Archive for the ‘Semester Image Story’ Category

Semester Image Story Conclusion

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

For my final semester image story post, I want to look at some living history. If you are so inclined, you can actually visit Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, at Portsmouth harbor in England. The ship is still commissioned in the Royal Navy, making it the oldest active duty ship in the world. It is mind boggling that the ship survived Trafalgar and now is a laboratory of history. If I am ever in England, I am definitely seeing the Victory!

The French and the Spanish

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

For this post I will be examining a few different aspects of the Combined Fleet.

The leader of the combined fleet, Admiral Villeneuve, served as a foil to Nelson in many regards.  A few years before Trafalgar, off the coast of Toulon, Villeneuve displayed his timidity and lack of leadership.  Caught between a fleet led by Nelson and a storm, Villeneuve had to decide a course of action, but he remained glued to his armchair for much longer than a decision of the sort required.[1] The admiral of a naval force needed to be a decisive, proactive man.  In the heat of battle, spontaneous, yet thoughtful commands were required.  Having the commander of a fleet be frozen in an armchair was not an encouraging sign and Villeneuve himself stated that he had always pursed “a career of usefulness, rather than of glory.”[2] Useful naval officers were all very well, but make them a lieutenant or even a captain, but not the admiral of a large force.  Napoleon eventually became aware of Villeneuve’s lack of decisive leadership skills through the process of Villeneuve failing to complete a series of tasks ordered by Napoleon.[3] In fact, intervention by Napoleon in large part precipitated the meeting of the two opposing fleets.  Napoleon sent a message to Villeneuve that another admiral was en route to take command from Villeneuve.[4] This message whipped Villeneuve into action by preparing a hasty departure for the combined fleet and they set sail from Cadiz, Spain on October 19th.[5] Villeneuve attempted to restore his honor and credibility by sailing into a glorious victory, but the problem rested in the fact that no one else in the combined fleet knew that Villeneuve was supposed to have been replaced by another commander.[6] Villeneuve appeared to be in a state that undermined his already questionable leadership qualities.  Thoughts of impending difficulties clouded Villeneuve’s mind and that impacted the way he conducted the fleet.

Other problems plagued the combined fleet.  Not surprisingly, there were cultural and historical issues that divided the French and Spanish forces.  The hostilities between the sailors of both fleets existed as a common peace of international news at the time.  An article that appeared in The Times of London on September 14th commented that “between the sailors animosities have risen to the highest pitch.”[7] The French use of Cadiz, a Spanish port, as their base of operation occupied a large part of the equation as did differences in language.  Most sailors of the two fleets would find it hard to communicate when their language shared nothing in common save a similar origin.  Issues of mistrust extended to the admirals as well.  The Spanish admirals remained reluctant to sail under Villeneuve’s command for the sake of Napoleon’s agenda.[8] The combined fleet’s battle formation reflected the underlying mistrust between the admirals.  French and Spanish ships were interspersed so that both nations would share either the glory or blame equally, but rumors emerged that it was done to prevent the two fleets from abandoning each other.[9] Clearly, mistrust inhibited the combined fleet and prevented any real cohesion from forming.  Grouping the ships by national origin seemed to be a better idea.  If the admirals had placed the ships next to their compatriots a sense of national pride would be developed.  Instead of division and disunity, it would be more of, were the French or Spanish hitting more of those dastardly British ships as they approached?  Also, if the French and Spanish were grouped by origin, then it would be easier to defend the ships of fellow countrymen.


[1] René  Maine [Translated from the French by Rita Eldon and B. W. Robinson]Trafalgar: Napoleon’s Naval Waterloo, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957), 98.

[2] Ibid., 99.

[3]   Roy Adkins, Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World, ( New York: Viking Penguin, 2005), 54.

[4] Ibid., 59.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 58.

[8]  Ibid., 59.

[9] Ibid., 58-59.

