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Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar

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“Strikingly original. . . . Mr. Nicolson brings to life superbly the horror, devastation, and gore of Trafalgar.”—The Economist Adam Nicolson 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. A story rich with modern resonance, Seize the Fire reveals the “Strikingly original. . . . Mr. Nicolson brings to life superbly the horror, devastation, and gore of Trafalgar.”—The Economist Adam Nicolson 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. A story rich with modern resonance, Seize the Fire reveals the economic impact of the battle as a victorious Great Britain emerged as a global commercial empire. Nicolson not only vividly describes describes the brutal realities of battle but enters the hearts and minds of the men who were there. HIs masterful history 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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“Strikingly original. . . . Mr. Nicolson brings to life superbly the horror, devastation, and gore of Trafalgar.”—The Economist Adam Nicolson 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. A story rich with modern resonance, Seize the Fire reveals the “Strikingly original. . . . Mr. Nicolson brings to life superbly the horror, devastation, and gore of Trafalgar.”—The Economist Adam Nicolson 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. A story rich with modern resonance, Seize the Fire reveals the economic impact of the battle as a victorious Great Britain emerged as a global commercial empire. Nicolson not only vividly describes describes the brutal realities of battle but enters the hearts and minds of the men who were there. HIs masterful history is a portrait of a moment, a close and passionately engaged depiction of a frame of mind at a turning point in world history.

30 review for Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar

  1. 5 out of 5

    Manray9

    To my surprise, I found Adam Nicolson's Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar to be a bit tedious. While there is something to be said for the impact of evolving societal mores on warfare, to attempt explanation of every aspect of the Battle of Trafalgar through analysis of the cultural, social, and artistic influences of the times is overblown to the point of pretentiousness. It was simply a naval battle, probably different from Actium or Lepanto only due to the developme To my surprise, I found Adam Nicolson's Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar to be a bit tedious. While there is something to be said for the impact of evolving societal mores on warfare, to attempt explanation of every aspect of the Battle of Trafalgar through analysis of the cultural, social, and artistic influences of the times is overblown to the point of pretentiousness. It was simply a naval battle, probably different from Actium or Lepanto only due to the development of gunnery which made large-scale slaughter quicker and more efficient. I am unconvinced that reading into the battle's history an overwhelming impact resulting from the cultural or social changes of the era is an accurate assessment. It was what it was – a naval battle. It was fought using the prevalent tactics of the day with large guns, carronades, grape, bar and solid shot, and heavy musketry. To make it any more is too much of a stretch. Nicolson's book only rises to my Two Star level through its detailed account of the wounding and subsequent death of Lord Nelson. Many years ago I read Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch by David Howarth. It is much superior to Nicolson -- but to be fair it is not an apples to apples comparison.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nooilforpacifists

    More than a book about the battle, Nicolson (the author of the splendid "God's Secretaries") has produced a "meta-history" of the 21st of October, 1805. And most of the book helps the reader imagine the minds of the officers, men, and land-lubbers on that day. So if you want the social connotation of naval warfare, this is the best I've read. Other books contain more technical detail about the battle; this one is about Nelson and Trafalgar's time, and place in history. If you're looking for milit More than a book about the battle, Nicolson (the author of the splendid "God's Secretaries") has produced a "meta-history" of the 21st of October, 1805. And most of the book helps the reader imagine the minds of the officers, men, and land-lubbers on that day. So if you want the social connotation of naval warfare, this is the best I've read. Other books contain more technical detail about the battle; this one is about Nelson and Trafalgar's time, and place in history. If you're looking for military history, look elsewhere. Nicolson argues that Trafalgar was the triangular divergence of three conceptions of statehood: 1) Authoritarian and traditionalist Spain; hopelessly incapable of reform -- their ships were "Castles in transit"; 2) Revolutionary France, having cast out many of the old without providing a competent path for replacing with the new -- the "spontaneity and shock" on which Napoleon depended on land couldn't replace the "steadiness and practice" necessary to navies; and 3) An evolving enlightenment and commercial England, where the curtain between first and third estates was torn aside and men could seek advancement of "place" -- "the navy was beautiful, substantial, orderly and English," with libertarian and Atlanticist values, wrapped in cloaks of "King and Country", if not Medieval Chivalry. Advancement of place (prizes) allowed sons of country parsons or third sons of landed gentry opportunity, which only could be secured by summoning "a scale of aggression" previously unavailable to Gentlemen who would (no matter what) return to being Gentlemen. As a result, only a few years after publication of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations", England's Navy was almost a perfectly functioning market. But all this took place in a culture whose conception of hero was changing from Hercules to ordinary mortals, men with humanity. Enter said son of country parson, Horatio Nelson. "What, in the end, would Nelson be without humanity? As cold and admired as the Duke of Wellington." "The great and dreadful victory at sea on 21 October 1805 played itself out in the mind of Englishmen as a near-perfect example of the violent moral theater whose sublime beauty relied on its distance and it dreadfulness. . . This understanding of war lasted, at full strength, until the shock of the trenches."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kate Sherrod

