Magazine article The Spectator

A Hard Act Well Followed

Magazine article The Spectator

A Hard Act Well Followed

Article excerpt

A hard act well followed ADMIRAL COLLINGWOOD: NELSON'S OWN HERO by Max Adams Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 333, ISBN 029784640X £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

The names reverberate like a sustained drumroll - Victory, Royal Sovereign, Téméraire, Colossus, Mars, Bellerophon - an overture heralding the violence that will erupt when the warships drifting slowly downwind finally break into the crescent line of the French and Spanish fleet. At midday on the 21 October, the first massive broadsides are fired, smoke obscures the scene, and, when it clears three hours later, 19 enemy ships have struck their colours, another six will shortly be taken or wrecked, and Admiral Lord Nelson lies dead.

In the two centuries since, it is less the strategic significance of Trafalgar that guarantees its fame than the operatic tragedy of the hero dying in the moment of victory. For the participants too, the emotional loss outweighed the triumph. In his official despatch, Admiral Collingwood confessed, 'My heart is rent with the most poignant grief for the death of a friend - a grief to which even the glorious occasion in which he fell does not bring the consolation which perhaps it ought.' And below deck a seaman in the Royal Sovereign wrote in amazement, 'All the men in our ship are such soft toads, they have done nothing but blast their eyes and cry ever since he was killed. God bless you! Chaps that fought like the devil sit down and cry like a wench.' On that stricken note, with the nation saved and Nelson awaiting burial in Westminster Abbey, the curtain comes down.

But naval warfare has no neat endings, and every hero is replaceable. The great victory that destroyed Napoleon's invasion plans left more than half the British fleet reduced to dismasted hulks, while French squadrons in ports from the Channel to the Adriatic remained unharmed and ready to put to sea. This was the aftermath inherited by Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson's successor in command of the Mediterranean fleet.

In his hugely attractive portrait of a fellow Geordie, Max Adams not only does justice to someone generally consigned to the shadows by Nelson's dazzling genius, but usefully places Trafalgar within a naval strategy whose overriding purpose was to confine Napoleon and his allies to dry land. In other words, the war could not be won at sea, but it might well have been lost.

In that essentially defensive context, Adams shows that Collingwood, the most humane and astute of commanders, stands comparison with Nelson himself. Flogging was almost unknown on his ships, yet he trained his crews with such minute care that they were capable of firing three broadsides in less than five minutes (three times the speed of the French). …

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