Trafalgar by Alan Schom: a review

This book is more about the events which led up to the Battle of Trafalgar than about the battle itself, though the battle and subsequent funeral are described in what can only be called painful detail. (YMMV.) The heart of the book, though, explores the strategic choices made on both sides of the channel in the early years of the nineteenth century. It’s a valuable presentation.

Schom’s story actually begins around 1801. Napoleon’s (eventually) failed attempt to invade England with a flotilla of relatively small craft is the main focus of the book, with a great deal of discussion of the the British government’s efforts to thwart the French invaders. Schom does this extremely well.

Many of the key figures are given fairly extensive biographical treatments. These are invariably well done, though Schom’s distaste for St. Vincent is an interesting contrast to his balanced treatment of, say, Verhuell. Villeneuve’s portrait is interesting, as Schom clearly doesn’t quite know what to make of the man.

Admiral Cornwallis, who Schom believes has been slighted by other historians, comes very close to being the hero of his tale. In this telling, the Channel Fleet’s blockade of the French ports is the key to understanding why Trafalgar occurred, and Cornwallis’ strategic genius pretty much dictated the time and location of the battle.

The book’s well researched, though there are only a handful of perfunctory footnotes; each chapter has an obviously-thorough source list which partially makes up for the footnote shortage.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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