    Far from just a recounting of the battle (though there is plenty of that, in intense detail), this is also a study in the kinds of societies - the commercial British, the almost medieval and aristocratic Spanish, and the weirdly old fashioned yet supposedly revolutionary French - that produced the ships, officers and seamen who fought in it. Nelson's death gets a tight focus, but there's also some art and literary criticism of the works inspired by Trafalgar and a sociological take on the turn o Far from just a recounting of the battle (though there is plenty of that, in intense detail), this is also a study in the kinds of societies - the commercial British, the almost medieval and aristocratic Spanish, and the weirdly old fashioned yet supposedly revolutionary French - that produced the ships, officers and seamen who fought in it. Nelson's death gets a tight focus, but there's also some art and literary criticism of the works inspired by Trafalgar and a sociological take on the turn of the 19th century that I haven't really encountered before. Good stuff.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Today is the 200th Anniversary of Trafalgar and Nelson's death. The battle was fought in the Atlantic off Cape Trafalgar near the harbor and port of Cadiz, Spain. Coincidently but very appropriately, I finished Adam Nicolson's excellent Seize the Fire today. Napoleon, by 1805, controlled all Europe west of Austria including northern Italy and Spain through arms and diplomacy. England, as it would again 145 years later, stood alone. France's fleet was potentially capable of invading Britain but on Today is the 200th Anniversary of Trafalgar and Nelson's death. The battle was fought in the Atlantic off Cape Trafalgar near the harbor and port of Cadiz, Spain. Coincidently but very appropriately, I finished Adam Nicolson's excellent Seize the Fire today. Napoleon, by 1805, controlled all Europe west of Austria including northern Italy and Spain through arms and diplomacy. England, as it would again 145 years later, stood alone. France's fleet was potentially capable of invading Britain but only if it could defeat the Royal Navy. Two years earlier, Nelson chased the French fleet from the Caribbean to Cadiz without engaging in battle. During the next two years 15% of the British fleet under Nelson blockaded Cadiz daring the combined French and Spanish fleet to come out to fight. Finally, the Combined Fleet leadership decided to fight. According to Nicolson the British were confident of victory while the French and Spanish were less so. The ships in both fleets were relatively the same. In fact, both fleets contained captured and refitted ships that at one time belonged to the other side. The Combined Fleet also outnumbered the English 33 to 27. Crews, especially officers, and naval systems made the difference according to Nicolson. Most English officers were from middle class families and went to sea as young as 12. They only received promotions when they could pass detailed examinations testing their ability to handle and fight ships. French and Spanish officers were frequently former or current aristocrats and knew little about the sea and ships. English crews were carefully trained. Each member of a gun crew, for example, was trained to do the jobs of all other crewmembers. Relatively poor middle class English officers could become rich and set for life by cashing in on prize money. Cash from prizes was realized when the English captured a ship, sailed it into port and sold it. English officers strongly responded to monetary incentives. Prize money was not available to French and Spanish officers. English ships also enjoyed a systemic advantage. The industrial revolution in England roughly began in about 1780. Among the many national benefits deriving from the industrial revolution were more taxes. These, in turn, were used to maintain the fleet. During the same years France was embroiled in a political revolution and Spain continued to be a backwater economy. Their fleets were not maintained and in many cases the ships were rotting. Cannons on English ships enjoyed a technological advantage. They were fired by flintlocks while French and Spanish guns relied on much slower rope fuses. English guns and with their well-trained crews could fire faster. Nicolson's main theme is how honor, heroics and mutual love motivated English officers and to some extent crews. Nelson is a suburb example of honor. British officers as an example were expected to stand exposed during battle. At the beginning of the Trafalgar engagement Nelson ordered his crew to lie on the deck to avoid an enemy broadside. He and other officers remained standing. Nelson was shot when a musket ball hit his shoulder, went through his body and lodged in his spine. Some believe that the ball was shot by a marksman in the mast of an enemy ship. Nicolson believes that the shot ricocheted off of a piece of metal and then hit Nelson. English crews regarded Nelson as their hero. He had won huge victories at Copenhagen and the Nile. Public relations had yet to be discovered, but Nelson resulting from these victories, his own character, and his relations with Lady Hamilton made him larger than life and a hero. Honor continued to motivate Englishmen throughout the 19th Century. Fighting was horrific. The tactic was to kill enemy crews so they could not fire back. With their thick hulls of laminated wood, the ships were very difficult to sink especially if there were enough sailors to man the pumps. One example of the horror was that English ships carried gallons of whitewash. It was used to coat and block out blood and gore after the battle. The concept of honor was overturned by the World War I slaughter in the trenches. Nicolson concludes with this excerpt form WWI poet Wilford Owene, If you hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.

