Magazine article The Spectator

The Admiral's Men

Magazine article The Spectator

The Admiral's Men

Article excerpt

The Admiral's men TRAFALGAR: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A BATTLE by Roy Adkins Little, Brown, £20, pp. 416, ISBN 0316725110 £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

It is tempting to conclude that a subject is fished out when strange titles appear, presumably with the intention of suggesting something novel. This is Dot Wordsworth's territory, but can there really be such a thing as 'the biography of a battle'? Last year, Macmillan published David Cordingly's excellent history of HMS Bellerophon - Billy Ruffian: The Biography of a Ship of the Line. This is more easily understood, perhaps, since anyone with a soul would acknowledge that a ship is a living thing. But the biography of a battle? 'As well write the history of a ball,' huffed the Duke of Wellington when someone proposed writing an account of Waterloo. Would a 'biography of a ball' be admissible?

This may sound pedantic, but it is important because despite appearances Roy Adkins's Trafalgar is not just another bit of anniversary opportunism. Adkins is an archaeologist, and his previous book, The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs, sparked his interest in Nelson and 'his' navy. Being an archaeologist, he is absorbed in reconstructing from the detritus a picture of how people lived, and his book is as much social history as it is military.

Indeed, his painstaking digging, sifting, arranging and questioning take him everywhere in Nelson's fleet - literally, indeed, to the bowels of the ship. Like some enthusiastic professor from Time Team, he speculates at length on the means by which Nelson's crews wiped their backsides, making a proper distinction between the officers, who could probably afford to 'recycle' periodicals and books, and the ordinary seaman, who could not:

Toilet paper was not invented until several decades after Trafalgar ... The first machine in Britain for mass-producing paper had only been built in 1803, and as yet industrialisation had made no impact on the price of paper.

Adkins concludes that a sponge on a stick and a bucket of seawater was probably the answer. No surprise to sailors there. But in any case most of Nelson's men were constipated because of the appalling diet, he says, many of them to the point of needing (straw) trusses for their hernias. …

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