The Numbers Behind Trafalgar

Friday, November 19th, 2010

A few weeks ago, Mr. Groom challenged us to think about what would happen to the discipline of English if it relied more heavily on statistics. The notion that he proposed intrigued me, so I tried to take his idea and apply it to my own research about Trafalgar. Below is my attempt at giving a more analytic approach to Trafalgar.

Using data I found in one of my books, it was possible for me to determine a rough estimate as to the number of shots fired at the lead ships in the British line.  The two leading ships were Nelson’s Victory and Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign.  One important phenomenon to note, however, was that as the British ships approached, what was considered the lead ship changed in the eyes of the gunner of the combined fleet.[1] In other words, the ships of the combined fleet were stationed in a line and the firing angle at each point of the line varied.  The meaning of these varied firing angles was that as the British columns drew closer and closer the combined fleet’s gunners were aiming at a new ship that had occupied relatively the same section of water.  For this estimate, I will only be calculating the shots for the 36-pounders because they had the longest range and inflicted the most damage of all the combined fleet’s guns.  The first step was to calculate distance traveled by the oncoming British vessels in addition to the time it took to travel that distance.  The 36-pounders could hit a vessel from 2,200 yards away even though the likelihood of doing so was extremely low.[2] During the day Trafalgar occurred, due to light winds, the Victory traveled at 45 yards per minute.[3] Given these two figures, it took the Victory 48.5 minutes to reach the combined fleet’s line from the time that the French and Spanish gunners had any possibility of hitting the Victory.  Going back to the issue of guns, the French and the Spanish had a combined total of 636, 36-pound cannons.[4] Given the position of the combined fleet, only half of those cannons could be brought to bear, bringing the number down to 318.  The combined fleet’s average time for firing a 36-pounder was eight minutes.[5] Assuming the cannons were loaded well before the first shot was fired, the gunners could have fired almost exactly six rounds if the averages remained constant each consecutive time.  If all 316 available cannons were to fire each round, then the total number of shots fired would be around 1,896 iron balls that could have been launched at the British as they approached the line. Obviously many factors affected those numbers, so the given estimate was just that; an estimate.  When combined with the numbers for all the other cannon fire though, the numbers revealed that the British truly were target practice for the combined fleet’s gunners for almost an hour.


[1] Mark Adkin, The Trafalgar Companion. (London: Aurum, 2005), 274.

[2] Ibid., 265.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 300-301.

[5] Ibid., 268.

Trafalgar in Video

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I found this video and I thought it would serve as a good way to get a visual understanding of Trafalgar. The music is pretty cool as well; i think it is from the Pirate’s soundtrack. The first part of the video shows the combined fleet massing off the coast of Cadiz, Spain. The video does a good job of highlighting the formations of the two fleets, emphasizing the Crossing the T strategy used by the British. If you pay close enough attention, you can see the recoil of the cannons after they fire. The cannons had to be pulled into position after they fired by using a rope and this pulling consumed a great deal of energy.

Do Your Duty

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

For this post, we will be examining the most legendary aspect of the Battle of Trafalgar.  Before we look at this moment, though, we need to cover a few features of Napoleonic warfare.  The most important thing to know is how ships communicate.  Ships convey information by raising a series of flags on the ships’ mast.  Two or three sailors on board each ship know the different signals and letters of the flags.   Several factors could obscure the officers of one ship from spying the signals of another and these factors include: natural phenomena such as rain or snow, and in particular, fog.  One element that impedes flag sightings and that most landsmen would not consider is the earth itself.  If two ships are separated by a great distance, the natural curvature of the earth means that the two ships would not be level. [1] This unevenness poses the practical problem of not being able to see the complete body of the other ship.  The solution to most of these instances is remedied fairly easily however; a sailor simply needs to climb further up the mast to gain a fuller view of a distant ship.