  5. 5 out of 5

    James

    This is an excellent account on arguably the most pivotal naval battle in modern history. The author openly admits to not being a naval scholar yet his book reads very well and the descriptions of naval combat in the age of sail are simply beach taking as is the detail and depth of every page of this fine work. This is a highly recommend account on Trafalgar. Forgive my political incorrectness but in the words of Billy Connelly it's "f*#@ing brilliant!' This is an excellent account on arguably the most pivotal naval battle in modern history. The author openly admits to not being a naval scholar yet his book reads very well and the descriptions of naval combat in the age of sail are simply beach taking as is the detail and depth of every page of this fine work. This is a highly recommend account on Trafalgar. Forgive my political incorrectness but in the words of Billy Connelly it's "f*#@ing brilliant!'

  6. 5 out of 5

    Simon

    Very well done. Nicolson examines the Battle of Trafalgar as a meta-event in the transition from the understanding of warfare and masculinity from 18th century gentility to the harder edges of the 19th century's British imperial expansion. He frames the story by placing the reader at a certain distance in miles and time as the opposing fleets draw closer. By the time the British and Combined Fleet clash, Nicolson has created the coherent picture that explains the battle. This applies to both its Very well done. Nicolson examines the Battle of Trafalgar as a meta-event in the transition from the understanding of warfare and masculinity from 18th century gentility to the harder edges of the 19th century's British imperial expansion. He frames the story by placing the reader at a certain distance in miles and time as the opposing fleets draw closer. By the time the British and Combined Fleet clash, Nicolson has created the coherent picture that explains the battle. This applies to both its immediate consequence (Napoleon could not cross the Channel) and those effects that stretched into the future, and which were only dealt a deathblow by the trenches of World War I. Recommend.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Emylie

    Had to start it a few times but was good once I got moving. Really appreciated all the literary references. The end was very interesting to me discussing ptsd symptoms, the tragic sublime and the complete change that the industrial war brought (WWI) v different. After battle they went and took care of the Spanish. I’m glad I now have some history for when I walk though Trafalgar Square.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Johann Laesecke

    Moderate coverage of the battle and aftermath. Most of the book is taken with examining the national characteristics of the English, French and Spanish. He goes on about why the winners won and the losers lost, and that's where it usually gets pedantic. One of the author's points is that the English were moving into a phase of a more violence-prone and capitalistic national character, seeming to imply that to be capitalistic is to be violence-prone, and that's why Nelson designed his attack for Moderate coverage of the battle and aftermath. Most of the book is taken with examining the national characteristics of the English, French and Spanish. He goes on about why the winners won and the losers lost, and that's where it usually gets pedantic. One of the author's points is that the English were moving into a phase of a more violence-prone and capitalistic national character, seeming to imply that to be capitalistic is to be violence-prone, and that's why Nelson designed his attack for maximum violence. However, one could say that about most battle winners, capitalist or socialist. Isn't that what a wartime battle attempts to do - exact maximum damage or loss to the enemy? In fact, had Nelson lost, blame for his battle plan would have fallen on his head like tons of cannon balls. The battle was won because the English sailors were somewhat better trained and prepared and provisioned, although that is true only in comparison to the French and Spanish. Curiously, the author says in explaining the qualifications and oral exam to become a lieutenant, he had to have the "ability to answer a series of disturbingly sea-based questions." That's a rather strange statement about a process to determine if someone is qualified to be a Navy officer, potentially rising to be a post captain of a frigate or line-of-battle ship. What is disturbing about the examining board asking sea-based questions? There's a few other odd statements that prevented my giving the book a higher rating. As for all of the author's ruminations about various aspects of national characteristics, there is not really that much about the daily life of a sailor. One could find much more about that from reading Marryat, O'Brian and Forester. So, yes, lots of research, undoubtedly, but it adds very little to the already reported knowledge of the battle and movements of the ships. The descriptive 'tedious' in a previous review is how I felt about this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Colleen

