By Adam NicolsonHarperCollins
The first of the world wars was what the British used to call—long before "The Great War" of 1914—"the Napoleonic war." And not even the carnage in Flanders or at the Battle of Britain has effaced its memory. As I was beginning to compose this paragraph, I learned of the death of the former British prime minister Sir Edward Heath, who devoted his political life to the fusion of the United Kingdom with the European Union. The idea was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, but Heath pressed on dauntlessly and was rewarded with Britain's accession to membership a decade later. The special seal on the new relationship was the agreement to build, at long last, a railway tunnel underneath the channel that divides the south coast of England from the European mainland. Sir Edward once told me that when he met Georges Pompidou, De Gaulle's successor, there was a certain froideur as they discussed the plan. The Parisian terminus of the undersea line was to be the Gare du Nord. The British terminus was to be Waterloo Station. Might it be possible, Pompidou inquired with extreme but feigned diffidence, to rename the British end of the line? It was for him a matter of national susceptibility. Heath's response was to the effect that France might as well demand the rechristening of Trafalgar Square. This was only to restate, to a wincing Pompidou, the problem as it had presented itself in the first place.
There are in fact some earlier tunnel diggings on the French side of the Channel, begun by Napoleon Bonaparte when he realized that his plan for a global empire could be assured of success only if he could invade and subdue the British Empire at its metropolitan source. The Corsican's many fits and starts of grandeur are well recorded, but this one example can stand for all the rest, because it involved a recognition that he probably could not defeat the British on their favorite element, which was water. His hopeless effort to be the mole under the seabed was perhaps a subliminal acknowledgment of this impermeable fact. His striking but weird summary of the combat with Britain—that it was a war "between an elephant and a whale"—was more a form of denial than a statement of reality. The big English whale would trounce the lesser French whale every time, which meant defeat for the pachyderm on land as well as on the high seas. The metaphor, in other words, was hopelessly mixed.
The bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar falls on October 21 of this year, but was commemorated early by the British in such a way as to minimize the effect on Gallic amour-propre. In June a mock sea battle with wooden ships was choreographed in the waters off Portsmouth rather than Spain, and the rival fleets were code-named "Red" and "Blue." The visit by British royalty to Horatio Nelson's old flagship HMS Victory, moored in Portsmouth Harbor as a floating museum, was the only reminder of the real thing. Adam Nicolson's book restores the real thing to the foreground.
Hegel's description of Napoleon as "history on horseback" has always had to be qualified by the shipborne nemesis who pursued him wherever he went. Did the French army muster in the shade of the pyramids to hear its leader herald the conquest of Egypt and boast of the future domination of India? Yes—but before this Orientalist project could take hold, Nelson was splintering and burning the French fleet at the mouth of the Nile, in Aboukir Bay, and Bonaparte himself was lucky to slip through the British blockade in a small and undistinguished surviving vessel. Did French ambition extend to the command of the Baltic? Only until Nelson sailed right into Copenhagen Harbor and set the ships and the dockyards ablaze. These and other actions cost Nelson one arm and one eye, and made him into the most recognizable celebrity in Britain, but he knew he could not rest until he had caught the main French fleet, with its Spanish allies, right out in the open and smashed it for good. The victories at the Nile and at Copenhagen, in 1798 and 1801, were only a rehearsal for Trafalgar, which took place within cannon's roar of the Pillars of Hercules, at the decisive junction of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
Adam Nicolson's masterly reconstruction of this event stresses one thing above all: that it was a victory of the Protestant ethic, and to a lesser extent a victory of the spirit of capitalism. He might not wish to be described as a Weberian materialist (his last book was a beautiful account of the composition of the King James version of the Bible), but he devotes a good deal of space to the economic and religious substrata of the combat between Britain and its French and Spanish foes. Two weeks before Trafalgar, Nelson wrote a memorandum concerning strategy and circulated it to all his captains. In essence he instructed them to employ their own initiative, and strongly suggested that the most enterprising would be the most rewarded. "His captains," Nicolson writes, "were to see themselves as the entrepreneurs of battle."
The battle is founded on a clear commercial analogy. Trafalgar worked according to the basic principle enunciated by Adam Smith that the individual's uncompromising pursuit of the end that will satisfy him will also serve the general good. What is good for one is good for all and a fleet which promotes and relies on individual zeal will be more likely to achieve a productive end than one controlled by a single deciding government or admiral.
This analogy is very sound when one considers the nature of the foe. The Spanish fleet was made up largely of ships named for saints, crewed by men little better than serfs, and commanded by nobles who mingled their piety with fatalism. Their arsenal might include the only four-decker gunship in the world, the Santísima Trinidad, but Sir Francis Drake had proved as far back as 1588 that such lumbering platforms of antique hierarchy could be harried to death by smaller vessels with keener crews.
As for the French, their discipline and order had been fatally compromised by the opposite mistake: the Jacobinization of their navy. Veteran officers with hard experience had been cashiered by the revolution, and sailors were encouraged to put slogans and abstractions before obedience to orders. Again to quote Nicolson: "The anarchic and impassioned qualities which fuelled the rampaging French armies sweeping all before them in Europe, living off the land, bringing spontaneity and shock to the level of high military art: none of these things can sustain a navy which depends, in its deeper levels, on the far more rationalist, organizational virtues of steadiness of supply and practice, on orderly coherence and a sense of unquestioned mutual reliance." Nelson, in other words, could grant autonomy to his captains in the confidence that they also understood the limits. In sharp contrast, Villeneuve, the French admiral, was forbidden by Napoleon to inform his captains of what his overall strategy was.