Dudley Pope,
Decision at Trafalgar
(J.B. Lippincott, 1959; Owl, 1999)

Dudley Pope lays bare the details of Trafalagar -- Horatio Nelson's greatest and final naval victory -- in a brilliantly clear and highly detailed narrative that almost reads like a novel.

Decision at Trafalgar begins very nearly at the end. Nelson is dead, the battle is over and a heavy gale is fast approaching, and the wee ship Pickle is sent 1,000 miles home to England -- followed by many rough miles over land to London -- with the news. The frantic pace of that journey sets the tone for the book, which soon pulls back in time to set the stage for the conflict to come.

You'll get to know Nelson, as well as other great figures in this drama from their respective English, French or Spanish stages. You'll learn a great deal about the state of England as the threat of French invasion drew ever nearer, and you'll discover a lot about the movements of British politics as well as the actions of British sailors.

The amount of detail packed into this book is astonishing, but it never reads like a textbook. One can easily see why C.S. Forester, author of the enduring Horatio Hornblower novels, urged Pope to write fiction.

By the time the great battle begins, you know exactly why the ships on all sides of the conflict are there. You know the odds and, of course, you already know how it's going to turn out. But Pope takes you through the battle, moment by moment, cannon shot by luffing sail. A series of diagrams mapping the movements of every ship makes understanding the progression of battle surprisingly easy.

Without ever letting his prose become tedious, Pope introduces us to officers and men throughout both fleets and, through his painstaking research and fluid way with a pen, we come to know them, what they were thinking and feeling preceding and in some cases during the battle, and what their fates were by battle's end. By God, we know Nelson, and we understand what he was thinking and why his men, from senior captains to the lowest tar, loved and respected him.

And Pope, who knows a thing or two about seamanship, makes sure the reader smells the smoke, feels the wind fill the sails and suffers the impact as cannonballs slam into wooden ships and fragile men.

I read this book with fascination and relish. I cannot imagine a better nonfiction treatment of Nelson and Trafalgar.

book review by
Tom Knapp

1 December 2012

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