Monday 31 August 2015

Book Review: Trafalgar, The Nelson Touch - David Howarth

Wow, what a story! 

The age of sail - when sail was the main or only method of traversing the high seas - grows ever more romantic as it recedes further into history. David Howarth, whose superb Waterloo, A Near Run Thing, is the kind of book to inspire a lifelong passion for Napoleonic history, proves just as adept at bringing the naval war of this now distant epoch to vivid and colourful life, in this excellent slim but compelling volume on Nelson's memorable victory at Trafalgar. This is perhaps not entirely surprisingly, as Howarth was himself a naval officer, helping run the famous 'Shetland Bus' during WWII.

The sad fates of the two opposing commanders, Britain's heroic and much admired Nelson, and France's tragic and much maligned Villeneuve, illustrate very well how real history sometimes combines both mythic grandeur and epic tragedy. Nelson is, perhaps, as close as we can come in Britain to having a man as charismatic and effective in leadership as Napoleon. Wellington was of course effective and popular, but he didn't have the same public charisma as either Napoleon or Nelson. But where Nelson excelled in this watery world, Napoleon, usually so prodigiously capable, appears at his least able when it comes to maritime matters. 

Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott

Of course, Nelson's part in this story is exciting and compelling in itself, and has often been treated in various media. But Howarth skilfully weaves this most famous strand of this famous and many threaded story together with numerous others, including Villeneuve's, and those of many other senior figures of all three nations, British French and Spanish. He also describes the navies themselves, and the contexts they fought in, even imparting sketchy views of the lower ranks (about whom, at the time Howarth was writing - and perhaps still? - very little was known). 

The whole is superbly put together, flowing very smoothly, moving the happy reader along much like a favourable wind in one's sails! Howarth skilfully builds his narrative, with the gentle yet unstoppable inevitability of an ocean swell, towards the longest chapter, The Battle, which describes a messy and confusing naval action with impressive simplicity and clarity. This is so well done that once I reached this section I found it extremely hard to put the book down. Indeed, as near as was possible, I read straight through to the end. It was a moving and exhilarating read.

For victors and vanquished alike, far from a quick and peaceful cessation of travails, after the confusion and intensity of this most famous of naval battles - the metaphorical storm, if you like - came the literal storm. This week-long maritime hurricane was, according to those that survived it, even more challenging than the battle itself. Howarth describes this superbly too, ultimately following the story beyond this to the funeral of Nelson and the rather shady and politically convenient demise of Villeneuve, during his return from British captivity.

Admiral Villeneuve.

The latter left no issue to suffer any subsequent ignominy. Nelson, although married, is famed for his relationship with his beloved mistress, Emma Hamilton, by whom he had a daughter named Horatia. Their fate - only very vaguely alluded to in this brief narrative - balances the scales of tragedy somewhat, across the channel. 

The sacrifices of this savage naval battle are thrown into yet starker relief due to the fact that even before Nelson (and so many other mariners of numerous nationalities) made the ultimate sacrifice, Napoleon had turned away from the cross-channel invasion project based at Boulogne, learning of the naval disaster as he trounced his foes on the road that lead to Austerlitz.

Like Howarth's book on Waterloo this is a fabulous read, and one that could easily seed a lifelong passion for warfare in the age of sail. It's great that HMS Victory has been preserved. Having read this I must go and see her for myself! As a result of reading this wonderful book I also want to read further in this area: I have several appropriate titles lined up. Just got to find the time to read 'em!

Above, the complete painting, by Auguste Mayer, a portion of which appears on the books dust-jacket. [1]

The old World Books edition that I bought, a 1970 reprint of the 1969 Collins 1st edition, is richly illustrated, with plenty of images - including portraits of most of the senior commanders, various naval scenes, some of the battle, some more general (mostly in black and white, with a few double page spreads in full colour) - and even some simple but helpful maps of the unfolding action. 

The one glaring omission is a glossary of nautical/naval terminology. For us landlubbers who don't know our port from our starboard, this would've been a most useful and obvious thing to include. Despite this I'm giving this five Boney's Bicornes: there will doubtless be more thorough and detailed books on this subject. But I doubt there will be many that are more readable or exciting.


David Howarth.

Author David Howarth was an interesting man. With a naval background - during WWII one of his areas of service was as assistant to the British officer organising the famous 'Shetland Bus', whereby Britain helped keep the Norwegian resistance movement supplied and trained, etc. - he was not only an author on nautical subjects, but also a boat-builder, and his writings would extend to areas of land warfare, including his book on Waterloo, which I've also reviewed on this blog. Howarth's final book, written in collaboration with his son, was a biography of 'Britain's most famous Admiral', Nelson, entitled Nelson: The Immortal Memory, published in 1988. On the strength of the two Howarth books I've read so far, I'm very much inclined to track that down and read that as well.

[1] The beautiful painting is flawed: it shows the French Bucentaure, which was indeed at Trafalgar, engaged by the British ship Sandwich, which wasn't! Nonetheless, it captures the visual drama of warfare at sea in the age o' sail admirally, so to speak.


  1. Great to see another person who appreciates David Howarth, a most unjustly forgotten master of the historical non-fiction. I've actually read only two of his books, Sovereign of the Seas (1974) and The Voyage of the Armada (1981). But they were quite enough to make me determined to read his complete bibliography asap.

    1. Great, glad you enjoyed. And thanks for the positive feedback and further comments.