Trafalgar Article - 1968

An article Ian wrote for the Daily Telegraph in 1968, about his new book '21 October 1805', which described the day of the Battle of Trafalger from contemporary reports, diaries and eyewitness accounts. It was a new and exciting way of presenting history, and was very successful. I retain a vivid impression of life in that time from reading the book myself as a child (and vainly wished at school that I could be given similar material to learn from in my terminally boring history lessons with their dry, joyless textbooks). Richly illustrated throughout, I will post the images from the book soon.

Trafalgar on my mind

SOME YEARS AGO, I was sheltering from the rain in a small museum. There were few visitors; the water rippled down the sashed windows, and the galleries seemed more than usually secluded. I was inspecting some armour when I became aware of a man in a formal suit. He introduced himself as curator, confessed to being at a loose end and offered to show me some "rather good complete sets" in his office. Sure enough, above an indescribable clutter of papers, they hung from the wall.

He put me in a chair but stood himself, nervously erect, a balding eagle with watery eyes. He was an authority on the penetrative power of arrows; he described in detail the result of a volley fired on massed cavalry. 
"Think of the effect on morale," he whispered, "of the sound of arrows in flight: a noise like tearing calico … " His throat quivered above its harsh collar ' while his eyes, streaming, focussed way beyond this world. "I have a theory," he went on, "that horsemen in those days had thinner legs because they never walked. Now the curious thing is that I can get on every piece of that armour except the greaves. My ankles are too thick." 
Eccentric, perhaps, but, as an histor­ian, he had discovered one vital thing; the value of significant detail. Which is precisely what I missed at school.

So, when it came to trying some­thing historical myself, I determined that it was detail I would go for. The first idea was to cover contemporary events over a certain period. It seemed too broad. Why not narrow it to a year - a week - a day? Trafalgar sounded exciting. It was a one-day's battle, in a period I liked, and it was a turning point. Finally, it was decided.

My problem was ignorance. Besides the battle, what else was happening? The English coasts trembling, expecting invasion? Mob violence; hangings at Tyburn? I found my ideas punctured remorselessly, one by one, the further I read.

With a more truthful background, I began hunting detail. I wanted to re­construct the day, hour by hour, as authentically as possible. I 'developed a rhythm of flipping through biographies and volumes of letters at top speed, in search of the magic sign October 21. Mostly in vain. Newspapers reported in - arrears: "Last Monday" - or ''Ten days ago;" every item had to be con­verted to a date. One becomes a sleuth, dipping in every book that might yield a clue. I recall long days in the silence of the British Museum Reading Room.
The Public Record Office does something to one's soul. Not the readers, certainly not the unfailingly helpful staff, but the building. Grimed stone, Dickensian corridors, revoltingly carved woodwork. The cobwebs are, perhaps, imaginary, the decay is not. But it does provide the real thing: actual letters; copies from the Admiralty Victualling Office disallowing claims for wine for the sick-bay (were the pursers working a fiddle?); dockets for the Examining Board for Midshipmen; the minutely scribed entries in the Newgate Prison Book: "Let them be hanged,... " Nelson's handwriting; awkward, large, left­handed, is an eye-opener. A quirk of character that a man essentially so humble should take pride in titles; invariably signing: "Nelson and Bronte."

Accuracy was difficult. Ships' clocks at Trafalgar differed, varied by up to 64 minutes. One assesses reports. What of Beatty's improbable tale of the Victory's gunners following each shot with a bucketful of water to prevent the Redoutable catching fire? Some times arithmetic helped. When Napoleon headed a letter: Noon, 21st, and wrote, "I leave at once for Augsbourg," he certainly meant it. How far, then, could his coach travel, a at top speed in mud on a bad road, among troops, from say 12.15 p.m. 3.15 p.m.? A survey map showing gradients suggests 3 m.p.h. and fixes an answer.

Reference, for drawings I took main­ly from prints; where possible from relics (Nelson's coat in the Maritime Museum). One morning I took the Portsmouth train. A first sight of the Victory' is strangely exhilarating. Outside, it seems huge; inside, dark, small, cramped .overhead. The Captain explained things one would never guess: a canvas chute (in action) rather than steps to the sick-bay; details of gun­ tackle; which yard signals would fly from.

I looked up to the maintop. It appeared comfortingly close, no higher than my flat in London. A new wire ladder, close to the mast, rose firm and vertical from deck-bolts.

"Yes," they said, "no worry about seeing it." An appraising eye as I sign the form : "At my own risk." A dockyard rigger ties my sketchbook to rope, watches it go up, then watches me. I look closely at the ladder. It seems foolproof: just walk up. At ten feet it begins to sway. At 20, a definite swing. About halfway up, with heart pounding (exertion or fright?), I stare down to a vista of Portsmouth making 90-degree oscillations. A quick mental sum: does safe descent, with ignominy, outweigh perilous ascent, dignity? I think it was the idea of my sketchbook being solemnly lowered, unused, that pushed me on.

Sweating, knuckles white, I hauled myself on to the maintop. Two riggers were complaining of some new Italian hemp which was already rotting. One of them walked off into space, down the shrouds, like a monkey. The other handed me my book. "When you climb down,” he said, “Hold only one side of the ladder; then it won't sway." I could see the deck below, a distant pencil. A stiff breeze flapped my page. It felt about 500 feet up.

"Of course," said the rigger, "the Iook-out would have been in the cross­ trees." I craned my neck towards the topmast shrouds soaring to the trees, as high again above us, and I said I was fine. I think a little imagination is permissible sometimes.

Perched by a tarred rope as thick as a pig, I tried to catch the sensations of climbing in the midst of battle, barefoot, probably slightly wounded, up shrouds with ratlines half shot away, to the topmast head of a rolling ship - and gave it up. The men who did it must have been another breed.

The last of over 100 book requisition forms from the British Museum was filed; the last newspaper strained over at Colindale. Your newspaper volume is propped on a substantial. rack: you stand with bent shoulders for the tops of pages, or sit with neck stretched, as if by tribal extension­-rings, for the middles. Type, although accurate, is about six point size and it faded. One indexes one's material. Writing, I thought. would be cosy -forgetting I was fighting space. First drafts invariably came out twice the length available. Savagely pruning. I found no room for making high-flown romance. Adjectives became a luxury.

The drawings I did last. For an illustrator, the joy of any job is living it. Throughout a summer the local pigeons watched a hunched, motion less figure, clad in shorts, mouth some times open, making small marks. Occasional violent swearing, a leaping fury; but usually silence. Certainly no external evidence, behind the spectacle-lenses, of the clamour of battle, the rush of seas, the smells of a bygone London. But I suppose we all dress up, in one way or another.

View of the gundeck - 6.40am - preparing for battle
"British fleet answers the signal "Prepare for action". On every ship drummers beat to quarters. In the dim light of the gun-decks, gun-crews of 10, 12 or 15 men each begin work. Port-lids are raised and the iron guns, weighing up to 2 tons, are run forward on massive wooden carriages to the ports. Tompions are taken from muzzles, and breeching ropes anchored to take the recoil. One gun broken loose in action can kill as many men, as it careers across the deck, as enemy gun-fire."