Now that we have covered the basics, let us return our focus to the famous moment.  Admiral Nelson, the commander of the British fleet, climbs to the upper deck of his flagship, the Victory.  He tells his communications officer that he wishes to convey a message to the fleet: “England confides that every man will do his duty.”[2] The message is received with a bit of hesitation from the officer who informs Nelson that replacing “confides” with “expects” would be much more efficient.[3] This suggestion is prompted by the fact that some words have a pre-designated flag while others have to be spelled with letters.  “Confides” requires a complete spelling, whereas “expects” has an existing flag.[4] After the technical wrangling with his officer, Nelson’s message is finally hoisted on the mast.  Thus, “England expects that every man will do his duty” is transmitted to the fleet.  Below is a picture of the restored Victory flying Nelson’s signal. The signal is raised on the Victory every October 21st to honor those who died in the battle.

Trafalgar immortalized those nine words forever. I continued to run into the message in practically every source I examined. Two interesting epilogues to the story persisted however.  The first post script was that many coins and medals produced to commemorate Trafalgar included the phrase.  The irony of the situation was that almost every single medal that was produced was missing the word “that.”[5] This failure to include “that” in the phrase extended to virtually every commemorative item in England including Nelson’s Column (more on the Column in my next post).

The other twist in the historical remembrance of the “every man” signal remained with the bulk of the men on the ships.  The majority of men were enlisted sailors and when they heard the content of the message they responded with a resounding modern equivalent of “wtf!”  A sailor named Jack who fought at the battle was recorded saying, “Do our duty! Of course we’ll do our duty.  I’ve always done mine, haven’t you?”[6]

J.M.W. Turner painted the above picture.  I featured one of Turner’s other Trafalgar art works in my previous post.  The ship in the center is the Victory displaying Nelson’s famous signal.


[1] Adkin, Mark. The Trafalgar Companion. London: Aurum, 2005, 435.

[2] Ibid., 448.

[3] Ibid., 449.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 448.

[6] Ibid., 449.

Trafalgar in Painting

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

For this post, I will be highlighting three different visual representations of Trafalgar.  The important thing to note about these paintings is that they were all created within the time frame of living memory of the events that occurred at the battle.  This living memory meant that the painters had the option of interviewing people who participated in the actual events of the battle.  Reading documents is fine, but getting the first-hand account of a story is in a league of its own.  I will be presenting the paintings in order of the scope of the subject, with the broadest view first and the narrowest view last.

Nicholas Pocock painted the above picture and it is entitled “The Battle of Trafalgar- Situation at 17h.”  This painting serves as a good representation of the spacing of the ships.  The different zones of fighting are apparent with the heaviest fighting occurring in the foreground of the picture.  A fairly wide gaps exists in the middle left of the water portion of the scene.  Two interesting elements of the fighting are that in the left side of the painting, part of a burning ship can be seen.  The other element is that smoke from cannon fire can be seen in the far right side of the scene, giving a sense of the suspended animation that takes place after the firing of the shot.  The smokes hangs in the air for a while after the shot is fired and this firing adds to the fog of war that accompanies any battle.

Auguste Mayer created the above picture called “The Battle of Trafalgar.”  This painting is more specific than the previous one focusing on only the engagement between two ships.  The fighting between the two ships illustrates an important aspect of naval warfare at the time and that is the need to be in close proximity to an opposing ship.  The closer one ship is to the other, the more devastating the broadsides will be.  Important to note is that these two ships will only be able to trade one round of cannon fire because it takes at least two minutes to reload a cannon and that would be on the fast side.  The ships fire the rounds that are preloaded and then the ships’ gunners reload as they keep sailing into the fray.  The ship on the left is the Bucentaure, the flagship of the French admiral.  It is readily apparent that the Bucentaure has been demasted, which means the ship is effectively crippled.  Since the Bucentaure has no sails it basically becomes a floating gun fortress, unable to direct itself in any way, subject to the ocean currents.  One common way that gunners try to demast ships is by loading two cannon balls into the cannon.   They are not ordinary cannon balls though, because they are strung together by an iron chain.  When this special type of cannon ball is fired, it starts twirling through the air at a rapid pace, and it would do critical damage to the wooden mast if it were to strike.