    This was an ambitious book. The emphasis isn't so much an account of the battle of Trafalgar (though the battle is covered) but how the new concept of "duty" and "honor" carried the day for the English. I've always thought it an error of omission that the larger books on the Napoleonic Wars often entirely skip over the naval arena, with just brief mentions of the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar or the blockades. After reading this book, I consider it even worse now that more attention isn't pai This was an ambitious book. The emphasis isn't so much an account of the battle of Trafalgar (though the battle is covered) but how the new concept of "duty" and "honor" carried the day for the English. I've always thought it an error of omission that the larger books on the Napoleonic Wars often entirely skip over the naval arena, with just brief mentions of the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar or the blockades. After reading this book, I consider it even worse now that more attention isn't paid. Occasionally, the author overreaches a bit with his thesis, and I could have done without Ruskin and Wordsworth bits at the end, since I don't think either is relevant to the point he is trying to make. I wasn't expecting to find a book like this to be so incredibly moving and touching--and it's packed with aw-inducing letters and facts. I learned something new on almost every other page, and the attention to detail was appreciated. I'm now going to have to read a biography on Nelson.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Julian

    This is simply a magnificent book for those interested in the battle of Trafalgar. This book focused on the lives of those on the ships, the methods of fighting at sea and how they differed between the British, French and Spanish, and the sea of blood that was the day of the battle. This is one of the most well written books I have read on the subject to date. It is a fine mix of very technical and historical text as well as great storytelling which stops this from being a dry historical book an This is simply a magnificent book for those interested in the battle of Trafalgar. This book focused on the lives of those on the ships, the methods of fighting at sea and how they differed between the British, French and Spanish, and the sea of blood that was the day of the battle. This is one of the most well written books I have read on the subject to date. It is a fine mix of very technical and historical text as well as great storytelling which stops this from being a dry historical book and turns it into a story that can be read by hard core fans of the battle and those who are interested in learning more about the subject.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Delanie Washburn

    One of the best non fictions I have read. This is seen by the fact I actually finished it and skimmed very little ( only the end in fact and that bc it was near bedtime). Easy to read even without knowledge of ships (ei my condition). Big print is also a big plus. NF with small print is too daunting for me

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jimmie

    I listened to the audio version of this book as part of a book challenge. The narration, by the author, was done really well. I enjoyed hearing about the history of the Battle of Trafalgar. I have a lot of respect for the old school sailing ships. The best part of the book was how the officers treated their enlisted sailors.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Gale

    A society's mores and history can be seen in how it conducts war, commerce, and diplomacy; it's important to understand where soldiers, sailor, politicians, and industrialists come from to make sense of their actions. You can grant all of this and still find "Seize the Fire" to be something of a slog. It's an ambitious topic that requires careful navigation of the line between clarity and verbosity. Unfortunately, Nicolson frequently swerves into the latter, waxing long about Trafalgar in prose t A society's mores and history can be seen in how it conducts war, commerce, and diplomacy; it's important to understand where soldiers, sailor, politicians, and industrialists come from to make sense of their actions. You can grant all of this and still find "Seize the Fire" to be something of a slog. It's an ambitious topic that requires careful navigation of the line between clarity and verbosity. Unfortunately, Nicolson frequently swerves into the latter, waxing long about Trafalgar in prose that falls somewhere between hopelessly academic and first-year Romantic poetry student. There is useful detail and insight in these pages, especially if you've stumbled onto this subject by chance-- otherwise, you'd be best served by steering clear.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Chris Miller

    This is a thought provoking, well reasoned, and highly entertaining (if that word applies to the carnage described,) history of 21 October 1805 and its aftermath. It is not only a history of the naval personnel and their actions, but, also an indepth look at how culture and art also helped create the moment. Nicolson brings so much to bear and writes in such a clear style that it is just a pleasure to read. It is so well done and so powerful, that one can't help but be moved by this awful, glori This is a thought provoking, well reasoned, and highly entertaining (if that word applies to the carnage described,) history of 21 October 1805 and its aftermath. It is not only a history of the naval personnel and their actions, but, also an indepth look at how culture and art also helped create the moment. Nicolson brings so much to bear and writes in such a clear style that it is just a pleasure to read. It is so well done and so powerful, that one can't help but be moved by this awful, glorious day.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Shaheer

    Most historians, especially English ones, tend to lionize Nelson and his men for their feats. Instead, Nicolson explores the psyche of the Royal Navy to expose a culture of violence, savagery, and greed. He also looks at the changing culture of 19th century Britain, where 'authenticity', abrupt and unpredictable, and Romanticism, alternately chivalric and barbaric, came to triumph over 18th century decorum. Highly recommend. Most historians, especially English ones, tend to lionize Nelson and his men for their feats. Instead, Nicolson explores the psyche of the Royal Navy to expose a culture of violence, savagery, and greed. He also looks at the changing culture of 19th century Britain, where 'authenticity', abrupt and unpredictable, and Romanticism, alternately chivalric and barbaric, came to triumph over 18th century decorum. Highly recommend.

