On 19 August 1805, two months before his death at Trafalgar, Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson rejoined Emma Hamilton at their home in Merton after an absence of almost two and a half years. During that time, he had been continuously at sea, at first in the Mediterranean watching for Admiral Villeneuve to break out of Toulon to join the squadrons from the Atlantic ports, and then in the Atlantic itself, where the French tried to lure him into the Caribbean before dashing back to concentrate in the Channel to cover the invasion of England and Ireland.
Meanwhile the people of the eastern and southern counties especially lived in fear of the Bogeyman of Europe’s landing; the army, yeomanry and militia were all but wearing away the cliff tops and coastal paths in their ceaseless watch, and spies and inventors plied the Admiralty and the Horse Guards with ‘intelligence’ and novel devices. This was the time of ‘the great terror’, and it forms the background to Tom Pocock’s latest volume on this arguably most romantic and heroic period of the nation’s history.
Pocock has written eight books about Nelson and his times, one of which was shortlisted for the Whitbread biography prize in 1987. One imagines that in this dedicated and above all entertaining Nelsonian scholar’s study there must be thousands of bits of paper with countless facts and anecdotes, painstakingly acquired, the residue of years of immersion in the naval affairs of the period, and it is difficult not to think that this book is an attempt to make final use of them. Why, for instance, should we follow over the course of many pages the to-ings and fro-ings of Lord Camelford, who seems not to try, let alone succeed, and who then suddenly dies in a duel in England without, apparently, contributing a thing towards that which is the book’s subtitle – ‘Nelson, Napoleon and the Secret War’? Why do we need to know that ‘the Bishop of Durham would expire at seeing the dresses’ of Parisiennes? Or so much about Fanny d’Arblay’s sylvan surroundings and literary endeavours? It is all fascinating in a sense, of course, giving a certain impression of period and preoccupation, but often these meanderings seem just too random and winding, failing to advance the story, and at times downright confusing it. A more ruthless editor would have been a kindness.
That said, this is a most engaging book – even, at times, arresting. Little if anything is new, but Pocock tells the story with real enthusiasm and insight. It comes to life in the second half, when the fudged ‘Peace of Amiens’ is over and the Royal Navy is at sea once more. One is almost tempted to say b****r the spies, and Robert Fulton’s silly ideas about submarines, and the experiments with torpedoes and rockets, and all the other wild notions that wars beget. It was the seamanship of that glorious enterprise, ‘those far distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, [which] stood between it and the dominion of the world’, that saw off the threat of invasion. One can only wonder what Bonaparte thought he could achieve by his enormous shipbuilding programme. How did he imagine he would raise and train the crews for 130 ships of the line, let alone pit them against the master sailors and battle-hardened gun crews of England’s wooden walls? As Pocock points out, the Royal Navy was permanently at sea; the French were permanently blockaded.
Never mind the book’s rather eclectic approach and ambulatory early chapters; at its best it is classic Pocock, and his fans will not be disappointed.