Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803-1805

Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803-1805

by Alan Schom
     
 

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Early on the morning of October 21st, 1805, the British Fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson, encountered the French navy a few miles off the Spanish coast near Cape Trafalgar. As it became clear that a fight was inevitable, the French and English ships drew into battle formation. Aboard his flagship Victory, Nelson offered his famous laconic signal to…  See more details below

Overview


Early on the morning of October 21st, 1805, the British Fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson, encountered the French navy a few miles off the Spanish coast near Cape Trafalgar. As it became clear that a fight was inevitable, the French and English ships drew into battle formation. Aboard his flagship Victory, Nelson offered his famous laconic signal to his seamen--"England expects that every man will do his duty"--and gave the order to fire. After over six hours of bloody exchanges the British had achieved an overwhelming victory, Nelson--his fame assured for the ages--lay dead from a sniper's bullet, and Napoleon's dreams of an invasion of England were forever dashed.
Because of its dramatic nature--the one-sidedness of the British victory, Nelson's death at the very moment of triumph--Trafalgar has often been viewed as an isolated feat on the part of the great English commander, or at best the result of a naval campaign begun only months earlier. But as Alan Schom shows in his widely-acclaimed book Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle 1803-1805, this apocalyptic showdown was actually the result of a strategy laid out by the British Admiralty two years earlier, when Napoleon issued orders for the creation of what would have become the largest army flotilla ever before assembled. The Emperor's aim was to invade the British Isles with a force of over 167,000 men conveyed aboard nearly 2,400 vessels--his plan was successfully thwarted not because of the tactical genius of Lord Nelson on a single day of battle, but rather because of the brilliant strategy and remarkable perseverance of the hitherto unsung hero Admiral Sir William Cornwallis.
Until now the facts surrounding this unprecedented military buildup have been largely ignored or misinterpreted by historians. In fashioning his brilliant and gripping reinterpretation of the events leading to the famous battle, Alan Schom has mined the rich and previously unexplored archives of England and France to place Trafalgar in its true historical scope and context. He shows convincingly how Cornwallis (brother of Lord Cornwallis who surrendered to Washington at Yorktown) conducted a brilliant blockade of the French fleet both at Brest and off Spain, effectively ruining Napoleon's invasion plans. He also demonstrates the importance of Prime Minister William Pitt who mustered a powerful army to defend England's shores, while reinvigorating a run-down and demoralized Royal Navy. And by letting them speak across the years from the journals and memoirs they left behind, Schom brings a rich and varied cast of characters to life--from politicians, admirals, and generals, to the common soldiers and sailors of both sides.
This book is far more than just a naval history. It tells the compelling story of the centuries-old French-British rivalry as it appproached its culmination at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Marvelously written, Trafalgar brings a freshness to an episode often recounted but never before fully understood.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Schom ( Emile Zola ) argues that England's greatest naval victory, the 1805 battle of Trafalgar, resulted from the breakdown of Napoleon's scheme to invade Great Britain. Linking the French preparations for invasion, the ``Great Terror'' of the awaiting English citizenry, the blockade of French ports and the subsequent sea battle, the author of this well-researched history brings out of obscurity a human catalyst: Admiral William Cornwallis. Cornwallis led the Royal Navy's two-year blockade, which prevented the launching of Napoleon's amphibious flotilla across the Channel, and also created and dispatched the separate fleet that Admiral Horatio Nelson commanded so brilliantly off Cape Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. Schom's narrative of that engagement, which pitted Nelson against the combined French and Spanish fleets under Admiral Pierre Villeneuve (and during which Nelson lost his life) is memorable for its clear explication of the tactics that made the British admiral one of the great captains of military history. Schom concludes with a description of Nelson's majestic state funeral--to which Cornwallis, the ``unobtrusive hero,'' was not invited. Illustrations. (Dec.)
Library Journal
This well-written book presents Trafalgar in its strategic context rather than as an isolated heroic event. Schom regards the battle as merely the last act of a 29-month campaign to prevent a French invasion of Britain. His central character is not Nelson, but Admiral Sir William Cornwallis, commanding the Channel fleet. Cornwallis, ``a patient player of naval chess,'' maintained control of the Channel and kept the bulk of the French navy blockaded throughout this critical period. He thereby staved off a landing Schom regards as a real possibility, given Napoleon's propensity for seizing any opportunities his enemies might offer. Schom's thesis is persuasive, and the book merits a place in collections on naval history and on the Napoleonic era.--Dennis E. Showalter, Colorado Coll., Colorado Springs
Booknews
Schom (Emile Zola; a biography) devotes half his book to the plans, hopes, fears of the combatants. He correctly claims that many of the classic accounts take up the battle no earlier than Jan. 1805. His other major departure is to honor the chief architect of this pivotal victory, Admiral Cornwallis. A useful addition to the Trafalgar accounts. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780195075182
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
06/01/1992
Edition description:
REPRINT
Pages:
464
Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.93(d)

Meet the Author

Alan Schom was a professor of French and European history before retiring to write full-time. He is the author of Emile Zola: A Biography and the forthcoming One Hundred Days: The Road to Waterloo.

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