J.M.W. Turner painted the above picture and it is entitled “The Battle of Trafalgar.”  This painting has the most specific view of the paintings, giving a sailor’s view from the main deck of the British flagship, Victory. As a side note on Turner, he is a forerunner to the Impressionists.  The Impressionists take several cues from Turner, so keep in mind that this depiction of the battle is a bit idealized.  The painting is effective in illustrating the role that marines play in the navy.  Marines are deployed on the decks of the ships in order to direct rifle fire at the enemy.  One important distinction exists between the two forces at the time of Trafalgar.  The French position snipers in the rigging of their ships, while the British, on the whole, do not utilize snipers.  The beloved British commander, Nelson, is actually killed by sniper fire at this battle, so his death serves as a large impetus for the British to start using snipers on their ships after the battle.

Boxed-Cake Research

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

For this post I will be talking about two different research tips I have learned.    These tips can apply to any subject that is being analyzed. Before I begin describing these methods though, I need to give a shout out to Jack Bales, who is the humanities librarian here at UMW.  Mr. Bales is a terrific person and he is the clockmaker of the library; he knows its workings inside and out. I learned the two methods I will be describing from Mr. Bales both from his Library Science course and working with him individually.  If anyone out there is ever having trouble finding sources in a humanities related field, schedule an appointment with Mr. Bales and you should be on your way to encountering some academic nuggets of gold.

The first tip relates to Wikipedia.  Sadie left me a comment a few days ago warning me not to use Wikipedia in my actual paper.  That is a warning that I and most people in this class are probably already aware of: Wikipedia is not a credible academic source.  Wikipedia is, though, a treasure trove of links to credible sources that can quite possibly be used in your papers and projects.  To give an example of these links, I will use the Wikipedia page of Trafalgar because that is the underlying topic of my digital story.  If you look at the contents box depicted below, listed at the bottom are three different sections you can jump to by clicking on them and they are: footnotes, bibliography, and external links.  Whatever your angle is on a particular subject, there should be plenty of resources to satisfy your academic needs.  For example, my professor said I should get a book from the French/Spanish perspective.  To find a possible book, I click on the quick link to the bibliography section of the article which displays all the books cited.  I scan the section and see a book with a title written in French and a book with a Spanish title, so I got two potential leads with minimal effort.

The whole point of looking at the bottom portion of the Wikipedia articles is to capitalize on the finding of sources other people have complied.  This sentiment is something Mr. Bales will tell you: if someone has already found the sources, don’t waste your time starting from scratch when the foundation has already been laid.  It is not plagiarism to find a book that seems promising from another bibliography; you simply have to cite the source correctly if you end up using it.

The other tip is similar, but for print sources.  For a book, check the bibliography in the back and there will probably be more citations than you will ever care to see, but this diversity of materials will give you plenty of sources to start investigating.  For journal articles, by looking at either the footnotes or endnotes you will find sources related to the given topic.

These two tips may seem straight-forward and intuitive, but they are often overlooked.  Utilize the resources that are initially given to you.  I will close with the analogy of baking a cake from scratch compared to baking a boxed cake; most people would rather make the boxed cake.  So, go out and start concocting your boxed-cake of research!

Trafalgar in a Nutshell

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

For this post, I want to give a brief rundown of the Battle of Trafalgar.  To avoid confusion for anyone who has no prior exposure to Trafalgar, it is important to note that the battle is a naval encounter.  Also, this period is at the height of the age of sail, so the main armament of ships is cannons.  If you need a visual image for this time period, you can think of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, with the only difference being that ships at Trafalgar are bigger and carry more guns.

