Avid readers and students of the Napoleonic Wars are often disappointed at the paucity of information translated into English on the subject of French forces. This is particularly frustrating since it is well known that there is a wealth of material available in French concerning the war on land and at sea. This book will therefore be something of a treat for those interested in the naval conflict—particularly what is arguably the most famous and significant naval battle of the period—from the perspective of the French and Spanish officers and seamen involved. The author, Edward Fraser, wrote extensively on the history of the Napoleonic Wars and several more of his excellent books are available from Leonaur. His style is to present his subject as a series of vignettes, each focussing on a a particularly notable event or the experiences of a particular participant. This book is slightly different since it follows the ‘enemy’ fleet from sailing to defeat, but Fraser’s extensive research usefully draws on authoritative, vital and little known sources to support his narrative.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Night fell, increasing the misery and horror of our situation. It might have been hoped that nature would be on our side after so much disaster, but, on the contrary, the elements lashed us with their fury as though Heaven thought our cup of misfortune was not yet full. A tremendous storm burst and the winds and waves tossed and buffeted our ship in their fury, while, as she could not be worked, she was utterly at their mercy. The rolling was so terrible that it was very difficult even to work the pumps; and this, combined with the exhausted condition of the men, made our condition grow worse every minute. An English vessel, which we learnt was the Prince, tried to take us in tow, but her efforts were in vain and she was forced to keep off for fear of a collision, which would have been fatal to both.<br>
The same confusion prevailed below as on deck. Those who had escaped unhurt were doing what they could to aid the wounded, and these, disturbed by the motion of the vessel which prevented their getting any rest, were so pitiable a sight that it was impossible to resign oneself to sleep. On one side, covered with the Spanish flag, lay the bodies of the officers who had been killed; and in the midst of all this misery, surrounded by so much suffering, these poor corpses seemed really to be envied. They alone on board the Trinidad were at rest, to them nothing mattered now; fatigue and pain, the disgrace of defeat, or physical sufferings. The standard which served them as a glorious winding-sheet shut them out, as it were, from the world of responsibility, of dishonour, and of despair, in which we were left behind. They could not care for the danger the vessel was in, for to them it was no longer anything but a coffin.<br>
Never shall I forget the moment when the bodies were cast into the sea, by order of the English officer in charge of the ship. The dismal ceremony took place on the morning of the 22nd, when the storm seemed to be at its wildest on purpose to add to the terrors of the scene. The bodies of the officers were brought on deck, the priest said a short prayer, for this was no time for elaborate ceremonial, and our melancholy task began. Each wrapped in a flag, with a cannon-ball tied to his feet, was dropped into the waves without any of the solemn and painful emotion which under ordinary circumstances would have agitated the lookers-on. Our spirits were so quelled by disaster that the contemplation of death had become almost indifference.<br>
The sailors were thrown overboard with less ceremony. The regulation is that they shall be tied up in their hammocks, but there was no time to carry this out. Some indeed were wrapped round as the rules require, but most of them were thrown into the sea without any shroud or ball at their feet, for the simple reason that there was not enough for all. There were four hundred of them, more or less, and merely to clear them overboard and out of sight every able-bodied man that was left had to lend a hand, so as to get it done as quickly as possible.<br>
As the day advanced the Prince attempted once more to take the Santisima Trinidad in tow, but with no better success than before. Our situation was no worse, although the tempest raged with undiminished fury, for a good deal of the mischief had been patched up, and we thought that if the weather should mend, the hulk, at any rate, might be saved. The English made a great point of it, for they were very anxious to take the largest man-of-war ever seen afloat into Gibraltar as a trophy; so they willingly plied the pumps by night and by day and allowed us to rest awhile.<br>
All through the day on the 22nd the sea continued terrific, tossing the huge and helpless vessel as though it were a little fishing boat; and the enormous mass of timber proved the soundness of her build by not simply falling to pieces under the furious lashing of the waters. At some moments she rolled so completely over on her beam ends that it seemed as though she must go to the bottom; but suddenly the wave would fly off in smoke, as it were, before the hurricane, while the ship, righting herself, rode over it with a toss of her mighty prow.<br>
On all sides we could see the scattered fleets; many of the ships were English, severely damaged and striving to get shelter under the coast. There were Frenchmen and Spaniards too, some dismasted, others in tow of the enemy. . . . Floating about were myriads of fragments and masses of wreck—spars, timbers, broken boats, hatches, bulwarks, and doors—besides two unfortunate sailors who were clinging to a plank, and who must have been swept off and drowned if the English had not hastened to rescue them. They were brought on board more dead than alive, and their resuscitation after being in the very jaws of death was like a new birth to them.<br>
That day went by between agonies and hopes:—now we thought nothing could save the ship and that we must be taken on board an Englishman, then again we hoped to keep her afloat. The idea of being taken into Gibraltar as prisoners was intolerable. However, all the torment of suspense, at any rate, was relieved by the evening, when it was unanimously agreed that if we were not transferred to an English ship at once, to the bottom we must go with the vessel, which had now five feet of water in the hold. The task was at once begun in the doubtful twilight, and as there were above three hundred wounded to be transferred it was no easy matter. The available number of hands was about five hundred, all that were left uninjured of the original crew of eleven hundred and fifteen before the battle.<br>
We set to work promptly with the launches of the Trinidad and the Prince, and three other boats belonging to the English. The wounded were attended to first, but though they were lifted with all possible care they could not be moved without much suffering, and some entreated with groans and shrieks to be left in peace, preferring immediate death to anything that could aggravate and prolong their torments. But there was no time for pity, and they were carried to the boats as ruthlessly as the cold corpses of their comrades had been flung into the sea.