  16. 5 out of 5

    David Kirchman

    This is a great book, a vivid re-counting of the battle, broken down by the hour. Between descriptions of being on a ship of the line in the early 1800s, the author provides the backstories for countries, their navies, the commanders and the men, and of course Vice-admiral Horatio Nelson.

  17. 5 out of 5

    James V

    Vivid storytelling of an incredible moment in history. The author effectively builds for the modern reader the significance, context, imagery, themes and most importantly the personalities involved at play before plunging into the heat of the battle.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Wills

    This was a fascinating book. Hard to put down. Adams's main point was to show how British culture served as the main reason for Admiral Nelson's success at Trafalgar. Good read! This was a fascinating book. Hard to put down. Adams's main point was to show how British culture served as the main reason for Admiral Nelson's success at Trafalgar. Good read!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Craig Fiebig

    Interesting to learn that violence of action is neither a modern concept nor unique to infantry combat.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Billhotto

    An examination of the great naval battle on Oct. 21,1805. The British fleet under Horatio Nelson decisively defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets. This ended Napoleon's plan to invade England and led to a century of dominance by the Royal Navy. Book contains an exiting account of the battle,which Nicolson uses to examine the cult of Lord Nelson, the changing social mores in Great Britain, and the evolving concept of heroism. This was a battle in which the British were heavily favored. I An examination of the great naval battle on Oct. 21,1805. The British fleet under Horatio Nelson decisively defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets. This ended Napoleon's plan to invade England and led to a century of dominance by the Royal Navy. Book contains an exiting account of the battle,which Nicolson uses to examine the cult of Lord Nelson, the changing social mores in Great Britain, and the evolving concept of heroism. This was a battle in which the British were heavily favored. In the eighteenth century Britain had grown in wealth and population. She was prosperous and united with an efficient government. Which meant that England could raise or borrow the money to build and maintain the largest and best equipped navy in the world. France, racked by revolution and the need to maintain a huge army, could not keep up. Spain was stagnating. The Franco-Spanish alliance was dominated by France with resulting resentments. Britain had an advantage in location. There were only three French deep water ports, the Royal Navy could easily keep the French fleet bottled up. Moreover, Britain had unimpeded access to the Atlantic. Since the British were on the windward side they tended to take the offense, whereas the French remained on defense. The Royal Navy was,in general, a well run organization. It had central control, the Admiralty Board, most officers went to sea at the age of eleven or twelve, they were expected to learn everything about a ship's operations. These officers were mostly drawn from the expanding middle class (Nelson was a parson's son). Lacking inherited wealth or inborn gentility they aggressively sought out battles which would win them glory, status and prize money. This fit in with the growth of individual initiative and spirit in the British economy. Nelson personified these traits of aggressiveness, self-confidence and love of action. While he carefully prepared for battle, his plan was always to attack, bringing maximum force onto the enemy. Battle was chaos and he relied on his captains to attack and destroy whatever enemy ship they encountered. Violent and total destruction of the enemy was his goal. This was the epitome of what the Navy called zeal and zeal was the way an officer gained promotion, lacking zeal was cause for disgrace and dismissal. Officers were also expected to lead by example and to expose themselves to enemy fire. By being killed at the moment of victory, Nelson ensured his apotheosis as Britain's greatest hero. Nicholson compares Nelson's death to that of Wolfe at Quebec forty-six years earlier. Britain as well as Europe had changed. In the mid-eighteenth century civility and rationality were most desirable in society. Artifice and restraint marked a gentleman's behavior. Battles were fought for strategic gain rather than total victories. In politics, literature and art, order and balance were to be maintained. By the turn of the nineteenth century the Romantic Age had set in. Nicolson points to writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Jane Austen (who had two naval officer brothers) to demonstrate that spontaneity and genuineness were the new values. Painters of Trafalgar like Turner showed an appreciation for the release of violence in both nature and war. As in the time of Shakespeare's Henry V, the English public demanded total victories and exalted the commanders who provided them. Naval victories which secured trade routes were especially desirable. Finally,there was a developing change in the idea of the hero. Honor and courage remained vital, but they became tied to the concept of duty. Nelson's famous signal at the start of the battle was "England expects every man to do his duty" (actually at least a third of the sailors in Nelson's fleet weren't English). Nelson's original statement was "England confides that every man will do his duty." Which is closer to England is confident. This is a combination of the two strains of classical heroism, the Homeric in which Achilles slaughters his enemies and the Virgilian in which Cincinnatus defends his country. Nelson waged total war, but did so in the service of his country. As the importance of the individual increased in the nineteenth century, duty became the chief characteristic of the hero. Violence was no longer necessary, a woman like Florence Nightingale would be a hero to Victorians. Even defeats could be honored, the Light Brigade and General Gordon became heroes though their deaths were pointless and unnecessary. Nelson was a complex man, but even this increased his stature. Nicholson discusses the concept of love, Nelson referred to his captains as "his band of brothers". Even his flaws have made him more attractive. Still propriety set limits.The two people he loved most, his mistress Emma Hamilton and their daughter Horatia, couldn't be acknowledged by society. Finally there were the examples of his humanity and those of his men. After destroying the enemy fleet, the British sailors risked their lives to rescue many of French and Spanish from their sinking ships.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Servello

