Decision at Trafalgar: The Story of the Greatest British Naval Battle of the Age of Nelson, by Dudley Pope

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Dudley Pope is best known as a novelist who wrote a well-loved series of books about a fictional Lord Nicholas Ramage, an officer in His Majesty’s Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Pope was also a journalist, writing on naval defense, and he knew the sea. A survivor of a torpedoed merchant ship in World War II, he later lived for over 20 years on a yacht in the Caribbean. In Decision at Trafalgar Pope brought his observant eye and smooth pen to this stirring account of what he called “the most famous naval campaign and battle in history”: the clash in 1805 between the British fleet and the joint Franco-Spanish fleet off Spain’s Cape Trafalgar. Under the brilliant command of Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British destroyed their enemy. It turned the tide of the naval war against Napoleon but cost Nelson his life: a sniper’s bullet delivered a fatal wound. Nelson’s legend, already great after previous victories, only increased. Pope does an excellent job of sticking to the facts while bringing out the drama. Although the focus is on the British, he pays a decent amount of attention to the French and Spanish.

The original title, when the book was first published in Britain in 1959, was England Expects. To Americans that sounds mysterious but it doesn’t on the other side of the ocean. At the start of the battle, Admiral Horatio Nelson sent a final message to every ship after having giving them their battle instructions. He said, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” The phrase is as famous in Britain as Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” is in America.

Other books do a fine job of recounting the battle (for example, Roy Adkins, Nelson’s Trafalgar) but none in grander or more thrilling prose. True, Pope’s old-fashioned dignity and complexity left some of my college students complaining when I assigned the book. No matter: America expects all undergraduates to do their duty.