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How a Vain Little Man Saved England : TRAFALGAR Countdown to Battle, 1803-1805 By Alan Schom (Atheneum: $24.96; 421 pp., illustrated)

December 16, 1990|Byron Farwell | Farwell is the author of 11 biographies and histories, the most recent being "Armies of the Raj" (Norton) and "Ball's Bluff: A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow" (EPM Publications)

Of perhaps only one man can it be truly said: He saved England. Yet Horatio, Lord Nelson, the vain little man whose statue stands atop a tall pillar in London's Trafalgar Square, is deserving of that accolade, for with inferior numbers of men, ships and guns, he crushingly defeated in a single great battle the combined fleets of France and Spain, and in so doing he saved Britain from a near-certain invasion by Napoleon's armies.

The Battle of Trafalgar (Oct. 21, 1805), was indeed the "greatest British naval victory in history." Although often treated as an isolated naval engagement, it actually was the culmination of the British Royal Navy's 29-month campaign to thwart Napoleon's elaborate invasion plans.

Schom, drawing upon both French and British sources, has here placed the battle in its proper historical perspective. In the process, he has given full credit to Adm. Sir William Cornwallis (younger brother of the general who surrendered to Washington at Yorktown), a modest man who deserved, but failed to receive, as much credit as did the honors-avid Nelson for the ruination of Napoleon's schemes.

Previous historians have overlooked or disparaged the enormous achievements of this exceptional officer, but it was Cornwallis, the "unobtrusive hero," who commanded the Channel Fleet, and it was through his mastery of naval strategies that Britain was able to control the English Channel for more than two years before the Battle of Trafalgar.

In all seasons, Cornwallis' ships successfully blockaded the French and then the Spanish ports as well. Not only were the French and Spanish fleets rendered otiose, but Napoleon's great armada of 2,343 transports, built at enormous expense to carry 167,500 men across the English Channel, was forced to lay idle and useless in its ports.

It was Cornwallis who created and sent to do battle with the "Combined Fleet" of France and Spain the British fleet commanded by the "more flamboyant and charismatic Nelson." Never recognized nor rewarded for his singular achievements, Cornwallis was, in fact, relieved of his command soon after Trafalgar, and put permanently ashore.

Schom also gives full credit to William Pitt, who became prime minister in May, 1804, for it was he who raised a mighty army to fight on the beaches should the French invade and, more important, reinvigorated a Royal Navy that had become run-down and demoralized by neglect.

Of particular interest is the author's full account of the French side of the naval campaign: the unique problems they faced and the extraordinary personalities involved. Foremost, of course, was Napoleon, declared emperor on May 18, 1804.

To say that Napoleon was a difficult man to serve under would be a monumental understatement. He never understood naval affairs and he was given to towering rages when his admirals refused to obey his commands or were incapable of following them. His orders, sometimes capricious, frequently changed too quickly to be carried through. He devised no fewer than seven separate plans for the invasion of England; none was executed.

It must be admitted that the behavior of some of the French admirals, particularly that of the aristocratic Vice Adm. Pierre-Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve, would have driven even a mild-tempered leader to distraction. Villeneuve, full of excuses for not sailing when ordered, deliberately disobeyed Napoleon's direct orders. Even with superior ships in superior numbers, he lacked confidence in his ability to defeat the British, and when he finally did put to sea from Cadiz it was only because he had learned that his replacement was on the way. In the battle off Cape Trafalgar that followed, his orders were so erratic that he baffled not only his own admirals and captains but Nelson as well.

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