    Great story with enduring lessons. Amazing that the Nelsonian legacy is palpable today.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Moses

    Attempting to cover one battle in a book doesn't seem like much of a feat, but if you add a running commentary on the dramatis personae, their personal letters, what Coleridge and Wordsworth said about them, furthermore the atmosphere of the battle, and why said battle was a turning point in Western civilization: well, that's quite something. It's just this that Adam Nicolson attempts in "Seize The Fire: Heroism and Duty at the Battle of Trafalgar." First, the bad. This book, quite frankly, tries Attempting to cover one battle in a book doesn't seem like much of a feat, but if you add a running commentary on the dramatis personae, their personal letters, what Coleridge and Wordsworth said about them, furthermore the atmosphere of the battle, and why said battle was a turning point in Western civilization: well, that's quite something. It's just this that Adam Nicolson attempts in "Seize The Fire: Heroism and Duty at the Battle of Trafalgar." First, the bad. This book, quite frankly, tries to cover too much. Although even that is a mixed downside, because my attention span is so short, and I even thought to myself while reading that is was nice to have so much prose devoted solely to Nelson, because it gave me the measure of the man that I wanted, and perhaps needed to understand Trafalgar--without reading a separate biography, which may or may not have fogged my conception of him with tedious details such as the color of his nostril hair (I jest), or (no jest) the color of Lady Hamilton's favorite pair of bloomers. That said, when the pseudo-biographizing moves on from Nelson to Hardy, Collingwood, Bayntun, Villeneuve, St. Vincent, Barham, Troubridge, and Beatty, it begins to grow tiresome. Instrumental as these men were to the battle and our conception of it, I could have done without the detail. The book also descends into the moods and caprices of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Britain, how it was viewed by the rest of the world, its changing worldviews, etc. Fascinating as this is, it is perhaps a little too much. One more quibble: The book irritatingly switches to present tense when describing the action; ex: "The Victory rakes the Redoutable" instead of "The Victory raked the Redoutable." It's not happening in the present, people! Okay, enough of the bad. Aside from these minor quibbles, the book is excellent. The excerpts from letters written by everyone in the British fleet, from Nelson on down, gives a great picture of what it was actually like to be there, in the thick of the battle. Nicolson writes well, and he does his best to give us a picture of the forces involved; and to show how Trafalgar meant more than a great British naval victory. It set the stage for British naval supremacy until well after World War II, and changed the way ship-to-ship battles were fought: before Nelson and Trafalgar, battles were not really fought at close range. The fleets formed "battle lines" and pounded away at each other. With Trafalgar came down-and-dirty, up close, hull-to-hull action.... This review will continue today or tomorrow on the pages of Mosings on Life, my blog.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Gary Pearson

    I have read many histories of the Battle of Trafalgar and biographies of Lord Horatio Nelson, but this book, Seize the Fire, by Adam Nicolson is unlike any other I have read. And it is a must read for any serious student of the subject or anyone interested in the history and culture of the times. What makes Nicolson's book different is he tries to explain, and quite well I believe, why the British won and the Franco-Spanish lost based on the culture of their respective societies and naval organi I have read many histories of the Battle of Trafalgar and biographies of Lord Horatio Nelson, but this book, Seize the Fire, by Adam Nicolson is unlike any other I have read. And it is a must read for any serious student of the subject or anyone interested in the history and culture of the times. What makes Nicolson's book different is he tries to explain, and quite well I believe, why the British won and the Franco-Spanish lost based on the culture of their respective societies and naval organizational structure of the time. Now the "Gods of War" are capricious and a few wrong moves by the British or better luck and decisions by the Combined Fleet may have tipped the balance differently, but Nicolson's analysis suggests that the might was on the British side. Specifically, the British culture of the nineteenth century produced in the Royal Navy officer core a zeal, honour, love, boldness and violence that helped them fighter harder and from position of superior confidence. He asserts that the "Nelson Touch" was in fact "chaos." That what Nelson's well thought out battle plan was to do was to turn the classical "order" of the historical "fighting instructions" into a pell-mell, chaotic, free-for all that he, and his captains were confident would allow them to disrupt the plans, thinking and order of the Combined fleet and defeat them in individual actions. He further asserts that the incentive system of the typical British captain, that of fighting for prize money, proved superior to the aristocratic system. In the former the commander had more to gain by fighting, in the latter he had more to loose. Woven into this psychological bent is an excellent description of the respective fleets, organization and course of the battle. This was a real page-turner and I highly recommend it.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Bob Pearson

