himself. Nicholson ranks Nelson very highly among military leaders, with a combination of technical skill, charisma and warmth in his treatment of subordinates that gave him an exceptional hold over his fleet -and made him the British image of the hero for more than a century after Trafalgar. This book ranks higher as a study of cultural concepts than it does as one of events, with the personalities lying somewhere in the middle. Students of maritime history, however, will enjoy all aspects of it as Trafalgar's October 21 bicentennial approaches. 6-city author tour. (Aug. 11) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Nicholson (God's Secretaries) offers a unique investigation of the brutal culture of the 18th-century British navy and the brand of leadership that it produced in its hero Nelson, carefully examining what drove the fighting sailors to blind obedience and almost certain dismemberment or death. This is not a book for the squeamish but a graphic and disconcerting look at the slaughter that was the Battle of Trafalgar. Ultimately, however, it is also an exploration of leadership and heroism. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Thank God, I have done my duty," quoth Lord Nelson moments before expiring in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. In this vivid study, Nicolson (God's Secretaries, 2003) examines the weight of those words. Horatio Nelson was a kindly man in a violent time, uncouth and simple; the wife of an admiralty lord thought that his general appearance "was that of an idiot"-and this from an admirer-but his foes knew better than to discount him for his looks, for at the turn of the 19th century he was renowned for his fleet-crushing abilities, his willingness to shed his own men's blood to gain advantage, and his careful enunciation of the doctrine of annihilation. Nelson saw himself, writes Nicolson, as an agent of apocalypse and divine retribution; he lived at a time when varieties of millennial religion were sweeping across England, particularly among the working class that made up the Royal Navy, and he took his religious ideas seriously while seeing to it that his fleets were confident, aggressive, and, by 1805, "the most effective maritime killing machine in the world." Against them stood a Spanish navy that, while not useless, was badly served by its officers and crown, and a French navy that was divided along lines of class, region and ideology, so much so that it found it hard to fulfill the functions of a marine force-namely, keeping itself alive and afloat and constantly killing the enemy, as the British were doing to them in a ratio of ten to one. Technology played its role, Nicolson observes, but ideas and beliefs were as central, and though Trafalgar was a tactical mess, British ideology and values kept the fleet moving even after poor Nelson fell to an enemy musket ball. "In otherwords," writes Nicolson, "love, honor, zeal, and skill won the day."A well-reasoned transoceanic rejoinder to Joanne B. Freeman's Affairs of Honor (2001), and a pleasure for fans of Aubrey and Hornblower.

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HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.17(d)

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Seize the Fire

Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar
By Adam Nicolson

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Adam Nicolson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060753617

Chapter One


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, the Bucentaure: '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 ...


Excerpted from Seize the Fire by Adam Nicolson Copyright © 2005 by Adam Nicolson. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Adam Nicols on is the author of Seamanship, God's Secretaries, and Seize the Fire. He has won both the Somerset Maugham and William Heinemann awards, and he lives with his family at Sissinghurst Castle in England.

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Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty and the Battle of Trafalgar 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unexpectedly, this has turned out to be one of my favorite books. Nicolson's "God's Secretaries" piqued my interest and this didn't disappoint. I'd especially recommend the CD narrated version if you can find it: read by the author himself. A GREAT book on the "inside look" at a Napoleonic-era naval battle.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book gives a detailed look into the cultures and miltary of France, Spanish and Britain during this period but the almost continuous excursions from the main story are aggrevating. There are 1-2 pages of the preparation and battle and then long discourses about barely related topics. A very hard read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of those short books that covers a lot with few words. Essentially, Nicholson seeks to prove that,' The reason for the British success at Trafalgar was not tactical. The success depends on the ferocity and fighting aggression of each British ship and on the example of leadership given by Nelson to his captains.' To that end Nicholson does an excellent job citing sources from the era to demonstrate how utterly aggressive and effective the British Navy of the era was. Divorce any ideas from your mind that naval battles of the early 19th century were polite, orderly little affairs. The British attacked their 'prey' with great ferocity, seeking not to disable or even sink their opponents. Oh no, victory was determined by who killed the most men in a sea battle. If you are not familiar with Trafalgar, don't let that stop you from reading this book. Nicholson does a great job of telling the story of the battle. I think sometimes he credits a little too much to his explanations about British zeal carrying the day. After all, the British were far more professional seamen, they fired twice as many shots, and the basic tactics of their attack provided surprise. But it¿s hard to chalk a 10 to 1 kill ratio to tactics alone. I definitely recommend this read.