Sunday, February 12, 2012

Trafalgar, edited by Tom Pocock

Source of book: I own this. A beautiful Folio Society hardback given to me by my brother.

This book is unusual in that it lacks an attributed author. The majority of the text of the book consists of the actual accounts of the Battle of Trafalgar written by those who lived through it, both from the English perspective, and that of the French and Spanish forces. The connecting material, which I assume was written by Tom Pocock, ties the narrative together, putting the primary sources in perspective with each other and with the timeline.

I found the print layout to be interesting in the way it denoted the quoted sources. In most books, the quoted matter is indented, and often printed in a smaller typeface. This tends to de-emphasize the quotation as not as important as the main text. In contrast, this book prints the primary sources in a slightly larger typeface, thus bringing them into the limelight. Pocock’s transitional narratives are thereby given less visual weight than the source material, which works because the connecting material feels naturally important in explaining each quotation.

The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21, 1805, between the British Navy and the combined fleets of Napoleon’s France and his ally, Spain. The British won a spectacular victory, establishing supremacy over the sea which was to last well into the 20th Century. Losing no ships of their own, they captured or destroyed 22 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet, without a single loss of their own. The loss in lives was similarly lopsided, attributable to superior tactics, better sailing skill, and more accurate gunnary. The cost was high, however. Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed in the battle, thus becoming one of the most famous British war heroes.

While this book was well written and engaging, it was also painful to read. Fiction and even movie depictions cannot do justice to the bloodiness of naval combat in the age of sail. Masses of iron in sizes ranging from 42 pound balls to chains to grape shot fired at point-blank ranges at splintery wooden ships lead to a gut churning result. The writers of the day pull no punches, even in writing to their wives. There are endless details of limbs and even heads being instantly severed, of men cut in half by chains, blood running all over the decks despite the sand placed there, pieces and chunks of human flesh spattered everywhere, amputations without painkillers. In the ships that first engaged each other at the outset of the battle, casualties were high. Several French and Spanish ships lost nine-tenths of their crews. In some ways, this is a good reminder that our modern wars are far less devastating in terms of actual casualties. We would consider the risk of losing half of a fighting force to be unacceptable.

One particular narrative captured my imagination. James Spratt (nicknamed “Jack”, of course), a midshipman, was eager to be part of a boarding crew of an enemy ship due to his skill in swordsmanship. When the wind died, making it impossible to get close enough to board directly, he obtained permission to take a crew of 50 or so to swim across and board that way. Unfortunately, in the din of the battle, his followers missed the signal, and he found himself climbing into the stern cabins of a French ship alone. He fought his way through a series of enemies in true action movie fashion, and eventually was able to get on deck and signal to his shipmates. The wind picked up enough to allow the ships to contact, and the hand-to-hand battle was on. Spratt describes the combat and his role in it, including his act of saving the life of a French officer who was attempting to surrender. Soon afterward, his right leg was broken by a musket ball. As he describes it, “I felt something like an electric shock and darted at [his opponent], but my right leg turned up between my thighs with my shinbone resting on the deck.”

The battle ended soon afterward with the surrender of the French ship, and Spratt was returned to his own ship. Amputation of the leg was recommended, but he refused. After the battle, a storm blew in, keeping the fleet at sea for another five days, during which his leg was continually battered about. In port later, his leg was set in a wooden frame, the closest to a cast that was available in those days. He was feverish for a few days, then had an awful itching in his leg, which turned out to be a colony of maggots. While he didn’t know it, it is likely that the maggots kept the leg from turning gangrenous. His leg healed, but was three inches shorter than it was. Although he attempted to return to a life at sea, his leg was never able to take cold weather. He was given a land-based assignment at a signaling station, where he was instrumental in developing a visual signal system related to the semaphore signals to which they led.

While this story is the most dramatic, there are many more in this book. The characters tell their stories rather well. Since letters were the only form of communication with home for sailors, even those with low educational levels appear to have written at least a little – or had someone write for them. Thus, this book is able to give a picture of the battle from a multitude of perspectives.

Since this is a Folio book, it is truly beautiful to hold and read. Everything is of excellent quality, but the illustrations stand out. Tom Pocock, in addition to being a respected author and war correspondent, is a relative of Nicholas Pocock, a painter known for his depictions of naval battles from the age of sail. As a contemporary of the battle itself, he was able to give us the details of the ships and battles in a memorable and accurate way. His paintings are represented in this book, along with those of Benjamin West, J. M. W. Turner, and others. Also included are portraits of the various British captains, newspaper illustrations, and photographs of Nelson’s sketches of the plan of battle.

I doubt this book is readily available, but it is worth a look if you can find it used. For those interested in a good fictional depiction of this era, I recommend the books written by Patrick O’Brian, one of which, The Letter of Marque, was previously reviewed in this blog. 

One of several paintings by Nicholas Pocock included in the book:

Trafalgar Battle - 21th of October 1805 - Situation at 17h by Nicholas Pocock


 My favorite illustration is this painting: The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the mizzen
starboard shrouds of the Victory
by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1806 to 1808)

A further note: The Victory, Nelson's flagship (and also where he died) still exists, although it is now in permanent dry dock after nearly 200 years afloat. It is still in commission in the Royal Navy, and used as a museum ship in Portsmouth, England. One of the sails, shot through with balls, is also on display at the Royal Naval Museum. Someday, perhaps, I will get a chance to see this ship, along with the rebuilt Cutty Sark, the last of the clipper ships. 


  1. This book sounds rather amazing. The story alone that you shared of Spratt is enough to pique my interest! What an engaging and thrilling book. (I can't imagine swimming over to and boarding an enemy vessel. And then fighting the enemy with a sword. Thank goodness I don't have to.)

    1. You might also find it interesting that a woman was rescued from one of the French boats. (They were a bit overconfident, and brought some passengers to enjoy the "fun".) A bit of that story can be found here:

      Bonus points to you for the correct use (and spelling!) of "pique"...