In Seize the Fire, Adam Nicolson, author of the widely acclaimed God's Secretaries, takes the great naval battle of Trafalgar, fought between the British and Franco-Spanish fleets in October 1805, and uses it to examine our idea of heroism and the heroic. Is violence a necessary aspect of the hero And daring Why did the cult of the hero flower in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a way it hadn't for two hundred years Was the figure of Nelson -- intemperate, charming, theatrical, anxious, impetuous, considerate, indifferent to death and danger, inspirational to those around him, and, above all, fixed on attack and victory -- an aberration in Enlightenment England Or was the greatest of all English military heroes simply the product of his time, "the conjurer of violence" that England, at some level, deeply needed
It is a story rich with modern resonance. This was a battle fought for the control of a global commercial empire. It was won by the emerging British world power, which was widely condemned on the continent of Europe as "the arrogant usurper of the freedom of the seas." Seize the Fire not only vividly describes the brutal realities of battle but enters the hearts and minds of the men who were there; it is a portrait of a moment, a close and passionately engaged depiction of a frame of mind at a turning point in world history.
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September 01, 2005
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Excerpt from Seize the Fire by Adam Nicolson
October 21st 1805
5.50 am to 8.30 am
Distance between fleets: 10 miles6.5 miles
Victory's heading and speed: 067078 at 3 knots
Zeal: passionate ardour for any cause
Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755
At 5.50 on the morning of 21 October 1805, just as dawn was coming up, the look-outs high on the mainmasts of the British fleet spied the enemy, about twelve miles away downwind. They had been tracking them for a day and a night, the body of their force kept carefully over the horizon, not only to prevent the French and Spanish taking fright and running from battle, but to remain upwind, 'keeping the weather gage', holding the trump card with which they would control and direct the battle to come. All night long, British frigates, stationed between the two fleets, had been burning pairs of blue lights, every hour on the hour, as pre-arranged. It was the agreed signal that the enemy was standing to the south, just as was wanted, straight into the jaws of the British guns.
Twenty minutes after the first sighting in the light of dawn, Nelson signalled to the fleet: 'Form order of sailing in two columns.' This was the attack formation in which he had instructed his captains over the preceding weeks. His next signal, at 06.22, confirmed what they all knew was inevitable: 'Prepare for battle'. Twenty minutes after that, the French frigate Hermione, standing out to the west of her own battle fleet, peering into the dark of the retreating night, signalled to her flagship, the Bucentaure: 'The enemy in sight to windward.' For all 47,000 men afloat that morning, it felt like a day of destiny and decision. Most ships in both fleets were already cleared for action.
The French and Spanish were about twelve miles and the British about twenty-two miles off the coast of southwest Spain. The nearest point was Cape Trafalgar, an Arabic name, meaning the Point of the Cave, Taraf-al-Ghar. From the very top, the truck, of the highest masts in the British fleet, two hundred feet above the sea, you could just make out the blue smoky hills standing inland towards Seville. The wind was a light northwesterly, perhaps no more than Force 2 or 3, blowing at about 10 knots, but that was enough. A man-of-war would sail with a breeze so slight it could just be felt on the windward side of a licked finger. On the day of the battle, only the very largest ship, the vast Spanish four-decker, the Santsima Trinidad, did not respond to her helm. Most had just enough steerage way to manoeuvre.