    I would have given this book 3.5 stars if possible. An excellent account of the battle of Trafalgar itself, the book also puts the reader into the social, political, cultural and military settings of the early 19th century, in Britain and in France and Spain as well. Nelson gets due attention, but Nicolson doesn't attempt to do a mini-bio of the famous admiral, since he rightly assumes that most of the readers will already be reasonably well informed about Nelson's life and career. I think what I would have given this book 3.5 stars if possible. An excellent account of the battle of Trafalgar itself, the book also puts the reader into the social, political, cultural and military settings of the early 19th century, in Britain and in France and Spain as well. Nelson gets due attention, but Nicolson doesn't attempt to do a mini-bio of the famous admiral, since he rightly assumes that most of the readers will already be reasonably well informed about Nelson's life and career. I think what concerned me was a tendency to overreach on observations and conclusions, to take a fact and stretch into almost-a-theory which just didn't seem to hold its credibility for me, admittedly no specialist of the period. The readiness of the British fleet and the approach of Nelson to the battle (he chased the French fleet over much of the north Atlantic and Mediterranean before catching it off southwest Spain) are very well covered. I really liked the extracts from letters and diaries which gave authenticity to the story of the battle and put me in the immediate moment with the writer. Just what happens when huge heavily armed ships manned by hundreds of sailors face off at point blank range, I will leave for you to learn, but suffice it to say, it isn't very romantic, and I could only imagine what courage it took on every side to embrace such an experience. For history buffs, for sea warfare fans, for a very readable account of one of the great turning points of European history, I recommend this book.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Randy

    A brilliant telling of the Battle of Trafalgar. As the British fleet under Lord Nelson slowly makes way toward the combined fleet of the Spanish and French, author Adam Nicolson weaves a social history that provides context for the men, equipment and tactics that will soon collide in a most devastating way. Nicolson tries to answer the question of why men would be willing to blaze away at each other at point blank range hurling thousands of pounds of metal across the decks, decapitating and destr A brilliant telling of the Battle of Trafalgar. As the British fleet under Lord Nelson slowly makes way toward the combined fleet of the Spanish and French, author Adam Nicolson weaves a social history that provides context for the men, equipment and tactics that will soon collide in a most devastating way. Nicolson tries to answer the question of why men would be willing to blaze away at each other at point blank range hurling thousands of pounds of metal across the decks, decapitating and destroying sailors and officers alike. There are chapters which explain heroism, duty, honor and love as elements playing a role. Trafalgar is a famous victory which immortalized Admiral Lord Nelson who was killed and died during the battle but not before learning from his captain that the battle had been won. It was a huge victory and Nelson’s battle plan, The Nelson Touch, worked as he had envisioned. Jack Aubrey in the O’Brian series is fond of quoting Lord Nelson’s dictum of “damn the tactics; go right at ‘em.” And although tactics were certainly involved at Trafalgar it was basically a toe to toe slugging match won by the British whose crews were better trained and had the ability to put canon fire on target faster than the French or Spanish. If you are a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s series this book will be very enlightening and illustrative of the society these men were formed in. In addition, Nicolson provides a lot of excellent detail about the ships as well as the men and back stories on important captains and sailors. A really terrific read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    “Seize the Fire” is not a book of military or navel history, so if that is what you are looking for, keep looking. Rather it is a sociological examination of the early 19th century culture of England and how it shaped the English Navy, the national character, views of honor, love, etc. The purpose of the text is not about the navel victory at Trafalgar as much as it is about the society and world that created the elements that made that battle what it was. That is a very interesting subject matte “Seize the Fire” is not a book of military or navel history, so if that is what you are looking for, keep looking. Rather it is a sociological examination of the early 19th century culture of England and how it shaped the English Navy, the national character, views of honor, love, etc. The purpose of the text is not about the navel victory at Trafalgar as much as it is about the society and world that created the elements that made that battle what it was. That is a very interesting subject matter, but it does get a little long winded at times and there are moments where Adam Nicolson’s obvious intellect gets the better of him and he belabors the point too long after making it. “Seize the Fire” is a studious book, not difficult, but also not something that will keep the casual reader’s attention. The text has numerous strengths, among them the preface which serves as a (too lengthy) sociological introduction to the early 19th century English character. The paperback also includes a “P.S.” section after the text that is a nice addition, including an interesting author interview and some details about the fallout after the battle of Trafalgar. Although the book is tedious at moments, it does give a nice examination of what Nicolson phrased as, “Battle is a mysterious place; it is not to be celebrated in any naïve or jingoistic way, but to be examined as deeply as one might look at, say love or God.” This text certainly does that.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Zachary

