What are we at war about?

Isaac Land

  • The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson by Roger Knight
    Allen Lane, 874 pp, £30.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 7139 9619 6
  • Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy edited by David Cannadine
    Palgrave, 201 pp, £19.99, June 2005, ISBN 1 4039 3906 3

Writing for the centenary celebrations of the Trafalgar victory one hundred years ago, Joseph Conrad produced a remarkable, and peculiar, essay arguing that Nelson was a great, and a modern, artist. His genius was to revolutionise ‘not the strategy or tactics of sea-warfare, but the very conception of victory itself’. In pursuing a total annihilation of the enemy, Nelson led the attack even at the risk that a contrary breeze would leave his ship isolated in the middle of the enemy fleet. Conscious, in 1905, that Nelson’s audacity and skill were increasingly hard to appreciate as the age of sail gave way to the age of steam, Conrad recorded his own observations of the changeable weather off the Spanish coast and his ‘gasp of professional awe’ at the thought of what Nelson undertook that October morning, when ‘for some forty minutes, the fate of the great battle hung upon a breath of wind.’ Nelson’s art and ‘prophetic inspiration’ ennobled everything it touched. His victories, Conrad claimed, were ‘no mere smashing of helpless ships and massacres of cowed men’, but exalted the nation as a whole, and seafarers everywhere. Conrad closed with a sombre image reminiscent of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, an obsolete warship suffering a puffing steamboat to tow it into the glorious sunset of oblivion. The progress of time threatened to dissolve all that was noble. In ‘this ceaseless rush of shadows and shades . . . even the sea itself seems to wear a different and diminished aspect from the sea of Lord Nelson’s day.’

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