Book Reviews



Trafalgar -- Countdown to Battle, 1803 - 1805

By Alan Schom

Review by Rich Sheppard


...A Gripping Depiction of an Authentic "Epic Sea Battle"...

Curious about why the might of Napoleanic France could never bring England to her knees in the aborning years of the 19th century? Ever wonder why all of England owes a fanatical debt of eternal gratitude to Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson, Vice Admiral, that century's first true military "celebrity?" "Traflagar, Countdown to Battle" answers in eminently readable detail these and related queries about the events leading up to one heck of an authentic "epic sea battle." 

This is a book the serious history reader can enjoy for it's compactness and reference, while prodding the neophyte to potential further study. As a whole, "Countdown" describes the Royal Navy's critical role in keeping France's voracious Emperor and his mighty legions "safely" on the Continent - and thus away from England's shores. Equally enlightening are the subplots to this desperate action. 

The heart of the study reveals an unbeatable combination: The on-shore British Admiralty - a body of experienced fighting seamen - executing a flawless naval strategy over months and years, across Channel and seas; and the audacious at-sea Fleet commander, Lord Viscount Nelson. Nelson, famous and hero-hailed even before his capstone battle at Trafalgar, emerges naturally as "Countdown's" central figure of towering naval skill and puzzling vulnerabilities. 

Schom's portrayal of Nelson, a hugely successful commander in a navy full of battle-toughened winners, exposes the Admiral's passionate hatred for the French and his contempt for their Navy. It fairly discusses his human triumphs and human flaws. Schom whets the reader's appetite by recounting Nelson's agonizing months-long and oceans-crossing pursuit to bring the reluctant French Admiral Villenueve's fleet to battle. Along the way, the reader discovers enough personalities and naval trivia to set the final awful battle - where scores of heavily-armed ships hurled iron and shot at one another for five hours - in gripping relief. 

Historians and casual reader alike will appreciate Schom's description of the joy Nelson feels as he finally corners the French and their Spanish allies at the Spanish port of Cadiz in 1805. At Nelson's deadly thoroughness in formulating his bold plan - which annihilated the French threat to the British Isles. At Nelson's glee as his flagship "Victory" glides headlong and under galling fire into the very center of the combined French and Spanish line of battle as it sails - hopelessly overmatched - off Cape Trafalgar. 

Finally, at the height of Nelson's glory in the ghastly battle, the actions and events that immortalized the Lord Viscount, who, with the likes of Drake, Wellington, and Churchill, holds a dear and hard-earned place among England's military immortals and in the hearts of her people. 

-- Rich Sheppard