The battle occurred on October 21, 1805, which was in the middle part of the Napoleonic era.  At this time, Britain and France were at war, with Spain being an ally of France.  Thus, the encounter took place between a British fleet facing a combined force of Spanish and French ships.  Admiral Horatio Nelson commanded the British fleet and the combined forces were led by Admiral Villeneuve.  Nelson, by this point, had a great reputation due to several previous major victories, and Trafalgar would immortalize his place in history.

The map depicts the geographic location of the battle, off the coast of Cape Trafalgar.[1] The cape is located to the southwest of Spain.  The map also makes clear the origin of the two fleets: the combined fleet massed around the port of Cadiz, while the British fleet sailed from the Strait of Gibraltar.  The British were guarding the strait in order to prevent the French from escaping into the Mediterranean.

The truly remarkable aspect of the battle were the formations chosen by both sides.  The illustration below accurately shows the placement of each side’s ships just before the melee began.[2] Nelson decided to gamble on an extremely risky strategy called Crossing the T, or in simplified terms, a head on approach.[3] The head on approach was hazardous because the French and Spanish could fire at the British the entire time Nelson’s fleet was advancing.  Nelson’s forces could only fire as soon as they came extremely close to the enemy.

As shown in the illustration, Nelson divided the fleet into two columns: he headed one and his second in command, Vice Admiral Collingwood led the other.[4] Besides the fact that Nelson and Collingwood were the two top commanders for this British force, the two led the columns because they had the largest ships in the fleet.  Ship size was crucial in the Crossing the T strategy because all the enemy guns were initially bared on the lead ship in each column.  Paradoxically, the British ships were slightly safer the closer they came to the enemy line.  This phenomenon results from firing angle, with less Spanish/French ships being able to fire as the British ships approached.[5] Nelson’s strategy truly paid off as each of his ships passed through the Combined Fleet’s line.

To get a visual example of the Crossing the T method, look at the illustration and find the top British column.  In that top column, Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, was the first to break the enemy line.[6] After receiving substantial bombardment from the enemy as it approached, the Victory passed by the enemy ships’ line of fire.  At this point, the Victory delivered close-range broadsides to the stern (back) of the Bucentaure and the bow (front) of the Redoutable.[7] This initial breakthrough by the Victory was repeated in more or less a similar fashion by most of the British ships.  Using the tactic in two different columns ensured that the Combined Fleet was separated from itself and meant the fighting was conducted by only a few ships in clusters rather than massive formations facing each other.

The results of Trafalgar had several implications.  The main one for the French was that Napoleon had to permanently postpone any plans he had for the invasion of Britain, in addition to his fleet being crippled. For the British, though, their triumph came at the expense of losing their beloved commander, Nelson.


[1] Map can be found at: http://www.heritage-history.com/books/fraser/seafights/zpage098.gif

[2] Illustration can be found at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/aa/Trafalgar_aufstellung.jpg/700px-Trafalgar_aufstellung.jpg

[3] White, Colin (ed). The Nelson Companion. Stroud: Sutton, 1995, 273.

[4] http://www.treeforall.org.uk/trafalgar/TrafalgarWoods/Otherwoods/Royal_Sovereign/

[5] White.  Nelson Companion, 274.

[6] Ibid., 488.

[7] Ibid.

Project Proposal

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

In my history of Britain class, we were assigned a research paper for the semester. I decided that it would be a smart move to incorporate the topic from the research assignment into my story project for this class. That being said, for my history paper I will be looking at the Battle of Trafalgar and the implications the battle had on France and Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. For the story project, I want to explain the steps of my research process as well as outline in stages the various aspects of the Trafalgar conflict. Examples of things I have thought of are: reviewing primary sources, looking at history related online databases, and examining naval art work from the period. I intend on doing all these things for the story, but things often do not go exactly as you plan them, and a little bit of spontaneity and evolution never harmed anyone (too much). I think that posting once a week is a realistic goal and maybe two posts a week if that week is particularly interesting. In my opinion, it is better to do fewer posts and make them count, than try to overproduce and end up skimping on the quality.