    Wow...I really wish that I could give this book a fourth star. At times, the author gives you poetically horrifying glimpses into the shock of tall ship naval warfare and interesting looks at contemporary history. When he is doing this, the book is a great read. Unfortunately, it seems like 2/3 of this book is devoted to the author's extended delvings into the mind of the Romantic Englishman and how that affected the battle. As noted by other reviewers, much of this feels like mere opinion, howev Wow...I really wish that I could give this book a fourth star. At times, the author gives you poetically horrifying glimpses into the shock of tall ship naval warfare and interesting looks at contemporary history. When he is doing this, the book is a great read. Unfortunately, it seems like 2/3 of this book is devoted to the author's extended delvings into the mind of the Romantic Englishman and how that affected the battle. As noted by other reviewers, much of this feels like mere opinion, however well-researched and no doubt correct, voiced over and over again across chapter after chapter, ad nauseum. When the author began to compare Nelson's battle strategy to Wordsworth's poetry, I actually skipped pages, something I never do. Even if the comparison is historically plausible, as it seems to be, such a pinpoint subject as the emotional makeup of Lord Nelson would better be confined to a scholarly paper, in my opinion. Oh well...the books had its good parts and has certainly deepened my interest in Nelson and the era.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    I thought that this was a very detailed and interesting book, but I think the author has a tendency to go off on tangents. If all you are looking for is a book about the battle itself, I don't think this is the book for you. Although the narrative of the battle was very well written, it seemed far and few between compared to all the time that Nicolson spends talking about things like how society in the different countries shaped the way that the crew worked together. These parts of the book were I thought that this was a very detailed and interesting book, but I think the author has a tendency to go off on tangents. If all you are looking for is a book about the battle itself, I don't think this is the book for you. Although the narrative of the battle was very well written, it seemed far and few between compared to all the time that Nicolson spends talking about things like how society in the different countries shaped the way that the crew worked together. These parts of the book were very informative, but they could be tedious. A minor detail that somewhat bothered me throughout the book was that Nicolson loves to praise English society, and tells us all about how it was superior in many ways compared to Spain and France. Considering that the author lives in Britain, I felt that there was a certain degree of bias creeping into the book. But of course, it's his book and he is entitled to his opinion, and for the most part I found it an entertaining book.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    I'm a bit torn on how to review this book... I think it can be a bit tedious, as some other reviewers have said. I listened to the audiobook version of SEIZE THE FIRE, which was read by the author. It's possible that his monotonous voice added to the tedium, and I might have been better served reading the prose. That said, the descriptions of the actual battle at Trafalgar, and the action on board Nelson's HMS Victory are superb. My gripe is with the (far too) many digressions and asides. Those t I'm a bit torn on how to review this book... I think it can be a bit tedious, as some other reviewers have said. I listened to the audiobook version of SEIZE THE FIRE, which was read by the author. It's possible that his monotonous voice added to the tedium, and I might have been better served reading the prose. That said, the descriptions of the actual battle at Trafalgar, and the action on board Nelson's HMS Victory are superb. My gripe is with the (far too) many digressions and asides. Those that provide the needed background about the times and circumstance were fine, but there were also many that tried to put the battle in a literary context, which I found to be unnecessary at best, wildly pretentious at worst. The flow of the overall narrative suffers as a result, in my opinion. In essence, the book probably should have been a third shorter in pages, with more focus on the events.

  30. 4 out of 5

    James

    The central premise is exciting: Nicholson examines the ways in which the particularities of a battle might be an expression of zeitgeist and not just the result of technology. Specifically, he posits Trafalgar as a "Romantic" battle and Nelson as a "Romantic" commander. The dynamism and aggression of the Royal Navy in this period, when Britannia truly came to rule the waves, resulted, Nicholson claims, from the fact that it was officered by self-conscious "individuals" from a newly emergent mid The central premise is exciting: Nicholson examines the ways in which the particularities of a battle might be an expression of zeitgeist and not just the result of technology. Specifically, he posits Trafalgar as a "Romantic" battle and Nelson as a "Romantic" commander. The dynamism and aggression of the Royal Navy in this period, when Britannia truly came to rule the waves, resulted, Nicholson claims, from the fact that it was officered by self-conscious "individuals" from a newly emergent middle class. Naval warfare was a do or die commercial enterprise that dangled the lure of wealth, respectability and even potential title before poor parson's sons like Horatio Nelson. Nicholson does a creditable job making his case, but I wasn't entirely convinced. God's Secretaries was a much better book.

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